The origins of the Attica uprising

In this bonus segment, we return to renowned historian Heather Ann Thompson as she elaborates on the origins of the historic 1971 Attica Uprising, drawing out their resonances with other prison rebellions across history and geography, as well as their telling implications for our present historical moment.

For more from Heather Ann Thompson on the conditions connecting Attica to recent prison rebellions, check out Episode 3: The Riots will Continue.

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Episode Transcript:

Kaif Syed: In this special bonus segment of Rustbelt Abolition Radio, we return to our conversation with renowned historian Heather Ann Thompson, as she elaborates on the multifaceted origins of the historic 1971 Attica Uprising; drawing out the resonances with other prison rebellions across history and geography, as well as their telling implications for our present historical moment.

Heather Ann Thompson: The thing about Attica is, when I’m asked about what was the spark to Attica, the answer depends on how far back you want to go. I would actually say that this activism had been brewing long before even Auburn. Many of the guys at Attica had actually first been locked up in the Tombs in New York, they had protested jail conditions in New York City in the Tombs. Again interestingly, very material driven. You know, bail rules were not fair, conditions were horrible. But on the other hand, a very political critique at bail, and prisons, and jails. So that was in 1970, and then what follows that is Auburn, which very much like Attica was a big rebellion that took hostages and everything. And that rebellion was interestingly first very peaceful, the men wanted to have a black solidarity day. Management first said yes, then said no, so then they had it anyway. And it was all good, until management decided to retaliate. But what interestingly politicized the men the most at Auburn was management’s reaction to black solidarity day, and what politicized them even further was management’s decision to throw them all in the hole and prosecute them. So many of those men then come to Attica, and so there was a consciousness that the state betrays you, that even if you ask for something they’ll take it away. And again, conditions at Attica are terrible.

So multiple things are happening on multiple tracks, there are political guys at Attica that are talking across political lines. There are Black Panthers, there are Five-Percenters, there’s Weather Underground, other factions of the Black Muslims, and that’s cuz there’s a political vibe. Political education, sociology classes where people are talking about racial oppression in general. And at the same time, they are writing letters to their state senator, and they are asking for basic improvements to the food, and to the parole rules, and to the conditions in general to the prison. So these are always going on parallel, and sometimes intersecting, but parallel tracks.These are always happening at the same time.

So on September 8th, again everyone’s out in the yard, everyone’s minding their own business, but yes they are also simultaneously having bigger discussions about racism and injustice in Amerikkka. And management makes the decision to haul in some of these guys for horsing around, they think maybe fighting. And it is the decision to send one of them to keeplock, which is locking you in your cell for an extended period of time, that sends this one individual over the edge. For him personally, that affront ist too much to take, and so he strikes the officer. What is remarkable about that episode is not so much what happened, it was the reaction of everybody else. Which was, again whether they knew him or not, it’s not even particularly clear what the relationship between Dooer or LeMorey or anybody who got involved with this. Other than it was clear to them that if it’s us or them, we don’t trust them, so it’s us. And it’s very clear which side your on. And so that leads to a lockdown of the prison that night, and as always the case these guys are dragged out of their cells, and it’s much commotion. But because of the longer history of the prison, the guys are worried they’d been beaten to death, that they’d been killed. And if not killed, certainly very severely beaten. So the guys are terrified but also furious. And one of the guys who is particularly angry about it throws a soup can at one of the guards, so he ends up on keeplock. And then what happens next I really think was a series of complete accidental, fortuitous things that actually become the Attica Rebellion. And that’s often the case, right? It’s this weird confluence of events that will lead to an eruption.

And in this case it was management’s decision to lock that particular company that held the guy with the soup can, to lock them in a hallway, not let them out to rec, and send them back to their cells. But they never even told the guards running that company what they were gonna do. And so frankly, it was a management decision that leads to complete panic in that hallway. The prisoners feel like that this is a trap, they’re about ready to be set upon. The guards have no idea what just happened, and all the sudden they realize there’s two of them and 80 men, and it’s complete pandemonium. And it’s in that pandamonium that a gate opens completely because of the pressure on the gate, which would not have happened had the weld not been faulty in the gate. So all of that is accidence of history. But what happens afterward is a testimony to the deep seeded consciousness that had been built up.

Some of it political, some of it because people had read Malcolm and Mao and George Jackson, but a lot of it because injustice is pretty crystal clear I think for people. For human beings. And in that moment, it was that combination of people who were organizers, and people who had the voice and understood the importance of organization, corralling the energy that was already clearly ready to protest. And that was Attica. So it starts off as a riot, I define that as complete chaos, everyone’s panicked, everyone’s freaked out, they’re all scared. But within a very small amount of time it becomes one of the greatest human rights struggles in Amerikkkan history.

a Maria: Can you tell us about the repression and retaliation following the uprising in Attica?

Heather Ann Thompson: So even though I as a historian and an activist understood that there had been repression at Attica, I really had no concept of what that meant. And frankly it wasn’t until I had talked to many formerly incarcerated Attica brothers, as well frankly as the hostages, and the lawyers, and doctors, and the people who had presided over Attica cases, that I really began to appreciate what does repression look like. When prisoners don’t just rise up, but dare to not back down. Stick to it, not for 5 minutes, not 3 minutes, not an individual rebellion, but over the course of days and standing together. And this was a repression that was first of course through gunfire, I mean just indiscriminately shooting people and spraying this one yard with 4000 bullets and shotgun pellets. But that was the beginning, that was the tip of the iceberg. But what happens next is really what prison is about.

What happens next is to show the people inside that control is absolute, and that it’s not just any control, it’s not just state control. It’s in this case white control. Prisoners were forced to do the white power salute, this is while their wounds are being urinated in, while they’re being kicked and beaten and tortured. And it’s all racialized. And all the white prisoners, cuz there were a lot of white prisoners in Attica, we forget about that in our narrative. Who had dared to stand with the black prisoners, were racialized, and vilified, and tortured. And Attica, the fact that we didn’t learn as a nation the repression piece of the story, is why I spend so much time on that in the book. I think that readers are really surprised that the actual rebellion takes the first third of the book, but the entire rest of the book is about the repression, not just the physical but the enduring state repression. That was a choice I made, because I felt like whereas a lot of people really wished I would’ve spent more time on what led to the rebellion, what I wanted to show was what we were up against. What does repression really look like? Because frankly I think that’s always what gets underestimated.

And so that’s why at Kinross, that’s why at Vaughn, that’s why in any prison uprising, and frankly any one of them that has happened in this past September, everytime I write about this publicly you’ll notice I always talk about the opening of the doors and what is happening now. Because I just feel like that’s my particular hobby horse, but it’s one thing to celebrate a prison rebellion, and to celebrate the brothers and the sisters who do it. It is completely another to just then go home. Because what happens to them afterwards, Attica shows, is the real center of gravity for what they’re experiencing. That is a level of repression we can’t even imagine.

Kaif Syed: Rebellion and resistance continue so long as the carceral state and racial capitalism continue to dominate and oppress, from Attica to Kinross. You have been listening to a special bonus segment from the interview with Heather Ann Thompson which aired on our 3rd episode, “The Riots will Continue”. Tune in April for our next episode, focusing on women, the carceral state, and resistance.


Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in to this bonus content. Check out our website at w-w-w-dot-rustbeltradio-dot-o-r-g. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio Team: Andrés, David Langstaff, a Maria, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Music by Bad Infinity.