Nonviolence led me to prison abolition

July 16, 2016


I believe abolition of the prison industrial complex is the right goal to pursue in the movement for black lives. This wasn’t always the case, and I’d like to take a look at how and why I’ve become convinced. ((This is how that journey has proceeded for me; it’s not an exhaustive argument, although these arguments exist on scholarly and popular levels and I’ve found them persuasive. Some of them can be found in this essential reading list.))

One of the people who has most shaped my thinking, and my vision of justice as a whole, in the last couple of years has been Mariame Kaba, @prisonculture on Twitter. I’ve followed her tweets, her blog, interviews people have done with her (such as this, this, this and this, to name a few recent ones), articles in other places, podcast episodes (like this and this), and so on. I’ve tried to be aware of her work in Chicago and now in New York around policing, the prison system, domestic violence, and so many other areas where she organizes. I’ve also heard her talk about joy and resilience. She reminds me of Rev. Sekou in that.

When I first started following her, I thought prison reform was where justice was. I don’t know exactly when this was (I remember seeing her shared onto my timeline from time to time over the years but I hadn’t followed her), but it was close to (maybe a little before, judging by my list of follows) the time Michael Brown was killed, Ferguson rose up, and my own ways of thinking about nearly everything took big steps. In that immediate time period, body cams were the big thing. They seemed like such an obvious reform. It made sense we ought to have video when cops kill people. Then we could have evidence. Maybe we’d get some charges and convictions, and if we got convictions police would stop killing black people so easily. That was the logic.

Watching Mariame’s thoughts on all this, her thoughts on everything else, and the additional people in the abolition movement I learned about (Angela Davis, Lauren Chief Elk, Page May, organizations like Critical Resistance, Assata’s Daughters, and many others) I began to realize it wasn’t this simple. Maybe body cams could help sometimes though, I continued to think.

But then more killings. More killings on video. More people in the streets, asking for something. Anything. No convictions. Not even charges. At some point during this time I read The New Jim Crow as well, and learned that it hasn’t always been a foregone conclusion that we’d have mass incarceration, or even prisons at all. It was a mainstream position that we could and should get rid of prisons, before the drug war. And oh, that drug war was about race.

More killings. More marching. More remembering that justice was people alive and thriving, not convictions after they were dead. But asking for something. Getting nothing.

I started thinking about that idea that we should abolish police and prisons. But what would that mean? How could we do that? Why were body cams a step in the wrong direction, as abolitionists say? What would we replace police and prisons with, if we did that? It began to seem like such a beautiful, prophetic imagination. Maybe I could get on board. But it still seemed idealistic. It didn’t seem clear how to get from here to there.

More killings. More marching, asking for something. Getting nothing. I saw people getting frustrated. Feeling like marching wasn’t doing anything, voting wasn’t doing anything, policy wasn’t doing anything. Nonviolence understandably felt futile to folks.

Prison abolitionists have written a lot of things about this. They’ve covered technology and money in police reform (in short, more funding for police doesn’t lead to solving problems), the inherent oppressiveness of prison, criminalization of domestic violence victims and people with mental illness, the defunding of the social safety net and its enabling of mass incarceration, what kind of reforms would start leading toward abolition, what the goals of abolition are, and how that process would work over time (in short: we organize and work to create a society where they are obsolete, and in the meantime we support reforms that reduce our dependence on them). I gradually learned and accepted these ideas. Some of those reforms have increasingly been pursued in Minneapolis and elsewhere.

Laquan McDonald was killed in Chicago. I started to realize that when Chicago marched, they partly marched like Minneapolis. They organized. They shut stuff down. They took over Michigan Avenue on Black Friday, that holiest day and most sacred space of capitalism. But they also marched differently. They demanded different things. They got some of those things. They won a genocide campaign and went to the UN; they got reparations for victims of police torture; they got the truth about that torture into the public school curriculum. They got a brutal prosecutor voted out of office without even endorsing any of her opponents. They almost got the mayor of Chicago, backed by the Clintons and Obama, voted out of office. They got different stuff done.

