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Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy Hardcover – August 23, 2016
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Praise for Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water
“Gripping . . . Not all works of history have something to say so directly to the present, but Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, which deals with racial conflict, mass incarceration, police brutality and dissembling politicians, reads like it was special-ordered for the sweltering summer of 2016. But there’s nothing partisan or argumentative about Blood in the Water. The power of this superb work of history comes from its methodical mastery of interviews, transcripts, police reports and other documents, covering 35 years, many released only reluctantly by government agencies . . . It’s Ms. Thompson’s achievement, in this remarkable book, to make us understand why this one group of prisoners [rebelled], and how many others shared the cost.” —Mark Oppenheimer, The New York Times
“Chilling, and in places downright shocking . . . [Thompson] tells the story of the riot and its aftermath with precision and momentum.” —Bryan Burrough, The Wall Street Journal
“A masterly account . . . Essential . . . Blood in the Water restores [the prisoners’] struggle to its rightful place in our collective memory.” —James Forman Jr., The New York Times Book Review
“A long, memorable chronicle . . . dense with new information . . . Thompson’s capacity for close observation and her honesty [are] impressive.” —Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
“Masterful.” —Lewis M. Steel, The Nation
“Thompson’s book is a masterpiece of historical research; it is thoroughly researched, extensively documented and reads like a novel . . . Magnificent.” —Terry Hartle, The Christian Science Monitor
“Heather Ann Thompson tracked down long-hidden files related to the tragedy at Attica—some of which have since disappeared—to tell the saga in its full horror.” —Larry Getlen, New York Post
“Writing with cinematic clarity from meticulously sourced material, [Thompson] brilliantly exposes the realities of the Attica prison uprising . . . Thompson’s superb and thorough study serves as a powerful tale of the search for justice in the face of the abuses of institutional power.” —Publishers Weekly Review of the Day (starred review)
“[A] real eye-opener for readers whose interest in Attica and knowledge of what happened ended when the headlines receded . . . Compelling . . . Sensitive . . . Impressively authoritative and thoughtfully composed.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Blood in the Water is extraordinary—a true gift to the written history of civil rights and racial justice struggles in America.” —Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
“Remarkable. Blood in the Water is a historical tour de force. It sheds new light on these most important historical events, events that in part triggered the wave of exponential prison growth today. For those of us who have been tracing the rise of mass incarceration in this country, Heather Ann Thompson’s book is a must read.” —Bernard E. Harcourt, Professor of Law and Political Science at Columbia University
“Heather Ann Thompson wields the powers of the historian with mesmerizing force. Forty-five years after the Attica uprising, Blood in the Water offers the most complete history to date on that tragic episode and does so with unflinching purpose: a clearer view of the consequences for human life, both past and present.” —Glenn E. Martin, Founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA
“Blood in the Water tells of warning signs in 1971 that still exist more than forty years later. Heather Ann Thompson’s prophetic analysis is a sobering reminder that we must all care about what is happening to human beings behind prison walls.” —Soffiyah Elijah, Executive Director of the Correctional Association of New York
About the Author
HEATHER ANN THOMPSON is an award-winning historian at the University of Michigan. Her most recent book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, won the Pulitzer Prize in History, the Bancroft Prize, the Ridenhour Book Prize, and the J. Willard Hurst Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, among other accolades. She is also the author of Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City and the editor of Speaking Out: Activism and Protest in the 1960s and 1970s. She served on a National Academy of Sciences blue-ribbon panel that studied the causes and consequences of mass incarceration in the United States and has given congressional staff briefings on the subject. She has written on the history of mass incarceration and its current impact for The New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, Salon, Newsweek, NBC, Dissent, New Labor Forum, and The Huffington Post, as well as for various top scholarly publications.
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45 years ago, prisoners took over an exercise yard at Attica prison, after months of having their complaints about insufficient food, lack of medical care, guard brutality ignored. As negotiations with the prisoners were beginning to bear fruit (the state agreed that virtually all,of their complaints were legitimate), Rockefeller decided to slaughter the prisoners, to ensure he was viewed as "tough on crime" and to further his national political ambitions. The casual racism behind this decision was explicitly approved by Nixon sitting in the Oval Office (as we know because of his now famous taping system).
Over the following decades, New York State did whatever it could to obscure what happened and shift blame from itself to the prisoners. Before a single body was examined, the state announced that prisoners had eviscerated guards, and castrated at least one of them, cutting off his genitiles and stuffing them in his mouth. Nothing of the sort occurred. All of the guards killed in the end were slaughtered by law enforcement; none by prisoners.
