Blood in the Water: Attica and American Racism
I am currently reading an excellent book by Heather Ann Thompson entitled Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. Dr. Thompson teaches history at the University of Michigan and fought to obtain documents relating to the Attica uprising for some time in order to write a complete history. She was unsuccessful in obtaining all the documents that exist but, still, her history is quite impressive.
I am not going to attempt an overall review of Dr. Thompson’s work but will produce some passages and arguments that reveal just how deeply racist the U.S. was then and is now. This seems relevant given the presence in the White House of a president who makes no bones about his racism, as Trump did once say “I am the least racist person you know.” So, by his own admission he is a racist and, of course, he is not least racist person I know, hands down. But Trump’s statement, so blithely made, illustrates just how deeply embedded racism is the consciousness of Americans who like to think of themselves as “white.”
After five days of negotiations, such as they were, the authorities, including Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, where the prison is located, decided it was time to “retake” the prison and to do so, they sent in several New York State Police companies along with, strangely enough, some Park Police who had shown up at the prison armed and ready for action. The prisoners had no firearms so any deaths that were attributable to gunfire had to be the result of the State Police and other police actions. This is important, especially as several of the hostages held by the prisoners were shot to death as the state police “retook” the prison. These hostages were, by the way, protected throughout the five days of the standoff by the prisoners and one or two had their lives saved by prisoners who pointed out to attacking state policemen that they were guards or civilian staff at the prison.
The massacre was gruesome, to say the least and, as Thompson argues, it was fueled by racial hatred.
“Twenty-one year old Chris Reed was gunned down with four bullets, including one that ‘exploded and took out a big chunk’ of his left thigh. He listened in terror as troopers debated in front of him whether to kill him or let him bleed to death. As they discussed this the troopers had fun jamming their rifle butts into his injuries and dumping lime onto his face and injured legs, until he fell unconscious. When he awoke, he found himself ‘stacked up with the dead bodies.’ ‘I never saw human beings treated like this,’ another prisoner later recalled. He couldn’t understand: ‘Why all the hatred?’ But it wasn’t just any hatred – it was racial hatred. As one prisoner was told by a trooper who had a gun trained on him: he would soon be dead because ‘we haven’t killed enough niggers.’ Everywhere there were cries of ‘Keep your nigger nose down!’ ‘Don’t you know state troopers don’t like niggers?’ ‘Don’t move nigger! You’re dead!’”
In the aftermath of the attack, those who authorized it spun things to make it seem that however many deaths of the prisoners occurred, especially black prisoners, it was justified. Department of Corrections Spokesperson Gerald Houlihan announced that several of the hostages had their throats cut by the prisoners, which simply turned out to be untrue. And Walter Dunbar, on the staff at Attica, “provided his bloodcurdling twist to the rumors of atrocities committed by prisoners” by claiming, falsely, that one prisoner “took a knife and grabbed young officer [Mike] Smith and castrated him….and took this man’s organs and stuck them in his mouth in clear view of us all….” Dunbar claimed to have film of this barbaric act and repeated his story to several newspapers that obligingly printed “the story,” newspapers including the New York Daily News, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. Newspapers quoted Governor Rockefeller’s assertion that “these ‘were cold-blooded killings’ by revolutionary militants,” who wanted to overthrow the United States government! As Thompson put it: “Indeed, it was Rockefeller’s deeply held belief that he had thwarted a revolutionary plot to destabilize the nation that allowed him to take such undiluted pride in how things had transpired on the morning of September 13.”
Nixon, who was then president, thought Rockefeller had done a bang up job because, after all, as Nixon said: “you see it’s the black business….” And for Nixon this was part of revolutionary plots that recently became “obvious” in California, with Nixon adding that “I think this is going to have a hell of a salutary effect on future prison riots…Just like Kent State had a hell of a salutary effect….” But when told of the alleged castration of the guard, Nixon indicated that he was not quite ready to buy into that one and said to Rockefeller, “You can prove that can’tcha?”
Just an amazing illustration of just how our governors and presidents govern. And also an illustration of just how deep-seated racism is embedded in their psyches. So don’t be too surprised that it is now evident that Trump is a racist. It might be more surprising were he not one.