Quest for justice
On Sept. 9. 1971, inmates of the Attica Correctional Facility in New York took control of the prison to protest decades of institutional barbarism and abuse. For four days they held guards and civilian employees hostage, negotiating for improved conditions. They invited civil rights figures, state officials, and members of the media to oversee the proceedings.
But on Sept. 13, the state, anxious to end the standoff quickly, sent hundreds of heavily armed troopers and corrections officers to reclaim the prison. A short and chaotic bloodbath ensued that left 39 prisoners – and hostages – dead.
In the aftermath, state officials claimed prisoners had committed the carnage in the retaking of the prison. And for the next 45 years, officials would stand by that lie – and build upon it – creating an indelible, false image that persists to this day.
Blood in the Water(Pantheon/Penguin Random House, 2016) by Heather Ann Thompson, a historian in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts’ Department of Afroamerican and African Studies and Residential College, now shatters that image. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book has been touted as the “first definitive history of the infamous Attica Prison uprising, the state’s violent response, and the victims’ decades-long quest for justice.”
Thompson devotes just one-third of the book to the uprising itself; the rest is a rigorously reported account of one of the most longstanding and horrific cover-ups in American history. She has compiled a trove of evidence that proves the real villains in this story are neither the inmates nor the guards of Attica, but the officials outside the system who had the knowledge and power to enact reform, but chose to do nothing.
“The book will surely open old wounds that were never allowed to fully heal,” Thompson says, citing New York state’s ongoing quest to obfuscate the truth. “After 45 years, we should be talking about Attica as history, not as present-day politics and pain.”
In this short podcast, and in the Q&A below, Thompson shares her thoughts about Blood in the Water. The book is a finalist in the nonfiction category of the 2016 National Book Awards.
Deborah Holdship: As a historian who has committed her career to studying, writing about, and pushing for social change around race, incarceration, and the prison system in this country, what does Attica represent to you?
Heather Ann Thompson: In some respects, Attica is really ground zero for understanding race, civil rights, and human rights struggles in 20th-century America. It is a civil rights protest on the one hand, but it is a protest by the most marginalized citizens in the entire country, which is our prisoners — those with the least power.
Somehow [in 1971] 1,300 of them came together across divisions of language, race, and political persuasion to stand together for basic human rights.
That makes it a powerful story because it tells us something about the irrepressible human spirit, the irrepressible desire for justice and to be treated as human. That makes Attica live on.
But it’s also a critically important story as we try to understand why we became the country with more people locked up than any other nation on the planet.
DH: Your book has been described as the “first definitive account” of the events at Attica and their aftermath. That is no small task considering this subject has been covered extensively since it happened in 1971. What makes it “definitive” in your opinion?
HAT: I don’t think we can understand why the nation turned so viciously against prisoners until we understand fully how the state of New York distorted this really powerful prisoner rights protest. The nation was made to feel as if those to blame were the prisoners, when all the deaths that happened on the day of the retaking were at the hands of law enforcement, who, incidentally, were never indicted or prosecuted. So the nation had a false impression of what happened that day.
One of the reasons we don’t know much about Attica, other than the contours of the actual protest that lasted four days, is that the state of New York has actively sealed all of these records. It took me 13 years to complete this work because I was determined to find those records in order to tell a story that hadn’t been told before.
Hopefully it’s more comprehensive than anything we’ve seen because of this incredibly long research journey to find out exactly what happened, not just during the rebellion (and I do think there’s some real revelations there as well) but, as importantly, what happens in the subsequent 45 years that has meant the survivors never fully knew what happened to their loved ones, and therefore never had a chance to heal.
DH: You found some valuable records that had never been made public. What went through your mind when you realized what you had?
HAT: It was shocking and just a little bit surreal because at any moment I was waiting for someone to burst through the door and shut it all down.
I tried to take as many notes as I could and get as many Xerox copies as I could. I always had trepidation because I knew the minute word got out that that’s where [these documents] were they would disappear. And it appears that’s exactly what happened. The documents are no longer there. Again, that speaks to the ongoing desire of the state of New York to just make this go away.
DH: You’ve generated some controversy by printing the names of troopers who were never charged or indicted, but who killed or may have killed people that day. I read in a New York Times piece that you agonized over that decision.
HAT: As much as I perhaps would have liked to have had the choice whether or not to reveal who those people were, I did not have that choice. I am a historian by training. That means we do research. Whatever the history is, it is.
I was trying to write the part of the history that was the investigation into Attica: What did the state learn? What did the state know? Who did it imagine had committed various crimes? Who did it suspect? And what did it make of the investigation?
Those documents indicated who it suspected and who it had evidence against, so part of writing this history was writing that.
But I agonized, because, of course. Even though I’m a scholar who must tell history as it happened, not as I hoped it would be, I had no desire to cause any pain in the present. And I knew that it would be very painful for the survivors who learned finally after 40 years, who some of the people were who had committed these crimes – and frankly, some of whom they might know.
But I don’t say anyone’s a murderer. I don’t say anyone committed a crime.
I’m simply reporting the history of that period: This is what the state believed. This is what the state thought. And that’s part of that history.
