Documentary review: Attica


If “Attica” is just a line you recognize from the movie  Dog Day Afternoon, you should watch the Oscar-nominated, 2021 documentary of that name.

Now, if you were around then, you will discover a lot of details that you forgot, or more likely, did not know at all about one of the most significant prison riots in the United States. “This unnervingly vivid dive into the 1971 uprising… sheds new light on the enduring violence and racism of the prison system…”

A little over half of the approximately 2,200 prisoners took over the facility on September 9, taking 42 staff hostage. They had tired of their brutalizing conditions and sought to be treated like human beings. The stories in the film were told by some of the former prisoners. As one critic correctly notes, “I don’t think Attica glorifies the prisoners, but it does humanize them. That is, it presents them as human beings.”

There were four days of negotiations, including with the state Commissioner of Corrections, Russell G. Oswald. While there were some prisoners who wanted to hold Oswald and other negotiators hostage as well, the prisoner leadership opposed this, saying that they should deal in good faith.

Other people interviewed in the documentary included the families of the guards held hostage. Attica is a small town in rural Wyoming County, southwest of Rochester and southeast of Buffalo. The Department of Corrections is the major employer. Most of the prison personnel were white local folks, while most of the prisoners were black and/or Hispanic, creating a definite culture clash beyond the guard/prisoner dynamic.

During the negotiations, authorities agreed to 28 of the prisoners’ demands. But they would not agree to complete amnesty for the inmates involved with the prison takeover.

Nixon’s the one

The film shares audiotape of Nelson Rockefeller conferring with Richard M. Nixon. The governor assured the President that he would not accede to the demands to go to Attica, a position that Nixon applauded. Then on September 13, Rocky ordered armed corrections officers, and state and local police to retake the prison.

The next thing that happened, you may know. Or not, as disinformation was sent out by Rocky himself, disputed initially by ABC News reporter John Johnson and soon by medical examiners.

But it is what happened AFTER the siege that I had never heard about or seen before. It was quite disturbing in its own right. And that’s the strange thing about the movie. If you don’t know how the story ends, you might get three-quarters of the way through and still hold out for a happy ending.

The movie by writer/director Stanley Nelson got positive reviews from 50 of 51 critics. And the 51st has a snippet that says, “Extraordinary archival footage… You can’t just dismiss it as hyperbole.” I watched it on Amazon Prime.

Joseph E. Persico, 1930-2014

As a speechwriter for the former New York State Governor and US Vice-President, Joseph Persico had unusual access to Nelson Rockefeller.

JoePersicoPressWebI went to see the author Joseph E. Persico on Saturday afternoon, May 21, 2005, at the Albany Public Library. Persico had been writing for over a quarter-century at that point.

His then-current book was Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918, World War I and Its Violent Climax. He stated that more people died on that last half-day of the Great War, for no particular strategic purpose, than died on D-Day (June 6, 1944) in World War II.

Persico talked about the process of researching and writing his books, which I found instructive in writing this blog.

While working on My Enemy, My Brother: Men and Days of Gettysburg (1996), he sought to pin down who fired the first shot in this pivotal Civil War battle. He believed he’d finally found the answer. He brought this to a gentleman at the Gettysburg Memorial who had provided invaluable assistance. The gentleman replied, “That’s one version.”

Persico interviewed Charles Collingsworth, one of “Murrow’s Boys” for Edward R. Murrow: An American Original (1988). At one point Collingsworth asked him to shut off the tape recorder, which Persico did. Collingsworth then told of Murrow’s affair with Winston Churchill’s daughter-in-law, Pamela Churchill (later Pamela Harriman), which almost wrecked Murrow’s marriage. Persico decided that Collingsworth wanted him to have the story, but didn’t want people to know that the information came from the now late newsman. Persico used the information in the book.

