Diluting Radical History: Blood in the Water and the Politics of Erasure

by Orisanmi Burton


Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water: The Attica Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy could not have arrived at a more auspicious moment. It enters the public discourse during a time of formidable political struggle. On the one hand, we are in the midst of intensifying poverty and wealth inequality, affordable housing scarcity, environmental degradation, mounting white nationalist politics, and the ubiquitous violence of policing and incarceration. On the other hand, we see escalating resistance to these forms of repression. In 2016, incarcerated people, inspired by the Attica uprising, coordinated a National Strike Against “Prison Slavery;” the Movement for Black Lives published “Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom & Justice;” the “Fight for $15” evolved into an international workers’ movement; and more than 200 indigenous tribal nations united in opposition to colonial violence. At this critical juncture, the interpretation of Attica – its meaning, its lessons, its legacy – is of vital importance to everyone, particularly those who create, sustain and support these insurgent movements.

Blood in the Water recounts the history of an infamous prison rebellion in which, on September 9, 1971, nearly 1,300 incarcerated men seized control of a major section of New York State’s Attica Prison. Over the next four days, these rebels attempted to negotiate for the release of 43 hostages, but rather than accede to their demands, New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller deployed an assault force that recaptured Attica by killing 29 rebels, 10 hostages, and seriously wounding more than 100 others. For several days thereafter, an untold number of rebels were subjected to sadistic torture. State actors attempted to cover-up their role in the violence. Protracted legal battles between the state, the rebels, and the families of the slain and injured hostages ensued until 2005.

Blood in the Water encompasses the uprising, the repression, the cover-up and three decades of litigation, distinguishing it from previous treatments of Attica, which more narrowly focus on particular aspects of the story. Thompson significantly expands what we know about the response to the Attica uprising: how the event affected the small town from which Attica gets its name; how the Governor’s actions increased the likelihood of the rebellion’s deadly conclusion; how forethought, planning, and organization were conspicuously absent from the design of the state’s siege; and how state actors maneuvered to escape culpability. However, the text is flawed in important ways. Thompson makes few contributions to what we know about the rebellion itself. In fact, Blood in the Water actively undermines the significance of the rebellion by erasing racial violence from the normal routines of prison life, ignoring key aspects of the rebels’ critique of prisons, and distorting their radical abolitionist politics. These critical failures are traceable to Thompson’s flawed historical method, which relies heavily on state records. Thus, while Thompson claims to have produced “a comprehensive history of the Attica uprising of 1971 and its legacy,”[1] she has more accurately produced a history of Attica through the eyes of the state.

Thompson’s methodological framework obscures the fundamental role of power in historical production. Academic historians (like prisons, police, and court bureaucracies) wield the power to instill authority in particular narratives and subordinate or erase others. While some degree of historical elision is inevitable, the sources, ideas, and narratives that are obscured are particular to the historian – the archives they use, the questions they ask, and how they incorporate historical material into a broader interpretive framework. Historical production is therefore always about power. As post-structuralist theorist Jacques Derrida has argued, “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.”[2] Attending to the role of power in history acquires particular urgency in the case of Attica because it involved imprisoned people, a dehumanized and historically oppressed class, engaging in an explicit struggle for power against the state. And as the National Prison Strike of 2016 makes clear, this struggle is ongoing; one of its key fronts is the struggle over historical memory.

Blood in the Water enters into this discourse without engaging these fundamental questions of power, memory, and method. For example, in the introduction Thompson writes, “the most important details of this story have been deliberately kept from the public.” While it is indeed the case that an untold quantity of “autopsies, ballistics reports, trooper statements, depositions and more,” remain sealed, inaccessible and/or heavily redacted, by asserting that these records are what is most important, Thompson discloses her perspective that the state is the primary arbiter of knowledge about Attica.[3] Thompson managed to access some of these previously unanalyzed “state secrets” – among them, a collection of documents “from the very heart of the state’s own investigation into whether criminal acts had been committed during the rebellion or the retaking of the prison.”[4] In the text she describes her discovery of these materials, but says almost nothing about how she interpreted them and accounted for their particular, power-laden conditions of production. She briefly mentions her engagement with “archives outside the control of the state of New York,” but precludes the possibility that these alternative sources might be read against the state archive; that they might constitute a ‘counter-history’ of Attica, or minimally, that they might generate tension within the narrative itself. To the contrary, Thompson views these alternative sources as opportunities to “rescue and recount the story of Attica,”[5] effectively reducing historiography to a narrative scavenger hunt where corresponding details need only be acquired, sequentially ordered, and prepared for consumption.

