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Nixon and Rockefeller on the Attica Raid

Douglas Caddy

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September 12, 2011

The New York Times

Rockefeller on the Attica Raid, From Boastful to Subdued


Hours after 1,000 New York State troopers, sheriff’s deputies and correction officers stormed Attica prison to crush a four-day inmate revolt in 1971, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller telephoned President Richard M. Nixon to claim victory unambiguously.

At the time, it appeared that State Police sharpshooters who had fired on the prison yard had killed mostly inmates, not some of the prison guards who had been held hostage inside. And because the inmates were black and the guards white, the governor and the president seemed to suggest, the American public would undoubtedly endorse the state’s assault on Attica.

“They did a fabulous job,” Rockefeller told Nixon. “It really was a beautiful operation.”

In a follow-up conversation the next day, as grimmer details began to emerge about the assault, in which 29 inmates and 10 hostages were killed, a more subdued Rockefeller acknowledged that his initial boast about the sharpshooters’ precision was premature.

“Well you know, this is one of those things,” Rockefeller said. “You can’t have sharpshooters picking off the prisoners when the hostages are there with them, at a distance with tear gas, without maybe having a few accidents.”

“Well, you saved a lot of guards,” Nixon replied. “That was worth it.”

Recordings of the conversations, which are being published in full for the first time, provide insights into the nation’s bloodiest prison uprising, which remained an indelible blot on Rockefeller’s 15-year record as governor, and ended 40 years ago Tuesday. In the recordings, the governor speaks with seeming candor about some unexplained elements of the episode, including his decision not to go in person to the prison, in western New York, to broker a peaceful resolution, as the inmates and their negotiators had asked. Rockefeller is also heard striking an ingratiating tone with the president, predicting to Nixon, who was preparing his re-election campaign, “You’re going to have a great year.”

The revolt began on Sept. 9, 1971, precipitated by unaddressed inmate complaints about grievance procedures, educational opportunities and other issues, investigations concluded. Though an agreement appeared near on many of the inmates’ demands, Rockefeller approved the assault when negotiations over amnesty had stalled and it appeared that the hostages’ lives were in danger. (Inmates were found to have killed one guard and three fellow inmates during the uprising.)

“Nixon’s strategy for dealing with the Attica massacre was to minimize press coverage, to spin the story in favor of the government, and to assail members of the press,” said Theresa C. Lynch, an adjunct professor of history at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester who is writing a book about Attica and discovered the tapes at the National Archives in Washington. “I think the tapes reveal that.

“He also began a campaign to convince the American public that Rockefeller had acted correctly in not going to Attica to quell the uprising and in retaking the prison by storm. This campaign was based on racism and lack of concern and callous disregard for the lives of prisoners.”

Rockefeller reveals in the tapes that he proceeded with the assault even as state officials had figured that an armed assault might cost the lives of all the 39 hostages and hundreds of inmates. And he discusses his refusal to consider granting amnesty or going to the scene — a gesture recommended by his own correction commissioner — suggesting that he did not want to capitulate to the inmates and set a precedent. “This separated the sheep from the goats,” Rockefeller declared.

Sixty-two inmates and one guard were charged with crimes stemming from the revolt, and eight inmates were convicted. Charges against the guard were dismissed. A state commission criticized the governor for not going to Attica, while acknowledging that his presence might not have prevented the violence. The commission found that the riot was driven by black inmates unwilling to bow to the “petty humiliations and racism that characterize prison life” and that guards inflicted brutal reprisals after the prison was retaken.

In 1976, Gov. Hugh L. Carey pardoned seven former Attica inmates, commuted the sentence of an eighth and said no disciplinary action would be taken against 20 state troopers and guards involved in the assault. Inmates who were beaten sued the state, which settled in 2000 for $8 million. Five years later, the state settled for $12 million with surviving guards and the families of slain hostages.

Richard Norton Smith, who is completing a biography of Rockefeller, said of the governor’s version of the events: “Some of this is tailored, clumsily, to impress Nixon. But it also, sadly, reflects the fact that Rockefeller by this stage of his governorship bore little resemblance to the eager, straight-talking, ambitious yet principled rookie of 1959-60.”

Professor Lynch shared the tapes she had discovered with Scott Christianson, a former New York criminal justice official who has written on Attica and who made the tapes available to The New York Times.

The first conversation came when the president returned a call from the governor, who wanted to brief him. Nixon knew the call was being recorded; Rockefeller apparently did not.

“The courage you showed and the judgment in not granting amnesty, it was right, and I don’t care what the hell the papers or anybody else says,” Nixon said. “If you would have granted amnesty in this case, it would have meant that you would have had prisons in an uproar all over this country.”

Rockefeller also told Nixon that seven guards who had been taken hostage had been killed and that “quite a few of those were killed prior to this.” Both conclusions proved to be wrong.

