Heather Ann Thompson talks about BLOOD IN THE WATER – THE ATTICA PRISON RISING OF 1971

At 930 last Friday morning, I had a chance to talk to Heather Ann Thompson, a history professor at the University Michigan and author of BLOOD IN BloodInTheWaterTHE WATER – THE ATTICA PRISON UPRISING OF 1971 AND IT’S LEGACY. I was half asleep when the interview began but wide awake at it’s end. I had about 25 minutes talking to Heather. I would have preferred about 4 hours.

D: Your book, I loved it and it broke my heart. I was fascinated and humbled by it. Previous to reading it, I knew a little about Attica. Your book was incredibly well done. Forgive me, I’m trying to wake up and get my thoughts together. It took you 10 years to write the book?

HAT: About 13, actually.

D: Can you tell me about that period?

HAT: Well, I got the contract to do the book and really approached it like a historian of civil rights, which I am. And I thought I would just go to the archives, look at the state records and tell the story. I was so naive, I really didn’t understand at all what the stakes of the story were yet. And I had no concept of how important the story was for the state of New York to keep records from being revealed, some officially sealed and some just difficult to get.

So that really began this journey of trying to essentially figure out who might have the copy or what the h-thompsonstate of New York had or perhaps the original and that then just became a journey. I mean really, a long process of hunting down the records, trying to talk to as many survivors as possible and continuing to file Freedom of Information Act requests. And over that period, coming to understand both how important the story was in terms of rescuing it but also how important it was if we were going to understand the eventual result of mass incarceration, you know how this country became so punitive in it’s prison policy. So it was a quite an expected process.

D: Was there pushback from the state of New York?

HAT: Well, of course, the funny thing about Attica was that there’s these kind of lower level administrators, perhaps because they’re younger or maybe just a little clueless, that they don’t understand what veterans of the state know is important about Attica.

So over the years, ironically, I was able to get some things out of the state or some things out of the state’s attorney general’s office through Freedom of Information with out them knowing how important it was. One of the key things I was able to get was the entire index of the state files on Attica from at that time from the deputy attorney general. I think it was because they had just settled the case with the prisoners and I think he felt like, “Well it’s all over and done with.” So I got the index which helped me know what was in those files, so that’s an example.

But, of course, when the story began to get a little more dicey, when the survivors started to demand full access to the records and then of course when prison conditions got a whole lot worse in Attica as they have recently, all of a sudden all of that access began to shut down.

And in fact, a series of FOI act requests that I had filed and been granted (they were in the process of copying documents already for me) which was really quite juicy stuff because it was about who the shooters were, all of a sudden they just stopped talking to me and the whole thing shut down. I still haven’t got those documents out of the state.

D: Speaking of the shooters, since reading your book, I’m still trying to wrap my head around that part.

You had a free-for-all of state police, corrections officers, who showed up at the prison with personal firearms. Weapons were handed out without the recording of serial numbers, just basically, “Here’s a gun, try to not shoot one of our guys, shoot in that direction, and don’t worry about it.” Tell me your thoughts on that.

HAT: Well, I think that was part of what was so difficult about writing the book. It’s kind of hard to imagine that folks would have that level of disregard for human life. And maybe if people could get their heads around that level of brutality that was visited upon the prisoners, certainly I don’t think anyone would argue that guard and civilian employees who were hostages should have been expendable. Of course, I would argue that nobody is.

And yet in the story, not only are members of law enforcement allowed to pass out weapons

Attica Prison, aftermath. Photo: AP

Attica Prison, aftermath.
Photo: AP

indiscriminately and in fact, as you saw in the book, in some cases when the guys are trying to follow protocol are told to rip up paperwork and get rid of it. Then you imagine that they have been allowed to be out there for four days getting angrier and angrier and then you add on that at least one of them had a brother inside who was a hostage.

And then to imagine that the Governor of New York decides to give the green light to these guys, these particular guys, to retake the prison. That’s how you understand Attica was really about the state drawing a line in the sand about civil rights, about human rights and about prisoner’s rights. Because it wasn’t as if Rockefeller wasn’t warned. He was told the cost would be staggering. He was told it would be a massacre. And he was told hostages were going to die. So then you do kind of sit back and process what was at stake here. At the end it comes down to Rockefeller’s political ambition, and for lack of a more eloquent way of putting it, a deep seated racism.

