So You’re Thinking about Becoming an Abolitionist
So You’re Thinking about Becoming an Abolitionist
LEVEL, October 2020
Today, more people are discussing and contemplating prison abolition than ever before. Decades of collective organizing have brought us to this moment: some are newly aware that prisons, policing, and the criminal punishment system in general are racist, oppressive, and ineffective.
However, some might be wondering, “Is abolition too drastic? Can we really get rid of prisons and policing all together?” The short answer: We can. We must. We are.
Prison-industrial complex abolition is a political vision, a structural analysis of oppression, and a practical organizing strategy. While some people might think of abolition as primarily a negative project—“Let’s tear everything down tomorrow and hope for the best”—PIC abolition is a vision of a restructured society in a world where we have everything we need: food, shelter, education, health, art, beauty, clean water, and more things that are foundational to our personal and community safety.
Every vision is also a map. As freedom fighter Kwame Ture taught us, “When you see people call themselves revolutionary always talking about destroying, destroying, destroying but never talking about building or creating, they’re not revolutionary. They do not understand the first thing about revolution. It’s creating.” PIC abolition is a positive project that focuses, in part, on building a society where it is possible to address harm without relying on structural forms of oppression or the violent systems that increase it.
Some people may ask, “Does this mean that I can never call the cops if my life is in serious danger?” Abolition does not center that
question. Instead, abolition challenges us to ask “Why do we have no other well-resourced options?” and pushes us to creatively consider how we can grow, build, and try other avenues to reduce harm. Repeated attempts to improve the sole option offered by the state, despite how consistently corrupt and injurious it has proven itself, will neither reduce nor address the harm that actually required the call. We need more and effective options for the greatest number of people.
Let’s begin our abolitionist journey not with the question “What do we have now, and how can we make it better?” Instead, let’s ask, “What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?” If we do that, then boundless possibilities of a more just world await us.
An abolitionist journey ignites other questions capable of meaningful and transformative pathways: What work do prisons and policing actually do? Most people assume that incarceration helps to reduce violence and crime, thinking, “The criminal punishment system might be racist, sexist, classist, ableist, and unfair, but it at least keeps me safe from violence and crime.”
Facts and history tell a different story: Increasing rates of incarceration have a minimal impact on crime rates. Research and common sense suggest that economic precarity is correlated with higher crime rates. Moreover, crime and harm are not synonymous. All that is criminalized isn’t harmful, and all harm isn’t necessarily criminalized. For example, wage theft by employers isn’t generally criminalized, but it is definitely harmful.
Even if the criminal punishment system were free of racism, classism, sexism, and other isms, it would not be capable of effectively addressing harm. For example, if we want to reduce (or end) sexual and gendered violence, putting a few perpetrators in prison does little to stop the many other perpetrators. It does nothing to change a culture that makes this harm imaginable, to hold the individual perpetrator accountable, to support their transformation, or to meet the needs of the survivors.
A transformative justice movement led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color survivors has emerged in the past two decades to offer a different vision for ending violence and transforming our communities.
A world without harm isn’t possible and isn’t what an abolitionist vision purports to achieve. Rather, abolitionist politics and practice
contend that disposing of people by locking them away in jails and prisons does nothing significant to prevent, reduce, or transform harm in the aggregate. It rarely, if ever, encourages people to take accountability for their actions. Instead, our adversarial court system discourages people from ever acknowledging, let alone taking responsibility for, the harm they have caused. At the same time, it allows us to avoid our own responsibilities to hold each other accountable, instead delegating it to a third party—one that has been built to hide away social and political failures. An abolitionist imagination takes us along a different path than if we try to simply replace the PIC with similar structures.
None of us has all of the answers, or we would have ended oppression already. But if we keep building the world we want, trying new things, and learning from our mistakes, new possibilities emerge.
Here’s how to begin.
