Attica Brother

A Survivor of the Nation’s Deadliest Prison Riot Comes to Terms With His Past

Robinson says the brutal images are imprinted in his mind—atrocities he maintains police and their apologists left out of their accounts of the storming of Attica. "I saw National Guardsmen with rifles escorting a doctor in a long white jacket, with blood all over it." Some of these same guardsmen became enraged when a nervous inmate asked for a cigarette. "They went into his cell and killed him," Robinson alleges. "I hid in my cell so they wouldn't see me see them kill. I heard them in there killing him because he asked him for a cigarette. I was so thankful that I didn't smoke."

After the prisoner allegedly was murdered, authorities ordered Robinson and others out of their cells. Robinson says that "everybody came out butt-naked and they ran us like cattle" through a phalanx of officers lined along the hallways. The officers whooped like cowboys, yelling "Yahoo!" while pummeling and kicking the inmates as they tiptoed through shards of broken glass, spent shells, and pools of blood.

The youngest inmate: Herman Robinson remembers the horror of the raid.
photo: Meredith Heuer
The youngest inmate: Herman Robinson remembers the horror of the raid.

The demon who led a Harlem teenager down the path to one of the ugliest periods in criminal-justice history was a 26-year-old heroin addict and persistent felon nicknamed Poohby, who is now dead.

In November 1970, after he'd barely turned 16, Herman Robinson, a jive-talkin' street kid who imitated the oratorical skills of soapbox legends like "Pork Chop" Davis and Carlos Cooks, vowed to retire a millionaire by the age of 20.

"Buster," as he was popularly known, amassed a fortune selling cocaine for "Fat Jack," a gentle behemoth who founded the Harlem World Disco on 116th Street and Lenox Avenue. According to Uptown rap lore, Fat Jack was one of hip hop's OGs (Original Gangstas), and a kingpin of "Heroin City." He was Robinson's adopted daddy and mentor. On the days he wasn't chasing after pimps and pushers, enforcing rules and collecting money owed to Fat Jack, Robinson helped out at Uncle Fat's Chitlin' House, a now defunct fast-food joint that he laments could have been as big as McDonald's. Robinson dressed nattily, and moved in the fast lane. Fat Jack bought him a Cadillac and first-class tickets to Detroit where he often negotiated drug deals and hung out with a nephew of ex-heavyweight champ Joe Louis and the Motown crowd.

One day, after returning from Detroit because "a business deal" had gone sour, Robinson went to visit Poohby at his apartment in Lenox Terrace, which in the '70s was a fashionable refuge for some of Harlem's elite who could not establish residence on the historic Strivers Row. Robinson found his old friend shivering on a soiled bed; he did not have money for a fix and was going through the early stages of a violent withdrawal. Poohby was one of "Heroin City's" young millionaires who squandered his money, shooting up the high-grade junk he sold to his clientele. There he lay, squirming and frothing at the mouth, his eyes "rolling upside his head." Poohby was the perfect example of a fallen ghetto dreamer—a fate young Buster feared was awaiting him.

Robinson helped Poohby to his feet. "He needed a shot of heroin kind of bad," Robinson says. "I said, 'We'll go to my father's restaurant and get money out of the cash register.' " By the time they got to Uncle Fat's Chitlin' House, Fat Jack had already removed the day's earnings and locked it in a safe. Robinson canvassed all of Fat Jack's safe houses in a desperate attempt to get the money for the heroin. They wound up in a restaurant and bar on 142nd Street and Riverside Drive, which was frequented by fat-cat white landlords and willowy tricks donning fake minks. Robinson told Poohby to wait at the counter while he made a phone call. Upon returning to the dining area, he saw Poohby waving a Saturday Night Special at the patrons.

"He was robbing the place; he had everybody in there with their hands up," Robinson says, his reminiscences tinged with anger. "We was the only blacks in there except for a black woman who was sitting with one of the customers." Robinson lit into his friend: "What the hell is going on?"

"Man, I gotta have something," the jittery dope fiend replied. "I gotta have some drugs."

The white patrons were not impressed by Robinson's rebuke of his bandit pal. Some, according to Robinson, believed that it was part of a bad Hollywood act. Poohby jumped over the counter, cleaned out the cash register, and ran. "I ran out behind him. He had all of the money in his hand and in his pocket, and I'm following him, running down the street."

Poohby flagged a gypsy cab and dove into the back seat. Robinson followed, all the while vamping on the junkie for almost getting him killed. Two cops chased after the taxi on foot. Suddenly, the terrified driver screeched to a stop and bailed out. "Poohby and I jumped out and ran, but the police caught me, handcuffed me, and took me to the precinct," he says. Poohby vanished. But the cops caught him about an hour later. At their trial, the judge, according to Robinson, showed no mercy. He sentenced Poohby to 10 years behind bars. "Li'l Buster" from the projects, Fat Jack's bagman, the street-smart kid who had dreamed of franchising Uncle Fat's Chitlin' House, now was a convicted thief. Three to 10. Up the river for the luckless accomplice in a two-bit stickup.

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