By contrast, consider that Tom Wicker, the journalist who wrote A Time To Die, which remains the most analytically sophisticated book about the Attica rebellion, reminded readers that his “instinctive, conditioned, middle-class loyalty ran to the state and its institutions, even when his sympathy ran to their victims.”[6] Because Wicker self-consciously articulated the limits of his perspective and his political imagination, close readers of his work are able to benefit from the active tension between his liberalism and the radicalism of the rebellion. Throughout Blood in the Water, Thompson’s loyalty to the state remains undisclosed, a silence that gives the appearance of non-partisanship, even objectivity, when in fact, hers is a deeply ideological approach that shapes the text in pernicious ways. For example, in a chapter entitled “Talking Back,” Thompson recounts the story of an altercation in which Leroy Dewer, an Attica captive, hit Richard Maroney, an Attica guard. Thompson assuredly proclaims, “no man had ever hit an Attica lieutenant”[7] even though this is clearly not a knowable fact. Prior studies remarked on the rarity of this type of confrontation. The Official Report of the NYS Special Commission on Attica, published in 1972, wrote, “few witnesses – inmates or officers – could recall having seen an inmate strike an officer like that, much less a lieutenant.”[8] While the report’s authors acknowledge the limits of their perception, leaving space for what might have happened beyond what they were able to find, Thompson transforms the absence of evidence into evidence of absence. In doing so, she affirms a state-sanctioned vision of the prison as a site of unopposed physical dominance. Blind spots such as these, though partially concealed by Thompson’s authoritative prose, haunt the entirety of the narrative.

Blood in the Water also extends a state-sanctioned narrative by obscuring the prison as a site of normalized racial violence. It presents the racism and violence meted out by Attica’s guards as exceptional rather than endemic. This narrative sleight of hand is accomplished by Thompson’s erasure of racial violence from the daily experience of life in pre-rebellion Attica and her laboriously detailed depiction of the racial violence that emerged during the state’s suppression of the rebellion.

In a chapter entitled “Not So Greener Pastures,” Thompson describes how conditions in Attica prior to the rebellion made prison life “unnecessarily tense.” She writes about the menial jobs that netted incarcerated laborers next to nothing, the meager food rations that left men hungry, the overcrowding, the cramped cells, the substandard care provided by Attica’s hostile medical staff, and New York State’s confounding parole process. She describes how the violation of arbitrary rules “usually resulted in a man facing ‘keeplock’ – a slang term for being confined to his cell, twenty-four hours a day, for an indefinite number of days.” Elsewhere she argues that “militant prisoners” were subjected to “intimidation, verbal abuse, and petty rule enforcement.”[9]

All of this is true, yet Thompson curiously evades describing physical violence as another usual, albeit unsanctioned form of punishment, a profound and deeply problematic erasure that runs contrary to the public record, which is saturated with recollections of physical brutality at the hands of Attica’s guards. Two available sources should suffice to set the record straight. In his 1973 book The Brothers of Attica, Richard X. Clark, who emerged as a leader of the rebellion described Attica’s “Goon Squad” as composed of:

from eight to twenty-five officers. . . These guards were like Neanderthal men, and they would all roll on one inmate. They never spoke. The only thing you would hear was the cracking of the victim’s bones. And his cries. They were led by Sergeant Elmore, a devil with gold-rimmed granny glasses. We called him Little Hitler.[10]

Six days after the siege of Attica, Charles B. Lankford, a former Attica captive wrote an Op-Ed for The Washington Post where he recalled:

