tv Heather Ann Thompson Blood in the Water CSPAN February 24, 2018 4:00pm-5:07pm EST
ann thompson talks about her book, "blood in the water: the attica prison uprising of 1971 and its legacy." atticaalls events at the facility in upstate new york in 1971. after four days, state officials took back control of the facility. 39 hostages and prisoners were killed. this was recorded at the roosevelt house public policy institute at hunter college in 2016. it is one hour and five minutes. [crowd noise]
>> i hate to be the cause of reduction in buys, but good evening. im herald holzer, director of roosevelt house and on behalf of the hunter college president to his in the room tonight i'm delighted to welcome you all to the home of franklin d. roosevelt and eleanor roosevelt. one of them is going to be talking about gubernatorial administrative work today, he was the new york state governor before he came president and his wife was the conscience of the empire state just as she later became the conscience of the
country and the world, who was never afraid to confront challenging and uncomfortable issues like the one we are going to discuss this evening, even if her own confronting husband, privately of course because this was the 1930's. i think you all know as well, the history of this amazing space. was originally a wedding gift to franklin and eleanor from his mother sarah, and it came to the newlyweds with only one stipulation. sarah herself moved in and stayed in residence for the next 40 years. houses, and technically there were two of them, had separate doorways, one on the west for sarah and one on the east for franklin and eleanor, sarah quickly sliced through the dining room, which we will visit later during our reception, extensively, as she put it, to
make the room more accommodating for large dinner parties. but eleanor later remembered she ended up having the run of the house and appeared on fdr and eleanor's side of the house as eleanor put it, at the most unexpected times. after sarah died fdr put the house up for sale and what jennifer always calls, the best real estate deal of the century, sold it for $16,000 to hunter college, cutting the original asking price by $10,000 and donating another $1000 to buy books for the student library. became and a long served as an interfaith center for the girls of hunter, and then the great transformation of the 21st century began after raised awareness and funding, and armed with an rehabilitaten to and transformed the roosevelt house into a public policy institute. it is today, for public policy
students and human rights students, some of whom are here for this program tonight. for students of architecture, the space we are sitting in tonight was carved out of what was the old kitchen space. one a word about gubernatorial connection, which i offer as a kind of full presence ofin the mild colleague mike klein who is here tonight. both of us proudly served in the administration of governor marielle cuomo, -- governor mario como and whether it was the lessons of attica or his own innate patients, and negotiating ability, mario cuomo was able to face a prison uprising of his own, at sing sing, just days after he was sworn in as governor in 1983 with a striking differently -- with a strikingly different result.
hostages were taken and demands were made but no blood was shed. that's a memory i wanted to share. let's turn the clock back 45 years from today. restored house was just to be a forum for this kind of discussion. the event we are gathered to reapproach is the attica prison uprising of 1971, its causes, it's meeting, and the trip -- it's meaning and the truth of the events. dr. heather thompson is a scholar,orn and based teacher and activist who has a search -- who has served on the of unc,faculties temple, and the university of michigan. the author of many important articles on criminal justice and mass incarceration for the new york times, time agony and the
atlantic, she previously authored a major book on politics, labor and race in modern detroit. for the last 10 years she has been researching and writing this exhaustive, definitive and universally acclaimed new book, "blood in the water: the attica prison uprising of 1971 and its legacy." it takes us back to the trigger point for the deadly events of 1971, and the response by guards and government. divesomplish this deep she interviewed surviving prisoners, hostages, as well as law enforcement veterans, former government officials, medical examiners, journalists, the list is astonishing, including along the way such familiar names as tom wicker and hermann badillo. gail badillo was here tonight and we should welcome her. let me also of knowledge one of our own who played a role in that examination after the
uprising, our own advisory board member who serves as chairman of the new york city board of correction at the time of attica , and is mentioned in the book and was quite a critic of the report. and of course i mean bill vanden koop. "the times" has hailed the book as remarkable, a book that helps us understand why one group of prisoners rioted and how many others shared the costs. laste way, the news of the 48 hours is that, fittingly, is named to theen long list of nominees for the national book award. [applause] this is national book award night because we are so proud that joining dr. thompson in conversation will be the distinguished and beloved writer
thomas massie coats. his book was not only a number one bestseller but a winner of the 2015 national book award. -- coates serves colonel serves currently as a senior correspondent for "the atlantic" and we are in it to have him here at roosevelt house. [applause] before we start, a bit of housekeeping. our guests will engage in a conversation of about 45 minutes, following which they will take questions from the audience. s.ere are cards on your seat sorry if you have a question after the proceedings get underway, please write it down and pass it to the far i'll send -- pass itave aids down to the far aisles and we es collect them.