After reviewing all of the events of the days during the uprising and the slaughter in the days after, Thompson turns to the cover up...which reached all the way to Governor (and then Vice President) Rockefeller. She then turns to the tireless efforts of the men at Attica to gain legal redress for the harm done to them, and then to the surviving guards' battle for an apology and compensation.
At the end is a wonderful Epilogue, discussing the impact not so much of the uprising itself on the course of history, but the even bigger impact of the false narrative and cover up which followed the mass slaughter by the state in the aftermath.
The book was so fascinating, that I kept going all the way through the acknowledgments. A pretty comprehensive list, including illustrious scholars like Michele Alexander and Toussaint Losier; and my great friend, Shaena Fazal. Buried in the middle, was mention of Alan Mills. If this is me, I do not belong in this esteemed crowd, and had nothing to do with the book..but am so honored to be included. Wow.
Anyway, read the book! Attica; Fight Back.
Discussing the beginning of the disaster, Thompson writes, “It was obvious to anyone who was at Attica that members of law enforcement were so riled up that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for them to do their job dispassionately should they be sent in to retake the prison” (pg. 153). She continues, “Whereas the National Guard had a clear plan already in place for bringing civil disturbances in confined areas under control, known as Operation Plan Skyhawk, the New York State Police had virtually no formal training for this sort of action” (pg. 165). Rockefeller and his subordinates feared the image of National Guardsmen storming the prison would too closely evoke Kent State. As the police readied, “although for full days had passed during which those in charge could have ensured that all protocols regarding the distribution of weapons were followed, none of the weapons now being readied for the retaking had been formally recorded. And thus, the men who were about to go into Attica were accountable to no one” (pg. 168).
Thompson describes the beginning of the cover-up following the retaking of the prison. She writes, NYSP “Captain Henry Williams went to great lengths to thwart every state effort to ask thorny questions about the actions of his men. And he went even further than that. In the immediate aftermath of the retaking, Williams took it upon himself to make sure as much evidence as possible was collected that might indicate that a prisoner committed a crime…while also making sure that nothing related to the shooting – shell casings, the weapons themselves – was collected” (pg. 288). In discussing Malcolm Bell’s attempt to apply justice evenly, Thompson writes that, despite efforts of NYSP to withhold evidence, “The one thing that [troopers’ statements] did provide, in a few instances, was evidence of which specific prisoners were shot by which specific troopers and, as important, evidence of which troopers had fired their weapons without justification and thus, in all likelihood, criminally” (pg. 409). She continues, “In the course of processing how it was that vital hindering cases had been allowed to implode, Bell eventually came to believe that a serious prosecution of members of law enforcement had in fact been set up to fail from the moment Simonetti had told him to switch his efforts from the shooter cases to cases of hindering the investigation back in August of 1974” (pg. 422). Further, “By the close of fall 1974, Bell had begun to worry that he had stumbled upon an outright conspiracy to protect Attica’s shooters, one that reached to the highest level of his own Attica investigation as well as to the office of the former governor, Nelson Rockefeller” (pg. 435). This led Bell to turn whistleblower in an attempt to expose the truth, though the State of New York managed to mitigate his revelations.
The state further betrayed the hostages, many of whom were state employees, by tricking them into accepting workman’s compensation in order to prevent them from filing a lawsuit. Thompson writes, “Without formally filing for workman’s compensation, the checks simply showed up soon after the retaking. Unbeknownst to the recipients, the instant that an Attica survivor or widow signed and cashed one of these checks, under New York state law they had ‘elected a remedy,’ which meant that they could no longer sue the state for damages” (pg. 518). In discussing the former hostages’ and their relatives’ attempts to sue the state, Thompson writes, “Getting a state official to acknowledge under oath who had shot John Monteleone, a hostage who had later died from that same shot, was huge. For the purposes of this lawsuit it confirmed just how excessive and brutal the shooting during the retaking had been. Of course it also confirmed that state officials were aware who had killed whom at Attica – the very point that Malcolm Bell had been trying to make when he went public back in 1975” (pg. 524).
Thompson concludes, “The Attica uprising of 1971 happened because ordinary men, poor men, disfranchised men, and men of color had simply had enough of being treated as less than human. That desire, and their fight, is by far Attica’s most important legacy” (pg. 570). Further, “The Attica prison uprising of 1971 shows the nation that even the most marginalized citizens will never stop fighting to be treated as human beings. It testifies to this irrepressible demand for justice. This is Attica’s legacy” (pg. 571).