tv Blood in the Water CSPAN June 11, 2017 11:00am-12:01pm EDT
if there's time at the end of the q&a session with the author, we ask that you use the microphone located at the center of the room for home-viewing audiences so hay can hear your questions. before we begin today's program we ask that you silence your cell phones and turn off your camera. please welcome our introducer elizabeth taylor. literary editor at the chicago tribune. [applause]
>> can you hear me? is that all right? i'm elizabeth taylor and i'm so excited about this book. i got this book seems like nine months ago and read it so quickly and found it it is the story of the 70's. it was amazing social history. so just in short, it's blood in the water, i read this book and then we had the book for the chicago tribune row lit fest and how much we looked, pulitzer prize in history. it's really wonderful. it's an extraordinary book. it's about this 1971 uprising
but it is so much more. it's extraordinarily social history. it's fantastic. it also sort -- heather is an investigative reporter and digs in there and gets documents and the ten years of research are shown very lightly. you really want to know who was responsible, what the hell happened and then what the implications are for incarceration in this -- in this crazy country of ours. so i'm going to turn it over to heather and her wonderful colleague and friend julie houseman who was at cornell and they are really going to get into it and then after that, i really hope we will go to the back and buy and read this book.
thank you so much. [applause] >> hello. that's on. hi. i am so honored to be here today and be in conversation with someone who is an incredible mentor. to me personally and to so many young historians, so many young and old historians. i want to start off by saying that it's been so amazing. i first met heather when she was a few years into the research of this book and it's been incredible to watch this unfold and it's been so -- so gratifying to watch book come out and get such incredibly well-deserved praise but also the vehicle has become -- book has become a vehicle so it's just a real honor to be part of
the conversation with you about this book. so i thought that we could start off by saying, i want you to tell us a little bit about at trish regan -- attica. i don't know how you would define early training, how did you end up doing this research and then let's sort of talk more about the actual story itself but let's start there? okay. i guess i am on too. so thank you all for coming out to talk about this book. the book itself was a real journey. some of you may know the books 3 years to write and so the story of why i started to write it and what i think the book is now are two different stories. i started to write the book because at the time i really considered myself, of course, a labor historian but also a civil rights historian and, you know,
there was this event that had happened behind bars, a civil rights event that happened behind bars and i was intrigue today write that history. with two caveats. i number one had very little knowledge about prison in america as i think most americans have very little knowledge about prisons and had no idea that the state of new york had sealed virtually all of the records with regard to this story. this is a case of getting a book contract and realizing, oh, my gosh, i'm not sure i can write this book but i don't know how to get access to the information. over the course of writing the book it was a real research journey which we can certainly talk about but a journey on how important prisons are in the country and it was sort of for me a light bull nb the middle of i think to that. wow, of 1971 when attica
happened, we in this country start locking up everybody. in 40 years we started to become the largest jailer with some of the worst conditions ever. what is it about the most important prisoner right protests that somehow some way we could have ended up in this mess 40 years later. so that became part of the book. it was always a book about a particular protest in this particular place in new york. >> so why don't you take us to that story. maybe people heard of attica or maybe not allot or had their understandings affected by sort of the press accounts that happened right afterwards, so maybe start by setting stage of what happened -- of the
conditions that led to attic and sort of what happened at attica in '71? >> attica in new york was a tinny state state prison where there were about 2400 men crammed in, severely overcrowded much as prisons are today and these were men who were suffering pretty inhumane conditions, set on 63 cents a day, given one scare of toilet paper a they. not being able to see their children if they weren't married to the mother of their children and having to deal with capricious rules. for example, i tell the story because it symbolize it is degradation of it all that you could get parole, eastern parole but then the administration would hand you this outdated phone book and say, you can't leaf until you've written to an employer and that employer agrees to hire you. well, i can assure you that not to many employers were thrill
