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Prison Abolition

Abolition as Praxis of Human Being: A Foreword

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I. The Long Abolitionist Project

What are the historical conditions and political imperatives of “abolition” as a contemporary praxis? How does abolition generate a radical critique of carceral power — of “incarceration” as a logic of state and social formation? What are the limitations of liberal-to-progressive demands to reform (allegedly) dysfunctional and/or scandalous systems of legitimated state violence (for example, “mass incarceration” or “police brutality”)? How does abolitionist praxis facilitate notions of freedom, justice, security, and community that do not rely on systems of carceral state power, including but not limited to criminal justice, policing, and (domestic) militarization/war?

Abolition is a dream toward futurity vested in insurgent, counter-Civilizational histories — genealogies of collective genius1×1. Here, collective genius entails the creative labors of community building and cultural-physiological reproduction undertaken under and against conditions of systemic, state-sanctioned violence and what Africana Professor Lewis Gordon has called “institutionalized dehumanization.” Lewis R. Gordon, Fanon’s Tragic Revolutionary Violence, in Fanon: A Critical Reader 297, 306 (Lewis R. Gordon et al. eds., 1996). For prior references to this notion of collective genius, see Dylan Rodríguez, Inhabiting the Impasse: Racial/Racial-Colonial Power, Genocide Poetics, and the Logic of Evisceration, Soc. Text, Sept. 2015, at 19, 26; and Dylan Rodríguez, “Mass Incarceration” Reform as Police Endorsement, Black Agenda Rep. (Feb. 28, 2018), https://www.blackagendareport.com/mass-incarceration-reform-police-endorsement [https://perma.cc/3YDF-SUX8]. that perform liberation under conditions of duress. The late Black-liberation warrior, organizer, and Vice President of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika2×2. See Christian Davenport, How Social Movements Die: Repression and Demobilization of the Republic of New Africa 161–295 (2015). Safiya Bukhari once wrote, in characteristically crystallized terms, “[b]y definition, security means the freedom from danger, fear, and anxiety.”3×3. Safiya Bukhari, The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison & Fighting for Those Left Behind 37 (Laura Whitehorn ed., 2010). Security and freedom, for peoples subjected to the normalized state- and culturally condoned violence of (global) U.S. nation-building, require a decisive departure from typical demands for policy reform, formal equality, and amped-up electoral participation; rather, what is needed is a mustering of collective voice that abrogates the political-discursive limits of “demand” itself.4×4. Regarding critical theorizations of the politics of demand levied within the purview of liberal state institutions, see generally Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (1995); Roderick A. Ferguson, We Demand: The University and Student Protests 6–10 (2017); Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (2013); and Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses, Soc. Text, Summer 2004, at 101. 

The long historical praxis of abolition is grounded in a Black radical genealogy of revolt and transformative insurgency against racial chattel enslavement and the transatlantic trafficking of captive Africans.5×5. Regarding the roots of abolition in Black radicalism, see Herbert Aptheker, Abolitionism: A Revolutionary Movement, at xii–xiii (1989); Lerone Bennett Jr., Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America 97–126 (4th ed. 1969); and Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition 34–64 (2016). See generally W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (1935). Understood as part of the historical present tense, abolitionist critique, organizing, and collective movement (across scales of geography and collectivity) honor and extend this tradition. The contributors to this issue of the Harvard Law Review signify the breadth, rigor, and strategic brilliance of contemporary abolitionist praxis, as their work represents a broader field of creative and rigorously theorized struggle against the continuities of carceral state violence, including but not limited to imprisonment, jailing, detention, and policing. In this sense, abolition is not merely a practice of negation — a collective attempt to eliminate institutionalized dominance over targeted peoples and populations — but also a radically imaginative, generative, and socially productive communal (and community-building) practice. Abolition seeks (as it performs) a radical reconfiguration of justice, subjectivity, and social formation that does not depend on the existence of either the carceral state (a statecraft that institutionalizes various forms of targeted human capture) or carceral power as such (a totality of state-sanctioned and extrastate relations of gendered racial-colonial dominance).

Contemporary reformist approaches to addressing the apparent overreach and scandalous excesses of the carceral state — characterized by calls to end “police brutality” and “mass incarceration” — fail to recognize that the very logics of the overlapping criminal justice and policing regimes systemically perpetuate racial, sexual, gender, colonial, and class violence through carceral power. Thus, in addition to being ineffective at achieving their generally stated goals of alleviating vulnerable peoples’ subjection to legitimated state violence, reformist approaches ultimately reinforce a violent system that is fundamentally asymmetrical in its production and organization of normalized misery, social surveillance, vulnerability to state terror, and incarceration.6×6. Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore offers a helpful differentiation between “reformist” logics and abolitionist strategies that make tactical use of reform. See Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Foreword to Dan Berger, The Struggle Within: Prisons, Political Prisoners, and Mass Movements in the United States, at vii, vii–viii (2014).

