Today is the 50th anniversary of the Attica Massacre. On September 9, 1971, inmates in the Attica Correctional Facility, in Attica NY rioted and seized control of the prison. They took 43 staff members hostage. During the next four days, authorities yielded to many of the prisoners' demands, but would not agree to amnesty or the removal of the prison's superintendent. On September 13, talks broke down and Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state police to storm the prison. In all, 43 people died, including ten correctional officers and civilian employees. (Source: NY State Library)
State Senator John Dunne -- who would later be my boss -- was there in his capacity as chair of the State Senate Corrections Committee. Prisoners asked him to be one of the mediators because they trusted him. He had earned that trust by making unannounced inspections of prison conditions. In an oral history, he remembered calling Rockefeller and urging him to come to Attica.
I’m a Rockefeller Republican. But, let’s see, it was Wicker, Badillo, the editor of the Amsterdam News, and me, the four people who spoke to him that afternoon. I was the last one to speak with him. And he just wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t come. See, my thought was this, “Come and be there. Not meet with them, I don’t want you going in D Yard. Come, be there. So you’re symbolically involved.” For example, what’s going on in China now, they send a premier in China to go to the earthquake site so that you’re showing you’re involved, in your commitment, your interest. That’s what we were trying to achieve because we had agreed on, I think, 29 of the 32 or 33 demands. And what those guys inside were worried about was, “Hey, you know, once we lay down our arms, you know, they’re not going to honor any of these conditions.” So we wanted to get him to put his imprimatur on it. And now, people say to me, “Gosh, do you think it would have made a difference?” I don’t know if it would have made a difference. But when you consider the stakes that we were facing, and I knew, I had a very good idea of what was going to happen. Should have tried it.
It was his responsibility. I mean, it was very clear that they were going to use lethal force to retake the facility. You had guards who were in there who were targets, the likelihood, as it turned out, was correct, were going to meet their death. He was the man; he was in charge. The Sunday after the Attica riot I was on one of those Sunday morning programs; they asked me straight out, “Do you think he should have come?” And I said, “Yes.” You know, two years later I was stripped of my chairmanship. I don’t mean to be any kind of a martyr. But, yeah, I really, to this day, I think it could have made a difference. Could have.