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Revisiting Attica

New book challenges official story of New York prison riot


CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misidentified attorney Ernie Goodman. The earlier version also misstated the number of hostages killed, which is 10.

The 1971 Attica prison riot is widely regarded as the nation’s most violent prison disturbance, where merciless prisoners killed hostages and brutally attacked guards who attempted to retake the prison. But one author has set out to change the popular narrative.

“Blood in the Water,” a 700-page nonfiction book by University of Michigan history Professor Heather Ann Thompson, tosses out virtually everything you thought you knew about the riot in one of New York’s largest and most overcrowded prisons.

Thompson’s book is an expose, attacking the false official narrative. It brings light and truth to what really happened at Attica, but it also follows the aftermath and the almost inconceivable cover up by state and federal officials that continues to this day.

“New York officials still haven’t talked with me,” Thompson said. “Prisons are 100 percent public institutions, but we still don’t know totally what happened there.”

The author, a native of Detroit, became interested in incarceration by seeing firsthand what it has done to the city. She followed that interest through to the University of Michigan, where she teaches history with an emphasis on incarceration and race relations.

In the first half of the book, Thompson takes an in-depth look at the days preceding the riot. She recreates the brutal riot and the four days of tense negotiations that followed, when prisoners presented a list of demands which included decent food, medical care, less censorship of letters and more educational opportunities.

As the negotiations continued, outsiders like young New York Times reporter Tom Wicker and legendary civil rights attorney William Kuntsler were brought in as observers while police and National Guard troops queued up for the assault.

On Sept. 13, 1971, just as the prisoners began to believe there may be a peaceful resolution, more than 600 heavily armed and trigger-happy state police and corrections officers were ordered by the governor to storm the prison, killing 10 hostages and 29 prisoners. The unarmed prisoners were disabled by a specially concocted gas cocktail dropped from a helicopter. Thompson believes that the National Guard troops were held back because of the blowback from the Kent State shootings, which occurred just one year prior.

The officials’ cover up begins immediately, with a fabricated story claiming that the prisoners cut the throats of eight hostages. Thompson reveals that the prisoners actually tried to protect the hostages — first from angry prisoners but ultimately from those sent to free them.

It took Thompson more than 10 years to research the book, with state officials attempting to block her investigation along the way. Despite the roadblocks, Thompson is able to piece together a totally different story than the one concocted by New York prison officials, prosecutors and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

To this day, the state refuses to name troopers or guards who tortured and killed prisoners. Thompson’s breakthrough came at an obscure courthouse where she discovered trial transcripts, sealed grand jury records and even minutes of secret meetings held by the governor that have never been seen by the public.

The second half of the book looks in detail at these trials, where 62 prisoners were charged with 42 felony charges and other crimes, including rape and murder. Thompson documents how the government tampered with evidence, interfered with and coerced witnesses and even placed two FBI informers on the defense team.

One case in particular will be of special interest to Michigan readers. A Detroit law firm noted for its civil rights cases took on the defense of former Detroiter Bernard “Shango” Stroble, who was charged with the murder of two fellow prisoners. Detroit’s Ernie Goodman, a noted civil rights attorney nearing the end of his career, and his son took the lead in this case, refuting each of the prosecutor’s claims and witnesses. It’s here that Thompson’s storytelling rivals that of lawyer-turned-fiction author John Grisham.

Thompson also humanizes the prisoners, who speak out against their treatment both before and after the riot. She argues that prisons and the criminal justice system have changed since the Attica riots — but not for the better.

“Prison conditions are much, much worse,” she said. “We are warehousing 2 million prisoners in this country.”

“Blood in the Water” was recently named as a finalist for the National Book Award. The book faces stiff competition from last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnem and the Memory of War.”

Thompson, who pared her book down from a 1,400-page manuscript, admits she still hasn’t uncovered all the facts.

“There are records out there that are still not available,” she said. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.”


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