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One early September morning, a young couple took their barely 3-year-old son along on a trip into town.
For the Stabas, going to town usually meant a ride to Attica.
On the way from their car to Red Almeter's appliance store on Market Street to buy the family's first color television, a friend of my father's stopped his truck on the street and yelled out the window, giving my parents their first news of the Attica Riot.
Ambulances and police cars, including Niagara County Sheriff's Department vehicles, were already at Attica Prison or racing toward the little Wyoming County village. Teachers and students at local schools, many of whom had fathers, husbands and brothers working at the prison, went home early.
But the chaos outside the prison walls paled in comparison to the violence inside.
Billy Quinn, a 28-year-old guard, would die two days later of the injuries he suffered during the first moments of the insurrection. Prisoners murdered three of their peers during the nearly 96 hours the inmates ran the prison. Gunfire sanctioned and carried out by the State of New York would kill another 39 men -- 10 guards and other civilian employees of the prison and 29 inmates.
But what frustrated prosecutor Malcolm Bell would later label "The Turkey Shoot" in his book of that name was still almost four days away.
While the Stabas settled on their purchase, guard John Stockholm lay silently under a bed in a cell, where he had been taken by a group of prisoners after being knocked unconscious with a stick.
One of his co-workers, Dean Wright, and two other guards hid in an equipment room, watching groups of inmates rampage past until they were discovered a few hours later and taken to D Yard, where the 1,500 rioters made their stand.
Once in the yard, Wright, who had reported to work that morning despite a bad cold and an ominous warning from a prisoner to call in sick the day before, was ordered to remove his prison uniform.
"Apparently, I wasn't doing it fast enough, because a small, Hispanic man came up to me and started slicing my clothes off with a razor," Wright said during Thursday's hearing at the Rochester Institute of Technology before the Attica Task Force recently appointed by Gov. George Pataki.
Stockholm stayed under the bed in that cell until the next morning, when the inmates who hid him there came and took him to join the others.
"The following days were a blur," said Stockholm, who spent the duration of the riot tied back-to-back with fellow hostage Gary Walker. "Every day, verbal taunts and threats were hurled at us. There was just constant fear for your life. We didn't know if we were going to live or die at any time.
"On Monday the 13th, everything changed."
That was when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's bloodlust finally won out. He had wanted to send in armed helicopters and turn loose snipers stationed on the prison walls a day earlier, but Congressman Herman Badillo convinced him that scrolling body counts during telecasts of National Football League games would have made for bad politics.
Negotiators left that night thinking a peaceful settlement was imminent, but that wasn't good enough for Rocky.
Rockefeller, whose presidential ambitions had been at least temporarily dashed at the 1964 Republican National Convention, when party members who thought him too liberal booed him mercilessly, was eyeing another run for the top. With Vietnam and its accompanying protests at their height, he thought President Richard Nixon vulnerable.
"In September, 1971, Rockefeller's staff was already at work on the 1972 presidential primaries," wrote University at Buffalo professor and author Bruce Jackson. "Attica was being covered by every newspaper and television news show in the country; Nelson Rockefeller was not going to let himself be seen as soft on crime. To undo his liberal image, Nelson Rockefeller did two things: He got New York's legislature to enact the most repressive drug laws in the nation and he didn't give an inch at Attica."
Those drug laws, which remain in effect today, had contributed to the overcrowded conditions that helped fuel the riot in the first place.
Rockefeller ordered Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald to deliver an ultimatum to the prisoners on the morning of Sept. 13 -- give up now. Or else.
They responded by playing the only card they had. The inmates, armed only with makeshift weapons, paraded eight hostages on the catwalk overlooking the yard, each assigned a knife-wielding "executioner."
The state's plan -- drop tear gas and kill everyone on the catwalks or near a hostage -- was, at best, a terrible plan horribly executed. Especially since the strategy was hatched when only prisoners stood on the catwalks, and wasn't altered to allow for the presence of hostages. Low fog and the gas led to National Guardsmen, State Troopers and corrections officers firing blindly into a mass of more than 1,500 prisoners and hostages.
At 9:46 a.m., helicopters dropped tear gas and the shooting began. Six minutes later, 39 men were dead or dying.
At the same time state officials were telling reporters that the prisoners had killed the hostages by slashing their throats, New York's government perpetrated another fraud. The state paid the hospital bills of the injured, but didn't tell them or their families that would disqualify them from seeking legal redress. Corrections department officials also applied for workmen's compensation on behalf of the survivors, effectively taking away their legal rights without getting, or even asking for, permission.
