By Lia Kaz
Attending Profiles of Abolition
It’s not every day that a Social Justice Foundation offers you hundreds of dollars to fly across the country and meet your hero. As a Tzedek Social Justice Fellow, I was offered an education stipend to find educational opportunities that support my development as an agent of change. I was encouraged to check for whichever opportunities truly resonated with me. I’m a little embarrassed to admit; I just googled, “Angela Davis, conference, 2016”.
Best Google search I ever did. It was easily the highlight of my academic and activist life thus far.
Before I knew it, I was on a flight to Los Angeles. The panel was titled, “Profiles of Abolition: Abolition and the Radical Imagination.” Critical Resistance, a West Coast prison abolition group, was having an anniversary, and featured some information about the successes and challenges they’ve had over the last 18 years. The Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), a Skid Row artists collective, debuted a powerful performance about police brutality and systemic racism in the police force. The speaking panel featured visual artist Melanie Cervantes, poet Fred Moten, and, of course, Dr. Angela Y. Davis.
You may have been distracted by the phrase “prison abolition group” or “profiles of abolition”. The abolitionist movement of our time still discusses slavery, as the name might suggest, and rather than focusing solely on our plantations and farms, it spans into the modern era of detention. It lives in the spirit of our constitution, which states clearly, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime…shall exist within the United States.” Dr. Davis has been advocating for the abolition of prisons for decades before she, herself, was ever incarcerated.
Art and Analysis
Outside the Agape International Center in Culver City, the crowd was diverse in age, race, style, physical ability, languages, etc. We came as artists, activists, doctorate students, previously incarcerated people, lawyers, grandmothers, babies, etc. Looking around at the crowd, it was clear that this movement targets people, not one particular group of people.
To kickoff the event, my chest was heavy with the performance of the [cleverly named] LAPD collective. Community members told the story of a man running from the police, newly immigrated, black, homeless, and talking to characters that no one else can see. He pleads for help, as the community stands around him, unrelenting in their monologues. And, in my chest, I know what’s going to happen. You know what happens, when the story gets laid out like that. He was killed by the police, outside his tent, still begging. For the rest of the performance, the group sang around his body, face down, on the stage. They just held still, all around him. His body is not cleaned, buried, or moved for the rest of the performance.
Following this, Critical Resistance was able to speak about alternative systems to this brutality. They gave a brief analysis and explanation that once we begin to look, and listen, it is clear that our systems of policing and incarcerating cause deep, resonant harm. They told the story of how they gathered a group of coalition partners that successfully diverted funds from building a new prison in the Bay area into prevention, addiction and mental health crisis programs.
Dr. Davis had some introductory remarks before the panel began. She seamlessly gave a history of slavery, detention, and human control up to the present day. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend that you pick up any of her dozens of published books or speeches. In the context of this talk, she made sure to mention, “Art is more important than the political leaders to give us the analysis.” As a woman who has held immense political power, running for vice president in both 1980 and 1984, this statement carried some weight in the room. It was at this moment that it became clear that the order of events had been very carefully crafted. The event intentionally blended artists and philosophers and community members as key elements of the “radical imagination” that is required of any abolition movement.
“I’m not there yet!”
When the panel between Moten, Cervantes, and Davis opened up, it was clear that we were in the middle of an incredible intellectual brainstorm. Each gave a brief introduction to their work, and their connections to the prison abolition movement. Each answered the facilitator’s questions in their own style, with their own language, and played off of each other’s comments.
The audience came alive, however, at the comments of one of our own. Fred Moten was asked about how to work with others, as a black man, as a poet, as someone who believes in investing in the radical imagination and creating a world that we currently do not have access to. He raised the question of “loving who did this to us” in reference to slavery and the continuation of servitude It was clear that he was talking about racial and economic divide. Brilliantly, a woman, in the far back of the crowd behind me, yelled, “I’m not there yet!!” The room broke out in laughter, echoed shouts of “me either,” and excited whispers. It was such an honest response in such a mixed crowd—without accusation or apology. Fred Moten laughed, and responded with a message that I believe speaks to all of our movements; “That’s alright, that’s alright. That’s why I raise it as a question. Cuz I just can’t figure out how to save the planet without them.”
So I’m there in the crowd, with the history in my body of both sides of “who did this” and “us”. As someone who comes from colonizer and colonized, I needed that woman to speak to all sides of me. And I needed Moten to let me know that it’s a constant question of loving, a question of loving, because we are all here. And what is there to do with all of us?
