Review of Tip of the Spear: Black Radicalism, Prison Repression, and the Long Attica Revolt By Orisanmi Burton, Oakland: University of California Press. 2023. 328 pp.

Reviewed Book

Tip of the Spear: Black Radicalism, Prison Repression, and the Long Attica Revolt By Orisanmi Burton, Oakland: University of California Press. 2023. 328 pp.

Cover of Tip of the Spear (2023)

Fabian Fernandez

University of California, San Francisco

The United States is in the midst of a centuries-long war that began with stolen land, stolen labor, and stolen lives. In Tip of the Spear Orisanmi Burton draws upon incarcerated revolutionaries to clarify the paradigmatic rationale for ongoing forms of captivity, not through the law, but through an ongoing state of war. This militancy is excavated through the simultaneous reading of Black radical sources and the work of carceral administrators—a method he describes as “archival war”—generating productive epistemic antagonisms that drive his writing (15–17). As an anthropologist, he attends to conversations with prisoners of war who recount their attempts not only to break out of confinement, but also out of the carceral logics of liberal humanism that foreclose the possibility of revolutionary struggle.

This book goes beyond Attica. We can see the ideological confines of the Attica Rebellion crumbling as Burton excavates it from historical narratives that have isolated it from the radical politics of the time, the rebellions occurring in jails and prisons across the country, and internationalist movements against empire. He gives us rich interviews with everyday rebels and revolutionaries from the Black Panther Party, Young Lords, and Black Liberation Army who organized behind prison bars, bringing their unique ideas, skills, and energy to prison rebellions. He tracks movement of ideas, people, and tactics in the New York Prison system between the “Manhattan Tombs,” “Branch Queens,” and the “Brooklyn House of Detention.” And he unearths histories of internationalism with revolutionaries securing agreements from international governments for safe passage. This re-situation of Attica across carceral geographies is not only methodological, but also important to understanding prisons as a condition of an undeclared war that we are all implicated in.

Burton’s approach as an anthropologist shines in the chapter “Attica Is” where he writes about revolutionary consciousness and abolitionist worldmaking amid the difficult conditions of prison revolt. Abolition is conceptualized by interlocutor John “Dacajaweiah Hill” not simply as a rejection of the carceral order, but as efforts to build a new world in the Attica prison yard—brothers pulling together pic-nick tables for town halls, cooking for hundreds of men, digging latrines, cuddling under make-shift tents, and gazing at stars for the first time in years. Quoting the “Institute of the Black World” he writes, “the men of Attica were different from their captors” asserting themselves as “men” in ways that did not seek to replace their oppressors, but imagine different social relationships not premised on the violence of domination (105). In a beautiful letter, Larry Luqmon writes to his son about the ways that he must move through the world to “the sound of different drummer,” engaging in a poetics of rebellion that can shift the terrain of revolutionary struggle (74). As anthropologists continue to unsettle gender and the concept of the “human,” this work offers us the experience of rebels trying not just to change their material conditions but to build new worlds.

In his recounting of the Attica Rebellion, Burton does not flatten the complicated terrain of revolutionary struggles, raising important questions for abolitionists. What are the tactical calculations that revolutionaries must make when facing determined opposition that threatens to upend efforts to free themselves? Grounding his analysis in the violence of the state, he describes the responses of the rebels as counter-force, counter-violence, and counter-war. The force of the state and rebels is fundamentally different—the state uses violence to maintain conditions of confinement, while the rebel uses violence to defend themself and pursue liberation. In the messy terrain of abolitionist struggle Burton raises important questions about Attica—what does it mean that in order to secure their own freedom, the rebels constructed a “people’s prison,” holding correctional officers hostage and executing counter-insurgents through tribunal? (95) We are left pondering these questions to be worked out, not in academic roundtables, but in the context of revolutionary struggles.

The state repression, psychological operations, and counter-insurgent pacification that follow Attica become the focus of the second half of the book. In one of the most emotionally challenging but insightful chapters, Burton carefully corroborates archives historically dismissed as madness or conspiracy—examining a killing “that assails the body but truly targets the personality, spirit, soul…” (121). Following the Attica Revolt, survivor Casper Baker Gary characterizes the ways sexual violence was used to break the spirit of those in the prison. The everyday horrors of strip searches and sexual violence served as a practice of debasement seeking to re-assert generations of white masculine domination. This psychological and spiritual warfare is extended through the Prison Activists Surveillance Program (PRISACTS) and Control Unit Prisons where rebels encountered “sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, prolonged isolation, stress positions, humiliation, intimidation, exposure to extreme temperatures, perpetual lighting, punishing noise pollution, severely restricted visitation, correspondence, and phone privileges, among other forms of profound trauma” (221). Through the experience of former prisoner Masia A. Mugmuk, we learn about the Prescription and Control Program, a.k.a. the Rx Program as well as its relationship to other psyops programs including the CIA’s MK Ultra Program, which experimented with forced drugging and torture in an attempt to interrogate and break rebels. These acts were carried out with the financial and intellectual support of “engaged anthropologists” at the Cornell-based Human Ecology Fund – contributing to a growing literature questioning our discipline’s entanglements with warfare (Price, 2016). After Attica, these anthropological, psychological, and scientific experiments left longstanding scars on the survivors, reckoning with the “sequelae” (Smith, 2016) of physical violence, sexual debasement, psychological torture.

The final chapters of the book discuss the ways that reforms following prison revolts led to the growth of the prison industrial complex—demanding construction of more facilities to offset overcrowding, investing in improving conditions to prevent revolt, biopolitically classifying and distributing prisoners across sites, introducing educational programing, and making public grievance procedures that worked to subdue more revolutionary organizing. Yet, rather than see these as more benevolent approaches to reforming prisons, he understands them as part of a continuum of counter-insurgent measures that sought to diffuse and subdue dissent. Ethnographically, he gets into the ambivalence within which rebels approached these reforms, both understanding them to be counterinsurgent and engaging in them anyways as an avenue to improve their lives amid intense deprivation. These attempts at prison pacification are not only targeted at people incarcerated, but at the public serving to rehabilitate the prison as an institution which must be reformed rather than abolished. In the spirit of the rebels, Burton reminds us that the war rages on, providing us with analytic tools for the critical project of abolition.

Tip of the Spear is a rare book—emerging not from intellectual gaps in the academic literature, but through an “intergenerational assignment” to demonstrate the rigor of Black radical analysis conducted by prison rebels in the 1970s in ways that offer clarification for contemporary abolitionist movements (7). This book is essential material for undergraduate and graduate courses not only in anthropology, but in a range of disciplines drawing from Black radical theory, abolition and critical prison studies, archives of war and counter-insurgency, masculinity and gender studies, geography, sociology, and the history of social movements in the United States. This is a deep work, rigorously engaging with archives that have historically been dismissed, overlooked, or repressed. It is also beautifully written, inviting us into the worldmaking of Attica. “Attica is a living tradition of criminalized Black radicalism born and nurtured amid conditions of war. Attica is racist state repression. Attica is revolutionary abolition” (230).


Price, David H. 2016. Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology. Duke University Press.

Smith, Christen A. 2016. Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil. University of Illinois Press.