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Revisiting the Attica Takeover

New book on the tragic end to a prison uprising

Nov. 1, 2016
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For an event that has captured the collective imagination of Americans for more than 40 years, there remains surprisingly little known about the 1971 prisoner-led takeover of the Attica Correctional Facility. Instead, the events associated with “Attica”—this incredibly complex event is often simplified to just one word—are marked by a sense of mystery. There is little doubt that something awful happened at the prison, as 39 men, both prisoners and hostages, lost their lives at the hands of the state. Yet it is often assumed that such violence was unavoidable, as the chaos of the moment, stoked by some of the most violent offenders held in the prison, forced authorities to take up arms.

Forty-five years after the uprising was brutally quelled, historian Heather Ann Thompson offers a compelling counter-narrative to our popular understanding of Attica. Her excellent new work, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy (Pantheon), highlights how prison and government officials alike immediately launched a campaign of obfuscation to cast the prisoners as the main impetus for the death and destruction that are now synonymous with Attica. And such officials had good reason to rely upon such misinformation. Thompson’s research devastatingly documents that the state’s response to the takeover was ill-informed and concerned only with meting out retribution to those prisoners who dared question the status quo. 

As Thompson notes, the actual takeover was surprisingly organized. A cadre of leaders quickly emerged, charged to negotiate with prison officials. At the same time, prisoners also put together a security detail, led by inmate Frank “Big Black” Smith, which served to primarily ensure the safety and comfort of the hostages. In her treatment of these efforts, Thompson is effective in humanizing a group that is often discussed as less than human. Takeover leader Richard Clark was moved by the fact that the uprising created the space for prisoners to once again feel emotion. He “watched in amazement as men embraced each other, and he saw one man break into tears because it had been so long since he had been ‘allowed to get close to someone.’”

Yet those attempting to negotiate with such individuals had little interest in seeing the nuances of the situation. To New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the takeover had little to do with things like overcrowded cells, prison labor practices and religious freedom—some of the very real issues that prisoners hoped the uprising would address. Instead, Rockefeller and his allies saw the takeover as nothing more than a way to keep a waning Black Power movement relevant. What was actually a complicated movement was reduced to simple political theater. With their grievances dismissed as little more than props, the state was able to recast these prisoners as radicalized thugs who needed to be dealt with quickly and forcefully.

The vicious beatings and killings that such a sleight of hand led to are tragic enough. Yet compounding this tragedy are the ways that the state-created legacy of Attica ushered in the era of mass incarceration that we are still living in today. If prisoners instigated such violence, then why shouldn’t they be locked up for as long as possible? And if prisoners are capable of such brutality, why should we care about how they are treated while incarcerated? Thompson’s work reminds us that we should try to get our history right before we answer such important questions.


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