“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
“Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.”
-Ruth Wilson Gilmore
“Abolition is both the horizon and the anchor.”
The Case for Abolitionist Practice
One might look at the material and spiritual conditions laid out in this series and assume that we should throw up our hands in defeat. Yet, I remain militantly hopeful. Hope, as I understand it, requires that we remain radically pessimistic about the prison industrial complex and the nation-state’s ability to reform itself. Hope requires that we believe in the people, and with the people. For me, it means deepening my commitment to the revolutionary strands of abolitionist practice. Tracing its genealogy, we see Black proto-womanists and feminists like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth at the very core of its architecture. To this day, Black women of whom the world is not worthy, remain its chief architects.
Previously a fringe idea, abolition made its way into mainstream discourse in the summer of 2020. For better or for worse, more people publicly assumed “abolitionist” as an identity. We are warned by Mariam Kaba and others, however, that abolition is not primarily an identity that an individual assumes, but a practice a community pursues. It is an ancestral project that calls us to act, create, and resist daily as though a world beyond empire, policing, prisons, economic exploitation, anti-Blackness, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism, queer and trans antagonism is possible.
Too often, our kinfolk’s first introduction to “abolition” is through the hashtags: #abolishthepolice or #defundthepolice. While I’m in no way trying to police our hashtag usage, I think we must resist the tendency to put the greatest emphasis on outcomes like a world beyond police and prisons. As someone who came to the end of my belief in the possibility for reform in 2015, I have found that the most effective way to dialogue about abolitionism is to emphasize it as a practice. For one, talking about it as an outcome makes it more easily dismissed or misunderstood by our kinfolk. As the hysteria around critical race theory reveals, folks fear and/or hate “radical” ideas like abolitionism much more than they actually understand them.
Our people—Black people—have the strongest critique of the police in the U.S. Yet, due to structural violence, we also live in communities that experience interpersonal violence at higher rates. For this reason, people who are vocal critics and victims of policing and prisons, are caught up in the conundrum of “depending” on the very same institutions for safety and accountability when harm happens.
Yes, it’s true that the police do not stop crime and harm. Yes, the words of Angela Davis are true: “prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear humans.” Still, folks need more than our analysis of the carceral state. They need to see our abolitionist visions made flesh. They/we need to see it in practice in ways that spark imagination and tap into the unconscious abolitionist impulses they/we already have and practice. As much as a “burn it down” ethic is important, we need to embody a “build a new world” practice with our people! Abolition is not just about getting rid of death-dealing systems. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore has put it: “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” I find Dylan Rodriguez’s words helpful in the case I’m trying to make. He writes:
“Abolition is not an outcome. Rather, it is an everyday practice, a method of teaching, creating, thinking, and an insurgent (“fugitive”) community-building project that exposes the pitfalls of the reformist adventure.”
We will not overcome the anti-Black violence of policing with reforms. They are killing, caging, hunting, and sucking up funds that could go to communal well-being, despite the fact they got body cams. Despite the fact they banned a few holds. Despite the fact that they are “diversifying” the force. Despite the fact that they secured the bag to pay for more “training.” Despite the fact that they are dropping TikTok and Instagram videos of dancing cops. Despite the fact that they are hosting town halls. Despite it all.
How long are we gonna wait with bated breath for a system rooted in the same genocidal logics that stole indigenous lands and enslaved Africans to somehow become the arbiter of “justice”? How long are we gonna wait on a system that takes our breath, deprives us of resources, destabilizes neighborhoods, and tears families asunder? It is not a criminal justice system. It is a criminal legal system. Legality ≠ justice.
Justice is the redistribution of resources to the exploited. Justice is the reordering of society away from hierarchies. Justice is the repair of the wounds of oppression—the radical reorientation of society, that requires the destruction of domination systems and death cultures, while building apparatuses of healing and cultures of life that center those who have been cast as “the least” and “the last.” The U.S. system was designed to accomplish none of the above. There is nothing moral, legitimate, divinely ordained, or redeemable about this rotten system. All the data shows that the prison industrial complex has done the exact opposite of keeping us safe. Instead, it has severed families, terrorized psyches, maimed limbs, looted resources, and helped manufacture the kind of misery, suffering, and lack that drives our kinfolk into dangerous extra-legal activities that harm, rather than heal.
