Author and Historian Heather Ann Thompson, Ph.D.

The National Book Award finalist discusses her new text Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.

Heather Ann Thompson is a Professor of Historian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Thompson writes about the history as well as current crises of mass incarceration. Her new book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971 and Its Legacy sheds new light on the riot, New York's violent response, and the decades-long implications of Attica for those involved as well as America's criminal justice system. Drawing from more than a decade of extensive research, Thompson's searing account of one of the most important civil rights stories of the last century includes interviews with former Attica prisoners, hostages, families of victims, lawyers, judges, law enforcement, and state officials as well as significant amounts of material never before released to the public.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with historian, Heather Ann Thompson, about one of this nation’s most famous civil rights protest, the Attica prison uprising. Her latest text, “Blood in the Water”, is the first definitive history of the infamous uprising and is a National Book Award finalist.

And then we’ll pivot to a conversation with comedian, podcaster, and author of “You Can’t Touch My Hair”, Phoebe Robinson.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. All of that coming up in a moment.

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Tavis: Heather Ann Thompson is an award-winning historian. Her writings focus on politics, policing, and the impact of mass incarceration. Her latest text is a National Book Award finalist. It’s called “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy”. Heather, good to have you on the program.

Heather Ann Thompson: Great to be here.

Tavis: For those who remember this, but don’t really recall the details of what happened at Attica in 1971, give me the overview.

Thompson: Well, it’s a maximum state facility in upstate New York. And in 1971, much like today, it was bursting at the seams, 2400 men enduring pretty terrible conditions who had been trying to bring attention to their plight, had been trying to right letters to get some help, and really these were falling on deaf ears. So eventually they rebelled. They initiated a pretty important civil rights and human rights protest.

Tavis: When you say they were enduring or dealing with the conditions inside the prison that were really unacceptable, what were those conditions like?

Thompson: Well, so all of these guys were sentenced to do some time, but they weren’t sentenced to torture or neglect or abuse. And they really felt that all of these were happening. They were being fed on 63 cents a day, they were enduring very bad medical care, not having conditions treated, insufficient sanitary supplies.

And, of course, this is a population that’s majority Black, Puerto Rican and also an all-white guard population. So very much a group that felt that they were enduring racial discrimination and guard abuse as well.

Tavis: Before the uprising happens–you intimated this a moment ago, but go back and kind of unpack for me what specifically they were trying to do to bring attention to their grievances. They went about it the right way initially.

Thompson: Absolutely.

Tavis: So what was their strategy?

Thompson: Well, they wrote letters to the state senators who were in charge of crime and corrections. They tried to appeal to the Commissioner of Corrections himself and were very clear that they wanted to do this through a democratic process, that they wanted key reforms, but nothing that was crazy, nothing unimaginable.

They wanted to reform, for example, the parole rules. You could get paroled, but you could never get out because you were required to write employers out of an outdated phonebook and they’ve had to hire you before you could be let out. So they just wanted some sort of, again, basic human and civil rights and tried to go through the system to get it.

Tavis: And how were they responded to?

Thompson: Well, largely ignored. And indeed the repression that came down on them for having dared to write to the commissioner and the governor and state senators was pretty severe. A lot more cell sweeps, a lot more guys being shut in their cells for these 24-hour periods of time and so forth.

Tavis: So what happens on this fateful day? They have tried to do this the democratic way. To your point, they are not responded to when they tried that approach. What happens again on this particular day?

Thompson: Well, on September 9, 1971, it was actually touched off. The rebellion was touched off by a pretty poor prison management decision. The prison management had decided to retaliate for an incident the night before by locking an entire group of men in this tunnel, a tunnel, with the guards who were running that particular company, but they didn’t tell anybody what was happening.

They were intending to just march them back to their cells, but in this panicked moment, that’s when the chaos ensues. That’s when, fair to say, a riot begins. But what’s really interesting is that out of that comes a real rebellion. These guys moved to one area of the prison and, understand, this is an opportunity to call attention to life inside prison.

Tavis: Tell me more then about how this initial incident escalates.

Thompson: Well, it’s an incident where the prisoners and the guards alike are terrified. They don’t quite know why they’re being locked in this tunnel. And due to a series of just really not planned events, they’re able to open a gate that gives them access to the rest of the prison, and then it’s complete chaos.

Everyone’s running around trying to protect themselves. Some prisoners are taking hostages and this all very quickly, though, becomes an organized rebellion where these guys in the yard are electing officers to represent them. They’re asking for observers to come in. They’re protecting the hostages because really what they want is to negotiate some better conditions inside of the state prison.

Tavis: Tell me more about these prisoners because these guys are pretty adroit. They’re pretty astute. They’re actually knowledgeable about the process. They’re going about it the right way. And I think sometimes we think of prisoners, we think that they’re ignorant and stupid or made bad decisions. But these guys were, to your point, pretty organized.