at the and you are invited to the four freedoms room where we will celebrate heather thompson at a reception and book signing. the history, the bookkeeping and everything. please join the president and me coates in tamahasi conversation with heather thompson. [applause] coates: i'm try to find something that would actually keep it from ringing, which is very annoying. nobody's going to call in and ask me if i will pick up aluminum foil or dog food. [laughter] today.d my dad i have a great reason why i was
in heather's book. this was an agonizing book to read. i was at the cafe at 1/10 and broadway, the hungarian bakery and i was reading it. think ixted heather, i actually have the text here, because heather didn't understand what the hell i was actually saying. but i texted her and i said, this is brutal, my god. and i got back a question mark. [applause] deeply painfuly, and hard book to read and this is personal to me in a way, heather, i can't even explain to you. attica is in many ways responsible from a presence here today. when i was a child my dad had awfulas i saw it, tradition of fasting on thanksgiving. and i couldn't, like who would
do that, right? not just fasting, but fasting on the day everybody else talks about how much they are going to eat and how much food they are going to inhale and loosening a belt notch and all this. fasting on thanksgiving, frankly it was the worst holiday. i'm leaving the country this year for thanksgiving. a conversations we always had, that my dad would say on this day the country is gorging itself and we need to remember the true history of thanksgiving and what happened to the native americans. that was part of it. ago -- aple of years couple of years after attica, with dick gregory, the you know this story? of course because you wrote this book. with fast onory thanksgiving in memory of what happened at attica.
many peopleknow stuck with a but my dad stuck with it to this very day, and i called him today and i said, pops, you have got to read this. my dad used to be a research -- research librarian, and i said pops, there is 100 pages of footnotes. you're going to love this. i gave him a book once before and there were no book -- and there were no footnotes and he got on me over that. and i told him this and he wanted me to tell you that you are a hero. he really really wanted me to tell you that. and he said i don't know if i can get through this because of the pain of it. my dad was in the black panthers, this was a huge deal. i'm just telling you what this means to me. panther party,he he was a prisoner of white activists, it was the story of attica, he left the panther
party but stayed involved. people my earliest memories are of black men in jail, my dad taking me into the prison to see folks. and he always, in his radical politics of the day, identified it as the headquarters, the enemy. and he wanted me to see that, very much up close. and attica was such a huge influence and what he said to me today, and at the time he was radicals always thought something horrible went wrong and he always believed it. why yould him, that's shout, that's what you scream, even if you are outside the the mainstream. because you never know when history will come around 45 years later. they were out of the mainstream at the time but it turns out they were exactly right.
and even though emily halfway through it, it's incredible. i have a ton of questions. but the few here who are not familiar with attica, can we just get a very quick summary of what happened and why it to place? heather: sure. , like so many prisons in new york and really the nation, was bursting at the seams. there was an intensification of policing and inner cities across the nation but particularly in new york city. buffalo, rochester, and attica was filled with 2400 men. black and puerto rican but also white men, and the conditions were horrendous. role of toilet paper to last a month, two quarts of water to do everything in, wash, clean yourselves, drink.