It is within this irreconcilable reformist contradiction that an abolitionist historical mandate provides a useful and necessary departure from the liberal assumption that either the carceral state or carceral power is an inevitable and permanent feature of the social formation. This historical mandate animates abolition as a creative, imaginative, and speculative collective labor: while liberal-to-progressive reformism attempts to protect and sustain the institutional and cultural-political coherence of an existing system by adjusting and/or refurbishing it, abolitionism addresses the historical roots of that system in relations of oppressive, continuous, and asymmetrical violence and raises the radical question of whether those relations must be uprooted and transformed (rather than reformed or “fixed”) for the sake of particular peoples’ existence and survival as such.7×7. To consider abolitionist praxis in the context of particular peoples’ systemic, historical exposure to institutionalized forms of dehumanization, degradation, and social oppression is to significantly rethink the premises of the United Nations’ (UN) canonized conception of “genocide,” particularly in regard to the notion that peoplehood as such (including self-defined nations, tribes, ethnic groups, and so forth) ought to be defined by cultural as well as collective physical integrity. For useful points of critical rearticulation and revision of the UN’s 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Dec. 9, 1948, 78 U.N.T.S. 277, see Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present 363–92 (1997); and Civil Rights Cong., We Charge Genocide (William L. Patterson ed., Int’l Publishers 1970) (1951).

Consider abolition as both a long accumulation and future planning of acts, performed by and in the name of peoples and communities relentlessly laboring for their own physiological and cultural integrity as such. Embrace the obligation that accompanies the term abolition — a complex, dynamic, and deeply historical shorthand, if you will — in the work of constantly remaking sociality, politics, ecology, place, and (human) being against the duress that some call dehumanization, others name colonialism, and still others identify as slavery and incarceration. Abolition, then, is constituted by so many acts long overlapping, dispersed across geographies and historical moments, that reveal the underside of the New World and its descendant forms — the police, jail, prison, criminal court, detention center, reservation, plantation, and “border.”

No longer limited by canonized narratives of late nineteenth-century (and disproportionately white) abolitionists seeking redemption of the American project against its own constitutional racial-colonial-chattel carcerality, or even by recent articulations of early twenty-first-century abolition across a spectrum of progressive-to-radical rejoinders to gendered racist state violence, another conceptualization of the term becomes possible. Now and long before, abolition is and was a practice, an analytical method, a present-tense visioning, an infrastructure in the making, a creative project, a performance, a counterwar, an ideological struggle, a pedagogy and curriculum, an alleged impossibility that is furtively present, pulsing, produced in the persistent insurgencies of human being that undermine the totalizing logics of empire, chattel, occupation, heteropatriarchy, racial-colonial genocide, and Civilization as a juridical-narrative epoch.

I join my fellow contributors to this issue of the Harvard Law Review in defying a liberal-to-reactionary (white/multiculturalist) common sense8×8. This usage of “common sense” is an inflection of Antonio Gramsci’s oft-cited conception of the project of popular consensus that is the primary project of “hegemony.” See Antonio Gramsci, Selections From the Prison Notebooks 419–25 (1971). Professor Stuart Hall’s engagement with Gramsci’s social theory proves especially useful for such inflection, particularly in his classic essay, Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. See Stuart Hall, Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, 10 J. Comm. Inquiry 5, 20–23 (1986). that rejects abolitionist creativity by languishing in simplistic notions of “what is practical,” “what is realistic,” “what the people will understand/accept/do,” or even “what must be reformed first/now/soon.” Alongside current and recent communities of organizers such as Critical Resistance,9×9. What Is the PIC? What Is Abolition?, Critical Resistance, http://criticalresistance.org/about/not-so-common-language/ [https://perma.cc/BCZ3-5A4E]. Black Youth Project 100,10×10. Black Youth Project 100, https://byp100.org/ [https://perma.cc/42YC-ZH8C]. We Charge Genocide,11×11. We Charge Genocide, http://wechargegenocide.org/ [https://perma.cc/XZN7-ZU5J]. Idle No More,12×12. Idle No More, http://www.idlenomore.ca/ [https://perma.cc/E4PL-E7UU]. and #NoDAPL and the Standing Rock Sioux,13×13. Nick Estes, Fighting for Our Lives: #NoDAPL in Historical Context, 32 Wicazo Sa Rev. 115 (2017); Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, https://www.standingrock.org/ [https://perma.cc/EAE4-8ECA]; Kim TallBear, Badass (Indigenous) Women Caretake Relations: #NoDAPL, #IdleNoMore, #BlackLivesMatter, Soc’y for Cultural Anthropology (Dec. 22, 2016), https://culanth.org/fieldsights/badass-indigenous-women-caretake-relations-no-dapl-idle-no-more-black-lives-matter [https://perma.cc/53CQ-9FQA]. I embrace a conception of abolition that is inseparable from its roots in (feminist, queer) Black liberation and (feminist, queer) Indigenous anticolonialism/decolonization.14×14. Professor Dan Berger, Mariame Kaba, and David Stein offer a concise, well-executed rejoinder to simplistic and often ill-informed leftist dismissals of abolitionist praxis. See Dan Berger et al., What Abolitionists Do, Jacobin (Aug. 24, 2017), https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/08/prison-abolition-reform-mass-incarceration [https://perma.cc/GU69-X4WZ]. To contextualize abolition within and across these complex, vibrant traditions is to significantly complicate (and productively disarticulate) teleological or formulaic notions of classical Marxist social transformation, while intervening in patriarchal and masculinist constructions of freedom/self-determination and obliterating liberal-optimistic paradigms of incrementalist, reformist social justice. Abolition, in its radical totality, consists of constant, critical assessment of the economic, ecological, political, cultural, and spiritual conditions for the security and liberation of subjected peoples’ fullest collective being and posits that revolutions of material, economic, and political systems compose the necessary but not definitive or completed conditions for abolitionist praxis.

