A Poetics of Living Rebellion

Rebellions cannot be studied with our traditional toolbelt of Western historical methods.

It began, as such things often do, with a strike. On November 2, 1970—a mere 10 months before the Attica prison rebellion—men incarcerated at Auburn prison refused to work on Black Solidarity Day. When Auburn’s warden retaliated against the 13 men identified as “ringleaders,” the prison erupted. The state’s reprisal was merely the latest in a long line of racist and repressive actions against Auburn’s increasingly politicized prisoners. “They really tried to tear down Black pride and awareness: they told all Black inmates to cut off their Afros and to get rid of Black literature and books in their cells,” one described in a letter entitled “Auburn Torture Hell Camp” afterward.1 Incarcerated rebels seized the prison’s major buildings and held 35–50 hostages for eight hours.

Auburn was one of the first dominoes to fall in the “Long Attica Revolt,” writes Orisanmi Burton in his revolutionary new book Tip of the Spear. Yet the uprising of 1970 remains largely unknown, and when mentioned in historical accounts, it is “treat[ed] as a relatively minor prelude to the much more well-known rebellion in Attica.” But Auburn, as narrated by Burton, not only shifts the temporal landscape of Attica but also stretches our understanding of prison rebellions more broadly: their aims, their methods, and the very terrain of warfare itself.

From the outset of this long revolt, incarcerated men at Auburn were waging a “narrative rebellion.” Through an “insurgent letter-writing praxis,” Burton writes, they “contested the state’s control over the story of Auburn: its genesis, temporality, intensity, meaning, and demands.”

For example, although the state sought to confine the outside perception of the uprising to an eight-hour period, Burton widens the frame to at least eight months. And while the state wanted the world to know only the demands most “legible within its knowledge paradigm,” like more Spanish-speaking guards, the rebels demanded to be heard and understood on their own terms. Long after the rebellion had officially “ended” in November, even the New York Times—which had long parroted state narratives—was forced to admit that “hundreds of letters … pour forth weekly from the isolated galleries” at Auburn. These letters, Burton contends, untether the rebellion from the ways it was, and has always been, subject to “the filtering of Black radical discourse through a white liberal imagination.”

In waging this narrative rebellion, the Auburn rebels did more than contest official state narratives. They revealed the “smoldering core” of the Long Attica Revolt’s revolutionary aspiration: a Black radical humanism that privileged collectivist and communal modes of being over mere assimilation into the existing social order. Theirs was a “humanism made to the measure of the world,” to borrow, as Burton does, from Martinican revolutionary Aimé Césaire.

As one Auburn rebel wrote in a letter, “We are a part of each other. We are the solution to the problem, and there isn’t a god damn thing on earth that can come between us.”2

But Burton does more than simply excavate documentation of this humanism, hidden beneath layers of state propaganda. He also performs it. Through “an experiment in archival interpretation” with Auburn rebel Larry “Luqmon” White, Burton reveals the spirit of his own narrative rebellion.

White became radicalized during his time in prison. “Auburn is where I realized I could think,” he told Burton in an interview. But he did not embark on a solitary journey through great books; his transformation was forged through communal practice. “I would gather us all in the back room of the library,” he recounted, “and hold secret meetings and break down the political stuff [the Panthers] was teaching, especially as it applied to prisons.”

After a transfer from Auburn to Green Haven, Luqmon penned a love letter to his four-year-old son, whom he had not yet met. More than 50 years later, Burton staged a reading of this letter in Luqmon’s Harlem apartment with both father and son. Although Burton had “initially interpreted” the letter as a “fairly transparent expression of paternal longing and affection,” after their collective reading, “a new meaning began to take shape.” As Luqmon read:

I know without being told that you and your stubbornness are many and they are surely mine. That in your silence you see the countless thousands of things that is the world around you, and rather than speak or express your awareness of them in words, you feel them deep inside. And what you feel is like the notes of music, each different yet somehow related to each other so that they seem to create a sound. But the sound they make is strange and different than the music that you hear in your mind. … And later when you are older and able to express yourself you will try to tell them that they are making the wrong sounds, that what they make is not music.

