Saturday, December 24, 2016

Best of 2016: The truth about Attica

Reviewed by Hubert K.,
reference librarian

Blood In the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, by Heather Ann Thompson

This was one of my favorite books of last year, chosen both for its importance and for its impact. I find myself seeking out books these days that recount important historical events which occurred during my lifetime, particularly the ones to which I paid little attention while growing up. Perhaps this is about some retro-spective sense of guilt, a way to make amends for not having been a very good citizen, for having been unconcerned and oblivious. But sometimes, too, unfortunately, it takes the distance of years for the hidden truths of events to be revealed, truths that were buried by politicians and media.

About Attica, we were naive and willingly receptive to a palliating cast of events. We didn’t want to accept the demur of “radicals” to the consensus version of the story. It allowed us to dismiss events that had some troubling implications. The Attica prison uprising took place at another time of great polarization in American society, when the truth got distorted, when it could be easily dismissed as something irrecoverable in the grind of tendentious arguments from either side of the divide.

Read this book. The behavior of those in authority was more reprehensible than hardly anyone at the time was willing to admit, and beyond what most of us could have imagined. The racism, criminality and lies of state law enforcement agencies and political leaders about events that occurred at Attica are simply shocking. It leaves you with the uneasy feeling that if it happened then, it can happen now; reading this book will perhaps cause us at last to listen, to become attentive and skeptical when we look at the current issues concerning race and law enforcement.

The other reason this is one of my favorite books of the year is that I am moved by the dedication it took to write it, to know that there are journalists and scholars working today who have this kind of commitment to the truth and to social justice, who understand that the real story, however hard it is to uncover and write, has importance and impact no matter how many years have passed. Heather Ann Thompson, a leader and mentor in the field of carceral studies, spent more than 10 years researching and writing this book. It was a monumental task. But monuments like Blood in the Water have the ability to change perceptions and to cause us to question and alter the things we do and the injustices we either refuse to see or so complacently accept. There is much darkness in this story. You need to walk through it. But this is also a story of persistence and heroism that is inspiring, and that is what gives this book great light and power.

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