Writing Atrocity, Rethinking Rebellion, and Documenting State Violence

This is the fourth 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. In today’s post, historian Robert Chase places the Attica Prison Uprising within a broader political movement.

La fustigation en place publique à Wilmington, “Pageant of America” Collection (New York Public Library Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art and Photographs)

To begin her monumental history of the Attica prison uprising of 1971, Heather Ann Thompson offers four stark quotes from a prison guard, a national guardsman, a New York State trooper, and a prisoner.  Chosen to represent the people on the ground who witnessed, experienced, and may have perpetrated the full brunt of Attica’s brutality, these four telling quotes collectively seize the reader’s rapt attention and demonstrate that this book’s aim is to uncover the undeniable truth that Attica represents an act of state violence equally as significant and historic as the My Lai massacre of 1968.  But while Seymour Hersch’s investigative journalism offered a near immediate revelation to American audiences about the extent that the My Lai massacre exposed the utter brutality and sheer futility of the Vietnam War, the full story of Attica and how the legacy of that singularly violent and traumatic event shaped the next forty years of American history has remained buried and largely forgotten.  That is until the publication of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy.

Written for a popular audience, the smart organization of Blood in the Water’s storylines compels readers to reckon with three key analytical narratives. First, Thompson offers a humanized portrait of prisoners that reminds readers that people who have been convicted of a crime still deserve civil and indeed human rights. By placing the Attica uprising within a civil and human rights-based narrative, Blood in the Water bridges the prisoners’ rights movement with a convincing link to Black Power and civil rights histories. Second, Blood in the Water navigates the daunting task of delivering visceral portrayals of the most brutal kind of state violence without allowing the narrative to become overwhelmed by one salacious account after the next. Third, Blood in the Water is a truth-telling project that offers a counter narrative that not only depicts the facts of state violence but the true import of surreptitious state cover-up and decades-long denial.

Prison organizing, according to Thompson, drew on both labor protest and Black Power dissent tactics. In Attica at the time of the uprising, most prisoners earned only 6–29 cents a day for their labor, while the prison made $1.2 million in sales a year from the prisoners’ work.  Moreover, labor was not distributed fairly among the inmates.  Whites were only 37 percent of the prisoner population but held more than two-thirds of the highest-paid jobs, while prisoners of color held 76 percent of positions in the low-paid metal shop.  Attica prisoners suffered from prolonged solitary confinement, inadequate healthcare, extreme overcrowding, and corporal punishment.

Inspired by the civil rights and the Black freedom struggle, prisoners at Attica and across the nation increasingly became politicized against such conditions. During the 1960s and 1970s, prisoners made concrete demands to improve their immediate living and working conditions, even as they simultaneously made claims that as people under the full auspices of state control they were entitled to both constitutional protections as citizens and basic human rights.  Nationally, there were five prison uprisings in 1967; fifteen in 1968; twenty-seven in 1970; thirty-seven in 1971; and forty-eight in 1972—the most prison uprisings in any year in U.S. history.  Occurring only a month after George Jackson’s murder by California prison authorities, the September 1971 Attica Prison uprising was part of a national cry among prisoners.  Indeed, the Attica Liberation Faction declared in a manifesto that: “We are firm in our resolve and we demand, as human beings, the dignity and justice that is due to us by our right of birth.”  Moreover, Attica’s prisoners pointed out that prisons were, after all, public institutions and as such should be accountable to taxpayers and made more transparent.  “The taxpayers,” the manifesto concluded, “who just happen to be our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons should be made aware of how their tax dollars are being spent to deny their sons, brothers, fathers and uncles of justice, equality and dignity.”

It is within the context of this nation-wide prison organizing that Thompson elects to call what transpired at Attica an uprising rather than a “riot.” While the immediate cause of the takeover was a struggle between a guard and prisoner, politicized prisoners quickly galvanized into a collective democratic expression that collectively organized fellow prisoners, protected the hostages, issued a list of grievances, and called for thirty-three external observers to visit the prison.  Such immediate prison organization was possible because the prison already had a number of grassroots organizations, whose leaders represented a wide spectrum of organizations, including the prominent speaker and Black Panther L. D. Barkley, self-taught legal expert (a.k.a. prison house lawyer) Roger Champen, Black Muslim Richard X. Clark, Black Panther Tommy Hicks, activist Herbert X. Blyden, Young Lords leader Mariano “Dalou” Gonzalez, and Weatherman Sam Melville.

