Racist Preconceptions and an Ongoing Cover-Up Mark the Attica Rebellion’s Legacy

Video grab of prisoners being rounded up after the four day inmate riot at Attica Prison. (Photo: Henry Groskinsky / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images)Video grab of prisoners being rounded up after the four-day uprising at Attica Prison. (Photo: Henry Groskinsky / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images)

In September 1971, prisoners at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York rose up and seized control of the prison to draw the world’s attention to the terrible conditions they endured. But the state’s bloody retaking of the prison, and the blame placed on prisoners for the death toll that ensued, paved the way for today’s repressive mass incarceration apparatus. Get the true story of Attica in Heather Ann Thompson’s gripping, award-winning book Blood in the Water. Order it by donating to Truthout today!

The reality of what happened at Attica in 1971 has long been suppressed, with an entirely fictional narrative — in which violent prisoners cut the throats of hostages and mutilated their bodies — taking precedence over the truth. In fact, the state of New York was responsible for ending negotiations and assaulting the prison with overwhelming force, knowing that this could and would end in the death and injury of the state’s own employees. Thirty-nine people — prisoners and hostages — died as a result of shots fired by heavily armed troopers and correction officers, over a hundred more were wounded, and surviving prisoners were beaten, tortured and humiliated.

The Attica uprising itself inspired incarcerated people and others to keep struggling even in the face of overwhelming odds, but the backlash — fueled by misinformation and racist preconceptions — was used to justify repressive “law and order” policies and the further dehumanization of prisoners. As we once again face a racist backlash to anti-racist organizing, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy is an essential and timely book. Michelle Alexander calls it “a true gift to the written history of civil rights and racial justice struggles in America.”

Heather Ann Thompson. (Photo: Graham MacIndoe)Heather Ann Thompson. (Photo: Graham MacIndoe)Truthout spoke…

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