Remember Attica – Blood in the Water – The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy – by Heather Ann Thompson
Workers Vanguard No. 1103 13 January 2017
Blood in the Water
The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy
by Heather Ann Thompson
On the morning of 9 September 1971, nearly 1,300 inmates—predominantly black and Puerto Rican—took over the state prison at Attica, New York. Four days later 29 of them lay dead, cut down in a hail of bullets fired by New York State Police, sheriffs and corrections officers. Governor Nelson Rockefeller gave the order. President Richard Nixon cheered them on. In the aftermath, the surviving prisoners were subjected to hideous torture and later charged with a total of 1,300 crimes. Among these were kidnapping and, most obscenely, unlawful imprisonment based on taking prison guards hostage, ten of whom were gunned down by Rockefeller’s stormtroopers when they retook the prison.
For many years, Democratic and Republican administrations in Albany, along with the courts, have covered up much of the truth of what took place at Attica, assisted by the same capitalist press that peddled the lie that the prisoners shot the guards. A significant part of that shroud has been peeled back by Heather Ann Thompson in her recent book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. Thompson’s book brings to life the dignity and humanity of the prisoners who were treated as little more than dirt by Rockefeller and his ilk. She describes in vivid detail the dehumanizing conditions that gave rise to the rebellion and the racist venom that ran from the governor’s mansion down to the cops and prison guards who hunted down the uprising’s leaders. Thompson got her own sampling of that venom for naming the prison guards who carried out assassinations and torture.
Thompson’s comprehensive history is a result of her many years of diligent archival research and a bit of good fortune in uncovering key sources that had been suppressed. As she notes, “The most important details of this story have been deliberately kept from the public. Literally thousands of boxes of documents relating to these events are sealed or next to impossible to access.” Regarding the most explosive documents she uncovered, Thompson says, “All of the Attica files that I saw in that dark room of the Erie County courthouse have now vanished.”
For millions around the world, Attica became a potent symbol of rebellion against brutal repression—and a stark emblem of racist state murder. To this day it continues to inspire struggles against the racist degradation of black people inside and outside of prison walls. The first issue of Workers Vanguard (October 1971) led with the headline “Massacre at Attica.” We stated bluntly: “The brutal, bloody murderers of Attica are none other than the ruling class of this society,” saying further:
“Rockefeller cut down the Attica prisoners in the manner of his father and grandfather before him—ruthlessly and to protect the system from which his profits spring. From the murder of the Ludlow miners to the present, this family has carried the policies of the armed fist over the entire globe…. The Rockefeller name and the Rockefeller practice symbolize, more than any other, the American capitalist class—a class that will stop at nothing to extend and protect its profitable holdings.”
Attica was an explosion waiting to happen. The 2,200 men warehoused in a facility built for 1,600 were routinely beaten by guards, locked in cells 16 hours a day, rationed one sheet of toilet paper daily, one bar of soap a month and one shower per week—even in the heat of summer. Among the main grievances was censorship of reading materials—no newspapers, very few books, and nothing at all to read in Spanish. It wasn’t an absolute ban—the prison authorities mocked the prisoners by supplying magazines such as Outdoor Life, Field and Stream, American Home and House Beautiful.
Hours after the revolt began, L.D. Barkley, a 21-year-old Black Panther Party member imprisoned for violating parole by driving without a license, read out the prisoners’ powerful declaration: “We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.”
The prisoners called for the minimum wage for prison work (they were paid slave wages of between 20 cents and one dollar per day), accompanied by an end to censorship and restrictions on political activity, religious freedom, rehabilitation, education and decent medical care. They expressed solidarity with the Vietnamese workers and peasants as well as others fighting U.S. imperialism. The main demand was amnesty for participating in the rebellion, along with “speedy and safe transportation out of confinement, to a Non-Imperialist country.” Most likely in mind were Cuba, where the capitalist rulers had been overthrown and a bureaucratically deformed workers state led by Fidel Castro established, or Algeria, a capitalist state governed by left nationalists that had given refuge to Black Panthers in exile.
As Thompson points out, many of the prisoners at Attica were veterans of eruptions over similar conditions at Manhattan’s Tombs detention center and the prison in Auburn, New York, the prior year. The bitter anger that was about to explode at Attica was displayed 19 days earlier when word spread through the cells that prison authorities at California’s San Quentin prison had assassinated Black Panther Party member George Jackson on 21 August 1971. The next day, over 800 Attica inmates marched silently into breakfast wearing black armbands and held a fast in protest. California prison officials had targeted Jackson, along with W.L. Nolen and Hugo Pinell, for forging solidarity of black, Latino and white prisoners. New York officials were no less alarmed by the interracial unity growing among Attica’s inmates.
