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Attica Prison Uprising | New York's Cover-Up | 5

Attica Prison Uprising | New York's Cover-Up | 5

Tue, 07 Sep 2021 09:00

Lindsay sits down with Heather Ann Thompson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water, which tells the history of Attica. Thompson discusses the troubling aftermath of the uprising, when New York’s government took back control of the prison. And she reveals how, for decades, the state has worked to suppress the truth about its siege.

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To listen to American scandal one week early and add free, join Wondry Plus in the Wondry app. Download the Wondry app in your Apple or Google Play mobile app store today. From Wondry I'm Lindsey Graham and this is American Scandal. In September of 1971, prisoners at the Attica Correctional Facility rose up in rebellion and took control of the maximum security prison. They would hold it for four days while negotiating for fundamental changes to improve their living conditions. But the standoff ended in tragedy. New York State Troopers stormed Attica and opened fire, killing dozens of people including both inmates and the prison guard who were being held hostage. It was a shocking and violent end to a story that had captured the nation's attention and shed light on the suffering inside America's prisons. But even though the TV crew soon left Attica, the story didn't end. The inmates suffered violent reprisals for the uprising and for decades, New York State government worked to cover up the truth about what had happened at Attica. My guest today is Heather Ann Thompson, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of Blood in the Water, the Pulitzer Prize winning book about the history of Attica. We'll discuss the troubling aftermath of the uprising after New York's government took back control of the prison. We'll look at the state's control of the narrative and how for five decades it has suppressed the truth. Our conversation is next. American Scandal sponsored by Sachi Art. I'm lucky. Not only is my wife beautiful, funny and smart, she also has great taste that matches mine, which has made decorating our home together a delight. But how do we go about finding the art for our home? Well, we agree on that too. Sachi Art. They have art works from thousands of emerging artists around the globe in all styles. 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Heather Antonsen, welcome to American scandal. So great to be here. In our series, we looked at the four day standoff at Attica, but also the chaotic siege that ended the standoff. We've told most of that story, but the siege itself was where things really went off the rails. So I wondered if we could focus on that day, those hours. And I was wondering if you could describe as best you can in detail what happened when the New York State troopers stormed the prison? Wow. Well, you know, it really, it kind of depends on from where you're sitting, what happened. For the men who woke up that morning, it was a cold rainy, chilly morning, but it was a morning that was very much like all the others that had come before it. Every morning, they kind of expected that negotiations would continue. That morning, they had met at the gate with representatives from the Department of Corrections, who had said the same thing that they said every morning, which is, you know, it's time to release the hostages and surrender and let's give up. We're done now. And they said, no, we are not going to give up. We believe that negotiations to continue. And it was only after a few moments that it began to dawn that, you know, things were not exactly quite the same. There was the catwalks above were largely clear. There was no troopers looking down on them with guns cited as there had been on days before. And it, you know, it was a little eerie because there had been no observers that had been there. And it was kind of weirdly quiet. And then they had seen a helicopter pass over. And for the first moment, there was a bit of a lation because I think they thought that maybe Iraqis fell or was coming, you know, a bit of a cheer goes up. Maybe he's going to come. Maybe he's going to finally endorse the idea that they could surrender when it was time without reprisals, without injury. And then it disappears. And then they get really, really scared. Prisoners are terrified. The hostages are terrified because they know in that moment that all of this is going to hinge on whether or not the state of New York. In fact, values their own state employees lives and will resist the temptation to send their state troopers in with guns blazing. And of course, they can't resist that temptation. Was it a temptation or was it a plan? How did the state respond so violent and immediate happen? Was it something that was delivered? Well, of course, it is both. The deepest misconceptions that people had for many decades about Attica was that the state went in because they had no choice, because they had bargained in good faith, but in the eleventh hour they had no choice but to go in. And what we now know is that that is not true and that they had in fact always planned on going in. And that the only reason they hadn't gone in earlier, frankly, was that the prisoners had invited these prisoners to go in. And that the prisoners had invited these very high profile observers in, including, you know, US congressmen, state senators. And it was the very presence of the media and those high profile