Luqmon’s son hears deep resonance with his own life and experiences a “profound moment of recognition” in his father’s letter: “You knew exactly who I was.”

But Burton, too, experiences a moment of recognition, suddenly registering the letter’s resonance with his theory of the Long Attica Revolt, itself a “discourse on sound and silence, rhythm and language, expression, and affect.” Thus, the “collective reading of the letter,” Burton writes, “unlocked hidden layers of meaning,” elucidating what anthropologists Sarah Ihmoud and Shanya Cordis call a “poetics of living rebellion” that standard, state-based archival accounts are bound to miss and repress.

In writing Tip of the Spear, Burton sensed what was “strange and different” about the music he heard in his mind and the minds of the rebels with whom he has communed for more than a decade. What he initially heard—what drove him to write this book—were the “wrong sounds” of white liberal epistemology that had ordered our understanding of Auburn, Attica, and prisons more broadly. He needed, instead, to listen to the “notes of music, each different yet somehow related to each other,” reverberant rhythms of rebellion that when put in concert “seem to create a sound.”

Burton’s staged reading, his act of archival transgression, suggests that the significance of the letter lies not simply in the words on the page or the context in which they were written but in collective acts of meaning making. In other words, rebellions cannot be studied with our traditional Western historical methods. Life must be breathed into latent meanings written in invisible ink. We find the power of Luqmon’s letter not through “reason, or logic, or even by looking, a mode of apprehension that is structured through the episteme of racial-colonial power.” Instead, “it acquires meaning through feeling and listening, by engaging with sonic frequencies, pulsing cadences, and the quiet spaces in between.”

One of the central, animating contradictions of the prison is that at the very site of the state’s most repressive technology is a proximity that breeds the conditions of solidarity and, in turn, revolt. Every attempt to cage humans, whether revolutionaries or simply “the dregs of the capitalist order,” creates fertile ground for new radical formations and conspiratorial possibilities.

As the state seeks to solve one crisis, radicalism in the streets, it shifts the terrain of battle inside the walls. And as it tries to sabotage radical prospects in its prisons, new sites of resistance emerge. And on and on. The tighter the screws of a repressive order, the greater the pressure builds, and the wider the cracks and fissures in that order grow, until there is (or could be) a moment of rupture. It is in that cleavage that new possibilities are found.

This contradiction, this dialectical antagonism, lies at the heart of Tip of the Spear. The book examines a period of Black radical organizing, rebellion, and state repression in New York prisons and jails during the 1970s that reached its crescendo in the Attica uprising in the far reaches of upstate New York. For four days, from September 9 to 13, 1971, incarcerated rebels controlled Attica Prison, until the state brutally massacred 39 people, including 10 guards, and seriously wounded hundreds of other men.

But Burton has higher aspirations than simply renarrating the rebellion and its aftermath; he situates the Attica episode in a much longer lineage of Black resistance and state repression. Drawing primarily from analyses by incarcerated rebels themselves, Burton theorizes imprisonment not as mere legal captivity, through our conventional analytic of “criminal justice,” but as part of a perpetual war against Black freedom and self-determination.

Burton’s framework reveals prisons to be violent, counterinsurgent institutions meant to contain and eliminate Black revolutionary formations in the streets during the apex of Black Power. Put another way, Burton exposes that prisons are not meant to deter individual acts of violence or offer “humane” spaces for “rehabilitation.”

Through Attica, Burton reveals a state apparatus that increasingly viewed Black radical formations as an existential threat to the American colonial order. Or, as New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who ordered the massacre at Attica, put it, “there was more at stake [in Attica] even than saving lives. There was the whole rule of law to consider. The whole fabric of our society, in fact.”

With so much at stake, the state was forced to develop new counterinsurgent strategies. “Prison pacification,” as Burton terms it, was developed dialectically in response to radicalism in the streets and the ensuing rebellion in prisons. Burton reveals prison pacification’s constant evolution as the needs of counterinsurgency transformed. During the jail rebellions in New York City that preceded both Auburn and Attica, for example, “the state strategy was to conceal the fact that a war was unfolding, whereas later it would shift toward dramatizing the state’s war-waging superiority,” seen most drastically at Attica. But when the brutality of that massacre failed to quell the rising tide of prison revolts—in fact, more rebellions occurred in the year after Attica than in any other year on record—the state’s strategy had to shift yet again.