I’ve seen blood ooze from the heads of Attica inmates hit by guards with sticks. I’ve watched stomachs caved in by the clubs of the “hacks.” I’ve seen inmates fall, only to be kicked in the ribs, all for no justifiable reason. I’ve eaten the slop called food. . . And I’ve listened to prisoners who had been tear-gassed, “just for the fun of it.”[11]

Furthermore, Thompson obscures the centrality of racism and white supremacist ideology to social relations at Attica by mobilizing an impoverished discourse of “racial discrimination.” According to Thompson, Black and Latino prisoners, “suffered worse hardships than others because of the highly discriminatory way that prison officials ran the institution.”[13] As evidence of this unbalanced “hardship,” she offers institutional statistics demonstrating that White prisoners disproportionately held relatively desirable jobs in comparison to their Black and Latino counterparts. Curiously, Thompson refuses to describe the guards as racist or even to use the word “racism” in her descriptions of Attica’s pre-rebellion conditions. She therefore ignores the documented evidence that guards actively cultivated interracial animosity within the prison population;[14] that guards referred to their state-issue batons as “nigger-sticks;”[15] and that guards throughout the New York State prison system held membership in the Ku Klux Klan.[16] In lieu of analyzing deeply entrenched racism, Thompson asserts that Attica’s social climate was shaped by the fact that guards “had little familiarity with African Americans or Puerto Ricans and little connection to the cities where they grew up.” “Perhaps most significantly,” Thompson adds, “these men had received virtually no training for their jobs at the prison.”[17] While the NYS Special Commission on Attica identified the dearth of diversity and training as problems, it also managed to assert that, “many officers have racist feelings they are not consciously aware of.”[18] For Thompson, the problem of normalized racism and white supremacy, to the extent that she understands it as problem at all, is not important enough to mention.

It is not until the sensational suppression of the rebellion and the brutal reprisals that ensued that Thompson begins to analyze violence and racism. In a chapter entitled, “No Mercy,” Thompson puts her “state secrets” on full display, rendering the premature death and bodily mutilation meted out by the state assault force with meticulous attention to detail. Describing the nearly fatal wounding of Mike Smith, an Attica guard-turned-hostage, Thompson writes:

Mike’s abdomen was on fire as four bullets ripped across it in a straight line. He was also shot in the arm, which felt as if it had been torn from his body. The bullets that entered Mike’s stomach, dead center right between his navel and genitals, exploded upon impact, which sent shrapnel downward to his spine. One exiting slug took the base of Mike’s spine along with it, leaving ‘a hole about the size of a grapefruit’ in his intestines.[19]

Additionally, in a chapter entitled, “And The Beat Goes On,” Thompson catalogs, though not exhaustively, the imaginatively sadistic forms of dehumanization and punishment that recaptured rebels endured after Attica was wrested from their control. It is here, as Thompson describes how the assault force punctuated their brutality with “white power” salutes and racial invective, that Thompson finally admits the presence of “outright racism.”[20]

Thompson’s account of the racial violence during the siege accomplishes important work. It reveals the apparently limitless potential of human cruelty and the repressive capacity of state power. However, read against her sanitized portrayal of Attica’s pre-rebellion conditions, Blood in the Water’s harrowing depiction of the siege implies that this temporary orgy of racial violence was a radical departure from Attica’s norms. This adheres to and actively extends the state-sanctioned narrative by tacitly naturalizing the endemic racial violence of Attica’s normal operation. Thompson omits key aspects of incarcerated peoples’ descriptions of Attica and is therefore able to elide their understandings with her own diminutive critique of penal excess.

Blood in the Water is also flawed in its consistent misrecognition and misrepresentation of the politics of the rebels. Writing about the lead-up to the rebellion, Thompson asserts, “not only had these men been developing a powerful critique of poor prison conditions, but they also had begun to discuss how they might reform their institution.”[21] This assessment is representative of Thompson’s analysis, which confines the rebels’ beliefs, desires and demands to a liberal democratic framework – a deeply flawed approach since the rebellion was not liberal, but radical. While the rebels indeed critiqued “poor prison conditions,” they also critiqued the capitalist social order that made prisons necessary. And while they pursued institutional reforms, they also criticized reform and directed their energies toward the total abolition of prisons.

