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

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

by Heather Ann Thompson


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Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson




On September 9, 1971, nearly 1,300 prisoners took over the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York to protest years of mistreatment. Holding guards and civilian employees hostage, the prisoners negotiated with officials for improved conditions during the four long days and nights that followed.

On September 13, the state abruptly sent hundreds of heavily armed troopers and correction officers to retake the prison by force. Their gunfire killed thirty-nine men—hostages as well as prisoners—and severely wounded more than one hundred others. In the ensuing hours, weeks, and months, troopers and officers brutally retaliated against the prisoners. And, ultimately, New York State authorities prosecuted only the prisoners, never once bringing charges against the officials involved in the retaking and its aftermath and neglecting to provide support to the survivors and the families of the men who had been killed.
Drawing from more than a decade of extensive research, historian Heather Ann Thompson sheds new light on every aspect of the uprising and its legacy, giving voice to all those who took part in this forty-five-year fight for justice: prisoners, former hostages, families of the victims, lawyers and judges, and state officials and members of law enforcement. Blood in the Water is the searing and indelible account of one of the most important civil rights stories of the last century.

(With black-and-white photos throughout)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400078240
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/22/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 752
Sales rank: 72,790
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

HEATHER ANN THOMPSON is an award-winning historian at the University of Michigan. Her most recent book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, won the Pulitzer Prize in History, the Bancroft Prize, the Ridenhour Book Prize, and the J. Willard Hurst Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, among other accolades. She is also the author of Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City and the editor of Speaking Out: Activism and Protest in the 1960s and 1970s. She served on a National Academy of Sciences blue-ribbon panel that studied the causes and consequences of mass incarceration in the United States and has given congressional staff briefings on the subject. She has written on the history of mass incarceration and its current impact for The New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, Salon, Newsweek, NBC, Dissent, New Labor Forum, and The Huffington Post, as well as for various top scholarly publications.

Read an Excerpt

State Secrets

One might well wonder why it has taken forty-five years for a comprehen­sive history of the Attica prison uprising of 1971 to be written. The answer is simple: 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.
Some of these materials, such as scores of boxes related to the McKay Commission inquiry into Attica, were deemed off limits four decades ago—in this case at the request of the commission members who feared that state prosecutors would try to use the information to make cases against prisoners in a court of law. Other materials related to the Attica uprising, such as the last two volumes of the Meyer Report of 1976, were also sealed back in the 1970s. Members of law enforcement fought hard to prevent disclosure of this report in particular. Although a judge has recently ruled that these volumes can now be released to the public, the redaction process that they first will undergo means that crucial parts of Attica’s history will almost certainly remain hidden.
The vast majority of Attica’s records, however, are not sealed, and yet they might as well be. Federal agencies such as the FBI and the Jus­tice Department have important Attica files, for example, but when one requests them via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), they have been rendered nearly unreadable from all of the redactions. And then there are the records held by the state of New York itself—countless boxes housed in various upstate warehouses that came from numerous sources: the state’s official investigation into whether criminal acts had been committed at Attica during the rebellion, its five years of prosecuting such alleged crimes, and its nearly three decades of defending itself against civil actions filed by prisoners and hostages. In 2006 I was able to get an index of these files, which made clear that this is a treasure trove of Attica documen­tation: autopsies, ballistics reports, trooper statements, depositions, and more. It constitutes ground zero of the Attica story.
Everything that the state holds in these warehouses can also be requested via FOIA, but here as well it is difficult to get documents released. As this book goes to press, and after waiting since 2013 for some explanation of whether my latest FOIA request would net me important documents, I just received word that state officials will not be giving me those materials. I know the items that I requested are there, according to the state’s own inventory, and I also know that I did not ask for any grand jury materials that would be protected, and yet my request is still being denied.
But thanks to so many who lived and litigated the Attica uprising, as well as so many others who took the time to chronicle or to collect parts of this history in newspapers, in memoirs, and in archives outside the control of the state of New York, I was still able to rescue and recount the story of Attica.
And, because of two extraordinarily lucky breaks I had while I was trying to write this book, the history you are about to read is one that state officials very much hoped would not be told.
First, in 2006 I stumbled upon a cache of Attica documents at the Erie County courthouse in Buffalo, New York, that changed everything. I had, for two years, been calling and writing every county courthouse and coro­ner’s office and municipal building in upstate New York in order to find any Attica-related records that had not been placed under lock and key by the Office of the Attorney General or sealed by a judge. I had little to go on in these early years—I didn’t have case numbers to search, I knew few names to inquire about. But one day I hit pay dirt. I was on the phone with a woman from the Erie County courthouse who thought that a bunch of Attica papers had recently been placed in the back room there. They had been somewhere else, but had been moved to the Office of the Clerk, per­haps after suffering some water damage. I headed to Buffalo.
When I walked into that dim file room at the courthouse I was taken aback. In front of me, in complete disarray on floor-to-ceiling metal shelves, were literally thousands of pages of Attica documents. In this mess was everything from grand jury testimony, to depositions and indictments, to memos and personal letters. Most stunningly, though, I found in this mountain of moldy papers vital information from the very heart of the state’s own investigation into whether crimes had been com­mitted during the rebellion or the retaking of the prison. In short, I had found a great deal of what the state knew, and when it knew it—not the least of which was what evidence it thought it had against members of law enforcement who were never indicted. I took as many notes as I could take, and Xeroxed as many pages as they would let me, and, finally, had much of what I needed to write a history of Attica that no one yet knew.
Then, in 2011, I had another incredibly lucky break. I had just pub­lished an op-ed in The New York Times on the occasion of Attica’s fortieth anniversary when I received an email from Craig Williams, an archivist at the New York State Museum who wanted help making sense of a new trove of materials he had received from the New York State Police. Troopers had just turned over an entire Quonset hut full of items they had gathered from the prison yards of Attica immediately after the four-day standoff there in 1971—items that the state considered evidence in the cases that it might make against prisoners or troopers. I was thrilled to hear this, and soon headed to Albany.
When I got to the museum’s cavernous warehouse, I was glad to be joined by Christine Christopher, a filmmaker making a documentary on Attica with whom I had been working closely. Together we just stood for a while, staring at rows and rows of cartons, boxes, bags, and crates of materials that had been removed from the prison forty years before. And what had been gathered and hidden away for those many decades turned out to be grim indeed. In one particularly mangled container lay a heap of clothing—the dirty, rumpled pants and shirt of a slain correction officer, Carl Valone. His clothing wasn’t soiled merely with decades-old mud from Attica’s D Yard. It was stiff and stained with blood. I had met two of Carl Valone’s kids who were still desperate for answers regarding what, exactly, had happened to their father on September 13, 1971.
And this was just one box. Next to it sat another in which I found the now rigid, blood-soaked clothing of Attica prisoner Elliot “L. D.” Barkley. Like Carl Valone, L. D. Barkley had been gunned down during Attica’s retaking. I had met one of his family members too—L.D.’s younger sister, Traycee. She, like every one of the Valone kids, was also still haunted by Attica.
Although the detritus of Attica that the NYSP had saved in these many boxes revealed little new about why this event played out as it did, it was a harrowing reminder of its human toll. There was a dog-eared red spiral notebook filled with messages written by the prisoners who had survived the retaking, men who had hoped these pages could somehow be smug­gled out so that their families and friends might know that they were still alive. There were also cartons of torn and faded photographs of prisoners’ loved ones, countless legal proceedings that the prisoners had painstak­ingly copied, and even their Bibles and Qurans—all of which had been ripped out of cells in the aftermath of the rebellion.
All of the Attica files that I saw in that dark room of the Erie County courthouse have now vanished, and all of the Attica artifacts that the New York State Museum had been willing to share have also been removed from anyone’s view. But all that I learned from those documents back in 2006 can’t be unlearned, and all of the boxes of bloody Attica clothes and heartbreaking letters written by Attica’s prisoners that I saw back in 2011 can’t be unseen.
And I have decided to include all that I have learned and seen in this book.
That said, this decision was agonizing. Although my job as a historian is to write the past as it was, not as I wished it had been, I have no desire to cause anyone pain in the present. I am well aware, and it haunts me, that my decision to name individuals who have spent the last forty-five years trying to remain unnamed will reopen many old wounds and cause much new suffering. That old wounds were never allowed to heal, and that new suffering is now a certainty, however, is, I believe, the responsibility of officials in the state of New York. It is these officials who have cho­sen repeatedly, since 1971, to protect the politicians and members of law enforcement who caused so much trauma. It is these officials who could have, and should have, told the whole truth about Attica long ago so that the healing could have begun and Attica’s history would have been just that: history, not present-day politics and pain.
Of course, even this book can’t promise Attica’s survivors the full story. The state of New York still sits on many secrets. This book does vow, how­ever, to recount all that I was able to uncover, and by doing that, at least, perhaps a bit more justice will be done.

