The “Long Attica Revolt”

Against the Current No. 231, July/August 2024

Robert J. Boyle

Tip of the Spear
Black Radicalism, Prison Repression and the Long Attica Revolt
By Orisanmi Burton
University of California Press, 2023, 328 pages, $29.95 paperback.

PRISONS, ACCORDING TO Dr. Orisanmi Burton, “are war. They are state strategies of race war, class war, colonization and counterinsurgency.”

In his meticulously researched and fascinating Tip of the Spear, Dr. Burton sets himself apart from the great majority of books and films on U.S. prisons that primarily focus on prison conditions, guard brutality and efforts at reform.

Rather, the author emphasizes the political nature of prison rebellions. Prisons are “domains of militant contestation, where captive populations reject … white supremacist systems of power and invent zones of autonomy, freedom and liberation.”

With such a thesis the reader should not expect a litany of brutality and injustice followed by reform. Dr. Burton argues that the resistance inside prisons is an integral part of the struggle against white supremacy and for Black liberation beyond the walls.

Moreover, although he uses the term “prison abolition,” Dr. Burton is careful to point out that the term, as used in the book, means the elimination of the social conditions that feed the prisons. It diminishes the revolutionary significance of what he terms the “Long Attica Revolt,” he argues, if one focuses on reform rather than societal change.

Dr. Burton draws his lessons from the most rebellious time in U.S.prison history: the New York State and City prison rebellions of the 1970s. Dr. Burton labels this period as the time of the “Long Attica Revolt,” which spanned New York State and which existed before and after the September 1971 rebellion at Attica State prison.

Fueling the Rebellions

Influenced in part by the wave of militant political activity of organizations such as the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party in the late 1960s, captives in New York State and New York City prisons became increasingly politicized. They began to see jails as tools of white supremacy and social control.

Fueling this feeling were the arrests in April 1969 of the leadership of the New York Black Panther Party known as the Panther 21. Most were held on exorbitant bail and housed in city prisons.

Over the next several months, social prisoners and Black Panther defendants organized each other, placing the struggle over prison conditions in the context of the anti-white supremacist movement in the streets.

When negotiations with prison authorities failed, inmates at several city prisons rebelled and seized hostages. These include rebellions at the Tombs in lower Manhattan, Branch Queens in Long Island City, and the Queens House of Detention.

The rebellions were not geographically limited to city jails. In November 1970, inmates at Auburn State Prison seized hostages and freed prisoners from solitary confinement. And, of course, there was the Attica rebellion itself from September 9 to 13, 1971.

According to Dr. Burton, these rebellions were not solely or even predominantly about prison conditions. In the author’s words, the revolts and the demands developed in “dialectical relation” to repression on the street.

The captives rebelling at Branch Queens demanded an end to censorship including the right to read The Black Panther and Palante, the newspaper of the Young Lords Party. The Auburn captives demanded the right to “control our own destinies.”

Rebelling captives at Branch Queens demanded bail review for the thousands of individuals incarcerated pre-trial. In response to the latter demand, three judges went to Branch Queens and conducted bail hearings that resulted in the release of several defendants. The hearings themselves became a form of political theater that illustrated the gross inequities of that system.


Further illustrating the political nature of the uprisings and the state’s response to them, Dr. Burton notes that while these rebellions were brewing or taking place, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was intensifying its covert campaign of repression known as COINTELPRO.

According to FBI documents released years later, COINTELPRO was designed to “neutralize” Black organizations and their leadership. The FBI also recognized that prisons could be breeding grounds for revolutionaries and gave special attention to political activity behind the wall.

This demonstrates the warlike struggle being waged. Included in the book and footnoted materials are references to and quotes from FBI documents released years later bluntly setting forth the goals of COINTELPRO. The book contains no fewer than 40 pages of footnotes and a nearly 30-page bibliography for those who want to learn more.

(Disclosure: I was interviewed by Dr. Burton and provided him with archival materials, including FBI files on COINTELPRO and other FBI programs obtained through litigation on behalf of BPP leader and Panther 21 defendant Dhoruba Bin-Wahad.).

One of the most fascinating and heretofore unexamined aspects of the Attica uprising is Dr. Burton’s descriptions of Attica’s D-Yard during the four days of the rebellion.

 D-Yard, according to Dr. Burton, became a kind of “commune.” Freed from the literal and figurative control of prison guards, Attica’s D-yard “became an exuberant space of desalination and oneness.” It served — and serves — “as an example of what solidarity and revolutionary struggle could produce.”

A new political order was put in place. Spokespeople were elected. A security system was established. Captives assigned to that squad were responsible for the distribution of food and water and the safety of the hostages. Disputes were settled by majority vote.

