September 13th marked the 35th anniversary of the Attica prison rebellion in 1971. Heather Ann Thompson, a professor at UNC-Charlotte and author of the book, Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City, (definitely recommended reading) gave a guest lecture at UM yesterday called “Attica, Attica, Attica! Rebellion, Reaction, and the Legacy of Truths Untold.” It was a great presentation. I’d read about the Attica rebellion years ago, so much of the information was not new, but it was interesting to hear about Thompson’s research, her upcoming book, and what the lessons of Attica can teach us about the present.
Thompson discussed the prison conditions that led to the rebellion, the rebellion itself and the unrestrained violence on the part of the troopers sent in to “quell the disturbance” (which meant dousing the prison yard with CS gas and firing hundreds of bullets indiscriminantly into the crowds) and the ensuing coverup by government officials and the media. Thirty-nine people were killed in total–hostages, inmates and guards–and many more were critically injured. The original story that was widely reported in the mainstream media said that the hostages had all had their throats slit by the inmates. The coroner’s story told a different story, which was subsequently covered up. The coroner’s report confirmed that the troopers’ bullets had killed every single hostage; none had been murdered by inmates. My favorite forensic pathologist, Michael Baden, was called in by Rockefeller to go over the coroner’s findings, and despite the fact that his tests confirmed the original report, the mainstream media (including papers like the New York Times) never retracted the story.
Thompson also went into how the prisoners were treated following the rebellion; how inmates were forced to crawl through thick mud to be stripped, to walk across broken glass in their bare feet and to run a gauntlet of physical and verbal abuse before being thrown en masse, still naked, into tiny cells. Many had to suffer through this pain and humiliation with as many as 5 to 7 (untreated) bullet wounds and broken bones.
Thompson used the expression “the politics of the ironic” to refer to situations, like that at Attica, where the facts go in one direction, but the politics go in the other–with real consequences. (We are fooling ourselves if we think that the poor conditions, the racism and violent abuse that led the prisoners at Attica to rebel in 1971 are a thing of the past.) Immediately following the Attica uprising, politicians across the US embarked on a crusade to make prisons even more repressive (like with the invention of the Supermax prison–every state has one) and to even put more people in prison. Prison populations have increased exponentially since then. According to Thompson, as of 2004, almost 7 million Americans were under some sort of state/federal supervision, and the number is certainly higher today.
Thompson concluded by mentioning something that I did not know: the US census includes prisoners in local census counts (not in the town the prisoner came from) . That means that, though prisoners cannot vote, a community with a prison counts every prisoner as a member of their township, and will therefore have more representation in government. So more prisoners translates into more political power. Kinda makes you think about the cycle of poverty, crime and incarceration, doesn’t it?