Fifty Years Down the Line from Attica
by Eric Darton
Of course, humanity always sets itself tasks it can solve, but if the great moment of solution is met by a faint-hearted generation…
— Ernst Bloch
You never saw women like her in Rutland. Blue jeans, white shirt tied at the midriff, brown hair swinging freely at her shoulders; walking – nobody walked in Rutland, VT – down the sidewalk across the street from your father’s house which you were painting brown. The woman, this apparition of the West Village, vanished from view just as your stepmother came round the porch to say there was a call for you. Down the ladder, into the house, pick up the phone. Sister C. on the line from New York: Attica had gone down.
Fifty years down the line. Your father and stepmother are gone. Brother David inherited the house on Edgerton Street and now it’s filled with rental tenants.
You don’t recall what you did after ringing off with Sister C. In all probability you ascended the ladder and went back to painting, at least until lunchtime. But you do recall thinking: Well, now everything has changed – a cliché, but that’s how it emerged in your mind.
And now it’s fifty years down the line – fifty years of suffocating reaction against the forces of life, which had attempted, however chaotically, to burgeon in that period we call “the Sixties.”
Now you remember what you did after putting the receiver back on the cradle. You went and played your father’s piano. Lifting the lid from the keyboard you thought: this is a hinge moment. Has history absolved you? How could it? Dissolved you? Well, nearly. But your sentiment rings true enough – fifty years down the line.
“Be cool.” That’s what people used to say when they were mugging you. What you would say to calm a panicking comrade: “be cool.”
“Attica means fight back,” a hoarse-voiced slogan if ever there was one – accompanied by D-Yard style clenched fists pumped in the air. But that forest of clenched fists never fought back, or forward. And what was not clearcut by the Man got excised by the Movement itself in its self-excoriating degeneration. After Attica, to paraphrase Lou Reed, came bitter nothing. Nothing at all.
But come with me to those thrilling days of yesteryear… come Reagan, come Oliver – not the North Star one follows to freedom – come every species of set-back for the human heart and hope. Come no apology to the Vietnamese, or Argentina’s madres, and scant, belated acknowledgement of the wrong done the Attica rebels, in body and name, nor pardon for the Panthers still incarcerated – fifty fucking years on down the line.
The rest of this I want you to write, dear reader. There are some informative books. Tom Wicker’s A Time To Die: The Attica Prison Revolt has its merits as an anguished, guilt-ridden reporter’s plaint that somehow manages to hew close to the facts and emotional honesty. There are books by participants, and chroniclers of many stripes. Articles by the fistful. And in the Times archives, their still breathtaking reportage of September 14, 1971 screaming out the “instant” murder of the hostages by inmates, when it was Rocky who’d thrown the guards – white fellas like him – under the bus, and into a blizzard of State Police bullets. Ah, but so much is obscured in the fog of teargas, journalistic and chemical. And psychological. For every syllable in its false testimony, the Times subsequently launched a story, like a thousand ships to Troy – some backpedaling, some rationalizing, some even preaching social justice. In recent years, too, New York State has released fractional amounts of its classified four hundred page report. And of course there’s Google and Wikipedia, all to be taken with as many grains of salt as help the medicine go down. But promise me, you’ll look into it: not what happened in ancient Attikḗ of the celebrated red-figure vessels, but in upstate New York from September 8th to 13th, 1971, and in the moments marching up to and tromping away from that fistful of days.
After finishing the paint job, I either hitchhiked or took the bus back to NYC and Sister C. and Brothers V. and M., and we all raised our fists and shouted the slogan and marveled at how Brother R. had survived the sharpshooters even as Brother S., fatally struck, died in his arms, over which we duly wept. The Village I came back to was alive with women just as marvelous as the apparition glimpsed from the ladder on Edgerton Street. And on the street it seemed as though nothing at all had gone down.
Rocky, he died not from a shiv or bullet, but in his lover’s arms. Nor was Reagan impeached, nor did Colonel North do a New York minute of time, nor were the architects of those contra and dirty southern wars ever held to account.
Reader, truly I don’t have the wherewithal to say more. Only this: if you want to know our present moment, look to that moment – fifty years upstream. Look to our upstate New York watershed. When Rocky rolled the dice for established powers everywhere, betting that the cities would not go up in flames, and that whatever did flare up could be stomped to embers. And with their winnings, the Man bought several generations of peace which has sweet nothing to do with justice.
Keep me posted on the bodies you dig up. Direct message to firstname.lastname@example.org. Perhaps not for as long as the rivers shall run, but while this body still breathes. Down the line from Attica.