As a speechwriter for the former New York State Governor and US Vice-President, Persico had unusual access to Nelson Rockefeller. The author was waiting for Rocky to finish a lengthy meeting with black housing leaders. Finally, the exhausted official collapsed into a chair, looking haggard, and exclaimed, “Amos ‘n’ Andy got it right.” (For those of you too young to understand the reference, Amos ‘n’ Andy was a controversial radio and television program in the 1940s and 1950s.) Persico wrote this comment down at the time. He put it in the first draft of his book The Imperial Rockefeller: A Biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller, then took it out, then put it back in, ultimately leaving it out. He decided that the then-governor lashed out in frustration that was out of character, and would provide a distorted view of the man.

In that same book, he had to deal with how Rocky died. He was with a 22-year old assistant that Persico knew. Not to mention it would have made it “look like the book was authorized by the Rockefeller Foundation.” He told the tale succinctly, never mentioning the woman’s name (nor did he mention Megan Marshack by name in his talk.)

Persico co-authored Colin Powell’s autobiography, My American Journey. He believes his most important jobs were to keep in what was interesting to a broad audience and to delete what was not. In Powell’s case, the general wanted to put in a few sentences about his two tours of Vietnam. Persico found this not practical, given its import in American life. Conversely, Powell was a policy wonk, very proud of a report he had made. Persico argued that the audience would not be as interested in this story as he was, and the story was excised.

I enjoyed the talk, though I was troubled briefly that he thought I was there ONLY because I was on the Friends board. I do wish that more folks were present. It WAS a lovely Saturday afternoon outside, though, and that is tough competition in a spring that has been unseasonably cool and wet.

Joseph Persico died on August 30, 2014. He would have been 85 today.

This was an edited version of my post of May 27, 2005.

Roger Answers Your Questions, Shooting Parrot, Tom the Mayor, and Rose

Albany is the right size for me.

I’ve been to the blog of Shooting Parrots, and have yet to see any dead or maimed birds. Regardless, he asked:

With most blogs, you get a sense of a life, but not necessarily a sense of place, apart from hints here and there. Could you describe the area where you live, what you like and/or hate about it, its history, the places you like to visit and things you like to do? Pretty much a blank cheque really!

Yikes, this is tough! So open-ended. Well, OK.

Albany is the capital of New York State. One of the things that kinda annoys me about that is that people from other parts of the state say we have to “fix Albany” when they mean state government. It’s like “fixing Washington” when referring to the US federal government.

Not that there aren’t things to fix in the city itself. Part of it has to do with bizarre urban planning. There is something generally called the Empire State Plaza, or the South Mall, which was built in the 1960s, apparently, as a result of the then-governor, Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican, being embarrassed by Albany’s allegedly parochial look when some Dutch royalty was visiting. This involved tearing down dozens of houses, and made the city’s downtown less walkable and vibrant in many ways, though it did provide it with its distinctive skyline.

Of course, Rocky couldn’t have pulled it off without the support of the city’s mayor, Erastus Corning, a Democrat, who ended up being mayor for 41 years. This is STILL a one-party town and has been for nearly a century. I don’t think there’s a single non-Democrat on the Common Council (and if there is, it’s a Green, not a Republican). This makes the primary election all important.

There is a long-standing event every year called Pinksterfest or the Tulip Festival that goes on in Washington Park on Mother’s Day weekend in May. Washington Park, BTW, was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the guy who planned New York City’s Central Park, among many others. when I lived closer to the park, I didn’t mind not having a yard, because I had the huge yard that was the park.

This is a university town. I recently wrote about that.

Albany is often called, derisively, Smallbany, because there’s a good chance that, particularly in the arts/progressive community, you all know each other or know somebody a degree or two away. I HATE when, in describing Albany’s virtues, one notes that it’s three hours to New York City, Boston, or Montreal, as though its proximity to SOMEWHERE ELSE is its sole calling card. Also, Montreal is at least four hours away, unless you drive like one of my brothers-in-law.

