“A little bit of a fuck you to Amazon, and kind of a fuck you to the FBI” is how Bronzeville, Chicago rapper and cultural worker Noname described her book club to Trevor Noah on The Daily Show in late 2019. The club picks and promotes two books a month written by POC authors, and posts them to incarcerated individuals across the US. In the months following that moment, Black Lives Matter protests led to fierce and forensic debates about the future of the police, and why the allocation of funds to other public sectors underpins the fight for equality. For her guest edit, Noname brings members of America’s incarcerated creative community together to explore the case for abolition, shedding light on life on the inside via a series of startling artworks.
NONAME AND THE FIGHT TO ABOLISH PRISONS
On the third night of protests after George Floyd was murdered, protesters burned down a police precinct. Suddenly, Minneapolis felt like a portal to a new universe. The idea that we could live in a world without police can feel impossible to achieve – but that night inspired similar uprisings across the globe and, soon after, the phrase “defund the police” went mainstream.
For a musician like Noname, who has been an eloquent voice amid the disruption, it feels like a step towards abolition. “I think the hardest part of abolition is really just being OK with the fact that you’re going to have to live in a world with people who have been deemed unfit for society, ‘criminals’. It’s hard for people to see that – to see the humanity of those who have been cast aside. Or to even rationalise that a lot of the reasons why people are incarcerated are completely linked to white supremacy and capitalism.”
The Chicago-born rapper and book club founder, whose second album Room 25 impacted culture the world over in 2018, has been thinking hard about the semantics of the term. “I think it is easier to appeal to the defunding of the police (than it is to abolishing prison), because people see police brutality more than they see how violent prisons are,” she says. “I think, also, it’s different when you see a kid get shot, (because) you can rationalise why that’s not right. You can’t rationalise a ‘criminal’, someone who you’ve decided is unfit to exist in society. It takes a lot of work.”
The work of prison abolition requires collective creativity – imagining a new world where harm is addressed in a holistic sense, and the conditions that enable and create that harm are eradicated. Dismantling systems of oppression will not be as simple as offering a quick alternative, or an alternative at all. Noname speaks to the elasticity of struggle, saying, “The practice of liberating ourselves has to be continuously changing and expanding and reducing, (because we’re) figuring it out. It’s a breathing thing.”
Noname, born Fatimah Nyeema Warner, is grappling with feeling radicalised publicly and “learning and unlearning” what it is to be a Black feminist. Her book club gives invisiblised incarcerated people a space to discuss radical literature, and she’s strategic in how she uses her digital presence to boost “any sort of new information on learning around the prison-industrial complex, the abolition movement in the country and other organisers and abolitionists who have been pushing this language, theory and practice forward”.
“I think I have a responsibility to use my platform in a specific way,” says Noname. “And I know that drives me to become more radical. Because I want to see these politics more in the mainstream. Even the folks who are ‘political’, who have large platforms, they’re not really radical. They would never tweet, ‘I believe (in) revolutionary violence.’ They don’t even usually use the word abolition. (There are) celebrities who never, ever use the word capitalism when they make their social critiques and I think it’s important that we do that, because those are the true issues that we need to be naming.”
In a now-deleted quote-tweet asking Twitter users how they became radicalised, Noname
hilariously replied “public shaming”. Although the left has a reputation for ridiculing before recruiting, Noname has created a community of curious and eager-to-learn readers. “So much about being radical and political is about how we show up in our own lives and how we treat the people who show up for themselves and their communities,” she says. “I got people pushing me and I’m trying to do the same.”
“I think the hardest part of abolition is being OK with the fact that you’re going to have to live in a world with people who have been deemed unfit for society, ‘criminals’. It’s hard for people to see the humanity of those who have been cast aside” – Noname
The uniformity of life under lockdown – the inconvenience, lack of control and isolation – prompted Hannah Giorgis to write an essay for The Atlantic about how quarantining could change the way we think about incarceration. In the face of worsening conditions – from increased border enforcement and policing to the housing crisis and the growing wealth gap – how we care for one another and see our problems as interconnected is paramount. “I think changing how we engage with people is a crucial part of revolution, if we are going to have one,” says Noname. “It’s not going to be successful only on the grounds of ‘we need to eradicate poverty’. If I’m not linking up with folks to have conversations about transphobia and anti-fatness and, you know, trying to get folks to be more open generally in their own lives, I don’t think it can really happen.”
For Noname, lockdown has offered people a chance to assess the ways in which capitalism has come to divide us and dismantle collective thinking. “I want to see liberation specifically for Black folks across the diaspora, but also all (people) who are oppressed in the world,” she says. “The folks who are on the ground, who are not just organising for Black folks, Black liberation, indigenous sovereignty, but also folks who do that through radical politics – I don’t really see them amplified.”
