Review – Thompson, “Blood in the Water”

Heather Ann Thompson, “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Aftermath” (2016) (read by Erin Burnett) – The Attica uprising is another one of those historical things I’ve known about and been interested in forever but can’t put my finger on when I learned about it. It might have been when, during an attempt at becoming a “film buff” in my late teens, I watched “Dog Day Afternoon” and got to the famous scene when Al Pacino riles the onlookers to his bank siege with a chant of “Attica! Attica!” and then I went and looked it up? It might also have been before that- it feels like it was always in the background, an artifact of a strange but not entirely disappeared time.

Seeing as the first group of people who got to tell a public story about Attica — the officialdom of the state of New York, led by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller — lied about the situation from stem to stern, historian Heather Ann Thompson had her work cut out for her in writing the first major academic history of the uprising and its aftermath. This is, in some respects, an old school social history, an excavation of the history of the downtrodden made possible by intensive spadework through old, and in this case long-suppressed, sources. Among other things, Thompson’s access to long-hidden or censored state records allows her to show that the state, from Rockefeller on down, purposefully lied about what happened at Attica for decades.

Attica Correctional Facility is way out in the depths of western New York. Life was bad there. The prisoners were mostly black and Puerto Rican from the city, while the officials and guards were almost all white and rural. More than the harshness of conditions — shitty food, overcrowded cells, hard labor (to the great profit of the State of New York) — there was an inconsistent, martinet quality to life at Attica that wore on the men. It was impossible to follow all of the many rules, seemingly inspired by encrusted layers of discredited penological theories. So the men were routinely given beatings or isolation by guards who made clear their racist contempt for their charges, generally for minor or even unavoidable infractions of petty rules. This has an echo in the petty stupid charges that landed a lot of young people in the hellhole of Attica in the first place- joyriding, minor theft, above all violation of parole, and something tells me parole violations were as impossible to avoid in the slums as infractions are in the prisons.

Thompson does not believe that prisoners planned the Attica Uprising, which began on September 9th 1971, ahead of time. Basically, a guard started beating a prisoner while lining a group of them up to go to a meal or exercise, I can’t remember which. The guards had already taken away a number of prisoners for severe beatings as retribution for complaining about conditions in the nights previous, and something snapped. The men attacked. They seized control of the central yard of the prison and several cell blocks. A guard would later die of injuries incurred during this initial attack. The prisoners took forty-two guards and prison officials hostage.

After an initial period of chaos, both sides of the conflict found leaders, or anyway, spokespeople. The prisoners established a rough sort of democracy, led by a council of respected men, many of them drawn from the radical milieu in the New York prison system: Black Panthers, Young Lords, various black Muslim groups, a few white radicals like “mad bomber” Sam Melville. As for the state, you could almost see it as this symbolic tableau- notionally “well-meaning” vaguely-liberal officials, like state prisons commissioner Russell Oswald, trying to manage the situation while a small army of frothing mad prison guards, state policemen, and sheriff’s deputies roiled in the background, demanding blood.

You can guess who won out in the end, both between the prisoners and the state and between the state officials who wanted, at least a little, to avoid a bloodbath and the reactionary mass of gun-thugs beneath them. For three days, the prisoners tried to negotiate with the state. The state sent observers, mostly journalists and politicians, to discuss matters and to report on conditions inside the yard. The observers got a mixed picture. Someone — Thompson isn’t clear on who, and doesn’t seem interested in finding out — killed three inmates during the time between the Attica rebels taking control of the yard and when law enforcement took it back. Moreover, the demands that the prisoners came up with included some that were basically politically impossible, like a plane to a “non-imperialist” country (one wonders how their lives would have gone had they somehow made it to Cuba or Algeria). But the observers were also surprised and heartened to find the prisoners on good order, taking care of each other and taking very good care of the hostages (indeed, showing more care than the state showed, either before — like when the rebels tried and failed to get the state to take a head injury of a guard seriously and he died — during or after the retaking). Most of the demands, as Commissioner Oswald readily admitted, were reasonable: better food, better pay for their labor, more education, not throwing any mail in Spanish in the trash, etc.

