To me, the finest works of history combine three elements: 1) can’t-put-it-down readability; 2) everything-I-thought-I-knew-about-this-subject-was-wrong revelations; and 3) no-source-left-unexamined documentation.
By all three standards, Heather Ann Thompson’s “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy” is about as powerful a history lesson as you’re likely to encounter. Please read it.
But as riveting as it is, this book also will sadden, offend and distress you.
It reveals a mass crime, or spree of crimes, so awful you’ll shake your head and ask, How could this happen in late 20th century America?
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More disconcerting, these terrible acts were committed not by imprisoned felons, but by law enforcement, whose crimes then were successfully hidden for decades.
Thompson’s tale seems especially pertinent in this age of recurring internet videos of black men being shot by police, the Black Lives Matter movement and Colin Kaepernick’s NFL protests against perceived racial injustice.
If nothing else, it demonstrates that, at least in the recent past, law enforcement indeed acted with egregious violence — and impunity —against people of color, on a scale hard to fathom.
I’m old enough to remember the Attica uprising.
The common narrative at the time went like this: Radicalized black and Hispanic prisoners at an upstate New York prison plotted a takeover, savagely attacked guards and captured the institution. They grabbed hostages, whom they abused, menaced and threatened.
They issued ridiculous demands to authorities while growing ever more volatile.
Finally, with no options left, New York state troopers and other law enforcement officers stormed the prison to rescue the hostages. A pitched battle ensued. Inmates pitilessly murdered and even castrated their captives.
Thompson, a professor at the University of Michigan, dismantles this narrative as a grand, albeit nauseatingly successful, lie.
Conditions in Attica before the uprising bordered on the medieval. Inmates were locked in tiny, stifling cells for as long as 23 hours a day. The prison was badly overcrowded.
Fed on a budget of about 60 cents a day, prisoners were hungry. Corrections officers threw inmates’ mail in the trash. Medical and dental care were almost nonexistent. Often, prisoners weren’t even allowed to talk. They were allotted one roll of toilet paper a month.
For minor infractions, they were locked in their cells for days on end. For more serious offenses they were beaten by their white, rural guards, or else banished to the “box” — solitary — for months. Or both.
Not surprisingly, they lived in terror. And seethed with rage.
When the riot finally came, however, it was sparked by accident, through a tragic misunderstanding.
A group of inmates returning from a meal found themselves locked in a tunnel. Word spread that they were about to be beaten. Half-crazy with fear, one jumped a guard. Then others joined in, grabbing makeshift weapons to protect themselves.
The uprising escalated from there, not by design but in chaos, because once the resistance had started, prisoners were too scared of officers’ retaliation to surrender. One guard was badly battered (and eventually died); others were manhandled and taken hostage.
Remarkably quickly, though, the rioters gathered their wits.
They protected captured corrections officers and civilian employees. They helped evacuate the seriously injured guard, and asked officials to send doctors to examine officers with lesser injuries. They shared their food with the hostages and tried to make them comfortable.
Over the next few days, they demanded reforms — adequate food and soap, for example — but mainly sought amnesty for the takeover.
On the fifth day of negotiations, state police, corrections officers and other law enforcement personnel suddenly launched a toxic strain of tear gas into the prison yard and attacked with guns blazing.
It wasn’t a battle. It was a massacre.
Amid clouds of tear gas, wearing gas masks, enraged troopers and corrections officers acted blindly; although they knew hostages were present, they shot anyone in their paths.
Thirty-nine men died, including 10 hostages. Some 128 were wounded.
Allegedly, prisoners who tried to surrender were coldly executed. Others were tortured in full view of inmates and several National Guardsmen at the scene.
Officials refused medical treatment to dozens suffering from broken bones and gunshot wounds. Retributive beatings would continue for months.
Through it all, officers shouted racial taunts and “white power” slogans.
Prison and police officials, aided by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, fashioned an alternate-reality story of organized, radicalized minorities having seized the prison, then having stabbed and sexually mutilated helpless guards.
Soon, autopsies showed all the hostages killed in the assault had died from law enforcement gunfire. And a courageous medical examiner refused to deny this.
State troopers fanned out to funeral homes where dead hostages’ bodies had been taken, warning funeral directors never to tell that the hostages had been shot to death.
Such distortions and threats went on for years, involving multiple state agencies and officials. Reams of incriminating documents were hidden from the public.
Revealing the truth took nearly three decades and a class-action lawsuit by prisoners, who in 2000 won a $12 million judgment from the state.
It’s an unnerving tale.
“Blood in the Water” provides a salutary reminder that, human nature being what it is, those empowered to protect the public, if not held accountable, can become as grave a threat to law and order as those they protect us from.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.