On September 13, 1971, New York state troopers, prison guards and members of several other law enforcement outfits attacked Attica State Prison. The brutal assault was ordered by some of New York’s highest authorities in response to an uprising by prisoners over inhuman treatment and conditions. The uprising itself had begun four days earlier and, as it progressed, it became something much greater than a mere prison uprising. The uprising and subsequent massacre at Attica prison on that day defined my understanding of the US system of justice and law enforcement as much as MyLai shaped my understanding of the true nature of the US war on the Vietnamese people. I turned sixteen the day of the slaughter at Attica and recall a heated argument with my father that ended icily when my mother insisted we not talk politics at the dinner table. Both Attica and MyLai intensified my study of Marxist and anarchist thinkers as I searched for a method to make sense of the country I lived in and the evils it engaged in and justified, no matter how appalling. I am certain my experience was similar to that of many others.
It has been a long while since a new book on the 1971 uprising and massacre at New York’s Attica State Prison was published. Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy makes that wait worthwhile. Definitely the most comprehensive and complete study of that tragic moment in history, Thompson’s text is the result of ten years of investigation, reading thousands of pages of documents, interviews and a determination to get to the truth—something that virtually disappeared before the first inmate was beaten by guards and troopers in the massacre’s aftermath. Her endeavor and determination pays off.
Although New York Times columnist Tom Wicker’s reportage (Wicker served as an observer/negotiator in the uprising) of the uprising in his book A Time to Die remains the best account of the events inside the prison up to the hours before the massacre and its immediate aftermath, Thompson’s text should become the definitive history on the tragedy . This is in large part because of her discussion of the prosecutions and investigations that followed. The story she reveals is one of intentional deceit, bureaucratic miscues and lies from the governor of New York’s office down to the guards on the cell block where the uprising began. It is a story whose importance has never diminished and, in today’s world where police murders of civilians are excused, covered up and occur usually without consequence to the killers, takes on even a greater importance as a reminder that cops and their bosses murder and lie.
As noted beforehand, Thompson worked on this book for ten years. Her research was aided immensely after she was made aware of boxes and boxes of New York state documents related to the uprising, the attack on the prison and the ensuing cover-up. Once she opened the first of these boxes, whose existence happened to be revealed to her almost incidentally, she knew she would be able to provide a more complete narrative than anyone before her had been able to. The result is a mammoth history that reads like a legal thriller. The murderous insanity of law enforcement, the callousness of Governor Rockefeller and his closest assistants, the pursuit of justice for the inmates and their families undertaken by attorneys, paralegals and regular citizens in the massacre’s aftermath; all of this appears in these pages. Thompson’s passion and commitment to revealing the truth is present in every page of Blood in the Water.
As I read this book, I couldn’t help but compare the actions of the State to today’s headlines about police murders of civilians and the subsequent prosecutorial failures and cover-ups. While today’s abuses by law enforcement tend to be better documented thanks to smartphones and other technology, the failure to properly prosecute police for these abuses remains a constant. As Thompson discusses in the book’s epilogue, it is as if the forces of law and order learned all the wrong lessons from tragedies like Attica. Instead of creating a legacy where prisons became less brutal and more rehabilitative, the opposite has occurred. Just like in numerous other parts of society and politics, it is the reactionaries who have benefitted from the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. This seems to be proof that when the state is under threat, its most reactionary elements come forward to defend it. It is this dynamic which revealed itself at Attica, despite the presence of a liberal bureaucrat who was in charge of the prison system. It is also this dynamic which prevails today, when no politician challenges the prison system itself, although some have questioned the privatization of some parts of that system.
Today, prisons are arguably worse than they were in 1971. Furthermore, incarceration has become the method of choice in dealing with US capitalism’s surplus populations; populations which are, as they have been throughout history, poor and overwhelmingly black and brown-skinned. Thousands of inmates are held in prisons owned by private corporations that must keep their cells for in order to make a profit. In addition, corporations make deals with public and private prison managers whereby the inmates are “hired” to produce goods that are little better than straight out slavery. Naturally, the corporations and their investors keep the profits. A movement against this prison slavery, solitary confinement and abuse has been growing the past few years. In fact, a national prison strike is being organized for the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica uprising’s beginning—September 9, 2016. The thinking of the organizers can be summed up in this excerpt from one of their websites: “We have to strategize with the understanding that we are dealing with modern day slave profiteers. These businessmen will gladly let us die from starvation so long as their assembly lines keep moving. We have to ask ourselves: If we are protesting against mass incarceration and prison slavery, then why aren’t we doing it at the prisons where our economic strength can be felt?”
Blood in the Water is a radical text, if only because it challenges the dominant thought that inmates are undeserving of their humanity and therefore deserve whatever they experience in prison. Furthermore, it questions the prevailing narrative that because inmates “deserve” whatever they get they should not fight back against the system that dehumanizes them. Finally, it challenges the concept that incarceration is a solution to the problems of poverty and crime created by modern capitalism’s disregard for the humans it no longer needs. In the weeks, months and years immediately following the uprising at Attica, many popular Left movements utilized the slogan “Attica means fight back!” as an expression symbolizing a determination to resist, no matter what the odds. Heather Ann Thompson’s history of the uprising tells us why that slogan remains essentially true..