When the wretched of the earth rose


Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson, Pantheon (Penguin Random House), US $35.00, Pp 752, August 2016, ISBN 978-0375423222

In 1971, nearly 1,300 prisoners stood up against overcrowding and the myriad other injustices that had become policy in Attica Prison and other prisons in America. The uprising started on September 9 and continued for five days. Today, the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 is a major milestone in the struggle for human and civil rights in America. It showed others how to struggle for their rights and brought about reform after. In Blood in the Water, Heather Ann Thompson writes, “From Attica Prison in New York in 1971 to California in 2013, when 30,000 prisoners launched a hunger strike against the repressive conditions in the correction system, to Texas in 2015, when prisoners shut down a major penal facility because of serious abuses, America’s incarcerate people have never stopped struggling against this country’s worst and most punitive practices.” The Attica prison uprising of 1971 shows the nation that even the most marginalized citizens will never stop fighting to be treated like human beings. It is a testament to the irrepressible demand for justice that covers America today. This is Attica’s legacy.

Thompson says that Attica, New York, was a part of America that for most of these prisoners only on TV. The town’s tiny storefronts were quaint. It had a pretty park, complete with a gaily adorned bandstand, a little League pitcher’s mound, and a sparkling public pool, all straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Yet just beyond this slice of Americana looked a massive and most forbidding fortress, one of New York’s most notorious maximum security prisons, enclosed by massive grey walls. Each thirty foot slab was cemented twelve feet deep into the ground and on each corner perched a gun tower from which guards could scan the fifty-five-acre penal complex for any trouble.

Attica’s 2,243 prisoners were overwhelmingly young, urban, under-educated, and African American or Puerto Rican. More than two thirds of the men at Attica had been incarcerated at least once before arriving there. Attica’s men were all hardened criminals. Many had been sent to Attica because they had violated parole, including some who were much too young to navigate life in a maximum security prison. Thompson says that ending up in this New York state prison was especially rough on prisoners since they could neither speak nor understand English. There was one Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican correction officer on staff, but his fellow officers insisted that he only use English with the men in his charge.

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. Thompson says that this is the legacy that led George Williams to refuse to be silent, even though speaking up must have been terrifying given the retaliation he knew he could suffer. This is why he refused to give up even when a local judge tried to dismiss the criminal case against his attackers. This is why he was determined to seek justice in federal court when his attackers received only a reprimand in state court. This is why the Justice Department, in March 2015, began an official investigation into brutality against prisoners at Attica correctional Facility. Attica’s prisoners had refused to stay silent.

Blood in the Water is a fascinating story of the Attica Prison inmates’ struggle for justice and human rights. The Attica Prison inmates have continued inspire others to raise their voices against injustice for the last half-century. Blood in the Water is the first comprehensive and well-researched history of these events, which are an important milestone for human rights in America. Kristine Q. Baker