“I’ve been patient,” wrote George Jackson from his prison cell in a 1965 letter to his mother and father, “but where I’m concerned patience has its limits. Take it too far, and it’s cowardice.”
In some ways, the story of the Attica prison rebellion—told in the new film Attica, streaming free on Showtime’s Youtube channel and nominated for the Oscar for best documentary feature—begins here, across the country in California, with George Jackson. Jackson was incarcerated in 1960 for petty theft. He spent much of his time served in solitary confinement. And, during his time, he was politicized, and wrote prolifically. In 1970, his writings to the outside world were compiled into Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, a literary classic of the Black Power Movement.
George Jackson loomed large in the minds of the men nearly 3,000 miles away at New York’s Attica State Prison, who had been organizing during the summer of 1971 to improve their living conditions. From the denial of the basic provisions for personal hygiene to the all-white staff of “Archie Bunker” prison guards who would gang-beat inmates in their cells (more than half of whom were Black), the treatment of the incarcerated men at Attica was torturous.
When, on August 21, 1971, Jackson was killed by correctional officers under mysterious circumstances, it was a tipping point. The day after, a multiracial group of 700 men at Attica put on black armbands and staged a silent hunger strike in the prison mess hall to honor the fallen martyr. Three weeks later, on September 9, their patience had hit its limits. Over 1,000 of them took control of the prison by force, claiming 42 prison guards and staff as hostages.
What happened next takes up the bulk of Attica. Directed by the revered documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson and first-time director Traci A. Curry, the film uses archival news footage and the stirring recollection of those who lived through the rebellion. Prisoners camped out in Attica’s “D-Yard,” invited in television news crews and elected an ad hoc leadership council that began negotiating with New York State Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald. On the fifth day, New York State Police retook the prison in a massacre of tear gas and machine gun fire, killing 29 of the inmates and nine of the hostages. Initially, prison officials said that the inmates slit the hostages throats; autopsies revealed they died of gunshot wounds. For many of the surviving Attica brothers, the film is an opportunity to set the record straight. The spark that lit the Attica rebellion was not just a response to dehumanizing conditions, but was bound up with the urban uprisings and radical politics of late 1960s and ’70s. The state’s spectacularly violent response was also a reaction to shifting political terrain, a harbinger of the next fifty years of punitive politics.
The film’s story isn’t just about a single prison uprising, but how our current politics of law and order was consecrated. This event could have served as a wakeup call to usher in an era of transformative prison reform. Instead, it was the opening salvo to a world-historic prison buildup. In 1971 there were 300,000 people incarcerated in the United States. As of 2019, there were over 6 million people in the United States living under some kind of correctional supervision.
I spoke with Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry as well as a participant in the Attica rebellion and the film, Arthur “Bobby” Harrison, about what they hoped to achieve with the film, the new insights it brings to the public’s understanding of what happened at Attica, and the historical parallels today. Nowadays, Harrison lives in Syracuse, New York, where he coaches and mentors young men. This interview has been edited and condensed.
So I’m closer to Traci’s age and I first heard the word Attica in the Nas song, “If I Ruled the World.” I’m wondering what brought each of you to this project with your different generational understandings of Attica?
Traci A. Curry, co-director: Actually you just jogged my memory. This is the first time I thought about the Nas song. I did know that song, but I also knew Dog Day Afternoon, and wasn’t sure why this particular place had any resonance beyond their mention in those moments. When I started looking into it and understanding what the story was all about, one of the first things that I came across was the McKay Commission, a civilian commission that came together to investigate what happened after September 13th. And one of the conclusions that they reached was that what happened on the 13th was the single deadliest day of American state violence against other Americans outside of the Civil War, and obviously, the violence against Indigenous people. I was like, ‘How is it possible that that could be true, but that I don’t know about this?’ I consider myself a pretty well-versed person in American history, and particularly where stories with race and injustice are concerned. And so that let me know that this was a story that I had to be a part of telling.
Stanley Nelson, co-director: I thought about making a film about Attica for a long time. For 20 or 30 years, I had it in the back of my head. I thought there was so much about Attica that we didn’t know. I wanted to make a film about criminal justice, and about the prison system. But so many of the films that I saw about the prison system are following one person, one person’s trauma, and after you see those films you think ‘that person really got a raw deal.’ It doesn’t stick with you that the whole prison system is messed up. And so I think this was a chance to talk more about the bigger picture.
