Prior to the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a state agent, I was aware of people and organizations that described themselves as abolitionists, but promoted policies and goals that contradicted abolition. One example is Just Leadership USA which called for the building of new cages in New York City boroughs. Abolition is about shrinking the state’s ability and capacity to punish, control, cage and surveil. Abolitionist never support the building of cages. Like many others, JLUSA often claimed to center the leadership of formerly and currently imprisoned people. The truth is these organizations don’t center the leadership of currently or formerly incarcerated people. Hiring us, even placing us in upper administrative positions, doesn’t mean our leadership, concerns or priorities are being centered. What is centered by these organizations is the wishes of their funders. And the formerly incarcerated people they hire must support the line of these funders to stick around.
Since 2020, this situation has become more common. Organizations claiming to be abolitionist attach themselves to formerly or currently imprisoned people and use them to promote reformist goals. Most often, these organizations work in only two areas: litigation and electoral politics. For some reason, they believe elected officials will lead us to freedom. For some reason, they believe the most conservative branch of government, the judiciary, will grant us freedom. Don’t they know that whatever they give they can take away? Don’t they know freedom is not something given? Don’t they know history? Right now, the voting rights that elected officials and the courts granted in the 60s and 70s are being taken away all across the country? We will never obtain freedom begging politicians and judges for it.
These same organizations spend little, if any, energy organizing communities. And let it be known, mobilizing people for rallies and marches isn’t organizing. It’s mobilization. There’s a time and place for mobilization, but what we need is organizing. Like Malcolm X said, and Saidiya Hartman reiterates, we are not outnumbered, we are out organized. We need to be in the communities, connecting with people, listening to them, assisting them in obtaining what they need not only survive, but thrive and do this work. And I am talking about communities on both sides of the walls. If we are going to build a mass movement that demands freedom, that expands the meaning of freedom, that obtains freedom, we have to organize.
These people and organizations that promote legislating our way to freedom distract us from true paths to freedom. We must be vigilant. A person or organization doesn’t have to be abolitionist to be against policing, prisons, racism, sexism, ableism, imperialism, homophobia, transphobia or any other oppression. But when a person or organization claims to be abolitionist, there are expectations. There are principles and ethics that need to be upheld. We cannot allow these people and organizations to co-opt abolition, truncate its vision and distort its call.
Abolition is for and by the people!