Consider abolition, then, as a counter-Civilizational distension of “freedom” that defies the modern disciplinary (and generally militarized) orders of the citizen, the nation-state, jurisprudence, politicality, and — most importantly — the gendered racial ascendancy of the white human and its deadly regimes of normalized physiological and cultural-epistemic integrity. (The latter, in short, is: the rigorously reproduced worldliness of white life in a relation of power/violence over and against other life, including nonhuman life; this includes the toxic political, affective, and discursive differentiation of premature, tragic, unjust, brutal, and/or massive white death — the interruption of white ascendancy — from the long and deep asymmetries of Indigenous death, queer death, Black death, Third World death, and so forth. This is the formation of historical dominance that Professors Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick elsewhere term “white radiance.”15×15. See Sylvia Wynter & Katherine McKittrick, Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species? Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations, in Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis 18, 19–24 (Katherine McKittrick ed., 2015). )

A long abolitionist project is already present in the terms, reflections, and scholarly-activist theorizations offered in the following pages by Patrisse Cullors, Angel Sanchez, and Professor Allegra McLeod. This project suggests a speculative practice of immanent futurity for people who cannot presume an individual (or even collective) tomorrow in the long historical presence of gendered racist state violence structured in militarism, policing, occupation, and incarceration.16×16. Professor Lee Edelman’s critical theory of queer politicality beyond and outside liberal and heteronormative futurity is helpful in this instance. See Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive 3 (2004) (“[M]y project stakes its claim to the very space that ‘politics’ makes unthinkable: the space outside the framework within which politics as we know it appears and so outside the conflict of visions that share as their presupposition that the body politic must survive.”). Read alongside other works cited here, including writings by Professors Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, supra note 4, Professor Cedric Robinson, infra note 120, Bukhari, supra note 3, Kaba, infra note 74, and Professor Clyde Woods, infra note 22, Edelman’s notion of a politics enacted beyond — or against — the presumption of liberal futurity opens into a robust conversation within the general parameters of what I am referencing here as abolitionist praxis. Such a fragile futurity convenes a creative force that is, at once, interruptive and destructive in form and method. For example, to demystify and fracture the prototheological (and always white-supremacist) sanctification of police as suprahuman and supralegal (though somehow simultaneously vulnerable) embodiments of universal (that is, undifferentiated and nonhierarchical) justice, safety, and communal (bodily) integrity is but one urgent signaling of abolitionist method in the here and now. When some on the far right (including the emergent alt-right) stake out the terms of moral panic by marshaling fearful, defensive reactions to a “war on cops,” screaming and whispering that “blue lives matter” in rebuttal to the intense and visible activation of so many around the fact of Black life’s institutionalized subjection to state terror, there is a grain of truth buried in their cynical, reprehensible posturing.

Here, then, is a central pedagogical and conceptual task for abolitionist praxis, requisite to the task of disarticulating the assumptions of the mass incarceration–reform narrative and offering a different, insurgent story against Civilization: to define and historicize “incarceration” against its modern juridical-cultural coherence as such.


* Professor of Ethnic Studies and Chair of the Academic Senate, University of California, Riverside. The author is thankful to the editors of the Harvard Law Review for their thoughtful, constructive, and critical feedback on earlier versions of this Essay. Professor Katherine McKittrick’s edited anthology Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis inspired the title of this Essay.