Table of Contents

Introduction: State Secrets xiii
Frank “Big Black” Smith 3
1 Not So Greener Pastures 5
2 Responding to Resistance 18
3 Voices from Auburn 22
4 Knowledge Is Power 28
5 Playing by the Rules 31
6 Back and Forth 35
7 End of the Line 38
Michael Smith 43
8 Talking Back 45
9 Burning Down the House 50
10 Reeling and Reacting 60
11 Order Out of Chaos 64
12 What’s Going On 71
13 Into the Night 83
14 A New Day Dawns 89
Tom Wicker 101
15 Getting Down to Business 103
16 Dreams and Nightmares 116
17 On the Precipice 139
18 Deciding Disaster 153
Tony Strollo 161
19 Chomping at the Bit 163
20 Standing Firm 169
21 No Mercy 178
22 Spinning Disaster 193
23 And the Beat Goes On 204
Robert Douglass 223
24 Speaking Up 225
25 Stepping Back 232
26 Funerals and Fallout 242
27 Prodding and Probing 251
28 Which Side Are You On? 256
29 Ducks in a Row 266
Anthony Simonetti 271
30 Digging More Deeply 273
31 Foxes in the Hen House 287
32 Stick and Carrot 294
33 Seeking Help 299
34 Indictments All Around 304
Ernest Goodman 311
35 Mobilizing and Maneuvering 313
36 A House Divided 321
37 Laying the Groundwork 327
38 Testing the Waters 334
39 Going for Broke 340
40 Evening the Score 363
41 A Long Journey Ahead 388
Malcolm Bell 401
42 Joining the Team 403
43 Protecting the Police 418
44 Smoking Guns 425
45 Going Public 434
46 Investigating the Investigation 442
47 Closing the Book 452
Elizabeth Fink 457
48 It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over 459
49 Shining the Light on Evil 466
50 Delay Tactics 479
51 The Price of Blood 485
52 Deal with the Devil 498
Deanne Quinn Miller 507
53 Family Fury 509
54 Manipulated and Outmaneuvered 517
55 Biting the Hand 528
56 Getting Heard 533
57 Waiting Game 542
58 A Hollow Victory 550
Epilogue: Prisons and Power 558
Acknowledgments 573
Notes 579
Index 685

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Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A harrowing. graphic, and moving account of the Attica uprisings. Anyone who believes that we should be tough on crime should read this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Meticulously researched, this book is a vivid history of the events at the prison in September of 1971 and the machinations of the Rockefeller administration to cover up the facts.