Mr. Harrison, when you were approached to participate in the film, what were the misconceptions or things that you wanted to really get across that you felt like people didn’t understand about Attica?
Arthur Harrison, Attica Brother: When I first heard about it I thought it was just going to be another BS conversation about prisons, not being truthful about things. I met Traci and she made me believe that she had the truth about what happened. Because what happened at Attica never came to the forefront. Everybody believed that the prisoners were one hundred percent wrong. All we wanted was to be treated like human beings. It hurts every time I talk about it but this is the only kind of therapy I’ve ever got after being released from Attica. I never got sent to a psychiatrist to talk about the mental effect that it had on me. When I speak, I don’t speak for me, I speak for those who are not here anymore, or those who weren’t able to speak for themselves. We weren’t treated like human beings. We were treated like beasts. And it hurts.
Can you talk more about what motivated those in Attica to rise up?
Harrison: It started with how the penal system would treat people who look like me a whole lot differently than they would treat a brother that looks like yourself. The system doesn’t treat people who look like me like we’re people. That’s not only when you’re locked up in prisons, but it is there more so, because when you’re in prison you don’t have anyone to protect you. In prison, they really show you what happened in Africa with that apartheid stuff. It’s the same type of thing, where people just hate people because of the color of their skin. When this thing occurred that particular day, we started hearing these guys hollering and yelling and screaming. I assumed it was gonna be a thing where it was the guards versus us guys, and we’d fight and get bloody noses and black eyes. I assumed after that everyone would politely go back to their cells. But it wasn’t like that. Everybody wound up in the D block yard. It became something bigger than we ever thought it would be. Because the news people start coming in. And as we speak today, I know that it is. I feel that I’ve been left here on this earth to tell my version about what happened to other brothers that were there at that time.
The film also shows that the dehumanizing living conditions of men incarcerated in Attica overlapped with the political and social context of the late ’60s, from the influence of the Black Panthers to George Jackson to the Attica liberation faction that had been organizing in the prison. How did those specific conditions of Attica combine with the politics of the moment contribute to the uprising at Attica?
Curry: We arrive at this moment in the film as a period at the end of the sentence that was the Civil Rights Movement. It’s this moment where there’s this still-unfinished part of economic justice, and you see that playing out in a lot of the frustrations that fueled uprisings in the cities across the country. Nixon then runs a campaign on a law and order platform—that we have to control this unruly Blackness that is in the streets. It also gives rise to this moment of resistance and rebellion, whether that’s the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, the Weather Underground or Vietnam anti-war protests. All of this is happening outside of the prisons, and although the prisons are by design geographically removed from the population, they’re also connected, because the people from the cities are the folks that are filling the prisons at this time. So, you have people who suddenly have a different understanding of their place within this prison system and a sophisticated analysis about the injustice of the system, rather than their own small part in it. What is remarkable is that because the prisoners had already been doing this work, very quickly, a moment of complete chaos coalesces into this organized political moment, and I think it’s to the credit of the men that were out there that they recognized that opportunity and took advantage and organized around it so quickly.
Harrison: I’d heard about George Jackson before, you know, the brother out there in Soledad prison. He became alive in prison, He found himself. He found George, the man. And he became a threat.
Because he threatened to tell the youth of America, Black youth especially from our neighborhoods, that prisons weren’t a rite of passage for guys who look like us. Prisons are meant to break people like myself. That’s what the riot was about. And when George Jackson died, that was the final straw that broke the so-called camel’s back at that particular time. I thought “if I die, let me die trying to live.” That’s what it came down to. Men wanted to be respected as men, not objects. And those in charge didn’t want to accept that.
Stanley, I was wondering if you have anything to add about how the prisoners worked together and how the rebellion took on a political character so quickly.
Nelson: Before the rebellion at Attica, the prisoners were purposely kept apart by race. So there was a certain amount of resentment. At the time that George Jackson was murdered, when the prisoners don’t take any food, it was a way to show their solidarity no matter what race you were. That’s one of the fascinating things that happens in the yard after the rebellion is that the white prisoners and Black prisoners all realize that they’re in this thing together, and they have to come together. They’re setting up tents, they’re digging latrines together. They’re making a security detail together. They’re handing out food together, and then negotiating as a group. It’s also amazing given the way prisons are still set up today, with the Black prisoners and the white prisoners being separated. In the film, you see them uniting and they’re talking about it. In many ways they were together and when law enforcement comes in, they’re murdered together. We usually think about it as a problem of the prisoners who self-segregate. I think it’s pretty important that we understand that prisons are set up like that. It’s a matter of divide and conquer.
