Remembering Attica

Heather Ann Thompson

The Attica Prison inmates who rebelled on this day in 1971 remain a symbol of resistance in the face of injustice.

Inmates at Attica prison during the 1971 uprising. AP

Interview by
Shawn Gude

On the eve of what would become the US’s most famous prison uprising, the inmates of Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York endured deplorable conditions. Their infections went untreated, their teeth fell out due to negligible dental care — they even lacked adequate access to soap and toilet paper.

On September 9, 1971, these pent-up grievances simmered over when roughly 1,300 inmates took over the prison. For four days they were effectively in charge. They made demands on the state (better medical care, fewer limits on their freedom of expression, immunity from prosecution for rebelling), negotiated with mediators brought in at their behest (including, briefly, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale), and generally asserted their worth as human beings.

But whatever the prisoners gained in those few days was quickly pulverized by the brute force of the state. Seeking dignity, they instead unleashed the wrath of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller.

On the morning of September 13, state law enforcement streamed into the prison by the hundreds, and killed by the dozens. When they were finished, thirty-nine men (twenty-nine prisoners and ten state employees) lay dead. And for the inmates who survived (especially rebellion leaders like Frank “Big Black” Smith), ghastly torture and severe intimidation soon followed.

Top officials never faced legal reprisals for the atrocities at Attica. They shielded themselves from prosecution, and did their best to squirrel away evidence about what happened on that autumn morning.

Yet Attica lives. It’s still on the lips of anti-prison activists and striking inmates, still in the panicked nightmares of law-and-order types. The American carceral state, built up feverishly in the rebellion’s wake, rests in its shadow.

Few are more qualified to detail what transpired at Attica — and its lasting effects — than University of Michigan historian Heather Ann Thompson, the author of an exceptional new book on the rebellion. Earlier this week, Jacobin associate editor Shawn Gude caught up with Thompson to talk about the politics of the Attica rebels, the uprising’s highs and lows, and why solidarity outside the prison walls is vital to ending the injustices within them. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Shawn Gude

Even before the uprising, state officials were terrified of radical inmates and what they called “outside agitators,” and they ended up blaming a lot of what happened on these figures. How politicized were Attica inmates? What groups had an especially large following? And to what extent did this drive the uprising?

Heather Ann Thompson

I was surprised to discover that while it was true that there were many political guys in Attica, and that there was a real thirst to read everyone from George Jackson to Fanon to Mao, that this was a relatively small percentage of the population — and quite divided, frankly.

So the Panthers stuck to themselves, and there were the Black Muslims (overwhelmingly members of the Nation of Islam, but there were also Five Percenters, and different offshoots). There were some white radicals there from the Weather Underground, but those groups largely, you know, stayed to themselves. They did try to conduct educational rap sessions in the yard.

But one of the really extraordinary things about Attica, and what is kind of ironic, is that what politicizes the men in Attica, what really makes them go from having basic human right claims and sort of a guttural desire for improved living conditions to being political, and to thinking about this through the lens of politics, is the state’s brutality.

Nothing makes these guys more militant than a) the state’s refusal to help them when they try to work through the process to get their conditions improved, and b) when they retake the prison with such brutality. That’s what makes a prisoner, for example, like “Big Black” very political. It was his experience at the hands of the state, not his reading of Marx or Fanon.

Shawn Gude

How did the interaction between the more politicized and the less politicized prisoners shape the uprising?

Heather Ann Thompson

Well there’s no question that it is the more politically aware prisoners, and certainly those who had spent a lot of time thinking through questions of struggle and strategy, that were part of the first group that tried to bring conditions to the attention of the state — the so-called Attica Liberation Faction. And those people will play a very central role in the rebellion because they understand the importance of being organized.

Once this whole thing jumps off, they understand the importance of, first of all, having this democratic process where the guys in the cell block elect leaders to speak for them, and then to really hash out what are the most important demands. And it’s in those first three days, where these guys are sorting through what the most important demands are, that you really do see politics and democracy at work in the yard.

Some are much more political and initially called for things like transportation to a non-imperialist country — imagining going, for example, to places like Algeria or wherever — but others are focused much more on the ability to have Spanish-speaking guards. And it’s in that dialogue that ultimately the final demands are crafted. But there’s no question that the political guys are helping to organize this and give it coherence.

Shawn Gude

Can you talk about the events immediately leading up to the rebellion? Even though prisoners had long-running grievances about prison conditions, the rebellion itself was quite spontaneous and perhaps even accidental.