This is not to say that D-Yard became a utopian enclave. But neither was it the “dictatorial” regime later described by state officials. Based upon interviews with survivors and archival material, Dr. Burton describes how “humanness” among the captives emerged in D-yard.

Captives walked D-yard in twos and threes talking and reminiscing. Leader Roger Champion recalled inmates helping each other and even “tucking some brothers in for the night.” There was “a profound desire for genuine connection for other people, the natural environment” and even the cosmos.

One of the most moving passages in the book is the story of how one inmate saw another crying in the yard. He asked what was wrong. The sobbing inmate told him how he had not seen the stars in 23 years.

Describing his and others’ feelings, Attica brother and security team leader Frank “Big Black” Smith stated “I felt good, ya know. I felt relieved. I felt, I guess, liberated.”

One of the demands put forward by the rebels was for “speedy and safe transportation to a non-imperialist country.” Those who argue that the rebellion was primarily about conditions and not fundamental societal change point to the fact that this demand was not taken seriously, even among most of the captives.

But according to Dr. Burton, once it is understood that this was an internal demand made to the Black underground, specifically the Black Liberation Army, it becomes plausible as a way of generating international solidarity. Rebelling inmates were telling warriors on the outside that the rebellion was part of what they were doing.

Following the rebellion, Attica brother Akil Al-Jundi wrote that when global anti-colonial struggles take a stand against imperialism they are taking a stand for the benefit of prisoners.

The Attica brothers “liberated themselves from an acute zone of war and, for a time, lived in a world of their own making. The world was provisional, incomplete and imperfect and yet rooted in radical principles of justice, equality, and mutuality that were more capacious than those of the world beyond the walls.”

Massacre and “Pacification”

Much has already been written about the September 13, 1971 retaking of D-yard and the massacre that followed. State actors fired 2,000 rounds of ammunition in less than 15 minutes killing 29 inmates and 10 of the hostages. What followed was, in the words of a federal court an “orgy of brutality.”

It is to the psychological underpinnings of that brutality that Dr. Burton turns. The Black insurgency presented in the Long Attica Revolt, states Dr. Burton, “hurled the symbolic White Man into a crisis and divested it of a core pillar: the politically, culturally and sexually subordinated Black male.”

The Black captives did not merely seize a prison: by doing so they sexually violated the White Man, exposed his political and sexual impotence. The acts of sexual revenge against captives that occurred later, the author writes, were designed to stabilize the gendered racial… taxonomy through which the White Man is formed and without which he vanishes into oblivion.”

Dr. Burton details only a few instances of the brutality and then only to illustrate the foregoing points. The reader is instead referred to other books on the rebellion and its aftermath and to the state archives.

If the point of the violent retaking was to dissuade captives in other facilities to engage in protests, it failed dramatically. As the author points out, there were more prison rebellions in 1972 than in any other year on record. To reassert control over the bodies and minds of the captives, a new prison strategy was necessary.

This new “pacification” strategy had four stages: expansion, humanization, diversification and programming. Following Attica, DOCS recognized that the physical layout of its prisons, reminiscent of the Jimmy Cagney movies of the 1930s, was woefully outdated.

In 1971 DOCS operated five maximum security prisons: Attica, Auburn, Great Meadow (Comstock), Green Haven and Clinton. Each facility housed 1500-2000 inmates. Each had one big yard. DOCS recognized that this design enabled captives from all parts of the prison to meet and talk. DOCS believed this could lead to another Attica.

Thus the system required “expansion.” This included construction of smaller, maximum security prisons where inmate movement — and access to other prisoners — was tightly controlled. The state government presented the plan as a boon to the economies of economically depressed areas of upstate New York.

Expansion dispersed the population across a wide geographic area, to increase the numbers of walls dividing the captives and eliminate the potential for rebellion.

“Humanization” involved instituting — or appearing to institute — internal reforms. The Attica rebellion brought to light the racist, brutal and inequitable conditions inside New York’s prisons. Large segments of the population, including those who had no sympathy for the captives’ actions, were horrified by these revelations.

The reforms served to assuage some of the hostility toward the prison system by creating an atmosphere that was safer for captives and employees alike. Captives were supplied with better clothes, food and educational possibilities. Contact visits were instituted. The inmate disciplinary system was modernized.

Dr. Burton describes how political prisoner Martin Sostre decried “showcase reforms” that were nothing more than attempts to induce the desired inmate behavior through ultimately frivolous institutional reconfigurations.”

“Central Monitoring”

Under “diversification,” the third prong of the pacification plan, power was taken from prison wardens and given to DOCS Central Office. To keep track of captives labeled “troublemakers,” DOCS instituted the Central Monitoring Case (CMC) program.