Thompson: Well, and very, very educated. These guys had been reading important books on civil rights. They had been thinking really hard about injustice in America. But mostly, they were determined to be heard and to do so in a way that the nation would probably be surprised by.

They weren’t asking for crazy things. They were asking for basic conditions to improve. And, frankly, these were men that you might be surprised who were in there. There was a lot of young guys, you know, 21 years old, parole violators.

Some of the most famous faces in the Attica negotiations were there, one guy for driving without a license and had ended up in Attica. So it gave the nation a much more realistic view of who’s actually behind bars. You know, not necessarily the people that they would assume.

Tavis: Yeah. On the other side is the governor of New York, who at the time was Nelson Rockefeller. Tell me about the governor and his approach to this situation.

Thompson: Right. So the governor who has a reputation as being a very liberal Republican, his own party was moving very much rightward and he really sees Attica as his line in the sand. He is not going to let this end well.

The book reveals sort of behind the scenes documents that indicate that he was intending on taking this prison by force, no matter what, no matter how successful the negotiations were going, and despite the fact that everyone was telling him that it was going to be a massacre if he did.

And we now know that he chose to do it anyway, even though it would mean killing his own state employees which were the hostages inside.

Tavis: And by massacre, the numbers were?

Thompson: Well, I mean, ultimately, there were the 600 troopers that come in this prison, they have every weapon imaginable and, within 15 minutes, they have killed 39 men, prisoners and hostages alike, and they have shot a total of 128 people so severely, some of them six, seven, eight bullet wounds. And then what we now know is that then some real torture after that.

Tavis: It’s kind of unimaginable for those who are watching this tonight that a governor of either party, of any state, would make a decision to take back a facility that put the lives of his own personnel at risk. It’s just hard to imagine that. What was going on inside of Nelson Rockefeller’s head that made him make that decision? Even if you don’t care about the prisoners, you don’t put law enforcement in that kind of…

Thompson: Yeah. I mean, you would think. But what’s really astounding is the way in which he was, again, so determined to both shut down what he saw as an illegitimate, overwhelmingly Black rebellion when indeed it was multi-racial. He saw it as a communist conspiracy.

I mean, notably, the investigation after Attica, he places in the Organized Crime Taskforce Unit because he wants to show that this has been a conspiracy, that it’s not legitimate. And we now know from the records that he’s getting some green lights from the Nixon White House, that he is definitely helping a nation that is clamping down on the civil rights movement at all costs.

Tavis: In the aftermath, one of the things that one is just struck by in reading your text is that, in the aftermath of this, there are prisoners, of course, who are punished. You mentioned earlier the torture that they endured on the other side of this uprising. But no punishment for any of the…

Thompson: Not a one. So all of the men that were shot and killed on September 13, 1971 were members of law enforcement, either guards or troopers.

And what the book really chronicles over, in fact, the majority of the book, is both the state’s enormous effort to cover up trooper crimes, to protect law enforcement at the highest levels, but also the stories about the prisoners and hostages who, despite this, will hang in there for 40 years to try to be heard and to try to have their moment of justice.

Tavis: The first person who blurbs this book on the back is Michelle Alexander who we all know wrote that now–I think it’s gonna be a classic–it is a classic text or certainly will be–“The New Jim Crow”, which leads me to ask what the parallels are between then and now.

Thompson: I mean, I argue in the book that there are direct lines. I mean, we really can’t understand the punitive spirit that grips this nation without understanding that even though law enforcement killed all these folks at Attica, because they weren’t prosecuted.

And actually worse because the State of New York stood outside of that prison and told the world that the prisoners had killed the hostages, that Attica plays this really important role in souring the nation on this idea that prisoners are people.

We are living with the consequences of that with mass incarceration, this idea that prisoners are there to be punished to such an extreme degree. We really have inherited that from the way the State of New York handled Attica.

Tavis: With regard specifically to the issue of prison reform, are we better off now? Have we made progress since Attica?

Thompson: No. And in fact, one of the most horrifying things to realize at the end of this book is that Attica is worse today, that in fact prisoners are doing more time in solitary confinement. They are locked down for more years than they were in 1971.

So Attica gives us an opportunity to really rethink that path, to really think about what did we not learn 45 years ago, and what do we need to do differently, both for the folks behind bars serving time, but also working there? I mean, this is also a story of how the hostages tried to be heard and have their own fight for justice.

Tavis: It’s still an issue and this book, “Blood in the Water”, reveals some new data about Attica 40-plus years later. It is a finalist for the National Book Award this year and it’s a good one.

Again, it’s called “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy” written by historian, Heather Ann Thompson. Congratulations on being on the final list, and just a beautiful piece of work, wonderful piece of work. Thank you for doing it.

Thompson: Thank you so much.

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Last modified: April 13, 2017 at 11:54 am