today hire someone with the attica. no one had any money. these were degrading conditions and what ultimately happens is protests that is asking for, again, very basic improvements to conditions and this is an extraordinary protest because it happens over four long dais and nights. it brings in observers to watch over these negotiations, people like tom wicker of "the new york times" or famous civil rights lawyer bill, but also, you know, some quite conservative state legislators, this is a real mixed bag and they all agree that these guys had legitimate claims. that the state needed to deal with them, negotiate with them and the negotiations seemed to be going well but after the
fourth night, the state decides to take this prison with brutal, brutal force. sends in 500 state troopers. has amassed 500 state troopers, sends in about 200, also corrections officers, they are armed to the teeth. this is after dropping gas and the shooting begins and for 15 minutes all you can hear is gunfire and they kill 39 men, prisoners and guards alike. 128 men shot, some six or seven bullet wounds and tortured these guys for days and weeks, it was the hardest part of the book to write. probably most extraordinary they then step out the entire world that something different happened was that the prisoners killed the hostages and that the story is profoundly important to
really shaping what the nation thinks about prisoner rights and so the story, which i thought was going to be about this rebellion turned out about the cover-up of the police crimes that goes on for the next really 40 years. so the book is about a third about this rebellion and about two-thirds about the both cover-up and the prisoner and hostage fight for justice that takes them, you know, for decades before they are finally heard. >> and so -- so talk about how -- i'm always so struck about how much of the conversation ends up being about the first third. talk about what the resolution was. you say that there was this long fight for justice, but what actually happened, what happened, i think that's a less known -- >> ultimately? >> the story continues but what happened? i know they were actually hostages involved in efforts to
get justice from the state and incarcerate people -- people incarcerated in attica were involved, talk a little bit about what happened in the aftermath? >> part of the extraordinary thing about the story the whole thing starts in 1971, depends five dais and probably the next 20 years the nation doesn't hear a lot about goes on but what's beginning on is the state of new york is filing cases not against the troopers who have killed people and tortured people but against the prisoners for rebelling. so the first thing that happens is criminal trials against the criminals and their attempts to then in turn sue the state or put on hold and can't do anything while the criminal trial proceeds. the hostages are swindled and they are handed the meager checks and told that they'll be
-- go ahead just get a little groceries, take care of yourself, we will take care of you, $120 checks, 40-dollar checks meant that they quote, unquote elected a remedy. once they cashed them, they couldn't sue a state. many years prisoners were fighting for their lives in criminal courts. the guards were swindled and left in poverty and on their own and it wasn't until the criminal trials resolve that had the prisoners would launch this massive civil suit, takes 30 years to wind its way through the courts and in 2000 they finally get a jury verdict which is quite extraordinary show that is the state was liable, that there were damages to be had and they were overturned in -- on appeal. so ultimately they have to settle with the state.
it sounds like a really powerful settlement. it was about $8 million in prisoners. when all of said and divide on how many there was, there was hardly anything but that settlement brings hostages to come together to fight for themselves and very recently the hostages had settlement with the state of new york but all of that is an extraordinary story of resistance but it is also not over because the state still hasn't admitted responsibility, it still hasn't apologized and frankly it still hasn't opened the records. so we are still demanding that the records be opened. family members want to know exactly what happened and those are still not open. >> so maybe that's a good segue to talk about the process of researching this back which i -- heather came and gave a talk where i work at cornell and i remember joabling with my
colleagues and said the talk of history is fascinating but she could do three talks on the talk of writing the book of history of attica because it's incredibly telling and reveals a lot about in itself. the sort of process of the different records you used, sources you used and, yeah, and what challenges you faced? >> well, for those -- for those of you who are not historians, you might not know how historians usually write the book and that is the first stop at archives, various institutions that saved records, maybe in a box, folder, in a file and go through them and reconstruct the story and tell it to readers on the page.
