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What We Mean When We Talk About Abolition

By Ray Acheson

Throughout history, people have demanded the abolition of structures and systems that cause harm. They have demanded the abolition of slavery and segregation, the abolition of nuclear weapons and war, the abolition of police and prisons, of borders. Each of these demands were, or are, met with derision. The structures that have now been abolished were once considered instrumental; the calls to dismantle them treated as naïve, irrational, or irresponsible.

Nevertheless, activists – particularly Black activists and other activists of colour – persisted. They have worked for generations to open the minds of naysayers to the possibilities of alternative ways of living and organising our societies. They have sought to change the economic, political, and social costs and benefits of these structures. They have altered, undone, and disrupted the pursuits of power and profit that have come for the few at the expense of the very, very many.

Abolition is a political project of promiscuous care – of living in a more expansive way than the capitalist, patriarchal society tells us we can. Abolition of structures of harm is not just about tearing down the system but building it anew, based on cooperation, equity, and justice for all. Abolition is about looking at the root cause of harm and violence and working to build alternatives that prevent this harm, rather than relying on existing structures that only create more harm. Abolition seeks not the destruction, but the transformation of our current world order, including through the disarming, demilitarising, defunding, and disbanding of entities of coercive state power that work against peace and freedom.

As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “Abolition requires that we change one thing: everything.”

Why abolition instead of “reform”? Simply because reform of systems built on discrimination and violence is insufficient.

WILPF does not demand just a reduction in nuclear arsenals or an adjustment to nuclear doctrines – we demand their total elimination, their removal from the arsenals of all states and the concurrent changes in thinking that ever made nuclear weapon production and possession possible in the first place.

Those working for the abolition of slavery in the United States were not calling for reforms to this system, to make slavery more “humanitarian”. They rightfully demanded its outright abolition. However, the structures of policing and incarceration established in its place led to continuous repression and criminalisation of Black lives. With this came, over time, increasing militarisation of the police. US police forces around the country have for decades received military equipment through a federal government programme. So have US immigration agencies like Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Police, prison guards, and border guards have been trained by the US military.

The mentality, tactics, and weapons of the US carceral state at home are derived directly from its assertion of itself as a global military “superpower”.  All of these structures – police, prisons, borders, the military – rely on violence to maintain economic and social inequalities. Each are part what Dean Spade has described as a force to “stabilise and maintain an absolutely ridiculous distribution of wealth and violence in the world.” Thus, efforts to confront, challenge, and change these structures through their abolition and the building of something new are interconnected.

“Abolition is not primarily a negative strategy,” Angela Davis has said. “It’s not primarily about dismantling, getting rid of, but it’s about re-envisioning, it’s about building anew.” And in this, she argues, “Abolition is a feminist strategy.” Feminism is not just about addressing issues of “gender”. Feminism is way of thinking and a way of working that helps us to understand the intersectionality of struggles and issues intersect.

The feminist lens can help us recognise that the threats to our safety and security “come not primarily from what is defined as ‘crime’,” explains Angela Davis, “but rather from the failure of institutions in our country to address issues of health, issues of violence, education, etc.” In this sense, “Abolition is really about rethinking the kind of future we want, the social future, the economic future, the political future. It’s about revolution.”

Abolition is thus about rejecting the current structures of policing and justice as a source of, rather than a solution to, violence. And it is about building alternatives. In place of police and prisons, a system of community-based mechanisms to respond to harms caused and investments in education, jobs, housing, health care, mental health, food security, and more to prevent the conditions that lead to this harm. In place of discrimination and violence against Indigenous communities, processes of decolonisation and restoration of Indigenous lands and governance. In place of borders, freedom of movement and respect for the human right to live, while also providing redress for the destruction wrought in so many countries from colonialism, capitalism, conflict, and climate change.

Redressing harms caused is important for all projects of abolition, whether it is for survivors of nuclear weapons or police brutality or colonial genocide or sexual violence. Here we can learn from the lessons of post-conflict transformation and projects of transformative justice. Securing a ceasefire, undergoing a peace process, and engaging in disarmament, demilitarisation, reintegration, and restoration of the community, including through truth and reconciliation processes, are all part of the work necessary to achieve lasting peace and security and redirecting communities from conflict, retribution, and punishment towards personal and collective restorative justice. This is an essential part of the abolition process: the rebuilding of community through accountability and commitment to change.

“Abolition is a movement to end systemic violence including the interpersonal vulnerabilities and displacements that keep the system going,” writes Ruth Wilson Gilmore. “In other words, the goal is to change how we interact with each other and the planet by putting people before profits, welfare before warfare, and life over death.”

We are often told that abolition is naïve. That we are inviting chaos into our world by thinking of dismantling any of these structures of violence. For each project of abolition, there is the same refrain: “But what about those who would seek to do us harm?” We are told that we must have police, we must have prisons, we must have borders, and above everything else, we must have weapons!

But why must we? Our current world order has been built, by and large, by capitalist, racist, patriarchs. When the current US president tweets, “WE MUST MAINTAIN LAW AND ORDER,” this is what he is seeking to protect. An order that serves his interests and the interests of others like him. We are conditioned to believe that police, prisons, and nuclear bombs are the “necessary evils” of our world—but they are only “necessary” in a construct built to value and profit from violence instead of peace, the hoarding of fortunes instead of sharing and equitable distribution, white skin over everyone else, men instead of women (and refusal to acknowledge the existence of any other gender or sex), etc.

The project of abolition is about rejecting and tearing down the structures that sustain this world order of inequity and horror. But it is also so much more. In Critical Resistance’s book Abolition Now!, Alexis Pauline Gumbs asks,

What if abolition isn’t a shattering thing, not a crashing thing, not a wrecking ball event? What if abolition is something that sprouts out of the wet places in our eyes, the broken places in our skin, the waiting places in our palms, the tremble holding in my mouth when I turn to you? What if abolition is something that grows? What if abolishing the prison industrial complex is the fruit of our diligent gardening, building and deepening of a movement to respond to the violence of the state and the violence of our communities with sustainable, transformative love?

This is the nature of the work ahead for those willing to decarcerate their minds from the restrictions of our current system and work with others, led by Black feminists and other Indigenous, Latinx, and other activists of colour, for the creation of a new world. A world based in promiscuous care for each other instead of a world ordered by state violence through the tools of police, prisons, borders, and militaries. Through the investment in the well-being of people, animals, land, and water rather than the monsters of capitalism, colonialism, racism, and patriarchy.

This series of articles is not meant to offer a definitive account of abolitionist projects. It seeks to convey and connect some of critical thinking about and action against certain structures of violence, particularly within the United States. It is intended to provide information and, hopefully, inspiration, to those looking to fundamentally change our world, to work for societies that provide peace, freedom, and justice for all.

Published 1 July 2020

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