“We do this ‘til we free us”: shifting Americans’ views on abolition

“We do this ‘til we free us”: shifting Americans’ views on abolition

Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison, two months after being declared guilty of the murder of George Floyd. While his trial was watched anxiously by millions across the US, people and organisations mobilised to abolish the police force and prison system.

Outbreaks of tears and joy were heard across the country on hearing the news of a “guilty on all counts” verdict. But an increasing number of people and organisations want more: to do away with a criminal justice system that is designed to treat Black and Native lives as disposable.

While African Americans know too well that this incident is one in a long chain of institutional racist violence, abolitionist consciousness has (re-)emerged significantly since the Ferguson uprising in 2014, in the wake of the murder of high school graduate Mike Brown. Black-led movements like Black Lives Matter have popularised calls to abolish the police, prisons and carceral punishment – notably under the #DefundThePolice campaign.

Abolitionists advocate to move from a criminal justice system based on carceral solutions, which are punitive, inefficient and racist, to a whole-of-society set of policies and practices that focuses on responding to people’s needs, reducing harm and contributing to long-term transformation towards fairer societies.

But how will we fight crime if police and prisons don’t exist, sceptics ask? An abolitionist response will question the assumptions behind the question: what have police and prisons done to prevent crime? And what crimes have they perpetrated on Black, Indigenous, Brown and poor people with impunity? Thinking through to the bottom of these questions, disillusioned rights defenders on the frontlines deem the criminal justice system irreformable, having at its core the DNA of structural anti-Blackness and white supremacy.

Refund the community

This conclusion led many to design and experiment alternative ways to ensure safety and respond to community needs in order to prevent harm and restore equity – in particular in the fields of urban development, education, health, justice and environmental policies.

The US movement for abolition also puts the spotlight on “crime” as a socio-political construct. The criminal justice system in the US bears the legacy of slavery and settler-colonialism: a number of its key features were designed to control newly freed African people on newly controlled US territory. 

The development of police forces and prisons partly responds to the need to protect shipping interests and consolidate the power of European settlers over Black and Indigenous people who would not submit to rules that dispossess them. 

For them, adopting a historical approach going back to the inception of the creation of the United States is the only correct one: understanding how it started, it is possible to see why and how it should end, and to imagine futures where everyone is free.

The Black women activists shifting Americans’ views

Behind the movement are a number of long-time Black women activists, intellectuals, artists and journalists who popularised ideas and practices built on a tradition of Black resistance dating back to slavery and reconstruction.

One of the most popular is undoubtedly Angela Y. Davis, a former political prisoner in the 1960s and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 2003, the icon of Black resistance authored Are Prisons Obsolete?, a book which deconstructs the myths underpinning US society’s acceptance of the prison industrial complex.

Her intellectual contribution and her enduring global popularity have led her to challenge widespread abstract notions of justice across generations and social groups, and push people to wrestle with the core issues of their society. Whether in talks to educated elites or in live interviews with grassroots groups on social media, her advocacy is supported by undisputed facts about the proliferation of prisons and the disproportionate incarceration of Black, Latino, and Native communities, who are more likely to go to prison than to go to university. According to Dr Davis, prisons should not be the default institution to manage social and justice issues – other institutions and mechanisms should exist.

Convinced that incarceration has become central to the American project, geographer and longtime activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore has patiently educated scores of community workers and students on disentangling the mechanisms that make everyone in US society a police agent. Her analysis points to the “organised abandonment” of large portions of the populations who are exploited by a capitalist economy, but whose needs are not served.

Her scholarship and grassroots experience provide a clear lens on the ways police and institutional violence structure society, and how people’s imaginations can be unlocked to create a world without such levels of state-sponsored, unnecessary suffering. Today, scores of younger generations of Black women are helping lead the charge. New York-based educator, community organiser and blogger Mariame Kaba penned the 2021 New York Times Best Seller We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, a collection of essays on abolitionist organising and transformation.

Kaba is all about building the power of ordinary people: she keeps her appearance anonymous and focuses her work on collective action across divides. Other activists in their own profession have influenced the masses through their work and large social media accounts, such as sociologist Tamara K. Nopper, journalist and writer Derecka Purnell, and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors.

The work of each of these committed activists has much in common: it is deeply connected with their local communities, rooted in solidarity and mutual aid between peoples, and unapologetically feminist. As the US abolitionist movement grows, it is hard not to see that it has generated a coalition for justice that extends far beyond Black-led organisations, from Indigenous groups to advocates for safe migration and environmental activists.

Transforming American justice

In the aftermath of Derek Chauvin’s trial, abolitionists are not seeking punishment and carceral justice for the murders of Black people. But much remains to be done to prevent large scale harm on Black and Brown bodies. On 4 March the George Floyd Act was passed, aiming to provide $750m to law enforcement institutions for reform focused on addressing racial bias that would ban chokeholds, reduce legal impunity for police officers and halt no-knock warrants.

While banning these practices may lower the tolerance threshold for police violence, many Black-led organisations and abolitionists are not impressed: these reforms continue to keep the murderous institutions in place and fail to address the root causes of harm. Adding insult to injury, the provisions of the Act bearing Georges Floyd’s name would not have prevented his death. Instead, the Movement for Black Lives has demanded that policy-makers confront the root causes of violence with their vision for justice in the Breathe Act.

These two visions – reformist vs abolitionist – are emblematic of what is at stake for social justice in the US. Transformational change has started in some cities. Everywhere else, abolitionists hope that incremental changes in the social consciousness will soon pay off.

Nabila Mansour

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