medical care so bad that prisoners were not only dying at attica but were permanently disfigured from lack of care. that theis the context men in the yard start talking in thecivil rights present, human rights in the prison. and of course many of these guys had also come from the street that had been very active, particularly rebellions in philadelphia in 1964, harlem in 1950 four, rochester in 1964, and they began to ask for help, initially through the system, writing letters to state senators and begging the commissioner of corrections to do something. but nothing was really done. and in fact what was done was a great deal more repression. anyone who was caught having a letter asking for help, would be driven to keep lock which meant you were thrown in yourself or indefinite amounts of time and
you couldn't get out. in yourself orhe indefinite amounts of time and you couldn't get out. and it was in the context that people start talking across political lines, start talking across racial lines, and there were a lot of spanish-speaking prisoners at attica and there was usually somebody in the are the was trying to translate between the groups so that everybody could understand what everybody else was saying. and to make a long story short, they eventually erupt. initial moment was probably caused by a management decision. it wasn't particularly caused -- it was a particularly planned on the part of the prisoners. it becomes an important human rights rebellion. 1300 men gather in one part of the present, they elect representatives from each of the cellblocks to speak for them, they ask for observers to come in and oversee negotiations with the state so that they feel they can be heard. one of them is harmon video, -- hermann badillo, and insisted
that television cameras come in. because the problem with prisons is, nobody sees what's going on inside in these guys were committed to shining the light from inside the walls. and of course they had been inspired themselves by other uprisings that had just happened, auburn, the new york city jail system, and for four they negotiated really intensely with the state for these basic human rights. and -- mr. coates: and? and then, one of the most brutal events, i would argue, of the 20th century. and i think that's what you are alluding to that is most difficult to read. there were four days that these guys were negotiating with the state, and as the television cameras are rolling, meanwhile, outside attica's walls, virtually every battalion of the new york state police were coming to attica and assembling outside, as well as corrections
officers from all the prisons in the surrounding area. and for four days they didn't butp, didn't even much, were really fed on a diet of and rumor of inmate atrocities on the inside, which incidentally my research indicated was not coincidently coming from the fbi. one of the rumors was that these the were standing up hostages at attention, and should they falter or fall they would shoot them in the head. of course, these guys didn't even have guns, which is going to become the story. and it'sare amassing becoming clear to the observers that at any moment the state is going to come in. now understand it were determined to come in from the very beginning. this idea that negotiations might have no something, i think there were certainly goodhearted people that hope so and work to make it happen.
it at the highest levels they were biding their time, and i would argue they would have come in sooner had it not been for those observers in there, that kind of stalled things, i think. and then suddenly on the fifth day, they decide they're going to come in with the new york state police and all those armed corrections officers. ,r. coates: when you say armed you mean not like armed with clubs. these guys, for those four days, were passing out weapons indiscriminately, nobody was writing down serial numbers. i have photographs of them passing out these guns from the back of trucks, and later i discovered paperwork indicating that some troopers did write down the serial numbers and they were told to rip it up, basically. we don't want to know who has which gun. also personal weapons, personal weapons, shotguns, deer hunting rifles,
mr. coates: and literally, ammunition that is banned by the geneva accords, right? that's right. and in that moment as it was clear they were going to come in in, the longtime story was that they were warned if you don't release the hostages, we are going to come in. paperwork revealed to me that the actually, deliberately did not give an ultimatum. in other words, the language used that morning was no different than it had been on any other morning before this attack began, and everybody told people her, including put on the observers committee, who were republicans and were very supportive of rockefeller, who said if you come in like this it's going to be a massacre. and we now know that he was told, if we come in here like this we are going to kill some of the hostages. and he said, we are going to do it anyway. and so they came in, and right before they came in and i think this is another big piece of it, they first sent over
helicopters, one helicopter that was dumping gas over the art -- over the yard. and i share this with people because when we think of gas, you think of a gas that you could cover your mouth, but it was actually a powder and it was cleaning -- it was clinging to their skin and their naval passage -- and their nasal passages. and you see this cloud of smoke, and then everybody gets mode down. that's when they came in -- down.ody gets mowed that's when they came in with the guns. i asked you disqualified as a lynching, and you immediately said yes, it qualifies as a militarized lynching. why would you think of it that way? book, a lotding the
of details you mentioned, for instance the paranoia of a was actually happening inside turned out not to be true. all of that, the insistence of hiding the identities of people, all of it, taking dentures for people, taking souvenirs, all of it has the hallmarks of a lynching. why don't you think about it that way? me remind everybody that the taking was just the beginning of the brutality. it was actually when everybody was subdued, within 15 minutes, i would argue they were subdued when the gas came through, but now everybody is shot six or seven times, and as one prisoner said, all i could see was blood in the water, it is at that .oment the real reality begins and it is extremely reminiscent of a lynching for a number of reasons. number one, it's deeply racialized. even prisoners with white skin, because they stood with the .
black prisoners, racial appetites are coming out all of them in punctuating the torture that goes on throughout the days, weeks, months. but also, like a lynching, they stood out in front of the world, because remember the media is here from everywhere at this point, and say, after their officers have just killed the hostages, no, the prisoners slit the throats of the hostages. and not only that, the castrated one of the guards and stuffed his testicles in his mouth and we saw it happen. one actually said we have film of it. and of course this goes on the front page of "the new york " the los angeles times, and what it does is touches off a fury. when we think of the race riots of the 1900s in the 1890's, where it is just unstoppable.
