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Racist Preconceptions and an Ongoing Cover-Up Mark the Attica Rebellion’s Legacy

Attica reminds us that prisoners are human beings.

Video grab of prisoners being rounded up after the four-day uprising at Attica Prison. (Photo: Henry Groskinsky / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images)

The reality of what happened at Attica in 1971 has long been suppressed, with an entirely fictional narrative — in which violent prisoners cut the throats of hostages and mutilated their bodies — taking precedence over the truth. In fact, the state of New York was responsible for ending negotiations and assaulting the prison with overwhelming force, knowing that this could and would end in the death and injury of the state’s own employees. Thirty-nine people — prisoners and hostages — died as a result of shots fired by heavily armed troopers and correction officers, over a hundred more were wounded, and surviving prisoners were beaten, tortured and humiliated.

The Attica uprising itself inspired incarcerated people and others to keep struggling even in the face of overwhelming odds, but the backlash — fueled by misinformation and racist preconceptions — was used to justify repressive “law and order” policies and the further dehumanization of prisoners. As we once again face a racist backlash to anti-racist organizing, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy is an essential and timely book. Michelle Alexander calls it “a true gift to the written history of civil rights and racial justice struggles in America.”

Heather Ann Thompson. (Photo: Graham MacIndoe)Heather Ann Thompson. (Photo: Graham MacIndoe)Truthout spoke with historian and author Heather Ann Thompson about the causes and consequences of the Attica rebellion, the historic legal defense campaign fought by the Attica Brothers Legal Defense Fund (ABLD), and the extent to which authorities continue to cover up the truth to this day.

Joe Macaré: Could you start by telling people a little bit about the lead-up to the uprising at Attica? What were conditions like, not just in Attica but also in other New York State prisons?

Heather Ann Thompson: One of the ways to really begin to understand Attica is to go back to 1970. On the one hand, around the country there was a lot of optimism that things were getting much better in prisons — in fact, that we were moving away from prisons toward community corrections. Certainly, in the body public there were a lot of folks who were against the death penalty and really thought that prisoners certainly deserved basic human rights.

The prisons were lagging behind all of that. The conditions were terrible. We know a lot about how bad Southern prisons were in this time, but we don’t really know how bad Northern prisons were — and they were horrendous. They were racially segregated usually; certainly, Black and Brown prisoners experienced much more abuse from guards. At places like Attica, they were being fed on a terrible diet, but also a very meager diet, on 63 cents a day — well below what they needed to survive. The sanitary conditions were terrible.

It’s in that environment, of both optimism from the outside but also the reality of terrible conditions on the inside, that prisoners began to ask for basic human rights. The key is to understand that they were quite hopeful. They wrote letters to state senators and the commissioner of corrections, and despite the fact that the prisoners were very politically motivated, very activist in many ways, they hoped to get these basic needs met kind of through the system, without a lot of horror and drama.

The state of New York had always planned on retaking this prison with force.

The problem was that the state of New York ignored those needs, and so places — not just Attica but many prisons — erupt because the sheer frustration of, for example, not having more than one square of toilet paper a day, is really politicizing to the folks on the inside. It really makes them understand that they are more humane than their captors.

In the case of Attica, the actual rebellion begins because of what is, in many senses, a completely accidental series of events. But the fact that it becomes such an articulate rebellion is down to how much this had been discussed in the months and years preceding Attica.

It’s very striking in the book that that moment when the rebellion began was based on misunderstanding and chance, and initially was something very spontaneous. The structure and the political demands were something that certain prisoners had to impose on that chaos. Can you talk a little about what happened there and that process?

On the morning that we will now mark as the beginning of the Attica uprising, prison management had made a decision essentially to retaliate against a particular company of prisoners for some upheaval the night before by locking the doors to the recreation yard that they normally would have gone out of in this one tunnel.

