Power to the People: Attica and Radical Reconstruction

This is the fifth day of our roundtable on Heather Ann Thompson’s book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. On Sunday, Michael Ezra introduced the roundtable and Kali Nicole Gross discussed how to approach trauma in historical writing. On Monday, Dan Berger described the book’s value within the historiography of the carceral state. On Tuesday, Danielle McGuire related Blood in the Water to a legacy of resistance. On Wednesday, Robert Chase placed the Attica Prison Uprising within a broader political movement. Today, we are featuring posts from two historians: LaShawn Harris and Russell Rickford. In the following post, Rickford examines the legacy of state violence present in the retaking of the Attica Correctional Facility.

Portion of a cellblock at the West Virginia State Penitentiary that operated from 1876 to 1995, West Virginia Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

In the spring of 2004 I got my first look at Rikers Island Prison, an institution that crouches like an ogre in Manhattan’s East River. At the time I was a teaching assistant for “Youth Voices on Lockdown,” a class on “hip hop and spoken word vs. the prison industrial complex” offered by Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African American Studies. The course, which enrolled both Columbia undergraduates and residents of the youth annex at Rikers, featured regular visits to the facility.

I remember Rikers as a site of both isolation—appropriate for a structure that houses people who, from the time of their birth, society never wishes to see—and hypervisibility—planes from nearby LaGuardia Airport were constantly roaring overhead. I remember the tough, scared eyes of the teenagers who were caged there. I remember their accounts of routine violence, from beatings to sexual assault by guards. And I remember the bureaucratic cruelty of the edifice itself. Though identified as a correctional facility, no “correction” occurred at Rikers. It was a place of torture, a means of subjecting to further agony young men of color who had been abused—in school, on the street, and in many cases at home—their entire lives.

I found myself recalling the entrenched brutality of Rikers while reading Blood in the Water, Heather Ann Thompson’s fascinating history of the 1971 prison uprising in Attica, New York. Thompson’s study is an exploration, both journalistic and scholarly, of the viciousness of the carceral state as a system of conquest and degradation. It is also a meditation on the peculiar condition of blackness in the post-civil rights era, a period that witnessed the disappearance of formal barriers to racial equality, even as a modern regime of criminalization imposed new dimensions of suffering on the poor and marginalized.

Blood in the Water begins with an account of the everyday indignities endured by Attica prisoners in the early 1970s. This record of abuse—from the denial of regular showers and medical care to the implementation of capricious rules and punishments—provides the prologue to the rebellion. It also illustrates the prosaic aspects of a culture of dehumanization, a culture that law enforcement agents performed far more explicitly during the retaking of Attica on September 13, 1971.

Thompson depicts Attica as a locus of politicization. By the early 1970s the tides of contemporary radicalism were breaching the prison walls, shrinking the gap between the penitentiary and the larger society and offering inmates new frameworks for understanding their subjugation. Officials used tropes of black militancy and aggression to justify punitive methods of control behind bars and within neighborhoods of color. Yet the ethos of popular resistance brought greater organization and vitality to the otherwise dreary existence of many prisoners.

At Attica, festering anger exploded—and a fragile solidarity coalesced—during the 1971 revolt. Black, Latino, and white prisoners seized a portion of the facility, taking as hostages several guards and civilian employees. Thompson’s portrayal of the four days of self-rule that followed underscores the ingenuity of a set of men that society had all but discarded. The “brothers” forged an operational unity, transforming the prison yard into a community whose functions—from decision-making to the distribution of food and shelter—were far more orderly and democratic than were those of the ostensibly rational civilization beyond the institution’s walls.

View from a hallway into a cell at the West Virginia State Penitentiary, West Virginia Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

This irony reflects one of the key subthemes of Blood in the Water—the humanity of Attica’s inmates and the barbarism or malign indifference of many of the men charged with maintaining their captivity, including the troopers and corrections officers that surrounded the prison hours after the takeover. Even as heavily-armed agents massed at the facility’s gates, Attica’s mutinous prisoners sensed that the implications of their struggle transcended their immediate circumstances. Some of the men came to believe, however briefly, that they were participating in the construction of an entirely new order.