Heather Ann Thompson

Yes, indeed, and I would actually take it a step further and say that it was actually management-created. Because the night before what came to be known as the Attica Rebellion, there was a relatively routine altercation between a guard and a prisoner out in the rec yard. The guard was hassling the prisoner to, you know, stop horsing around, and he told him to get back into the cell, into something called keeplock, where you’re basically just locked down.

What made that incident unusual was that the frustration had reached such a point that this prisoner struck the guard. And that was new. Because one of the things about all prisons is that peace is maintained through the legitimacy of authority — or at least that’s what they’re striving for. And of course when this prisoner hits the guard, everyone just stopped in shock.

The administration decides to retaliate. What it does is not only cell extractions that night, but the next morning, it decides to punish the entire company that that guy was from and to effectively not let them go out to rec by locking them into a tunnel, so that they have to go back to their cells. The problem was, the prison management never even told their own guards that this was the plan. When it locks everybody in that hallway, utter panic ensues — on the part of the guards, on the part of the prisoners.

So in fact, it was touched off by this management decision, because of the panic.

It is a riot, I think, in the truest sense of the word, in those first few moments. But again, this is where the political organization comes in, because this is the moment that it does become a rebellion, when some of the most outspoken and really thoughtful of the prisoners (particularly a guy named Roger Champen), decide that it’s crucial that we make the most of this and tell the world, shine the light on prison conditions, use this as an opportunity.

Shawn Gude

Let’s get into the rebellion itself. You have a really great passage in which you describe prisoners feeling the sense of freedom for the first time, really, since their incarceration. One inmate says, laying out in the prison yard the first night, that it’s the first time he’s seen the stars in twenty-two years. To what extent did this feeling of freedom characterize the uprising, and what were some of the darker moments inside the prison those four days?

Heather Ann Thompson

It’s so interesting that struck you, because it did me as well. And what really got to me about so many of those descriptions in the book is that it actually was perhaps less about freedom and more about experiencing what human beings, by their form and their nature, are meant to experience. Such as starlight or sunshine or fresh air.

It’s actually, if you think about it, quite interesting that in all the lists of demands, from the most militant to the most basic, nobody said, “Open the walls of Attica.” What they said was, we want to be treated like human beings. So the experience of being in that yard and being able to have touch and sunshine and starlight and air and freedom of movement — all these things that make us humans — are what characterized those four days for the men.

Of course, there was also terror, and fear. They never knew at what point the state might come in. There were snipers on the roof at all times threatening them and jeering at them, filming them. They were at every moment in a state of panic, and they were exhausted, because people were afraid to sleep for fear of a nightly attack.

Unfortunately, there were really grimmer moments during that rebellion. There was a lot of paranoia on the part of some of the prisoners, and it resulted in three prisoners being accused of treason and taken away and placed in a cell, where later we understand that they were murdered.

But even that is such a difficult story to tell — and the murder was brutal and needs to be told — because it was not part of the rebellion in the sense that it was far away from where the rebellion was. It was off in the recesses of a dark cell and down to a very small group of people — one of whom was probably suffering a psychotic breakdown. I mean, he was so paranoid that some of these guys were out to get him.

Shawn Gude

Rumors of prison atrocities were actively spread by state officials and were ubiquitous in the news media and in the town of Attica itself during the uprising. There were reports of hostages getting castrated, race rioting, all these sorts of things. How were hostages actually treated inside the prison, and how did this perception of prisoner barbarity affect the form that the retaking took?

Heather Ann Thompson

The initial hours of what I would call the riot were quite brutal for many of the guards. They were, especially the ones who had been particularly brutal to prisoners, beaten very severely. One of them actually will die of injuries, because he is overrun and beaten so mercilessly — the guy who holds the keys in the center of the prison in the first minutes of the riot.

But from the moment that the rebellion begins, which is relatively quickly, these hostages are actively protected. The prisoners surround them with two rings of their fellow men to make sure that no one takes revenge on the guards, these guards are given mattresses and blankets and fed, and, even by their own words, treated really really well. And by day four, they too are saying to the governor, “Look, these guys have a bunch of grievances, keep talking, give these guys what they need.” They were advocating for negotiations as well. So they’re treated well.

But what’s so extraordinary is that meanwhile, you’ve got not just prison officials, but federal law enforcement, spreading vicious rumors about what is happening in the yard, and they’re getting police on the outside of the yard more and more and more furious.

