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Witness to History: Attica Beyond the Riot

National Law Enforcement Museum's panel discussion examines
the historic 1971 riot and its impact on the nation

April 16, 2015

Washington, DC—On April 14, 2015, the National Law Enforcement Museum presented the 11th installment of its popular Witness to History panel discussion series, generously sponsored by Target®. Held at the U.S. Navy Memorial’s Burke Theatre, guests enjoyed a great evening and fascinating program that detailed specific accounts and details from one of the most significant events in corrections history.

Craig Floyd, Chairman and CEO of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, kicked off the event by welcoming the nearly 100 guests in attendance. He then introduced the panel moderator, Frank Bond, documentary filmmaker, veteran journalist and former anchor at WUSA-TV in Washington, DC; and panelists, Donald Almeter and Michael Smith, former Corrections Officers who were taken hostage during the riots; and Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, professor of African-American Studies and History at Temple University and author of an upcoming book covering the history of the Attica prison.

More than forty years later, scholars and participants are still unravelling the fallout and meaning of the 1971 Attica prison riot. Dr. Thompson has spent the last ten years trying to understand the complicated relationships between prisoners, inmates, and the NY state administration. "What was a riot becomes something more like a rebellion," said Dr. Thompson and as inmates negotiated over four days holding the lives of 43 corrections officers and civilian employees in the balance, "all eyes were on Attica."

Don Almeter and Michael Smith were both young corrections officers working at Attica when the riot happened. Their harrowing experiences over those four days changed them forever. Almeter remembered, "the whistle was blowing and [the Sergeant's] answer to all of us was that help was on the way. It didn’t happen." Almeter and his fellow officers were beaten, stripped of their clothing, their hands tied, and they were herded out to D yard. Smith remembered the whistle blowing as well and the fear it inspired in him and in the prisoners he was supervising in the prison’s metal shop. When the “human wave of energy” that was the riot broke into the room, Smith found himself thrown to the floor and beaten by several prisoners. The beating only stopped when two of the inmates, who he had been supervising, threw themselves spread-eagle on top of him. As the inmates escorted him to the hostage area, Smith saw the physical devastation of the riot; prisoners were “smashing everything that could be smashed and igniting everything that could burn.”

Almeter and Smith lived through these tumultuous four days, but 39 others were killed during the retaking of the prison including six corrections officers whose names are engraved on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. William Quinn, a seventh correctional officer, died during the negotiation period from injuries sustained on the first day of the riot. Dr. Thompson emphasized the importance of lifting the silence around the events of Attica and listening to survivors like Don Almeter and Michael Smith, "being there on the frontlines their points of view are important."

The Museum’s Witness to History program began in June 2011. Since the inaugural event, 10 more have been presented. Video recordings and photos from the events are available to view on the Museum's website.

For more information, contact WitnessToHistory@nleomf.org, call 202.737.3400, or visit www.LawEnforcementMuseum.org/WitnesstoHistory.

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About the National Law Enforcement Museum
A project of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, the 57,000-square-foot National Law Enforcement Museum will be located adjacent to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, DC’s Judiciary Square. The Museum will tell the story of American law enforcement through high-tech interactive exhibits, comprehensive collection of artifacts, extensive resources for research, and diverse educational programming. The Memorial Fund’s mission is to tell the story of American law enforcement and make it safer for those who serve. For more information about the National Law Enforcement Museum, visit www.LawEnforcementMuseum.org.

Steve Groeninger
steve@nleomf.org | 202.737.7135