frank "big black" smith, was laid on a table, and a football was put under his neck and he was told after six hours of torture if you drop the football we are going to kill you. and of course, he believes it. he has just seen so many compatriots killed. and another prisoner that i talk o, was shot so many times and when one of his friends was trying to carry him to safety, they shot him. why don't we think about it that way? because it goes to the core of our conscience as a nation that we don't think about what happens to people when we go by bars. so the assumption is that if we were to retake a prison in this fashion, those folks were less than human and what happens to them, it couldn't be a lynching,
because they couldn't be real victims. mr. coates: right. to get to this? -- to get to this question, watching events in chicago and watching events across the nation over the past three years, we have new technology that allows people to see them but they are not actually new events, that we are witnessing a moment in which there is a real assault on police legitimacy. aboutwant to be clear what i'm saying. it's not the evidence that is making that, it's the evidence that is revealing it. it's been going on for a long time. i look at chicago, for instance, and when you have cops literally executing somebody and coming together to create a story that, we didn't execute him at all. you see this kind of story .epeated over and over again
becomes, ine it many ways police are not different than any other violent force in the nation. and i think you see that in attica. when the media is according them respect, like we believe you did this because the authorities told us this. when the media's told the prisoners killed the hostages, nobody asked for corroboration. nobody questions the idea that a black prisoner would have castrated a white card -- a onte guard, and it ends up the front page. but the issue of police accountability runs throughout. me personally, one of the most important research finds ways to find out why it was at at a cut have this event that quickly does become clear to the nation that police have in fact killed not only the prisoners but that 62 why is it prisoners were indicted for
crimes at attica but not one member of law enforcement? so part of this book is the story of how that happens and the extraordinary levels that the state and federal governments go to to protect the police and how the police themselves, from the very beginning are removing photographs, placing film, and i think in one of the most damning evidence -- one of the most damning pieces of evidence in the book, and the days after the retaking the governors persuaded he has to have an investigation. this is kind of a disaster, there is bodies everywhere. as one dr. said it resembled a civil war painting inside of attica. so he does appoint someone to investigate attica. was, withinone knew days after this retaking, and three more times in secret meetings at rockefellers paul
rockefeller's pool house, the new york state police were there, the architects of the retaking, were then allowed to investigate the retaking. the head of the attica investigation is at this meeting and the result cast of characters. and over this series of meetings they essentially get their stories straight, and you quickly understand that there are so many layers of protection. and the last thing i will say about that is that it works sort of, there is a benign neglect part of this abuse, too. because these brothers at attica and the hostages are not silent. there are telling their story. they are saying, we are being beaten in here, we are being abused, summit help us. somebody help us. and there are heroes in this story that speak up, but at every level, from the lowest
level workmen's compensation official to state senators to the governor, to the presidency thehe united states, to justice department who was hearing these stories and decides not to intervene, to the supreme court of the united who seemse only one to want to intervene is thurgood marshall. everybody else says no thank you, at every level. everyone just turned away. this raise does questions about our democracy itself? you literally have this at the presidential level on down. you can stop me if you want to, but you literally have a conspiracy to cover up a lynching. i don't think that's going too far. you have evidence to demonstrate that actually what happened. we don't live under a military junta. that so manyt say,
of our democratic institutions, you could throw the press in o, were so quick to allow this happened and very quickly turn the page. how much truth can folks actually handle? ms. thompson: what you are really getting at is the question of, who is a legitimate victim, and who can have that mantle of victimhood and attention put on them. one of our friends khalil mohammed writes about blackness in his brilliant book. he makes a lot of profound points. during prohibition, as prisons begin to fill with more white folks, and as we begin to see white, and people with power were white, people were kind of appalled at what saw and wanted to roll back
those policies and change those lost. fundamentally what we are talking about is, what was it about these prisoners that were n in thelegitimate, not huma eyes of the state? why would it be, when it comes to prosecution, their lives are not valuable? on that point, one of the controversies in this book -- i am a historian, and there is a chapter on the state investigation of attica. i talk about who the state believed in law enforcement had committed crimes at attica. i don't say they committed a crime at attica. i am recounting what the state knew and what they believed. criticism focuses a lot of attention on that, why would you name these guys after 40 years?