In one of civil rights activist Audre Lorde’s essays, published in the late 70s, she switches to the second person and demands a moment of introspection from her audience: “I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you... What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialised to respect fear more than our own need for language.” The answers to these questions exhort an urgency, a different type of visualisation and imagination. In short, what are you, or we, willing to accept? As the world adapts to a post-lockdown reality, systems of oppression stay firmly in place – and we are merely adjusting to our wonderment, or illuminating ways to navigate it. “I feel like someone dreamed the world that we’re in,” Noname exclaims. “Why can’t we dream of something else?”
WHAT IS ABOLITION?
Stephen Wilson is an incarcerated writer and abolitionist organiser
We are experiencing a crisis, an interval of possibility. During times like these, clear definitions, especially of what people are demanding, are imperative. As scholar/activist Michael Ralph recently noted, “In the past few months, longstanding critiques about mass incarceration and police abuse have pushed a plea familiar to abolitionists into commercial journalism and casual conversation.” People who have never supported or ascribed themselves to its principles are now calling for abolition. As scholar/activist Saidiya Hartman wrote for Artforum in July: “Everyone has issued a statement – every elite racist university and cultural institution, every predatory banking and investment company – has issued a statement about being down with Black Lives Matter. It’s beyond hypocrisy. It’s utter cynicism. These institutions feel required to take part in this kind of performance and this kind of speech only because of the radically capacious demands of those in the street, those who are demanding abolition.” Dr Hartman’s description of the desires of those demanding abolition as “radically capacious” is accurate. Defining abolition, listing our demands, is difficult due to the expansive nature of abolition.
What is abolition? We could say, as professor Jack Halberstam writes, “It ends with love, exchange, fellowship. It ends as it begins, in motion, in between various modes of being and belonging, and on the way to new economies of giving, taking, being with and for...” It is not an exact definition, but it conveys what abolitionists are striving for. An exact definition is impossible, says Halberstam, because “(w)e cannot say what new structures will replace the ones we live with yet, because once we have torn shit down, we will inevitably see more and see differently and feel a new sense of wanting and being and becoming. What we want after ‘the break’ will be different from what we think we want before the break, and both are necessarily different from the desire that issues from being in the break.” Academic Dylan Rodriguez has even written of ‘abolitions’, signifying the capaciousness of abolition.
But this moment, in order for it to avoid becoming another historical promise deferred, requires that we define abolition. This is imperative, because there are people offering narcotic promises of change and calling them abolition. There are people promoting deadly familiar reforms and calling them abolition. There are people engaging in reformist policing: the dynamic coercion of insurgent forms of dissidence into pacifist paradigms of political engagement that do little to change the status quo. And calling it abolition. As academic Alice Kim writes, “(r)eform without a vision of fundamental change... can give way to new forms of captivity and containment by the state”. We know that reforms often strengthen the state’s capacities to harm us. As scholar/activist Dean Spade observed, “reform demands often operate to transform systems facing resistance just enough to stabilise things and preserve the status quo”. Abolition isn’t reform. To make this clear, we need to find a way to define abolition before this interval of possibility is closed by reformers seeking to derail the hopes of the people.
Abolition is from those ideologies, concepts and practices that are best defined by what they are not. Through their opposites, their meaning becomes clearer. And because abolition values collective genius and activity, I contacted a few wise abolitionist friends, people who live and practise abolition daily, to help me define abolition via what it isn’t. Hopefully, through learning what isn’t abolition, confusion is dispelled and cooption precluded.
ABOLITION ISN’T SIMPLISTIC. ABOLITION ISN’T FINDING A NICER WAY TO PUNISH PEOPLE.
Abolition is not just about tearing down something; it’s about imagining, building and creating new ways of being where people have what they need and, when we make mistakes, we’re met with care and community, rather than isolation, abandonment and violence. Abolition is not reform of an existing system and is not creating another institution that still relies on existing systems.”– Ann Russo
ABOLITION ISN’T SPEAKING FOR INCARCERATED PEOPLE OR MARGINALISED COMMUNITIES. ABOLITION ISN’T A MARKET COMMODITY.
“Abolition is not a reformed carceral system; it is not a different kind of police. It is not a gender-affirming prison. Abolition is not a world where violence persists unchecked, or a world where people are unaccountable for the harm they commit. Abolition is not a state-driven process.” – Jared Ware
ABOLITION ISN’T CHARITY. ABOLITION ISN’T BUILDING NEW CAGES.
