On the morning of September 13, 1971, shortly after state police launched an armed assault to retake Attica prison from its rebelling inmates, a trooper emptied his .357 magnum pistol into a prisoner named Kenneth B. Malloy. As Heather Ann Thompson recounts in her wrenching and minutely detailed recounting of that day, Malloy’s death was one of the most hideous on a morning of hideous deeds, one that saw 39 people killed by police, another 89 wounded. Malloy, an autopsy later showed, was shot twelve times at close range by at least two guns. He was hit with so many bullets, Thompson reports, “that his eye sockets were shredded by the shards of his own bones.”
Not far away, an inmate named James Robinson was fatally wounded with a .270 caliber bullet fired by a police rifle. As he lay dying, another trooper stepped up and finished him off, firing a load of buckshot into Robinson’s neck. Afterward, a police sergeant snapped a photo of Robinson, who, like many inmates, had donned a football helmet in feeble hope of warding off the baton blows they imagined were the worst they might suffer in the retaking. His body lay splayed on its side, a state police tag looped around his empty right hand. A second photo, taken moments later, shows Robinson in precisely the same position, except that a curved sword has now appeared beside him. The trooper who shot him later insisted he did so because the inmate had charged him with such a weapon.
The name Attica still registers dread and sorrow in Americans old enough to recall that drizzly and blood-flecked week at the upstate New York prison. No matter who you blamed for the carnage, the slaughter that gray September morning in a tiny rural hamlet thirty-five miles east of Buffalo, a place few had ever heard of, evoked anguish and fury. Photos and film clips of raincoat-clad troopers stepping through the mud amidst tangles of dead and wounded men, of long snaking lines of inmates stripped naked, their hands atop their heads, settled deep into the marrow of those who saw them. Charles Mingus and John Lennon set music to the tragedy. Muhammad Ali composed a fierce bit of doggerel that he read on TV: “Better than of this prison rot / If there’s any chance I’ve got / Kill me here on this spot.”
Even those innocent of any knowledge of the riot and the rage it inspired, can still recognize its incantatory power in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 “Dog Day Afternoon,” as Al Pacino riles up a crowd outside the Brooklyn bank he is robbing by crying out, “Attica! Attica!”
Almost all of those killed in what was then a mind-boggling body count died in the span of a less than a quarter of an hour as state troopers, correction officers and sheriff’s deputies, under a thick fog of pepper gas, directed a withering fire from rifles and pistols at rebelling inmates who had held the facility for four days. The McKay Commission, the first of several state panels appointed to investigate the riot, hauntingly described it as the “bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans” since the Civil War and the Indian massacres of the late 19th century. Unlike those conflicts, however, only one side had guns at Attica.