We must divest from it in the deepest part of our being. We must exorcise that demon from our souls. We must emancipate ourselves from its grip. We must heighten the contradictions of reformism. We must abolish the cop in our heads and the capitalists in our hearts. It is time to commit to the practice of abolition. It is high time we leave behind the fruitless adventure of reformism and begin tilling the soil in the heart of our communities, planting the seeds of self-determination, and watering and reaping a harvest of community-controlled systems of care, safety, and accountability that will make cops, cages, and capitalism obsolete. As so many feign concern about peer-on-peer violence and crime in Black communities, it’s my belief that the practice of abolition takes this kind of violence the most seriously. It is calling us to redirect resources towards root causes of violence. The largest workforce in the U.S. is the police and policing budgets of some of our cities are larger than the entire military budgets of nations. This is not logical, sustainable, or applaudable. To riff off Martin’s critique of the U.S.’s military-industrial complex, a city that spends more on policing budgets than it does on affordable housing is approaching spiritual doom. Abolition is “the horizon” calling us beyond this doom. The practice of abolition calls us to cultivate a sense and practice of justice that the carceral state cannot give us. As I wrote in a Facebook post on the day of Derick Chauvin’s guilty verdict:
“…the sense of justice i have, the carceral state didn’t give it to me. It can’t give it to me. And it can’t take it away.
I hold space for the family of George Floyd to feel whatever semblance of justice/relief they can from a possible guilty verdict.
However, we the people must indict, try, and convict the entire system that has bore the ‘strange fruit’ of Black death for generations.
Chauvins, Darren Wilsons, and Betty Shelbys may pass away or be caged away, but the death-dealing system remains the same.
This trial verdict does not determine if Floyd’s life mattered. It doesn’t determine if our lives matter. We, the sunkissed and sacred people of the African diaspora MATTER apart from this empire’s decisions.
This trial doesn’t determine if the U.S. is “just.”
It is not.”
Remembering Our Radical Ancestor’s Song
I often quote the poet who said, “love is remembering the song in someone’s heart and singing it to them when they’ve forgotten it.” For me, the practice of abolition is like singing a forgotten song. An ancestral song. A song that was on the lips of our enslaved African ancestors. A song sowed into the winds of time that has reverberated and given breath to every generation of maladjusted Black folks since. It’s a song that reminds us that we live in the afterlife of chattel slavery and have inherited systems of captivity and punishment, not of care and mutuality. It’s a song that reminds us that our ancestors’ “wildest dream” was not (predatory) inclusion in a settler-colonial empire and its systems of domination. No, the dream was either escape to a new world, or the abolition of those systems. Even then, abolition is about building the new world we want to see in the shell of a dying world that’s trying to take our life and breath. Abolition is a communal act of revolt. As Frantz Fanon put it, “we revolt because we can no longer breathe.” Abolition is, in the words of Angela Davis, “to act as though it was possible to radically transform the world, and to do it everyday.” We can no longer accept the notion that another world is impossible.
As I close this piece, I want to again own the fact that every critique raised lands at my own front door steps and that my limited perspective requires radical humility. There were situations and events during the summer of 2020 that require more voices than my own to paint a full picture. No one person or organization can tell the whole story. There are details that I may have gotten slightly wrong. As James Baldwin put it, “my memory stammers, but my soul is a witness.” Let us bear witness together!
As we move forward in this sacred work of ours:
May love be our vocation.
May abolition be our practice.
May freedom be our rhythm.
May liberation – not accumulation – be our struggle.
May healing justice be our balm.
May joyful community be our sustainer.
May the radical ancestors be our inspiration.
May the generations coming after us be our motivation.
And may the Creator be our co-conspirator & ever-present help!