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Patrisse Cullors
via Instagram (@osopepatrisse)

What does it actually mean to be an abolitionist?

Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, discusses her new book An Abolitionist’s Handbook

“These 12 principles or steps are about goal setting. They are about understanding who you are and how to bring the idea of abolition to the forefront in your life and in the lives of others,” writes Patrisse Cullors in An Abolitionist’s Handbook.

Cullors is a New York Times bestselling author, educator, artist and abolitionist from Los Angeles, as well as co-founder and former Executive Director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation. In her latest book, Cullors outlines how abolition became part of her day-to-day life and how you can do the same. The book is filled with personal anecdotes of Cullors navigating her way through America, how the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement informed her work, the struggles she experienced – such as daily death threats and doxxing – and the people she met along the way. It contains instructions on how to practice accountability, unlearn toxic behaviours, build intentional abolitionist communities and, of course, dismantle the prison industrial system.

Here, Cullors chats to Dazed about what abolition means to her, how we can allow space to make the process a joyful one, and how we can push the movement forward here in the UK. 

In the foreword of An Abolitionist’s Handbook, you say that abolition should be “vulnerable, intimate, personal and non-negotiable work”. In simple terms, what does abolition actually mean? 

Patrisse Cullors: Abolition is about transforming the harmful ways that our community has been impacted by state violence. It is a way forward in reconnecting to ourselves and humanity. And abolition is about challenging the police and actually moving towards getting rid of a system of punishment.

You also argue that abolition does not have a halfway point, and we need to move away from this thinking – what damage is caused when we push for this halfway mark as opposed to complete eradication of the prison system?

Patrisse Cullors: It’s important that people understand that abolition is about getting to the root of our systems, and transforming those systems. You don’t transform systems by putting a bandaid on them. You get to the root of why that wound is happening and why you’re hurting. And so abolition is actually about looking at why we’re collectively hurting, why we’re invested in police and prisons and why this system looks the way it does. And truly look at what kind of systems we should have. It’s time we confront why there are unhoused people, why half of the population in the US inside of jails and prisons have a mental illness. We need to get to the root of those issues and address them for what they are. 

A lot of people will be questioning what a future looks like without prisons and police. Can you explain why you argue that rehabilitation is more effective than punishment?

Patrisse Cullors: The one thing we’re trying to do as abolitionists is to transform the conditions that lead people to be harmful, and also transforming people so they don’t continue to be harmful. Abolition isn’t just about the individual interpersonal relationships, it’s about looking at the larger systems that impact human beings to cause real serious harm to each other. How do we create conditions where people can have access to food, health care and housing? And how do we create conditions where people feel joy, feel bliss, feel pleasure? And where if harm does happen, more harm isn’t caused? When you put someone in prison, that doesn’t actually stop harm, it creates more harm. If you talk to immigrant communities, undocumented communities, black communities, and trans communities, and you ask them if they feel safe to call the police, ‘yes’ is not the answer for them. So I think it’s important that we create new systems so that we can actually deal with real harm and call for real accountability. Police and prisons don’t give us access to more accountability.

“Everything that I’ve ever done, all the work I’ve ever done, whether it’s organising or art, has been about affirming human life” – Patrisse Cullors

You speak a lot about reimagining a better future and a better world. Why should we strive to make justice joyful? 

Patrisse Cullors: Human beings aren’t just one thing, we are everything. Joy is a big part of how we not only just live in the world, but how we thrive. Joy is a big part of how we heal and how we connect, especially for black people and people at the margins. Everything that I’ve ever done, all the work I’ve ever done, whether it’s organising or art, has been about affirming human life. 

You were quite vulnerable and open about your personal life in the book, and I found this refreshing. Did you find it difficult to be this vulnerable?

Patrisse Cullors: I think vulnerability is a necessary part of evolution. The more we access our vulnerability and the more we ask other people to access their vulnerability, it helps us understand what we’re dealing with. I try to be vulnerable as an example for others to be vulnerable. I know it’s not easy, especially in the world that we live in with online attacks and brutal trolls and misinformation and disinformation. Sometimes our vulnerability is truly used against us and weaponised against us. But I think when we practice vulnerability en masse, it’s really important.

Do you think being this vulnerable will help people deepen their understanding of what abolition is? 

Patrisse Cullors: Yes, I really want to use this book as an entryway for some, but for others as a way to look at how to strengthen abolitionist practice. Abolition is not new, but this concept of abolition as a way to treat each other and how we show up for each other is more new. We see it in the conversations around transformative justice and restorative justice that have been led by so many people. People like Amita Swadhin and Mia Mingus.

You speak about being part of a collective as a teenager, called Tribe of the Diasporas which created safe spaces where people could come together to unlearn toxic behaviours like racism, sexism and homophobia. For people who’d like to create a similar space, what advice would you give them? 

Patrisse Cullors: That was one of my first intentional communities that I helped build here in Los Angeles. And I think for people who want to practice inside a community, it’s really about calling up your friends, texting them, emailing them and saying “hey, who wants to do this in real time? Who wants to try to do these things?”. It’s not just about sitting around in a circle, reading the book and practising it like a study group, although that’s one way to do it. But it’s also just about how we live our lives. 

The abolitionist movement definitely has less of a presence here in the UK than it does over in the US. How do you think we can move it forward here?

Patrisse Cullors: I think it’s important for folks in the UK to follow organisers on the ground. We’ve been talking about abolition, and have been challenging the UK’s system of policing, imprisonment and the court system. The way we move things forward is to look at who’s already doing the work. Lift their work up and hold space for it. Whether that’s organisers, institutions, collectives, these are spaces where you can learn more about how to practice abolition in real time.

An Abolitionist's Handbook is published by OWN IT! at £16.99 and available to buy now.