The Attica that wasn’t

 Sam Smith

Forty years ago this month, on September 13, 1971, 500 New York state troopers stormed Attica Correctional Facility on orders from Governor Nelson Rockefeller to end a four-day standoff following a prisoner revolt that included the taking of hostages. The police fired 2,200 bullets in nine minutes and before it was over 29 inmates and ten guards were dead and at least 86 others were wounded. One year later, there was a prisoner revolt at the Washington, DC Jail during which the director of DC Corrections and a number of guards were taken hostage. But, unlike Attica, no one was killed. Perhaps this is why so few remember what happened on a night when judges, politicians, U.S. Marshals, prisoners, and hostages all gathered in Courtroom 16 to see what could be done – brought together by a single judge who wasn’t afraid to talk when others wanted to shoot. The peaceful resolution of the DC Jail uprising was one of the most extraordinary stories I ever covered and my contemporary account follows.


Marion and Mary Treadwell Barry are civil rights leaders. Marion serves on the School Board and is one of the most popular leaders in the city. He will later serve on the City Council and as mayor. 

Walter Fauntroy is the city’s non-voting delegate to Congress. 

Tedson Meyers, who is white, and Willie Hardy, who is black, serve on the DC City Council, a body appointed by President Richard Nixon. 

Luke Moore is a popular local black figure, later U.S. Marshall for the city. 

Charles Halleck is a white judge in the Superior Court, the son of a former Republican Speaker of the House. 

Del Lewis is a black civic leader, later head of the local telephone company and president of NPR. 

Petey Greene is a black activist. 

Judge William Bryant is a highly respected black judge. 

Kenneth Hardy is the DC Corrections chief, being held hostage by the rebellious prisoners. 

Walter Washington is the appointed mayor-commissioner. Four years earlier he had avoided bloodshed in the 1968 disturbances by refusing orders from the White House to shoot rioters. 

Sterling Tucker is the city council chair. 

Joe Yeldell is a member of the city council.

o o o

The courtroom, number 16, is crowded. Prisoners, lawyers, Marion and Mary Barry, Walter Fauntroy, Tedson Meyers, Willie Hardy, Luke Moore, Charles Halleck, Del Lewis, Petey Greene. People talking during the hearing, witnesses saying things seldom heard in court . . . When Judge William Bryant recesses court, people smoke in the courtroom . . . Ken Hardy, DC Corrections chief, hostage, is there, but you don’t notice him at first. . . . William Brown, facing an armed robbery charge, gets up before the judge and tells him of the inequities in his case:

Judge Bryant: The moving finger having writ, I can’t erase it.

Brown: I knew there was nothing that could be done for it. I’m thinking of the others – the little baby brothers of mine.

Bryant: The problem is that so many baby brothers have put people at the end of a pistol and shot them.

Brown: Then the alternative is to ruin them for life (Turns to audience, voice rising) You say nothing can be done about it. Our little babies are over at the jail and it’s really pitiful. You say they put a gun in their hand. No. Y’all put a gun in his hand. ‘Cause all you do is talkin’, talkin’ talkin’. You gonna put a gun in a 15 year old’s hand and the police will kill him like that boy with the bicycle. We’re tired over at that jail. A rat will get tired and come out of his hole knowing that death awaits him. We don’t want to harm Mr. Hardy. We love Mr. Hardy. We don’t want to kill nobody. We don’t want to hurt nobody. We are tired of people putting us in positions where we act like animals . . . Fauntroy, it was the first time we seen him. Walter Washington wasn’t concerned. Marion Barry came right away – he always comes but he doesn’t have the power . . . We’re going to keep on, and keep on, and keep on until somebody die. Then they gonna say, ‘Wow , they were serious.’

Applause, right-ons, a warning from the judge.

Another prisoner: “What we came here for and what we’re getting is two different things. Nobody thinks this is real. We didn’t come down here to rap with you on your high pedestal. This was like a dry run.” . . .

Hardy is leaving the courtroom, looks awful. Petey Greene is helping him.

Outside a TV man tries for an interview. Greene screams at him: “The inmates let him go. That’s how good he is. Man’s up all night and you talk about motherfucking cameras.” Greene is crying. Hardy is on his way to a hospital with what seems to be a heart attack . . .

Back at the jail, prisoners and other hostages await word of the emergency court hearing that had been called following the rebellion early that morning.

Recess. Everyone is tired. Eyes seem to stare without seeing. Jail guard hostages sit at counsel table glum and silent . . .

Judge Halleck starts to rap with some of the prisoners: “The first man who gets a hose on them, you get a habeas corpus and come into my court and I’ll stop it.”

Says a prisoner: “They don’t pay any attention to courts. They’re ignorant over there.”

Halleck to prisoner waiting eight months for trial: “Sixth Amendment guarantees right of speedy trial.” To another: “Last Friday I had fifty felony cases.” Learn later that Halleck offered to go down to jail to speed up processing of complaints . . .

Sterling Tucker comes over, “The guards are talking about going out. Nobody is listening to them” . . .

Reporter says there’s word of a disturbance over at the Women’s Detention Center.

