On September 9, 1971, 1300 inmates of Attica Prison–a maximum security facility in western New York State– decided to rebel against their white captors. Taking forty prison staff hostage, the prisoners attempted to negotiate with authorities for better treatment, living conditions, and educational opportunities within the overcrowded, mostly minority prison. Eventually resolved by the New York State Police, the conflict lasted four days, resulting in 41 fatalities, 10 of which were civilian prison staff.
“I had gone to the Holiday Inn in Batavia where the state police were relaxing in the bar watching the news, and it was kind of like being in a hunting camp after a successful day,” said Dick Cooper, who was put on assignment during the riots as a young journalist for the Rochester Times-Union.
According to the authorities within the prison, the fatalities that occurred during the four day skirmish were caused by prisoners armed with shanks, who indiscriminately slaughtered each other and their civilian hostages as the state police valiantly sought to restore order.
And in 1971, this stereotype of the maximum security prison inmate as conscious-less psychopath had enough currency that it could float over the head of the public, going generally unchallenged. But this image of the state as an impugnable, righteous actor, and the prison inmate as a disposable societal burden without entitlement to basic human rights was about to change, all thanks to the work of Cooper and his partner on the beat, John Machacek.
Cooper’s eye for inconsistencies between the behavior of the troopers, the pronouncements of the prison, and ultimately, the autopsy reports of the coroner, led to exposing the truth about what really happened inside Attica those four fateful days.
Forty one years later, Cooper can recall as if yesterday the words spoken by Carl Lupo, the senior civilian member of the medical examiner’s staff, who gave the then 24-year-old journalist the lead of a lifetime. The following year, in 1972, Cooper and Machacek were rewarded for their coverage with a Pulitzer Prize for Local General or Spot News Reporting.
“He was a former butcher in another life, so he was well trained for his position,” Cooper said wryly of the senior coroner, “Then he came up to me and he said, ‘Yo Cooper, where did the media get this story about slashed throats?’ So I said, ‘Well, what do you mean, Carl?’ He said, ‘We completed the autopsies, and they all died of gunshot wounds[…] All the fatal injuries were gunshots.’
“So I said, ‘what kind of gunshots?’ And he says, ‘Well, it was thirty-ought six, double-ought buck, and it was .38 caliber revolver.’–which was the arsenal of the New York State Police.”
With this information brought to light by Cooper and Machacek’s reportage, the administration of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller came under serious scrutiny, as did the State Police, who were now guilty of deliberately spreading false rumors about the causes of the inmates and hostages’ deaths. Radical left wing activist/anarchists The Weathermen made their disapproval of the institutional racism that led to the prisoners unrest clear with a bomb detonation at the New York Department of Corrections.
And indeed, the sense that the state was getting off with murder scot free did become the general sentiment regarding the riots, as the Special Commission that was convened to investigate the riots in the aftermath did little more than provide verbal condemnation towards the State of New York’s conduct under Rockefeller, resulting in a single state trooper indictment for reckless endangerment. Meanwhile, it took until 2004 for the State of New York to agree to a $12 million settlement to the families of the slain prison employees.
The year 1971 may be remembered by those who lived it as a particularly turbulent year in U.S. history. With protest against the Vietnam War raging and the Black Panthers and Weathermen inciting social unrest in the streets, distrust for authority, police, and the Nixon administration were at an all time high.