If there’s a word that has signified the culture of resistance over the past year, it would be “abolish.” Despite always being present in U.S. history, especially during slavery, the abolition movement was popularized in 2020 after the uprisings following George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. Acts of abolition—the collective efforts to abolish systems of subjugation—are rooted in both the need to destroy the oppressive structures in this society as well as the need to create alternative ways of living, beyond the extractive, exploitative mode of interaction that dominates our society. Often when we think of abolition, we just think of abolishing the police or the prison system. And while those are definitely components of abolition, they are not all that needs to be abolished.
By looking at the injustices in our world, and how they perpetuate and are perpetuated by anti-Blackness, we can see how this current system of governance doesn’t serve Black people. Black people are continuing to be killed by police, are disproportionately forced into incarceration, and are economically disadvantaged. For the past year, there have been abolitionist efforts through mutual aid support, kicking cops out of schools, migrant defense support, prison uprisings, rent strikes, and people refusing to work low paying jobs. These abolition efforts were ignited by an even more direct act of abolition in the wake of Floyd's murder: the burning of a Minneapolis police precinct.
To understand where these abolitionist actions are leading the movement, R29Unbothered speaks to five people who are active in abolition efforts about the state of these movements and why we need abolition now.
For years, Chicago has had an active defund movement and Bettina J has spent the past year training people who were activated by last year’s uprisings to implement the DefundCPD (Chicago Police Department) campaign. One of the core demands of the campaign is to cut the Chicago police budget by 75%. “Defunding is the first step to abolition,” Fullamusu Bangura, another Chicago based abolitionist, says. “But we run the risk of replicating the same structures if we just stop there.” Through her work with the social justice-centered education program Chicago Freedom School, Bangura has supported Chicago students in their efforts to remove “school resource officers” and other police-adjacent entities from their schools. Individual school councils across the city began voting out SROs, undermining the citywide campaign efforts. Despite not getting a citywide ban on SROs in schools, Bangura still sees it as a win for the schools that did decide to remove SROs.
New Afrikan Liberation Collective co-founder Shaka Shakur focuses on prison abolition behind the walls of Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn, Virginia. Shakur says that solidarity between those who are imprisoned and those on the outside is central to prison abolition. “This allows us to network across the world and allows us to network within our individual community, with our families and so forth.” Shakur says the last year has given him hope because he “sees the movement growing,” especially in Virginia. Shakur and others have helped form the Virginia Prisoner Abolitionist Collective which engages local communities to better support abolition efforts as well as those who are locally imprisoned.
“We are part and parcel of a unified front within the Prison Lives Matter National Coordinating Committee,” the Twitter bio for the VA Prisoner Abolitionist Collective reads. “We seek to use this network to build a statewide infrastructure and regional organizing committee aimed at establishing inside-out coordination between captives [and] outside.”
Shakur sees Virginia recent ban on the death penalty as a good sign towards the larger prison abolition movement but says the conversation still, “has to be pushed and has to be put in the proper context where it doesn't just become like trying to reform the system itself and go for a kinder, gentler form of prison.”
In the wake of these national uprisings, another abolitionist tactic people are using to address community needs and solve social problems is mutual aid. Like abolition, mutual aid has become a buzzword, but its practice predates colonialism and capitalism. Throughout the years, Black and non-Black indigenous people have been practicing mutual aid as a way to care and support one another but also to build and maintain a community autonomous from the forces of control that sought their domination.
In Los Angeles, Edxi Betts shares the foundations of mutual aid. “It is foundationally anarchistic, it's foundationally anti-authoritarian,” Edxi says. “I've been taking part in mutual aid for quite a few years in the form of different food programs, rent strikes for housing, and cop watch. There's quite a long list of things you can do for people and it's more service based.” Mutual aid can play a crucial role when we discuss abolition and what building a world outside these oppressive structures can look like. “It's a practice that meets our needs and differs from charity because it isn't top down,” Edxi says. “That money prolongs the hierarchical power dynamic. It does nothing to flatten it.”
In the United Kingdom, Kwabena Asare has been doing mutual aid work focused on supporting migrants and refugees detained by the UK's Home Office (similar to the United States’ Department of Homeland Security). “We have had demonstrations at Napier Barracks in Kent, we've been able to keep people in touch despite the punitive relocations. Some in the network have gained rescue boats to save lives who may have otherwise drowned in the channel—all this in opposition and despite state resources,” Kwabena says. “In creating networks of support that are independent of the state, we reduce its power and legitimacy over our lives. There is beauty in this collective endeavor.”
The pandemic illustrated in high definition the failures of capitalism, and mutual aid projects have played a crucial role in various abolition movements. Some of these efforts have looked like distributing food, masks and sanitation products to those in the community that have needed it and offering crisis support as an alternative to calling the police. Mutual aid has been and continues to be a key part of taking an active role in creating the world we want to see. Through direct action, mutual aid shows others there’s another way of co-existing.
Though police abolition has gotten some shine over the year, there are other parts of abolition that the movement has neglected. When it comes to the death of trans women, Edxi is pushing for the end of gender policing to be included in larger discussions on abolition. “I wish there was more education around policing, not only towards the policing of Black people's bodies, but the policing of gender, gender roles and norms. I've always tried to bridge that,” Edxi says. “There are certain laws that have criminalized Black people and that same ‘law and order’ has also criminalized and vilified trans people.”
With the popularization of abolition terminology, there’s a fear that abolition efforts can be co-opted. “I definitely see folks trying to co-opt abolition by watering it down to something more palatable for the masses. Abolition is not settling for reform and I think that’s the biggest misconception I’ve seen,” Bangura says. Co-optation has always been a danger for movements once they have gained the interests of the masses. And while “abolish” is being used in other reformist efforts, like the movement to “abolish the filibuster,” it’s important to distinguish that fight from the efforts of those who are working to abolish the whole structural system that the filibuster and senate work within.
Co-optation efforts shouldn't distract us from the goals at hand. Our need for abolition remains just as necessary now as it was for our enslaved ancestors. Economically, it is vital for Black people to abolish capitalism because of its inherently exploitative nature. Black people are by far the most indebted within the capitalist system through predatory payday loans and student, health care, and credit card debt. Through creating a society that is based on mutual aid, we would have stronger Black communities that aren’t constantly threatened by gentrification and evictions.
While Black capitalism may be touted by the Black wealthy class as a means towards liberation, it is through collectivity that we will be free, not by exploiting each other for individual families’ gain. “We do not need control over these systems,” Bettina J says. “What we need is more people involved and imagining and most importantly building what needs to come next.”
As more people become interested in abolition, it’s key that we understand that part of those efforts must be to abolish our own internalized desire to police and dominate others.
Thinking about what needs to happen next,,Kwabena emphasizes the need for a new kind of international solidarity. Specifically, he says, we must “actively make links beyond and across borders, not limiting ourselves to policing and prisons but abolishing all of the violences of imperial armies and global economic structures which impoverish peoples and impose poverty worldwide.”