The problem was, as was typical with management, they also ignored the concerns of the guards who worked there. They didn’t tell them what was going on, they didn’t tell the prisoners what was going on. In that very tense environment, everyone panicked and sheer chaos ensued. In that moment of chaos — where everyone is backing away from each other and trying to arm themselves with anything they can find, fearing that something bad is about to happen on the part of prison management — a gate comes open. That is why the chaos escalates. The entire prison is soon overrun by people trying to hide and seek safety, but in that chaos, a lot of people get hurt. It is nothing short of a riot by all definitions.

No one felt the need to corroborate this story, because it made ultimate sense to them.

But as you note, what is really incredible is the way in which the folks who had been having really intense discussions in the yard leading up to that — about the importance of articulating prisoner rights and the importance of bringing the world’s attention to what really goes on behind bars — their cooler heads prevail. They manage to move everyone into the one yard, out in the open, and that’s when the real rebellion begins. Folks elect officials to speak for them out of each cell block, they bring in observers, and they set up a medical tent and a food distribution area.

All of that was down to the fact that there had been so much discussion about the fact that, as L.D. Barkley said: “We are men! We are not beasts.” It was this moment when everyone realized, Look, we’re in charge for a moment, let’s bring in the media, let’s bring the state to the table and let’s ask for — again, this is key — basic, basic human rights.

When it comes to the state’s disastrous decision to send in state troopers and to assault the prison, to what extent was that a tactical error, and to what extent do you see this as ideologically driven? Had Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in particular decided to respond with a show of force, believing that whether or not the hostages were saved was an acceptable loss?

That’s a great question, because my thinking when I went into the project was that there were numerable regrettable decisions made, and I certainly think that’s the way most people have understood this event. That ultimately, the fact that this uprising ends with state troopers and guards shooting and killing 39 men — hostages and prisoners alike — all of that was down to a series of regrettable decisions, starting with sending in the state troopers…. That if they just would have waited a few more days, this could have been avoided.

The thing is, in the course of doing this book, which took 13 years, I was able to find documents that persuaded me that this was absolutely not a series of regrettable decisions. In fact, the state of New York had always planned on retaking this prison with force. In fact, what delayed it, if nothing else, was the fact that there were these observers inside, including a US congressman and numerous other elected officials…. It was also not accidental that they had the New York State Troopers take the prison, not the National Guard — and not just the New York State Troopers, but the lowest-ranking troop battalions end up being in charge.

I now understand that that’s in part because Rockefeller was intensely politically ambitious. He was determined to show his own party that he was as “tough on crime” as Richard Nixon, who he very much envied being in the White House. There was just no way that he was going to let this thing end with the prisoners coming out victorious.

Once I identified who was in charge and what the decisions were that were being made, it was pretty clear to me that while it remains the truth that it was totally avoidable — there were a million things they could have done differently — that they had no intention of doing things differently.

Untruths circulated in the immediate aftermath of that retaking, particularly the story that it was the prisoners who had killed hostages by cutting their throats. Reading the book, this seemed to me a pretty bold invention on the part of the state. Could you comment on how deliberate that piece of misinformation was and the impact that it had?

The book puts more emphasis on the impact than the intentionality, and that’s because I’m actually not persuaded that the commissioner of corrections and the PR guy that step out in front of the prison and tell the world that the prisoners have killed the hostages — that fateful lie — I’m not persuaded that they did that knowing for a fact that the prisoners had not killed the hostages. I say that because, of course, in the chaos on the ground, rumors fly, god knows what happened, all people see is the carnage.

Even if the activists prevent the worst that the state might do left unchecked, it is nevertheless carceral, it is nevertheless inherently racist and inherently oppressive.

But here’s the key: Those officials and the reporters who placed that story on the front page of The New York Times, intentionally or not, completely corroborated their own racial imagination. It completely made sense to them that prisoners, when given half the chance, would not just slash the throats of guards, but that they would castrate one of them and so forth. This fits their own preconceived and deeply held racial imagination. In that sense, I don’t think it’s intentional, but I think it’s deeply illuminating … how no one felt the need to corroborate this story, because it made ultimate sense to them. So, perhaps not intentional, but deeply, deeply disturbing.

