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An Interview with Joshua Melville about AMERICAN TIME BOMB: ATTICA, SAM MELVILLE, AND A SON’S SEARCH FOR ANSWERS

February 6, 2022

Joshua Melville has an unusual family history. His father was a bomb-setter, radical and (depending on your definition of the term) terrorist. Sam Melville was connected to at least eight bombings in the United States in 1969, finally being convicted of bombing the Federal Office Building in 1970. No one was killed in Melville’s bombings. However, a little over a year after he was convicted, Sam Melville was dead, killed in the Attica Prison riot.

Josh Melville was only a boy when his father was killed, and it’s fair to say that he never really knew the man. He has gone on to have an extraordinary life of his own, working on Wall Street and the Music Industry and authoring several books on the latter under the pseudonym Moses Avalon. Now he has turned his writing skills to address his father’s story and a controversial period of recent American history when left-wing militant groups such as the Weather Underground were prepared to use violence to protest against everything from the Vietnam War, Capitalism, Imperialism and Racism.

The result is American Time Bomb: Attica, Sam Melville, and a Son’s Search for Answers. Prior to reading my review copy, I was a little apprehensive. I was worried the book would be a one-sided political screed. I couldn’t have been more wrong. American Time Bomb is an extraordinary mixture of memoir, mystery and social history. I devoured the book over a weekend and heartily recommend you do the same. Melville’s writing is at turns compelling, funny and always empathetic. Qualities he exhibits in person when I interview him about the book via Zoom.

One of the first things I ask Melville is to describe the book’s long gestation:

When I was approached to do a book about my father it was maybe 87-88. Then I realised I didn’t really know much about him, and didn’t know how I felt about everything he had done. The bulk of the book covers approximately three or four years of the initial research. Then I took a hiatus around 92-93. I kinda realised I wanted to get on with my life. There wasn’t a story here that I thought I could tell. I didn’t really have an angle. I didn’t understand how to tell it. I was still processing all of it. And then I met a great woman and I decided to have a family and focus on that, and then intermittently over the years little pieces would surface. I’d meet people who knew my father and would give me another little piece of the story, and I realised there was really a lot more here than just the initial research.

I guess it was around eight years ago when my wife said ‘when are you gonna write that book that you were starting to write when I met you?’

And I’d written other books in the interim and she said, ‘if you don’t write it now you’re probably never gonna write it.’

I was 51 at the time and I thought, well you’re right. I said ‘one of the reasons I haven’t written this book is because we’re raising two kids now and writing this book will easily be two or three years of my life with little time to do much else.’

She had just left her very lucrative job and started her own consulting business, so it was kind of bad timing all around, her starting a new business, me putting my career on hiatus to work on this book, but we both thought it was an important thing to do and she was very supportive, and so I did it. It ended up taking about five years, and then another two years to sell the book and then even after we sold the book the publishing company wanted to wait until the fiftieth anniversary (of Attica). So, all in all, this version of the book, the whole book itself is a thirty year process.

For a book which has taken a generation to research, write and complete, the theme of generations, families and coming of age is especially pertinent. As Josh transitions from adolescence to adulthood to parenthood he begins to view his father through different eyes, particularly as he learns what his mother told him about his father’s acts was not always accurate:

There wasn’t one aha moment when it came to me realising what my mother knew or didn’t know. That was the process itself. First realising that the story she told me was incomplete and there was an almost Disneyfied version of the story where my father was the victim in each version that she tells me. And then realising that my father was anything but a victim: that he was very cognisant of what he was doing, and made a very lucid decision to do this with his life. I don’t think I can point to the exact moment in time when I realised ‘oh my God, this is really the reality’. It was an arc. It was a process that happened over years.

And then at some point you just realise, a lotta people in their growing up, their transition from adolescence to adulthood, they realise that our parents lie to us. They’re doing it mostly because they think it’s for our own good, and most of the time it probably is. Being humans we tend to resent our parents for the things they lied to us about, focusing on the few times they lied to us when it turned out not to be for our betterment. Sometimes forgetting that most of the time it’s for our protection.

