What does it look like to build a city, state or nation invested in communities thriving rather than their death and destruction? To ask this question is the first act of an abolitionist.
I am an abolitionist. What does this mean? Abolitionist resistance and resilience draws from a legacy of black-led anti-colonial struggle in the United States and throughout the Americas including places like Haiti, the first black republic founded on the principles of anti-colonialism and black liberation.
Black people and our allies fought for black liberation against slave societies and a slavery-based economy and in some cases, we won. Abolition sought to end slavery and white supremacy entirely and liberate black people as stolen people exploited on occupied lands.
However, abolition has yet to fully achieve a society and a world where black folks and our lives are recognized with equal value and where institutions have repaired the harm caused to our people.
The backlash to the abolition movement transformed slavery and its institutions. And, while we have seen some semblance of emancipation, we still live with the vestiges of slavery every day in this country.
The remnants of slavery are visible in the militarization of police, the expansion of the prison industrial complex, rampant Immigration and Custom Enforcement (Ice) raids and the Muslim travel ban in place in America today. They are reflected in the US invasions, occupation and war against communities of color domestically and around the world. If a state is the source of 36% of all military expenditures globally, then it is resisting abolition. And with the 45th president, this number is on the rise.
In this current moment, abolition is more important than ever.
The United States has more than 20% of the world’s prison population with only 5% of the world’s population. More than half of those incarcerated in the US are black.
Incarceration rates for black women are among the highest, with black women arrested four times more than white women. And across the nation, one in 35 adults are under correctional control (included but not limited to jail, parole and probation). We know this to be true and higher in black and Latino communities.
The cost of the prison system, militarization and this society weighed down by vestiges of slavery is great. A recent study found that in the US, the cost of prisons exceeds $1tn. This comes at the expense of families, children and entire communities. The same study determined that the US government’s operational funds for federal and state prisons as well as local jails stands at $80bn.
On top of this lies the emotional, psychological and physical trauma associated with separation, constant policing, raids, arrests, incarceration and law enforcement killings. Black communities and other communities of color are visibly under attack in this country.
Abolition is necessary if we want to see these conditions change. We must commit to transforming these systems.
We’re not just fighting against the prison industrial complex, criminalization of black people and other communities of color. We also want the right to determine how we live and build up our communities’ participation and conditions.
We must ask ourselves, how do we build an abolitionist framework and practice for our movements today?
Abolition pushes us to imagine. Abolition inspires us and abolition reminds us of who we can be.
Imagine a society dedicated to people and our collective wellbeing. What does it take to get there? What examples already exist that we can draw from?
With abolition, it’s necessary to destroy systems of oppression. But it’s equally necessary to put at the forefront our conversations about creation. When we fight for justice, what exactly do we want for our communities?
These are the fundamental questions that Black Lives Matter and other black liberation movements push ourselves to envision everyday. The Movement For Black Lives (M4BL) did just this when it gathered hundreds of black organizers to build a multi-faceted policy platform rooted in abolition. The policies range from economic justice to political power and reparations.
An abolitionist strategy must encourage social and financial divestment from the military state and its institutions to social welfare. Our communities must demand dignified housing, satisfying jobs and proper labor conditions, our educational system must be culturally relevant, multi-lingual and teach our histories. Our value should not determined by legal records.
Abolitionists today must challenge Jeff Sessions and his revival of the “war on drugs” and 1980s Reaganomics under the false pretense of “fighting crime”. We need to target campaigns against local, statewide and national investment in military, police and their associated structures.
Abolitionism is manifested in the LA No More Jails coalition, which works to stop the county that jails the most people in the world, Los Angeles, and the city’s proposal for a $3bn expansion. The coalition calls for an immediate stop to jail construction in LA county and a reduction of the number of people locked up. LA No More Jails fiercely advocates that those same resources be redirected into community solutions.
The Anti-Police Terror Project’s Defund OPD (Oakland Police Department) committee stands on a similar platform. Its mission is to reduce OPD’s budget by 50% and reinvest money into non-police programming in the city.
According to APTP’s research, OPD absorbs nearly 50% of the city’s general fund. More statistics can be found here. OPD is committed to responding to the city’s shameless excuse that there’s “no money, where do we cut?” with concrete strategies that encourage community based initiatives instead of police response or engagement.
It costs $209,000 annually for New York City per inmate at Rikers Island prison. Around 89% of those incarcerated in Rikers are black or Latino. The #CLOSERikers campaign understands that the fight is not simply to close down the prison but also reduce the number of people arrested and fix the court systems.
This coalition of diverse New York-based organizations seeks to “boldly reimagine the city’s failed criminal justice system” and focus on healing communities that Rikers has disproportionately affected.
Abolition goes beyond borders. When our ancestors fought against slavery in the US, they also aligned themselves with movements against colonialism throughout the world, such as the Haitian revolution and other black and indigenous movements across the Americas.
Abolition means fighting against the root causes of mass displacement and forced migration. It means taking on the US state and militarization abroad and ending US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan and beyond.
Abolition calls for an end to US funding and vetting of military and police across Latin America and the Caribbean. The Justice for Berta campaign, named after the indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated in 2016, comes out of longstanding solidarity with Central America and the struggles of black and indigenous peoples.
The campaign’s Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act demands an end to US funding and vetting of Honduran security forces and calls for investigations into the murders of movement organizers gone unsolved.
Abolition means standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people and their fight for liberation. My experience in Palestine radically transformed my analysis and practice of abolition. Sharing space with our Palestinian brothers and sisters made it clear to me that our movements must look at the international ramifications of the US state and militarization abroad. We must continue to participate and support the movement calling for a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against the Israeli state and corporations that support and enable the occupation of Palestinian land.
Our movements must deeply divest from prisons, policing and militarization and demand investment in our communities, our basic needs, services from education, housing and healthcare to reparations.
Abolition centers a call for genuine freedom and places black folks and our liberation at the center because when black people are free, we are all free.