It is a powerful photograph, taken in September 1971. Inmates of Attica Correctional Facility in western New York state are seated or standing at a long table. Almost all are Black. On the opposite side of the table sits a white man, Russell Oswald, commissioner of prisons. One of the prisoners standing is a formidable man in a white T-shirt, white stocking cap and sunglasses. His name is Frank Smith, known to his fellows in that penal institution as Big Black. Because he has the respect of all, Smith has been asked to head up the security detail, to help maintain a semblance of order in the midst of the rebellion. And to protect the 32 hostages — guards and civilian employees —who had been taken at the start of the revolt on Sept. 9.
Attica opened in 1931. Forty years later, the facility was crammed with mostly men of color. That summer, a unified coalition of inmates had presented a list of demands to authorities indicating an urgent need for concrete reforms and the implementation of humane treatment for all those incarcerated. They wanted to be able to express political views freely and to have religious liberty. They wanted a better diet and decent educational opportunities.
The official response was indifferent. Most prisoners had come from urban areas. Many of those employed as correctional officers and in other capacities at Attica were whites from the surrounding rural communities. Despite poor pay, the facility offered at least some employment and a paycheck. Needless to say, discord was practically built into the system — a bad arrangement that stoked tensions and provoked resentment and anger. Pressure had been building for a long time. It was almost inevitable that there would be an explosion. As a riot began, one guard was badly injured. He died. In short order, the prison was overtaken by the imprisoned.
The nonfiction graphic novel “Big Black” is a stunning artistic achievement and a riveting exposition of an extraordinary event: the biggest prison uprising in American history. The book opens with a brief essay by attorney Daniel Meyers, who headed the Attica Brothers Legal Team. A lawsuit for civil rights violations was filed in 1974. In 2000, the team would be responsible for an $8 million settlement for the 1,281 inmates. Meyers would later marry the mother of the book’s co-author, Jared Reinmuth, which is how Reinmuth — an actor and playwright — would become friends with Smith.
French artist Ameziane has provided illustrations for two other published works: one on political activist Angela Davis and another on Muhammad Ali. Along with “Big Black,” he refers to the books as his “Soul Trilogy.”
The book’s action opens with a depiction of the façade of Attica, above which reads “Plantation to Plantation!” Indeed, inmates equated the drudge labor required of them at the facility to be the demoralizing equivalent of slavery. It is the last day of the uprising, Sept. 13, but the inmates amassed outside in the jail yard don’t know it yet. They are still hoping New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller will come in person to meet with them and help to broker an acceptable resolution to the stressful confrontation. A helicopter circles over the prison. Instead of bringing the governor, it has a large, ball-shaped container of tear gas, which is dropped into the yard. It is the signal for the heavily armed state troopers and others to open fire into the crowded scene before them. The plethora of bullets fly indiscriminately into the chaos. It is a merciless orgy of blood and death. When the shooting stops, 128 inmates have been hit by frangible dumdum bullets. Twenty-nine are dead. Nine hostages would also die from the voluminous volleys of gunshots. The artist’s rendering of this murderous mayhem is palpable.
It is to be noted that during the uprising, none of the hostages were assaulted or hurt by those they once had guarded. Rumors abounded that those captive guards who died had been killed by having their throats slit by their captors. This later proved to be completely false. Like the prisoners who died, all other casualties were due to gunfire. None of the inmates had a firearm.
In the aftermath of the revolt, prisoners are rounded up and required to strip. They are beaten and treated to all manner of indignities, such as running gauntlets and enduring racial slurs. Personal items, including eyeglasses and dentures, were smashed deliberately. Smith is targeted for sadistic retribution from the jailers. They lay him naked, spread-eagled on a table. He is brutally struck all over his body. As Smith is battered into unconsciousness, he tells himself, “They always make it about emasculation. It’s how a slave rebellion ends.”
The story continues with Smith finally obtaining parole. He will use every opportunity to remind the public of Nelson Rockefeller’s damnable insouciance during the troubled times at Attica and especially his atrocious indifference during the four days of intense unrest there in 1971. Smith would become involved in the movement for the rights of prisoners. The stress and suffering he underwent at Attica would never completely leave him. Nor did he ever forget his brethren from those difficult days.
Author Heather Ann Thompson wrote a history of the uprising entitled “Blood in the Water.” Of the settlement arrived at in 2000, she asserts: “Even though they had settled with the state, the state still would not admit to wrongdoing at Attica. … It wasn’t even close to justice. But it was the closest thing to justice that these men would ever get.”
Rockefeller died of a heart attack in 1979. Frank Smith died in 2004 from kidney cancer. A full-page drawing of Smith with fist raised ends this telling of Attica, accompanied by the caption: “Wake up, because nothing comes to a sleeper but a dream! The struggle continues!”
Read more in the Sept. 9-15, 2020 issue.