Abolition Week 2023: The Bars We Can't See

An introduction from the Scalawag Editors.

June 19, 2023


Folks think they know what a prison looks like. Rectangular cells, 8 by 10 feet, in uniform rows. Bars organized into right angles. A horizon turned into a steel grid: horizontal, vertical, horizontal, vertical.

Folks think they know what a prison looks like. Thick concrete walls. Surrounded by higher walls studded with towers barbed with wire. Prison is a recursive place, where locked doors somehow lead to more locked doors deeper inside. 

Many think they know how to get to a prison. On the outskirts of town, down a long, quiet road lined with beech trees. Folks who've never experienced prison, or have never mourned loved ones in prison, believe people end up there after "following a bad path." To them, prison is a place people go, not a condition some of us are born into.  

But what Gaza teaches us, as the world's largest open-air prison—also referred to as a "vast human cage on the Eastern Mediterranean"—is that, for some, prison is a birthright; that you don't have to do anything to experience incarceration, it is inherited. Afro-Palestinians and Africans in Occupied Palestine—or Israel, less precisely—teach us that there is no nation in the world wherein antiblack violence is not present, and as such, carcerality cannot be confined to or solely defined by a border, walls, or locked doors. In a world wherein police, surveillance, and imperialism are commonplace, Gaza and black presence teach us that the air is no more an escape from carceral techniques and practices than a home long sought-after.

With this project, we trace the creative and pervasive ways carcerality finds us and traps us in the U.S. and across the globe.

Prison is a matter of geometry, but like the borders that inscribe Gaza, the lines that connect, encircle, and ensnare aren't always linear. Sometimes they aren't even visible. 

Carcerality is the business of death dealing in all forms—physically, socially, and spiritually. It's any apparatus or logic, physical or metaphysical, institutional or geographical, through which people's actions, movements, and relationships are restricted and surveilled. Their joys, suffering, and right to self-determination are denied witness by those on the outside.

This year's theme for Abolition Week is The Bars We Can't See. With this project, we trace the creative and pervasive ways carcerality finds us and traps us in the U.S. and across the globe. This year, we have received so many submissions that we are able to extend Abolition Week into two weeks. Two weeks of testimony, two weeks of meditation, two weeks of pulling back the curtain and lifting the veil to unobscure the realities of life in prisons—whether they be material or figurative, ideological, or corporeal. We have organized the works into eight major themes:

By drawing this connection between American prisons and the open-air system of containment in Gaza, we re-center the plantation as a common point of origin for both systems within the narrative of global carceral expansion. This work is crucial for us as a Southern abolitionist publication, contending with prisons and policing in the U.S. as the progeny of the Southern plantation and global antiblack logics. We clearly see the connections between our own reality and the reality of Palestinian captivity, despite geographical distance. Understanding these connections between the American South and Global South provides not only a broader understanding of global carcerality at present, but that the connection between the invention of "New World" plantation technologies in relation to the expansion of empire and the birth of a modern world order teaches us the ways in which power stabilizes itself through the reproduction of technologies of containment.

When Empire is under threat, it leverages the prison, the border, the plantation, and the slave patrol to stabilize and reproduce itself.

To understand the role of slavery, antiblackness, and the plantation in the expansion of the British Empire—and by extension, the modern world—is to also recognize it as foundational to the colonial logics that bestowed upon England the capacity to cede Palestine to the Zionist settler state project starting in 1947. There is no empire without plantation slavery and under the modern paradigm, black and Southern unfreedom remains the blueprint upon which technologies of containment like Gaza must be deployed as the condition of possibility for future imperial expansion. These connections are perhaps more imperative than ever, given the West's contemporary crisis of legitimacy in many ways resembles the crisis the British Empire faced in the wake of World War II devastation. When Empire is under threat, it leverages the prison, the border, the plantation, and the slave patrol to stabilize and reproduce itself. 

Through the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE) and other police exchange partnerships, the Israeli Police Force (IPF) shares policing and human rights violation tactics with American law enforcement. Many are thankful to learn and openly eager to disseminate these procedures to other officers. Atlanta's proposed Cop City—which we produced a series of writing against—has been imagined as a space that would provide them with the opportunity to share these practices more widely. The urban warfare tactics American police imagine themselves using against us are the same ones used daily against Palestinians. That is a connection we do not take lightly, and neither should you. 

See also:

With this extended project that shows why abolition is the only way, we will highlight and uplift voices from the Gaza Strip. They will share stories about the inability to escape prison, even after death; painting and sperm smuggling as acts of resistance; the Nakba as an ongoing threat, and so much more.

In putting stories from Gaza in conversation with stories from U.S. prisons, we hope to expand conversations around abolition in the U.S. beyond the prison to include the ways that poverty, race, and gender also cage bodies and communities. 

Reporting from the epicenters of carceral harm in North America and in Palestine, contributors reveal how the complex webs of policing, surveillance, and violence overlay and undergird our homes and homelands, minds, and bodies. The conditions mirror. The tentacles connect. 

The form, effects, and systems of carcerality create bars—both physical and intangible. Just because we can't see them, doesn't mean they can't be felt.

Sherronda J. Brown, Editor-in-Chief
Alysia Nicole Harris, Arts & Soul Editor-at-Large
Da'Shaun L. Harrison, Politics & the People Editor-at-Large
Tea Troutman, Salt, Soil & Supper Editor