Evidence of Attica’s abolitionist radicalism abounds for all who care to look. In We Are Attica, a pamphlet published in 1972 by the Attica Defense Committee, a recently paroled man identified as Joe rejects institutional reform, asserting, “I’m in favor of abolishing the whole penitentiary. I don’t desire that you make the penitentiary like the Holiday Inn.”[22] Similarly, Samuel Melville, who Thompson repeatedly refers to as a ‘white radical,’ an ascription of political agency that is granted to none of the Black, Latino or Native American captives, wrote in his distinctive style, that the rebels needed to “form revolutionary awareness relating to our prison condition vis-à-vis t street & at t same time avoid t obvious classification of prison reformers” [sic].[23] Finally, although the “Declaration to the people of America,” the document that was collectively written by the rebels and narrated in front of TV cameras on September 9, 1971 is an abolitionist text, Thompson distorts its meaning by including only a brief excerpt which omits the following reference to abolitionist politics:

We have set forth demands that will bring closer to reality the demise of these prisons [sic] institutions that serve no useful purpose to the People of America, but to those who would enslave and exploit the people of America.[24]

More is at stake here than a consideration of Blood in the Water’s place within the literature on Attica. In the “fierce urgency of now,” to quote King, many will turn to history, not only to illuminate the past, but also to inform concrete action in the present. As we act, we narrate how the present struggle relates to those of the past. This dynamic of action and historical production is evident in the way that leaders of the National Prison Strike of 2016 articulated their struggle as an extension of the Attica rebellion. It is therefore incumbent upon scholars of political struggle to produce analytically and methodologically rigorous work that engages the multiple sites of historical production. We must be clear about the position from which we speak and to whom our work is addressed. We must be forthright about what we know, how we know what we know, what we do not know, and what cannot be known. To forgo this challenging intellectual labor, or to misrepresent what it is that we have done, is to all but guarantee that history will function as a weapon against the people.

About the author: Orisanmi Burton is an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of the District of Columbia.

End Notes:

[1] Heather Ann Thompson, Blood in the Water: The Attica Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, New York: Pantheon, 2016, xiii.

[2] Jacques Derrida, Archive fever: A Freudian Impression, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, 11.

[3] Thompson, Blood in the Water, xii – xiv.

[4] Thompson, Blood in the Water, xv.

[5] Thompson, Blood in the Water, p. xiv.

[6] Tom Wicker, A Time to Die, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011, 63-64.

[7]Thompson, Blood in the Water, 47.

[8] New York Special Commission on Attica, The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on      Attica, New York: Bantam Books, 1972,143.

[9] Thompson, Blood in the Water, 9-14.

[10] Richard X. Clark. The Brothers of Attica, New York: Links Books, 1973, 18.

[11] Charles B. Lankford, “And When There Isn’t Misery, There’s Monotony. Lots of It,” The Washington Post, 1971, D1.

[12] Thompson, Blood in the Water, 55 (emphasis added).

[13] Thompson, Blood in the Water, 12.

[14] New York Special Commission on Attica, The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica, New York: Bantam Books, 1972, 81.

[15] Herman Badillo and Milton Haynes, A Bill of No Rights: Attica and The American Prison System, New York: Outerbridge & Lazard, 1972.

[16] Juanita Diaz-Cotto, Gender, Ethnicity, and the State: Latina and Latino Prison Politics, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996.

[17] Thompson, Blood in the Water, 14-15.

[18] New York Special Commission on Attica, 81.

[19] Thompson, Blood in the Water, 181.

[20] Thompson, Blood in the Water, 211.

[21] Thompson, Blood in the Water, 28.

[22] Attica Defense Committee, We Are Attica, Attica Defense Committee, 16.

[23] Samuel Melville, Letters from Attica, New York: William Morrow & Company, 1972, 169.

[24] Wicker, A Time To Die, 319.

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