The New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, who was part of the negotiating team that tried to resolve the Attica uprising without bloodshed, singled out white fear as the central issue in the 1971 case.
Heather Ann Thompson’s book “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy” is a detailed study of the inner workings of America. The blueprint for social control employed before and after the crushing of the Attica revolt is the same blueprint used today to keep tens of millions of poor people, especially poor people of color, caged or living in miniature police states. Thompson meticulously documents the innumerable ways the state oppresses the poor by discrediting their voices, turning the press into a megaphone for government propaganda and lies, stoking the negative stereotypes of black people, exalting white supremacy, ruining the lives of people who speak the truth, manipulating the courts and law enforcement, and pressuring state witnesses to lie to obstruct justice. Her book elucidates not only the past but also the present, which, she concedes, is worse.
On Sept. 9, 1971, prisoners at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York rebelled in the face of intolerable conditions. They were sick of the racist-fueled violence of the white, rural guards; angry at poor medical care and the dearth of vocational and educational programs; underfed (the prison allocated only 63 cents a day to feed a prisoner); unhappy about their mail being censored, or destroyed if it was in Spanish; living in poorly ventilated cells with little or no heat or stifling heat; unable to buy basic commissary items on salaries that averaged 6 cents a day; and tired of being given only one bar of soap and one roll of toilet paper a month and allowed only one shower a week.
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“America by the early twenty-first century had, in disturbing ways, come to resemble America in the late nineteenth century,” Thompson writes near the end of her book. “In 1800 the three-fifths clause gave white voters political power from a black population that was itself barred from voting, and after 2000 prison gerrymandering was doing exactly the same thing in numerous states across the country. After 1865, African American desires for equality and civil rights in the South following the American Civil War led whites to criminalize African American communities in new ways and then sent record numbers of blacks to prison in that region. Similarly, a dramatic spike in black incarceration followed the civil rights movement—a movement that epitomized Attica. From 1965 onward, black communities were increasingly criminalized, and by 2005, African Americans constituted 40 percent of the U.S. prison population while remaining less than 13 percent of its overall population. And just as businesses had profited from the increased number of Americans in penal facilities after 1870, so did they seek the labor of a growing captive prison population after 1970. In both centuries, white Americans had responded to black claims for freedom by beefing up, and making more punitive, the nation’s criminal justice system.”
The uprising was not premeditated. It took place when prisoners, trapped inadvertently by guards in a tunnel that led to the yard, thought they were going to be given another beating by sadistic correction officers. The spontaneous uprising took place “because ordinary men, poor men, disenfranchised men, and men of color had simply had enough of being treated as less than human,” Thompson writes.
Four hundred fifty prisoners had previously staged a peaceful sit-down strike in the prison’s metal shop to protest wages that, as a witness later testified at a New York state hearing, were “so low that working at Attica [was] tantamount to slavery.” Prisoners had formed committees and sent respectful letters to prison authorities asking them to address their concerns. The requests were largely ignored. Despite authorities’ promises that there would be no retribution, those who organized the protests were put in isolation or transferred to other prisons. The callousness of the officials was especially unconscionable in light of the fact that the state had netted huge sums for sales of products made by the prisoners.
To see long excerpts from “Blood in the Water” at Google Books, click here. For a Democracy Now! interview with historian Heather Ann Thompson, click here. For a short biography of professor Thompson, click here. To see segments of a document on the Attica uprising provided through YouTube, click here and here.
After three days of negotiations, in which the prison authorities refused to grant the rebellious prisoners amnesty, 550 New York state troopers, 200 sheriff’s deputies and numerous Attica prison guards were issued high-powered weapons, including rifles loaded with especially destructive bullets that expanded on impact, bullets banned in warfare under the Geneva Conventions. The prisoners had no firearms. The assault force members were fed a steady diet of lies and unfounded rumors to stoke their hatred of the prisoners. Black radicals were coming, they were falsely told, to the town of Attica to kidnap white children, a rumor that led to the closing of the schools.
Through clouds of CS gas, the assault force stormed the yard, where some 1,200 prisoners held 42 guards and civilian staff members. It unleashed a blizzard of gunfire, shooting 130 people. Twenty-nine prisoners and nine hostages died. (One guard beaten by prisoners in the first moments of the uprising died later in a hospital.)
The assault force, which had done all the killings that day, immediately began to hide evidence of its crimes. State officials told the press outside the prison that seven or eight of the hostages had died when the prisoners slit their throats. They claimed that the genitals of one of the guards were cut off and stuffed in his mouth. These reports were untrue, but they dominated the news coverage.
Meanwhile, inside the retaken institution, many prisoners were suffering from gunshot wounds that would not be treated for days. Some were stripped and made to run gantlets in which they were beaten by guards with ax handles, baseball bats and rifle butts. Those singled out as the leaders of the rebellion were marked with Xs on their backs, forced to crawl through mud, tortured and in few cases, it appears, executed.