DH: It’s been pointed out that one of the most disturbing ironies in the book is that while the handling of the riot itself was chaotic and disastrous, the cover-up in its aftermath was remarkably organized.
HAT: Readers will be surprised to learn that only a third of the book is the actual uprising. The rest is the long fight for justice to be heard on the part of the prisoners and the hostages, and, in turn, the enormous lengths to which the state of New York and state police went to make sure the story was never told.
Every step along the way – from the lowest-level bureaucrat to the Supreme Court of the U.S. — those with power were told time and again that those prisoners were being tortured, that terrible things had happened inside Attica. And nobody with power helped them. Nobody believed them. Nobody stood by them.
HAT: It’s one thing to imagine that no one really knew at the time, that, for example, police were the ones that had killed people and they weren’t getting prosecuted. Or that no one knew at the time how bad prison conditions were. And that is simply not the case. People at the time did know that law enforcement had killed people at Attica, but nevertheless protected them. And people did know the prisoners were being mistreated behind bars, and nevertheless let it happen
DH: A book like this exists to set the record straight and right some horrible wrongs. Unfortunately there were opportunities in 1971 to right those wrongs and it never happened, then or since. How could we have been so blind, both then and now?
It does give us pause today. I hope the message humbles us a bit, and motivates us to be more critical of our own news media.
For instance, when we see stories where a police officer kills an unarmed black citizen and the officer does not get indicted, we assume there was no crime, no evidence.
I think Attica makes clear the extreme levels to which state officials will go to protect law enforcement.
DH: It’s sad that so many of the issues from 1971 remain current.
HAT: We are seeing that prisoners, once again, are speaking out about what have today become much worse conditions.
Historians always hope that if we can tell the story compellingly enough, or if we can somehow get the whole story told, our citizens and politicians and the people in the present day will learn and will perhaps avoid some of these horrible do-overs, these horrible moments in which we end up back where we were.
And this moment is no different. It’s terrible that we are once again facing police brutality issues to such an extreme, and that we again are facing the need for a civil rights movement.
At the end of the day, humans have one thing left: that they are human. They will fight back for the most basic human rights.
DH: What do you think will surprise people about this book?
HAT: You quickly learn that the people behind bars are not at all who you expect them to be. There are obviously bad guys and people who committed terrible harm against other people. But there are also 19-year-olds in Attica on parole violations. There are those who are drug addicted and belong in a public health facility, not a criminal justice facility.
So the book also makes readers face a lot of assumptions. One minute you find yourself sympathizing with the prisoners; the next minute you’re angry at that prisoner. Then you’re sympathizing with a guard, and the next minute you’re angry at that guard.
It really does take us to all those places, which is not easy to read. But hopefully it makes us more open to the complexity that is our criminal just system today.
HAT: I’m very eager to talk about that criticism because I am absolutely glad of the fact that this book humanized human beings who are behind bars. I make no apologies for that.
DH: How do you respond to the criticism that you paint too sympathetic a picture of the prisoners?
When you have 7.5 million people in our correctional system – the people I am humanizing are all of our brothers, fathers, mothers, sisters. I make no apologies for that, but I also do think readers need to get to the end of the book, because it is very much a story sympathetic to these guards who were absolutely as dispensable to the state as the prisoners were.
Time and again the guards were ignored when talking about the horrendous working conditions they faced. And that resonates today. Guards are placed in terrible workplace situations, fearful themselves because of overcrowding. Having to treat people like animals creates very unsafe, unstable conditions.
I hope people will stick with it to the end. The bad guys are neither the guards nor the prisoners. The bad guys are those people outside the system — with the power to make it better and the power to listen to those people on the inside — who dodged that responsibility time and again, if not actively made it worse.
DH: I understand there is a movie in the works.
HAT: I hope to be involved. That was quite a surprise. I’m grateful for it because it said to me there’s something about this moment we’re in where people are interested in stories about justice, and stories about people who are fighting to be heard.
DH: It took you 13 years to write this book. What does that do to a person, to spend so much time in this heavy, heavy place?
HAT: It took so long that it became my part of my life. But any time I would begin to question whether I could do it, whether I’d find the records, or stick to it because it was difficult, I would have a conversation with just one of the many people who lived through Attica. To a one, they all broke down.
It was just so clear to me this history had to be written in one place. Or at least the first history.
We won’t have the full, full history until the state of New York releases its documents.
But it was an attempt, and I’m glad it’s over.
DH: What do you think about the way prison is presented on TV, in both “reality” shows and fiction?
HAT: Well, I think that for the last 20 years the way the media has portrayed life in prison has been terrible. There are some terrible shows like “Lockup Raw” and others that show mentally ill prisoners and people in their most stressed condition. This type of media has led to a generation of people who think prisoners are animals.
But then recently we’ve had prisoners, and former prisoners, talking about the need for prison reform. We have “Orange is the New Black,” written by a formerly incarcerated woman, and I think that has helped changed the imagery and the dialogue.
These are public institutions. We pay for them with our taxes. And we give them our faith that they are going to do what is right by our citizens, in terms of justice.
Therefore we have a right to know what happens in these prisons.
And we need to shine a light on who’s in them because, again, who’s in them is all of us.
Hopefully, the book will help to do a little bit of that.