Freed from the strictures of state-verified knowledge, Burton is free to reveal what the state doesn’t know about itself and its most radical subversives.

Burton delineates the next phase of counterinsurgency: the stability operation, or what he calls “reformist counterinsurgency.” To stabilize the crisis, the state sought to capture the majority of each prison population with the promise of improved conditions, a bid to cleave support from those advocating revolutionary action. Ameliorative conditions help a counterinsurgent campaign cause a split between an insurgency’s organizers and its followers. “The more successful the [counterinsurgent] campaign,” noted counterinsurgency specialist Gen. Frank Kitson argued, “the wider will be the split, because the greater the number of concessions granted by the government, the less have the participants to gain from seeing it overthrown.”

First and foremost, the state’s reformist counterinsurgency effort included the material expansion of the prison regime, the “sine qua non of prison reform.” In Burton’s frame, expansion became the state’s primary tool for diluting the presence of revolutionary captives across a greater number of prisons.

Indeed, the American Correctional Association’s 1970 antiriot manual, cited extensively by the New York State select committee on Attica, argued that expansion and its attendant “small, well-designed institutions” are “much more effective in reducing disturbances.” Further, the manual argued that “planned disturbances” could be “neutralized” by removing and isolating “intelligent” and “revolutionary” individuals from the general population, a strategy that requires ever-greater numbers of prisons. The results of this massive expansion project forever changed New York’s prison system: in 1971, New York had 12 major prisons; by 2000, it had 71.

Indeed, “prisoncrats,” as Burton terms them, admitted that the Auburn rebellion occurred due to the presence of “a critical mass of revolutionaries” at the facility. Prison growth thus allowed the state to disaggregate radical organizing, to prevent any “critical masses” from forming again. The state used expansion to obstruct the kinds of collective political education and action that had once been possible and common in New York state prisons.

The state also attempted to defang radical political education through “programmification,” which Burton describes as the co-optation of an Attica demand that prisons institute “effective rehabilitation programs.” His analysis here offers an important intervention for the many leftists engaged in and committed to education initiatives intended to steer incarcerated captives toward prison-controlled and approved programs with “status-quo oriented institutional politics.” In other words, the state sought to undermine and replace the informal educational formations that radicalized Larry “Luqmon” White and many of the other protagonists of Burton’s narrative.

In writing Tip of the Spear, Burton has revealed the many terrains of this counterinsurgent war, from the smallest isolation cell to our broadest understandings of historical memory. That prisons were ever thought of as benign or progressive in the aftermath of Attica is the product of a “broader strategy of psychological warfare” to determine what will be remembered, in which the state has sought to claim victory on the terrain of history.

At stake here is not merely recovering the presence of Black radical organizing in New York’s prisons but also more faithfully reinterpreting the radicals’ politics and demands, which have, Burton contends, been mangled by Western liberal research methods and epistemologies. These methods misunderstand Attica because they privilege state knowledge, itself based in racist epistemology. The state did not understand and never has understood Black radicalism.

Burton’s archival intervention comes on the heels of a recent surge in attention to the uprising, generated primarily by Heather Ann Thompson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning history of Attica, Blood in the Water. The book is an exhaustive, 750-page accounting of the uprising, the repression, the state’s cover-up, and the protracted legal battles that followed. As mainstream critic Mark Oppenheimer wrote in a glowing New York Times review, “there’s nothing partisan or argumentative about ‘Blood in the Water.’” And therein lies its problem.

Thompson has not produced a “definitive account” of Attica, as some critics have suggested. She “has more accurately produced a history of Attica through the eyes of the state,” as Burton pointed out in his own review. And in doing so, he argues, she has obscured “the fundamental role of power in historical production.” As Thompson seeks to uncover long-lost documents and long-held state secrets, she unwittingly “discloses her perspective that the state is the primary arbiter of knowledge about Attica.”

