Cruel but Not Unusual: Putting Down the Attica Uprising of 1971

By Mary F. CoreyJune 22, 2017

Cruel but Not Unusual: Putting Down the Attica Uprising of 1971

Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson

WHILE I WAS IN THE MIDDLE of reading Heather Ann Thompson’s extraordinary Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, Dave Chappelle hosted Saturday Night Live. It was a week after the Trump election, and the show’s stand-out sketch was one in which Chappelle and Chris Rock are guests at an otherwise all-white election-night party. As the evening wears on and the mood gets grimmer, Chappelle and Rock stand at the back of the room observing the proceedings with notable detachment. When it becomes clear that Trump is going to be the next POTUS, one of the white guests shouts out in despair: “This is the worst thing America has ever done.” The two Black guys at the back of the room roll their eyes, slap their knees, and all but roll on the floor in mirthless laughter.

“The worst thing?” Not even close. Neither, we could even say, was the New York State Troopers’ torture and slaughter of 43 unarmed, predominately Black and Puerto Rican prisoners and a number of white guards in the aftermath of the Attica Prison uprising. But Attica provides a microcosm of some ugly truths about American history.

Blood in the Water, winner of both the Bancroft Prize and the Pulitzer, is a compassionate, exhaustively researched, and brilliantly paced account of the events that began on September 9, 1971, when inmates seized control of an upstate New York prison, and which, 46 years later, still resonate in the courts and in the hearts, minds, and still-damaged bodies of the Attica survivors and their families.

Thompson, using every available record including documents long kept secret in order to protect New York State politicians and members of law enforcement from being brought to justice, has done more than write a compelling historical account. Blood in the Water provides us with nothing less than a road map of American racism — it is a detailed miniature of the violence against people of color that H. Rap Brown once said was as “American as cherry pie.” By illuminating the blood bath at Attica and its horrifying aftermath — violence against the prisoners, attempts to cover up that violence by blaming it on the victims themselves, traumatized survivors, years of unredressed claims against the state, never-ending obstructions of justice, and uncompensated grieving families — Thompson draws us into the heart of our national darkness.

In the summer of 1971, conditions were dire at a very overcrowded Attica — a decaying prison complex erected during the Depression. Even prisoners’ most basic needs were not being met. Inmates were allowed only one shower a week and little or no exercise time. The prison allotted only 63 cents per prisoner a day for food, and the men often went to bed hungry. Little over two percent of the prison’s budget was allotted for medical care, and the prison’s two sadistic and unethical doctors, neither of whom spoke Spanish, had been known to perform medical experiments on prisoners with less than informed consent. Inmates were allowed one sheet of toilet paper per day and two quarts of water for drinking, teeth brushing, washing of clothes and their bodies. Many cells had no heat in winter and were so hot in the summer that it was hard to breathe. Inmates spent an average of 15 to 24 hours per day locked in their cells. When they worked in sweatshop conditions, they earned between six and 25 cents a day, not enough to allow them to call their families or buy basic necessities from the commissary, yet their labor provided the state with $1.2 million a year in revenue. Black and Puerto Rican prisoners were systematically paid less for their labors than white inmates and were given less desirable jobs. Letters from home were heavily redacted and letters in Spanish were discarded. Rules were enforced capriciously, and men were sent to the dreaded keeplock for minor infractions. Some spent months, even years, in solitary. Common-law wives and their children were not allowed visitation rights, although most men received few visits because it was too costly for their families to make the trip. Parolees were not allowed to leave Attica until they had secured a job on the outside — a virtual impossibility. And many if not most of these men were not hardened criminals. Some were 18-year-old parole violators arrested on minor charges. Attica was essentially slavery tarted up as criminal justice.

Blood in the Water has been criticized in some quarters for softening the edges by underplaying the radicalism that fueled the uprising, and there is a kernel of truth in this. In part, this elision is due to the lack (and destruction) of written evidence. In the retaking of Attica, the most politicized men were targeted (with Xs on their backs) and their personal belongings were destroyed or confiscated. But in part, too, I think that Thompson, having spent a decade pushing back against the state’s characterization of the “ringleaders” as brutal political fanatics, made a decision to focus more on their humanity than their ideology. Nonetheless, the language of Black Nationalism provided prisoners with a template for resistance, and it is important to understand Attica in this context. By 1971, young Black and brown Americans in inner cities and in prisons were being exposed to the rhetoric and actions of the Black Power movement and beginning to understand the nature of this oppression in new ways. Inspired by the writings and oratory of Che, Mao, Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party, they began to recognize the structural nature of American racism. No longer clad in the church-going apparel of the activists who marched from Selma to Montgomery, these radicalized Black people had a lot more street under them than their predecessors. Influenced by the groundswell of anti-colonial revolutions in Africa and Asia following World War II, some Black Nationalists had begun to see themselves as colonized people and the police as the boot of empire. For incarcerated people, this analysis was a no-brainer.

The Black Power movement scared the shit out of the FBI, the CIA, the president, and law enforcement, who scrambled to contain the crisis, the actual heft of which they vastly exaggerated. Hoover claimed that “the [Black Panthers] might be the first step toward a real Mau Mau,” and openly decried the possibility of “the rise of a Black Messiah.” By conflating Black activism with thuggery, the danger Black radicals posed to the state could be hyperbolized, and attached to stories of alleged rising crime. Being tough on crime, a code for being tough on people of color, became as much of a political imperative as anticommunism had been in the Cold War. The answer it seemed, was to incarcerate the crisis. Lock up the people Richard Nixon referred to as the “you know, the Angela Davis crowd […] the negroes,” and Attica prison commissioner Russell Oswald referred to as those “emotionally sick […] idealists and fanatics.” Then throw away the key. With such rhetoric, in other words, law enforcement used the emergence of Black Nationalism as a new excuse to criminalize race.