After four days of negotiations, Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state police to retake the prison in a bloody state assault that ended with thirty-nine people killed and eighty-nine wounded.  The state’s assault began when helicopters above the prison unleashed a thick fog of gas that caused “tearing, nausea, and retching” and rendered the rebelling prisoners easy captives. But instead of rounding up the retching inmates, police and guardsmen—who after days of anxious waiting were now “buzzing from a toxic cocktail of hatred, fear, and aggression”—unleashed a barrage of fire from hundreds of guns. “The bullets were coming like rain,” one prisoner said. Neither rebelling prisoners nor hostages were spared.  In one chilling example, Thompson describes how four bullets ripped through guard and hostage Mike Smith’s “stomach, dead center right between his navel and genitals, exploded upon impact, which sent shrapnel downward to his spine.” Joined by correctional officers, local sheriffs, and park police, the assembled siege “removed their identification badges” and forcibly stormed the prison with batons swinging.

Once the prison was retaken, prisoners were stripped naked, made to crawl through the mud, and then proceed through a police line where they were beaten with clubs. Perceived leaders of the uprising fared far worse, however. LD Barkley, the spokesman for the prisoners, was seen by witnesses, including State Assemblyman Arthur Eve, as alive after the assault but his body was later found among the dead.  Thompson recounts how some prisoners were tortured for hours, sodomized with foreign objects, and forced to play shotgun roulette.  Much of this torture was racially motivated.  One state trooper, for example, bragged of shooting a black prisoner and then giving a White Power salute. Importantly, Thompson is the first to publicly name the fourteen troopers and six correctional officers who investigators identified as the shooters.  Yet after Thompson uncovered these names in the archives of the Erie County courthouse, the state removed from public view the material on which she based her revelations.

What makes such violence so intractable is the state’s perpetual denial that any of these things were ever true.  At every turn of the investigation, the state – from the prison administrators, to the state police, to Governor Nelson Rockefeller – denies the surviving prisoners and the public the dignity of truth and full accountability.  None of the men had died from knife wounds, for instance, even though state officials initially convinced the press, even the venerable New York Times, to publish that the throats of hostages had been slashed by inmates.  Worse was the official claim and falsely reported story that prison guard Mike Smith had been castrated by Frank “Big Black” Smith and had his testicles stuffed in his mouth, when, instead, Smith had been shot four times by troopers and “Big Black,” who survived the assault, had subsequently been brutally tortured as state troopers and COs placed a football under his chin and threatened him under pain of death not to let the ball drop as his naked body was beaten and sodomized with a screwdriver.  When describing such state torture, Frank Smith tearfully told a courtroom during the Attica Brothers Legal Defense civil suit trial that even years later he felt “just pain, unbearable pain… I’m just, I’m full of pain.”

Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York reaches out to shake a man’s hand during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, New York City, NY, Miscellaneous Items in High Demand Collection (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

How do historians write a narrative strewn with such violence without their story being utterly consumed by it?  Even when delivering such a disconcerting narrative, Thompson describes just enough of this stark brutality to cast state violence in sharp relief without allowing such a rapacity to overtake her story.  The big take-away is not the violence itself but state prevarication that allows such violent systems to continue unabated.  Thompson concludes that the state’s ability to effectively refute its brutality initiated a pattern of prevarication and duplicity on the part of the criminal justice system, stretching from Attica to Ferguson.

By delivering historical truth about Attica’s atrocities, Thompson reminds the public that prisons continue to perpetuate state injustice.  Among historians, Blood in the Water connects the prisoners’ struggle to a broader and as yet unaddressed civil and human rights narrative.  To make the painful history of Attica meaningful, we must as scholars and as a nation continue to provide witness and make spaces for prisoners’ voices to be heard.  If Seymour Hersch’s My Lai revelations helped raise a nation’s consciousness against the Vietnam War and fuel the antiwar movement, Heather Thompson’s Blood in the Water raises Attica as a rallying cry to dismantle the far reaching power of today’s carceral state.

Robert Chase is an Assistant Professor of History at Stony Brook University. His research focuses on connecting the civil rights movement and labor organizing with the prisoners’ rights movement. His forthcoming book, Civil Rights on the Cell Block: Prisoners’ Rights Movements and the Construction of Carceral States, 1945-1995, argues that mass incarceration developed in response to the prisoners’ rights movement’s successful legal challenges against the criminal justice system. Follow him on Twitter @R_T_Chase.

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Robert T. Chase

Robert T. Chase is associate professor of history at Stony Brook University, State University of New York (SUNY). He is the author of 'We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners Rights in Postwar America' (UNC, 2020). He is also the editor of 'Caging Borders and Carceral States: Incarcerations, Immigration Detentions, and Resistance' (UNC Press, 2019). aClements Center, Case Western Reserve University, and Rutgers University. Chase is currently the co-director of the national organization 'Historians Against Slavery' (HAS).  

Comments on “Writing Atrocity, Rethinking Rebellion, and Documenting State Violence

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    Wow! And I thought Abu Ghraib was the most detestable violence against an enemy in prison. Thank you for the effort, time, and academic excellence in digging up such priceless information.

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