So much of this film utilizes the archival media footage because this became a national media event at the time. The Attica Brothers had a lot of media savvy, but the media portrayal worked for better and for worse. Could you talk about Attica as a media spectacle?
Curry: In a lot of ways the media is everything to this story. The prisoners understood like we say today, ‘pictures or didn’t happen,’ right? There had been people who participated in previous uprisings at Auburn prison that we’re not sitting here and talking about today, because no one saw it. So it was like it didn’t happen. And so those people in Attica were sophisticated enough to understand that the public needs to bear witness to what is happening here. As you see in the film, they demanded not only that the media be let in but they had a television and were watching the coverage. They were able to see who they felt like was actually telling the truth about what happened inside and were able to identify and invite in some of those reporters who you see speaking in the film. But this is also a story about media malpractice. Today, we talk a lot about access journalism and the problems of relying upon a single source, which is what happened when pretty much all of the media, including all of the major media outlets with few exceptions, reported that the hostages had been killed by the prisoners, because one spokesperson from the prison said that. No one bothered asking any more questions, with a notable exception, I’ll say, of John Johnson, the only Black reporter present, who you see in the film.
Harrison: I’m not a church going guy on Sunday. But I see God working in people like Stanley and Traci that did the work to make it possible for people like yourself to hear another side of the story about Attica. Because the world believes that the prisoners had cut these guys’ throats. If I was a normal citizen living in Attica, I would have disliked those guys too, because that would have been one of my family members. I understand that hate. But on the same token, they were told a lie that the guys had cut these guys throats. And if Stanley and Traci hadn’t put this picture together, the lie would still be told. It’s like a slap in the face. You just out and out lied to us about what occurred. To this day I get calls from people who say, “Man we didn’t know you went through all this crap. Now we see why you might be a little indifferent, sometimes a little bit standoffish.”
One of the new pieces of history unearthed in the film is the call between Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon. Stanley, could you talk about the significance of that conversation?
Nelson: We knew there was one call where Nixon was congratulating Rockefeller. He says something like: Was it the Blacks? And then he says: Did any white people get killed? Like, did any real people get killed? It’s insane that that’s the President of the United States talking to the Governor of New York. Once we got that we said: “Well let’s look at Nixon’s phone records.” And we found that other call where Nixon is encouraging Rockefeller not to even go up there to Attica. The Attica Observer Committee wanted Rockefeller just to go and see the environment and see the hostility that’s being built up. Then maybe, you know, he’d think again about whether he wants to send these troops in. But Nixon is in Rockefeller’s ear, and Rockefeller wanted to be president. Rockefeller was thought to be a liberal Republican, but Nixon had just been elected on law and order, and the Republican party started to be the party of law and order. Rockefeller wants them to eventually elect him president, and so he’s got to have a hard line. In many ways, Rockefeller is responsible for what finally happened at Attica.
In the summer of 2020 I noticed a renewal of people reading George Jackson and more people wanting to learn about Attica and the history of prison activism. So there’s this recent experience with rebellions and then there’s also been a return of tough on crime rhetoric from a lot of politicians. Those are two things I noticed that makes the timing of this film significant. What can the story Attica teach us about our own era?
Curry: There were so many resonances that I had not anticipated. I think it really crystallized for me when I was making the film. I just happened to live someplace that’s on a protest route here in Brooklyn. As I was inside working on this film, I watched police descend upon a protester and I was horrified at what might be about to happen. It made me realize that, really, this is a story about the length to which the American state will go to reassert its power in the face of a righteous challenge to its authority. I also could not help but notice that we made this film in the early days of a pandemic in which people were left in prison to die. That call for recognition of their humanity resonates across all of these 50 years to today. As time goes on, more resonances continue to happen for me. We’re in this moment where as a matter of policy there is an active effort to erase stories like this. There’s an active effort to make sure these types of stories never get told. I just feel so grateful that this film has this platform to let people hear the voices of people like Mr. Harrison, who is just so courageous in articulating his experience of what happened.