2016 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction
Heather Ann Thompson
Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy
(Pantheon Books/Penguin Random House)
National Book Foundation: Who did you write this book for?
Heather Ann Thompson: Blood in the Water hopes to shine new light on one of the most important human rights protests of the past century and to urge us to reconsider our own historical moment—a time when prison conditions as well as police accountability remain deeply troubling human rights concerns. Attica left an indelible mark not only on its survivors, but also on our collective national identity. In the wake of Attica, and because of the mistruths told about its origins and bloody end, Americans came to embrace justice policies and police practices that are once again tearing the nation apart. This account of the prisoners’ extraordinary bid for better conditions, the unimaginably brutal crackdown by state troopers, and the state’s decades-long efforts to shield law enforcement from prosecution provides a crucial reminder of how far we still have to go to achieve truly equal justice under the law.
Blood in the Water is a riveting history of the 1971 Attica prison uprising and massacre. After ten years of extensive research, historian Heather Ann Thompson narrates the brutal event with compassion and analytical acuity. Thompson has a keen eye for both detail and the bigger picture, capturing the humanity of the prisoners and the callowness of state officials and conveying to readers why, nearly five decades after the killing, Attica still matters.
ABOUT THE BOOK
On September 9, 1971, nearly 1,300 prisoners took over the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York to protest years of mistreatment. Holding guards and civilian employees hostage, the prisoners negotiated with officials for improved conditions during the four long days and nights that followed.
On September 13, the state abruptly sent hundreds of heavily armed troopers and correction officers to retake the prison by force. Their gunfire killed thirty-nine men—hostages as well as prisoners—and severely wounded more than one hundred others. In the ensuing hours, weeks, and months, troopers and officers brutally retaliated against the prisoners. And, ultimately, New York State authorities prosecuted only the prisoners, never once bringing charges against the officials involved in the retaking and its aftermath and neglecting to provide support to the survivors and the families of the men who had been killed.
Drawing from more than a decade of extensive research, historian Heather Ann Thompson sheds new light on every aspect of the uprising and its legacy, giving voice to all those who took part in this forty-five-year fight for justice: prisoners, former hostages, families of the victims, lawyers and judges, and state officials and members of law enforcement. Blood in the Water is the searing and indelible account of one of the most important civil rights stories of the last century.
About the Author
Heather Ann Thompson is an award-winning historian at the University of Michigan. She has written on the history of mass incarceration and its current impact for The New York Times,Time, The Atlantic, Salon, Dissent, New LaborForum, and The Huffington Post, as well as for various scholarly publications. She served on a National Academy of Sciences blue-ribbon panel that studied the causes and consequences of mass incarceration in the United States and has given congressional staff briefings on this subject. Thompson is also the author of Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City and the editor of Speaking Out: Activism and Protest in the 1960s and 1970s.
- TWITTER: @hthompsn
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Interview by Courtney Harrell
When Heather Ann Thompson spoke with the survivors of Attica, almost everyone would break down in the middle of the conversation. “It was really then that I understood that this wasn’t just history,” Thompson says. “This was present day trauma.”
Blood in the Water is the account of the 1971 Attica prison revolt, but the story is less about those four days and more about the aftermath: how none of the people involved in the bloody retaking were prosecuted while the public narrative focused on what the prisoners, both living and lying dead, had done wrong. A historian of African American and Civil Rights history, Thompson highlights within Attica issues of race, violence, and the criminal justice system that are not confined to the past. After over a decade working against the suppression of information, sometimes from the highest levels of government, Thompson has constructed a new narrative of Attica, one full of exposed details and individual stories, that we still need to hear today.
Courtney Harrell: How did you become interested in the story of Attica?
Heather Ann Thompson: It’s a little bit of a convoluted path to Attica. On the one hand, it’s very logical for me to take on because I grew up in Detroit, a city that was really in the throws of struggles for racial justice and greater equality under the law. When I finished my first book about the Detroit Rebellion of ’67, I wanted to write about another iconic civil rights event, and I knew about Attica. I was surprised that we didn’t know more about it. Why had there been such an important civil rights protest behind bars, of all places? I knew nothing about prisons and nothing about that universe. I decided to take on Attica really having no idea how it would be such an incredibly long journey to tell this story, how really timely this history would be to the crisis we find ourselves in today, how it would change my life.