the problem in this case was that the enormous paper trail of attica. you can imagine, all of the paper attended to the rebellion and then there was the criminal trials, then there was all the investigative files that go on for years and then the civil litigation filed. this is thousands of boxes of information and i couldn't get any of it. [laughter] >> some of it was officially sealed and some of it is not. when you file a freedom of information request, it would come back heavily redacted. you know, i did learn that you just need to keep asking the question of different people because it's funny about bureaucracy, they don't always redact the same thing in each copy of the files so you can kind of put them next to each other and kind of extrapolate what just happened. but i was really forced to rethink how we write this period, how we write about the
1960's and 70's and frankly i was really humbled to understand that there is so much about this period that we don't have a clue about, we don't have any idea how history actually happened. we know the results. we know, for example, you know, that the black panther party was, you know, largely decimated by, you know, the owned the 70's but we don't have the clue of the mechanisms behind that or similarly with this. i was able to get quite a bit and i suspect i don't know half of what was going on behind the scenes. i had to think about who had the copy, who had the original of whatever the state might have and that was really -- it was interesting, you know. thank god there were the survivors. they never stopped talking. they never stopped insisting on telling their stories so that was critically important and it
was also a matter of thinking, for example, you know, if a state had the autopsy reports, well, then did the local coroner still have them too and ways of going back to the original source, but ultimately i still could not answer -- what i was coming to feel was the most important question which was how could it be that 39 people are shot to death, 128 are shot total and then they are tortured and not one member of law enforcement ever is held responsible. so what is that story? and that was the story locked in these investigative files and i was very, very lucky. i just happened upon this whole stash of records in a county courthouse that i don't think anyone knew were there and that allowed me finally to piece it together, what the state knew,
what it didn't act on that it knew and then that became -- >> did they not know that those records were available to you? >> they didn't and, in fact, once i found them, which was its own crazy, crazy moment where i'm looking around like, oh god, do they know, are their cameras in here, do they know what i just saw, it was a wall, a huge wall of thousands of pages of attica-related documents and it was in a dingy dusty darkroom. there was no table to take notes on. i tell my students, this was in 2006 and my students said why didn't you take pictures, scan, scan, scan. i'm like, there were no smartphones, we don't get smart phones till 2010, we didn't have the technology even, so it was this kind of crazy story of trying to take as many notes as i could, you know, asking could
i please do some xeroxing which by the way i did 200-dollar check to do the xeroxing, thank god because now i have that check. >> why is that check important? >> because right before the book came out a reporter tried to go find the same records and they all disappeared, they're not there anymore. so, yeah, and that was my deepest fear. from 2006 till the book came out last year, i didn't want to tell anybody what was there because i just -- what i hoped was that the book would come out and the footnote would make clear where those records were and even would descend to the courthouse and demand to see them and there wouldn't have been time to get rid of them but they clearly were. they are not there anymore. >> how is the check? >> the copy for the attica records. copies attica records. >> proves that they were there. >> at least what i said was true which is, you know, i went there
on that day and i took copies and i paid for those copies? >> and what was in those records particularly that -- that you think was not necessarily supposed to be released to a historian writing a book on attica? >> after the retaking on the scene members of the attorney general's office who are charged with figuring out what had gone wrong at attica and set their sites on investigating prisoners and not law enforcement but by looking at the records, i could see that in fact, they had a ton of evidence against law enforcement despite the fact -- by the way, you should know that the new york state police that retook the prison were the same body -- it was the same body that governor nelson rockefeller put in charge of investigating the scene. so needless to say, key evidence was disappeared, photographs
were doctored, film displaced, statements were changed and went missing and what i came across, the two most important things i found, one was an internal document that showed that the rockefeller administration had had a series of secret meetings in rockefeller's pool house, you can't make this stuff up over the course of three weekends with the head of the state police, the people who had retain attica, the attorney general's basically, i think, to get the story straight so i found that document and that document revealed that they knew they were going to kill hostages which they denied for 0 years. it revealed that they deliberately did not give ultimatum to those men that went in and i found the whistle blowing document, there was a
prosecutor, incredibly important hero of this story, malcolm bell who could see that he was trying to prosecute prisoner -- police and he was being blocked at every turn and he finally pieces together that the reason he's being shut down, he's ultimately just shut down because rockefeller is sitting in nomination hearings for the vice presidency and that's when the whole thing shuts down and so he wrote in 167-page document that outlined all of the evidence that the state had that did not -- that it didn't act on and i found that document. there was only three copies of it ever made and i found one of them. it'll never happen again. whatever took i choose to write, it'll never happen again. >> talk to me -- talk to all of us about your -- i mean, sometimes we've joked that we
wish -- we road on the 13th century. there's something about writing history when there are a lot of people still alive. so talk about the process, i guess i'm particularly interested in there's a lot of people that were imprisoned at the time and were part of the uprising and that are still around and sort of talk about their involvement or in the process of writing or maybe even after the book has come out, were they -- i know you talked to some people, but image that's hard, traumatic event, were people deprate to -- desperate to have the story to be told? >> that's a great question. as historians, we are not equipped in other public forums. we are not equipped to deal with trauma.