The next day, even after it was becoming clear that hostages had also been killed by sharpshooters, Nixon told Rockefeller: “You just stand firm there and don’t give an inch. Because I think in the country, you see, the example you set may stiffen the backs of a few other governors that may have a problem. But also in the country, too, I think that it might discourage this kind of a riot occurring someplace else.”

“Tell me,” Nixon asked, “are these primarily blacks that you’re dealing with?”

“Oh, yes,” Rockefeller replied, “the whole thing was led by the blacks.”

Later that afternoon, Nixon asked H. R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, whether reports from the prison included “the fact that it’s basically a black thing.”

“That’s going to turn people off awful damn fast,” Nixon said, “that the guards were white.”

Years later, Rockefeller, who had run against Nixon for the Republican nomination in 1968 and would become vice president in 1974 after Nixon resigned, expressed regret about not retaking the prison sooner and with less-lethal force. But to Nixon, he suggested that the revolt was part of a nationwide conspiracy and was characterized by cruelty on the part of the inmates.

“We’re really developing this in a way,” he said, “that I think will give a lesson to all of us.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: September 14, 2011

Because of an editing error, an article on Tuesday about conversations between Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller and President Richard M. Nixon about the Attica prison uprising characterized incorrectly, in some copies, Rockefeller’s decision not to go to the scene. His refusal suggested that he did not want to capitulate to the inmates, not that he did want to capitulate to them.


September 14, 2011, 9:21 am

The New York Times

The Somber Shadows of Attica


There was talk of crucifixion and resurrection Tuesday night at Union Theological Seminary, not a surprising topic for that setting. The context was unusual, though. The speakers weren’t referring to Calvary. They had in mind a muddy cellblock yard at Attica state prison where the blood had flowed freely 40 years earlier to the day.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

“I was resurrected that day — my life was changed forever,” said Albert Victory, who was one of nearly 1,300 Attica inmates in that yard on Sept. 13, 1971. Tyrone Larkins was also there. He, too, felt transformed. “The indignities we went through 40 years ago motivated me to be a new man,” he said.

Long ago, the word “Attica” entered the language as much more than a prison town roughly midway between Buffalo and Rochester in western New York. You could say, depending to some degree on your politics, that it was where prisoners rioted on Sept. 9, 1971, then held guards and other prison employees hostage for four days in the yard of Cellblock D until state troopers moved in with force to regain control for the lawful authorities.

Another way to look at it is that the inmates’ spontaneous burst of rioting turned instantly into something more substantial: a full-blown revolt against miserable prison conditions, a seething that had been building for a long time because of ignored grievances about overcrowding, rigid censorship, bad food and shabby medical care. To Mr. Victory, it was about even more than that.

“It was about our human dignity,” he said.

But what turned “Attica” into a cry of rage — think of Al Pacino screaming the word to fire up a crowd in the 1975 film “Dog Day Afternoon” — was not what the inmates did. It was what the sovereign State of New York under Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller did when it sent armed troopers to storm that yard on Sept. 13.

Through shrouds of tear gas, the officers fired at will, so indiscriminately that a disenchanted state prosecutor named Malcolm Bell described it later as “a turkey shoot.” A state investigating panel known as the McKay Commission concluded that the assault was terribly conceived, even more poorly executed and utterly unnecessary.

Within minutes, the troopers shot 39 people to death: 29 inmates and 10 of their hostages — the state’s own workers. Eighty others were wounded. Adding in a guard and three inmates who had been killed over the previous four days, the death toll was 43.

“With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century,” the McKay Commission wrote, the trooper assault produced “the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”

So wanton was the police shooting that Larry White, another former Attica inmate who spoke at the seminary, summed up the state’s attitude toward the prisoners this way: “We will kill our own before we let you win anything here.”

As if what happened wasn’t grim enough, state officials then lied about it. They announced that inmates had killed hostages by slitting their throats and even castrating one man. Totally untrue. Within a day, autopsies showed that all the deaths on Sept. 13 resulted from police fire. The lies contributed to a deepening mistrust of government in that era of Vietnam, Kent State and, soon enough, Watergate — a sense that it was capable of just about anything.

(It wasn’t journalism’s shining hour, either. The first news accounts told of inmate atrocities on Sept. 13 as if they were fact, without sufficiently ascribing the claims to officialdom. That was the case with all three major New York City newspapers — The Times, The Daily News and, in an article written by me, The Post. It was a lesson in the importance of attribution, learned the hard way.)

So Attica endures. It is why a dozen former inmates gathered Tuesday at the seminary, in Morningside Heights. It is why a huge crowd — 1,000 people or more, many of them born well after 1971 — filled Riverside Church Friday night on the anniversary of the start of the uprising.

And it is why it was fascinating to learn this week of recorded phone conversations held on Sept. 13 and 14, 1971, between Rockefeller and President Richard M. Nixon. “Well, you know,” Rockefeller told Nixon after the scope of the disastrous assault became clear, “this is one of those things.”

One of those things.


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