There’s a moment towards the end of Stanley Nelson and Traci Curry’s documentary Attica where a white state trooper is seen putting his fist in the air while screaming, “That’s White Power!” The other men around him smile and cheer because they’ve scored a victory for white men in blue. They’ve just taken back the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility after a five-day stand-off where about 1,200 inmates rebelled and took 42 staff members hostage to negotiate prison reform. And they did it, in their own words, with “White Power.” How is “White Power” defined? Well, as the footage and first-hand accounts reveal, it means knowingly picking off unarmed Black and Brown men with high-powered artillery after saying they wouldn’t be hurt. “White Power” is white supremacy. And cowardice.
What have we learned in the aftermath? Not much if you look at the inhumane ways prisoners were treated during the beginning of the COVID pandemic or how undocumented children were treated at internment camps along the border. How unsurprising that the president then (Richard Nixon) and the president during these recent tragedies (Donald Trump) both ran on a platform of “law and order.” What we have learned, however, is that they and their followers have weaponized the term “law and order” as a dog whistle to empower a police force that remains majority white against a criminal system continuing to disproportionately target POC. It’s why Google tries to add “Riot” three times out of the first five options when typing “Attica Prison” rather than “Rebellion” or “Massacre.”
The purpose of Nelson and Curry’s film is to therefore turn the focus of what happened back onto the real perpetrators rather than the victims who have been vilified as such instead. It does so by letting numerous former inmates who lived through the ordeal speak their truth alongside family members of the hostages and members of the National Guard brave enough to break ranks and put on the record what they were told to never divulge. It also seeks to provide context not just about what happened, but also why it happened in the first place. This wasn’t some half-baked play for escape. This was a coordinated attack upon a system that had been dehumanizing prisoners for years. It’s time to put the town itself on trial.
That’s exactly what the filmmakers do by exposing Attica, NY as the “company” town it was with a white population of second and third generation correctional officers and staff who treated the prison as their kingdom. To hear from some family about how their fathers and husbands sensed something was brewing (inmates had begun to band together in solidarity to protest poor conditions regardless of race) only underlies how little those in power cared about the people—people—under their supervision. And if they didn’t care enough about the prisoners to listen to their grievances, they also didn’t care about their employees’ wellbeing upon leaving them to subsequently fend for themselves. So, when the inmates asked to negotiate rather than spill blood, the moral high ground became theirs.
Except, of course, that the guard with the keys to take over the prison was left hospitalized and fighting for his life. As a result, any negotiation had to include amnesty for the inmates from any wrongdoing. Yes, they used force and violence to subsequently get the microphone (and later TV cameras) necessary to make their voices heard, but that was the only means they had at their disposal to be taken seriously. That they dialed things back to bring in a committee of respected sympathizers to help in their pursuit for a peaceful conclusion should have meant something. And maybe it did briefly. Eventually, however, the situation turned more tense and volatile to the point where you had to wonder if the authorities were simply biding time.
Suddenly we start hearing Nixon tapes between the president and governor Nelson Rockefeller. We see how grandstanding on both sides worked to hamstring progress. And we sense that it’s only going to get worse the further apart these sides get since law enforcement will inevitably shift over to a military mindset wherein collateral damage becomes a suitable alternative to relinquishing power. Within “law and order” also resides rank and file indoctrination that breeds the idea that people in uniform “know the cost of their service” and embrace the reality that they may become a martyr to the cause. If suppressing this rebellion (and enacting the sort of bloodlust revenge only white men with a badge can) meant sacrificing their own, so be it. Empathy would only prove weakness.
The level of documentation at-hand is amazing as the prisoners knew transparency was their best chance at earning compassion. The video footage is rough (especially when compared to high-definition interviews), but its content more than makes up for the quality because of how important and irrefutable it is to corroborating the inmates’ stories. What eventually happens cannot be described as anything besides “premeditated murder” and yet none of the officers at the scene were ever punished let alone convicted of a crime. You therefore cannot watch this meticulously researched and structured blow-by-blow account without shaking your head at the fact that people still want to tell you systemic racism is a fallacy. This wasn’t a few bad apples, but an entire tree frothing at the mouth for “justice.”
What one of the prisoners says about choosing between living through the torture that followed or dying in defiance is true since we hear them state many times that they would earn their demands or die “like men” fighting for them. Whereas the police were willing to kill their own to prove their superiority through an unfair advantage of gunfire, however, the inmates chose survival just like they had before the conditions became too unbearable to silently ignore. They survived to tell their truth and ensure what actually happened at Attica would never be swept under the rug. The millions in restitution handed out by New York many decades later serves as a step in that direction, but the fight remains ever-present. Police brutality still runs rampantly unchecked.
Attica opens at NYC’s Village East and LA’s Laemmle Noho on October 29 before premiering on Showtime at 9pm EST on November 6.