It bears mention that this is a state prison, in a tiny town, in upstate New York, and from the instant that it happens, the FBI is not only interested, but teletypes on all of this are going up the chain of command to literally every branch of the US government and military — the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the CIA, the president, the vice president, the attorney general. And that says a great deal about what the state, both local and federal, thinks of the risks that they faced with this prison rebellion.

Shawn Gude

The retaking ended up being quite brutal, and also just entirely avoidable. How did things go so wrong?

Heather Ann Thompson

Well, first of all, it was completely avoidable. There’s no question in my mind that there were myriad ways that this assault could have been avoided. But even if the decision had ultimately been made to retake the prison, every other example of retaking a prison was quite different than this one. Guards would go in, nobody would ever have firearms because everybody understood that the prisoners did not have firearms, and it would be more like a hand-to-hand combat retaking situation.

In this case, the governor — and I think this is very significant — decides to send in not just the New York State Police, but really the lowest level guy, from the nearby town of Batavia, to lead this assault. The very head of the state police is AWOL, so he’s not on hand. The governor does not ask the National Guard, who actually have a plan for retaking a prison. And my understanding of this is that Rockefeller very much knows that it’s going to be bloody, and wants to keep as much distance from the responsibility for it as he can — basically, pinning it on the lowest level of the state prison authority.

So he unleashes nearly six hundred men, troopers and corrections officers who are armed to the teeth with their own personal weapons, and weapons that are being passed out at the supply truck without regard for serial numbers or identification of the specific officers. Then these guys rip off their identification badges, so that they can do whatever they want once they get inside.

And it is one of the most horrific assaults in US history. The doctors that go in later liken it to My Lai, to a Civil War painting, to Vietnam writ large, because it is nothing but carnage. And, by the way, this is after they had already doused the yard in CS gas (which is a powder that clings to your nasal passages). People were sick, they were retching, they were already disabled when the shooting began.

Shawn Gude

This might be somewhat speculative, but what do you think went into Rockefeller’s decision to retake the prison like this? Was it a combination of his political future and his fierce anticommunism, or what’s your read on what was motivating him at that point?

Heather Ann Thompson

I’m not sure that it actually requires much speculation. I think that the evidence is quite clear that it was all of those things plus racial politics.

Firstly, he was a diehard Cold Warrior. He literally saw himself as a defender of this nation against the communist threat, whether that involved operations in Central America, or whether it involved Attica — he was very consistent on the idea that there’s a communist threat everywhere.

He also had long wanted to be the president of the United States. He had watched the party move farther and farther to the right, and wanted to have greater conservative credentials, so in that sense, Attica is his opportunity to make that clear.

Thirdly, we just simply cannot sidestep the deep, deep racial politics of this retaking. When he talks to Nixon, Nixon has one question of significance, which is: “Is this a black thing? Was this started by the blacks?” It is clear when you listen to the conversation, not only does Rockefeller affirm that, but that is enough of an explanation for them both. This is about putting down black civil rights, it is about having no regard whatsoever for black life.

And indeed, the retaking reflects this as well, because the racial epithets that are combined with the physical abuse just cannot be underestimated. The torture that takes place afterwards is nothing short of a modern lynching.

Shawn Gude

Some of our readers might be surprised to know that less than half the book is devoted to the uprising itself. Why were the subsequent years and decades so important to this story, and to what extent do you think prisoners ended up getting some semblance of justice?

Heather Ann Thompson

It was clear to me quite early on that the rebellion was a pivotal part of the story, but the more, perhaps, lastingly important part of the story was the way in which two things unfold: one, the state’s determination — really a shocking level of determination — to make sure that no members of law enforcement or politicians were ever held accountable for the atrocities at Attica.

And then at the same time, the truly remarkable spirit of struggle that lived on well past Attica, on the part of both the hostages and the prisoners — that no matter how marginalized, no matter how attacked, no matter how dismissed by the public as well as politicians, they never give up. Their struggle takes thirty years for the prisoners, plus, forty years for the guards, plus, to be heard.

Right after the rebellion, of course, it was such a disaster that there had to be some form of an investigation. The initial investigation into Attica is a criminal investigation. That is to say, what crimes were committed, either in the course of the rebellion or during the retaking. And the plan, ostensibly, was that both prisoner and law enforcement crimes were going to be equally investigated and equally prosecuted should they exist.

What happens, of course, is only the prosecution of the prisoners — fifty-two prisoners get indicted — so the first big story after the rebellion is the indictment of these prisoners for over 1,400 crimes. It’s really an extraordinary state indictment, probably one of the largest series of indictments ever, in American history, or certainly in New York State. So all prisoner energies are taken up defending themselves.