First, when we set about trying to transform society, we must remember that we ourselves will also need to transform. Our imagination of what a different world can be is limited. We are deeply entangled in the very systems we are organizing to change. White supremacy, misogyny, ableism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia exist everywhere. We have all so thoroughly internalized these logics of oppression that if oppression were to end tomorrow, we would be likely to reproduce previous structures. Being intentionally in relation to one another, a part of a collective, helps to not only imagine new worlds, but also to imagine ourselves differently. Join some of the many organizations, faith groups, and ad hoc collectives that are working to learn and unlearn, for example, what it feels like to actually be safe or those that are naming and challenging white supremacy and racial capitalism.
Second, we must imagine and experiment with new collective structures that enable us to take more principled action, such as embracing collective responsibility to resolve conflicts. We can learn lessons from revolutionary movements, like Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra), that have noted that when we create social structures that are less hierarchical and more transparent, we reduce violence and harms.
Third, we must simultaneously engage in strategies that reduce contact between people and the criminal legal system. Abolitionists
regularly engage in organizing campaigns and mutual aid efforts that move us closer to our goals. We must remember that the goal is not to create a gentler prison and policing system because, as I have noted, a gentler prison and policing system cannot adequately address harm. Instead, we want to divest from these systems as we create the world in which we want to live.
Fourth, as scholar and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore notes, building a different world requires that we not only change how we address harm but also that we change everything. The PIC is linked in its logics and operation with all other systems—from how students are pushed out of schools when they don’t perform as expected to how people with disabilities are excluded from our communities and the ways in which workers are treated as expendable in our capitalist system.
Changing everything might sound daunting, but it also means there are many places to start, infinite opportunities to collaborate, and endless imaginative interventions and experiments to create. Let’s begin our abolitionist journey not with the question “What do we have now, and how can we make it better?” Instead, let’s ask, “What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?” If we do that, then boundless possibilities of a more just world await us.
The New Inquiry, June 2015
“Ms. K, they got me again.”
Six words set up the familiar routine. A car ride to the station. An unwanted and unwelcome conversation with the officer at the desk. Rudeness, contempt, and that awful perma-smirk. Waiting in anticipation; false alarms. A reprieve: an escape without ransom. More waiting. Finally, the bowed head and slumped shoulders of a young Black man walking toward me. No tears. Where are the tears? Another court date or maybe not. Another record to expunge, always. Then it starts all over again.
I dread summer. It’s the season of hypersurveillance and even more aggressive policing of young people of color in my neighborhood.
The urban summer criminalization merry-go-round—a kind of demented child’s play. Quotidian terrorism in the service of law and order. Low-intensity police riots against young Black people. My anecdotal observations are supported by empirical data. The ACLU of Illinois says that last summer, based on population, Chicago police made “far more street stops than New York City police did at the height of their use of stop-and-frisk. The CPD stopped more than 250,000 innocent people.” Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of those stops involved Black people who, while making up 32 percent of Chicago’s population, were 72 percent of the stops.
Some studies suggest a correlation between summer and a rise in “crime.” I can hear the justifications: “If crime increases in the summer, then more police aggression is justified.” This fails to take into account that “routine” interactions between police and young people in my community are fraught all year long. Summer exacerbates these oppressive contacts, because many more young people are out of school and usually without jobs, hanging out in public spaces.
Public spaces in urban and suburban towns are contested. Residents collude with law enforcement to police and enforce boundaries. Young people of color are criminalized not only by the police but also by community members.
Yesterday yet another video went viral on social media. It depicts police officers in McKinney, Texas, swarming a pool party filled with teenagers, and one particular officer manhandling a fourteen-year-old Black girl wearing a bikini. The young people are cursed at, have a gun pointed at them, and are taunted for being afraid of the cops. Fifteen-year-old Miles Jai Thomas explains what happened:
“So, a cop grabbed her arm and flipped her to the ground after she and him were arguing about him cursing at us,” Thomas said.
When two teens went toward the cop to help the girl, they were accused of sneaking up on the cop to attack.
“So, a cop yelled ‘get those motherfuckers’ and they chased [us] with guns out. That’s why in the video I started running,” Thomas said.
“I was scared because all I could think was, ‘Don’t shoot me,’” he said.
Watching the video, I was struck by how the young people were denied the right to be afraid. Their fear was illegitimate. And it makes sense; only human beings are allowed to be afraid. For the cops, these youth of color (mostly Black) are not human.
