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Book Review: Blood in the Water

Lauren-Brooke Eisen reviews Heather Ann Thompson’s new book, which examines the legacy of the Attica prison uprising.

Published: August 24, 2016

Cross-posted on The National Book Review

For five days in September 1971, the eyes of the nation turned to a maximum-security prison near Buffalo, New York, where nearly 1,300 prisoners had taken control, seized hostages, and issued demands.  The prisoners’ charges that they were subjected to inadequate medical care, chronic overcrowding, and abusive and racially discriminatory treatment, among other grievances, were broadcast to a national television audience.

By the time the State of New York regained control of the prison — and freed the 39 guards and civilians who had been taken hostage — considerable blood had been shed.  There were 39 dead, 29 prisoners and 10 hostages, and 118 people had been shot.  The 1972 New York Special Commission on Attica called the incident ''the bloodiest encounter between Americans since the Civil War.''

Though the riot was widely publicized as it unfolded, its multifaceted and fast-moving nature led to a lack of crucial information and considerable misinformation. The New York Times reported on September 14, 1971, the day after it ended, that “prisoners slashed the throats of utterly helpless, unarmed guards who they had held captive through the around the-clock negotiations, in which the inmates held out for an increasingly revolutionary set of demands.” The very next day, the Times was forced to reverse course when state officials disclosed additional details.  “Autopsies Show Shots Killed 9 Attica Hostages Not Knives; State Official Admits Mistake,” the newspaper reported in a corrective article.  But not all of the key details of the riots emerged — and not all of the errors were corrected.

The facts matter, and they are necessary to a full understanding of the riot and its larger significance.  In her remarkable new book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, University of Michigan historian Heather Ann Thompson contributes greatly to our understanding of this complex event by expertly filling in these details and weaving them into a comprehensive narrative.  Thompson spent almost a decade researching and writing Blood in the Water, which is the first definitive account of the nation’s most infamous prison riot — and the results are impressive.

Thompson describes the whole event — from the days leading up to the uprising all the way through the retaking of the prison — with amazing details culled from interviews with former inmates, hostages, and their families; journalists; attorneys; state officials; and a huge array of historical records, court documents, and legislative reports. Thompson could have ended her narrative after the retaking of the prison and the book would have been a great accomplishment.

But what makes this endeavor so unique (and by the last page leaves readers with a feeling they had a front row seat to decades of top secret meetings and historical moments) is Thompson’s discussion of what happened when the riot itself was over.  She devotes significant space to every legislative task force or body (and there were many) that investigated and wrote reports on the uprising. Thompson details the state of New York’s long and arduous process of winning indictments against the prisoners who allegedly played roles in the riot, and she writes about the civil cases brought by prisoners and correctional officers against the state. In her 574-page account, she not only provides the most detailed history of the Attica uprising since 1971, but also examines the roles of almost everyone who played any part in it, from prisoner L.D. Barkley to New York Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald to Governor Nelson Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon.

Blood in the Water has a clear point of view: Thompson makes a convincing case that the state could have ended the standoff peacefully, likely with little to no loss of lives.  She adeptly captures the freneticism of the state’s reaction to the uprising and dissects the strategies and missteps of the political actors involved in the negotiations between the prisoners and the state officials. Commissioner Oswald, for one, had spent his life as a prison reformer and hoped to end the standoff peacefully, but that was not to be.

The prisoners requested a team of observers to help them negotiate with the state, and they got an impressive one.  Such prominent figures as State Senator John Dunne, New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, Minister Louis Farrakhan, and Congressman Herman Badillo tried to work out a settlement between the prisoners and the state.  They were making substantial progress, getting the state’s agreement to many of the prisoners’ demands, such as establishing inmates’ right to read political newspapers and books.  But before a settlement could be reached, Rockefeller made the decision to send in 600 New York State Troopers and National Guardsman to quell the riot.

Rockefeller was sharply criticized for declining to visit Attica during the riot despite pleas from the negotiating team and the hostages. One hostage, correctional officer Mike Smith, told reporters who interviewed him during his captivity that the governor “should get his ass here now.”  Thompson shows how Rockefeller bungled his role, and her powerful and detail-rich writing drives home the point.  The governor and his aides sat down in his Fifth Avenue apartment to a breakfast of “scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee” on one of the key days of the riot, she notes, while the inmates were mired in a prison that had become “a mud slick with neither a working sewage system nor a source of clean drinking water.”

Even readers who are reasonably familiar with the history of the Attica uprising will learn new (and illuminating, if not frightening) facts about just how utterly disorganized the state’s retaking of the prison proved to be. Heartbreakingly, when some of the prisoners saw the helicopters fly over the open-air D Yard where many of them were gathered, they thought perhaps it was finally the Governor himself coming to speak to them. The helicopters instead dropped CS and CN gas over the prison, which cause tearing and nausea. State Troopers then stormed the prison with their identification removed, shooting almost blindly.

The outcome of this wanton use of force was disastrous.  The troopers killed both prisoners and hostages — and any hopes of a peaceful resolution were cruelly defeated.  William Kunstler, the famed civil rights lawyer who worked with inmates and state officials as part of the observation team, “found himself sitting alone, unable to speak, with tears running down his face,” Thompson writes.

Thompson demonstrates that while the state’s efforts to retake the prison were Keystone Cops-like, its effort to cover up that incompetence was, in contrast, remarkably organized.  She details the lengths the authorities took to whitewash their role in the killings and avoid liability for the deaths they caused.  Indeed, this juxtaposition of the state’s disorganized handling of the incident itself with the disciplined approach it took to protecting itself afterward is among the book’s most compelling themes.

Thompson explains how in an effort to blame prisoners, none of whom had guns, for the deaths, the state sent troopers to funeral homes and morgues to try to find cases in which injuries other than gunshot wounds could be cited as the cause of death.  The state also expended considerable effort in protecting its financial interests.  Drawing on court documents and interviews with family members of slain correctional officers, Thompson describes how state officials asked the families to waive any legal claims in exchange for shockingly small payments — one widow received just $36 a week for 16 years.

This is not a book with many heroes, but the ones who do emerge are a band of lawyers who fought passionately for justice for Attica’s victims — the inmates who were treated brutally, the onetime hostages, and the families of those who died.  Elizabeth Fink, Gene Tenney, and other attorneys spent many years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money, pushing these cases through the courts. They worked valiantly to vindicate the rights of the many people who suffered as a result of the state’s bungled handling of the riot.

The story of Attica involves racial inequality, economic injustice, and prisoner’s rights, but ultimately it is about the more fundamental issue of how we treat our fellow human beings. Thompson’s definitive account should be read by students, historians, and others who are interested not only in the riot itself, but in these larger subjects, and one more: the capacity of our legal system, after the fact, to right wrongs, and provide at least a modicum of justice.