“Abolition is a synonym for the end of the world,” proposed Saidiya Hartman during a panel hosted by Silver Press. Abolition is eschatological, in that it involves overturning the conditions that make prisons possible. Abolition is not simply about dismantling or defunding the police. Rather, it is an experiment in refusing a whole damn system that is guilty as hell. From the Latin abolitio(n- ), which derives from abolere, meaning to destroy, abolition is about endings and reckonings, or what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call a “general antagonism” — an ongoing rebellion against the violences of the everyday. Abolition is also creative activity, an invitation to reimagine cultures of punishment and to foster communities rooted in care.
Angela Davis writes about contemporary calls for abolition as the unfinished work of the nineteenth century and earlier movements that opposed slavery, lynching, and segregation. Drawing from W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction, Davis points out that the abolition of slavery was accomplished only in the negative sense — meaning that enslaved people were legally set free but lacked the material resources and democratic institutions necessary to create freer lives. Both DuBois and Davis insist that abolition requires experimentation and the work of the imagination — creating new institutions, ideas, and strategies to reduce harm and render prisons obsolete. Prisons, after all, do not disappear problems. Rather, Davis insists, they disappear people. They perform a “feat of magic.”
Modern policing, according to Ruth Wilson Gilmore, emerged toward the end of the eighteenth century in the London docklands, where uniformed armed forces were hired to ensure that the wrong—meaning poor, landless—people did not benefit from the spoils of plantation slavery: “mineral extraction, stolen land, industrial manufacture.” Across the Americas, policing began with slave patrols — created and maintained to protect private property, to prevent revolt, and to maintain the plantation economy. Maroon societies throughout the hemisphere formed autonomous communities in the swamps, mountains, and everglades — plotting against plantations, engaging in fugitive activity. Robin D.G. Kelley and Earl Lewis note that, as early as 1617, free Black settlements in North America were committed to getting and staying free, practicing abolitionist worlds in the present. Maroons, runaways, palenques, and quilombos threatened slavery and capital accumulation through what Cedric J. Robinson terms a Black Radical Tradition — practicing flight as freedom. And, as Jackie Wang notes in Carceral Capitalism, contemporary policing continues to target these otherwise possibilities. She quotes Fred Moten speaking about the 2014 murder of Michael Brown: “[Darren Wilson shot] insurgent Black life walking down the street … he was shooting at mobile Black sociality walking down the street in a way that he understood implicitly constituted a threat to the order he represents and that he is sworn to protect.” Abolition is, in the end, a threat to the order that policing represents.
The contemporary movement for abolition includes, but is not limited to, calls to defund the police and render prisons obsolete. Abolitionists like Angela Davis identify the US military as the world’s most powerful police force, and organizers like Harsha Walia call for the abolition of border imperialism, or the securitization of borders against people displaced by capitalism and colonialism. Nick Estes, a scholar and citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, theorizes the “carceral reservation world,” showing how settlers control and discipline Indigenous mobility, how boarding schools were “prison-like” and militarized, and how contemporary policing targets Indigenous relationships to land—from butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico to the Amazon rainforest to Standing Rock. In Our History is the Future, Estes points to the correlation between mass incarceration and the Red Power Movement in the 1970s, pointing to prisons as a new technique of Indigenous elimination. Abolition is a process of imagining alternatives to the settler colonial, carceral present; it requires modes of kinship and care to replace prisons and policing.
Abolition offers us another way to theorize the sacred and to see how political theology shapes carceral logics. My manuscript-in-progress, Sanctuary Everywhere, expands on ideas of the sacred as that which is fundamentally at odds and incompatible with the profane. The profane includes those institutions, ideas, and practices that are understood to be natural, inevitable, necessary: capitalism, borders, nation-states. I understand the profane as the world of rules, stability, and order. People who pose a threat to the everyday—who Ruth Wilson Gilmore might refer to as “surplus populations”—are locked in cages, kept out of sight and out of mind; they are barred from the everyday world, too unruly and unmanageable for the profane. Robert Hertz might refer to these populations as “negative” or “left hand” sacred.
I argue that the sacred is abolitionist: it interrupts the everyday and proposes otherwise possibilities for transgression, intimacy, immanence. Abolition, like the sacred, is simultaneously positive and negative: it destroys and heals, dismantles and rebuilds, eradicates and creates; it makes possible the future in the here and now. In the previously referenced conversation about abolition on stolen land, Ruth Wilson Gilmore insists that “abolition is presence,” by which she means that it is “life in rehearsal and not a recitation of rules.” The sacred is, after all, a rehearsal. It is not fixed or permanent but rather made and remade through endless activity, what Elaine Peña calls devotional labor. Abolition requires a rethinking of cultures of punishment and discipline—forms of governmentality that scholars like Michel Foucault link to early Christianity and penitence rituals—and an emphasis on care and reciprocity. In the Sonora-Arizona borderlands, where my research is located, abolitionists like the folks involved in No Más Muertes/No More Deaths insist that walls will fall, that borders are impermanent, and that care renders policing and borders unnecessary.