CH: How long did you spend on the book?
HT: It was supposed to take a couple of years, and it ended up being a 13-year journey. That’s because, in my naivety, I assumed that I would go into the archives, and I would ask for certain boxes and look into certain folders, and write this history. And I really was quite taken aback to understand that out of the thousands of boxes of materials on Attica, the state of New York had made it virtually impossible to access them. That meant a very untraditional research journey for me. I had to think about who had the original copy of anything that the state of New York had, which took me to all kinds of peripheral state institutions, archives, and local collections. But it also brought me to the survivors to see what they had saved and to hear their stories.
Ultimately, as much as I learned from all of those sources, which was really an extraordinary amount given the barriers, I still couldn’t fully flesh out why so many people had been killed, and even tortured, by law enforcement at Attica, and yet somehow not a single member of law enforcement has ever been held accountable. And that story of how that could be, I just couldn’t get that story, no matter how creative I was with the research.
CH: As somebody constructing this history for the public, how did you deal with that? That, as you said, there are things we will never know?
HT: Well, it caused me to think really hard about who owns our history and how the evolution of American politics is shaped in ways we don’t ever think about by the lessons we learn from the past. Who gets to shape our knowledge of the past? [The suppression of information] served to make me much more determined than I otherwise might have been to make sure that somehow I could tell that story any way. Even if 40 years had gone into protecting the state’s version of the story, the survivors of Attica had spent those same 40 years determined to have the world know what had really happened.
CH: There has been a lot made about the fact that you decided to publish previously unpublished names of troopers and prison guards who are believed to be behind the killing of men in Attica. How does it feel to tell a story that you know some people don’t want to be told?
HT: My obligation as a historian is to recount history no matter what it is. That means that if I find stuff that shocks even me, that can’t change my story. I was seeking to tell the history of the state investigation into wrong-doing at Attica. So when I learned that the state had identified individual troopers or correction officers as likely to have committed various wrongs at Attica, I was obligated to report that. That’s a far cry from me personally, in the present, saying anybody did anything. I’m simply recounting the history as it was at the time.
That said, it was deeply agonizing. I knew that it would be very painful for the survivors I met to learn the truth about what had happened to some of their loved ones. I knew it would be painful for the family members of law enforcement who had tried for years to remain in anonymity to have their world all of a sudden opened up to that public scrutiny. It’s one thing to write about people in the 19th century, and it’s another to write about people who are alive today and whose lives will be impacted by the story.
But I will say—and this was also a revelation to me—as much questioning as I’ve received about the naming of law enforcement and specifically saying that the state believed that they committed crimes, I have received no such pushback for all the hundreds of prisoners whom the state also believes had committed terrible acts. For example, the state of New York said that Frank “Big Black” Smith had castrated the guard, Michael Smith, and had shoved his testicles in his mouth. I mean, it’s a horrendous accusation. That was part of the history that I had to report. And not one person ever said to me, “Don’t you feel terrible naming these terrible things that in some cases they never were actually found guilty of?” It was very eye-opening for me how even today the lives of certain people are privileged over the lives of others and the reputations of certain people are privileged over the reputations of others.
CH: The endnotes of the book are stunning—all the documents, interviews, etc. How do you turn a mess of documents like that into a tidy narrative?
HT: One of the challenges was a challenge of expression, what I felt often was the poverty of my own vocabulary. I had to really struggle with how was I going to recount [experiences] on the page in such a way that would convey to the reader the depth of this trauma without, in the case of the violence, being pornographic so that the reader would become numb.
It was also a challenge just to map out the story because there were all these choices to make. Did I write the story as I, the omniscient narrator, knew it to have unfolded? Or do I write it as people came to know it? To weave together these stories and make that narrative coherent, I laugh, but I whiteboarded it. I literally had to draw, for every section of the book, a timeline with the key events and then arrows going here, there, and everywhere, as certain people were connected to other people or certain parts of the story were revealed at different moments on the timeline. It was a complete and utter mess. [See a picture of her whiteboardhere.]