The prison revolt reflected the growing ferment and struggles taking place outside prison walls, not least the “black power” movement and radical protests against the war in Vietnam. Many of the black inmates identified with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) and Puerto Ricans looked to the Young Lords, which was inspired by the Panthers. Playing a leading role in the rebellion was Sam Melville, a white member of the Weather Underground who was serving 18 years for placing explosives in government buildings in protest against the war in Vietnam. As Thompson observes, the presence of such activists “offered Attica’s otherwise apolitical men—like [Frank] Big Black Smith—a new understanding of their discontents and a new language for articulating them.” Smith ended up leading the prisoners’ security force, made up largely of Black Muslims. His group treated the prison guards taken hostage with a humanity that the prisoners had been denied.
For a long time before Blood in the Water, the biggest window into what took place at Attica came from Tom Wicker’s A Time to Die. Wicker, a New York Times reporter, along with radical attorney William Kunstler, was among the outside observers whom the prisoners demanded to negotiate through rather than directly with prison and state authorities. Prison officials granted this one demand, intending to use the observers to convince the prisoners to release the hostages and surrender without amnesty. To his credit, BPP leader Bobby Seale, whom the prisoners also sought as an observer, uniquely refused to be involved in attempts to nudge the inmates toward surrender. Seale made clear the BPP position that “all political prisoners who want to be released to go to non-imperialistic countries should be complied with.”
The retaking of Attica began in the morning of September 13 with a cloud of CN and CS gas dropped from a helicopter that covered every prisoner with a nauseating, incapacitating powder and it ended with a bloodbath. The rebellion’s leadership paid dearly. Barkley, Melville and others were assassinated in the prison yard. Surviving prisoners, including the wounded, were stripped naked, made to crawl through the mud and the blood, then lined up to run a gantlet over broken glass and be beaten by cops and guards wielding what they called their “n—-r sticks.” After being threatened with castration, Big Black Smith was forced to lie on a table for five hours with a football tucked under his chin, under threat of being shot if it rolled loose.
For the capitalist ruling class, Attica had to be crushed with particular vengeance because the rebels had begun to see their struggle in political and even revolutionary terms. One of Thompson’s discoveries is Nixon’s celebration of the bloodbath: “I think this is going to have a hell of a salutary effect on future prison riots…. Just like Kent State had a hell of a salutary effect” (referring to the 4 May 1970 National Guard killing of four students protesting the invasion of Cambodia—an extension of U.S. imperialism’s dirty war against the heroic Vietnamese workers and peasants). Nixon added, “They can talk all they want about force, but that is the purpose of force.”
Thompson, a historian at the University of Michigan and expert on mass incarceration, is particularly motivated by prison reform. She notes that the immediate aftermath of the Attica revolt saw some improvements in food, medical care, clothing, mail censorship and number of showers permitted. However, as she points out, this was followed by an “unprecedented backlash against all efforts to humanize prison conditions in America.”
Inmates today continue to be used as slave labor, face censorship of political literature and conditions at least as dehumanizing and sadistic, including the increasing use of solitary confinement—universally recognized as a form of torture. Brutality by prison guards is a daily fact of life, especially for the black and Latino victims disproportionately singled out for discipline.
The backlash to which Thompson refers is one expression of the bipartisan rollback of the limited democratic gains for black people attained by the liberal-led civil rights movement. Its most glaring manifestation for the past three decades has been the mass incarceration of black people, largely a consequence of the “war on drugs.” This overt war on black people was accompanied by escalating cop terror against the ghettos and barrios.
Today’s plethora of drug laws is an outgrowth of the state repression under the “war on crime” kicked off by Democratic president Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 “Safe Streets Act” and Nixon’s 1970 “Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act” and carried on by Democratic and Republican administrations since. The number of people languishing in U.S. prisons and jails, 2.2 million, is six times what it was in 1971. The costs of maintaining this vast prison complex have led to calls for easing up on the war on drugs.