what i find so remarkable is no one ever wants asked me, why did i name the prisoners in attica w ho were also accused of things they did not do? i named their names, because the state was accusing them. no one said, what about their families? it is a question of who has the right to be innocent. mr. coates: i find this infuriating. it's absolutely -- when you read what actually happened, and again you don't say anybody did anything. that you as a historian should be effectively enrolled in the coverup, that you should be part of it. that is really hard to deal with it. one of the significant things
like this book -- i feel one could have written a book .ust recounting what happened that would be one way to write the book. you did not do that. i think maybe 2/5 of the book is set in the context of attica, then setting the context afterwards. ms. thompson: the book would have been a lot shorter had i made that decision. maybe some of my editors in the room think, maybe we should have considered that the interesting thing about , we had memoir accounts of those days. everyone continued yto speak up. what we didn't know was what happened to the next 40 years that survivors still have not had an apology from the state of
new york, let alone any admission of responsibility. , we had memoir accounts everyone i talked to at some point in a discussion had a breakdown. as a historian, one is not really equipped to deal with that. withe not equipped to deal that kind of lived trauma in the present. told me something about the presence told me something aboue presence of the after story as much as the part of what brought people together at attica. in fact, the after story i think helps us explain why today you and i are sitting here in a nation that not only incarcerates more people around the globe, but chicago and baltimore are erupting -- one of the reasons we are here is because of the cover up at
attica, and the lies told about it, and who was allowed to be a victim in it. mr. coates: this is a compellingly written book. i love historians, but people don't often say that. [laughter] i have two questions. i hope i am not being condescending. where did you learn to write like this? let's get right to it. [laughter] who taught you? ms. thompson: any book of this length and size cannot be accomplished without amazing help from editors, knowing who the key people are to focus on in these stories. that is not me. as historians, we are trained to footnote well and do research better than anyone, i would maintain, but we are not necessarily trained in how to
convey that. i felt very inadequate in that. i would start to read novels -- bereft ofke being language. how do you describe the retaking without using words like terrible or horrific? mr. coates: [laughter] welcome to my world. ms. thompson: we are not capturing it. it was tremendous insight from folks who read it. thank you. interestingly, when this book -- when i thought i would do it, i did not even consider doing it as a trade press. mr. coates: you were going to go through university press? originally my first book was with cornell university press. it seems a little logical. the reality was i wanted my
grandparents to read it. grandparents to read it. i wanted everyone to read it because of the story in it, and because i wanted those stories in one place shouted out somewhere. mr. coates: what about this as a narrative as compared to a method that compares originallyy first book was different viewpoints, a more historiographical -- ms. thompson: because i wanted people to read it. >> [laughter] ms. thompson: because if we argues...""this book mr. coates: right. [laughter] ms. thompson: some stories tell themselves. frankly the survivors told the story. i remember one time -- i always share this story, because it stuck with me. one ofed the widow of -- her family -- her family wao
traumatized by this event. so many of these guard families. guards, not only were they killed, but swindled by the state of new york. i am in this living room, and this family is destroyed by this. one of their children had committedi am in this living su. howwas so overwhelmed by, could this have happened? how could they have come in and killed their own? she wrote to one of the attica observers, and was very clear that his allegiances were with the prisoners, and had in fact volunteered to be a lawyer for the prisoners. she brought out this letter he had wrote back to her. it was one of these moments. it all clicked that is stories were telling themselves. these two people from as
different roles you can imagine coming to the same conclusion, willing toate was take power at any cost without allowing anyone to challenge them. one more was a prisoner -- i saw him at an earlier event. an early part of the book where he is describing the first night in the art. he says he sees this guy who is a friend of his, smiling. he asks him, how are you feeling? feeling? he says in wonderment, i have not seen the stars in 22 years. that is why it is a narrative, because those stories told themselves. speak to theoes it
power of white supremacy, that they would slaughter their own to get this done? ms. thompson: yeah, there is no question. up so up so often. during the retaking, in the speak to the power of white supremacy, that n the wall -- mr. coates: it's not subtle. dead,dead, the racism is not had to distinguish. ms. thompson: forcing people to their knees and give the white salute. mr. coates: it is very obvious. what are the lessons we did not learn? ms. thompson: so many. but i want to be clear, we didn't learn them -- it was very deliberate that we did not learn them. when the state of new york stands salute. mr. coates: it is very obvious. outside of this prison and tells the world that the prisoners have killed the hostages, one cannot express
