Prison News Service – a Bulldozer Publication
Over the past forty years, an amorphous constellation of prisoner solidarity and prison abolitionist organizations have produced a tradition of theoretical, strategic, and tactical knowledge that is still being built upon—though often unknowingly—by grassroots anti-prison movements today. Yet only a handful of scholars seem interested in studying this intellectual genealogy and its relationship to counter-state, anti-racist and anti-violence politics today.  This gap in the record of North American social movements creates a vacuum where our memory of concrete practical experience should reside. After all, it is upon knowledge of the failures and successes of past struggles where our politics must be developed, experimented in practiced, and accordingly modified.
The North American prison struggle—centrally radical opposition to the U.S.-led regime of imprisonment—is unique in the fact that written letters, radical newspapers, and other types of politicized print culture not only has served as a medium for political education, but has also been fundamental to the self-actualization of the struggle’s various iterations and forms. Given how organizing across prison walls is practiced in the context of unmitigated state terror and repression, periodicals such as The Insurgent, Freedom Now!, Prison News Service, Prison Legal News, Raze the Walls, Break the Chains, and The Abolitionist and the work of grassroots publishing groups like Toronto’s Bulldozer or the Southside Chicago Anarchist Black Cross Zine Distro offer an epistemology unique in its conception of how present-day power relations, movement-building, and domestic counter-insurgency operate.
This short post examines the way in which Prison News Service: a Bulldozer Publication operated as a technology of massline political education, as well as a mechanism of insurgent cohesion by means of the written word. The limits to community imposed by the prison regime (its concrete, razor wire, and steel, but also carceral violence at the level of culture and psyche) serve to sever and fragment the form of “inside-outside” organizations in ways sometimes only permeable by way of writing and the circulation of literature by-way-of mail. This particular reliance on, what Sharon Luk (2017) calls, “the life of paper” has out of necessity driven the development of one of the most consistent streams of analysis generated over the last four decades. This sustained knowledge production has been a accompanied by an unapparelled commitment to the criticism and adaptation of certain political lines first innovated by national liberationists, anti-imperialists, and sovereignty activists between the late-1960s and early-1980s.
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 extremely sloppy research notes and will continue to grow and change as my obsession with this project endures. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the editors of Prison News Service weaponized the prison rag as a medium for community organizing and maintaining solidarity with PP/POWS in U.S. and Canadian 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 staff at 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.
An iteration of the blurbs shown below appear in each copy of this radical North American newspaper, which might provide some more context to the project’s objectives:
Now that we have some background, I would like to spend a little time breaking down some material qualities of the collective’s rhetorical and aesthetic practices. Bulldozer was innovative in its cultural praxis. The politics embodied by the collective demonstrates a commitment to disarticulating the alleged “inside/outside binary” that liberal reform movements at this time began to impose on the imagination of anti-prison activisms. 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. In less academicist terms, the paper attempted to bind together a variety of “free” and “unfree” worlds by representing the relationship between incarcerated and non-incarcerated peoples as forming a single entity and cohesive force.
The cover art of Prison News Service is one of its standout features. But it is the unique ways the paper facilitated the circulation of revolutionary principles and 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 ideological demystification of the mechanics of gendered racist criminalization—its deconstruction of how colonized and oppressed peoples are figured as the antithesis of the “good” civilian-subject in an era of multiculturalist white supremacy and “post-racial” state discourse.
Each issue grapples with the who’s, what’s, where’s, how’s, when’s, and why’s of a state-condoned culture of racial/anti-black domestic warfare as it traces the technologies and processes of policing that overdetermine contemporary social formation. Articles in the 1993 and 1994 issues are exceptional in their attempts to target the imperialist discourse of “anti-terrorism.” These issues also rigorously unpack the anti-Black racism girding American society’s reactionary anti-gang movement.
These maneuvers are symptomatic of a more general narrative-strategy embraced by the Bulldozer collective that centers an ungendered figure of the insurgent subject as its central subjective referent. This is in opposition to the liberal rhetorical strategies of framing struggles of imprisonment in terms of the “innocent” or “guilty.” It was revolutionary struggle against U.S. colonialism and imperialism, not simply against the existence of prisons, the formed the principle objective the paper’s editors and contributors. One might say its discourse is qualitatively unassimilable into the normative political cultures of white/multicultural US civil society.
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). Therefore, one could argue that what drives, shapes, and permeates the pages of Prison News Service and the Marionette is what Rodríguez (2006) refers to as “radical prison praxis.” By this, Rodríguez is referring to the “embodied theoretical practices that emerge from imprisoned liberationists’ sustained and historic confrontations with, insurrection against, and dis- or re-articulations 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 demystifying the normalized structures of America’s contemporary paradigm of domestic policing and war.
What is the worth of studying the modalities that circulate radical prison praxis? Would mapping the infrastructures, transits, and devices that facilitate the circulation/dissemination of this discourse 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 and Native sovereignty, but also anarchist struggles against the white supremacist state. Connecting histories of chattel slavery, colonialism, and (U.S.) imperialism to the present-tense contexts of (prison) slavery, (neo)colonialism, and (NATO/FUKUS) imperialism is the stuff of PNS.
The continuities of struggles against settler 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 revolutionary community organizing. Looking at the print culture and pedagogical technologies 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 or alterity in the historical record, as opposed to looking for continuities between epochs and political forms, is an important skill to develop as a scholar of radical movements, especially for the historian of their practical 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 and hetero-patriarchal analytics in the North American context. 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 and masculinist violence to Black/New Afrikan nationalist 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 liberation struggle, and the North American anti-imperialist struggle more holistically.
(To be certain, if we really look closely at the “types” of Black masculinities that appear throughout Bulldozer’s publications over the years, a sense of complexity permeates an archive that is often given ideologically overdetermined and essentialist inscriptions of egoism and sexism by mainstream Black culture critique.)
Both “nationalism” and “internationalism” thus 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 an extra-national base. It is more about the collectivity that national culture provides the masses for historical movement, than the assumption of a permanence to its existing conception and form. It is something beyond the “nation” thing as it is commonly interpreted. In its turn, “internationalism,” appears more akin to a globalization of connections between differently situated communities of struggle, which could or could possibly not be “nations.” Again, it is more about the potential for collectivity that these concepts present, rather than the permanence of their existing modes of self-definition.
In this convergence of revolutionary nationalism on the “inside” and free-world prison activists (mostly embodying an anarchist and emergent abolitionist tendency), we see the development of a conceptual framework and collective cultural basis for insurgent cohesion to materialize between a unity of pluralities—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. Thanks for reading. The next stage in this project is trying to reconstruct a history of the Anarchist Black Cross Network in North America, and the Anarchist Black Cross Federation in particular.