Prisoner comes up to reporter: “Did you say they had another riot?” “Over at the Women’s Detention Center.” “Oh yeah, right on!”

Mother of youth in jail opens up. She has six children 22 to 16. She was separated from her husband when the baby was one year old. Now the baby is in D.C. Jail, swept up in the trouble. The mother works two jobs, one twelve hours a day, another on weekends. The kid is locked up on a charge of having raped and strangled a 7-year-old girl. Been over at the jail 2 months waiting trial. Kid was run over by a car when he was little. Never seemed quite right since. Only child to get into serious trouble. “If he didn’t do it, they should find the one who did ,” the mother says. “If he did it, I want him to be punished but I want him to get help.” . . .

A few days later the Post would interview the mother of the victim. She has eight children, twenty down to ten. “I tried to raise them right. Many times I told them how easy it is to get in trouble and how hard it is to get out. And then I tell them, if you do get in trouble don’t call momma, ’cause there’s nothing I can do.”

The prisoners have their say. Judge Bryant offers to fix things up a bit. Just a bit. Segregate the juveniles. Do something about food and temperature. Hurry up the suit against the jail now pending In his court. Is it enough to save the hostages?

Back to the jail. The prisoners go in a white bus. The crowd outside the jail is smaller than it had been earlier in the day.


Rumor that cellblock #2 has been seized. Wait to hear that denied. Joe Yeldell shows up with a psychiatrist to begin screening inmates to see who belongs at St. E’s [the mental hospital] . . . That’s about 10:33 p.m. . .

Ken Kennedy, Northeast factotum, waits along the police line. Earlier he’d been inside. “Congresswoman Chisholm played a great role,” he says. Kennedy had brought six inmates from Lorton to the jail to help in the negotiations.

11:35 p.m. Mary Treadwell Barry comes out from the jail. “They want two brothers from the black press.” “What does that mean?” asks a white reporter.

Decide on one black reporter from print media and one from TV. Problem with TV crews. Union rules call for three and at best only one is black.

WTTG recruits a black minister behind the police line to serve as light man. Others follow suit. Union technicians are getting uptight. Crowd gathers around Mary Barry. Union man returns to police lines: “They’ve agreed to pay one day’s pay to a sound man and electrician at NBC and WTTG.” Susan Truitt of WTTG covers herself: “If I don’t get sound on film [from the amateur operator], I’m not paying for a soundman. ” . . . Nine hostages and a frigging union dispute is going on outside . . .

Deputy Chief Owen Davis is playing out his role of being the top bully on the force, threatening a reporter who stood in the wrong place. But this is a sensitive situation, requiring subtlety, and they’re keeping Davis out of the foreground.

Now here’s Marion Barry. They’re going to let all the reporters in. “Show your press passes and go in quietly. Nothing is happening in there. Don’t rush in.”

Into an anteroom behind the front door. The door locks behind us. A dozen CDU men with tear gas are lounging in the room. The door to the visitors’ rotunda opens and there are the prisoners; the lawyers rushed down by Judge Bryant – 30 or 40 of them including James Heller and Ralph Temple of the ACLU; District Building types like Dugas, Duncan and Yeldell; Walter Fauntroy and Sterling Tucker; negotiators Ron Goldfarb and Julian Tepper; guards; cops; all milling around a cavernous room under huge, bad 1940’s murals including one of raising the flag at Iwo Jima.

The echo is jamming out the voice of the prisoner who is on a table trying to explain that the man beside him had been beaten by a prison guard while the court hearing was in progress. They’re mad. What is happening? A turn for the worse? Why are we in there? Why are some of the most powerful and some of the weakest men in the city wandering around this towering hall listening to each other, shouting at each other? It’s like one of Fellini’s movies. And there’s nobody around to explain. Why have the prisoners seemed to be talking sense and the unjailed seemed bound and gagged?

There’s a news conference going on, but you have to be at mike’s length to catch the words. There’s a prisoner yelling at jail head, Anderson McGruder, who’s not saying anything back . . .

No it’s not a movie. But the set of a movie, maybe about Attica, during a break. In real life, congressmen, councilmen and newsmen don’t mill around a jail hall with two hundred prisoners. Prisoners don’t go up to the jailer like at some reception and tell him off . . .

The press has regrouped. Standing on a table, you can see a guard talking to the mikes: “I feel okay. They treated me all right.” The hostages are being released. It is real, after all. Julian Tepper says the inmates lived up to every commitment. They released the hostages because “we promised to stay until their problems were dealt with.” Earlier that day Charles Rodgers, deputy chief of corrections, had said, “If there’s one shot, we’re going in there and shoot all 182 of them [inmates in the rebellious cellblock]. Now negotiator Tepper is hugging Rodgers.

Time to go home . . . What had happened? Was it a real event – or just a commercial from the dispossessed – “We’ll be back after this brief reminder from the prisoners at the D.C. Jail.” Was it a victory for the jailed or a successful exercise in crisis management . . . Shirley Chisholm was beautiful. Marion and Mary were. So were Tepper, Hardy, Goldfarb, Petey Greene. “Judge Bryant, handled it beautifully,” said a civil rights lawyer. Beautiful. Beautiful. Unless you are still in cellblock I. . . .

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