it's entirely a different thing to every person i talked about this just broke down. it was clear to me early on that this was still traumatic and that people were still suffering ptsd. the guys who were in that yard whether they were prisoners or hostages, many of them cannot hear helicopters to this day without just kind of basically just shut down. i mean, it is so traumatic and i wasn't prepared for that. it made me feel a much greater responsibility of how the story would be told. but that said, i hope that what i did was i tried to tell it from multiple advantage points. one minute you're in the yard with the prisoners at the negotiating table and you're really trying to understand what they were trying to do and you're also in the hostage circle or you're at the house of one of the hostage families as they're waiting word or you're
in nixon's white house when he's asking rockefeller the only question that matters to him when all of this is over which is basically, did the blacks leave this, was this all about the blacks, and rockefeller says, well, indeed, mr. president, it was. he's basically okay with the carnage as long as it was led by the blacks or about the blacks. so people remained -- i know that some of the survivors have not been able to read the full book. it's just too much. >> so i'm going to ask one or two more questions and i'm going to start people coming down if they're interested in asking questions of heather. so the first question i have is, can you -- you said this book started out as part of civiles rights history and i'm wonder if you could talk a little bit about how -- i think we will talk more about how we think about this story in terms sort of the trajectory of mass incarceration, but i would like you to talk about it as part of the history struggles against
white supremacy and racial inequality and sort of civil rights history. did it end -- you still think of it as a civil rights -- as a civil rights story? >> i do because there's no question that anybody inside of attica both black and white and brown understood that this was not just about incarcerating people, this is about racial subjegation. you cannot understand the brutality without understanding the racialized term. these guys were being made to do the white power salute, strip, the leaders had x's on the back with chalk. the racial elements on this, one of the guys tortured severely,
every beaten and cigarette burn and people and on the one hand this is fundamentally to remind us that prisons are sites of racial sugjegation not just about public safety or containing crime. if you look at some of the photographs, pictures of the men who had been stripped and line up to run the gauntlet of troopers. there were a lot of white men stood together. 1300 men. they negotiated this. they democratically elected
leaders. they made sure that all speech was translated into spanish so spanish-speakers could understand as well. there's so much repression in this book, there's so much, you will read it and shake your head at the revelation that everybody with power who could have done something could have done the right thing, the lou:est level clerk to supreme court of the united states quite literally in the justice department. these are all called upon to weigh in and every one of them fails. on the other hand incredible human rights story. when the book came out last august in preparation for the anniversary, 45th, september 9th, prisons across the country erupted again and it
was very importantly on september 9th because they were reminded us in the last 40 years, 45 years because we got attica so wrong because we allowed the state to tell the story instead of the people inside, prisons are worst today, they're more overcrowded, people serve more solitary and one of those prisons ken ross in michigan where i'm from, these guys as we speak on the stage, you know, to c-span, these guys are being held in solitary for dare to go protest at ken ross and we don't really know what's happening to them because, again, these institutions are public, we pay for them, they are ours and we don't have a clue what happens inside of them. >> the walls keep us out and some in. >> yeah. >> if there's any people that are interested in writing a question, please step over to microphone and while people are going over, i'm going to ask one more question and i might not be able to resist as i jump in the next couple of minutes, but historians and this was much
more -- this is receded a little bit but there's a real charge against, i mean, if you call historian, if you call historian, that's a knife in the gut that are too involved in the current moment and that you're being too roped in contemporary world and i wonder if you can talk about book fest and how do you think of role of authors or historians or academic specifically in struggles for our own independent and varying visions for social change or social justice. do you think that that's something that needs to be put in a box, what is -- how do you think about that in that charge of your work -- of course, your work is being used and i think sometimes explicitly in sort of present conversations about this crisis of mass incarceration, for instance. >> i think we set out a false
dyke -- dichotomy, that somehow that's being biased or somehow you're putting aside your scholarly objectivity. you're a histor aib and have looked at this in every possible way it could be looked at. the conclusion on that has bearing on where we are as human beings today, i actually think we have an only tbaición -- obligation and to keep things isolated is -- is, you know, i actually that that's -- that's where the criticism should go. we need to share that via the