what an important moment this is. leading up to that in this country, we were considering more community corrections, we were thinking about ways in which to humanize prisons. there were lots of lawsuits to challenge brutality in prisons. indeed, on the eve of attica, looks ati a lot of -- i looked at a lot of the polling, and people were sympathetic that guards needed more training and sympathetic in the view that prisoners needed human rights. this moment was a pivot. ? prisoners aret barbaric -- they are animals. they should get the death penalty for what they did at attica. meanwhile, it was law enforcement who carried out these deaths. that was where the nations
sentiment went. we did not really learn what happened at attica, but not because of reasons people could not have figured out. we did not learn it because the narrative was immediately taken over. every time the hostages tried to speak out, they were shut down. they tried to sue the state of new york for workers compensation. they couldn't, because the state came to their house and gave them meeker checks -- meagre checks, telling them that if they ever cashed them, they would not be able to sue the state of new york. these atrocities are going on, and up until the final civil case the state lawyers maintained this was nothing but a fraternity hazing, it did not happen -- and one of the most chilling things to read is the closing arguments in the final
defense of the civil cases. it is an utter denial these people suffered anything. the fact that we did not learn it is because the people that experienced it were not allowed to speak. the cost of not learning it, prisons have become bigger, larg er, more punitive. folks to much more time, more time in solitary. earlier this morning there were attica brothers that had been in the yard -- it was one of the most haunting experiences listening to them. it was clear that the repression after attica lasted decades. the legacy in the book is not just repression. if we have been watching in the news, in the last week, 400 prisoners in florida, 400 in michigan -- people have been interrupting again.
-- erupting again. there have been a series of work stoppages. know, frankly because we can't get into these public institutions to know what is going on. in every one of these cases, they shouted out attica. part of its legacy is that fight for justice and thatthey shouteo a humane heard as being. mr. coates: one of the things i think you do pretty remarkably, one of the most oddly compelling characters -- a corrections officer who sees himself as a good guy. prototypical liberal reformer who can't go far enough or get the powers that be. as approaching him as a character, how do you feel? ms. thompson: i feel he was a deeply tragic figure. whereas rockefeller, his reputation was as a liberal
republican. lawyer.lso a cold mr. coates: he is an operator. ms. thompson: absolutely. he also feels like this is a communist conspiracy. cold a dyed in the wool war warrior. oswald, he works on the parole system, a reformer, he believes these guys need to be listened to. if not for oswald, i don't think there would have been negotiations. one ofis also frazzled, these people in between these say, giveeople who me one more shower, and the state who he is pushing back at, who is calling for him to
resign, and law enforcement is sending him death threats. he is very emblematic of this period, trying to do the right thing, but being in between these poles where it would have been very difficult. mr. coates: this will probably be my last question. i just keep -- let me ask this first. i foundthis book, myself frustrated at various moments. it is a very interested narrative trick. you know the story of attica. you know what is going to happen. sometimes you think, come on, man. did you find yourself inhappen. moments where you are frustrated, even though you know what is going to happen?
ms. thompson: right -- one of those stories he is talking about, the guys in the yard -- on their list of observers is a person from the black panther party. wanted he weey knew, but they got bobby steele. it is not a flattering portrait. he comes into the yard wanted he knew, and they have been waiting for him and waiting for him. them.sn't want to endorse he doesn't want to endorse the state. he sort of does nothing. andurns on his heels leaves. it is dashing a few illusions. i hopeha -- it is more complicated. mr. coates: one of the things that got me was the serious
scale of villainy. literally you are having autopsies -- and there are troopers basically trying to get into the room. folks driving around to funeral homes to make sure, this constant intimidation. i hate to come back to this, but what the hell are we supposed to think? these are the people supposed to protect us acting like thugs, and this is happening in living memory of us. what are we left with? ms. thompson: as we are having discussions about prosecutors and grand juries and police, we are left with the system is flawed and sufficient. attica, if nothing else, shows that. it is a closed society. enforcemente, law and the grand jury system --
this is a very closed world, and yet the stakes are far too high to have a world that closed with that much responsibility. i don't think any of that is not fixable. the idea that there is so much prosecutorial discretion to what to bring to the grand jury, and that the grand jury cannot indic t. mr. coates: one of the disturbing things is that society is not just in prisons. have any more questions? they are coming. i like this. they are getting screened here. most duringed you and after writing the book?
