Review of Tip Of The Spear by Orisanmi Burton

I decenter these duly noted, juridically mediated, and scholastically authorized sources of evidence, focussing instead on “discredited,” “inadmissible,” and “untrustworthy” modes of knowledge, analysis and narration. I construct my argument by thinking and theorizing with Black rebels, both living and dead. 

Orisanmi Burton, Tip of the Spear: Black Radicalism, Prison Repression, and the Long Attica Revolt (Oakland, University of California Press, 2023)

For most of us who remember at all the history of the Attica Prison uprising in September 1971, we likely think of an event lasting roughly four days, involving hostage taking, and then massive repression associated with state power and its monopoly of violence. Others will recognize the pop cultural references to Attica, Al Pacino’s famously improvised scene from Dog Day Afternoon perhaps. But never are we encouraged to understand the seeds of the Attica uprising itself, less so as Burton demands, as the “Long Attica Revolt,” part of an on-going international anti-colonial rebellion. In my own more myopic consideration of this glorious book, I see Burton demonstrating how that rebellion challenged the communicative purpose of the prison and, indeed, prisons themselves. In fact, what Burton explicates in Tip of the Spear and this extant process of rebellion is the essential purpose of communication or media in a colony — suppression. By centering the incarceration of Black people, and revolutionaries specifically, Burton does wonders in developing an interpretive lens for approaching any and all study and offers what should be a preferred approach to any form of communication, media or persuasion studies.

There is, no doubt, that much will be said and written about this book’s impact on various respective fields. Black or Africana Studies, certainly. History, political science, sociology, and more: all can lay claim to the brilliance of this work, and for any study involving that of mass incarceration specifically. This book will be canonized. Equally certain is that calling Burton’s work my favorite on the history of U.S. mass communication or propaganda studies will cause some initial confusion. Tip of the Spear makes no overt claim to be doing the work of exploring the particular history or politics of mass communication research, nor does Burton address himself specifically to the rise of the field, and by no means does Tip of the Spear spend any time engaging debates within the field or its current or historical impact on our media environment. Rather, what Burton does is develop the political context of the period, the very moment in time during which mass communication research was institutionalized in the U.S. In so doing, what Burton helps expose further is the true nature of that research or how best to interpret those histories and, most importantly, the colonial project today’s more fully developed and imposted media environment serves.

There are those, of course, who have produced work specific to the field of mass communication with an appropriate focus on political economy. The work of Christopher Simpson’s Science of Coercion does this well, as does Thomas Glander’s Origins of Mass Communication Research, even more recently Yasha Levine’s Surveillance Valley. Alford and Secker’s National Security Cinema, also more recent, cannot be overlooked nor should many others not mentioned here. What separates Burton’s work, however, is its particular focus on the colonization of Black America, the emergence of a carceral system largely in response to that colonization, and then particularly, the function played by these prisons in suppressing the potential spread of revolutionary consciousness. Readers interested in these related courses of study will note how often Burton makes reference to propaganda, communication, framing, pacification, consciousness, narrative, surveillance, and control. Moreover, particular readers will be struck by Burton’s emphasis on various forms of unconventional or immaterial warfare; psychological, brain, information, or cognitive.

Make no mistake, Burton does produce in Tip of the Spear plenty that would fall well, if not neatly or comfortably, within more traditional media studies analyses. For instance, as many media critics have done, Burton takes a moment to show how once again the New York Times, the vaunted “paper of record,” engaged in what feels like the routine production of a “counterfactual” that cannot be fully termed a “lie” because “… it exposes a disavowed truth.” And then with particular care and the corrective Black radical frame intact, Burton explains that truth, putting the context of Black captivity, prisons themselves, and the revolt each inspire back at its proper center. The truth was not merely the Black uprising or the counter-violence meted out as result; it was the distortions by the Times of that counter-violence and its original reporting that Burton exposes as key and which many in the study of communication are discouraged from ever even considering; that the accused “ … murdered, mutilated, and sexually violated White Man, exposed his political and sexual impotence , and forced him to autocannibalize the ultimate symbol of his masculine identity” (125). Dominant narratives are essential to power, and distortions in reporting are not reducible to journalistic or political bias, profit, or the bottom line. “Capitalist social relations,” as Burton also writes, “are entangled with these racial-gender dynamics” (123) and the colonial settings in which they all play out.

Further, Burton’s discussion of the “cognitive sciences,” all of which is shown with meticulous detail to be of the utmost concern to state officials, intelligence agencies, and the political elite, truly upends so much of the encouraged and conventional approaches to understanding media (carceral studies, political economy, Black history). However, what Burton does so well is to expertly connect those inside prison processes to what is intended for the rest of us outside those walls, but still inside many others, even if imperceptible. Burton cites prison officials responding to criticism of their relative softness in allowing each cell to contain televisions by noting a preference that prisoners be endlessly staring at screens rather than plotting their next revolt. And Burton tells us of the digital tablets with tailored apps that are being provided today to prisoners by Securus Technologies (“secure us?”) along with Global Tel Link which assure greater degrees of “surveillance and control” (pp. 227-28). Obviously, there are outside-the-walls applications of these technologies, perhaps this is even one case where, briefly reversing Burton’s focus, the macro is made micro. The effectiveness with which entire nations, hundreds of millions, can be manipulated and monitored, reduced to an already oppressed community further repressed inside prisons, may also be the case. Either way, Burton’s insistence via detailed focus that readers reduce the capacity for power to create the false dichotomy of “inside” and “outside” is primary.