Any situation like this has numerous factors that go into its outcome, but I think we can say that the end was “overdetermined.” Thompson raises hopes — that at certain points communication really happens between the different sides, that this or that interlocutor will come and fix things — only to dash them against walls made of institutional indifference, miscommunication, and bad luck. Pretty much no one comes out looking good, even if the Attica rebels come out looking better than the picture of savage criminality the state would try to etch into history. It’s hard to do direct democracy, and the rebels made some mistakes with it, but given the strains… Black Panther leader Bobby Seale looks pretty bad, too, briefly coming in and harming negotiations by making miscommunications, refusing to clear them up, and then begging off by saying that his party wouldn’t authorize him to do anymore.

But no one looks worse than the New York State Police and the man who sicced them on Attica, Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller comes off as something like the deus absconditus of gnostic myth, the lousy god who set up bad situations and then disappears, aloof off in the celestial aether. His own people, like Commissioner Oswald, begged Rockefeller to come to Attica. No one thought he’d talk to the rebels directly, but at least they could have taken the negotiations more seriously. But Rockefeller refused, and left the worst possible people — State Police commanders and his personal fixers — making calls. Ultimately, Rockefeller had his eye on the White House and didn’t want to look “weak in crime” if he was going against his old foe, Tricky Dick.

Almost worse, to me, was Commissioner Oswald. I don’t expect any better from a Rockefeller, even if liberals long for the day of supposedly-sensible “Rockefeller Republicans.” But you can see in real time Oswald going from patronizing, but seemingly sincere, reformer to angry martinet, irked enough by the men he thought should be under his control displaying their agency past what Oswald thought the limits should be that he ultimately signed off on a massacre. Maybe he thought the cops and guards flocking to Attica to get their piece of prisoner flesh would off him if he held off much longer- certainly they were putting pressure on the situation. Rumors circulated that the rebels in the yard were setting up gallows and bombs, that they castrated guard hostages, on and on. All bullshit of course… and in the end, Oswald served his function, as he probably always would have.

The state, as Thompson told it, had effectively regained control of the yard just after a National Guard helicopter dumped something like CS gas all over the area. No one was resisting at that point, just blindly scrabbling around. The cops and guards who rushed in had no training for this situation and inappropriate equipment- shitty gas masks and goggles, shotguns loaded with buckshot, hunting rifles. Of course, the assumption behind that sort of thing is that the sort of “best practices” used by contemporary militarized and lawsuit-leery cops are what they’d want in any event. But the guards, state cops, and sheriff’s deputies who stormed Attica went in wanting to kill. They liked what buckshot did to the bodies of prisoners. That they — and they alone — killed nine hostages with their gunfire does not seem to have bothered them, at the time or after. They were too busy, first executing several prisoners, including leaders Sam Melville and 21-year-old Black Panther L.D. Barkley, as well as torturing the surviving rebels, and then beginning their campaign of lies and cover-ups. By the time it was all over, forty-three people were dead, thirty-nine of them killed by gunfire from the forces of the state. No hostages were killed or seriously harmed by their prisoner rebel captors.

Nelson Rockefeller went on a press conference and said the prisoners had cut throats of and castrated hostages. The state smeared its own employees, medical examiners, when these examiners pointed out that medically, this did not happen. But, in certain respects, it was an atrocity-coverup combo whose time had come. This was just as the conservative reaction to sixties/seventies militancy started gaining steam. It was probably also the moment in American history where sympathy for mostly black and brown prison rebels would have been highest — witness the multiethnic crowd who responded positively to Al Pacino’s “Attica!” chant — but that left was fragmenting under the pressure of state suppression and the challenges inherent to what they, we, do. The state’s story could become enough of an official story for the state’s purposes.

Like I said, Thompson does this book old-school social history style, so it’s granular and sticks close to evidence. This pays a lot of dividends in the first half of the book, which traces the roots and the story of the uprising. It begins to become a diminishing returns situation in the back half, which covers the efforts of Attica survivors — prisoners and hostages both — to get some justice. The fact that this took up half of the book kind of shows the problem. Thompson does a fine job illuminating the legal back and forth that dragged on into the first decade of the twenty-first century, but it simply isn’t as interesting as the uprising, and there’s less to learn for it. The state obstructs justice, realistically if not according to the letter of the law, when money and reputation are on the line- this could have been gotten across more briefly. I think it would have been interesting to have seen more about how the uprising influenced the broader movement for prisoners rights, and, god help me, the culture at large. Most of the time I root for social history over cultural history when they compete nowadays, but Thompson could have used a skosh of the cultural approach in this one. Still, this is a very good and exhaustive book on an event that still resonates today. ****’

Review – Thompson, “Blood in the Water”

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