Attica 1971: Heather Ann Thompson’s “Blood In The Water”

I tell my students that there were five radicalizing events that led to me being a sociologist, although I didn’t know it at the time. It started with the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968. I was old enough to have been following the civil rights movement and understood how the killing was a reaction to a quest for justice. That was followed just two months later by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Because I was Kennedy campaign chairman in my eighth grade history class, I’d gotten my Very-Republican grandmother to drive me to Kennedy headquarters to pick up campaign paraphernalia. And now he was dead. In May of 1970, four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard during a Vietnam War Protest. That introduced me to the idea that government officials might act badly. Between 1972 and 1974, I watched in fascination as the President of the United States had his illegality exposed and resigned the presidency in disgrace.

But one of the most pivotal moments for me happened with the Attica uprising in September 1971. The year before, I had done a research paper in English class about the need for prison reform. I read up on Quaker reform efforts and issues of mistreatment and poor conditions. I had interviewed someone from the Indiana Department of Corrections as a source. Looking back, it wasn’t surprising that one of my first career goals after majoring in sociology was to be a prison administrator working to reform the system from inside.

So when the prisoners at Attica took over cell block D, I was transfixed by the news. There were accounts of how William Kuntsler was helping the prisoners present demands to the prison administration. The situation had the possibility of reaching an amicable conclusion until one of the guards who had been taken hostage died. Even then, we watched to see how a resolution could be found. On the third day, NY State stormed the prison. Over 30 prisoners were killed and hundreds injured. Ten of the 37 hostages were killed in the retaking. The loss of hope in a possible reform movement was very real to me and I was disturbed that (as I heard it at the time) that the hostages had died in “the crossfire” (the prisoners were unarmed).

 

I just finished reading Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising and Its Legacy. It is a remarkable reselling of the Attica saga with incredibly detailed documentation. It was a finalist for National Book of the Year. It not only filled in lots of details for the story i already knew, but more importantly it showed how much of the story I thought I knew had been manufactured.

More importantly, there is a great deal of this story from 46 years ago that speaks directly to issues of today. I’ll return to those but first let me lay out the structure of the book. It opens with a short history of prison conditions in the late 1960s leading up to the specific concerns at Attica. The next sections tell the story of the uprising and the retaking. Following this, there are the recriminations and the attempts to keep quiet what really happened. The balance of the book deals with the legal proceedings: first, the criminal trials of prisoners, then the civil trials of prisoners against the NYSP, then the attempts for the families of the dead hostages to get some kind of reparation from New York State.

If you’re interested in mass incarceration, the criminal justice system, government, race, and their interactions, this is important but difficult reading. Between the brutality of the retaking to the improper actions by prosecutors to the stonewalling of the families, it’s hard to imagine that the structures of government could act so callously toward human beings. I won’t detail all of the factors here, but do want to explore some themes of from Attica that we must hear today. Because nearly half a century later, the echoes of these themes can be heard very loudly.

Racism is Real: It is stunning how much everyday racism is a part of the pre-uprising Attica story. Complaints about prison conditions were dismissed as being orchestrated by Black Nationalists who wanted to overthrow the government. This isn’t only true of guards and police officers, but are sentiments shared by the Governor, the US Attorney General, and the President. Even the prisoners who were white were punished for being N-lovers. The idea that prisoners at Attica were part of a nation-wide conspiracy is surreal and yet it was easy for people then (and probably now) to believe the worst.

Power is a Dangerous Drug: When the prison was retaken, the brutality of the state police and many guards was hard to take. The Attica uprising occurred one month after Phillip Zimbardo conducted his famous prison experiment at Stanford. He found that people playing the role of guard were likely to engage in brutality and derision of those playing the role of prisoner. Even the guards who weren’t sadistic made no attempt to stop those who were. After Attica was retaken, guards make prisoners run a gauntlet naked and barefoot over broken glass while being beaten with sticks and other weapons. Because they could.

Bad Actors Flourish in Bad Systems: One of the most striking parts of the Attica story is that the State Police intentionally violated their protocols when preparing to retake the prison. They didn’t record who had which weapon. The removed their badges and any other identifying information. When they stormed the prison, they were able to shoot indiscriminately at unarmed prisoners who had just been gassed. Under these circumstances, it would be very difficult for “good apples” to make a difference.

The Truth is a Common Casualty: The men who stormed the prison had been waiting outside for two days for permission to go in. Such collective behavior gives way to rumor and incitement. Early reports were that the prisoners had brutally attacked their hostages, castrating one and throwing the one who died off the catwalk. Once the retaking occurred, they claimed that the prisoners had slit the dead hostages’ throats. They tried to get medical personnel to change or at least suppress the autopsies that showed that wasn’t the case. When the prisoners got to their criminal trials, the authorities encouraged other prisoners to perjure themselves in exchange for transfers. The lawyers representing the State regularly withheld evidence of wrongdoing. That this story got told is only due to the perseverance of dedicated people who would not allow the story to be quashed, even though it took decades for the truth to get out (and then sporadically).

Political Leaders Will Be Self-Protecting: While there are some good government leaders (I believe Russell Oswald tried his best early on), much of the Attica story involves cover ups and a failure to admit wrongdoing. Attica was seen through a political lens and if the leadership didn’t hold the line, they believed that they would encourage other uprisings. But holding the line meant distorting the truth, obfuscating, or using bureaucratic technique to protect themselves (tricking the hostage widows into signing workers comp agreements so that couldn’t sue was especially galling.)

The Story Takes Time: When news of the uprising broke, it was national news. So was the retaking. Although the news passed along the “died in the crossfire” version of the story when in fact the hostages died due to the gunfire of the policemen and security guards who stormed the prison. The ongoing story of the attempted prosecution of prisoners, the civil suits of prisoners and hostage families, and the various commissions that explored what happened over those days were only known to those paying attention in Upstate New York.

We Believe Criminals are “Other”: So much of the response to the uprising depended upon believing that they were dealing with savages who couldn’t handle common society. That’s why their concerns about proper medical care weren’t heard. They weren’t deserving of proper care. It was striking how many individual stories involved some relatively minor offense that was coupled with a parole violation that landed prisoners in Attica to begin with. But because they were savages, it justified treating them violently and minimizing their chances in court.

Blood in the Water sheds a great deal of light on these horrible days in the American Criminal Justice system. As I wrote above, it’s a painful read. But it also shines a light on our contemporary struggles to create a humane criminal justice system. Reading the book provides new insights on what happens in officer-involved shootings, of press coverage of events, and of politicians who thrive on complaints of lawlessness.

The seven lessons I highlighted above require our attention as a society. It is only in that attentiveness that we prevent events like those in September 1971 from repeating.

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