What is Abolition?

What is Abolition? The basics and where to go to learn more

The Basic of Abolition

1st - Abolition does NOT mean reform or a new kind of policing. Things like the 8cantwait campaign are HARMFUL because they leave the funding and the power of police intact - the opposite of what’s needed.

2nd - In the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” Abolition is about building up life giving and affirming institutions that ACTUALLY ensure the safety and well-being of our peoples. Safety comes not from armed enforcers of the state or locking people in cages, but from addressing the root causes of violence & harm. We’re safe when everybody’s housed. We’re safe when everybody has access to food & healthcare. We’re safe when we address gendered violence. We’re safe when we have community structures of support & accountability that don’t treat people as disposable.

3rd - Abolition goes beyond just the police. Abolition is about refusing to allow the institution of slavery to continue in any form. That means dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline. That means freeing people from prisons. That also means connecting our aims to broader goals of liberation and dismantling the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) and all other forms of state violence as well.

4th - Abolition is a PROCESS. No one is expecting a system to end overnight. The process STARTS with non-reformist reforms like defunding the police, removing police from schools, ending pre-trial detention, refusing any proposed expansions of policing or incarceration, and investing in CARE, NOT COPS. All things that chip away at the power of the police and the carceral system in our communities.

Okay, that’s the basics. Now what?

Some of you may ask: “But what about the bad people?” We encourage y’all to check out this comic by long-time abolitionist and organizer, Mariame Kaba. Also keep in mind that police and incarceration DO NOT meaningfully prevent crime.

Begin Comic Text: Who’s Left: Prison Abolition

I’m Mariame Kaba, director of project NIA and prison abolitionist. Is prison abolition a hard thing to explain to people? I get the same questions: “what about bad people? What about rapists?” I don’t answer those questions anymore.

These are posed as questions about safety but are mostly based in fear of the other. Safety for whom? And from what?

It doesn’t make sense to answer because there are bad people who have not been incarcerated.

I’d rather talk about having justice without police or surveillance.

Why abolition? Why not reform? The prison system is harmful! There is rampant violence, rape, and deaths in custody.

The prison itself was a reform of corporal punishment. When prisons first came into use in the late 1700s, Quakers pushed for reform. Why continue centuries of rounds of unsuccessful reforms?

So we have to create the conditions that decreased the demand for police and surveillance. You need jobs, healthcare, housing, people need to be able to live their lives. You need to create structures to address harm and hold people accountable. People think abolitionists minimize harm but we take it very seriously.

Safety is a collective action.

A lot of people think abolitionists want to close prisons tomorrow when we didn’t get there yesterday. Ruthie Gilmore says “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.”

The prison system sits at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression and facets of society and when you map it out we’re all in that web.

I am the director of project NIA, an organization focused on ending youth incarceration. I also work with survived and punished, a project dedicated to the release of survivors of domestic and gendered violence imprisoned for survival actions.

Survived and Punished’s Free Bresha campaign successfully managed to keep Bresha Meadows in the juvenile system rather than being tried and sentenced as an adult, and transferred to a mental health facility before finally being released, avoiding a 25 to life sentence. Bresha Meadows was arrested at 14 for fatally shooting her abusive father in self-defense.

Some people ask how feasible abolition is. Security is about putting up gates and walls and weapons between you and other people. How feasible is it to continue a violent system? For people to live in fear? The prison system is a recent development and not as permanent as people think.

I don’t know what a world without prisons will look like. But it will fundamentally transform our relationship with other people.

End Comic Text

So you want to know more, but don’t know where to begin? Here are some great resources and people to look to!

Authors: Angela Davis, Mariame Kaba, Sojourner Truth, Assata Shakur, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Robin DG Kelley, Cathy Cohen, Andrea Ritchie

Organizations: Critical Resistance, Transgender Gender-variant and Intersex Justice Project, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, Anti-Police Terror Project, Black Lives Matter LA, Black & Pink

These are just starting points! Abolition is a process that we’re all learning and growing through. A better world without police is out there!