Despite the courage of many of the rebels, the tension of the standoff with law enforcement agents builds and the reader recognizes that the onslaught is coming. When it arrives it is even more gruesome than one expects.

Working through mediators, the prisoners had made a series of relatively modest demands—from expanded educational opportunities to religious freedom—designed to humanize life at Attica. But Governor Nelson Rockefeller and penal officials were loath to grant legal amnesty, a concession that would have shielded the insurrection’s leaders from reprisal and prosecution. Eager to end a politically embarrassing situation, authorities abruptly unleashed the small army of troopers and officers that had assembled in response to the takeover. As Thompson demonstrates, these men stormed the prison in a spirit of vengeance, brandishing an arsenal of high-powered rifles and other firearms.

The ensuing massacre constitutes the central narrative axis of Blood in the Water. Thompson’s description of the retaking of Attica leaves no doubt about the savagery of the affair. She shows conclusively that officials ordered the raid with full knowledge that many of the hostages and prisoners would die; that the nine hostages who perished during the assault were killed by bullets fired by troopers and corrections officers; and that the 29 prisoners who lost their lives were slain amid a military-style siege fueled by racial fury.

The final two-thirds of Blood in the Water offers an extended denouement. Thompson details the grisly forms of torture the captured men endured after the rebellion was crushed. She chronicles the duplicity of officials who conspired to conceal from investigators and the public the appalling realities of the 1971 raid. And she recounts the decades-long quest of the Attica brothers and the families of murdered hostages to achieve justice and to come to terms with the carnage.

Blood in the Water’s primary contribution is its recovery of a notorious historical event that has remained shrouded in mystery. Yet students of social movements may find in the work a larger provocation. Thompson’s text invites contemplation of the nature of subaltern struggle since the upheavals of the 1960s. Intriguing lines of comparison may be drawn between Attica and other more or less contemporary episodes of repression and resistance, from Kent State and Jackson State (1970) to Wounded Knee (1973) to Soweto, South Africa (1976) to the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia (1985).

Revolt in a Prison in Damascus, Syria in 1895, Miscellaneous Items in High Demand Collection (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection)

Situating Attica within a broader chronological arc suggests other resonances. As a state-sanctioned act of summary execution, the event might be viewed as a harbinger of the age of disposability, when retrenchment, political reaction, and an especially predatory phase of capitalism consigned to the ranks of a surplus class a disproportionately black and brown population. Thompson sees the Attica insurgency as further evidence that we cannot dismiss the 1970s as “the decade of unmitigated backlash.” Yet she fully acknowledges the event’s role in bolstering the law and order orthodoxies of the post-civil rights counterrevolution.

Though Blood in the Water avoids reifying the false polarity of resistance and repression, a subtle tension between reform and revolution pervades the text. One example is the author’s treatment of an original demand of the Attica rebels: transportation to a “non-imperialistic country.” Thompson stresses that this request was dropped early in the negotiation process; improving conditions within the facility was the major concern of most of the prisoners. However, emphasis on the practicality of the rebellion’s demands can obscure the global sensibilities of the struggle. It is important to note that for some Attica insurgents, liberation meant escaping altogether U.S. empire and the predations of racial capitalism.

Still, Thompson is right to cast Attica as an American tragedy. By showing that the affair was more a state-authorized pogrom than it was a prisoner riot, she demonstrates the power of the historian to expose injustice and demand accountability. Attica continues to haunt us. It reverberates in many of our crises of racism and violence, from militarized responses to dissent in Ferguson, Missouri and in the Standing Rock territory of the Dakotas, to the use of drones and technologies of death to eliminate “thugs,” “terrorists,” and other combatants who are viewed as uniquely aggressive.

In a real sense, all our “Atticas” past and present are products of the original sins of genocide and slavery. America’s abiding ruthlessness stems not just from the malice of bigots, but also from the foundational logic of settler colonialism. Of course, an audacious spirit of opposition has also survived. Given our nation’s drift toward authoritarian governance and social precarity, we may yet realize the truth of a statement made by one of the Attica brothers at the height of the revolt: “What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.”

Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.

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Russell Rickford

Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of 'We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination.' A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.