Attica from 1971 to Today

Against the Current, No. 190, September/October 2017

interview with Heather Ann Thompson

HEATHER ANN THOMPSON’S Pulitzer prize-winning book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Revolt of 1971 and its Legacy was reviewed by Jack Bloom in Against the Current 187 ( ATC interviewed the author by email to get some additional perspective on the still-untold part of the story, and her ongoing work.

Against the Current: Your book talks about the years of work, and lucky breaks, that went into getting the documentary record of what happened during the Attica revolt, the bloody aftermath and the coverup. What parts of the story do you think remain secret and still need to be unearthed?

Heather Ann Thompson: As long as my book on Attica is, I suspect that I tell only a fraction of the story that is actually there to be told. The records that are still off limits to survivors and the lay public alike not only indicate the full details of how deep the coverup of trooper and correction officers’ crimes committed at the prison went; I suspect that they would also indicate that the federal government played a much more hands-on role in how this prison rebellion was handled than I was able fully to document.

The hints that I did get of that involvement, from, for example, the memos going from local law enforcement to the Army, Navy, Marines, President, Vice President, Attorney General, etc. suggest to me that from the instant this prison uprising began, the Nixon administration was deeply interested in how it would be handled on the ground.

What is more, there is much in these records that would make even clearer — the specific details and specific names — of which members of law enforcement killed, assaulted or severely wounded prisoners and guards alike on September 13 and for weeks thereafter.

I managed to find, for example, a list of troopers and guards whom some in the Attica investigation tried to indict, but I never was able to see the documents which indicated exactly whom they were believed to have committed crimes against, nor who tried to indict them, nor why those indictments failed.

I did manage to get the entire, voluminous index of the state’s files and even a cursory look at that document indicates that there is much about Attica that the public can still learn and, more to the point, has a right to know.

ATC: How do you think that the onset of the Trump era affects the whole range of struggles around mass incarceration, life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders, the prison abolition movement, etc?

HAT: Without question the election of Trump had a chilling effect on a moment of criminal justice reform that felt as if it had some real momentum.

In 2015 for example I attended a massive convening of justice advocates in Washington DC. I was giving congressional staff briefings on the issue of mass incarceration and it seemed to them inevitable that policy change was coming, and of course incarcerated folks were speaking out loudly — everyone and to everyone — about the imperative of ending mass incarceration.

Now we have Trump appointees like Jeff Sessions who are once again calling for the most draconian responses to social and economic problems and once more we are hearing the cry of “law and order.”

So on the one hand, it feels as if we are sliding backward and justice activism in now on the wane. I don’t think it is, though. The reason why anyone in the White House or Congress was talking about criminal justice reform even before Trump’s election was because they were forced to do so. The streets of this nation were erupting from Ferguson to Baltimore to Chicago.

The people are themselves sick to death of this brutal and racist justice system, they remain insistent that equal justice under the law be a reality, and they refuse to be silent when human beings are abused and tortured behind bars. And formerly incarcerated folks aren’t silenced either. The movement, I think, has a momentum now that Trump can’t stop.

ATC: The book has received a lot of attention. Does the Attica story continue to resonate over the long run, as you see it — and can you tell us when there will be a paperback edition?

HAT: I must say that I remain humbled and so, so surprised by the attention that the history of these men’s struggle back in 1971 has gotten and continues to get. To this day I get emails from people all over the country whom their story has moved and angered and inspired. The audience for their story continues to grow.

The book has received more awards than I could ever have hoped or imagined which, I think, also honors their history. The book will indeed be out in paperback at the end of August and is also going to be made into a major motion picture which, I hope, means that it touches even more people as the years unfold.

ATC: Please tell us about your forthcoming projects and your continuing work on issues of the U.S. prison industry.

HAT: I will always write about the incarcerated, prison labor, prison abuses, and the broader problem of policing and the criminalization of black and brown people in this country. I will continue to write for popular venues and also for an academic audience.

I am currently working on several projects, including one on the ways in which the American carceral state is foundational to the American state writ large in the wake of World War II, and how the stability of that state depends not upon an expansion of our democracy but on the everyday practices of the incarceration regime.

My next large book is going to be on policing in Philadelphia in the 1970s and 1980s and more specifically it is going to shine new light on the MOVE standoff of 1978 and the MOVE bombing of 1985. The MOVE story is very much like the Attica story and I imagine a similarly large and multifaceted history of it.

As with Attica, the most important details of this utterly wrenching and deeply human story have been obscured too long and it is time that there is comprehensive accounting of them. Particularly in this moment where tensions between the police and this nation’s Black citizenry are at an historic high, the long history of this tension matters.

September-October 2017, ATC 190