observers. And the fact that the world was watching that undoubtedly had stalled it for as long as it did. So yes, it was a plan. And the fact that they sent in these kind of low level troopers. One could argue that that was also part of the plan, because when it went wrong and when such carnage could happen, there could also be maximum deniability. The troopers Russian, violence ensues, prisoners break into chaos and terror. How long does it take the state to take back control of the prison after four days of standoff? Well, what's really remarkable is that the actual retaking of this facility is immediate. The state of New York sends in, first this reconnaissance helicopter. And then immediately this huge trooper that drops the CN gas and CS gas over the yard, which people need to understand. Gas is, you know, in some ways, respects a misnomer. It's a powder. And it clings to people's mucus membranes. And it literally fails everyone in the yard. They are vomiting, they're choking. In many respects, order was taken the moment that gas was dropped. But that wasn't enough. So then they send in hundreds of these state troopers. And not just the state troopers, we need to be aware that, you know, later testimony made clear that the Genesee Sheriff's Department felt that they had also been invited in. And Parks police felt that they had been invited in willingly. Corrections officers from other facilities were there, everyone with their own personal weapons and state issue weapons. And in the first literally 15 minutes of the shooting spree, order is more than restored. People are on the ground. They are severely wounded. 128 men are shot. Hostages and prisoners alike. Some of them multiple times. Order is well restored. Half an hour later, hours later, they can still hear gunshots. And we know that people are still being killed after order is restored. And we know that people are being tortured after order is restored. So the question of order being restored is no longer part of this equation, actually. It is now a question of retribution. It is now a question of vengeance. And what we really need to understand is that everybody on the scene knew that this would happen. And in fact, the governor himself was told that this was going to happen in no uncertain terms. He was told that this would be a massacre if he sent in these troopers and his own advisors, including very highly ranked military advisors, General Ohera, had said to him, if you send in this kind of an armed retaking, your own state employees will be killed. There will be this kind of result and he did it anyway. So in a horrifying and brief 15 minutes, the prison is retaken. What did the public know about what was happening? Well, this is again, the layer upon layer of tragedies of Attica is that the public knows nothing. The public is actively lied to. The state officials stand out in front of the prison and they tell the American public, the world public incidentally because there are media there from, you know, that are reporting effectively around the world, that something entirely different took place than what took place. They say that the prisoners are the ones who killed the hostages, which is not what happened. Not only did they kill the hostages, but they actively maimed one of the hostages. They killed some of the hostages prior even to the retaking and had buried them in the yard, things that just literally did not happen. And this story becomes a headline in the paper of record, The New York Times, The LA Times, myriad papers across the country. And so what they did learn was an outright lie that effectively guts what had been very, very favorable and growingly favorable sentiment for prisoners rights in the country. But other than that, they don't know anything. Meanwhile, that is assuredly going to continue because the troopers, the same troopers who have been in charge of retaking the prison are now in charge of investigating what happened. So no chalk markings are made of bodies where they fell. Weapons are disappeared. Photographs are doctored. Film is spliced. You name it. And then meanwhile, the governor's office is getting its stories straight with the heads of the police. And thus the cover up begins, but nobody is aware that this is happening and frankly will not be aware of the depth of the cover up for 45 years. Lots of people don't know it, but autumn is an ideal time to plant. Shorter days and cooler nights create ideal conditions for the plants to get established. If you're looking to spruce up your home, proven winners color choice shrubs has an amazing selection of flowering shrubs and evergreens for planting in gardens and landscapes. With around 320 different proprietary varieties, including classics, limelight, hydrangea and little Henry sweet spire, all of their shrubs are trialled and tested for 8 to 10 years to ensure they outperform anything else on the market. Look for proven winners color choice shrubs in the distinctive white containers at your local garden center. Learn more and find a local retailer at slashwondry. That's slashwondry. Ready to haul some asphalt? Join me, Formula One Champion Will Arnett and comedian Mika Hakenen on our new radio program, The Baston Loose F1 Post Show on AMP. Live every Sunday after the Grand Prix, we'll talk with drivers, teams and everything in between and dissect what happened on the track and off it. Download the AMP app and follow it presents F1 or ask Alexa to play F1 on AMP. I'd like you to speculate a bit about why the media failed to dig into