what did you least expect to uncover? think theon: i journey -- what i was most surprised initially was, as a historian wanting to write a book on attica, i thought it would go to the library and ask 10 andk number 5 box right the story. after a number of years of poking around, i had the come acrosfortune to s a whole stash of records that changed everything, because it really showed the inside of the attica investigation. what is most surprising today, and i'm deeply grateful for it, is that the story of prisoner rights resonates again. i wonder if even three years ago it would have resonated as it
does now. whati am very thankful for that. from what i heard this morning, this stuff goes on all the time. yet those walls are so high and doors closed so firmly that we don't see it. mr. coates: you talk about women in the story -- ms. thompson: even though this is the facility of all mena and the observers are men, the reason we know one of these stories -- and one of the heroines is sitting here -- is these attica heroes, those who made sure the attica prisoners were defendant. women like elizabeth gaines, elizabeth fink, tremendous advocates for justice. on the hostage side, the daughter of a slain guard.
it just became her life ot m -- it became her life to make sure the story was told. she is pushing the attorney general's office today to release records. there are many women today that have been with attica for 40 years, and they make it happen. mr. coates: been doing your research, who did not want to talk to you? [laughter] or would you talk about the role fear played, and is it still pervasive today? ms. thompson: i feel like the people that did not want to talk to me were from the rockefeller administration. i was able to talk to troopers. i was able to talk to someone from every one of the groups of people told in this book, except for people closest to
rockefeller. i do regret that. i did have a lot of questions. again, the paper trail was there. i feel confident i was able to recount what they thought and did. it is interesting -- the troopers committed so many horrors at attica, but many of the troopers were traumatized by attica that they come to court 30 years later. that is how we know that the identifying badges were removed. i had a guy who was a munro county sheriff, who after the 40th anniversary, called me. or whatever40 years since the, 30 years, holding on to these stories of what he witnessed that day. he just broken down.
this is such a horrific event. there were plenty who delighted plenty whoty -- denied it all in this story too. plemr. coates: did you contacty of the officers implicated? ms. thompson: no i did not. this was not an oral history. had conversations with people. many of those people came into my life through the journey of the book. when i discovered who these people were, who the state felt crime at attica, i was worried about even revealing i had the document, that i had had seen, because there was such a concerted
effort to not release the attica files. at that point i hunkered down and not raised the had seen, bee there was such a concerted effort to alarm that i had seen the documents more than anything else. frankly, whether anyone has tried to find them. do you feel someone will be prosecuted for the atrocities that have occurred? ms. thompson: certainly legally -- i am not a lawyer, so correct me if i am wrong -- there is no statute of limitations on murder, there could still be prosecutions. one cannot underestimate the damage done to the chain of command, the chain of evidence is what i am trying to say. first of all, it would take the will, and we don't even have the will today to see through investigations in chicago, for example. coverups are effective. it would be very difficult. i think that will always remain
a question. it goes to the heart of why these documents are so protected, and why every time there has been talk of opening these records, the police have stepped up and been very active to not have these records open. one can only imagine why. mr. coates: the idea that the state might be held responsible and there is compensation -- reparation. i'm justand there saying. >> [laughter] ms. thompson: it's interesting you say that, because at the end of the day, the chapter on retaking, which is the hardest to get through -- eventually when you are in that chapter, it is the fury at law enforcement, at that brutality. correct me with what you think, but it seems at the end of the book, the real responsibility is with the state. mr. coates: even reading that
chapter, it was clear. ms. thompson: one of the troopers that gets sent in, his brother was a hostage. who is responsible for that? who is responsible for letting this happen? at the end of the day, it is the state. mr. coates: do you think attica should be turned into a museum? ms. thompson: attica should absolutely be closed. yes. there are many new yorkers that share that view, who are working hard to close it. and indeed internally officials who have worked at attica know it should be closed. it is a trauma site. by the way, if you walked in there today, it looks just as it did in 1932. it is not changed.
