Orisanmi Burton’s new book, Tip of the Spear: Black Radicalism, Prison Repression, and the Long Attica Revolt boldly and compellingly argues that prisons are a domain of hidden warfare within US borders. With this book, he explores what he terms the Long Attica Revolt, a criminalized tradition of Black radicalism that propelled rebellions in New York prisons during the 1970s. 

In the below original piece, Orisanmi describes his approach to writing Tip of the Spear through a methodological approach he developed called archival war.

Orisanmi Burton is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at American University.

Tip of the Spear: Black Radicalism, Prison Repression, and the Long Attica Revolt demystifies how U.S. prisons became institutionalized forms of hidden warfare within U.S. borders. It shows that not only do prisons incarcerate particular kinds of bodies – those rendered surplus by capital – but they also incarcerate knowledge. It explicates how a constellation of state actors responded to the Black urban rebellions of the late 1960s and early 1970s by skillfully weaponizing prisons against Black radical ways of knowing, narrating, and acting upon the world. The necessity of achieving dominance in the epistemic and narrative aspects of political struggle is emphasized in the pages of the US Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which elaborates methods adopted by prison administrators in the 1970s. It notes “counterinsurgents can use cultural forms to shift perceptions, gain support, or reduce support for insurgents. The most important cultural form for counterinsurgents to understand is the narrative.” [1]

Narrative contests between incarcerated rebels and state actors unfolded in real time, with each side striving to shape public perception in politically advantageous ways. State actors largely succeeded in supplanting the captives’ accounts of collective Black resistance with individualizing discourses of criminality, extremism, and terrorism. The pronounced asymmetry of the struggle explains why understandings of the prison as war that were prominent during the late 20th century have faded from our collective consciousness. Tip of the Spear revisits this era and in doing so re-opens this long dormant narrative contest.

To write this book I developed a methodological approach capable of maneuvering through this narrative counterinsurgency, an approach I call archival war. Allow me to illustrate.

“In order for [there] to be a revolution there must be a revolutionary party,” wrote Safiya Bukhari in a letter written on November 12, 1971. A member of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and its underground offshoot the Black Liberation Army (BLA), Bukhari goes on to explain that the function of this party must be to develop an “organ of communications” capable of disseminating “the ideas of the party and the people they’re supposed to be serving.” Such a party must  “organize, politically educate, and chain the resources of the black community into revolutionary paths for struggle.” Her communique was intended for Ricardo DeLeon. A BPP political prisoner since August of 1969, DeLeon had recently helped organize a massive rebellion that erupted simultaneously across five New York City jails. At that moment, DeLeon was under indictment, not only for his role in the jail rebellion, but also for the politically motivated expropriation (the state termed it a robbery) of a known Harlem drug den, a move intended to advance the BPP’s anti-drug campaign while raising money for the organization.

I have never seen Bukhari’s letter and it is unlikely that DeLeon did either, a fact that attests to her point about the need for revolutionaries to develop autonomous infrastructures for disseminating and preserving knowledge. The letter was intercepted by jail censors and handed over to an official, who used excerpts of it to compose an intelligence dossier: “Staff Study: Analysis of Literature and Correspondence Submitted by Witness Captain John Ellis.” The dossier was then submitted to the House Internal Security Committee (HISC), which was investigating what it called “Revolutionary activities directed toward the administration of penal or correctional systems.” The original letters were likely destroyed, making the dossier the only archival trace of this important conversation between two key figures in the incipient movement to abolish U.S. prisons. For this reason, the dossier must be engaged and the best way to do so, I argue, is through the method of archival war.

Not only is the prison impeding communication across prison walls, but it is also extracting those communications in order to refashion them into criminalizing narratives that serve the carceral state. Consider the key figures involved in the production and circulation of the dossier. John Ellis was known among incarcerated people as a violent racist. During the aftermath of the New York City jail rebellion he was named in a lawsuit charging him with brutalizing captives and with forcing them to sign falsified statements meant to shield abusive guards from legal sanction (Jail bureaucrats responded to the suit by promoting Ellis to the rank of captain). The House Internal Security Committee, which solicited Ellis’ dossier, was the offspring of the infamously anti-communist and anti-Black House Un-American Activities Committee. Their investigation into revolutionary activities within U.S. prisons was cited by the FBI, which subsequently launched a secret, prison-based counterinsurgency program called the Prison Activists Surveillance Program otherwise known as the “Extremist, Revolutionary, Terrorist, and Subversive Activities in Penal Institutions” Program. One of the key aims of this program was to counter the flow of “extremist propaganda” in and out of the prison system. The dossier is thus a hostile knowledge source, a narrative weapon constructed for use against Bukhari, DeLeon, and the politics they represent.

First and foremost, archival war treats state archival repositories as secondary in importance to oral history and the personal archival collections preserved by the protagonists of abolitionist struggle. Second, to the extent that state archives must be engaged (and they must), archival war advocates the strategic expropriation of captured knowledge from the criminalizing narratives of the state, the taking back of knowledge that was originally taken from movements. Finally, it demands that this fugitive knowledge be reunified, reinterpreted, and renarrated   within the historical contexts and ethical frameworks of its original articulation. This is no easy task. In my case, it required deep engagement with Black radical thought, history, and praxis.

Archival war is a disloyal interpretive praxis that accounts for the carceral state’s outsized power to tell stories about itself and those it targets, to have those stories recognized as authoritative, and to preserve those stories for posterity. It contests this authority by adopting an antagonistic relationship to archival processes that aim to criminalize, pathologize, domesticate, distort, and destroy Black radical knowledge. It is a means of countering counterinsurgency on the narrative terrain. It is the method that made Tip of the Spear possible.

This post is part of our #2023ASA blog series. Visit our virtual ASA 2023 website and find out how to get 40% off our books.

[1] US Army, The U.S. Army Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 93.