"In most circles prison abolition is simply unthinkable and implausible. Prison abolitionists are dismissed as utopians and idealists whose ideas are at best unrealistic and impracticable, and, at worst, mystifying and foolish. This is a measure of how difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and families. The prison is considered so 'natural' that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it." — Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?
Last summer, in the wake of the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others, we wanted to tear the world down and build anew.
Violent crackdowns by police on protesters showed us what we already knew to be true: The state's never-ending reliance on dehumanizing tactics doesn't just cause harm in our streets or prisons, but everywhere—our schools, our statehouses, our borders.
Black ancestors in the South long ago began this work of building a world without the horror of state-sanctioned violence and bondage. This is the legacy we've inherited. This is our work as abolitionists—to radically imagine and build toward a liberated world. As prison scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore said, "Abolition is about presence, not absence. It's about building life-affirming institutions."
We wanted to tear the world down. But what are we building in its place?
For our part—as parents, partners, children, friends, neighbors, writers, and artists—we're committed to rejecting retribution as a way of life. We try not to shun our loved ones or shame our colleagues.
We do this imperfectly. We do this with devotion. We understand that punishing others in our personal lives makes it easy to uphold unjust systems of punishment everywhere.
For our part as journalists, this work also means shining a light on ongoing abolitionist efforts right now, lending our platform to those who are actively harmed by carceral systems as many newsrooms remain silent and complicit.
Each day this week, Scalawag will be publishing stories, hosting events, and engaging in conversations around abolition with incarcerated people, abolitionist scholars, artists, organizers—and you. If you've been doing this work, thank you. If you're new to abolition, welcome.
Abolition is the strategic reallocation of resources, funding, and responsibility away from oppressive systems—including the police—toward community-based, life-affirming models of safety, support, and prevention. We're here to imagine and support the life-affirming movements, organizations, and ways of being that serve as the building blocks for the liberated world we all deserve.
In a liberated world, instead of armed agents of the state arriving during a mental health crisis, a trained counselor arrives. Instead of tax dollars funneled into anti-bias cop training and the militarization of small-town police departments, community money goes to Black- and brown-owned food cooperatives, free health care clinics, and accessible housing.
We believe this liberated world will come to us, in part, through abolition.
The liberated world we're building is one in which all people are free from prisons and cages, where the state has no power to seize or control our bodies, where people address harm through restorative justice rather than punitive consequences, where we are free to be our whole selves in communities built around a shared ethical agreement to support and love one another, and where we never use violence as a means to enforce safety.
Abolition asks us to take a long view, to stop repeating harms done long ago that echo through our country, communities, families, and bodies. It's the work of unraveling the very roots of this country.
And we know something about that in the South. The home of slavery is also the birthplace of slave revolts. People who call this place home sparked the fights for civil rights, labor organizing, and almost every other movement rooted in dismantling oppressive systems. For too long, though, white southerners have been unwilling to accept the real history of the South. For generations, steeped in the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and "states' rights," they've refused the reality of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation—which makes easy work of ignoring the ongoing horrors of racial violence.
Meanwhile, Black Southerners have time and again envisioned our future. Abolition is the continuation of the work Black ancestors in the South did to radically imagine, seek, and take back their freedom from chattel slavery. That work is not done as long as police and prisons live on to uphold legal enslavement on this land.
This week, you'll meet abolitionist artists, organizers, thinkers, and fighters radically imagining a world where racism, extraction, and domination are outdated modes of our collective past. We can't understand what life-affirming institutions are until we understand the institutions that are life-destroying, by design.
People in power over incarcerated folks silence those on the inside to make sure those of us on the outside never hear their stories. We are not meant to know the harsh conditions inside our prisons or the conditions that brought people there in the first place. And hard as these stories are to hear, we must hear them to begin advocating for the dignity of those who have experienced these conditions firsthand.
So, this week, you'll meet formerly incarcerated folks and those still on the inside whose insights are more revelatory, more worthy than anything we as scholars, artists, and journalists might offer. Once you understand the reality of prisons, you'll see why the need for abolition is immediate.
Abolition is not easy. For most of us, it's hard to imagine upending what we know of how society functions, to imagine our communities wholly free of our deepest-rooted, most powerful systems. But just as abolition is about presence, it's also about willingness.
We must be willing to refuse that the conditions of the South are as unchangeable as many who hold power here and many who've never stepped foot here would have us imagine.
We must be willing to bend time, to look honestly at our history, ourselves, and our roles in upholding systems where people are not free. We must be willing to dream our wildest dreams.
Realizing Abolition is an opportunity to gather together with others committed to challenging the existence of prisons in our societyRSVP for the conversation.
More from abolition week:
Illustrations for this piece are by E.L. Tedana. Active with A.B.O. Comix since 2017, they plan on working with A.B.O. Comix once released as well. They have been incarcerated for 20 years and are currently seeking post conviction relief. E.L. is eligible for parole in 2 years.
Artwork for Scalawag's Abolition Week 2021 is provided by A.B.O. Comix, a small press and advocacy collective that works in solidarity with currently/formerly incarcerated LGBTQ people to amplify their voices and publish their creative endeavors.