An Interview with Historian Heather Ann Thompson (Part 2)

The second in a two-part interview with historian Heather Ann Thompson, whose seminal article on mass incarceration, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History” appeared in the December issue of the Journal of American History. In this interview, Thompson talks with Austin McCoy about her scholarly trajectory, the impact of her article, new scholarship’s impact on U.S. political history, inner city violence, and her forthcoming book on the 1971 Attica prison uprising, Blood in the Water: The Attica Uprising of 1971. Thompson has also co-edited special issues on mass incarceration in the Journal of American History and the Journal of Urban History. [Editor’s note: McCoy’s discussion with Thompson has been lightly edited for length and clarity] If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend starting with part one of the interview.

Part 2: Inner-City Violence and Researching Attica

Austin McCoy: Many observers have lamented rising murder rates in big cities like Chicago and Baltimore. In cases of cities where black Americans have rebelled, observers have begun to talk about a “Ferguson” or “Freddie Gray effect” that blames murder rates on black protest. Yet, in your article for The Atlantic, “Inner-city Violence in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” you argue protest has not increased the crime rate. How does this work help challenge the argument that crime and protests are linked?

Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, Professor of History, University of Michigan
Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, Professor of History, University of Michigan

Heather Ann Thompson: Again, we are not careful enough about what the data is telling us and what it is not. There are two big questions: The first is about inner-city violence in general and then one about the so-called “Ferguson effect.”

About inner-city violence in general: People think that incarceration, to the extent that it has had any positives, has reduced the crime rate nationally. I have spoken to prosecutors and police officers. Everybody is deeply invested in this idea that while it may be true that mass incarceration has had negative consequences, the fact of the matter is that the violent crime rate has gone down drastically over the last decades. Our committee has studied this in detail. And we have conclusively shown that the incarceration rate and the crime rate are not related the way you would think.

There is a little bit of an incapacitated effect. Obviously, if everyone is locked up, then nobody can commit any crimes. That does operate, but much more minimally than you think. If we dispense with that, we are able to see something profoundly interesting, which is that while the crime rate fluctuates, the incarceration rate does not bring the crime rate down. The collateral consequences of incarceration, however, are so devastating that they increase, and I will not use the term, “crime rate,” I will use the term violence. So, there is a really important distinction between violence and crime. Because crime is socially constructed. What we call a murder, a manslaughter, a rape. This is man-made. This is woman-made. But the violence in America’s most fragile communities is, in fact, at crisis levels. Which does not mean that there is not also full-fledged whole communities left and folks working hard every day to send their kids to school and to survive. But violence is a problem. It is a problem in Chicago, Ferguson, and Detroit. And one only needs to talk to anyone who has to live in those communities to understand that it’s real.

The question is: Why? Some people have said, “Well, it’s the segregation effect,” which I think is a profoundly racist argument because it suggests that when black folks are segregated away from whites, that somehow breeds violence. It suggests that they need to be in proximity to white people to be nonviolent. And, of course, if that were true, then white folks would be the most violent people because they are the most segregated group on the planet. So, that’s a non-starter.

The other argument is that poverty breeds violence. But, again, we are historians. And we know that poverty is the default, right? Unless, you’re rich in America, you’re poor. So poverty is the historical default, but is violent the historical default? No. So, those are also disaggregated.

What is happening in these communities? What we start to see is that intensive incarceration has emptied communities of their elders, their parents, their grandparents, and their children now, through the juvenile justice system. It has made them even poorer because there are no jobs. It has basically created an environment where violence can flourish. But, here is the real crux, we will go back to Michelle Alexander because this is where the drug war is crucially important. Should we be surprised that violence is a problem when we make an economy illegal, and make it the only economy that is available because there are no factories? Was violence not a problem during Prohibition? Has anyone watched Boardwalk Empire and seen someone being gunned down in the streets every five minutes? So, we create the violence that we now look at and say, “What is wrong with those people? Oh, you must not be raised right. You must not have good parents. There is something wrong with those people.” But those people are, in fact, the recipients of a policy that frankly could not have resulted in much else. Because the policy is criminogenic, some would say. I would say, the policy creates violence.

So, the “Ferguson effect” is a ridiculous argument. So what are the critics talking about? They are talking about the fact that the police are now pulling back. And, “Look out! If we do not have the police here, things are going to get ugly.” But, of course, to the extent that things are ugly, it is not because there’s no police. It is because the policies are all still in place. I would make a counter argument similar to my Atlantic piece, which is actually, the presence of police creates more violence. In every instance where someone ends up dead, it is because of the policing of misdemeanor acts. It is the constant harassing by police that leads to someone being killed.

