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The spirit of Attica

Alex Kerner

February 21, 2018

America in 1971 was a country in the midst of massive social uprisings. The Civil Rights and Black Nationalist movements, the Anti-War Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement and all the organizations that were central to these were shaping public debates in all corners of society. The American prison system was no exception. As jails and prisons faced endemic overcrowding and poor conditions, inmates quickly flocked to radical political ideas wanting to bring the power of human liberation to the struggle for a more just incarceration system.

It was in this context that the largest prison uprising in American history occurred at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York, and where the story begins for Heather Ann Thompson’s definitive history of the uprising and its aftermath, Blood in the Water.

Weighing in at 752 pages, Thompson takes us on an incredible and tragic journey, starting with the brutally violent conditions prisoners were subjected to, where a small altercation with correctional guards sparked the prisoner takeover of the facility. What followed were four days of tense negotiations between prisoners and state officials, the former hoping to negotiate improved living conditions and political freedom (such as access to revolutionary literature).

Despite efforts from players on both sides, the office of New York governor and the governor himself refused to entertain one of the most important prisoner demands, full amnesty for those participating in the uprising. Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican with national aspirations was desperate to bolster his conservative bona fides and did not want to appear lax with the prisoners. Eventually, he grew impatient and gave the go ahead to take the facility back by force.

In some of the most difficult to read chapters, Thompson describes how ill prepared and trigger-happy state troopers went full force into the prison yard, shooting, maiming and killing not only prisoners but also their hostages. Ignoring cries of surrender, the state forces were intent on sending a message to those who had dared rise up against the prison authority. Over several hours, the state forces engaged in acts of torture and brutality, exacting particularly humiliating punishment on those perceived as ring-leaders.

What followed the bloody retaking was more than three decades of legal battles, initially with the state going on the offensive, attempting to criminally prosecute prisoners. However, driven and whip-smart legal teams and prisoners managed to push back against the vast majority of the indictments.

Emboldened, the victims of the takeover launched class action suits against the state of New York that took years to resolve, sadly with many who suffered gruesomely having died by the time a settlement was reached. Eventually, the families of prison guards, who had been held hostage and who perished at the hand state troopers, eventually secured monetary compensation, after years of being lied to as to who was guilty of killing their kin.

Thompson’s Blood in the Water won both the 2017 Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize, some of the most prestigious awards in history writing and it certainly deserves all the accolades. Filled with enormous amounts of detail, personal accounts of prisoners, advocates, prison guards, and families of those killed in the uprising, Blood in the Water is both rich in content and captivating, a page turner as we are desperate to see if those who suffered so greatly received even a modicum of justice.

And while Thompson spares no detail in terms of the brutality of the uprising and its crushing by state forces, the story she tells asserts that those who stood up to the brutal conditions of the prison system were heroic in their efforts to fight for a better world, both inside and outside the walls of Attica. The spirit of Attica, those who fought and died there or those who continued to fight for decades after, is a spirit that should continue to inspire those eager to see the revolutionary change our world desperately needs.


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