Attica uprising panel highlights state brutality, failed cover-up

Geneseo’s history department and black studies program co-sponsored a discussion panel on the Attica Uprising in the MacVittie College Union Ballroom on Monday Sept. 11 to educate students about the events and cover-up that followed. 

There were seven panelists whose experiences ranged from documentarian to personal. Filmmaker and co-producer of a documentary on Attica, Christine Christopher, spoke about her experience investigating the uprising. Similarly, journalist Gary Craig addressed his Democrat & Chronicle coverage of the trials that ensued after the retaking of the prison. 

Joe Heath, civil and indigenous rights lawyer and attorney for Attica inmates, Judge Ellen Yacknin, civil legal team attorney and Malcolm Bell, a prosecutor assigned to investigate the uprising, also sat on the panel. Heath, Yacknin and Bell explained the legal proceedings set in motion by the uprising. 

Dee Quinn Miller—daughter of a corrections officer killed at Attica and a founder of the Forgotten Victims of Attica—spoke following Michael Smith, former corrections officer and hostage who also works with the Forgotten Victims of Attica.

Professor of history and coordinator of the black studies and Africana program Emilye Crosby opened the discussion by introducing and welcoming the panelists. The first panelist that spoke was Smith; he shared his experience as a hostage and recollected what happened to him on Sept. 9, 1971. 

“I was the low man on the totem pole,” Smith said. 

At 22 years old, he held a position in the prison that changed every two weeks. He recalled working in the metal shop the day of the riot. As tensions rose, he was beaten by two inmates and taken to the yard, where he spent four days being held as a hostage with 37 others. On the fourth day of his captivity, he was taken to a catwalk and shot four times. 

Miller testified to the immense impact the riot had on her. Only five years old when her father died, she dedicated a majority of her life to reading books and doing research about Attica. 

“I couldn’t get enough information,” Miller said. “It was difficult, but very healing.”

Miller realized that the information she heard throughout her childhood did not match what she read. Determined to uncover the truth about what happened at Attica, she contacted hostages and other families who were affected. From there, she discovered that New York took active steps to cover-up their actions at the prison. 

Indeed, several panelists spoke about the extent the state attempted to hide the reality of the Attica uprising.

“The state spent more time engineering a lie than arranging medical care for the prisoners they were about to mow down,” Heath said. 

Leaving his position as a civil litigator in Manhattan, Bell went to Attica two years after the massacre. He joined Attica’s special prosecutor’s office in September of 1973. Bell convened a grand jury to pursue a case against the New York State troopers who shot and killed the 29 inmates and 10 prison staff members. 

“[The prisoners retaking Attica] essentially rioted with their guns,” Bell said. “To a large extent, it was a race riot.”

Bell defined the two greatest lies surrounding the Attica uprising: that the inmates had killed the hostages and that there was too much confusion or too little evidence to prosecute the police at fault.

Yacknin—still in college when the riot occurred—ultimately came across a complaint that was filed by inmates while she was working as a law clerk in Buffalo, N.Y. The complaint discussed the violation of inmates’ rights, the lack of medical treatment given and the brutality that they endured. Although the lawsuit was on the verge of being dismissed, Yacknin found a lawyer to represent them. 

The panel concluded with a question and answer session, where students asked about the panelists’ views on prisons in the United States today. 

Author and historian Heather Ann Thompson headlined the week’s third Attica-themed event in Newton 202 with a discussion about the uprising’s legacy on Wednesday Sept. 13. Geneseo’sAttica programming will conclude on Wednesday Sept. 20 with a discussion titled “Attica 46 Years Later: The Cover-Ups Continue.”u

 Offering multiple perspectives, panelists resoundingly condemned how both the New York State and federal governments conducted themselves following the Attica Uprising. Obscuring blame and scapegoating inmates proved to be the officials’ chief priorities, according to the presenters. (Ellayna Fredericks/Associate Photo Editor)

Offering multiple perspectives, panelists resoundingly condemned how both the New York State and federal governments conducted themselves following the Attica Uprising. Obscuring blame and scapegoating inmates proved to be the officials’ chief priorities, according to the presenters. (Ellayna Fredericks/Associate Photo Editor)