Post contributed by Carolyn Robbins, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Communication, University of Maryland; recipient of a Marshall T. Meyer Research Travel Grant.
On a warm Monday morning in June, I caught an Uber to Union Station in Washington D.C. and boarded a train to Durham, North Carolina. I was on my way to the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University. As a recipient of the Marshall T. Meyer Research Travel Grant, I had the opportunity to conduct archival research in Duke’s Human Rights Archive. It was a week of firsts for me – first Amtrak ride, first funded research trip, first time doing research in a physical archive, and even my first time discussing my dissertation in-depth with people outside of my university community. I was so excited to take this huge step forward in my scholarly journey.
Before my archival research, I had a very general idea for my dissertation. I knew that I wanted to write an abolitionist dissertation that tackles the ways we understand, remember, and therefore create and uphold systems to respond to those deemed “criminal.” My argument wasn’t fully formed, but I knew it would be something about interrogating and complicating the hegemonic stories U.S. American society tells us about the prison-industrial complex. In order to make this argument, I planned to use the Attica Prison riot of 1971 as a case study. I don’t have the space here to do the story of Attica justice, but I will try to describe the riot in a nutshell. In 1971, prisoners at Attica had repeatedly brought their complaints about things like overcrowding, water shutoffs, and rotten food to prison officials. Despite the prisoners’ rights to adequate space, water, and food, nobody in power responded to these complaints. Eventually, the human rights violations, egregious human rights violations, and a string of violent treatment of incarcerated people across the country inspired the Attica prisoners to band together and take over Attica. They took guards and prison staff hostage and cut the phone lines as they ransacked the prison.
This got the attention of prison officials, and they entered into several days of negotiations with the prisoners. The progress was slow and tedious as tensions mounted between the prisoners, the hostages, and the state officials. Eventually, one hostage died in a scuffle with the prisoners, and the negotiations immediately shifted from improving prison conditions to seeking amnesty and freedom from reprisals for the riot. Eventually, the negotiating committee left the prison and the government sent in state troopers. The prisoners and hostages were in D-Yard of the prison, a courtyard surrounded by high walls. The state troopers marched onto the catwalk atop the walls surrounding D-Yard on a rainy Monday morning. As the troopers donned gas masks, a helicopter flew over the yard dropping tear gas onto the prisoners and hostages, bringing all of them to the ground. The troopers, their vision impeded by the haze of the tear gas, the fog of the drizzly morning, and the thick eye protection of their gas masks, then fired thousands of rounds from their rifles indiscriminately into the crowd of prisoners and hostages. After this initial siege, state agents retook the prison. The guards ordered the surviving prisoners to strip, beat them, burned them with cigarettes, and sexually violated them with sharp objects. The state agents even forced them through a torturous obstacle course including a gauntlet of guards beating them with clubs while running up and down the stairs and crawling naked over broken glass. By the end of this so-called “prison riot,” 43 people, including both prisoners and hostages, had died violent and gruesome deaths.
The Rubenstein Library is home to several collections related to this riot: the Elizabeth Fink Papers, the Malcolm Bell Papers, and the Jomo Joka Omowale Papers. Elizabeth Fink was the lead attorney in the decades-long effort to seek justice for the Attica Brothers, the men who were incarcerated at Attica Prison and mercilessly tortured by state agents. The legal proceedings didn’t end until 2001, at which time the Attica Brothers were forced to settle the case for much less than they sued the state for. Elizabeth Fink kept many letters, documents, and news clippings related to the cases that gave an inside view into the struggle that continued so long after the initial riot. She also kept many documentaries, news clips, interviews, and other audiovisual materials that allowed me to experience this story from decades before my own birth in an immersive way. These files will elevate my podcast chapter by sharing the stories of what happened to the men at Attica in their own voices.
Malcolm Bell was the New York State prosecutor on the Attica case, When he saw the injustices of the Attica trial and the massive coverup the state attempted to create, he resigned in disgust and became a whistleblower and activist on behalf of the Attica Brothers. His correspondence, meticulous notes on legal documents, and copious writings on the coverup provide invaluable insight into the ongoing injustice of the Attica case. Bell’s advocacy is the reason that the public has access to much of the legal documentation about Attica, though a good portion of it remains sealed to this day.
Jomo Joka Omowale was one of the Attica Brothers who survived the siege. His papers include a wide variety of documents including personal correspondence, newsletters, newspaper clippings, and several handwritten and illustrated books. Within these papers, I also came across a prison pay stub that showed Jomo earned $1.60 for 8 days of work ($11.55 in today’s money) along with some mysterious objects that Academic Twitter helped me identify as pipe filters. This collection allowed me to gain a better understanding of the connections and divisions between the Attica brothers and other movements across the nation and the world, along with Jomo’s specific role in forming the Attica Brothers’ identity.
As I boarded my train home to D.C., I thought about all I learned from these artifacts I had spent the week examining. Spending time with Elizabeth, Malcolm, and Jomo helped me crystallize my understanding of what really happened at Attica and what my argument is going to be for my dissertation. I am going to talk about the connections between riot rhetorics and rhetorics of civility as demonstrated at Attica. I am also going to demonstrate the relationships between identity, identification, agency, and power as exemplified through the relationships between the prisoners, state agents, hostages, and public throughout the riot. Finally, I will talk about the impact of public memory on current systems of oppression. I am so grateful to all of the staff at Rubenstein Library. Every answered question, scanned document, removed staple, and shared audiovisual file allows me to create a dissertation that adds another perspective to the important and ongoing conversation about the Attica Prison riot.
Carolyn Robbins (she/her) is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric and Political Culture at the University of Maryland. She has forthcoming episodes about her archival research and the Attica riot on her podcast, Getting Critical with Carolyn.