Heather Ann Thompson talks with Matthew Countryman
Last year, on the 45th anniversary of the largest prison rebellion in U.S. history, historian Heather Ann Thompson’s book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971 and its Legacy was published to critical acclaim. The uprising of nearly 1,300 men for better conditions ended in mass bloodshed, with 39 people killed by the state on the day of the retaking and 128 shot and wounded seriously. Using extensive interviews with survivors, relatives of hostages and prisoners, law enforcement, and legal defenders, as well as never-before-published material, Thompson tells the story of what happened in the tense four days of the uprising, the state-sponsored violence that followed, and the decades-long struggle for prisoners’ rights. Historian Matthew Countryman talks with Thompson about the rebellion and the “new Jim Crow.” The transcript below has been edited for length.—Ed.
MC: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Could you talk first about the reaction to the book?
HAT: I’m just stunned and grateful that people have been interested in reading about people who live behind bars and that they see the connections between what happened in 1971 and the prison crisis we face today. In virtually every interview I’ve done, the host or the reporter prefaces it by saying that the book haunted them or that it really moved them. What they’re talking about is how terrible the prison conditions were at Attica, and they have shared with me how disturbing it is to learn what it actually means to be incarcerated in America. We have been living with mass incarceration for so long now, and folks behind bars have been so marginalized, that I am glad this message resonated.
MC: Prison conditions have gotten worse over the past four decades. Do you find that this is news to people?
HAT: Not to those closest to it, but I do find it remarkable how many in America are clueless about what happens in prison. When they read, for example, that in 1971 people were being fed on 63 cents a day or that they were being abused by guards, [they] are horrified. Things are far worse today. Indeed, this book argues, it is precisely because we got the history of Attica so wrong that prisons got so much worse.
MC: In the immediate aftermath of the uprising there was a significant set of prison reforms within the New York State system. And yet you argue that the same Attica narratives that produced those reforms produced in the longer term a much more significant retrenchment in prison policies.
HAT: On the one hand, for the lived lives of people there, it mattered that, at least in the short run, before the real backlash set in, the New York State prison system humanized visitation rules. It meant that people could see their children. It mattered that parole rules were made less draconian. Were those reforms sufficient? Even if there had not been such a backlash, would reforms ever have been able to humanize that prison? The answer is no. No improvements at that level would have stopped the hyper-policing of black and brown communities that led so many of Attica’s men to this terrible facility in the first place, nor would they have changed what is most brutal about all prisons: the caging of human beings.
If nothing else, the story of Attica reminds us that the institution of the prison is inherently barbaric. I tell the story of an old man whose name is Owl. On the first night of the uprising, tears are streaming down his face, because he hasn’t seen the stars in 22 years. It’s in those moments that you realize that no reform in the world would alter the fact that human beings are being caged. Blood in the Water is not an endorsement of reform as a panacea for the brutality of prisons. However, it does show that prisoners are the one force that keeps the brutality of prisons in check. To that extent, resistance matters—the Attica Brothers’ fight mattered.
MC: You spend more than half of the book on the struggle [for justice] after the uprising. What is the significance of such detailed attention to multiple decades of activism on the part of the Brothers and their families and their lawyers?
HAT: When I began the book, I imagined the vast majority of it to be about the uprising and the politics that led to it. But I soon found myself also wanting to sort out why it was that one of the most extraordinary human rights struggles in the 20th century led not to decarceration or to a humanizing of conditions behind bars but instead to the biggest prison build-up in American history. In order to understand that, I had to trace out how that rebellion was spun and understand what happened in its wake. I was taken aback by the extent to which at every level, from the lowest bureaucrat to the president of the United States, those with power were working overtime to suggest that the violence that ended that uprising was all due to the prisoners, and thus that the fight for prisoner rights was utterly illegitimate. Even those entities that should have known better and have done something, like the Justice Department or the U.S. Supreme Court, turned a blind eye to lies told by, and the trauma inflicted by, the state of New York at Attica. And thus, in a great and tragic irony, Attica becomes the emotional fuel that will drive the war on crime and mass incarceration. To this day, people think that the prisoners killed the hostages. To this day, they think that they castrated the guards. To this day, they think that Attica represents the worst of the worst people behind bars.