Burton opens the book with a reference to Queen Mother Moore explaining the condition of “re-captivity” experienced by an already captive colonized Black/African population being further suppressed in U.S. prisons. More to the point, Burton demonstrates the “counterinsurgency” purposes played by prisons — more than just in the physical sense of bondage and caging, but as sites of consciousness warfare, and assaults on radical organization or even thought. Indeed, ideas, concepts, consciousness, cognition, behavior are the primary targets as identified in Burton’s work. As he writes, “physical capture did not equate control.” Control, that is, reducing the capacity for captives to develop revolutionary consciousness followed by behavior could not be guaranteed by simply caging and even abusing the physical body. True control required sexual terror, drugs, but ultimately through the shaping of a communicative environment suited to suppression.

Letters would be blocked. Literature denied. People forced into and then out of contact with other captives. “Neutralization” was and is always key. Burton notes this and the various ways neutralizing target populations would occur; assassination, poisoning, isolation, sexual violence and torture, for sure. But also in the restriction of communication and the deployment of psychological warfare tactics all geared toward the reduction of rebellious capacity by restricting communication. In response, forms of unsanctioned communication were (are) necessary, even forcing new languages of liberation to be constructed by prisoners using symbols, stick figure drawings, etc. to reconstitute the ever-important need in war to maintain secure communication. What Burton is ultimately offering is an important alternate view of what Simpson has described as the foundation of U.S. mass communications research, or the view of “communication as domination,” and shows a parallel development of that perspective of the function of media emerging at precisely the same time within U.S. prisons.

Though its history is as old as humanity, weaponized messaging saw a marked increase in funding, research, and deployment in the years following the Second World War. The United States was determined to include media and communication as more than just a component of war, but essentially additional arms of the military itself. Should they be at all unfamiliar, readers of Burton’s masterpiece should consider as they do that many of the tactics of unconventional war described as taking place in prisons were themselves being developed as research projects by and for the highest levels of academia and the federal government. Much more work can and must be done following the breadcrumbs left by Burton showing real overlaps in broad political concerns of those in power and described as well in the volumes of critical mass communication research. Many of the same players show up from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, to those engaged in military research, to intelligence agencies and specifically project MK-Ultra, and all of it with the same goals of shaping public opinion and suppressing radicalism.

Those nominally free may experience these processes as tailored ads, mind-numbing entertainment programming, popular culture, punditry, political leadership, or news. But the end result varies little from what Burton describes as the intent to suppress radical political conscious, militant internationalism, and ultimately the rebellious behavior that ensues. At its core, of course, is the fear of revolt. The immediacy of war in prisons, the inability to mask the conditions of the captives inside prison walls cause an adjustment to the form or severity of the manipulation but the core concerns are the same. Burton brilliantly notes, for instance, the overt relationship between the expressed goals of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), to suppress rebellion, divert energies away from radical conscious, and to, of course, “prevent the rise of a Black messiah.” These goals, with the added specificity to “neutralize” an enemy internal to the U.S. , particularly those in prisons, are importantly shown by Burton to be at the base of a desire in the U.S. to mass incarcerate.

Again, Burton’s work poses a real challenge to existing approaches to the study of prisons or even movements to abolish them. What I am proposing is simply that the communicative component to Burton’s argument poses a similar challenge to those of us involved in various aspects of communication, media, or journalism as well. Debates currently taking place over “agency,” “media as entertainment,” or arguments over “professional journalistic objectivity,” and certainly the impact of social media all need reworking in light of what Burton has produced. Never mind the potential for us all to be McLuhan’s fish who cannot possibly have discovered water, we are fully conscious human beings not able to conceive of a world itself shaped by a need of U.S. empire to construct, as Burton explains, a national “carceral expansion” of the 1980s and 90s as a “… direct response to Black rebellion behind the walls” during the 1960s and 70s.

By centering the voices of Black revolutionaries and political prisoners Burton is able to expertly draw out this connection. “The BLA (Black Liberation Army) was an idea,” according to Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, a member of the BLA, Black Panther Party, considered a leader and terrorist by prison authorities for decades and also a key subject in Burton’s work. The BLA, as Burton clarifies, was targeted by prison authorities and we would have to say by the entire societal apparatus of cognition, “not merely as a coherent organization, but as an idea” (original emphasis, 186).

These lead the many reasons I am arguing for this book’s true overall value and particularly to communication studies of whatever form. Media and journalism are not produced out of democracy, professionalism, or objectivity. They are products of power born of a context of colonialism, national oppression, and war. Beyond centering world majority people or even the particular experiences of anti-Blackness, Tip of the Spear centers Black revolutionary warfare and warriors seeking to explain them and their conflict as they experienced a form of prison authority meant for extrapolation to us all.

It is wildly important, an imperative, that no reader of this review allow its shortcomings to in any way discourage their deep engagement with Burton’s magnificent work. Tip of the Spear is a massive accomplishment of scholarship and political analysis. I am wanting to be intentionally bombastic, hyperbolic, even propagandistic, when I encourage, in fact, dare everyone to read this book. You must.

Originally published here.