The prison abolition movement isn’t about investing in hate for police, or quieting anger for that matter. It isn’t about loving blindly those that jail and capture, but seeing the analysis and asking if we can build something better together. Melanie Cervantes reminded us to not let fear keep us from decolonizing ourselves, and to invest in “accountability without crushing each other if we make a mistake”.
Responding to Skeptics of Prison Abolition
When I say the phrase “prison abolition”, I always get three, agitated responses.
- “That’s crazy, don’t you mean you reform?”
- “What do you want to replace prisons with?”
- “What about serial killers and pedophiles?”
After this experience, I have become infinitely more prepared to articulate myself, and my position.
I’d like to offer my personal analysis of why I hope you’ll join me in being an anti-prison advocate, and some key talking points when people ask you these questions. In my experience, people will always ask these three questions. And that’s legitimate. People are afraid. That’s why we’ve created these separated containers of human beings—often without the “fair trial” they, and you and I, are promised. Our nation is still vastly segregated, and we must reconsider and resist stereotypes of danger and protection if we aim to sustain any shred of a diverse democracy. Prison abolition goals are congruent with many socially progressive movements and engaging in these questions, rather than dismissing them, can make great connections and coalition partners in unexpected places.
1.) That’s crazy, don’t you mean you reform?
Answer: Life has existed without prisons. Prisons have not been a permanent feature of human societies. Reform, in and of itself, requires a continuation of the system. Decades of research have shown no correlation between increased number of incarcerated people and increased safety. In fact, communities that have successfully closed down prisons have shown decreased crime rates. I am suggesting that we get rid of prisons.
2.) What do you want to replace with it with?
Answer: We cannot simply remove and then replace the prison—that’s another way of executing an expensive reform project. I am not suggesting that we simply open the doors and bulldoze the buildings in one night. We learned that lesson with the deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities, and the catastrophic effects that has had on our people. It is important to take care of people after the proposed institution is shut down, and involve everyone in the process. I’m proposing a shift in how we deal with crime, criminality and danger. We know what social factors contribute to “crime” as we know it today, and can reallocate many of our funds to prevention programs and support programs to our vulnerable populations.
3.) What about serial killers and pedophiles?
Answer: This is the vast minority of incarcerated people. It’s important to flag this point. The overwhelming majority of people currently incarcerated are held for nonviolent convictions, and a substantial amount are held for drug related or other health concerns. Again, because prison sentences do not decrease violence, we need to learn how to deal with safety, rather than the racially disproportionate punitive measures we are currently operating in. I am never arguing that violent crimes or violent acts should go unnoticed. After careful analysis, all the evidence I can find only shows that prisons do not humanely or effectively address the hurt that is caused. In fact, prisons cause harm. Many families of victims have built coalitions against the death penalty, solitary confinement, and other prison measures because they say it will not heal the hurt caused to their loved one. Currently, the poorer you are and the richer skin tone you have are two factors that have statistically been proven to increase your prison sentences. How could this possibly bring justice?
Conversations about prison abolition
After all this, you might hear someone say, “Well. It sounds like you don’t really have a plan.” At this point, if I know the person, I may joke with them, saying, “Well, if I knew how to fix it, I sure wouldn’t be here filing papers (or whatever thing I’m doing at the time)!” Culturally, we often like to discuss solutions before analyzing problems. Abolition is an involved movement working against the racist and classist, statistically ineffective, tax expensive system that currently exists in our midst.
When I’m in conversations with people about prison abolition, it is often difficult to discern if they believe that prisons are truly rehabilitative, or are purely punitive. When I discuss that prisons cause harm, sometimes people will say to me, “Of course, but only to the prisoners.” Woah. There’s a statement. That’s a punitive model in action, right? But what’s weirder, yet, is that people will come back with, “ and they need to learn,” or “they need to be set straight.” So what’s the ideology that’s at work? As a culture, we haven’t even agreed about where crime comes from, and the arguments about where crime comes from often come from a moral or ideological place. As a research driven society, we do have data about what increases and decreases violent crimes. We have data showing that deprivation and subjugation increase crime. And yet, from a moral standpoint, people reinforce a punitive model with no evidence showing rehabilitative qualities. What’s up with that?
What are you willing to risk? What is worth saving, what is worth protecting?
And those questions get harder when we ask, who? Who are you willing to risk, who is worth saving, and who is worth protecting? And, who do we let make those decisions?
Do we still want to enforce the rhetoric of “deserving” with a punitive system, while still communicating about a false rehabilitation utopia? These messages are incongruent. We need to find a new way.