The other half of the journey was after realising my mother lied to me, then putting it into perspective – was this a reasonable lie to tell to me at age twelve and to continue to perpetuate these lies into my young adulthood? There’s that scene in the book where she finally confesses her reasoning which is ‘you remind me so much of him.’ She was afraid I would go down the same path and that’s what she was trying to protect me from.

Joshua Melville certainly didn’t go down the same path as his father. He went to work for a Wall Street Investment Firm. Was this an act of rebellion against his father?

Josh and Sam Melville: Photo courtesy Josh Melville

It was an act of survival. I really needed my independence from my mother and I needed my own apartment. Living in New York City that didn’t come cheap. And so I needed a job that paid well and I was lucky enough to find one. The act of rebellion was probably quitting that job and going into music, partially in a romantic notion of following my father in some way, in a benign way as opposed to a radical way. Partially because it looked like a fun thing to do. The irony is that I learned that the music industry was just as corrupt as the banking industry (laughs), just in its own way.

In one memorable scene Melville is lunching with a colleague known as ‘Closer Dan’ when he finally confesses his family’s radical past. Rather than judge him for it, to his surprise, the salesman takes out a photograph of his younger self with long hair and admits he too was a student radical.

When he says that the Peace Movement was about saving sixty thousand lives, but he distils it to that analogy, ‘if you wanna save sixty thousand lives (in the US) just take away peoples driving licences for one year.’ That was a mind-blowing moment for me. In my interviews with radicals I asked, ‘Why did you do all this? What was the point?’

‘People we’re dying in Vietnam’ (They would respond and he’d repeat the line about the driving licences.) At which point they’d say ‘what about the two million Vietnamese (killed in the War).’

Okay, but that’s not supposedly what it was about. It seems like there’s sympathy for the enemy when it suited their argument, but when it didn’t suit their argument they focused on the corruption within the United States. I was never really able to get them to admit that a lot of the reasons for doing what they did were very personal to them. They weren’t really these big social causes. They were personal. That was a revelation to me to realise that a lot of it was just them having anger at their parents or society or just the rebelliousness that comes with being young, and living at the time when there were so many young people (the Baby boomers of the time made up the biggest demographic of the country, much as Millennials do today). It created this permission to be angry about this. It was cool to be angry at society. It was cool to hate your government. It was cool to hate your parents, and only a step away from that made it cool to decide to blow up buildings. It was acceptable at the time.

By the nineties, however, new forms of Domestic Terrorism were emerging in the US which were far more deadly and insidious than anything Americans had witnessed before.

Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing I think forever changed the public perception… even [of] people on the Left who had advocated the Weather Underground and bombings that were committed by radical groups in the early seventies. Now the public perception was that all bombings were just terrorist acts regardless of their intention or their methodology.

It’s important to point out to your readers that no one was ever killed in any of my father’s bombings and that’s by design. He was an engineer and he made sure the bombs were placed in such a way that it would only destroy property. He chose his targets based on political significance, not on convenience. And he chose his methodology to cause the least amount of collateral damage, and that’s what distinguishes my father and people in his class from what we would today call Islamic terrorists or Domestic terrorists or any of the versions of terrorism that we use in today’s conversation. That changed pretty much in the nineties: lots of plane hijackings, the Oklahoma City bombing. That changed public perception. Now suddenly if a bomb went off, there was no rationalising it in any way, shape or form.

One of the most impressive aspects of the book is the moment by moment reconstruction of the Attica Prison riot. Melville gathers all of the information and testimony he can regarding how his father was shot to death as authorities retook the prison from its mutinous inmates. Melville displays no bitterness in his writing he just wants to learn the truth. He is even empathetic towards Vincent Tobia, the man who bragged about shooting and killing ‘Mad Bomber’ Melville at Attica.

I wish I could have gotten the chance to interview him (Tobia). I did try. The closest I could come was one of his best friends who was also his law partner. I don’t think that he felt he did the wrong thing. I only know that after the Attica verdict came in he and his wife split up. He was estranged from his son which got worse after the Attica verdict. This all happened within the same year and then the next year he died of a heart attack. I’m just being a journalist. I’m just reporting what I learn. Prior to the Attica verdict he was living in a community where he was surrounded by his fellow cops who surely would have agreed with what he did. But after the verdict, when there was a shift in public perception and a shift in blame, the State had been held legally responsible, I think that probably changed the climate in Buffalo and the Tonawandas where he lived and navigated. I’m sure that contributed to his early death.