It’s like those TV shows that tease – in the middle of the show, in the lower corner – the NEXT show, as though watching THIS show isn’t good enough to be watching. And it is. For all its flaws, I like Albany. It’s working hard to TRY to be a more livable city. The population is well-educated, in the main, and reasonably liberal.

Speaking of TV, the first TV program was broadcast around here. Really. I’ve been to the Schenectady Museum, where there’s lots of early broadcast equipment.

There are some lovely old buildings here. Coincidentally, just this month, I visited the state Capitol on a tour. The interesting thing is that when it was built, there were massive cost overruns and a four-year project took about 40 and was technically unfinished when Governor Theodore Roosevelt, one of four New York State governors to eventually become President, pulled the plug. So state government’s incompetence is not a recent phenomenon.

Albany is the right size for me. Not overwhelmingly large like New York City, or too small, like my hometown of Binghamton, NY has become. Because it’s the capital, there are usually events going on, some of them free, though not as many lately due to budgetary constraints.

Specifically, I live in a section called the Pine Hills, which has both homeowners and student renters, a good thing, I believe. I can walk to the post office, drug store, supermarket, and movie theater.

I like Albany because it’s an old city, founded in 1686. It has a history, which it sometimes undermines, but cannot entirely. In some newer cities, I’ve found lots of shinier buildings, but no THERE there.

What do I DO here? The wife and I try to go on a date once a month. It might be a restaurant, a movie (almost never at a theater in the malls), or the Albany Symphony, which plays in Albany and Troy. Used to go to Capital Rep theatre, but I think we’ve been there once since the child was born. There’s Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady, a nearby city, an old revitalized vaudeville house that I happen to love. And not that far out of town, is Thatcher Park, with tremendous views.

Tanya Bayo came by to say: In the chinese culture, the autumnal equinox coincides with what we call the “mid autumn festival”. During this time we get together with close friends and relatives to play a dice game and give mooncakes to each other. Thanks for that, Tanya.

Tom the Mayor, with whom I worked at the comic book store FantaCo asked:
Did the fact that Fantaco was publishing some pretty gruesome, {and selling some even more gruesome}, books have a part in your leaving Fantaco when you did?

Well, sorta. We started selling books like that as early as 1981 when we published Splatter Movies. But it wasn’t the gruesomeness that turned me off, it was the fact that I was no longer even reading the products we were publishing, because of their gruesomeness, to be sure, that made me feel very detached from the place at a certain point. I was shocked to go through my journal from the summer of 1987 and see that I wrote that I would leave in a year; I didn’t leave until November 1988, but I knew I wasn’t going to stay there forever. And if the market had allowed us to do more stuff like the Chronicles, it might have been different.

Ironically, if I had stayed, I could have made quite a bit of money, because I was making a percentage of mail-order sales of goods that I just wasn’t that into.
Rose asked:
You recently switched from Blogger to WordPress, how do you like WordPress compared to Blogger?

It’s funny. I’m typing this in Blogger because I find it easier. Sometimes when I’m typing in WP, the screen jumps, especially when I’m trying to put in some simple HTML code. Also, Blogger will SAVE NOW automatically; maybe WP does too, but I’ve typed stuff, failed to save it, and lost stuff on WP; that made me crazy. And I still haven’t mastered the photos on WP. When I had my Times Union blog, before this one, I wanted to put in a picture of Dudley Do-Right, who I thought looked a bit like the former governor Eliot Spitzer, and the photo ended up twice the size of the page, so I put pictures in Blogger.

That said, I like the LOOK of the WordPress blog much better, I like the Akismet spam blocker, I like how I can reply to specific questions.

BTW, Rose’s question wasn’t an idle one. The blog I’m on now I won in a contest she held back in February, I think. Not incidentally, she’s holding another one.

Rose also asked:
Why did you choose to be a librarian?

I will refer you to the aforementioned Times Union blog, where I answered that very question just this month!

Scott, Anne-Marie, and anybody else, more answers on Monday!

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