text STEPHEN WILSON
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 and 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.
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.
DAZED AUTUMN 2020
ABOLITION ISN’T SIMPLISTIC. ABOLITION ISN’T FINDING A NICER WAYTO PUNISH PEOPLE. “Abolition is not just about tear-
ing 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 AMARKET
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 or medi-
ated by a state and does not permit a future envisaged under the control of any imperialist governing structures.”
– Casey Goonan