A Story That We Only Think We Know: On Orisanmi Burton’s “Tip of the Spear”

By Jarrod ShanahanJanuary 11, 2024

A Story That We Only Think We Know: On Orisanmi Burton’s “Tip of the Spear”

Tip of the Spear: Black Radicalism, Prison Repression, and the Long Attica Revolt by Orisanmi Burton

THE ATTICA PRISON revolt of 1971 is one of those curious events in US popular culture through which the invocation of a single word is commonly thought to convey a complex body of knowledge and even a clear political meaning. “Attica! Attica!” shouts manic bank robber Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 movie Dog Day Afternoon. Over the years, the word has functioned as a kind of political Rorschach test, potentially conjuring a denunciation of fascist state violence, the murderous menace of Black radicalism, the unfinished business of liberal democracy reforming itself toward liberty and justice for all, and more. All too rarely is it asked: what was Attica? Or, better yet, given its enduring presence in the popular imagination: what is Attica?

A fresh and urgent interpretation of the meaning of Attica comes to us from anthropologist Orisanmi Burton, in his new book Tip of the Spear: Black Radicalism, Prison Repression, and the Long Attica Revolt. Burton has painstakingly studied the revolt for a decade and has stayed in contact with a rich network of former prisoners, including Attica survivors, and a variety of prison abolitionists and Black and Brown revolutionaries. The result is a sophisticated reassessment of the Attica revolt from a perspective indigenous to it. In the process, Burton offers both a strident case for Attica’s legacy as a bold and prefigurative revolutionary struggle, and a nuanced and complex methodology for grounding the study of popular struggles in the ideas and actions of the people who carry them out.

Attica is, Burton argues, “a story that we only think we know.” Accordingly, he endeavors to rescue Attica from “a counterinsurgent historiography that fixates on the spectacle of anti-Black violence that repressed the rebellion, while ignoring the forms of abolitionist worldmaking that made it such a threat.” In particular, Burton takes aim at Heather Ann Thompson, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (2016). Burton has elsewhere dubbed Blood in the Water “a history of Attica through the eyes of the state,” given its reliance on a state archive that Thompson claims offers the final word on the revolt. Meanwhile, Thompson’s narrative approach, Burton argues, simultaneously fixates on the brutality of the state’s response to the revolt and renders its great violence exceptional—hence remediable by prison reform—while reducing its political content to demands for said reform.

In contrast, Burton’s central thesis in Tip of the Spear is that the Attica revolt was not a discrete historical event produced by poor conditions at a particular prison in Upstate New York, nor was it a call for reform or for any specific demands that the capitalist state could accommodate. Instead, Burton invites us to conceptualize what he calls the “Long Attica Revolt,” situating Attica within a larger sequence of struggles behind bars, including the revolts at Auburn Correctional Facility and throughout the New York City jail system in 1970, the revolutionary zeitgeist unfolding on US streets, and the wave of armed challenges to imperialism waged throughout the Global South as part of a movement of decolonial revolution that thrust the American government into crisis around the Vietnam War.

The book’s very title inhabits a profound ambiguity that provides Burton a welcoming terrain for some of his most novel theorization. The imagery of “the tip of the spear” comes from a letter written to the author by Jalil Muntaqim, a Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army militant and decades-long political prisoner, who used the term in reference to the tradition of prisoner militancy, writing “We are the tip of the spear.” This is, of course, a common piece of military jargon referring to the troops who first penetrate enemy lines. As Burton reasons, this could be a reference to either the militants’ direct confrontation with the state or their broader relationship to a mass movement from quite literally behind a fortified enemy border.

There is, however, a third possibility that Burton takes seriously: Muntaqim simultaneously evokes the point of view of the state. “This would make incarcerated people, and especially incarcerated Black revolutionaries, the tip of a counterinsurgency spear that has pierced through the front line of its opposition on its way toward striking a more essential target, ‘us.’” Burton does not resolve this tension but opts instead to put it to work in “analyzing the cutting edge of carceral struggle as seen from both sides of the blade.” Following these interrelated threads, Burton develops an analytic framework loyal to the self-understanding of the prisoners who fought in the Long Attica Revolt, and particularly those who drew from the revolutionary framework of Black radicalism.