the story deeper. They were camped out, they knew that this was a fraught event and violence was possible and then violence happened but you indicate that they just swallowed the state story whole. What do you think about this incident separates it the media's ability to be credulous than many others that we know that they are courageous and really take a deeper look into. Well, it's really not about even throwing the media under the bus, frankly, think about the Pentagon papers think about every courageous thing that journalists were doing at the time. This was a time of journalism and thank God for journalists at the time. But the thing about reporting on prisons then and now is that you're talking about a narrative that this country swallowed from time and memorial, which is that if you commit a crime, you are less than human. And that particularly there has always been this association in this country between criminality and blackness and that there is something less than human about criminals, there's something less than human about blackness about all of this role together. That's just kind of in ways that people don't even self interrogate that just seems to make sense to people when they hear about it. So you have a lot of white journalists who hear a story about black prisoners, slitting the throats of white hostages and we're yet castrating one of them. And there is this kind of absolute believability that is, you know, it is really appalling one that we as writers journalists is white America are still today hardly over hardly, hardly have faced and I think that's the core of it. I have no doubt that's the core of it. And to be clear, there were journalists who were troubled by it, who were appalled by it. And they got a lot of resistance from their news desks when they did learn that they had been lied to. They went to their editors, they did push back. And to be really clear here, a lot of their editors pushed right back at them and said, yeah, well, but what did they do? What did these prisoners do? What were they in there for? What were their crimes? I mean, it was a really ugly scene in those newsrooms when the journalists tried to do the right thing. You mentioned that these journalists did realize some of them that they have been lied to. It's been 50 years since this event. How did the story begin to leak out? Where did the truth start seeping from? Well, this is also where we have to just be really clear that it was not the case that people did not know from the beginning what had happened from the beginning. The people on the inside, the prisoners and the people on the outside, the hostages and their families were always telling the American public what had happened always. And nobody wanted to hear it. So from the beginning, the story was available. And from the beginning, they were shouting it from the rooftops, but nobody wanted to hear it. In fact, the state of New York set about an investigation where they never indicted any members of law enforcement, even though all of the people that killed on the 13th were killed as a result of law enforcement bullets. They instead indicted 62 prisoners. They never fully acknowledged what they had done to the hostage families. Instead, they actually swindled them out of their ability to even sue their employers. And so it wasn't the case that we didn't know. And that means that the story seeped out from day one. It also seeped out because the coroner, an extremely brave coroner named John Edland, told the American public within days that the hostages had been shot and that the only people who had guns were the troopers. But at every turn, the state officials tried to discredit the people telling the truth. John Edland, the coroner, they tried to discredit him by calling him a communist by saying that he was, you know, not a good coroner. They brought in not one, but two different coroners to try to undermine his findings and successfully incidentally. They tried to get funeral directors to sign affidavits to the effect that there hadn't been bullet wounds in the hostages. They tried to say that the prisoners had just been subjected to fraternity haisings, not torture. And they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of state tax payer funds to fight the civil case of the prisoners who simply wanted justice in a civil trial. So the amount of resources that went in to try to fight the truth is staggering. And so the story was always there. It's just that nobody believed them. In the decade since has the state's posture changed at all? Well, on the surface, it would appear so for all intensive purposes. The state of New York has thousands of boxes of materials related to Attica, all of the cases, years of the cases that it defended. You can't, you can't get access to them. But no, the answer is no. The Attica records remain sealed. And so no, there's never been a acknowledgement publicly that they committed harm. There's never been an apology. There's never been an acknowledgement. Well, this brings us to you, actually. You're a professor at the University of Michigan, and you've written a book on Attica. What drew you to start researching the prison riot? Well, it's such a bizarre story personally because I'm a historian of civil rights and urban America. And I grew up in the city of Detroit. My first book was about the Black Freedom struggle in the city of Detroit. And when I thought about what I wanted to do my next book on, I was really drawn to the story of Attica because I'd always known that there was