CH: How did you think about where time was spent in the book? The first third of Blood in the Water is spent in just five days. The last third covers decades. Does that have anything to do with how time functioned for the incarcerated men?
HT: Actually I thought about that so much. On the one hand this is such a long, long story of decades. And, on the other hand, it’s so focused on only five days. Just as you said, I thought a lot about how the prisoners trying to be heard and the guards and civilian hostages were living in sheer terror of what was going to happen literally in the next minute. I thought it was really important to slow down time during the rebellion because what happened minute by minute and hour by hour really, really mattered.
And then we have these massive amounts of time where the story unfolds at this painfully glacial pace. Where prisoners are meant to hang in there for decades while they’re ill and impoverished and traumatized. So, yeah, then it felt really necessary to cover much more space over time to convey that.
CH: One of your primary aims seemed to be to show how the system had stripped the prisoners of their humanity and to try to give some of that back to them. How did you think about making these characters human on the page?
HT: That was another thing on my whiteboards—thinking about the stories that I could tell. And not just for the prisoners, but for, for example, Tony Strollo, the trooper whose brother was on the inside, or the doctors who looked at the horror. I shared with the reader the stories that really moved me.
One I was really taken by was the scene on the catwalk when Mike Smith and Don Noble are exchanging their personal information. It’s one prisoner and one guard, and they say if either one of us gets out of here, tell our family that they were loved. This is minutes before, as Mike says, he can feel the blades of the helicopter whipping. They’re terrified, and yet they’re having this intimate conversation about the most basic human emotion, which is the love you have for your family. And sharing it across the prisoner/guard divide…that still gets to me.
CH: You said when you started the book you had no idea how timely it would be. What do you think the story of Attica can teach us about, in your words, “the crisis we’re in today”?
HT: What I hope the Attica story does is to really shine a light inside of prisons so that people ask some basic questions about these institutions that are public. We fund them. We trust them to affect our public safety and justice, and yet we are barred from entry. We don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. I hope this story reminds people that without transparency, without access, terrible things can happen to human beings.
The other piece is that Attica shows us that we need to be deeply skeptical, even today, whether or not there is equal justice under the law. That it reminds us how deeply damaging it is when only some people are held accountable for wrongdoing in a society. But mostly—and this is really quite basic—I hope that Attica reminds everyone that the people who are serving time in prison, however they got there, are human beings. They are our mothers and our fathers and our sisters and our brothers and our children.
CH: Have you talked to any survivors since the book came out?
HT: Since the book has come out, both my office and the press keep getting calls from survivors. People I didn’t meet. People who still want to tell their stories. It’s amazing to me how much of this history could still be told. One of the most important people in the book, Charles Pernasalice, who was charged with the killing of the guard William Quinn, I could never find, and he found me when the book was out. It was so moving. He actually texted me on the anniversary of the day of the retaking, and it was so clear to me from that text that he is traumatized. That getting through that day every year is still one of the hardest things for him to do.
The hostage survivors have said to me that they’re glad for the book, but I’ve heard more immediately from them that it was so painful for them to read this, and I think that was also true for Pernasalice. That’s the part that I hate. I hate that in order to read this history I have to have people revisit a horrible moment in their lives.
CH: You spent over a decade of your life on this incredible labor. Now that it’s done, do you think you did what you set out to do? Are you satisfied?
HT: I feel that I told that story to the best of my ability, which is to say that I feel that everything I found is there. Every hard thing to write, I wrote. But the part that still haunts me is that I also know that there’s so much going on behind the scenes that I still wasn’t able to fully document, and I still feel strongly that we have a right as citizens to know that history.
Courtney Harrell is a journalist and teacher based in Pittsburgh. She was previously a regular contributor to Voice Media Group's Westword and Senior Editor of Copper Nickel. In addition to words, she edits audio for podcasts including the forthcoming How to Human.