Cultivating a “disloyal” relationship to the state archive, Burton balances a well-deserved skepticism of state documents with a perhaps unique analytic generosity to the accounts of prisoners and their political tradition. Where some researchers might find little to work with in convoluted chronologies, misremembered facts, hearsay, speculation, and outright conspiracy theories, Burton plumbs the depths of these hard-won perspectives for a deeper profundity. Just as these events left a traumatic mark on many who experienced them, Burton wagers that firsthand accounts that may not be “true” according to the standard epistemology of our time might nonetheless communicate more fundamental truths than mere dates and times. This method, Burton recounts, is born of a “relation of accountability to the intellectuals and combatants of this undeclared war, both living and dead, and to the ancestral traditions that nurtured them,” which he correctly argues separates Tip of the Spear from other studies of Attica.

Even more than the words of the prisoners, Burton’s framework privileges their deeds. As a stated point of method, he spends little time with the “Attica reform demands,” as Black revolutionary political prisoner Martin Sostre called them. The demand framework, Burton argues, is a condition of legibility that liberal democracy imposes on struggles, and it is dangerous to therefore accept demands at face value. This positions Burton to make an intervention on the question of demands for reform posed amid potentially revolutionary struggle, an approach that offers applicability far beyond this particular case study. Burton argues:

The tension between the urgent need to secure reforms to enable the captives’ immediate survival as human beings and the equally urgent project of abolishing broader systems of oppression is a central contradiction of the prison movement and the broader Black liberation struggle.

The demands that emerged from the revolt are surely a part of its history, just as the reformist tradition within Black militancy (and all militancy) is an undeniable political fact. But following Sostre and many others, Burton argues that the revolutionary content of the revolt was far more remarkable than any survival-based demands, as evidenced by the extraordinary actions the prisoners undertook under their banner.

Burton further argues that the reform demands doubly inhibited the Long Attica Revolt: first, by confusing, disrupting, and defusing its ethos of direct confrontation with the state, and second, by allowing historians to recast Attica as the pursuit of liberal-democratic reforms, albeit by other means, thus effecting “the conceptual incarceration of their struggle within the domain of rights.” Burton documents that many prisoners were in fact opposed to reforms at all, echoing Attica survivor Joseph Little: “I am for abolishing the whole concept of penitentiary reform.” As Burton demonstrates, incarcerated militants like Sostre saw the brutal conditions as important tools for cultivating revolutionary consciousness, and as history has shown, many prison administrators agreed—yet their interest, as Burton argues, was not in improving the conditions of prisoners but in securing their own power from the terrifying challenge that arose at Attica.

So, what was the real political content of the Attica revolt? Burton finds it in many concrete actions: the patient political education and agitation by revolutionary prisoners throughout the prison system and outside it; the courageous and ingenious jail and prison uprisings in the years surrounding the revolt; the prisoners’ farsighted historical connections between their own captivity and centuries of capture, slavery, oppression, exploitation, and disposability; and the deep and abiding sense among many prisoners that their struggle was not within the framework of the racial capitalist US state but explicitly against it, shoulder-to-shoulder with anti-imperialist guerrillas all over the world.

Above all, Burton finds the meaning of Attica in the practices that emerged in the yard during those four fateful days. Burton deploys militant prisoner George Jackson’s concept of “the Black Commune” to describe “an autonomous site of self-organization capable of nurturing revolutionary culture and alternative modes of collective life.” Deep bonds of affect and alternative modes of social being were improvised, as caged men pitted against each other amid conditions of artificial scarcity and great brutality experienced deep camaraderie and intimacy in the absence of their keepers. They also created a variety of infrastructure, including an ad hoc direct democratic assembly, a public address system, food provision and sanitation for over a thousand men, a battery of ingenious experimental weaponry, the humane care and protection of hostages against justified retaliation, and, yes, carceral facilities not just for hostages but for unruly prisoners too.

