Melissa Harris-Perry: This is Melissa Harris-Perry and on today's episode of the takeaway, we're looking at issues of race through the lens of documentary media. Now, like us here at the takeaway, we know many of you have been following efforts by many state legislators to ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools.
Yesterday here on the show we spoke with Janai Nelson. She is the incoming president of the NAACP legal defense fund. During our conversation, she emphasized that the fight for a fair and equitable nation rests on the ability of communities to openly and honestly examine the history of their collective experiences.
Janai Nelson: We are in the midst of a serious battle, a fight for the soul of this country. It centers around our ability to hear, access, and absorb the truth.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Today we're going to talk about a documentary film, an investigative podcast, and a Hollywood movie, and each tells us a true American story. Each is centered on racialized experiences in our country. Let's start by going back to 1971.
Speaker: It was 70% Black and brown prisoners, all-white guards what could go wrong?
Speaker: Grab the guards. Grab the keys.
Speaker: All hell broke loose
Melissa Harris-Perry: Attica, the name is now synonymous with what happened there 50 years ago. Overcrowding in the upstate New York Supermax Prison was appalling and conditions were harsh. Many even describing them as inhumane.
Speaker: Guys, were complaining about the basic things like toothpaste. A roll of toilet paper would last you a month.
Speaker: The inmates were considered like animals.
Speaker: They beat you up in your cell and then they take you segregation and sometimes you don't come back.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're hearing footage from the documentary Attica, by filmmakers, Stanley Nelson and Traci Curry. Using archival footage and original interviews, the movie explores the deadliest prison rebellion in American history, which occurred over the course of five days in 1971 when Attica's population of overwhelmingly Black and Latino inmates, seized control of a portion of the prison taking 39 guards and staff as hostages. For four days these men inside Attica sought the recognition of elected officials about the appalling conditions, they were forced to endure inside the prison.
The demands these men made, they actually resonate today. Take for example that advocates have described the current conditions at Rikers Island as a humanitarian crisis. In fact, more than a dozen pretrial detainees, in other words, people who have not yet even been convicted of a crime have died in custody at Rikers this year. Rikers inmates have described sleeping on the floor and having to relieve themselves in bags because there aren't enough toilets.
50 years ago conditions like these reached a breaking point in Attica and with prisoners holding hostages, they commanded media attention, but ultimately the relentless attention also fed the mounting tensions outside the embattled prison. On the fifth day, New York's governor ordered a breach. Helicopters dropped tear gas, state troopers, and the national guard shot into the haze. They killed 29 inmates and 10 prison guards who were being held as hostages.
Akil Shaquan, one of the survivors of the assault that day spoke to Joseph Gedeon, a producer here on The Takeaway. He spoke to him for the WNYC series Storming The Gates: 50 Years After The Attica Prison Uprising.
Akil Shaquan: They shot the gas into the counter where we was at in A Block corridor. It was so cloudy it tore the skin off your arm. That gas was pepper gas. They wouldn't use it in Vietnam. They came in shooting and it was only like eight or nine of us up in A Block corridor. I told my friend who I knew from the street for years, don't go out first and don't go out last, let's get between. What happened was, when we went out when I looked around, I thought they were shooting rubber bullets, they shot the guy in the neck and blood came out. I felt something hit me in my chest.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tyrone Larkins was also there.
Tyrone Larkins: Correction officers, state troopers, national guards, well, a riot with shotguns, assault rifles, teargas that literally knocked people to their knees. They showed that to the whole world. Picture a big barrel with a whole bunch of fish in it and the guy is standing over the barrel with a shotgun and pulling the trigger. That's what happened, man.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Larkins is featured in the documentary Attica, and I spoke about the film with one of its co-directors, Stanley Nelson.
Stanley Nelson: Attica was and is a maximum-security prison, 250 miles upstate from New York City. In 1971, September 9th, 1971, the prisoners took over Attica. It was the largest prison rebellion in the history of the United States because they took over 30 guards and civilian prison workers hostage, they had a standoff, which lasted for five days while the prisoners demanded certain changes in the prison.
One of the things that makes Attica so different from any other prison rebellion besides the outcome, of course, is that the prisoners said that they wanted the media to come in and film the whole thing as they negotiated as the rebellion took place. They felt that the media and filming would give them some kind of protection against retaliation by law enforcement. It ended disastrously and over 40 people were killed in the retaking of Attica. All of them were killed by law enforcement.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you talk about law enforcement and you talk about prison guards, there's no escaping race at the core of this film and at the core of this experience. As you all were interviewing and having conversations, I was so struck by how swiftly we were introduced to the family of one of the key guards. Can you talk to me a little bit about that choice?
Stanley Nelson: Yes. One of the things that we talked about and we worked on really a lot is where to begin the film because the rebellion took place because of certain conditions in the prison. We didn't want to start just talking about the conditions because you don't care if you're not introduced to the characters. We throw you right in the middle of the rebellion as we're showing the opening credit Attica, you're hearing sirens and you're dropped right into the rebellion.
