Prison News Service – a Bulldozer Publication
Back Issue Catalogue
Since the bloody close of the “civil rights era” and the U.S. government’s domestic crackdown on oppressed people’s uprisings and liberation movements, there has been a steadily growing and committed network of movements building popular opposition to the U.S. white supremacist carceral state. These interwoven communities of struggle have left a dispersed and unorganized but massive archive of print culture, including newspapers, books, organizational documents, flyers, zines, photographs, and assorted ephemera that i am currently attempting to synthesize over the next three years for a dissertation project. Only a handful of scholars ever pay serious or critical/reflexive attention to the record of experience of prison activists after the 1970s. There is essentially an ideological vacuum from the 80s onward wherein a genealogy of anti-prison and prison abolitionist traditions should reside and be widespread. This blank spot in the public memory of counter-carceral revolt bears great implications in the way scholars theoretically comprehend the landscape of social movements against racist state violence in the United States today.
Scholars of this timespan, from the 1980s onward tend to fixate on the mass expansion of the state’s repressive capacities. Very few consider the dialectical relationship between state terror and people’s struggles to resist. What might we gain from understanding how movements of resistance as unfolding simultaneously within this state-determined historical trajectory, always-already, non-stop? Where our recollection of vibrant and steadfast day-to-day grassroots organizing should rest there is only a sensory-overloading-spectacle of massive government repression and the erection of the prison state. What exactly has been the political impact of all these different organizations, media collectives, and fighting formations that have arose to contest the PIC?
This post marks my first attempt to conceptualize the place of Prison News Service: a Bulldozer Publication/The Marionette in a genealogy of radical opposition to the U.S. prison regime and industrial complex. It is derived from research notes and will continue to grow and change as my intellectual obsessions endure. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the editors of Prison News Service weaponized the prison rag as a medium for radical-to-revolutionary organizing in North American prisons. Issues also included The Marionette, a publication edited solely by white anti-imperialist political prison/prisoner of war Bill Dunne. Some background on the editorial collective Bulldozer is provided by the Freedom Archives.
The Freedom Archives. write:
The Bulldozer collective was formed in February 1980 when 4- 5 activists from various places in southern Ontario decided to put out newsletters (Prison News Service/ The Marionette) dealing with prison-related issues.
As an article in a 1995 Prison Legal News states:
“Bill has never stopped struggling since his arrest and imprisonment in October of 1979. The Washington state system sent him to the federal system simply for editing WPNS (Washington Prison News Service), a prisoner run newspaper. After the escape attempt in 1983 he was eventually sent to the notorious control unit of U.S.P Marion that existed at that time which was essentially a prison within a prison. After arriving there in 1985, he was there for the next 7.5 years. While he was there he edited the Marionette, an important newsletter that exposed the destructive conditions of that prison. The Marionette grew into Prison News Service which was a paper that was much more broadly focused.
Also, in deep solidarity with all political prisoners and the movements they all do come from Bill has contributed to projects that work to help give a voice to political prisoners and help provide material support as well. Some of those projects include 4strugglemag (4strugglemag.org), and Running Down the Walls, an annual 5k run fundraiser where all the money raised goes towards prisoners the Anarchist Black Cross does support work for.”
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Bulldozer was innovative in its praxis. The politics embodied by the collective demonstrates a commitment to disarticulating the alleged “inside/outside” binary that liberal reform movements impose on emergent prison radicalism. Back issues of Prison News Service contain an analysis that challenges the myth of the prison as a reified “elsewhere,” opting instead for a discursive bulldozing of the regime’s most visible institutional strictures — its concrete, steel, and razor-wire.
The cover art of Prison News Service is a standout feature. But it is the unique principles of struggle and discursive-political effects of the newspaper’s content that is of interest here. In my opinion, the most striking feature of Prison News Service is its aesthetic and ideological demystification of the mechanics of gendered racist, and class criminalization. In some sense the work of the newspaper could be conceptualized as a deconstructive medium of a decolonial, anti-capitalist pedagogy and communication.
Each issue grapples with the who’s, what’s, where’s, how’s, when’s, and why’s of a state-condoned culture of genocidal domestic warfare, tracing the technologies and processes of policing and racist incarceration that overdetermine contemporary social existence. Articles in the 1993/1994 issues begin to target the imperialist discourse of “anti-terror” and rigorously unpack the anti-Black racism girding civil society’s (liberal-to-progressive) “anti-gang” movement.
These maneuvers are symptomatic of a more general narrative-strategy embraced by the Bulldozer collective that centers the “insurgent” (as opposed to the innocent/guilty) social-historical subject. This privileging of a combatant subject in perpetual guerrilla war against the authoritarian state radically upends civil society’s conceptions of “assimilability” and “incorporation” (touchstones in the Establishment Left’s lexis of co-optation). This is because what drives, shapes, and permeates the pages of Prison News Service and the Marionette is what Rodríguez (2006) refers to as “radical prison praxis.” That is, the “embodied theoretical practices that emerge from imprisoned liberationists’ sustained and historic confrontations with, insurrection against, and dis- or rearticulations of the regimes of (legitimated and illicit) state violence inscribed and signified by the regime of the prison” (107). I hope in future posts to unpack this point more thoroughly. For now, it is alright to say the first notable aspect of the PNS project is its novel attempts at discursive-political counter-war.