This radicalism was alive and well at Attica when, in the summer of 1971 a group of prisoners calling themselves the Attica Liberation Faction sent the commissioner a letter (the “July Manifesto”) requesting a number of reforms: “changes in the parole system, religious freedom for Muslims, improvements in the working and living conditions,” et cetera. The letter said in closing: “These demands are being presented to you. There is no strike of any kind to protest these demands. We are trying to do this in a democratic fashion.” Black Nationalists and members of the Nation of Islam were drawn together by the manifesto, and inmates began organizing “across ethnic, racial, and political lines.” On August 22, many prisoners wore black armbands and refused to eat in response to the news that the legendary California prison activist, George Jackson (a leading candidate for Black Messiah-hood) had been murdered by guards at San Quentin the day before. And then on September 9, a group of prisoners got trapped in a tunnel, broke down a gate and the Attica Uprising began. Within a short period of time, the inmates were in control of the prison and a remarkable five-day standoff began.

Blood in the Water is at once agonizing and immensely readable. Thompson is a lucid and cinematic writer, and her superb descriptive powers take the reader into the chaos of the initial uprising and the resourceful improvisations that followed. There are transcendent moments to be found in this section of the book as the prisoners, finding power in their sudden agency, manage to restore order in the yard. By midday on September 9, the inmates had settled peacefully in D Yard. They used cell block sheets to fashion tents, raided the pharmacy to create a medical station, organized the preparation and dispersal of food, doggedly protected the hostages, rigged up a speaker system, and relayed their demands to the outside world, including a request for observers, among them ministers, Black journalists, The New York Times’s Tom Wicker, and the attorney William Kunstler.

However, they were now also demanding amnesty for all who participated in the uprising. Their survival depended on this, just as the political survival of their keepers was dependent on the denial of this demand. Therein lies the tale.

The brutal retaking of the prison that follows is hard to read and even harder to bear. The yard is blanketed with powdery tear gas sprayed from helicopters that so disables the inmates that the prison could have easily been retaken at that point without a single bullet being fired. But that was not to be. During the standoff, correctional officers, state troopers, reporters, families, and members of the National Guard had been gathered on the prison lawn as officials and journalists promulgated lies and rumors about the bestiality of the prisoners. There were tales of inmates castrating hostages and stuffing their genitals in their mouths, and a belief that the mattresses the prisoners had placed around the hostages to protect them were actually soaked with gasoline and might be ignited at any moment. The waiting and the rumors had brought the assembled crowd to a fever pitch. Finally, with the blessing of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the order to enter the prison was given. State troopers, unofficially accompanied by COs, removed all ID from their uniforms and moved in for the kill. Armed with .270 caliber rifles, they used buckshot (which causes massive collateral damage) and unjacketed bullets (so damaging to human flesh that they had been banned by the Geneva Conventions). The prisoners were given no ultimatum by prison officials, but the appearance of a chaplain in the yard offering Last Rites was warning enough. Some men, realizing that they were about to die, took solace in the idea that the world would now know that the animals were not the prisoners but their keepers.

Forty-three people, including hostages, were killed by gunshot during this assault. No prisoner in Attica had a firearm. Gunshots could still be heard hours after the prison had been secured. For the rest of the day, badly wounded prisoners were being forced to strip and run the gauntlet as correctional officers beat them repeatedly, and stuck rifle butts and even salt into their wounds. A horrified observer overheard one CO say to another that it was “hot work killing niggers.”

All of this takes place in the book’s first 100 pages.

What follows is the remarkable story of the efforts by the survivors, their families, journalists, and dedicated attorneys to make the truth about Attica known both in the courts and in the world. Thompson dedicates the book to the 43 men who died in Attica as well as “all who were wounded, maimed, tortured, and scarred on September 13, 1971.” By writing this timely and momentous book, Thompson has succeeded in raising these dead. And in so doing, she has taken her place beside all the dedicated people who insisted and continue to insist upon the humanity of the victims of Attica.

In 1971, Nelson Rockefeller (and I would argue the central villain of this book, although there is enough blame to go around) had presidential ambitions. He was worried that his reputation as a moderate was now a liability, and he was busily crafting a tougher, more conservative image. In the weeks following the Attica massacre, this “moderate,” smooth-talking American aristocrat held meetings in the pool house of his Pocantico Hills estate in which he conspired with prison officials to create an elaborate and false version of events at Attica to save his political bacon. He knew the truth and he lied, proudly playing the tough guy for the TV cameras and boasting of his boldness in overseeing the retaking of Attica. And Nixon, knowing enough of the truth for it to trouble any decent person, gave Rocky a big thumbs up for a job well done. Yes, Rockefeller was a seemly fellow who wore nice tweeds and horn-rimmed glasses and had the manners of a gentleman. But he was, for all that, complicit in the murder and torture of unarmed men at Attica, and even more complicit in the cover-up that followed. Could it be, one might ask after reading this important book, that Trump and his cavalier devaluing of truth is not an aberration, after all, but part of a terrifying American continuity?


Mary F. Corey is the author of The World Through a Monocle: The New Yorker at Midcentury. She teaches at UCLA.

LARB Contributor

Mary F. Corey is a senior lecturer in American history at UCLA specializing in intellectual history, popular culture, and Black nationalism. She is the author of The World Through a Monocle: The New Yorker at Midcentury (Harvard University Press) and is currently working on a book about Black Blackface performance, tentatively titled They Stooped to Conquer. Dr. Corey is a recipient of the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award.


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