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Heather Thompson’s ‘Blood in the Water’ is the ‘definitive’ history of Attica uprising, aftermath

Hasn’t just about everything possible been written in the 45 years since the bloody rebellion by inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility?

After all, no doubt hundreds, if not thousands of trees were sacrificed to provide the paper for the newspaper and magazine stories and books relating to Attica. Then there’s most likely the thousands of pages of official documents pertaining to the investigations and court cases that followed.

But that, apparently, was not sufficient, given historian Heather Ann Thompson’s massive review of the uprising and its aftermath. And all this thanks to a helpful clerk in the Erie County Clerk’s Office and a friendly archivist at the New York State Museum in Albany.

The clerk found previously unavailable official documents pegged to the Attica uprising (documents that have since disappeared) and the archivist opened a warehouse door to hundreds of physical items collected as evidence from inside the walls of the prison (but now no longer viewable.)

The resulting “Blood in the Water” stands today as the definitive history of the revolt.

But first, let’s set the stage.

On Sept. 9, 1971, inmates in Attica, located about 35 miles east of Buffalo, revolted and took control of the prison and held hostage guards and civilian employees. Four days later, with negotiations between the state and the prisoners seemingly in the state’s eyes at a standstill, heavily armed state troopers, correction officers and other law enforcement officers retook the prison in a hail of gunfire that left 38 men dead, 29 prisoners and nine hostages.

This reviewer was there that day, standing outside the walls with other journalists from around the world. A helicopter hovered over the prison yard and catwalk occupied by prisoners and their captives. From a bullhorn in the chopper, the prisoners were ordered to discard their weapons and free hostages. Tear gas canisters from the helicopter exploded behind the walls, and as the gas wafted over the 30-foot walls, the gunfire erupted. It came staccato-style, and those on the other side of the wall could only imagine what horror was happening on the other side.

Thompson, appropriately, starts her examination prior to that fateful day. She offers a glimpse of the atmosphere in Attica that sparked the revolt – horrid overcrowding, poor medical care and, especially, a racial disconnect between black and Latino inmates and white guards and administrators. She also points to a prison rebellion a year earlier in Auburn, which ended peacefully but saw ringleaders of the uprising transferred to Attica.

Writes Thompson:

“Whereas (Attica Superintendent Vincent) Mancusi feared the Auburn prisoners would set about brainwashing the entire prison population and turn everyone into a radical troublemaker, it was in fact how DOCS (Department of Correctional Services) officials had treated these Auburn transferees that ended up further radicalizing many men in Attica.”

Thompson’s details of how the uprising started take on novelesque form. She writes of missteps by administrators and corrections officers, of brutality unleashed on guards by enraged prisoners and about the kindness, protection and sympathy some prisoners showed those who no longer guarded them.

Then “Blood” draws attention to the tireless efforts to end the rebellion peacefully. Names familiar to Western New York enter the picture – Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve, Federal Judge John T. Curtin, newsmen Stewart Dan and Richard Roth. The negotiations, “Blood” reports, end in confusion, with the state giving an ultimatum for capitulation the morning of the retaking, but not letting the prisoners know the attack was imminent if they refused.

The horror that ensued fills the pages of “Blood” with graphic details of wanton killing, unnecessary brutality and racially charged vengeance on the part of most of the attackers.

“Even the men who scrambled to surrender were subjected to unspeakable abuse,” writes Thompson. “As cruel as these events were, it was the acts of cold-blooded killing and attempted killing, that made the scene especially terrifying.” One prisoner watched in disbelief as two troopers aimed their guns at a man trying to take cover in a trench. The troopers instructed the man to climb out of the trench with his hands on his head, which he did. Then, “he was shot in the head by the trooper who (had) told him to keep his hands on his head.”

The book’s title comes from a prisoner remembering that 10 minutes after the assault started, “all he could see was blood and water.” Tragically, “Blood” reports, the bulk of the killing and maiming took place after the prison had been secured, after the rebels and the hostages had been immobilized by the debilitating gas.

Just as tragic was the way the state chose to tell the world what had happened behind the walls. At a news conference two hours after the assault, Corrections Department spokesman Gerald Houlihan said “seven or eight” hostages died when prisoners slit their throats. Assistant Corrections Commissioner Walter Dunbar reiterated the throat-slashing story and added that another hostage was not only stabbed, his genitals were cut off and stuffed in his mouth “in clear view of us all … we saw it.”

It wasn’t until the next day when a Monroe County coroner examined the bodies that the real truth – all the hostages had been killed by gunfire from the prison retakers – that the world learned the truth about what had happened.

“Blood” pursues that truth, from prison yard to courtrooms, thanks to exhaustive research by the author and her assistants. They tell the story of the books, articles, reports and court transcripts that were scoured but, most importantly, the people who were interviewed. The interviewees included survivors of the assault, some who took part in it and family members of those killed or injured during the attack.

Most of the legal activity, including trials of criminally charged troopers and corrections officers, takes place in Western New York courts, both state and federal. And in the telling, Thompson outlines how the state resisted, until ordered by courts, to identify prisoners, survivors and family members of the Attica dead.

She pays particular attention to the late Federal Judge John T. Elfvin, who presided in Buffalo federal court over the trial of Attica prisoners seeking recompense from New York for what they had to endure at Attica. Thompson personalizes “Blood” by introducing each section with a profile of someone connected to the Attica uprising and aftermath.

There’s Frank “Big Black” Smith, wounded in the attack and wrongly singled out as the killer who stuffed a hostage’s genitals in his mouth. Smith was transferred to Attica after the Auburn uprising and, surveying the conditions, “wondered wearily how much more crowded Attica could get before it would blow.”

Meet Michael Smith, a corrections officer who cringed at the way his colleagues treated prisoners. When State Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald failed, as promised, to visit Attica and address prisoner complaints, he “could feel the air around him crackle with a new fury.”

And Tony Strollo, a trooper worried that he and his colleagues were far more trained at stopping speeders than assaulting a prison with shotguns. His only concern was rescuing his brother, Frank, a corrections officer being held hostage.

And not to be overlooked, Elizabeth Fink, the spunky civil rights lawyer who represented prisoners as part of the Attica Brothers Legal Defense. After she graduated from law school, Thompson writes, “Fink suspected that she could do some very important political work, fighting the government officials and politicians who were using the courts to squelch dissent. Attica would give her that opportunity.”

Was “Blood in the Water” necessary in view of all that has been written, adjudicated and said about the Attica uprising?

Thompson, a noted and award-winning historian at the University of Michigan, has compiled all of that in a readable, factually intense and sometimes riveting work, making the answer a resounding “yes.”

NONFICTION

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy

By Heather Ann Thompson

Pantheon

724 pages, $35

Lee Coppola’s varied career after covering the Attica uprising for The News continued in Buffalo TV journalism until he became a federal prosecutor and dean of the St. Bonaventure University Journalism School.

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