“Abolition is not policing, is not criminalisation, is not incarceration. Abolition is not gender and racial violence. Abolition is not colonialism, heteropatriarchy or capitalism. Abolition is not only communism and not only anarchy. Abolition is not only socialist and not only anti-authoritarian. Abolition is not reliant on or mediated by a state and does not permit a future envisaged under the control of any imperialist governing structures.” – Casey Goonan
ABOLITION ISN’T MORE FUNDING FOR COPS. ABOLITION ISN’T POLICE ADVISORY COMMITTEES.
“Abolition is not renaming the police, jails, prisons, psychiatric institutions or ICE. Abolition is not retraining an agent of state violence to be less violent. Abolition is not compatible with capitalism, white supremacy, cis-heteropatriarchy, ableism or imperialism. Abolition is not a fad, an academic theory or an alternative to revolution. Abolition is not expanding criminal-legal system alternatives to incarceration programmes or diversion programmes or DA-run restorative justice circles.” – Nadia Guyot
ABOLITION ISN’T ANTI-BLACK RACISM. ABOLITION ISN’T MISOGYNY.
“It’s not more of the same. It’s not a few reforms. It is not (to use Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s memorable phrase) ‘tweaking Armageddon’. It is not the same sociopolitical-economic arrangements with fewer police and prisons.” – Dan Berger
ABOLITION ISN’T ABLEISM. ABOLITION ISN’T QUEER/ TRANSPHOBIA.
“Abolition is not reproducing hierarchies with different identities in charge. It is not punishment for the sake of feeling better. It’s not jailing killer cops. It’s not letting abusers avoid consequences.” – Eliza Bonding
ABOLITION ISN’T US-CENTRIC. ABOLITION ISN’T DIVESTING FROM COMMUNITIES.
“Abolition isn’t the reallocation of funds. Abolition is not progressive party politics. Abolition is not adjusting carceral logic and walking back the brutality of the police state to make it more palatable.” – Alex Alston
ABOLITION ISN’T UNION-BUSTING. ABOLITION ISN’T CLASSISM.
“Abolition isn’t a replacement for revolution, revolutionary struggle or decolonisation, rather it is a vital component of the revolutionary process. Abolition is not merely talking on panels or academics waxing poetic, it is the long struggle on a grassroots level against the very roots of the capitalist carceral system. It’s not useless reforms, empty diversity or reproducing exclusion, it’s decarceration, rerouted funds, community building, and steady revolt.” – Devyn Springer
ABOLITION ISN’T ELECTRONIC MONITORING OR HOUSE ARREST. ABOLITION ISN’T A WAY TO AVOID ACCOUNTABILITY.
“Abolition is not an aesthetic. Meaning you can’t just perform it and say: ‘We’re going to abolish the police,’ and then think that speaking it is doing it. You can’t just change the name of the police department or the prison to something more palatable and think that this is doing it. Abolition is not superficial; it is deep. Abolition is not just words; it is action. And this action is always, always collective, because nobody can dig as deep as is necessary to uproot the current system all by themselves.” – Victoria Sorensen
ABOLITION ISN’T ISLAMOPHOBIC. ABOLITION ISN’T XENOPHOBIC.
“Abolition is not working with police at community events. Abolition is not using revolutionary language while still acting within the political logic of the prison-industrial complex.” – Luke McGowan-Arnold
ABOLITION ISN’T PRESERVATION THROUGH TRANSFORMATION. ABOLITION ISN’T BINARY ENFORCING.
“Abolition is not an attempt to change or reform the prison-industrial complex to make it work better. It is not about improving the role that it plays in our lives. Abolition does not seek to use punitive, racist systems. When a cop kills a black person, abolition is not ensuring that the cop goes to prison; abolition is ensuring that the policing system is stripped of its power and dismantled so that it cannot kill again. Abolition is not just prisons, not just about policing, not just about surveillance. It is a radical project of undoing the world that makes the prison-industrial complex possible. Abolition is imagining and creating a world in which imprisonment and policing are unimaginable.” – Mohamed Shehk
ABOLITION ISN’T JUST THEORY. ABOLITION ISN’T REIFYING STATE POWER.
UPON FINISHING THIS PIECE, STEPHEN WAS PUT INTO SOLITARY CONFINEMENT. HERE IS HOW YOU CAN HELP: CALL SCI FAYETTE AT +1 (724) 364-2200 AND DEMAND THE RELEASE OF STEPHEN WILSON IMMEDIATELY, AND AN INVESTIGATION INTO THE INTERACTION WHERE THE ANGRY OVERSEER, NAMED BOZELLI, SNAPPED AT OUR COMRADE. IT’S ON CAMERA.