A few years into researching her book on the 1971 Attica prison revolt, the bloodiest in the nation’s history, Heather Ann Thompson got a lucky break.
In 2006, a clerk at the Erie County Courthouse in western New York let her into a backroom, where a wall of jumbled shelves held thousands of documents detailing some of the most closely guarded aspects of the case.
There Thompson discovered the confidential memo from secret meetings where Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who had ordered the violent retaking of the prison that left 39 prisoners and hostages dead, sat with police and prison officials to hammer out the state’s official version of the story. She also came across sealed grand jury records, along with a copy of the never-released report from a whistleblowing prosecutor who had come to believe the state’s investigation was a cover-up.
The papers contained “a great deal of what the state knew, and when it knew it,” as Thompson puts it – not least, about whether members of law enforcement had potentially committed murder in the retaking.
Even before publication, Thompson’s book, “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy,” released on Tuesday by Pantheon, had drawn criticism for printing the names of some of those officers, who were not indicted and may still be alive.
But the book has also been praised by reviewers and insiders alike for the way it brings together a multitude of sources, finding the clearest path yet through the maze of competing narratives and official secrets surrounding Attica.
“Heather has really crashed through the state’s stone wall of withholding as much as they could,” Malcolm Bell, the former prosecutor who later accused the state of a cover-up, said. “She really covers the whole saga from A to Z, and tells the most human story of Attica that I’ve seen.”
To many, Attica may seem a distant echo from the 1970s, remembered mainly through Al Pacino’s throaty rallying cry in “Dog Day Afternoon,” which itself has inspired pop-culture homages everywhere from “SpongeBob SquarePants” to “Orange Is the New Black.”
But to Thompson, a historian at the University of Michigan, the revolt was both an important civil rights struggle by some of America’s most marginalized people and a crucial part of the origin story of today’s battles over mass incarceration, police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Tough-on-crime policies began in the 1960s, but Attica was really the fuel which drove the vehicle,” she said by telephone. “Thanks to the way the story was spun, all you had to do was say ‘Attica’ and people would say: ‘Absolutely, we need mandatory minimums. Absolutely, we need the death penalty.’”
“Blood in the Water” shows how the story took shape almost immediately after prisoners, frustrated by abysmal conditions, seized control of Attica on Sept. 9, 1971, in the confusion following a fight between guards and inmates.
Before the roughly 550 state troopers and corrections officers marched in four days later to retake the prison, Thompson writes, many removed their identifying badges. The serial numbers of their weapons were not recorded, she writes, and at least one supervisor said standard reports of ammunition discharged would be unnecessary.
“Blood in the Water,” which weighs in at 724 pages (including more than 100 pages of endnotes), relies heavily on documents generated by the state’s multiple investigations, and investigations of its investigations.
But Thompson also sought leads from people close to the events, including former hostages and their survivors.
At Attica itself – she gained access through a guard whose father had been a hostage – she saw telegrams from local citizens, praising the retaking. (“Amnesty no, Smith and Wesson yes. Good job,” one read.)
In the warehouse of the New York State Museum, she also saw a jumble of artifacts that had been gathered by police and stored for decades, including makeshift weapons, torn photographs, undelivered notes to loved ones and shirts bearing the names of guards and prisoners, still stiff with mud and blood.
But the most significant trove by far was the thousands of pages she saw in Erie County, especially Bell’s 1975 whistleblowing memo, which she calls “the mother lode.”
The Meyer Report, the 1975 state inquiry prompted by Bell’s memo, said there had been “serious errors in judgment” during the retaking, but no “intentional cover-up.”
But depositions, ballistics reports and other material gathered by Thompson tell a different story.
Investigators, she writes, declined to pursue indictments against a “long list” of law enforcement officers they knew had killed or severely wounded prisoners, including one trooper who shot a prisoner at close range so many times that “his eye sockets were shredded by shards of his own bones,” she writes. (That trooper was told that if he resigned, “he would not be prosecuted,” according to a document.)
Thompson, who also details what she calls “heinous” acts by prisoners (who were responsible for the death of one guard and three fellow inmates before the retaking), said that she did not contact any of the men she names as possibly having fired unjustifiably, out of fear of prompting legal efforts to “shut the book down.”
The decision to print the names, she said, was “absolutely agonizing.” But she said that it was her duty as a historian to publish the full record, rather than perpetuate the selective silence around possible crimes by law enforcement officers.
“If I was just one more person who didn’t name everything I knew, then I’m part of it,” she said. “Who am I to decide that one person’s story gets told while someone else’s is protected?”