There are ultimately five trials, and in one of the most remarkable defense efforts in American history — akin only to what happens in the South during Freedom Summer or perhaps surrounding the Scottsboro Boys years earlier — young law students and lawyers from across the country descend on upstate New York and offer their legal services to these prisoners.

And then, of course, there are the civil cases: both the prisoners and the hostages try to get the state to be accountable via civil rights charges, on the part of the prisoners, and via the workman’s compensation system, on the part of the hostages.

Did they get justice? No. They got recompense. They got restitution, finally, in the form of money, for some of the damages of what they suffered. For example, the killing of someone at Attica would net a family $6,500 when all was said and done.

It was pathetic, but it allowed them to get the story told, so in that sense it was incredibly important. That spirit is one of the ultimate legacies of Attica: that as much as this rebellion touches off one of the worst backlashes in American history that results in us being the largest jailer in the world, it was also an enduring story of struggle.

Shawn Gude

You mentioned the really remarkable suppression of information by the state. Can you expand on that a little bit? From the hours after the uprising to the present day, the state has worked doggedly to prevent information about the uprising from coming to light.

Heather Ann Thompson

It’s funny, because anyone who writes about prisons knows that part of that is just the deal when you’re trying to write about prison. If you want to know what happens behind bars, good luck — because the state is not even required to keep a lot of vitally important information like, for example, how many hours of solitary its prisoners do in a year.

That is compounded in Attica, triply compounded, by the fact that the state committed crimes at Attica. And so therefore, from the minute that the tear gas clears over the yard, the state, particularly and initially the state police, is working overtime to make sure that their own are protected. They coerce and alter statements, they tamper with photographs and film, they make it possible for some of the worst offending troopers to resign (or at least one of the worst offending troopers to resign rather than be prosecuted), they destroy evidence.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Because the state and politicians, meanwhile, are scrambling as well, to cover their rear ends.

I discovered a series of meetings that took place at Rockefeller’s pool house at his mansion in Pocantico Hills, where in attendance within a very short time after the rebellion, you had the architects of the retaking: the state police (the guys who presumably could be prosecuted); the head of the Attica investigation (the state’s attorney general, who should be prosecuting these guys); and the governor’s men. And they all essentially are there to get their stories straight.

It’s a remarkable story of protecting power.

Shawn Gude

The nature of prisons obviously makes it enormously difficult to coordinate any sort of organized effort to resist inhumane conditions, but you note at the end of the book that it’s gotten even harder for prisoners to do so, both in prisons themselves and through the legal system. Can you talk about some of those hurdles, and how solidarity work outside prisons might mitigate some of those barriers?

Heather Ann Thompson

In the immediate aftermath of Attica, there were in fact very important reforms, but because of the lies told about Attica, the American public had a quickly convenient excuse to become more punitive. That punitive moment truly begins by 1972 and only increases thereafter.

It not only resulted in prisoners doing more time than ever before in American history, more solitary than ever before in American history, but also having more lockdowns — and, that is to say, less movements in prisons, less freedom of expression in prisons.

All of this has been accompanied by clamping down on prisoners’ ability to even use the legal system to improve their conditions — so not just passage of laws such as “three strikes” or mandatory minimums, but also the passage of something called the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which has effectively barred prisoners from using the courts to speak.

For all of those reasons, not only are conditions worse today than they were during Attica, but it’s even more important than it was at Attica that people on the outside speak up and work to shine the light on what goes on behind prison walls. Because, of course, if you’re serving solitary, as so many people are now, or you’re on constant lockdown, you are physically and illegally prevented from telling the world what really goes on behind those walls.

Shawn Gude

Forty-five years after the uprising, how does Attica live in the public imagination, and how does it inform the contemporary struggle against the carceral state?

Heather Ann Thompson

Because of the state’s hard work at protecting its own and really distorting what happened at Attica, Attica had become synonymous with the “worst of the worst” — with prisoners not as people but as animals, and so forth.

But in recent years, the veil is being lifted — people are speaking out, and it’s getting harder and harder for people to justify this prison buildup on the basis of prisoner brutality. Because there’s just been so many stories of police brutality in the media again, both in the streets, such as police shootings, but also behind bars, such as at Attica, where this inmate George Williams was severely beaten recently and almost died.

Attica once again is not synonymous with prisoner brutality, but is synonymous with prisoner resistance. I’m very grateful that that’s true, and I’m also hopeful that the book really helps to make that clear — that Attica touches off the backlash, but what it means is that no matter what someone did that lands them behind bars, they are human beings that will never ever give up that struggle.