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The Tragedy of Attica

The Temporary Inmate

“Charles Pernasilice, Haunted by the Violence at Attica, Dies at 70,” said the hed above a photo of a lanky, handsome young man standing outside a municipal building with his right fist in the air. His blue jeans are worn, his jacket is from a military surplus store and the tail of a raccoon is hanging from his belt. His eyes are intense. His brown hair is shoulder-length and parted in the middle a la 1968, but the photo was made in 1975, when the Vitalis Dry Look had taken hold. 

Clay Risen recounted his story: “Charley Joe Pernasilice was a 19-year-old temporary inmate at the Attica Correctional Facility in western New York when nearly 1,300 prisoners took it over on Sept. 9, 1971. Four days later, state troopers attacked, firing wantonly, killing 30 prisoners and nine guards. It was the deadliest prison uprising in U.S. history.

“A guard named William Quinn had been killed at the start of the violence, and in 1972 Mr. Pernasilice and another prisoner, John Hill, were charged with his murder. While Mr. Pernasilice was being held for trial, guards beat him severely, an incident for which the judge blamed his own intransigence.

“As his lawyers showed in court, the evidence against Mr. Pernasilice was so thin as to be nonexistent, and the murder charge fell apart. But he was still convicted of attempted assault, again with almost no evidence, and sentenced to two years in prison.

“Before the uprising, Mr. Pernasilice had been a happy-go-lucky teenager, if a bit wild. His initial infraction, the one that started him on his path to Attica, had been a few hours of joyriding on a neighbor’s motorcycle in Syracuse, N.Y.”

“Later, after the violence of the uprising, after the beating and the abuse by a system intent on retribution for Attica, he emerged a changed man.” He turned into a loner and a drifter. 

John Hill, by the way, was a Mohawk.

What Happened at Attica

Risen of the Times summarized the tragic event (which many readers of the Geezer Gazette will never forget):

“Some 1,280 prisoners, about half the population of Attica, captured a section of the prison and kept several guards as hostages. They released the wounded guards, including Mr. Quinn, and presented a list of demands for better conditions and a general amnesty for the uprising’s participants. Mr. Quinn died in a hospital two days later.

“The uprising dominated national news and made the prisoners a political cause célèbre. Though many on the right saw the incident as another instance in the decline of law and order, many other Americans saw it as part of the country’s civil rights struggle: Some 65 percent of the prisoners were Black or Hispanic, mostly from the cities, while almost all of the guards were rural and white.

“The Black activist Bobby Seale arrived to show his support. The left-wing lawyer William Kunstler represented the prisoners in their negotiations.

“Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, who refused entreaties to visit the site, eventually ordered the retaking of the prison. On Sept. 13, scores of state troopers marched in through clouds of tear gas, firing indiscriminately, killing prisoners and guards alike.

“Though Governor Rockefeller insisted that the prisoners had killed many of the guards, a report later showed that all 39 deaths were caused by the troopers’ bullets. (Three prisoners were killed by fellow inmates during the occupation.) Substantial evidence indicated that several prisoners were shot at close range, execution style.

“Mr. Pernasilice was part Catawba Indian, and he found a job with a publication covering Native American affairs. He tried to put Attica behind him.

“It was a temporary reprieve. Almost a year after the uprising, Mr. Pernasilice and Mr. Hill were charged with Mr. Quinn’s murder. Mr. Kunstler volunteered to represent Mr. Hill. Ramsey Clark, the former attorney general, represented Mr. Pernasilice.

Kunstler’s Fatal Role

Starting in the spring of ‘68, when Tom Hayden offered to recruit staff and raise funds for a network of GI Coffeehouses, I accepted with alacrity. A long period of political confusion ensued. I came out of it decisively in the winter of 1970/71 when Hayden and Kunstler were giving political speeches in concert with a San Francisco Mime Troupe production of “The Trial of Bobby Seale” and I caught their act at a church near NYU. 

This is a close paraphrase of their political line: “Prisoners are the most oppressed people in the US, therefore prisoners are the most radical people in the US, therefore we should all follow prisoners’ leadership.”

After hearing that I felt no part of “the movement” those two men were leaders of. Kunstler would soon give fatal advice to the prisoners at Attica who had turned to him for counsel. He did not tell them that Governor Nelson Rockefeller was a ruthless murderer who would kill them if they pressed their demands. He told them their demands were righteous and advised holding out until they were met. Rockefeller had them slaughtered. 

Readers who question the “murderer” categorization should check out “THY WILL BE DONE, The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil” by Gerard Colby with Charlotte Dennett. I meant to plug this magnificent book when AVA readers were listing their all-time greatest a while back. 

The roles played by Rockefeller and Kunstler at the crucial hour are described by Heather Ann Thompson in “Blood in the Water, the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy.” She wrote:

“William Kunstler was sickened by what had just taken place inside Attica. He personally had experienced a level of hostility that left him stunned, including walking down the road outside the prison when ‘a car with four men in it came up came at us. They made a feint as if to run us down and I could see they were laughing.’ He couldn’t even fathom what the men in the yard must have suffered when law enforcement came in. In the hours to come, still awaiting word from inside the prison, Kunstler found himself sitting alone, unable to speak, with tears running down his face.

“Inside the prison, Roger Champion [a prisoner] also wept. Like many of his fellow prisoners, he couldn’t understand why this had happened. ‘Why didn’t someone say... they’re going to come in with guns and shoot you people to death?’“

The answer to this crucial question is: William Kunstler simply did not understand that Nelson Rockefeller was a ruthless fascist. His surprise that four locals had scared him and laughed at his fright is very revealing. How could the renowned lefty lawyer not know about Peekskill, the nearby town where a mob tried to lynch Paul Robeson in 1948? 

Turning again to Thompson’s account: “The prisoners in the yard had built a platform around the negotiating table. Rockefeller’s men began fixating on the possibility that it was intended ‘to be a sacrificial altar and a hangman’s platform’…”

The prisoners had asked to see a representative of the Black Panther Party and Kunstler arranged a visit by Bobby Seale (and his two bodyguards). Seale was evidently frightened. He made a very short speech saying he was going to leave to talk things over with Huey Newton and the central committee, and would return to report the next morning. 

“The men in the yard couldn’t believe that Seale had only just arrived and was now leaving,” wrote Thompson. “They were clearly upset that he had given him so little time and none of his perspective. It was ‘very disappointing’ Champion explained. We had looked for a person who related to what was going on and then he appeared very nervous...”

A guard being held hostage understood that “Bobby Seale was scared to death, couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”

Seale did return the next morning but was not allowed into the yard unless he promised to urge the prisoners to accept the terms being offered by the negotiating committee. Seale said, grandiosely, “The Black Panther party position is that all political prisoners who want to be released to go to non-imperialistic country should be complied with by the New York State governments.”

Tom Wicker, a sensible New York Times reporter, felt strongly that Seale should have told the men in the yard, “Look, you’ve gone as far as you can. You’ve made a political point to the whole world. You’ve made the man listen. Now a lot of you are going to get killed if you push it further.” 

As the prisoners’ chosen lawyer, William Kunstler’s obligation to provide realistic counsel was a thousand times heavier than Bobby Seale’s. 

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