Jamar Clark was killed in Minneapolis. People protested. People occupied a police station for 18 days. The police slandered him up one side and down the other. Many movement supporters maintained that, if he was being abusive, he still didn’t deserve to be killed for it. We asked for the tapes to be released. We asked for an investigation outside the police department, with no grand jury. We asked for the DOJ to investigate. We got many of those things. But the cops still got off. It later appeared Jamar Clark wasn’t even guilty of the abuse he’d been accused of that they used as justification for his death. We got some reforms. Many folks still felt like nothing changed.

I write all this like my thinking was linear, but it evolved in stages, and I returned to different ideas and they became clearer than before and I understood them on a different level, and the implications changed. Maybe it took me a year after Michael Brown was killed, maybe longer, before I realized I fully accepted this. I believe the prison system should not exist. We need a country where we don’t send people to prison. Private or public. I believe policing should not exist. We need other ways of dealing with the causes of crime and violence and pain. We can imagine those ways, we can organize to make them happen, and we can make new systems. Many activists and organizations (notably, NOC just announced its own support) in Minneapolis have begun to advocate for this as well. For some folks, it seemed like the death of Philando Castile in a suburb of St. Paul was a breaking point.

Abolitionists realize this isn’t a thing that happens quickly, or as an isolated event where the police quickly disappear and prisons quickly empty without creating the conditions for it first. It isn’t a thing that happens within the constraints capitalism currently provides us. Maybe it doesn’t happen within capitalism at all. I have no qualms about this. I’m not invested in the preservation of capitalism; I’m invested in the pursuit of justice.

I think this offers a freedom for organizers to stop demanding that policing reform itself or that the state reform it, because the police are already in all our hearts, as Mariame says. They’ll win all the struggles we set before them because society believes them to be part of a system that generally works. But we can organize for reparations and data transparency and private liability insurance requirements for police (this will hopefully be on the ballot in Minneapolis this November). These can result in accountability that means something. We can ask for prisons to be shut down and not built, whether private or public. We can ask for changes to union contracts. We can demand money to better fund schools and school counselors, and mental health services and drug addiction recovery, and less funding for police departments and prisons (activists in Minneapolis stopped $600k from being spent on a police precinct a few months ago). We can demand all these things when we march and organize, and allow protest to remove our consent for the system as it exists.

I considered that the way Chicago organized, and the goals it pursued, was teaching me something about direct action. Their wins came, to some extent, from bypassing the state, knowing it wouldn’t give them justice anyway.

I realized recently that abolition became a way for me to follow nonviolence. Nonviolence doesn’t lead to more people sitting in prison, even if they’re cops. It doesn’t lead to juries, grand or otherwise. It doesn’t lead to prosecutors’ offices. It leads to honesty, memory, repentance, and reparations. It leads to tearing down old systems and building new ones. It leads to redistribution. It, as Bayard Rustin said, leads to arms “around the social situation, to take power from those who misuse it – at which point they can become human too.” These things work well with the abolition of the prion industrial complex.

I’ve believed in nonviolence for a long time. That belief has helped lead me to support Black Lives Matter with what I have to offer. I want white supremacy dismantled. Nonviolence has also led me to want a world that doesn’t need police or prisons. I want the prison industrial complex dismantled. This is a long game, with many starts and stops. It will, I think, have many wins and losses. But the direction is clear. It doesn’t depend on the power of the state, and that feels risky. Nonviolence has always been like that. ((I’ve increasingly been convinced, by people like Mariame, Angela Davis, Dream Defenders, and others that the struggle against the prison industrial complex is directly connected to the struggle against the military industrial complex, and thus the movement for black lives is connected to the anti-war movement)) This gives me a way to see the long game for where it can lead, and that is liberating.