book. julie's book that come out is incredibly important on the same question. how did we get to this punitive moment and you can't read your book, julie as well without saying, okay, now i kind of get what we did wrong and even better, how i might do it differently. but that book is beautifully researched, deeply, there's -- highest level of research integrity so i don't think they're a dichotomist. >> i am going to go over here and start right out. >> as you were speaking i was thinking on what's going on on a national level and more currently contemporarily we have torture reports from the united
states senate and we have never seen the actual report, we have only seen the summary from dianne feinstein, called all the reports back from the various agencies and basically they are trying to suppress it so that we will never know one of the basic issues in that report is that torture doesn't work and yet if you interview most americans, most will say, yes, it's bad but it works, well, that is not true. >> right. >> and i wonder if you are basically so wiped out from having done this a number of years of research, is this kind of it for you or is there you or some other brave reporters that are going to go out there and get the real story. i certainly hope so.
>> well, thank you for calling attention to the current lack of transparency in our federal government right now but i think that, you know, that probably won't be me but there's no question it will be somebody because the fact of the matter is that whether you're a republican or a democrat or to the left or to the right, if you're part of the body politic and public and you are a taxpaying citizen of the country or a resident of this country, you have a responsibility and a right to know what is going on and people will continue to demand it and poking and we need to start thinking much more clearly specially about prisons or torture of having more access, more access would make those secrets a lot harder to keep, i think, but thank you for that. >> so part of your story was
suppression of investigation and block of investigate particularly. last week we have comey coming out explaining how he was fired. so my question is know the system and people, would you believe that so-called trump offering investigation could su prison to the threafl we never know anything about? >> not to the level that we will never know anything about it. >> i don't believe that any secret stays safe forever which is the fear that they have. is it a cover-up, of course. of course the idea is to make sure that people who have benefited themselves financially are held accountable and question about accountability and transparency when they are
talking about prisons or local government and we have a right to know those things. >> i spent eight years as rehab counselor and my experience then was that the older officers basically felt and probably many of the other ones too that you did the crime, you do the time and that was it. and some of them were not very happy to see us coming in and providing things like services while they are there and rehab plans when they get out, like halfway house, placement and purchase of work clothing and evaluation at workshops and training and so forth, so they thought we were bleeding hard liberals.
but at any rate, we never had obstruction. we had a pretty accepting overall environment and i don't think there were things going on there at the maximum security prison in wisconsin, for instance, that were going on at other places. so i'm wondering now what the outlook is because if the outlook and i stopped working there 40 years ago so i don't know what's going on there now, but what is the outlook in general across the country, we hear all things in prison in california, arizona and places like that. what is the outlook for rehab services taking place, educational training, the kinds of things we did then? >> right. that's a great question. you know, there's many people
who could speak to this besides me who are working on it very directly, lawyers trying to improve prison conditions, prisoners themselves trying to improve prison conditions. people are trying to make them more rehabilitative and people are trying to improve the conditions within them, but the fundamental problem that this book really just underscored to me is that we have to completely rethink how we deal with this question of so-called wrongdoing or crime-making in this country. for starters there has to be much greater attention to law, if we are going to have a justice system, it needs to be just and secondarily we have to rethink this idea that we make our society safer, better by putting human beings in cages. there's no evidence that it works, there is abundance evidence that it doesn't work and so while we might tinker around those edges and might improve the conditions inside
for people and i'm all for that, ultimately, i think what attica shows and any trip inside a prison shows is that there are better ways of dealing with social problems and putting people in cages makes guards less safe, prisoners less safe, communities less safe, people, destroys families. i hope that where we are headed for is not a discussion of how do we improve prisons more, although that's part of it, i hope we have a discussion of how do we imagine dealing with social problems differently other than putting people in cages. thank you. [applause] >> heather, i knew one of the survivors of attica from detroit. his name was shango and his mother rosie smith and they and the attica uprising empowered