Prisons are the concentrated expression of the depravity of this society. They are a key instrument in coercing, torturing and brutalizing those who have been cast off as the useless residue of a system rooted in exploitation and racial oppression. The deindustrialization of much of the U.S. that began in the late 1960s drove millions of black people out of the workforce and into the ranks of the permanently outcast. In the calculations of the American bourgeoisie, a substantial part of the black population, who used to provide labor for the auto plants and steel mills, is simply written off as an expendable population. Having condemned black as well as Latino youth to desperate poverty, the rulers whipped up hysteria painting the ghettoized poor as criminal “superpredators,” whom cops can gun down with impunity, and for whom no sentence is too long, no prison conditions too harsh. This demonization of the black population has served to deepen the wedge between white and black workers in a period of virtually no class struggle.
Marxists support the struggle for any demand that meets the immediate needs of prisoners. But under capitalism no reforms can fundamentally alter the repressive nature of the prisons. Along with the cops, military and courts, prisons are a pillar of the capitalist state, whose basic function is to maintain, through force or threat of force, the rule of the capitalist class and its economic exploitation of the working class. In the U.S., where racial oppression is at the core of the capitalist system, any alleviation of prison conditions must be linked to the fight against black oppression in general. We fight to abolish the prison system, which will be done only when the capitalist order—with its barbaric state institutions—is shattered by a proletarian socialist revolution that establishes a planned, collectivized economy with jobs and quality, integrated housing and education for all.
Thompson’s sympathies clearly lie with the Attica prisoners. Yet she evinces a soft spot for the prison guards, whom she sees as victims as well. Her poster boy for humanizing the guards is Mike Smith, a 22-year-old former machinist apparently liked by the prisoners and sympathetic to their demands. Smith, after being taken hostage by the prisoners, was shot by the cops and grievously wounded. Thompson writes, “Like so many other small town boys who had grown up in rural New York Mike needed to make a living, and prisons were the going industry.” Thompson also gives voice to the guards taken hostage and the families of the ten of them whom Rockefeller’s assassins gunned down, who resent the fact that the surviving Attica prisoners won a paltry monetary settlement from the state after nearly three decades.
As Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky pointed out 85 years ago, the worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state is a bourgeois cop, not a worker, an admonition no less applicable to prison guards. As we noted at the time of the Attica massacre, “These despicable racist guards are despised even by the ruling class that cynically uses them. The governor not only served notice on the prisoners that rebellion does not pay, and rebellion linked with revolutionary ideas means certain death, but he had a message for the guards too: Keep the upper hand or else!”
The basic function of the prisons is lost on the liberal academic Thompson, whose call for prison reform envisions a commonality of interests between inmates and prison guards—a relationship akin to that of slave and overseer. In a 2011 paper, “Rethinking Working-Class Struggle Through the Lens of the Carceral State: Toward a Labor History of Inmates and Guards,” she declares, “It is time once again for the American working class to pay attention to penal facilities as sites of productive labor and wage competition and to recognize that its destiny is tied in subtle but important ways to the ability of inmates as well as prison guards to demand fair pay and safe working conditions.” Thompson lauds the return of prison guards to municipal unions, such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
What, then, are “safe working conditions” for prison guards? In our 1971 article, we sharply criticized Jerry Wurf, the AFSCME president, as he threatened a “slowdown” by union guards after the Attica massacre:
“Wurf demanded more and better riot equipment—helmets, tear gas and masks, to be borrowed from police departments if necessary, and hiring of more guards. Yet he had the effrontery to maintain, ‘We’re not at war with the inmates; the state of New York is at war with them.’ What forces does the state of New York employ to make war on the inmates if not the cops and guards Wurf is happy to represent?… No union can represent both workers and the sworn servants of the capitalist class, the police and prison guards.”
The increasing prominence of cops and prison guards—workers’ class enemies—in the shrinking union movement underscores the need for ousting the pro-capitalist bureaucrats and forging a class-struggle leadership in the basic organs of workers struggle.
Three years before L.D. Barkley read out the Attica Brothers’ powerful declaration, striking black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, famously walked picket lines with signs declaring, “I am a man.” Today, the racist capitalist ruling class continues to treat black people as if they were less than human and their lives don’t matter. But there is a reservoir of social power in the organized working class, in which black workers, who make up the unions’ most loyal and militant sector, remain disproportionately represented. Under revolutionary leadership, black workers, who form an organic link to the anger of the oppressed ghetto poor, will play a vanguard role in the struggles of the entire U.S. working class. It is the purpose of the Spartacist League to build a workers party that links the fight for black freedom to the struggle for proletarian state power. Workers rule on a world scale will open the road to a communist future in which the modern instruments of incarceration and death will be discarded as relics of a decaying social order that deserved only to perish.