Thompson’s “loyalty to the state,” Burton contends, “remains undisclosed, a silence that gives the appearance of non-partisanship, even objectivity.” But the objective style in historical writing is ultimately a deeply ideological project that seeks to obscure its commitments. It reifies, rather than challenges, the state’s epistemic dominance.

When considered through the lens of Burton’s revolutionary method, incarcerated rebels at Auburn, at Attica, and across New York’s other prisons were not merely fighting, as Thompson’s account would have readers believe, for piecemeal reforms like improved conditions or more legal protections. No matter the intention, this foregrounding of their narrowest demands must be understood as complicit in the state’s war on historical memory, its “counterinsurgent historiography” meant to incarcerate Black freedom dreams. Instead, as Burton reminds us again and again, the Attica rebels “were in prison but their politics were not incarcerated … their politics did not end at reforming or even abolishing the prison, they were trying to transform the world.”

Burton, like the imprisoned revolutionaries he studies, is thus waging war. His “archival war” seeks to counter the violence of the state archive and those who normalize its authority despite the state’s vested interest in obscuring its facilitation of racial violence. He outright refuses the lie of scholarly objectivity and its positivist vision of scientific “Truth.” Indeed, researchers are never passive receptacles but instead are always already organizing “ways of seeing,” per Donna Haraway. Burton seeks to resuscitate a way of seeing that the state has long sought to obscure.

In defiance of approaches like Thompson’s, Tip of the Spear never shies away from its ideological commitments, what he calls his “rebellious and disloyal interpretive paradigm.” Burton thus takes Black radical subjectivity as his method; it is historical production based in relationships of accountability with “the intellectuals and combatants of this undeclared war, both living and dead.”

Burton’s loyalties—or more fittingly, his disloyalties—are not a weakness but the book’s greatest strength. Freed from the strictures of state-verified knowledge, he is free to reveal what the state doesn’t know about itself and its most radical subversives.

“I have neither the capacity nor the interest to verify Casper’s claims according to positivist standards of Truth. What matters most is that prisons are engines of antihuman violence.”

On first encounter, I read this with a sort of stunned ambivalence, a dousing of cold water on my remaining allegiance to positivist Truth. These sentences come in the middle of the most harrowing chapter of the book, in which Burton theorizes the Attica massacre as much more than just the “excessive,” violent quelling of a prison rebellion, as posited in conventional narratives of September 13, 1971. Instead, Burton narrates the initial massacre, and the violent days that followed across multiple prisons in New York, as acts of sexual revenge in a longer, broader lineage of racial terror, across “nonlinear and overlapping space-times of anti-Black violence and rebellion,” from the sexual politics of lynching to “the slave ship, the plantation, the battlefield, the colony, the way back then and the here and now.”

In the final section of the chapter, Burton introduces a singular document, “Petition for Certificates Extraordinary.” Burton, whose authorial voice is often present in the narration, emerges even further in this moment, realizing that a heavier touch is needed to help us make sense of what we are about to read. He describes his own first “visceral” encounter with the document and the questions with which he grappled in deciding to reproduce it in its entirety. Rather than distract from his subject, Burton’s self-reflexive narration heightens and magnifies our encounter with an unruly text.

“Petition for Certificates Extraordinary” was written by Casper Baker Gary, who, as Burton describes, is a “spectral figure, a being that defies classification, but one thing is certain: he was mad.” Borrowing from Therí Alyce Pickens, Burton embraces “the capacity of ‘madness’ to convey a ‘lexical range that includes (in)sanity, cognitive disability, anger, and … excess.’” Thinking and theorizing with Black rebels, he tells us, requires decentering “duly noted, juridically mediated, and scholastically authorized sources” in favor of “‘discredited,’ ‘inadmissible,’ and ‘untrustworthy’ modes of knowledge, analysis, and narration.”


What Makes a Prison?

By Dan Berger

Indeed, the document compels us into a volatile encounter with the archive—as Burton tells us, to “wade into an unruly, evasive, and eclectic form of mad science.” He reads Casper’s writing with an excruciating sensitivity to the violence and humanity present in the document.

