Weekly Read: Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy

On September 9, 1971, inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York (not too far from Buffalo) took control of part of the prison. For the next four days they negotiated with authorities over a list of grievances, at times with the help of notable civilians such as attorneys and journalists. After reaching an impasse, authorities stormed the prison on September 13, killing 43 people – including 10 correctional officers who had been taken hostage. It’s no wonder that the events at Attica galvanized the nation and quickly worked their way into pop culture:

What’s interesting is how different people refer to those events. Some call them a riot, with all the connotations that word brings – senseless violence, brute force, unfocused rage. Others, such as historian Heather Ann Thompson in her Pulitzer-winning book, Blood in the Water, refers to the events as an uprising – an event where a repressed group of men sought change in the only manner available to them. Which camp you fall into probably says a lot about your politics in general.

Which is appropriate because politics is a driving force in Thompson’s book, beginning with the political aspirations of New York’s governor at the time of the uprising, Nelson Rockefeller. He wanted to be president and couldn’t afford to be seen as “soft” on crime or criminals (it’s no surprise that Nixon backed his play at Attica). In addition, he viewed the uprising as the tail end of leftist activism from the 1960s and worried that if the Attica uprising wasn’t suppressed it could spawn an actual revolution.

The inmates didn’t do the most they could to dissuade Rockefeller from this position. Although their long list of demands dealt mostly with conditions at Attica or within the criminal justice system in general, there were (at least at some points) demands for a plan to take anyone who wanted to go to Africa and other broadly political requests.

Having said that, the negotiations made progress. The sticking point turned out to be amnesty for those involved in the uprising. Rockefeller insisted he didn’t have the power to do it (doubtful) and all rested with the local prosecutor. The inmates, for their part, didn’t seem to realize that once one of the correctional officers who had been attacked in the early stage of the uprising had died there was little chance of a blanket amnesty, anyway.

That authorities eventually stormed the prison to regain control wasn’t a surprise. What was surprising was how it was done, with a collection of state troopers, correctional officers, and National Guard troops armed to the teeth. Similar, if smaller, uprisings in other New York facilities (including New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail) had been put down without the use of firearms and the associated loss of life. Authorities went into Attica with guns blazing, however, and left a horrific toll in their wake.

Thompson’s great achievement in Blood in the Water is taking those four days of the uprising and laying out what happened in serious detail. She also provides a great deal of context for the uprising, placing it as one of a series of such things around the country, not just a sudden, confusing spasm of violence. It’s an important portrait of a watershed event in American history painstakingly pieced together.

Once the uprising is put down, however, the book begins to lag. Initially the response of the state is familiar to anyone in 2017 watching the news when an unarmed black man is gunned down by police. First, authorities lie – in this case, by claiming that the 10 hostages who died during the retaking where killed by inmates, often in ways that involved mutilation. Second, authorities dehumanize the inmates – everyone involved at Attica was a murderer or rapist or similar kind of thug. In truth, many were there for minor parole violations and other non-violent offenses. Third, when the truth comes out – medical examiners refused to be silenced about what actually killed the hostages – the authorities downplay, obfuscate, and at no point apologize or formally correct the record.

It’s no surprise, then, that litigation about Attica – criminal and civil – dragged out for decades. Thompson deploys the same attention to detail to that litigation, but to less effect. There are so many trials with so many different players that the narrative becomes scattered. Also, there are things that jumped out to my lawyer eye that deserved further detail. For example, there were mutual defense groups set up to help defend the Attica inmates during their criminal trials. Such a setup is rife with ethical issues (conflicts of interest, primarily), but Thompson never addresses them. Another example is when there’s a ruling by the judge in one inmate’s case that, we’re told, profoundly impacted several others, but there’s no discussion of the ruling itself.

What Thompson’s exhaustive stroll through the litigation does is drive home just how much the apparatus of the “state” – meaning both the New York and federal governments – were determined not to really find out what went down at Attica. Most obviously that’s borne out by how the New York players obfuscated when it came to the facts, but it’s smaller things, too. There’s the fact about how the state tried to lock the families of the guards who had been injured and held hostage into taking small workers’ compensation payouts rather than actually suing anybody. Or there’s the ultimate brush off – the federal judge handling one of the civil cases went on vacation while the jury was deliberating. It doesn’t paint a good picture of a society coming to grips with a horrific event.

For all its cachet as a touchstone in the culture, it’s amazing that it took until last year for a definitive history of the Attica uprising to be written. For that Thompson deserves all the praise she’s gotten. That the entire story isn’t as gripping as those four days in September of 1991 isn’t her fault. For that part alone, I highly recommend Blood in the Water.



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