I dread summer.
I attended a conference recently about youth–police interactions. The familiar trope about the need for young people and the cops to get to know each other was bandied about, useless pablum offered as a solution for ending police violence, which relies on a faulty definition of the problem. As a young person once told me: “I know the cops here very well, and they know me. We know each other too well. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they harass me daily. If they’d stop that, we’d be fine.”
The young people in my community who come into contact with the police can recite their names and badge numbers. Those are unforgettable to them; the stuff of their nightmares. It’s unclear to me how more conversations will change the dynamics of such oppression. For most of the public, whether liberal or conservative, it’s the cops’ job to arrest people, and they are incentivized to do that work. Presumably,
then, what would need to change to shift the dynamics are the job descriptions and the incentives.
A persistent and seemingly endemic feature of US society is the conflation of Blackness and criminality. William Patterson, a well-known Black communist, wrote in 1970, “A false brand of criminality is constantly stamped on the brow of Black youth by the courts and systematically kept there creating the fiction that blacks are a criminally minded people.” He added that “the lies against blacks are propped up ideologically.” I would suggest that they are also maintained and enforced through force and violence.
When Baltimore police dressed in riot gear turned their violence on high school students at the Mondawmin Mall a few weeks ago, some people were horrified. “These are children,” onlookers exclaimed on social media. I thought grimly of how the cops would see the situation. There are no children here; only targets and threats. Social science research suggests that cops see Black children as older and as less innocent than their white peers. The research confirms what most of us already know—Black children are considered to be disposable and dangerous mini-adults.
This is not new. I came across the story of thirteen-year-old Beverly Lee when I read the 1951 “We Charge Genocide” petition many years ago. Lee was shot in the back by a Detroit police officer on October 12, 1947. Here’s the item that piqued my interest as it appeared in “We Charge Genocide”:
Beverly Lee, 13-year-old youth, was shot to death by Policeman Louis Begin of Detroit, Michigan. Mrs. Francis Vonbatten of 1839 Pine testified that she saw Lee and another walking down the street, and saw the squad car approach. She heard, “Stop, you little so-and-so,” and then a shot. The officer was subsequently cleared by Coroner Lloyd K. Babcock.
I was particularly interested in the incident because I thought that Beverly was a girl, and police violence cases involving Black girls and young women have been overlooked. In fact, I haven’t found any historical incidents of police violence against Black women and girls that led to mass mobilization. Current campaigns, such as #SayHerName, point to the enduring erasure of state violence against Black girls and women.
The incident in McKinney, Texas, featured physical violence against a Black girl, underscoring the fact that girls (cis and trans) are consistently at risk of law enforcement abuse. On further research, I learned that Beverly Lee was actually a boy. On the day after Beverly Lee was shot, the Detroit News
reported on the incident:
Shot in the back as he tried to evade arrest, a seventh-grade schoolboy was killed by a Detroit patrolman late Sunday. The boy, Beverly Lee, 13, of 2637 Twelfth Street, was shot by Patrolman Louis Begin, of the Trumbull station, when he disregarded orders to halt. Begin and his partner, Patrolman William Owens, were called to Temple and Vermont avenues where Mrs. Mabel Gee, 1930 Temple, reported her purse stolen. Approaching the intersection, they saw Lee, ordered him to halt, and Owens fired a warning shot. Begin shot him as he continued to run away from the scout car. A watch belonging to Mrs. Gee and $18, the amount she said was in her purse, were found in the boy’s pockets. The purse was recovered nearby. Begin and Owens made statements to William D. Brusstar, assistant prosecutor. They said Mrs. Gee referred to her assailant as a man and, when they encountered him, they thought he was an adult [emphasis mine]. Lee was about five feet, six inches tall. Other victims of recent purse snatchings were being invited to view the body at the County Morgue. Lee attended Condon Intermediate School. His body was identified by his mother, Mrs. Leah Lee.
The discrepancy between these two accounts is unsurprising. As we have so often seen, there is usually a variance between initial press reports and official police accounts and community narratives. Notice that the cops and the alleged robbery victim said that they thought Lee was an adult. The adultification of Black children has long and deep roots that date...