“They seem to be building as much as they are destroying!” Burton quotes one perplexed cop, as he takes in the immense social and infrastructural creations of the Black Commune.

Just as the revolt represented “Black radical futurity” for the prisoners, however, Burton also emphasizes how it figured prominently in the political imagination of the racial capitalist state. As Burton argues, “the massacre was an experiment in the public exhibition of state violence, an attempt to radically recalibrate public understandings of how Black rebellion in the United States could and should be managed.” The legacy of the Long Attica Revolt, then, is as much a story of repression and the foreclosure of alternative futures as it is of their prefiguration. This highlights a central motif that frames the analysis of Tip of the Spear: war.

Attica, Burton argues, was but one episode in “a war that has the Black revolutionary at its center but is promiscuous in its aims,” a war characterized by the inherent antagonism between white supremacist capitalism in the United States and the dignity, self-determination, and even survival of a majority of the planet’s inhabitants, including within the United States’ own borders. This state of war is what landed such a high concentration of working-class Black and Latino men in such a dehumanizing setting in the first place. And, in the aftermath of the revolt, Burton documents a “multifaceted campaign of prison pacification” uniting correctional officials across the US with local, state, and federal police agencies, and with the Central Intelligence Agency, bridging domestic war with imperialist wars abroad, including a unifying strategy and tactics in support of pacification at all costs. Burton also emphasizes that the state reaction to Black militancy is an underexplored component of the prison buildup of the 1980s and ’90s.

Weighing a balance sheet of repression and reform in the wake of the Long Attica Revolt, Burton considers repression and reform “complementary tactics of war.” Building on the analysis of incarcerated militants, Burton demonstrates the profoundly demobilizing effect of prison reform, in tandem with the public relations victories it secured in restoring the legitimacy of the system. He reproduces the accelerationist sentiments of Martin Sostre and Attica survivor Joseph Little. Here and elsewhere, Burton seems to be writing a shadow polemic outlining the conditions of historical possibility for Blood in the Water becoming a beloved book among white American liberals, including one critic who celebrated it for demonstrating “the capacity of our legal system, after the fact, to right wrongs, and provide at least a modicum of justice.”

No critic could draw the same conclusions from Tip of the Spear. The book’s guiding framework of social war is a powerful and potent remedy to the recuperative analysis offered by Thompson, and more recently, as Zhandarka Kurti and I have argued, by fellow historian Elizabeth Hinton’s similar George Floyd–era revisionism in America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s (2021). At the same time, analyzing the terrain of an advanced capitalist society as a zero-sum military conflict also risks overestimating the coherence of the emissaries of racial capitalism Burton correctly identifies as the enemy. There are surely “weaponized” reforms, as Burton puts it, part of a classic counterinsurgency strategy, but there are also different fragments within the ruling class pushing and pulling in opposite directions around the basic questions attendant to managing class society, and reforms are often the outcome of this struggle. As explored in a recent volume by revolutionary intellectual Don Hamerquist that I reviewed for LARB, advanced capitalist states, a concept tragically undertheorized by Marx, are at once once powerful nemeses and ever-changing, densely layered terrains of struggle, demonstrating considerable instability between and among themselves, with virtually none of the coherence or command found in a nationally grounded military foe.

The case could of course be made that this simply does not matter; there is nothing in the above paragraph that Burton does not already know well, and he has consciously chosen to narrate these events from the perspective of combatants who have experienced a unified and coherent enemy. But on the opposite side of the spear, the intelligent actors within the state do not see one great amorphous mass of enemies; they see a complex social terrain in which many factors are indeterminate, and many actors can demonstrate considerable disunity. As Burton illustrates deftly, counterinsurgents learn this topography and exploit it. I would wager that applying this lesson to the necessary revolutionary war against racial capitalism compels revolutionaries to problematize and deepen our collective understanding of the nature of the enemy and how it can be decisively overcome.

