The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy
By Heather Ann Thompson
Illustrated. 724 pp. Pantheon Books. $35.
By Heather Ann Thompson
Illustrated. 724 pp. Pantheon Books. $35.
Attica. The name itself has long signified resistance to prison abuse and state violence. In the 1975 film “Dog Day Afternoon,” Al Pacino, playing a bank robber, leads a crowd confronting the police in a chant of “Attica, Attica.” The rapper Nas, in his classic “If I Ruled the World,” promises to “open every cell in Attica, send ’em to Africa.” And Attica posters were once commonplace in the homes of black nationalists. The one in my family’s apartment in the 1970s featured a grainy black-and-white picture of Attica’s protesting prisoners, underneath the words “We are not beasts.”
But memories of the 1971 uprising at Attica prison have grown hazy. I recently mentioned the word to a politically active Yale College student, who responded: “I know it’s a prison where something important happened. But I’m not sure of the details.”
Heather Ann Thompson, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, has the details. Thompson spent more than a decade poring over trial transcripts, issuing countless requests for hidden government documents, and interviewing dozens of survivors and witnesses. The result is “Blood in the Water,” a masterly account of the Attica prison uprising, its aftermath and the decades-long legal battles for justice and accountability. This is not an easy book to read — the countless episodes of inhumanity on these pages are heartbreaking. But it is an essential one.
Isolated in the far western corner of New York State (Attica is closer to Detroit than to New York City, where almost half of its prisoners come from), the prison in 1971 housed nearly 2,300 men who were permitted only one shower a week and provided a single roll of toilet paper each month (“one sheet per day,” went the saying). Men regularly went to bed hungry, as the state spent just 63 cents per prisoner per day for food. Puerto Rican prisoners suffered special discrimination; prisoner mail was censored, and since corrections officers couldn’t read Spanish, they simply tossed those letters in the trash. Black prisoners had it worst of all, as they were relegated to the lowest-paid jobs and racially harassed by the prison’s almost all-white staff.
Drawing strength from the civil rights activism of the era, Attica’s prisoners lobbied to improve their living conditions. But all they got were vague, unfulfilled promises. After months of mounting tensions, on Sept. 9, 1971, a group of prisoners saw a chance to overpower an officer. The Attica riot was underway.
Among the riot’s first casualties was Correction Officer William Quinn, who was beaten so badly that he was almost unrecognizable to a paramedic who had known him for years. (Quinn would die days later.) But after a few hours of bloody chaos, a group of inmate leaders emerged to restore order. One of their first public statements came from L.D. Barkley, whose plain-spoken claim to humanity would inspire posters like the one in our apartment. “We are men,” Barkley said. “We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.”Continue reading the main story
Prison leaders quickly sought to negotiate with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and other state officials, conditioning their surrender on the granting of 33 demands. These included better education, less mail censorship, more religious freedom, fairer disciplinary and parole processes and, most controversially, amnesty for crimes committed in the course of the riot itself.
Negotiations were led by a group of journalists, politicians and prison reformers, including the radical civil rights attorney William Kunstler and the New York Times columnist Tom Wicker. Shuttling between prisoners in the yard and state authorities gathered outside, the negotiators worked heroically toward a settlement. But Rockefeller was uncompromising, and after refusing to go to Attica to join the negotiations himself, he abandoned talks and ordered state troopers to “retake” the prison.
I wouldn’t have thought that Rockefeller — the sponsor of reviled mandatory drug sentences bearing his name — could suffer any more damage to his reputation on criminal justice matters. But Thompson methodically shreds him, depicting a craven politician thoroughly uninterested in the human consequences of his decisions.
The savagery that followed the decision to retake the prison was both predictable and avoidable. The prisoners had no guns themselves, yet the troopers — untrained, unsupervised and out for vengeance — began shooting wildly upon entering. Among the first to die were corrections officers held as hostages, as well as the prisoners who had been guarding them. Thirty-nine people — 29 prisoners and 10 hostages — would be killed.
The most sadistic crimes took place after state officials had full control of the prison. Prisoners were forced to strip naked and run through a gantlet of 30 to 40 corrections officers who took turns beating them with batons. One National Guardsman described seeing a gravely injured black man being attacked by a corrections officer. “They forced him to his knees, and at that point, the correction sergeant backed up a short distance and then ran forward and kicked the man in the face. . . . He immediately went limp and his head was hanging down, he was bleeding.” Another Guardsman recalled watching medical staff join in the abuse. He saw a doctor “speaking to the inmates and saying: ‘You say you’re hurt? You’re not hurt. We’ll see if you’re hurt.’ ” Instead of attending to their wounds, the doctor began kicking and hitting them.
There are dozens more harrowing tales like these. And then there are the photographs, some depicting naked and abused prisoners, marched for sport before sullen, leering guards. Eventually I had to put the book down. To breathe. To wipe the tears. I couldn’t stop thinking of slave narratives. Or of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s claim that “in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.”
Thompson dwells on these stories because she wants us to learn, and then never forget, what the state of New York tried to hide. The truth of what happened in that prison yard 45 years ago has been suppressed by flagrant lies (including Rockefeller’s claim that the prisoners, not his own troopers, had killed the hostages), unwarranted secrecy (the state still refuses to release thousands of boxes of crucial records), and cover-ups (when a prosecutor got close to indicting some of the state troopers for their role in the killings, his superiors stopped him from going forward).
“Blood in the Water” comes out at an important time. Criminal justice reform is having something of a moment. But Thompson’s tale is a cautionary reminder that we’ve been here before. The Attica uprising took place in the midst of an earlier period of activism, and had the potential to be a turning point toward better prison conditions. When these mostly black and brown men took over the yard and asked for things like better education, the state could have recognized the legitimacy of their demands. Instead they were slaughtered, the crime was concealed, and in the decades since, America has shown little regard for prisoner welfare.
But Attica’s tragic outcome doesn’t undermine the significance of the resistance. As Thompson argues: “The Attica uprising of 1971 happened because ordinary men, poor men, disenfranchised men, and men of color had simply had enough of being treated as less than human. That desire, and their fight, is by far Attica’s most important legacy.” Just so, and “Blood in the Water” restores their struggle to its rightful place in our collective memory.