Monday, May 08, 2017

Heather Ann Thompson: Blood in the Water

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What it is: A number of books on my list lately have come from Public Books' updated version of the Chronicle of Higher Education's Trump Syllabus. Basically, the Chronicle put out a mock syllabus of things we should know to understand Trump. The idea was funny, even important, but it was definitely one of those dead white men things. The AAIHS (African American Intellectual History Society) called them out on this, and a new syllabus was born. I haven't even gotten to the post-election syllabus yet, as a) there are ton of amazing books on this list and b) "Blood in the Water" 600 dense (and very worthwhile) pages. If you need a good, meaningful book, the Trump Syllabus is highly recommended.

"Blood in the Water" is the story of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. It's also the story of over 30 years after that: I had heard of the revolt and cruel end to the uprising in the prison, but I had no idea how long it took for the prisoners and others to get any type of closure. The last trial that Heather Ann Thompson covers in this book literally took place in 2005. Unless you are an expert on Attica, I'm going to guess that the reality of the situation is worse than anything you thought. Prisoners were tortured. Witnesses were coerced. Evidence was hidden. Law enforcement was shoddily trained and sent into a situation set up for failure that would include shooting other members of law enforcement. Politicians planned from the get-go for a coverup. Evidence was intentionally destroyed. Prisoners continued to be tortured and denied medical treatments. Wives and families of law enforcement were kept in the dark and tricked out of compensation. Literally, if this situation were not meticulously researched and documented by Thompson, you might think it happened in a third world country. Or New York in the '70s.

On the other hand, she also meticulously documents how a group of prisoners came together peacefully and eloquently for their rights. During the few days that they occupied the prison, they had some hostages. They carefully worked to protect them. The prisoners worked together to get observers in, to come up with articulate and reasonable goals. The prison functioned better with them in charge than with the white, racist guards in charge. She talks about the group of lawyers who worked for years alongside the former prisoners to get compensation and recognition for their suffering. There is a touch of the tragic beauty here, of the "what could have been," if only we could all work in this kind of way. It's both very '70s (Black Panthers and other groups were both working with and models for the organizing) and utopian, the way it happened. It could not happen now.

Why you should read it: What happened at Attica is part of the history of prisons in this country. It's also not over. Although the book was really really long, I wish Thompson's epilogue explaining the direct effects of Attica on the current prison system had been longer. Some of the things that have actually gone backwards for prisoners as a direct or indirect result of Attica include the PLRA (Prison Litigation Reform Act). This act makes it harder for prisoners to protect themselves legally, which "Blood in the Water" makes tragically clear is a basic human right. As we know, mass incarceration of black people is steadily increasing. One of the factors in the revolt at Attica was overcrowding. The wars on drugs and crime actually led to New York's prisons to double in numbers by 1982.  And while the government initially realized that the Attica prisoners were making reasonable demands (more programming, better parole requirements, less time in "the hole," etc.), by 1982, these were all rolled back in a vicious backlash. "Forty years after the uprising of 1971, conditions at Attica were worse than they had ever been." In other words, we're talking about now. And the conditions that caused the Attica uprising were terrible. As Thompson says, 
It is both tragic and deeply ironic that new levels of brutality against America's prisoners have been, at least so far, the most obvious and lasting legacy of the 1971 Attica uprising. Even though the extraordinary violence that took place in 1971 was overwhelmingly perpetrated by members of law enforcement, not the prisoners, American voters ultimately did not respond to this prison uprising by demanding that states rein in police power. Instead they demanded that police be given even more support and even more punitive laws to enforce.

My "aha" moment:  The government worked very carefully along with the media (who also took off with the story) to spin a story that was not only sensational, but false. Does this sound familiar? The black prisoners were spun as monsters, torturing and mutilating the white guards held hostage in the prison. Although completely false, it seems like only the activists who joined the prisoner's cause ever seemed to understand that no, the prisoners had not decapitated anyone or slit their throats, and yes, the prison guards had shot scores of prisoners at close range and, after the prison had been retaken, made them crawl in glass, naked, or beaten them, or stabbed them in their anuses with with screwdrivers. The white media ran with the anti-black story, and that was what the public ate up: "The inflammatory stories of prisoner depravity reported by New York state officials found their way onto the front pages of the nation's most hardly regarded newspapers... Thanks to the Associated Press service, the story of prisoner barbarism made headline news in the local newspapers of almost every midsized city and small town in America."

Rating: Buy this book. (Partly because if you don't, you'll accrue so many fines at the library from taking so long to read it.) Absorb it. Help fix the VERY broken criminal justice and prison industrial complex. Let me know if you need a starting point. Think about how racism sends so many black and brown people to prison. Read this book.


thb said...

THB read this one earlier this year and add his recommendation: A straightforward (mostly chronological) retelling of the uprising, quelling, and cover-up. There are a thousand ways to solve every problem. Rockefeller and the prison and legal systems managed to find the worst possible solution: rampant shooting and killing of 10 hostages by the men sent in to free them as well as the deaths of 29 unarmed inmates, then hiding what happened from the public and stalling any judicial or monetary findings for 30+ years (let alone no reforms).