Heather Ann Thompson - The Truth About Attica Prison in "Blood in the Water" - Extended Interview

January 25, 2017 - Heather Ann Thompson & Bellamy Young 01/25/2017 Views: 22,836

Historian Heather Ann Thompson explains how the Attica uprising shaped the U.S. prison system and talks about how the government framed the incident in "Blood in the Water." (6:03)

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Please welcomeHeather Ann Thompson, everyone.

(cheering, applause)

-Thank you for being here.-Thank you.

First of all,this is such an epic story.

Is it true it took you 13 yearsto write this book?

Indeed.

-Why? 'Cause, like,you, like, type... -Well...

Are you, like, one of thosefinger-typing people?

Uh, no. Because this is a story,

uh, about an incredible event

that the state of New Yorkreally did not want told.

Because it had to dowith prisoners protesting

for better human rights-- more human rights--

and, uh, and their protest wasshut down incredibly violently

at the hands of law enforcement,

uh, none of whomwere ever prosecuted.

And so this is a story that wasvery much shut down then

and remained shut down,so it was hard to tell.

That, uh, I-I won't lie,

this book was an in-introductionfor me, you know.

To go back in time,45 years ago,

there was an uprisingat Attica Prison,

and it started, it seemed like,

because the prisonerswere confused.

Someone thought that a guardhad killed one of the inmates,

-and that really ledto an escalation. -Right.

But what really got to meand was gripping in the book,

is stories of untold brutalityin the prison,

especially in responseto the uprising.

Prisoners being killedfor no reason,

other than just, uh,a prisoner, uh, you know,

-a warden wanted to kill them.-Right.

Well, after four daysof negotiating,

which was going quite well.

They were actually gettingvery important demands met,

it would seem,by the state of New York.

But it turns outthat behind the scenes,

the state was intent on takingthe prison with force.

Hundreds of state trooperswho had been out there for days

heavily armed, uh,and when they were sent in,

they took offidentifying badges,

they brought in theirpersonal weapons,

they began to shootindiscriminately,

and the carnagewas quite remarkable.

Probably more remarkable,though,

was the torturethat you mentioned,

-that happens afterwards,-Yeah.

for daring to have protestedfor better conditions.

Here's a question I have.

How is something like thishidden for so long?

And then the follow up to that

is how did you, then,find all the information

that's in the book?

Well, it's hiddenfor the same reason

that we havea very hard time today

locating what happenedwith police shootings today.

In short, law enforcementhas a great deal of power

over records, over the chainof command with evidence.

And so back in 1971,

law enforcementwas destroying photographs,

uh, moving throughoutall of the evidence,

and making sure that nothing init would point to the police.

And then, of course,all of that was still there.

All of the real evidencewas still there,

so then it was the-the cover-up,

it was the making sure that noone could see if for 45 years.

I just had a remarkable break.

I happened upona whole stash of records

that undoubtedlythey didn't know was there,

that indicatedwhat the state knew

about which membersof law enforcement

-had committed crimes,-Yeah.

who were not prosecuted.

And, of course,the surviving prisoners,

and the surviving hostageswere invaluable to the story.

I mean, they kept talking,they kept telling their trauma.

And that's what I hopedto rescue.

It's so interesting thatthe book draws parallels

to what we'reexperiencing today.

It shows how in many waysthis uprising led

-to many of the systemicproblems, the... -Mm.

...you know, that America'sdealing with now.

For instance,prison overpopulation,

and more importantly,the Rockefeller laws

that were a responseto Attica,

-which was themandatory minimums... -Indeed.

...and the extremely-highsentencing.

Would you argue that this,

you know, this Atticawas the reason

that New York started treatingprisoners the way it did,

which was even worse?

Well, I think that's right,and I think

one of the reasons the nationitself turns against this idea

that prisoners are peoplehas everything to do

with the way this particularuprising was spun to the public.

Even though law enforcementkilled 39 people--

-guards and hostages were shot---Yeah.

a total of 128 people--

they went out in frontof the world really and said,

the prisoners had killedthe hostages, that this...

all of this violencewas down to the prisoners.

So, in short, we, as Americans,were sold a false bill of goods

as to what had happened.

-It made America incrediblypunitive and angry. -Mm-hmm.

And in 1972, right after this,

we getthe Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Thereafter, we getmass incarcerations.

So, getting our history wronghad huge consequences

for us as a country.

You've really taken the time.

You've talked to, as you say,you know, countless sources.

You've got so much information.

It seems like a problemthat is so big,

it cannot or will not be fixed.

In writing this book,what is the one thing

you hope to achieve?

Well, I hope... Two things.

I hope that the book reallyunderscores the importance

of insisting on equal justiceunder the law.

When members of law enforcementcommit crimes,

they must be held accountablefor those crimes.

But probably most importantly,I hope this shows

that the people behind bars,the...

more than two million people

behind barsin the United States--

they are, at the end of the day,our mothers, our brothers,

our sons, our daughters,and they are human beings.

-(applause & cheering)-And Attica reminds us that,

you know...

Attica reminds us that we,as a society, have an obligation

to run, um, our institutions,you know, humanely.

And more importantly,these are public institutions,

and we, the public,have an obligation,

but also a right to seewhat goes on behind the walls.

It's a truly, truly fascinating

and heartbreaking bookat the same time,

a storythat I wasn't familiar with,

and now I wish I couldforget it, but I can't.

-(laughter) -Yup. -But thank youso much for writing it.

-Thank you so muchfor having me. -Congratulations.

-Thank you so much.-(applause and cheering)

Blood in the Water is available now.

Heather Ann Thompson, everyone.

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