Examining the legacy of the Attica riots, 45 years later
Historian Heather Ann Thompson finds both horrors and hope in the epic saga of the Attica Prison uprising.
In 1971, officers retook the upstate New York prison known as the Attica Correctional Facility from prisoners who’d taken over in a sudden, unplanned uprising. Nine hostages and 33 prisoners died, and dozens more were seriously injured.
The initial Attica news stories, the ones flashed around the nation, blamed the deaths on inhuman inmates. But the truth was much different. In fact, officers had killed many of the dead in a spree of uncontrolled mayhem. Out-of-control law enforcement and inept political leaders, not prisoners, deserve much of the blame for the disaster. Forty-five years later, the most catastrophic prison revolt in American history has largely faded into the obscurity of half-remembered history. If Americans remember it at all, it’s often because they recall hearing the Al Pacino character chant “Attica! Attica! Attica!” at a crowd in the 1975 bank hostage drama “Dog Day Afternoon.”
But many miss the point of the movie reference, says University of Michigan history professor Heather Ann Thompson, author of a stunning new book about the Attica prison uprising. The Pacino character isn’t sounding the alarm about an impending uprising. Instead, he alerts a crowd to the prospect of lawless violence by the police in an Attica-style takeover.
Only now, thanks to Thompson’s remarkable book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, are we getting the full story.
Thompson transports readers to the Attica prison of 1971, where inmates chose violence as their only way to fight back against abuse that may seem almost quaint amid the reports of prison horrors today. She chronicles the riot in nail-biting detail, then uses public records – some long-hidden – to expose the craven cover-up and an endless quest for justice. In an interview with the Monitor, Thompson talks about truth, lies, and Attica’s not-entirely-negative legacy. “We were sold a false bill of goods as to what happened,” Thompson says. “But this isn’t just about rescuing a story. It’s bigger than that. It’s about how prisons are public institutions, and we all have an obligation to know what goes behind those bars.”
Q: What drew you to this story?
I’m a civil rights and labor historian by training, and my first book was about the civil rights activism that shook Detroit in 1967. I was very intrigued by Attica, a civil rights event that takes place in prison.
My 13-year journey to write the book made me understand that this is indeed an extraordinary justice story.
It’s about probably the nation’s most marginalized citizens – overwhelmingly African American and Puerto Rican, poor and locked up – who had this irrepressible demand to be treated like human beings. It’s also a story how the nation changes its entire criminal justice ethos and apparatus, how we become the world’s biggest incarcerator.
Q: In your book, just about everyone in charge is terrible. It’s a stunning display of inept leadership. But few people know about Attica today. Is that why it’s forgotten, because many people wanted this debacle to vanish from history?
From the minute that the gas clears over D Yard, there is a very concerted effort by state officials to spin what was clearly a disaster into something altogether different.
They tell the nation that the prisoners had killed the hostages, and America sickens on the idea of Attica, which came to mean the worst of the worst. Any sympathy for prisoners was being dissuaded. To the extent that anyone thought about Attica, they were comfortable that this was a horrible prison with horrible people in it who committed horrible acts.
And then the perpetrators of the most violence are never brought to justice.
Q: One of the unresolved questions of Attica is how those in charge – from New York prison officials to the state police to Governor Nelson Rockefeller – should have responded after the prisoners took over Attica and killed a guard. The prisoners want blanket amnesty, a promise that they wouldn’t be prosecuted. There’s no way a Republican law-and-order governor like Rockefeller would have allowed that, and this sticking point helped to prevent a peaceful resolution. Was there another way?
There no question that this was resolvable.
Everybody, including Republican advisers, tells Rockefeller that he needs to come to Attica. He doesn’t need to meet with prisoners, but he needs to give his word as the governor that these inmates will not be beaten up, that he will protect their civil rights, that there will not be wholesale prosecutions.
Instead, he opts to send in men who’d been there four days, who were furious, sleep-deprived, and armed to the teeth. The retaking is a disastrous decision. They know they will kill hostages, and they do it anyway.
Q: How much blame do you put on Rockefeller, who cozies up to President Nixon, wants to rise in the GOP and eventually becomes vice president under Gerald Ford?
It’s very tempting in the Attica story to put this all on Rockefeller, and his role in this is really shameful from a historical point of view.
But the overall story I try to tell in this book is so much bigger than Rockefeller at every level. From the low-level workers compensation clerk to the state senators to the governor’s office to the president to the Supreme Court to the Justice Department – that’s how many places Attica touched –- people with power did nothing to help both the prisoners and the hostages who’d been so brutally treated by the state of New York.
Everybody who could have jumped in did nothing until the end of the book when a judge steps in. But boy, is there a long line of people until we get to the judge in the year 2000.
Q: How can we do more than simply be horrified and depressed by this saga?
Here’s the positive: No matter what the odds, no matter who has the money and the power and clout, some of the poorest and most marginalized people in our society – white correction officers and the overwhelmingly black prisoners from Attica – stick to it. For 35 years, they fight to be heard. It’s an irrepressible story of justice.
Q. We’re hearing more and more about the abusive conditions in American prisons and jails. Has anything changed since Attica, and could an uprising like this happen again?
Attica’s legacy is complicated.
There were key reforms in New York prisons for a while. But there was also incredible repression that led to the building of one of the most repressive prison systems we’ve ever seen.
It’s actually gotten much worse. People serve more time in solitary confinement, we have more children locked up for life, we have longer sentences.
But it’s a pendulum. Attica is about how that can’t last. People speak out, and people fight back. Prisoners and guards will reform prison once again.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is immediate past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.