Organizers and activists calling to abolish the prison-industrial complex and other carceral systems is not a new phenomenon. However, in recent months, abolition, an ideological framework long considered as a radical solution to systemic oppression and violence, is gaining momentum and attracting mainstream attention as protests against racism and police violence continue.
With more attention comes more skepticism, misrepresentation, and misinterpretation about what abolition truly means today. The general public, journalists, elected officials, and even activists fighting for police accountability can be subject to or perpetuate the problem.
To educate ourselves, and our readers, Injustice Watch hosted a conversation with six abolitionists entitled “Abolition: They said what they said.” The title comes from a recent commentary we published by community organizer and public policy consultant Amara Enyia. Our guests were: Timmy Chau, Monica Cosby, Hoda Katebi, Jasson Perez, Lisa Sangoi, and Ric Wilson.
We wanted to give you the opportunity to hear about abolition directly from abolitionists. Below is a snapshot of our hour-long conversation with our guests that has been edited for length and clarity.
On defining abolition
At its most basic level [abolition] is having a world without carceral institutions, like prisons and jails and police. But then that means a lot of things, especially when it comes to solutions around what we call public safety and in response to the things that we call “violent crime” and then “crime” in general. I look at abolition, not just as the elimination of police and prisons, but also the elimination of the conditions that cause what we understand to be violent harm in our society. Usually, people [just] think of the most extreme examples of violence: murder, rape, and then usually some forms of like strong-arm robbery, things like that.
We would have to change how our economy is organized, how our political system is organized, and then a lot of things like how our even social and cultural industry is organized, in order to have an abolitionist world. But a first step to that is fighting against police power and prison power.
We have to leave room for people to learn. I think that’s really important. I think a lot of times that, depending on the space I’m in, I’ll talk about abolition without actually saying the word. So, when you tell people [that] everybody deserves housing—it’s not even a matter of deserving. It’s a right of the people. You tell people you believe everyone should have housing, you believe health care should be for all people, all of these things. People are always like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ And then, say abolition, they’re like, ‘Oh, no, but what do we do about the bad people?’
When I was growing up, if I did something, if I even looked like I was going to do something, there was some grown person somewhere that was going to go tell my mom or my dad. It was that way of taking care of each other in community, and dealing with harm when it happens, in ways that are not dependent on the state…It’s happening now in all kinds of places, and it always has, so let’s just go beyond that.
It’s also teaching out violence. It’s getting rid of the violence of the state, but it’s also not codifying, or coddling violence, especially interpersonal violence, and domestic violence.
This is something I have been having a deep craving to do more reading about: It seems to me that abolition is not a destination, but just a constant sort of work-in-progress. I don’t imagine there’s any perfect future that we, or future generations, will occupy.
Maybe that’s just pessimistic of me, but I think of it less as a destination and more as a calling in terms of how we do the work, and how we are in relation with each other, and how we build.
For me, the basic idea…is trying to move through the world and envision a world without policing and prison and carceral apparatuses.
It’s not just about the institutions of policing and prison, but also the logic and ideological frameworks that justify prisons and policing and what they represent…the impulse to control, dominate, disappear communities, and harm communities.
Those are all also logics that play out, not just in policing and prisons themselves, but also in other institutions.
I think that abolition, at its core, is the understanding that human life has value intrinsically, and human lives aren’t disposable, and we’re holistic capable beings
But it’s also how we interact with each other, how we hold each other accountable, how the state violence is replicated in our relationships on an intimate level in dealing with each other, from children to parents to even friends, and how we’re holding each other accountable and creating the world that we want to see both in terms of institutions and in terms of just our neighborhoods. Something that, for me, has been particularly striking, these past few weeks especially, is how we, in order to really be ready for systemic abolition, need to at least know who our neighbors are.
If we want to be able to hold each other accountable in a way that’s holistic and caring and from love, we need to be able to have that love and have that trust and view each other as humans. But like, I’m guilty of not even knowing who lives across from me.
On how they adopted abolition as a framework
I was 16, and I became a Chicago Freedom Fellow. I have a big huge love for history, so Mia Henry and Mariame Kaba gave me a bunch of books to read.
It didn’t really hit until I was stuck up and robbed by somebody that lived around where my cousin lived, and I went through a whole system of identifying them. It was these two cousins, they were 14 and 15, and I went through the whole court [process] thinking that I’d get my stuff back that I got stolen from me.
And after I pointed them out, they went into juvie, and I didn’t get anything back. I didn’t feel good after that.
From there, I [thought] there’s got to be some different-ass way to deal with this shit that happens to me. Then I also realized that the police, they’re not fucking for us. That’s what kind of got me into just thinking this shit is fucked up, and this shit is not for us. That’s my little story.
Well, some of it is from me being in prison for 20 years, but even before then…I have always been in Chicago and I have seen, since I was a kid, what the police do. I know that they’re not for us. I can remember the police coming and dragging my dad to jail.
It’s people that I follow on Twitter that I learn from. There’s folks that, if they put something up, “Y’all should check out this article. Listen to this podcast,” that’s what I do. There’s like Kelly Hayes, Mariame [Kaba], of course, Ruth Wilson Gilmore.
I’m learning a different language for a lot of stuff that I already felt, with what I’ve already been believing and feeling, and work that I’ve been doing. There are new things that I’m learning and new approaches.
On how the media represents abolition
We definitely hear about abolition, or even defunding, in terms of prisons [and] police. The carceral, really, deeply, deeply racist and fucked up nature of our society runs deep, way, way, way, way, way beyond prisons and police. I would say the foster system, child welfare agents. This is just one small example of many, many, many carceral institutions.
I think a big part of abolition is it’s transforming our very conception of violence and harm.
In terms of how abolition is looked at in the media, “defund police” is doing for abolition what Medicare for All did for socialism. Medicare for All, in and of itself, isn’t a socialist project or isn’t necessarily socialist in any meaningful way. But it’s something that socialists organize around and then connect it to the larger, broader ideas of what socialism is, at its core democratizing the economy, not just government support for things, but democratizing all things that deal with the economy.
So I feel like “defund the police” is that. When it comes to the media’s understandings of it, that is our job. That’s our work as organizers, as change-makers, as influencers, whatever, however, you want to call it, as musicians, to make that clear to people. I think a part of how we get there is giving people tangible decarceral options of how to get there. I think “defund the police” is part of it.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly said that all six participants in our salon event were based in the Chicago area. Lisa Sangoi is based in Washington, D.C.