when i was on the catwalks of attica, you can still see the chips in the senate where the bullets -- in the cement where the bullets were flying. yes, attica needs to be shut down. mr. coates: difficult to get in? ms. thompson: extremely. i was denied numerous times by the state. the only way i got into attica was very convoluted. i ultimately met one of the surviving hostages. sonsf the slain hostages is still a corrections officer at attica, and he wanted me to see it. it was through him that i was able to see the catwalk. this is where my father was killed, this is where the bullets were. had it not been for that, and privilege -- had i not
looked how i looked, i would not have been able to get in. mr. coates: have you heard about the effort to get prior felons to apply to suny college? ms. thompson: this goes to the legacy of reaching into the humanity of the story, and understanding that part of this process has got to be healing, and none of this process can be abuse. it has to be learning, healing, education, recognizing that people in prison are people. mr. coates: i love this question. ms. thompson: oh dear. mr. coates: no, you're fine. [laughter] it is relevant even today. why did the press knuckle under? this is relevant even today. journalists, even
journalists covering this presidential campaign, should ce more aware of the extent to ,hich the american media specifically american newspapers have been a part of the atrocities committed against african-americans in this country. it is a long disgraceful history. people who are going into this profession think they are just being objective and do not understand the traditions in which they are working. it was sad. i was not shocked at all to see the press not wander good -- to under. press knuckle the new york times calling something torture and enhanced interrogation. it is sad to say but true. ms. thompson: i agree and i think adding to sewed -- i think
attica shows the behind-the-scenes of this. shows that the prisoners kill the hostages, i follow up on that, was there any follow-up on this when it is clear this is not what happened. it is an interesting mixed response. some of the reporters are furious and at rockefellers door saying you lied. part of it is their own guilt. mr. coates: it is your job to question. ms. thompson: one of the interesting stories i heard last week, one of the most report -- one of the most important attica on the scene was john johnson. eyes one has seen the the prize, he is the reporter outside and he just breaks down and says they are killing people in there. i was never able to find him and i would have wanted to talk to him.
he contacted me and he told me a fascinating story, which is when this happened and the lies were told about attica everybody rushed to print and he refused and he lost his job. that, but the guys who did then try to do the right this and i do write about for one of the newspapers in new york. their own editor stepped in and said this is far too sympathetic , let's findners out. i want to know what the crimes are there -- the crimes are that got them there in the first place. mr. coates: how can this book impact prison reform -- do you accept the term prison reform? ms. thompson: i don't. i am grateful that this book moves the needle. i would be thrilled if it would
move the needle even so far as that people read this and get a very different idea of who is it that is behind bars. the thing about the story is that you say attica today and everyone pictures the worst of the worst. maximum-security facility, , upstate new york, some of the first people you meet in this book are 19-year-old pearl violators who were there -- 19-year-old parole violators who were there driving without a license. ld barkley was 21. i hope it destabilizes this idea of who is behind bars. ,here were bad dudes in there but there was drug addiction and property crimes because people were stealing. they should have had a drug addiction dealt with and that is no different today.
this idea oflizes humanity and who is behind bars, i'm grateful for that. mr. coates: i want you guys to recognize, i want to double down on that idea. i love historians, even though i rip you guys about how you write. it is only because i read so much of what you do and people like me who are lucky enough to write for magazines, we get all this attention, but the fact of the matter is we stand on some mighty shoulders. one of the most beautiful things about this book is to see you standing, as opposed to being in the archives doing the work, which you did, but getting the credit which this book deserves. i have leaned on for my own work on mass incarceration, your been
great counsel to me. it has been an honor and a highlight to be in conversation with you. thank you. [applause] >> on behalf of the roosevelt house, our thanks. i never thought you were talking about me or any historian i know. you do not have to do a disclaimer. , if these curtains had been drawn tight for 45 years, you have not only parted them, you have torn them down and let the sunshine in and we thank you we thank you for an unforgettable conversation. thank you and we welcome you to join us for conversation upstairs.
[applause] "history bookshelf" year from the country's best-known american history writers of the past decade every saturday at 4:00 eastern and you can watch any of our programs at any time when you visit our website c-span.org/history. you're watching american history tv, all weekend, every weekend on c-span3. year marks the 50th
anniversary of the public broadcasting act of 1967. next, public media figures, including former pbs newshour anchor jim layer and talkshow host did cap it gathered to discuss -- dick cavett gathered to discuss the history of public broadcasting. the next panel is on news and public affairs and talk shows and while the panelists get ready we will show you a clip from the coverage of the watergate hearings. we have just launched a curated exhibit about public broadcasting coverage of the watergate hearing and that will also mark the first time the complete online access to the hearings has been available to the public online. will the first panelist come up? [video clip]