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 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 Safiya Bukhari once wrote, in characteristically crystallized terms, “[b]y definition, security means the freedom from danger, fear, and anxiety.”3 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
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 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
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
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 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 Black Youth Project 100,10 We Charge Genocide,11 Idle No More,12 and #NoDAPL and the Standing Rock Sioux,13 I embrace a conception of abolition that is inseparable from its roots in (feminist, queer) Black liberation and (feminist, queer) Indigenous anticolonialism/decolonization.14 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)
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 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.