this incredible civil rights story that had happened in a prison. And I had seen a snippet of an eyes on the prize documentary about it. And it just always struck me as what an incredible story. But I knew so little about it. And I thought I really, really want to explore this for my next book. But I am kind of embarrassed and kind of appalled at how little I knew about it and how I had no idea what I was getting myself into, no idea what I, really how it would change my life. It took 13 years of my life because I didn't understand both what that book would reveal about not just the lies told at Attica and what the implications of that were for, for that event and how we had misunderstood it as a nation and what the implications of all that were for the survivors, which I could talk about all day. I mean, I've never in my life written about something for which the trauma was so still personally lived by so many people. But also that the implications of it for the nation in terms of the fallout and mass incarceration. It was a journey that I had never even begun to appreciate when I started it. So when I am asked why did I write the book? I sort of naively think, oh, because I thought it was a civil rights story behind bars. I had no idea what the story was when I started it. You mentioned that many of the records are still held away from the public. How was your research process? Well, again, that was the naivete. Historians, when they write a book, they go to archives. We go to libraries that hold these repositories of records. And so I imagined that I would figure out where all the records related to Attica were. I figured that they'd be in the state archives and they'd be in various repositories around upstate New York. And I'd go there and I'd ask for, you know, box 50, folder 20. And I'd spend a few years doing research and I'd write the book. Well, it immediately became clear to me that that was not going to work every time I filed a freedom of information requests. They came back so heavily redacted. I could barely see anything every time I would ask for files. I'd get newspaper clippings. There was barely anything there. And that's when Don donned on me. Oh, no, this is not going to go well. And so I started to have to come at this project completely differently. Who had the copy? Who had the original kind of reinvent the archive, if you will. Try to find the survivors, see if they would talk to me, have conversations with people in their basements in their living rooms, in coffee shops, try to reproduce, recreate what had happened. And it was just a journey and to be really, really frank had it not been for all of those people's graciousness to share their trauma and to be willing to go through it again to walk through it again. I did not have written this book number one and number two had it not been for a sheer set of just luck. That's all I can say luck. I mean, I happened upon a cash of records that the state of New York did not know was there. I did not found that particular particular set of records, which subsequently was disappeared. I would not have been able to name the shooters that had been protected for 45 years. I would not have fully understood the scope of the cover up. And I would not have been able to write the book I was able to write. And that to me to this day scares me because it indicates to me kind of the depth of how serious this actually is. The best weddings are always filled with unforgettable moments and personal thoughtful touches like my friend Cecilie's wedding where the groom tossed the bouquet. For any kind of wedding you want, there's one place to start. Zola, Zola has everything you need all in one place. They've thought of everything. Zola has a wedding plan and they'll be with you every step of your wedding planning journey. Whatever your style or budget, Zola has you covered with venues, photographers, florists and more to make your wedding happen. Once you've set the date, you can send your safe dates and invitations right on Zola too. There's so many great designs to choose from. And you can get a matching wedding website for free. And Zola has thought of everything. So you can plan the celebration that's right for the two of you start planning the wedding you want at that's Z O L A dot com. It's certainly a magical that there might be some records that the state didn't know about and that you are very lucky to have found them. But it's remarkable to me that having found them that they would disappear that they know you are reputed historian and now writing a book about Attica has found these documents will report on them probably has made copies of them. But the evidence goes away what what possible story could they be concocting well, I actually don't even think that it's that thoughtful diabolical or planned. I don't even think it is a you know cloak and dagger story of that magnitude. I think that it is a whole lot of people just being uncertain what is in the blizzard of papers that many people have in their possession around various offices in various locations related to Attica and various circumstances around the state of New York. Nobody really understands what they have nobody knows who these records may point fingers to nobody knows really what the implications of them are. And as all bureaucracies are want to do nobody wants to be the one that opens that Pandora's box. There's no statute of limitations on murder so nobody wants to be the guy the woman who is that person that is in the vortex of that storm. So I don't