Joshua Dubler and Vincent Lloyd write about impossibility as abolition’s starting point. In Break Every Yoke, they note that religion is crucial for activating the radical imagination, for abolitionist plotting and abolitionist dreaming. They write about the political theology of mass incarceration, noting that law and order politics in the 1970s coincided with a shift in the evangelical movement. They observe that, during this time, evangelicalism began to define the center of religion as individual freedom and the self. Dubler and Lloyd point to Mariame Kaba as someone who practices abolition theology, refusing neoliberal individualism in favor of collective struggle. Kaba insists that abolition is about healing, caring, nurturing relationships. She writes, “We have to transform the relationships that we have with each other so we can really create new forms of safety and justice in our communities.” Abolition is not only an end goal or a political objective, but also a daily commitment, an orientation to the world. Abolition is the ongoing work of creating alternatives to prisons and policing, and so it is about clean water, housing, healthcare, education, jobs, and resources. Abolition is about collaboration, conspiring against neoliberal capitalism, stolen land, and imperialist intervention that leads to the disproportionate caging of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities.
Abolition is creative; adrienne marie brown proposes that abolitionist organizing is science fiction, meaning that it is speculative and experimental. Such abolitionist worlds can be found in the work of Octavia Butler, a Black feminist science fiction writer whose work embraces apocalypse and awakenings. Butler’s Parable of the Sower features two acts. In the first, fifteen-year-old protagonist Lauren Olamina is living in Los Angeles in 2024 — a society facing climate crisis, wealth inequality, and food scarcity as a result of neoliberalism. To protect themselves from the chaos of the outside world, Lauren’s family lives in a walled neighborhood, believing that enclosure and isolation are the only ways to survive. They police their property and use force to keep away outsiders. In the second act, after the community is invaded and the walls come down, survivors have to reimagine new worlds rooted in care, mutual aid, and community defense. They band together and create a mobile community of sanctuary, crossing borders, seeking safety — a sort of political theology of pilgrimage. Lauren’s theory of the world, which she calls Earthseed, understands that marking yourself off from the world cannot protect you, that the walls have to come down, and that experimentation, abolition, and transformation are crucial to creating freer futures.
According to Parable of the Sower and Earthseed philosophy, change is divinity. Butler writes, “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. … As wind, as water, as fire, as life, God is change.” Abolition is a commitment to change, a sacred act of refusing the profane and its brutality — of rejecting the mundane and imagining otherwise. In the aftermath of the attack on their gated community, Lauren Olamina surveys the damage, overwhelmed by the violence, scarred by the crowd of corpses. Realizing the urgency of leaving home—the need to abandon the profane—she urges other survivors to look for any tools, encyclopedias, biographies, and foods that will help them survive. These tools are also in political theology, in looking for the ways sacred forces disrupt everyday life. “Nothing is going to save us. If we don’t save ourselves, we’re dead,” she insists — aware that neoliberalism depends on state neglect, on what Ruth Wilson Gilmore terms organized abandonment. “Now use your imagination.”
Critical Resistance Collective. Abolition Now! Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle Against the Prison Industrial Complex. Oakland: AK Press, 2008
This is a collection of essays divided into three sections—dismantle, change, build—on abolitionist mothering, theorizing, organizing, and plotting. The closing essay by Alexis Pauline Gumbs proposes that abolition is not a “shattering thing” or a “wrecking ball event,” but rather, it sprouts from the tears in our eyes; it is a result of our “diligent gardening.”
Davis, Angela. Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture. New York: Seven Stories, 2005
Davis extends W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of abolition democracy to theorize abolition not only as a negative process of destruction, but about creating and making possible new, life-affirming institutions.
Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007
Gilmore offers an analysis of neoliberalism and how—since the 1980s—the state’s organized abandonment of surplus populations has contributed to mass incarceration in California. She shows how prisons are not tied to community safety, but rather to political economy.
Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.
Spill is a Black feminist experiment in getting free and getting out. Gumbs turns to fugitive women—including Harriet Tubman and Phyllis Wheatley— escaping the everyday and creating otherwise communities. Gumbs insists on remembering “new worlds that we’ve been stepping over this whole time, created in the ritual spaces of the kitchen, the bathtub, the front porch. New worlds that our great grandmothers already saw, and tasted and sweated into being. In other words, this book, and every moment, is an opportunity to recognize that this populated planet, is full of worlds and wisdom made and remade, touching each other through time. Knew worlds, in the supposed unknown.”
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