Weighty Tomes ii

Heather Ann Thompson’s “Blood on the Water,” a history of the rebellion at Attica Prison in 1971 holds “weight” of a different nature.
Thompson is a dogged researcher, who unearthed condemnatory material which the State of New York had buried for decades – and reburied after her discovery. She is also a committed partisan, who does not hide behind “objectivity” to keep the conclusions she has drawn from the page. In fact, she swings them like a mace. Her story is of pestilential racism, sadistic cruelty, and governmental – indeed societal – moral rot.
There were times I wished Thompson was less reliant on adverbs and adjectives, more interested in character development, more adept (especially when her narrative moves into courtrooms) at rendering scenes dramatically. But then I put these wishes aside. I thought they were motivated by a desire to see the other side to the story presented; but, really, I realized, was there another side? The one she documented was so compelling and complete.
I’ve tried to think of a single example of worse America-upon-Americans horror in the last 70 years and come up short. (According to Wikipedia, since the Civil War, Attica was topped only by a massacre of miners in the 1920s.) From Thompson’s description of the toxic conditions under which the inmates lived, through the gratuitous homicidal assault upon them, when troopers killed 33 prisoners and nine of their hostages, to the extermination-camp quality tortures inflicted upon the survivors, all blanketed by the intrigues, cover-ups, and betrayals designed to smother truth in its crib and cut justice’s throat.
Well, “justice.” After this read, one spits the word. Horror upon horror. Darkness within darkness. Maybe the worst part comes when Thompson carries her story to the present day. Blatant lies voiced by authorities and rebroadcast by the media about what Thompson terms “prisoner barbarism” at Attica fueled “an anti-civil-rights and anti-rehabilitation ethos.” Being “tough-on-crime” became as necessary to candidates for public office as deep-pocketed donors. The result has been more prisons built, people imprisoned, mandatory minimum sentences lengthened, the number of capital crimes increased. By 2000, New York state alone had six times as many people in prison as it had in 1971. And as before, inmates suffered from overcrowding, poor food, poor medical treatment, brutal treatment, with less recreational activities, fewer educational programs and increased barriers keeping them from lawyers and the courts.
One’s senses practically shut down. They run, as if, from the carving knife.