So, this trope of black-on-black crime. The reason it is a trope is because you’re substituting the word “black” for the recipients of a policy. If this would have been in 1924, it could have been Italians in Brooklyn. But we would not have said, “Italian on Italian crime.” We would have understood it to be the drug trade-related crime. Why can’t we understand this to be the drug-trade related violence or the violence that stems from the collateral consequences of mass incarceration? So, it isn’t that it doesn’t exist. It is we have a responsibility to understand its origins if we plan on fixing it.

If you look at communities that are not suffering violence: Why do you feel safer walking in some communities rather than other communities? Is it because they are “white” or is it because they are resourced? It is always because they are resourced. The least safe communities are the most criminalized, the most policed, and the most dependent on an illegal or informal economy. Period. So, let’s fix it. And how do we fix it? By adding more police? By removing more resources? We need to take a step back. What are we talking about? Again, it is the “Baltimore effect.” So, yet again, we are blaming the people who are the most devastated by the policy and its own repercussions.

So, what we do is decarcerate, we roll back sentencing. We are decriminalizing marijuana increasingly, but we are still going to have high rates of violence in some communities because nowhere in overhauling sentencing and nowhere in legalization of marijuana is there anything about re-resourcing those communities — nothing about building schools, creating jobs, job training, or parental support.

AM: Could you talk more about your new book?

HT: The book is finally going to come out for the 45 year anniversary of Attica next September. It has taken me ten years to write it, which is a really long time.

Attica inmates in control of prison yard, September 1971. (Bettmann-Corbis)
Attica inmates in control of prison yard, September 1971. (Bettmann-Corbis)

The reasons are interesting. This is one of the most important civil rights struggles of the 20th century. It is an episode like Ludlow and the Birmingham bombings. It holds a place among some of the most tragic examples of state repression for ordinary people’s protests. The reason it took so long to write is a very interesting story. Essentially, the State of New York has made it next to impossible to access any of the official records to Attica. The reason why this is still so deeply controversial is because Attica ended with nearly 600 state troopers and corrections officers going into the prison with guns blazing. Within 15 minutes, 128 people had been shot, 39 people (guards and hostages) had been killed. And then after retaking Attica, authorities tortured inmates for months. So, the story is very touchy for state officials because there is no statute of limitations on murder. To name the shooters, to name the people, is a closely guarded exercise.

For me, writing the book was a journey of trying to figure out who had sources the state of New York had: an original, a copy, something. I had to essentially create the story by talking to the survivors and lawyers. By digging in basements and attics, and travelling across the country to try to reconstruct the story. I think I was able to do that. It is a big book, a huge book. It starts in 1970 and it goes on to the present day. The epilogue is on the most recent incident about the guards who severely abused George Williams. It is a full saga, from 1971 to 2015. It is written as a narrative. One minute you are in D-Yard, the next minute you are in Rockefeller’s office, the next minute you are in the White House. So, it doesn’t begin with, “This book will argue…,” which means I am not sure if it will be assigned in classes. But, I hope it’s something everyone reads. I wanted to write it so our parents could read it. I want everyone to read it. I did not want it to be an academic book, in that sense. But it has 2,700 footnotes, so it is definitely an academic book. And mostly, because much of the stuff I reveal in the book is quite shocking and never been seen before. This is serious business.

AM: I could not imagine writing something like that right now. I think the topic I write about is important. But there’s a difference between writing a topic that may be important for activists and historians, or that may have some policy impact. But, that is different from trying to solve a mystery that could directly impact people who are still living.

HT: I have to say that I was very haunted by that. I wrote a piece called “Writing the Perilously Recent Past” for Perspectives on History. I wrote it because I am often asked to do graduate workshops on research when I give talks. Because, to me, some of the most profoundly interesting stories of the twentieth century have not been written because we do not know how to write them. We do not know how to access those voices or sources. Part of the journey of writing Attica that was a gift to me was that it really challenged me to think about research in new ways. That article was about how I want to move us away from the archive, in some ways. The archives are incredibly important, but I want our students to understand that if a source is not there, that does not mean it does not exist. So, if it is not there, you have to think about who has a copy, who has the story.

For example, I could not find out some information on what was happening in D-Yard. But, all of a sudden it occurred to me that the prison workers were union members. So, I was able to piece together part of the Attica story by looking at union records. So it was really a gift, in the sense that it was enormously frustrating and it took a decade of my life, but really useful for graduate students. We can write really interesting stories, but we have to think creatively about where sources may be located.

Further Reading

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press, 2010.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic (October 2015).

Muhammad, Khalil Girban. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Murakawa, Naomi. The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Thompson, Heather Ann. “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History,” Journal of American History 97: 3 (2010): 703-734.

Thompson, Heather Ann. “Empire State Disgrace: The Dark, Secret History of the Attica Prison Tragedy,” Salon, May 24, 2015.

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