MC: The conflation of radicalism with crime and the “threat” of the black inner city seems to have been a core element of conservative politics at that time.
HAT: It was explicit. The missing piece that I don’t think I fully appreciated until researching the Attica book was the cold-war piece of it. [Nelson] Rockefeller [New York governor at the time of the uprising] was a rabid cold warrior. And so he really saw this as both a racial threat and a communist destabilization. That the Soviets would use black prisoners as their dupes makes absolute sense to him and others in his administration. He, along with President [Richard] Nixon, was explicit that Angela Davis and her followers needed to be stopped from orchestrating a Communist Party-led black revolution on America’s streets and in its prisons. This is why we see the use of COINTELPRO [the FBI’s counter-intelligence program aimed at domestic organizations], which intended to eliminate social justice struggles via destabilization, by surveillance. And, if that didn’t work, “let’s just go in there with guns blazing,” which is what Attica was.
MC: I can’t help but think about the parallels between the state’s response to Attica and the Flint Water Crisis and what it tells us about race and government accountability.
HAT: The level at which state actors will go to not hold their own accountable is shocking. It makes you look at a current event like the Flint water crisis or even the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore or Michael Brown in Ferguson in a whole new way. Most citizens, even leftists, still have some modicum of faith that if one has enough evidence, if one has the smoking-gun documents showing wrongdoing on the part of state officials, that somehow there will be accountability. What Attica clearly shows is that state actors will go to extraordinary lengths to protect themselves—even if it means outright tampering with evidence. And that’s why naming the names of the state troopers who shot the Attica prisoners for me was significant. It was simply saying, this is what the state actually knew about who had in fact committed harm at Attica and when it knew it. No state official or state trooper who committed crimes at Attica ended up being prosecuted, despite the evidence that was available to those charged with indicting anyone who had committed crimes there. And this was no accident. As my book shows, the governor and lawyers, the head of the State Police who had retaken Attica with such brutality, and the State Attorney General tasked with investigating crimes committed at Attica all met in a series of secret meetings at Rockefeller’s pool house to get their story straight. It’s inherent to the system. Grand juries are dependent on prosecutors. Prosecutors are dependent on police. Even if the evidence surfaces, it does not ensure accountability.
MC: Now, 45 years later, we have reports of prison strikes that are inspired by Attica. Where do we go from here?
HAT: We absolutely need to pay attention to these prison rebellions. They are a cry for help. There are unimaginable human rights abuses going on right now. During the Attica uprising, the first thing the Attica Brothers did was to bring the media in. There’s no media in the prisons. These are public institutions and yet we are not allowed in them. We should use this moment to demand transparency and accountability and access. Do what the Attica lawyers did in 1972. They just kept banging on the door. And they kept calling judges at three o’clock in the morning and demanding to get inside the prison. Attica is deeply instructive. It should alarm us about what is happening right now to the thousands of prisoners who dared to protest this past September and those who rebelled in Delaware in February. We know that these men and women are experiencing retaliation—some being moved to different facilities in the dark of night, some thrown in solitary, many tear-gassed, and God only knows what else. It’s not enough to applaud prisoners for standing up for their humanity—it’s not enough for people like me to write pieces that shout their struggles behind bars. It’s also our obligation to mobilize ourselves on the outside of that prison to say, “We are not going away until we make sure that these guys are okay on the inside.”
MC: The election of Donald Trump is obviously a blow to all movements for social justice. What do you see as the election’s impact on the movement against mass incarceration?
HAT: When Trump was first elected I think that all of us who had been deeply involved in prison work felt a sense of terrible foreboding. And I know that this is also what the men and women inside felt as well. Just when it seemed as if we might be rolling back some of the most egregiously abusive elements of our justice apparatus, we had a man take power who was vowing to resurrect the politics and policies of “law and order.” Since November, though, I am feeling a new sense of optimism. In the wake of this election people seem to be mobilizing with new fervor, new energy, and new determination. I don’t think that this fight is going to be easy—indeed I feel that we are moving toward a level of tumult that we haven’t seen since 1968. But there still is a fight. And that matters. A lot. As I say in the book, Attica’s ultimate legacy isn’t repression, it is resistance.
Matthew Countryman is Associate Professor of History and American Culture at the University of Michigan and author of Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
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