The impact was profound. The story went out on the front page of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and perhaps most importantly, out over the AP wire, which meant the front page of every small-town newspaper in [the US], virtually. It profoundly sours many people who had, maybe grudgingly, come along to the idea that prisoners are people and the civil rights movement is necessary. In a blink of an eye, for those people — we’re not talking about the committed activists who had always believed, but the broader public who had come around to that idea — this was horrific. This persuaded them that in fact, civil rights are bankrupt, that prisoners are, in fact, “animals.”

I argue in the book that while there is a glimpse of reforms that come after Attica, that if we really want to understand this punitive, punitive ethos that helps to build the world’s largest carceral apparatus, we need to look to Attica…. Those lies had a profound impact on the nation.

Part of the book is a courtroom story, the tale of a legal battle. In terms of the fight in which the ABLD and others were engaged, what light does that shed on the possibilities and also the problems of using the courts as a tool to get justice for people who’ve been victims of state violence?

The middle third of the book is really about the extraordinary legal defense effort that is launched on behalf of the Attica brothers to make sure that they’re not railroaded for all of the violence that goes down at Attica in the days of the retaking and after. It’s a moment that I know law students read about, because it’s this remarkable case study in the power of public defenders, the power of grassroots legal activism.

On the one hand, I think what it shows is that we completely underestimate that power. When folks with legal training work with grassroots activists, their power is profound. They can, in fact, bring the state to its knees. In Attica, in countless of those cases, they do exactly that. So, I love that that story is out there for us to reckon with.

But it’s also the case — and this is perhaps a separate conversation — that even if they keep the state at bay, and even if they prevent the worst that the state might do left unchecked, it still remains the carceral apparatus. While perhaps it can be softened, it can be mitigated, it can be reformed, it can be made more livable, it is nevertheless carceral, it is nevertheless inherently racist and inherently oppressive.

Attica is a powerful reminder that people living behind bars are human beings and that is no less true today than it was in 1971.

So, I think there’s two questions and I don’t think they should necessarily be conflated. One is: Does the legal profession have an obligation to (and an impact on) the real lived lives of the people on the inside? The answer is absolutely yes. Attica teaches us that lawyers can’t go at it alone, and folks in the community can’t go at it alone, but combined, they’re profoundly powerful. That’s separate from: Can the system be made fully human? I think the answer to that is no.

In the process of writing the book, to what extent did you discover that the cover-up, the attempt to obscure the truth of what happened at Attica, is in fact still ongoing?

Most of the parties are no longer with us — although some of the lawyers are still alive — so I’ve gotten a lot of questions about: Why in the world are the documents still almost impossible to get? Why are the archives still not fully open?

The answer is complicated. I think that on the one hand, the state police remain committed to shutting down access. They know that there’s no statute of limitations on murder, that plenty of people were murdered at Attica, and they imagine that that puts them at risk. I happen to believe that there is no prosecutor who will take this case now, and in fact, the cover-up that was launched for so many decades very much destroyed the chain of evidence. So, I think that their fears are ill-founded, but I think that they remain. In that sense, the cover-up continues, because the state police still block access to those records.

It’s harder to explain why the state officials don’t just open the records. I think in part that’s just the way bureaucracy works. No state official … wants to be the guy that opens up Pandora’s Box. They probably don’t really know what’s in there, they don’t really know what the risks are, but they certainly don’t want to be the guy who opens the can of worms.

The fact that we know what we know in the book — and this should scare all of us — was largely by happenstance. I found some of the most illuminative records to indicate the depth of the cover-up and to name some of the shooters, but the fact that that happened was not because the state revealed the records and not because they’re sitting somewhere that anyone can find. It was a series of accidents that led to them, and that’s alarming. So, in that sense the cover-up is still alive!

Finally, what is Attica’s legacy in terms of organizing and resistance within prisons — most recently in Florida with Operation PUSH?

Attica is a powerful reminder that people living behind bars are human beings and that is no less true today than it was in 1971. Prisons across the country are erupting today because we, as a nation, have failed to grasp this basic fact, and indeed, have made conditions even more unbearable. If folks on the outside stand up with those on the inside — like those who have launched Operation PUSH — all manners of abuse can finally be stopped.

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