Most of the survivors eventually returned to work. There was no counseling provided after their unimaginable ordeal. Not that these men, many of whom ran farms or other businesses in addition to working at the prison, were much for talking about their feelings.
"The riot was never discussed in the house," Wright said. "I never talked about it with Marilyn (his wife) or our sons. I knew how I felt and I didn't want them to feel that way.
"When I went back, I was told, 'Get over it and don't talk about it.' And we didn't. Some of us who were hostages worked together for years. We talked about a lot of things, but the riot was never one of them and our feelings were never one of them."
The toll on them and their families continued for decades after they were freed.
"After a night out with my wife, I'd take the babysitter home, but I wouldn't come home -- I'd just drive," Stockholm said. "I'd withdraw. I'd get very quiet. Those were things I was doing to my family that I didn't realize I was doing until our group got together. ... I never spoke to my wife about the whole thing until a few years ago."
It was clear during Thursday's hearing that it's still not easy for the survivors or the families of the hostages living or dead, as almost all of the dozen speakers choked up at some point. Wright broke down while talking about the first night in D Yard.
"I never knew until this morning that John wasn't there in the yard that night," he said.
Some, like Wright, didn't want to believe that the state they devoted their working lives to could treat them as disposable entities.
"I was a diehard state man," Wright said. "I believed that they were going to take care of us and believed that all those people had their throats cut. I got in arguments with people who said they were shot. I said, 'Our people wouldn't do that.'"
That sense of betrayal may be the sharpest cut of all.
"I learned the state considered me a hostage, and though a loyal employee, totally expendable," Stockholm said.
Attica remains the largest employer in the village and surrounding area. Everyone living there was either effected by the riot or knows someone who was.
I played Little League baseball against John Stockholm's son, Jay, on a diamond near the prison farm (and he hit a home run off me that may not have landed yet). One former hostage, since deceased, lived down the road from my parents' house and I remember my father warning me never to ask him about the riot. Billy Quinn's nephew is one of my best friends, and I went to school with his three daughters, the youngest of whom was born after he died.
The eldest, Deeanne Quinn Miller, helped form The Forgotten Victims of Attica and emerged as its spokesperson. They convinced Pataki to attend a memorial service on the 30th anniversary of the assault on prison grounds, a spot shunned by previous governors. Unfortunately, it was scheduled for Sept. 13, 2001.
The group's efforts also led to last week's hearings, which continued Friday, and it's pushing its "Five Point Plan For Justice" (see story on Page 3).
The state's willingness to even hold such a proceeding is a step in the right direction, but mention money, and officials plead poverty. Funny, though, how the state manages to scrape up enough money to make sure a certain former fourth-string quarterback turned failed Erie County executive receives a salary that should make him blush, given the condition of the Niagara Reservation Park he oversees. And the $36,000 recently spent on a study to find empty space in downtown Niagara Falls exceeds any payment ever made to an Attica survivor or widow (except Mrs. Herbert Jones, who retained her right to sue by refusing the state's paltry death benefits).
To most group members, the money seems more symbolic than anything. Most of all, they want New York State to admit its mistakes before, during and after the riot. Rockefeller thankfully never realized his dream of becoming president, though he did spend two years as Gerald Ford's vice president, an achievement which puts him on a historical par with Van Halen's third lead singer. According to popular legend, he died in flagrante delicto with a young female employee, a fate far better than he deserved. As Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his brilliantly vicious obituary of Nixon, "his body should have been burned in a trash bin."
To date, there's been no justice for a group of state employees guilty only of showing up for work on Sept. 9, 1971, or their families. Their numbers alone give them little political clout, but fairness and decency should force the state to finally rectify its horrific misdeeds. No amount of money can give these people back what they lost, but a little long-overdue honesty could help ease the gnawing ache that pervades their lives.
"Admit the bungling and lies and say, 'We're sorry,'" said Paula Krotz, whose late husband Paul survived the retaking. "To date, all you've given us is salt for our wounds.
"Many Americans have Pearl Harbor and September 11 engraved on their psyches. We have Pearl Harbor, September 11 and Attica. Each has been horrible. However, Pearl Harbor was accomplished by the Japanese. September 11 was accomplished by the terrorists. Attica was done to us by our own, and we have lived with that over us since 1971."
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||May 14 2002|