It took a decades-long legal battle for the survivors of Attica and their families to receive justice. Noted Civil Rights attorney Elizabeth Fink led the battle on their behalf, but she was no admirer of Sam Melville and would prove a thorn in Josh’s side for many years. To Josh’s surprise, Fink reveals this animosity stemmed from an off-colour comment Sam Melville once made about her weight.

It was surprising when it happened. I had come to the conclusion that she was marginalising my father to win the case. So it was surprising to learn there was a personal issue there. Elizabeth Fink was not a terribly popular woman except among people who were very close to her legal circles. She was not an easy person to deal with and even people who respected her would say, ‘Yeah. Liz was a handful.’ But I didn’t dislike her and I’m not sure my father disliked her either. He probably just didn’t give her the attention that she wanted, and so there was this issue. In spite of what she said, I do think her reason for marginalising my father in the Attica narrative was to win the case. It was probably just a convenience that she also didn’t like him. Her not liking of him was basically a transference onto me and seeing me as a threat to her litigation which I didn’t think I was at the time but looking at it now twenty, thirty years later, I can see why she would perceive me as a threat.

I spoke to Josh shortly after the first anniversary of the Capitol Riots. Does he see a parallel between his father’s struggle and the current divisions which are rife in American society?

I think it’s really hard to not see parallels between Antifa, BLM and the current political state of the country and the Weathermen, Black Panthers and SNCC and Nixon. I do think there are lessons to be learned here. One of the reasons I wrote the book now, and felt it should it come out now… and I actually wanted it to come out a year earlier but Chicago Review wanted to wait until the fiftieth anniversary of Attica. They felt it was really an Attica book. I never saw it as an Attica book. I saw it more as a social revolution book with Attica as its climax.

The situation as it exists today, in the last year of this country, with what’s happening in certain major cities, a lot of destruction, protests or riots or whatever words you chose. As bad as it is, it could get worse. The late sixties and early seventies are the analogue or template for what could happen if we as a society don’t start listening to each other and becoming more civil towards each other about discourse. We will eventually see more Sam Melvilles and more bombings, and I think this time not as much conscientiousness towards the safeguarding of human life. I think that’s clear. More civilians were killed in the last year or so in the so-called peaceful protests than were killed in all of the sixties and early seventies bombings and protests, and that’s just in the last year and a half. So we’re in a different state right now. We have more technology. We have a greater ease of availability to weapons and firearms and ability to destroy that’s much less expensive.

On the other side, government surveillance technology has improved ten thousand per cent. They (the FBI) had to do what today would seem like quite primitive surveillance techniques, hanging out in a car on a street corner. Now they can trace every credit card movement, every telephone call, every email. The ability to catch domestic terrorism, if we can use that term, is much better now. The FBI has way more tools at its disposal which makes you wonder, why did they allow so much violence in the country to persist over the last year and a half? You can do as some media outlets do and say, ‘well let’s blame the liberal Blue State mayors’. But the FBI is not governed by Blue State mayors and the FBI did virtually nothing to stop this and I can’t believe they don’t know who the leaders are. That is an impossibility given the technology they have at their disposal. If they could have figured out who the leaders were fifty years ago, and they did, certainly they can figure out who they are now. So if they’re not arresting them its obviously because they are agreeing with this agenda, and that’s a pretty radical shift in terms of the authorities endorsing various forms of violence and insurrection.

So if we got to the point where there would be more Sam Melvilles it would be much worse than isolated little bombings here and there like it was in 1969, and much worse than Attica was in 1971. As bad as Attica was, we will see more prison uprisings with more deaths. We will see more violence in the streets. Unless we learn to start listening and stop being so extreme in our viewpoints and understand that we have to try and unite together as a country.

American Time Bomb: Attica, Sam Melville, and a Son’s Search for Answers is available to purchase now.

Author Joshua Melville
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