Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

What abolitionism looks like


Special Edition

What abolitionism looks like

Try telling someone that you’re a prison abolitionist. The response, most likely, will be a sympathetic but condescending chuckle with an expression that says, “You’re incorrigible.” Or else it will be an earnest nose crinkle, followed by the inevitable question: “But what will we do with all of them?”

Who is “them”? Many criminal justice advocates will rightly point out, as did Michelle Alexander in her seminal work “The New Jim Crow,” that the war on drugs has ensnared thousands of people, especially people of color, and locked them up for years, sometimes decades, sometimes for the rest of their lives. But for scholar and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “the idea that prisons are filled with nonviolent offenders is particularly problematic,” writes Rachel Kushner in a recent New York Times magazine profile. It’s easy to feel outrage about the draconian laws that punish nonviolent drug offenders, but most people in prisons have been convicted of “violent” offenses, which can include gun possession, purse snatching, and murder. [Rachel Kushner / New York Times Magazine]

Instead of facing this statistical reality, many people focus on the “relatively innocent,” as Gilmore calls them. Asked about this, Alexander responded: “I think the failure of some academics like myself to squarely respond to the question of violence in our work has created a situation in which it almost seems like we’re approving of mass incarceration for violent people. Those of us who are committed to ending the system of mass criminalization have to begin talking more about violence. Not only the harm it causes, but the fact that building more cages will never solve it.” [Rachel Kushner / New York Times Magazine]

And history shows that prisons, and the large-scale warehousing of people, are the exception, not the rule. For most of human history, we have done without. It is an experiment that has failed. (Of course, this is not to say that most previous forms of social control and punishment are worth emulating, however.)

Most Americans assume that there is a portion of people that must remain in prison. “When people are looking for the relative innocence line,” Gilmore said, “in order to show how sad it is that the relatively innocent are being subjected to the forces of state-organized violence as though they were criminals, they are missing something that they could see. It isn’t that hard. They could be asking whether people who have been criminalized should be subjected to the forces of organized violence. They could ask if we need organized violence.” [Rachel Kushner / New York Times Magazine]

What’s wrong with reform? As Professor Dylan Rodriguez writes: “Contemporary reformist approaches to addressing the apparent overreach and scandalous excesses of the carceral state—characterized by calls to end ‘police brutality’ and ‘mass incarceration’—fail to recognize that the very logics of the overlapping criminal justice and policing regimes systemically perpetuate racial, sexual, gender, colonial, and class violence through carceral power.” Therefore, in addition to being ineffective at achieving their goal of fighting state violence against vulnerable people, “reformist approaches ultimately reinforce a violent system that is fundamentally asymmetrical.” [Dylan Rodriguez / Harvard Law Review]

This week, Harvard Law Review’s “Developments in the Law” edition contributes “a sustained discussion of what it means, in the words of Professor Angela Davis, to ‘explor[e] new terrains of justice, where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor.’”

Reduced severity for certain “nonviolent offenders” is often traded in exchange for increased punitiveness toward others, notes scholar and abolitionist Allegra McLeod. “To realize justice in abolitionist terms thus entails a holistic engagement with the structural conditions that give rise to suffering, as well as the interpersonal dynamics involved in violence.” This often involves addressing “how it is possible to react to the most awful forms of violence in a manner consistent with an abolitionist ethic.” To do so, McLeod focuses on abolitionist projects in Chicago because of its history of police abuses and abolitionist movements, but also because “abolitionists are committed to justice grounded in experience rather than proceeding primarily from idealized and abstract premises.” [Allegra McLeod / Harvard Law Review]

“A groundswell of abolitionist conviction swept youth of color organizing in Chicago when, in the aftermath of a series of police killings of young people, efforts to obtain civil or criminal redress persistently came up short.” An off-duty police officer had murdered a 22-year-old woman named Rekia Boyd by shooting her in the back of the head during a noise dispute. A 23-year-old named Dominique Franklin was arrested for stealing a bottle of vodka, tased, and died. Then Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald 16 times. Retribution in the criminal system for these officers, and others, was often out of reach, and when it was available, it was not satisfactory. “Rather than simply demand the termination of these murderous officers or that charges be brought against them, organizers sought to connect their outrage at these killings to the decades of torture perpetrated by Chicago police, and to the deeper conditions of social inequality, corruption, and injustice that have long characterized the distribution of life chances in Chicago and around the country.” Veronica Morris-Moore, a Chicago-based organizer, said, “The system as it exists is never going to give justice to young people like Laquan McDonald.” [Allegra McLeod / Harvard Law Review]

“The question, then, became what justice for abolitionists would consist of instead,” McLeod wrote. The Vision for Black Lives and the Agenda to Build Black Futures “call for justice in the aftermath of police shootings in connection with a movement to divest from the criminal arm of the state and invest in other social projects, including reparations and democratic institutions. …  In addition to creating a thorough public record of the wrongs perpetrated by Chicago officials and initiating a collective deliberation about what justice should entail, organizers demanded both a formal apology and reparations (in the form of broad financial compensation and rehabilitative services) for all survivors.” [Allegra McLeod / Harvard Law Review]

Three years ago, Chicago organizers succeeded in getting a reparations ordinance passed that gave $100,000 in restitution to each survivor of police torture. This ordinance, says prominent activist Mariame Kaba, is abolitionist because “it’s a document that did not rely on the court, prison, and punishment system, to try to envision a more expansive view of justice.” Chicago became the first municipality to pass a reparations bill for law enforcement violence. “So that’s something that other cities are looking at for themselves now, as avenues for justice that are not personal and individual indictments of the police, not calls for cops to be jailed,” Kaba said, “Instead of the typical calls for punitive responses to harm, participants engaged in a broad and deep democratic process to contemplate how to make amends. They then sought redress and repair in a form that would begin to make the survivors whole, prevent future harm, and educate young people so that they have an understanding of some of the root causes and persistent legacies of racial inequality and violence.” [Mariame Kaba / Lumpen Magazine]

This squares with the tactics of Gilmore, who almost single-handedly invented the concept of carceral geography, “which examines the complex interrelationships among landscape, natural resources, political economy, infrastructure and the policing, jailing, caging and controlling of populations,” writes Kushner. Each campaign that Gilmore has worked on over the years “was built from a different coalition of people who could be negatively affected by a new jail or prison. Her strategy was not to simply fight prisons directly and hope others joined in but rather to seek out groups that were already mobilized.” This might include environmentalists who might be concerned that a new prison would harm biodiversity, or local community members worried about a prison’s impact on the water table or employment. “Whatever is already there, in terms of people who are organized, that is how to direct the work,” Gilmore said. Not everyone who joins the fight against new prisons is an abolitionist, but rather “abolitionists engaged in a certain kind of organizing that made all different kinds of people, in all different kinds of situations, decide for themselves that it was not a good idea to have another prison.” [Rachel Kushner / New York Times Magazine]

“Even success stories of people who thrive after prison are used to argue that prisons are not bad and are even effective,” writes Angel E. Sanchez, an activist and law student who spent over a decade in prison for a crime he committed at age 14. “Our own amazement at those stories, however, shows that deep inside we are aware that prisons are not really expected to make people better.”  

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at tips@theappeal.org. A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.