“Prisons are War”: The Long Attica Revolt and Abolition Internationalism



In 2017, we interviewed Orisanmi Burton for our 12th issue, Racialized Incarceration (July-Aug 2017). Six years later, he published his research in an important book entitled Tip of the Spear: Black Radicalism, Prison Repression, and the Long Attica Revolt. In it, he differs from the usual historical accounts of the 1971 Attica rebellion that saw close to 1,300 incarcerated people take over the space of the prison for four days, forming what George Jackson calls “a Black Commune,” a hundred years after the 1871 Paris Commune. Like the Paris Commune, the Attica rebellion was repressed in blood, killing twenty-nine rebels and ten hostages (prison guards). Rather than reading this historical event in its punctual manifestation and through a prison reformist framework, Orisanmi’s book centers the analyses of the rebels themselves, as well as the Black liberation movement and the global struggle against colonialism. He describes the numerous prison uprisings of 1970 and 1971 in the State of New York to form what he calls the Long Attica Revolt. He also allows us to envision the life organized in the liberated space of the prison yard, from where the rebels can watch the stars, share meals, organize politically, build improbable defense weapons, or even celebrate their sexuality. The terminology he uses throughout the book strongly reinforces the revolutionary framework through which the Revolt was constructed. This manifests through calling incarcerated people “captives” and those who take part in the uprising, “rebels,” through mobilizing concepts of political Blackness, Pan-Africanism, and Third Worldism, or through using the rebels’ chosen names that pay tribute to the history of decolonization, Black liberation, and Islam.

In August 2023, Millennials Are Killing Capitalism recorded a three-hour long podcast interview with Orisanmi about his book, which constructs a helpful toolbox for readers. This issue of The Funambulist was imagined with Orisanmi’s contribution to it and we agreed on publishing fragments of this interview (about 20% of it). We are very grateful to the MAKC comrades for allowing us to do so, and would like to point out that their important questions have been drastically reduced to accommodate this format. The following fragments were chosen to introduce the book’s methodology, the importance of Orisanmi’s argument that “prison is war,” the foundations of the Long Attica Revolt, the mindset of the rebels, as well as the envisioning of an abolition internationalism.

Burton Funambulist 4
A rally to support the Attica brothers and political prisoners circa 1974. / Liz Fink Archive.

MAKC: To start, could you just say a bit about your overall methodology and approach to this book, and how it differs from conventional narratives of Attica, as well as some of the people and events this approach pointed you towards?

ORISANMI BURTON: Absolutely. There’s a dominant story of Attica, and the rise of the US carceral state more broadly, and it’s been told and retold numerous times over the years. You know, there’s several documentaries about Attica. There’s a Pulitzer Prize winning book about Attica, there are books that were written by participants and books written by observers, for instance Tom Wicker’s book, A Time to Die (1975), which is actually a phenomenal book… They all have their strengths and weaknesses, as does my book. But they have an important thing in common, which is that the specificities of that prison as well as the rebellion that happened in Attica and its repression tend to be exceptionalized. There’s been minimal effort really to explore what was happening in other prisons in New York and beyond and how there were relationships being formed, material relationships, ideological relationships being formed across the entire carceral system, and how that sort of shaped what emerged in Attica, between September 9 And September 13, 1971, which is the official chronology of the Attica rebellion.

Another thing is that the Panthers and the Young Lords are typically mentioned as part of the context that inspired the Attica rebellion, but that’s pretty much it; the sense that there was a general mood of rebellion and resistance in the air—which of course there was, but it was much deeper than that. And there tends to be no mention whatsoever of any connection between the Black Liberation Army and Attica.