A recent obituary in the New York Times told about Frank Smith, "who as an inmate leader at Attica prison was tortured by officers in the aftermath of the prisoner uprising of 1971 and then spent a quarter century successfully fighting for legal damages." Working as a paralegal after his release, Smith was a pivotal force behind a twenty-six-year civil action lawsuit that won a $12 million settlement.
Smith's life changed forever on September 13, 1971--the day New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered 500 state troopers to storm the Attica Correctional Facility, resulting in the deaths of thirty-two inmates and eleven prison employees. The raid wounded at least eighty-six other people.
The media coverage was atrocious. Outright lies were front-page news, "informing" the public that prisoners had slit the throats of hostages when the troopers' assault began. Corrective facts came later, with much smaller headlines, after autopsies revealed that no throats had been cut. Only when their claims were exposed as deceptions did top state officials admit the truth.
Smith, known as "Big Black," figures prominently in a full-length documentary that debuted on national television four years ago. The Ghosts of Attica includes grim footage and grisly photos that had been kept under wraps by the state government for decades. The movie also features interviews with people on all sides of the tragic conflict.
After previewing the ninety-minute film, I wrote that it "packs a powerful wallop because of its deep respect for historical accuracy. Horrendous prison conditions prompted the Attica uprising, which began as an undisciplined riot and grew into a well-focused articulation of rage from men who chose to take a fateful step, fighting for human dignity."
The timing of the national premiere for The Ghosts of Attica on Court TV was unlucky--it aired just two days before 9/11--and media follow-up was sparse.
Lighting up the film, Smith's clarity and humanism seem especially notable because of what he went through. As the documentary explains, guards "tortured him for hours with cigarettes, hot shell casings, threats of castration and death, a glass-strewn gauntlet and Russian roulette."
While the uprising was multiracial, most of the 1,281 prisoners involved were black, reflecting the prison population as a whole. In the film Smith said: "Attica was about wants and needs. Attica was a lot about class and a lot about race."
Although U.S. media outlets have rarely dropped...