even think that anybody is the mastermind behind any of this I think people just want things to go away. And so it just kind of is here's a box I don't know what these records are but you know what I think they should probably should go or back to the state archives are here. I don't know what these are but I think send them back to the AG's office. And I think in this case these records the more I kind of piece it together I think these were records that were in the chambers of the chief judge that was overseeing the Attica criminal trials he passed away. I think that they were all just put in storage in the courthouse I think that there'd been some damage or some things maybe some water damage they got put in the storage room I was allowed to see them and by accident I say because I think the person who allowed me to see them just thought oh yeah we got some Attica records back there sure go ahead and look at them. And I think that eventually you know they thought oh dear you know we had all these are Attica records not a good idea we should probably send them back off to where they needed to go. But the point is once they end up back where they quote unquote need to go you're never going to see them again. And so I don't know the mechanism I don't know the reason but what I do know is that there's a whole lot of people who are very very scared of what the implications of them are even though they're not quite sure why and the upshot of it is is that no one wants to be the person that opens that Pandora's box. I do want to be very clear that the state police are in fact very concerned remain very concerned about those records and they do actively stand up and block any attempt to open the records any attempt to unseal there's something called the Meyer report that actually investigated the Attica investigation. The state police union is actively actively always trying to block access to the Attica records so I do think it is important to distinguish between what random clerks and records officers and indeed even elected officials in the state of New York. How they feel about opening the Attica records I think many of them would be perfectly happy to do it I think they're a little nervous about what the fallout might be for their career or what these records may in fact indicate. But I don't think that there's a lot of kinestakes anymore in keeping them closed for most people in the state of New York elected official or otherwise but I do think it's really important to understand that the New York state police are still very very actively invested in keeping those. Records sealed and that should not be allowed because they were party to the trauma in that event at that time and the state as the representatives of all the people in the New York including those who were incarcerated should not bow simply to the wishes of the one party that committed the trauma there. So 50 years on there is still something about the event at Attica that caused consternation for the state what is it what is the legacy of Attica for us now well I think that one of the things that we need to remember about Attica is that it has a dual legacy on the one hand Attica's legacy is extraordinary repression but on the other hand the other legacy of Attica is this kind of certain knowledge that no matter how much we want to do. That no matter how many people you put behind bars and no matter how you treat them inevitably when you put human beings behind bars they are going to remain human beings and they eventually and powerfully and inevitably will stand up and they will demand to be treated as human beings. And so today we are seeing that piece of it. Heather and Thompson thank you so much for talking to me today on American scale. Thank you so much for having me. That was my conversation with Heather and Thompson professor at the University of Michigan and the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Blood in the War. Next on American scale. In the mid 2010s Theranos was one of the hottest companies in Silicon Valley. Founded by the young entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes Theranos worked to pioneer a revolutionary technology for testing what. Holmes was attempting to transform medicine and seemingly overnight she became a billionaire and a celebrity. But when a reporter began to dig around the uncovered a series of lives that would threaten Holmes and her budding empire. If you like our show please give us a five star rating and leave a review and be sure to tell your friends. I also have two other podcasts you might like American history tellers and business movers follow on Apple podcasts Amazon music or wherever you're listening right now or you can listen to new episodes early and add free by subscribing to one degree plus in Apple podcasts or in the world. You'll also find some links and offers from our sponsors in the episode knows supporting them helps us keep offering our shows for free. Another way you can support the show is by filling out a small survey at one degree dot com slash survey to tell us what topics we might cover next. You can also find us and me on Twitter follow me at Lindsey a Graham Lindsey with an a middle initially and thank you. From wondering this is episode five of the Attica Prison uprising for American scan. American scandal is hosted edited and executive produced by me Lindsey Graham for airship audio editing by Molly Bach music by Lindsey Graham our senior producer is Gabe Riven. 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