We go back and we talk about one of the guards, Billy Quinn who's injured really badly on the first day when the prisoners took the prison he was beaten very badly and taken out of the prison to a hospital right away. The fact that he's injured really badly ends up being one of the pivotal points in the whole rebellion.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Was it difficult to secure the daughter who we meet. I guess it must be within like three minutes or something and you're right. You do get thrown right into this documentary. Was it difficult to secure that kind of conversation?
Stanley Nelson: Yes, I think that it was difficult. It took a certain amount of gaining of trust from the people in the Attica town, this kind of all-white town. It also took a lot of trust-building with the former prisoners. The people from the town I think add a incredible dimension, they actually were incredible. They gave us photos and they're home movies. You really see what Attica town was like. It was really an all-white town where the jobs really were provided by the prison. Somebody says it was a prison town and that was, fathers and sons worked in Attica prison. That was the livelihood of the town
Melissa Harris-Perry: I reflected as I heard that on the idea of like coal mining towns or company towns and the idea that prisons become the economic engine. That Attica is part of reminding us of, we say something like the prison industrial complex, but what that actually looks like for real human beings.
Stanley Nelson: As the townspeople say, that most of the people on their block worked in the prison. When we say, a prison town you have to understand that if they were prison guards-- but they had no training at all. It wasn't like they were sent to school and had to learn how to be a guard. One day you're looking for a job and you're signing papers and the next day you're a prison guard and they were not trained in any way. Some of them were extremely brutal with the prisoners as one of the former prisoners says, it was fear. They ruled the prisoners by fear.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yet we know that in so many ways this is not how the story was presented. A lot of the film uses this incredible, previously unseen archival footage, including phone calls between President Richard Nixon and Governor Nelson Rockefeller. I'm wondering how you got access to this and talk to us a little bit about what this brought to the film.
Stanley Nelson: It's very clear that Richard Nixon is pulling the strings behind the scenes, and as I said, in the film, Rockefeller wanted to be president. That was his goal. He's one of the richest men in the world. He had everything, and he wanted to be president. He was thought of as being soft on crime, kind of the left-wing of the Republican Party. He wanted to show that he was tough on crime so he was on the phone constantly to Nixon and at the crux of the prison rebellion after four days of stalemate, the prisoners just want him to come up there to Attica. Don't come in. If you're scared to come in, you're nervous, don't come in, just come up and show your concern.
Also, by coming up, he would see what the conditions were and the mood was outside the prison because national guard and law enforcement, highway patrolmen, townspeople had been standing outside the prison for five days and were getting madder and madder and rumors were circulating that the prisoners were castrating people and had killed people, and none of that was true, but those were the rumors.
The prisoners felt that if Rockefeller came and saw the mood of these people, he would think twice about sending them in to take back the prison because it was obvious that they were out for revenge, and that they were in many ways bloodthirsty. Rockefeller was talking to Nixon on the phone, and Nixon urged him not to go, and so the prison rebellion in this tiny little town, Attica, 250 miles from New York, reached all the way to the President of the United States.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The narrative was that it was inmates who killed hostages. Talk to us about the truth of what really happened.
Stanley Nelson: In the final day of their rebellion, the fifth day, it was very clear that law enforcement was going to come in and take the prison by force. One of the things that the prisoners did was they took the hostages and put them on the catwalk so that everybody could see and put these homemade knives to their throats. As the inmates say, in the film, they did that, just so that law enforcement would think twice, about coming in. They had no intention of hurting these guys, but maybe if you see these guys, that some of them were the brothers and cousins of the law enforcement, you would think twice and not do the massive retaking of the prison.
That didn't stop law enforcement, and Rockefeller and they took the prison by force, and I think 10 guards will kill, 29 prisoners. The first newscast that they came out that we have in the film said that the guard's throats were slit by the retaking of the prison, the prisoners slit the guard's throat. It came out the next day that no throats were slit. That, actually, they were killed by law enforcement as they took the prison. That as one of the prisoners says so beautifully that they were running towards the guys with the guns thinking, "We're saved. Were saved," and they were killed at that moment by law enforcement.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I was so struck by the level of organizational capacity, the idea that the prisoners immediately begin organizing their sections, thinking about the list of demands, going into the work of negotiations. Yet, where we began on these questions of race also became a critical aspect of how this all ended. Can you say a few words about that, about how race was intervening as a wedge here?
Stanley Nelson: I think that what I call casual racism is part of the story and it's overwhelming. The racism of the guards, the all-white guards, the prisoners were divided up by race. That really changed when they took over the prison. All of a sudden, as they say, they became one unit, they became prisoners. It wasn't white or Black or brown. They had to unite to try to get out of what they had started and to try to get out of it with their lives.
Race, was just casually from, again, the guards to when they take over and they're constantly called the N-word over and over again, as you see in the film, incredible footage, as the guards take over the prison, they yell white power, Nixon and Rockefeller. Nixon calls him after the prison is retaking it and 40 some people are killed any and the first thing Nixon ask are, "Is it the Blacks? Were any white people killed?" Over and over again race is the subtext of the whole rebellion and the whole film.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Stanley Nelson, documentarian, filmmaker director of Attica. Thank you so much for joining us.
Stanley Nelson: Thank you so much.
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