people like me around the world. first off, thank you for this book. [applause] >> and today we face, we are under a regime even more brutal and vicious than john d. rockefeller, new york state. so what would you say to today's resistors here and all around the world, for example, there's a strike going on right now at prison and i urge everybody to support that, but thank you. >> thank you for that. yeah, i think that what that period of the 60's and 70's shows that ordinary human beings when they stand together can change policies, culture and ideas but it has to have extraordinary face and
imagination that change can happen. i think sometimes young people have no faith anymore that change can happen so it probably starts with having that faith that, you know, this is not permanent, we don't have to -- nothing the permanent anyway. everything changes so let's make sure it changes in a very more humane and progressive direction, but what attica shows us, though, and tell our own history, get the stories straight because if you allow people to tell the media, the press what happened and it isn't correct, if it isn't true, then you'll have a generation turn against this generation too. so it's about -- it's about hope and i don't mean that in some flip way, i mean about imagining that we can do this differently. [applause] >> did the guards union assist the hostages, the injured hostages in overturning those agreements that they had signed and isn't the modern ask me
union which is progressive but represents thousands of correction officers facing a dilemma because if there's significant layoffs and closing prisons and losing jobs? >> that's a great question. i get this a lot because i do labor history of prisons as well. any position on this is we create a sort of false problem when we pick correction officers against prisoners in this configuration of reform. the fact of the matter is that some of the guard unions have been incredibly repressive in this discussion. i actually think that most of us have acted like employer association than unions. if you look at some of the worst states in terms of prison build-ups, they i don't even have guard unions, so to put this on the guard union it's a red hairing, that said, my experience talking to guards in unions is that they actually don't necessarily want to work in a prison, they just want to work and so if you see this as a working-class issue, right, both
the working-class issue for the guards, that is that everyone deserves safe, working conditions and deserve to, you know, come home at tend of their shift in one piece and you see working-class issue that everybody on the inside is now rendered permanently unemployed for having criminal record. there's common ground here. i was gratified when at their convention two years ago when i was there used the term mass incarceration numerous times in a way. condemn it and say, look, this is not good for any of us. we have to figure out jobs that do not depend on harming other people and locking them up and i think a lot of guards agree with that but we've got to -- we have to use discussions across the lines and does not serve our purposes to make them against us, i think. >> i see this kind of as -- i
have a couple of son sons that have been incorrespondence rated. rodney king event made cameras on police and that we have kind of disclosure of what goes on in the field, how do we get that in, you know, in pencil institutions so that the guards feel safe, you know, editorial is that we want the balance for the policemen to feel that they can go into a neighborhood and eradicate a bad guy, but we don't want, you know, people who haven't done serious crimes to be persecuted. >> right, first of all, i'm very sorry to hear about your son because your story unfortunately is the story of countless, countless, countless american families and the answer that we
get transparency is the countless families to speak up, if i'm going to pay for institution and you're going to put my children in this institution or my mother or my brother or my sister, we, the public have a responsibility and a right to know what goes on inside of them, full stop. and i think that at the local legislative level, the state level, the federal level, that should be a demand. that should be, access should be a demand so that when someone is inside and they're at the utter mercy of their captors, that we have some -- some sense of assurance that they're getting health care when they need it, that they're not being abused and that we know that they're not going to come out worse off than when they went in and right now we have none of that. so thank you for speaking up on that.
[applause] >> so thank you the people that have asked questions and all that are here and thank you, heather, for talking about this book and i just so excited that this is going to continue to advance these conversations, thank you. >> thank you. [applause] >> thank you for attending today and books and book signing will be just outside the stage here. thank you. [inaudible conversations]
[inaudible conversations] >> book tv live coverage now continues, author jeremy will discuss political and civic activism in america before and during world war i, this start now. [inaudible conversations] >> hello, everybody, welcome to the 33rd annual chicago tribune of printers lit fest, i would like to give a special outout and thank you to all sponsors. today's program will be broadcast live on c-span2 on book tv. if there's time at tend of the q&session with the author we ask that you use the microphone