What is the worth of studying the modalities of prison praxis? Would mapping the infrastructures, transits, and devices that mediate the circulation/dissemination of prison praxis be a useful endeavor? What could such a study disclose? The Bulldozer collective curates a textual medium that traces historical continuities between struggles over social power, specifically Black/Third World liberation, Native sovereignty, and anarchist struggles against the capitalist, white supremacist settler state. Connecting histories of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism to the present-tense contexts of (prison) slavery, (neo)colonialism, and (NATO) imperialism is the stuff of PNS. The continuities of struggles against state power make themselves known through rather simple and subtle analytical moves. These gestures include connecting past to present-tense movements through storytelling (memory work) and promoting the work of imprisoned and non-imprisoned PP/POW solidarity organizers. This latter effort is well documented in books such as Can’t Jail the Spirit, NOBO’s Black Prison Movements U.S.A., Chinosole’s Schooling the Generations in the Politics of Prison, and Elihu Rosenblatt’s (ed.) Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis.
Though not a demographically Black editorial staff, sustaining a tradition of Black radical becoming was major feature of the newspaper, both latent (unintended) and manifest (intended). “Manifest” in that the writings of imprisoned radicals were strategically placed to generate consciousness with some sense of motive will towards Black liberation. “Latent” in that the representation of radicals such as Assata Shakur clearly influence who in fact these continuities can be read through. That is, such names and figures carry a certain irremovable marking/branding inflicted by the prison regime, which in turn refracts and makes them examples for future generations to model themselves on. Each prisoner whose words/art graced the pages of PNS connects one generation to another—this is the spiraling, converging, diverging, and vacillating of social and historical movement that we call the revolutionary prison struggle.
Contrary to common narrations of the prison movement’s “low ebb” in between 1970s and 2000s, my engagement with Prison News Service/The Marionette shows how the 80s and early-90s witnessed a blossoming of insurrectionary intellectual labor and a proliferation of physical confrontations with the prison regime. Largely presumed a period of downturn or regression in prison activism, the 1980s and 1990s mark a rather vibrant period of movement-building and experimentation with the methodological art/science of social revolution. Looking at the print culture and pedagogical architecture of the prison struggle during this historic moment is an interesting place to begin. But regardless of the historiographic connectors that are visible throughout the PNS archive, what is most interesting are the discontinuities that this newspaper brings to the fore.
Sitting with “difference” as it cuts, disaggregates, and rearticulates alleged continuities is an important skill to develop as a political theorist or historian, especially for the historian of ideas. What are the differences in analysis between the 1970s and our present era? How does difference over time and in space shape out interpretation of the struggle. Or, in fact, how does continuity influence the strategies and tactics that are deemed acceptable or excessive, reformist or radical, rebellious or revolutionary? Would difference-centered analysis change this for better or worse? Again, these are much larger (meta) questions which I hope to address in future posts.
When reading PNS, one finds a rebuttal to the dominant conception of “nationalism” and “internationalism” as limited analytics in the discourse of Canadian/U.S. political progressivism. To some degree, Bulldozer’s weaving of revolutionary nationalism into an overwhelmingly anarchist publication poses a unique problem for theorists who a priori assign the connotations of sexism, masculinist violence, patriarchy, paternalism, and phallocentrism to Black/New Afrikan political forms. There are frequent amendments to articles throughout every issue that demonstrate a mass-based will-toward-reflexivity among the authors vis-a-vis the gender and sexual dimensions of the Black/New Afrikan prison struggle, and the North American prison struggle more holistically. Side-note and criticism: if we really look closely at the “types” of masculinities that bubble up in Bulldozer’s publications over the years, a sense of complexity permeates an archive that is often given essentialist inscriptions for male egoism and sexism by mainstream Black culture critique.
Both “nationalism” and “internationalism” emerge in PNS and The Marionette much closer to what I would consider a correct approach to anti-systemic movement building in a global register. The “national” base — among a multiplicity of cultural bases wherein the masses collectivize and engage in revolutionary self-activity — is more akin to a extra-national base. It is something beyond the “nation” thing as it is commonly interpreted. Internationalism, here, appears more akin to a globalization of connections between differently situated communities of struggle, which could or could possibly not be “nations.” In this convergence of revolutionary nationalism on the “inside” and free-world prison activists (mostly embodying an emergent abolitionist tendency), we see the development of a conceptual framework and collective cultural basis for insurgent cohesion to materialize between a unity of plural activist forms. All organized, of course, by the objectives of smashing the white supremacist police/prison state.
Finally, each issue of PNS has a resource guide on the closing pages, which includes addresses for prisoners to write in and practice support across a variety of different concerns. When reading through this collection, the most striking thing for me is how apparent the newspaper operated as a point of building and organizing across “inside” and “outside” geographies, a role played more recently by organizations like the Oakland based Prison Activist Resource Center (PARC), whom provide a similar service in the face of stark barriers to funding and limits in its communicative reach.