Interestingly enough, Michel Foucault, who was greatly influenced by the Long Attica Revolt to craft some of his most famous arguments, especially those in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), and whom Burton cites at several junctures, soon thereafter found the model of society as a domestic war too limiting. His public lectures at the Collège de France of the mid-to-late 1970s, and the masterful History of Sexuality: Volume 1 (1976), proceeded from a rejection of the “repressive hypothesis” and the thesis that “[p]olitics is a continuation of war by other means.” In their place, Foucault theorized power as productive, constituting subjects and social relations rather than simply repressing them, and saw advanced governance techniques operating based not on the total eradication of enemies but on the technocratic management of ineliminable risk. I leave it up to the militants of today to debate whether Foucault was correct or not—preferably after taking a modicum of illegal action to properly test these waters. In any case, Tip of the Spear makes enough novel political contributions so as to avoid suffering from not following the French theorist past 1974.

Perhaps most expedient in Burton’s measured work is its treatment of abolitionism, a product of the Long Attica Revolt that, nominally at least, enjoys widespread political traction among the US Left today. At several moments in Tip of the Spear, Burton makes it clear that he considers today’s tradition to contrast mightily with that of its predecessor. For instance, writing of the “illegal freedom” of the Long Attica Revolt, Burton observes that “[t]his criminalized praxis exists in tension with much of contemporary abolitionist discourse, which seems to actively avoid dealing with destructive ‘engagements’ of this sort.” Today’s abolitionism, as it has been welcomed into the nonprofit industrial complex, elite universities, and social media self-branding, is a far cry from the clear-eyed militancy and courageous action of the Long Attica Revolt and, Burton seems to argue, could benefit tremendously from getting back to its roots.

To this end, Tip of the Spear offers a passionate and poetic account of revolutionary abolitionism in action. Burton does not fetishize the militancy of the Long Attica Revolt’s partisans but valorizes their work of care and social reproduction, rhapsodizing about the complex homosocial and even homosexual relationships they forged in struggle, as part of what he argues was a positive conception of revolutionary masculinity standing in marked contrast to the toxic, destructive, and unaccountable variety so rightfully reviled in enlightened circles today. Burton demonstrates that a politics that accepts the necessity of illegal and violent struggle against racial capitalism need not—and in fact, cannot—set aside the profound human considerations of building and maintaining alternative social ties free from the imperatives opposed by oppression, exploitation, and domination. Burton excavates the seeds of all this from Attica. Just as the Paris Commune has served as a prefigurative beacon for countless revolutionaries since 1871, so Burton rightfully argues that the Black Commune of the Long Attica Revolt must be similarly viewed and embraced.

Turning at last to the question of “what is Attica?” Burton replies simply: “Attica Is.” The ensemble of ideologies, courageous actions, world-making measures, and other key components of the Long Attica Revolt remain present today in communities engaging in bold actions against racial capitalism and in struggle toward a global communist society. Burton cites the movements against the police and incarceration, including the righteous battle against Cop City in Atlanta; ongoing struggles against white supremacy and imperialism; and the emergence of communities of care, social reproduction, and alternative forms of social organization, on both sides of the prison bars, struggling to articulate themselves against the concentrated violence of racial capitalism. At the same time, Attica is the capitalist state’s repressive and recuperative movement against these vital components of a future society. Attica is, in short, a terrain of struggle we still inhabit today.

“The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past,” writes Walter Benjamin, “is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious.” Steered by this very conviction, Orisanmi Burton is one such historian, and Tip of the Spear ignites exactly this sort of all-too-precious flame. Burton has crafted a masterpiece that, as much as any single book can, shows the way forward for a new generation of activist-scholars, agitators, revolutionaries, and other partisans of human liberation, to redeem the dead and build a new society in their name.

LARB Contributor

Jarrod Shanahan is an author, activist, and educator living in Chicago.


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