Casper claims to have conducted his own investigation of the Attica massacre and its aftermath, interviewing more than 500 people, both guards and captives. He details “despicable and savage atrocities,” acts of terrifying sexual violence perpetrated against the Attica rebels by state forces. This class of sexual atrocity, Burton tells us, moves the massacre away from liberal narratives of “excessive” but ultimately “permissible” state violence and into a realm of knowledge that “has not and cannot be fully incorporated into the public discourse because doing so would rupture the myth of White Man and white civilization.”

Burton’s decision to relinquish a historian’s desire to “verify” Casper’s claims is an act not of archival resignation but of transgression. Burton forces us to reckon with Casper’s madness as a form of knowledge and its own form of truth. Casper and Burton together compel us to see that the sexual violence of the Attica massacre is “the logical culmination of the prison’s mundane rituals.” There is, Burton shows us throughout the book, a “racial-sexual logic of ‘thingification’” that “undergirds prisons under normal conditions.” From “the patriarchal organization of authority, the institutionalized segregation of the sexes, the regulation of intimacy, the separation from family” to “the condoning of rape, the facilitation of racism, the strip searches, the rectal examinations,” prisons are fundamentally vehicles of sexual violence. Casper’s mad science, then, begins to burn with the force of thousands of years of anti-Black sexual violence, of which Attica was just the latest paroxysm.

The Attica uprising was an “upheaval in the universe,” Burton tells us, borrowing from James Baldwin. The earth-shattering sexual violence of the massacre can only be understood as an attempt to reassert control, “to stabilize a deeper order: the gendered-racial order that upholds capital, nation, empire, and civilization.”

Burton transgresses on the liberal methodology that seeks to discredit and distrust the very madness that extreme violence can produce. As with his treatment of Auburn, Burton resuscitates a way of seeing and listening to those whom the state archive has sought so desperately to ignore, hide, and silence.

And yet Casper’s petition also reveals the humanist vision that so terrified the counterinsurgent state. Casper appealed to the cosmic brotherhood of the very people most responsible for the massacre. In all caps, he wrote:


For Casper, “the tragedy of the human is that it continually proves itself unable to recognize the truly universal qualities that it reflects and embodies.”

In his recognition of Casper, Burton strikes another blow to the violence of prison. And it is in Casper’s cosmic vision that we again find our “poetics of living rebellion.”

The title of Tip of the Spear came from a letter written by (formerly) incarcerated Black Panther Jalil Muntaqim, who wrote, “We are the tip of the spear.” Burton suggests three readings of Muntaqim’s invocation of this martial idiom: a) as a historical claim that incarcerated revolutionaries play a leading role in challenging the state; b) as a tactical claim that incarcerated revolutionaries are positioned behind enemy lines and could catalyze movements beyond the walls; c) from the point of view of the state, that incarcerated revolutionaries are experiencing “the tip of a counterinsurgency spear that has pierced through the front line of its opposition” on its way to us.

I would like to posit that the book itself is the tip of an epistemic spear piercing the heart of liberal historical scholarship. It cleaves our knowledge of Attica and prisons more broadly from the archive of white supremacy that has organized our modes of knowledge about Attica, prisons, and our social reality.

As Saidiya Hartman tells us, “abolition requires uprooting the order of value and overturning the vertical order of life that created the system.” If historical method often feels hierarchical, that’s because it is: the researcher from on high looking down upon his subjects. Tip of the Spear imagines an abolitionist ethic of horizontal possibility and proposes the radical demand that we make meaning together. icon

This article was commissioned by Charlotte E. Rosen.

  1. Eugene Richardson, “Auburn Torture Hell Camp,” in Prisoners Call Out: Freedom, published by Prisoners Solidarity Committee, April 1971.
  2. Hassan Sharrif El-Shabazz, “Right On,” in Prisoners Call Out: Freedom, published by Prisoners Solidarity Committee, April 1971.
Featured image: "Remember Attica," 1971, Yanker Poster Collection, Library of Congress.