Many inmates, including virtually all of the political prisoners, were designated “Central Monitoring Cases.” While DOCS maintained that the CMC program was benign, it was used as a basis for excluding certain captives from programs and prison jobs, especially those prison jobs that brought them into regular contact with other prisoners.

This writer was the attorney in a civil rights lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Central Monitoring Case program. The case was dismissed on the ground that the captive had no constitutional right to procedural due process when designated a CMC. The program continues today.

Dr. Burton points out that DOCS’ diversification strategy was occurring at the same time as a federal program called PRISACTS. Under it, the FBI conducted surveillance and kept track of politically conscious prisoners especially those who were organizing behind and walls. Although characterized by DOCS as an information liaison program, it operated as COINTELPRO behind the wall.

Prior to Attica, the citizenry had virtually no access to state prisons except inside of the facility’s visiting room. Part of the post-Attica pacification program included the participation of students, social workers, religious organizations, and others in educational, religious and civic programs. The programs included outdoor picnics in the prison‘s main yard, art classes, advocacy for criminal justice reforms and even courses in child-rearing.

The political prisoners and politicized prisoners faced a conundrum: Should they participate in programs that did not have abolition as a goal, and were being used by prison administrators to falsely portray that “reform” and rehabilitation worked”?

Dr. Burton notes that most of the political prisoners chose to participate. But they did so under no illusion that these programs would make a positive difference. They participated in the program system because they presented an opportunity for organizing other prisoners and community volunteers.

Without Illusions

When in college I was a volunteer in the Black Studies Program inside Green Haven Prison. I can state unequivocally that most if not all of the captives I worked with had no illusions about their chances for success on proposed reforms.

Nor did they believe that if reforms were instituted that the system would fundamentally change. Indeed, those who argued for genuine change were often removed from programs based upon fabricated disciplinary charges.

While volunteering in the Black Studies Program, I met Dhoruba Bin Wahad, an acquitted defendant in the Panther 21 case then serving a life sentence on a conviction that would be later overturned. One night, after arriving at the prison for one of the weekly meetings we learned that Dhoruba was in solitary confinement and scheduled to be transferred to Attica.

We would later learn that an inmate-informant falsely claimed that there was an escape plot. After protests by attorneys and even elected officials, Dhoruba was returned to Green Haven. But later Dhoruba was moved to Clinton on what DOCS claimed was an “administrative” transfer that under federal law could not be legally challenged.

Dr. Burton recounts similar violations committed against BPP/BLA captives Albert Nuh Washington and Jalil Muntaquin.

War on Prisoners’ Minds

The book’s final chapter is titled “The War on Black Revolutionaries’ Minds” and reads like a gothic novel. It details behavior modification techniques and experiments used by the system in the mid-1970s that prison officials hoped would force prisoners to abandon revolutionary thinking.

It specifically and graphically details the ordeal inflicted on Masai Mugmuk who was involuntarily placed in DOCS 3x program. Through isolation and administration of drugs to “cure” his revolutionary beliefs, the system hoped that it would change Mugmuk.

Yet Dr. Burton stresses that once again, the system underestimated the captives. They recognized the program for what it was and to fought against it even while participating in it.

The captives’ resistance to this war on Black revolutionary minds “illuminates Attica as a metonym of protracted struggle.” These “prisoncrats,” according to Dr. Burton, “are inimically opposed to the idea that ordinary people are capable of thinking for themselves, deciding what is in their own best interest or autonomously acting on their own thoughts.”

Attica is not simply historical. “Attica Is.”

For political prisoners, the failure of the 3x programs and other behavior modification tactics resulted in DOCS’ old standby: increased isolation. Dr. Burton notes that DOCS had an unofficial policy that no two prisoners with ties to the BPP/BLA would be kept at the same prison.

It was the prison expansion boom started by Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1980 that made this possible. When one of the political prisoners had to be moved, others in turn were moved to create room. This type of “musical chairs” was utilized regularly.

Dr. Burton states that the lesson to be learned from the violence inflicted at Attica, and the “humanizing” reforms instituted thereafter, is that counterinsurgency tactics “are constantly being weaponized against the capacity for radical thought.”

To portray prison rebellions and the state’s response as struggles over “conditions,” therefore, widely misses the mark. The revolutionary character of the rebellions — which include the demand for better conditions — truly represents the nature of the prison struggle.

As Dr. Burton states in the Introduction, “[b]y recasting the prison war and tracing the collision of the Long Attica Revolt against imperial technologies of pacification Tip of the Spear provides a counter history of the contemporary carceral landscape.”

Dr. Burton offers no solutions, acknowledging that to do so would be a “fool’s errand.” But by placing the prison struggle as part of a domestic war, this book makes an enormous contribution to efforts to fight against prison expansion and for true abolition.

July-August 2024, ATC 231

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