D: I agree with you about Rockefeller’s deep seated racism. We all know in retrospect his drug laws could be accurately described as Draconian. Many times during the reading of your book, I had to stop and say, “OK, how do I process this?” Now, I know in 1971 it was the pre-SWAT era, but there had to have been elements of law enforcement better equipped to deal with this. There had to have been a better plan. Was there that much of a rush to get it shut down?

HAT: Well, I think that’s a great question. Why did they pick these guys to go in and why did they have to go in? And I think that’s where again you just have to root yourself in this period which is the end of the 60s. You have to put yourself in Nixon’s White House, frankly paranoid beyond belief that the world is coming apart at the seams thanks to black militants and their communist supporters. And then throw in that this is on the heels of Kent State where the National Guard has just shot students, severely maimattica22n-5-webing eight and killing four. So, on one hand, Rockefeller probably didn’t want to use the National Guard because of all the attention on Kent State.

When I say line in the sand, choosing this group of people to go in was very strategic, These are state troopers. And not just any state troopers. He chose to put in charge of this re-taking of the prison really low level guys. The Batavia Troop A, Monahan and Williams in charge. This is charging an incredibly important thing to low level guys. And you could say that’s because this is a low level prison in a small town.

But I know, having done the book, that you may be a small town but from the moment this prison rebellion jumps off reports are going to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, President, Vice President, Attorney General, then you quickly understand, “Hmmm, maybe it’s that these low level troopers who don’t know how to re-take a prison. And many of them don’t know how to shoot a .270 rifle. If we put them in charge then we can distance ourselves from whatever carnage happens.”

D: That seems to be the most logical way of thinking about it. Like thinking we can re-take the prison as violently as we want but we can pass the buck.

HAT: Yes, which is of course what they do. And, very notably, the head of the New York State Police, Kerwin, is AWOL. He’s not even at the prison, and I found out that, sort of behind the scenes, there were some higher level guys up there but their job appeared mostly to be doing clean up. Their job is getting stories straight and making sure evidence is tampered with. But the head of the state police is on vacation, which is just extraordinary given that we now know how many national and federal eyes were on this.

I really feel like one of these days when if ever we do get the records, the full records of Attica, I suspect the discussions that went on between the feds and the State of New York, were probably pretty intense and we will know a lot more about why it went down as it did.

D: That leads me to a couple questions. They could have waited them out. The prisoners are out in an open field with limited food…

HAT: And Rockefeller could have come and endorsed the deal. And there is no reason to think the tumblr_nj8jqd0wV71tb32yzo4_1280negotiations would have failed and that re-taking the prison was the only option.

D: I have to give New York State credit for the fact the cover up was in motion from the start.

HAT: That was shocking to me. I couldn’t quite figure out how it all was coordinated until I saw the document about the meetings Rockefeller had in his poolhouse. I’m sure you’re aware right now prisoners are in rebellion and the media has completely ignored the story. I’m getting stories out of these prisons, both guards and prisoners, telling me what’s really going on. I hope the story of Attica makes people understand how important it is today as reporters and citizens demand access to these institutions.

I was on a radio program last week, The NPR show On Point. And there were prisoners on that show including Siddique Hasan, who is locked up in Ohio. I guess what must have happened is he smuggled a cellphone in so he could talk to the media and he is now in solitary. And there are the guys up in Michigan who rebelled, they were tear gassed and shackled and god knows what’s going on. So Attica is one of those moments where we have to say, “Huh, believe them when they tell you something pretty terrible is going on.”

D: That was something I wanted to ask you about because these protests are going on and are being ignored by the mainstream media. I also found the misinformation on both sides was phenomenal. The troopers and the prisoners are each hearing different things and it feeds the flames.

HAT: Again to your point, what is the entity that is stirring the pot? I am a historian, not a conspiracy theorist so I’m not gonna say anything unless it’s well documented. And in this case, the FBI is stirring the pot. They are literally sending these teletypes with statement’s like, “The prisoners are all standing the guards at attention with knives at their throats threatenting to kill them should they sit or fall down.” And, of course, the state troopers themselves are filming what’s going on in the yard so they know this is all not ture.

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Photos show the body of James Robinson, an inmate killed during the retaking of Attica. In the second image, a weapon was planted on the scene — one of dozens of pieces of evidence that later emerged to discredit the state’s account and reveal the extent of the cover-up. Photo: Elizabeth Fink Papers

D: We all know now in 2016 just how crooked the FBI is, that they were never the boyscouts Hoover wanted.

HAT: But it’s still funny and shocking that even if we know it, it still takes us aback.

D: Well, I’m in Boston so here it’s no secret.