Abolition After the George Floyd Rebellion: On Jarrod Shanahan and Zhandarka Kurti’s “States of Incarceration”

January 4, 2023   •   By Jason E. Smith

States of Incarceration: Rebellion, Reform, and America’s Punishment System

Jarrod Shanahan

THE MOST MOMENTOUS episodes of our lives we often know little about, even years after they have taken place. There is a rule of scale at work here: the bigger the event, the more enigmatic it appears. This is true of individual experience; it applies equally in the field of historical happenings. Since properly historical events are so few, they rarely lend themselves to recognition, much less analysis. Refusing forms they might have assumed in the past, they cannot be prepared for; having taken place, they seem to leave only ghostly traces. The events of early summer 2020 confirm this law of experience. Well over two years after the eruption of the largest mass movement in the United States since the late 1960s, the George Floyd rebellion remains for many of us inscrutable, marking a clear before and after in our lives, yet the meaning of which remains elusive. Even the simple facts are not always so clear: Who was involved and how many? How did those who participated understand what they were struggling towards? Why did it happen when it did? What actors conspired to bring it to an end?

Some of the groundwork for understanding this event has been done, by journalists observing it from without, and by many who directly took part in it. There are details that might take years to flesh out, particularly when it comes to the response mounted by the forces of order. It is natural for us to see in these actions the full flowering of the Black Lives Matter movement that came together in 2014–15, emblematically in Ferguson, Missouri. But we also know that this was something different; its scale and intensity told us so. Yet the echoless aftermath of the event casts a pall over it. If we sense that it was less the reprise of recent eruptions than an overture to some more dramatic confrontation, we worry that, if that confrontation never comes, the obscure events of that summer will not really have taken place.

Jarrod Shanahan and Zhandarka Kurti’s States of Incarceration: Rebellion, Reform and America’s Punishment System (Reaktion, 2022) offers what seems to me the first truly comprehensive account of that summer: comprehensive precisely because it places those weeks within a much broader, but thoughtfully articulated, social and historical landscape. The book’s long first chapter does the patient work of reconstructing the George Floyd movement in its unfolding, reckoning with its scope and novelty while underscoring the difficulties it poses to easy analysis. The national reach of the rebellion, and the multitudes it mobilized, make it hard to see what happened that summer as just one thing; so too do its quicksilver nature and its inner rifts. Sweeping the disorder of those weeks under the Black Lives Matter moniker hardly resolves anything, since that name or slogan was itself fractured, “at once a meme, a social movement, a tangled nexus of formal organizations, and an abstract signifier that guided autonomous organizing.”

The authors register the tactical “diversity” of the movement, which ranged from direct and often physical clashes with what they call “carceral infrastructure” to the inevitable “peaceful” marches staged by often out-of-the-woodwork activist groups. Kurti and Shanahan remind us that many demonstrations toppled statues of Confederate generals and Spanish conquistadors, and they reflect on the flaws of the “autonomous zones” briefly established in Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, Atlanta, and other key cities. The menu of countermeasures is carefully enumerated: the intervention of federal agencies; the proliferation of social media­–fueled rumors; the recycling of the outside-agitator trope (white anarchists or white supremacists); and the surge to the front of “organized” groups who quickly claimed leadership of the movement, only to steer it into the confines of city halls, armed with pre-scripted “people’s” budgets. Finally, the authors are especially lucid in their emphasis on what distinguishes this revolt from the so-called “unfinished business” of the riots of the late 1960s, which in many ways it echoed. They point to the subsequent consolidation of Black political power as street activists became mayors and police chiefs in many of the nation’s major cities, for example, or the novel role played by the “nonprofit industrial complex” in recuperating and unwinding the movement. Above all, Shanahan and Kurti argue, what distinguished this uprising from its precursors was an entire half-century of economic crisis, fiscal austerity, and the concomitant rise of what they and others call “the carceral state.”

As its title suggests, States of Incarceration’s fundamental wager is that the movement of the summer of 2020, for all that remains uncertain about it, should be understood — and was in fact understood by those who participated in it — as a revolt against the carceral state. The heart of the book is devoted to laying out what Shanahan and Kurti mean by this notion, which over the past decade has gained currency in both activist and academic circles. (The authors, both veterans of the social struggles of this same decade, note that they are also “employed as university professors tasked with explaining the rise of the behemoth commonly referred to as ‘the carceral state.’”) This concept was developed as an extension of and corrective to a widespread understanding of the notion of mass incarceration, whose baseline definition refers to the rapid expansion of the US prison population over the past four decades.

By identifying mass incarceration with prisons and police, however, we lose sight of what the authors describe as a more pervasive carceral “web” through which the state administers forms of punishment that shape the daily lives of the poor, and disproportionately Black and Brown people: probation, parole, mandatory drug-treatment programs, house arrest, and other forms of monitoring and supervision. The “most common interface” between the carceral state and its subjects is the traffic stop: an encounter that, as recent history makes clear, can result in death, but more frequently in citations for minor infractions that trigger punitive fines and court fees frequently resulting in thousands of dollars of debt. If a media spotlight has recently been trained on the injustice of the cash-bail system, less attention has been paid to the way probation and parole conditions entail “court fees, criminal fines, onetime fees, monthly supervision fees, electronic monitoring costs, or some combination of any of these, and/or restitution to alleged victims.” This widening of the carceral web beyond prison walls requires that discipline be administered not only by police and prison guards but also by municipal courts, probation officers and, more generally, by civil and administrative authorities. Indeed, States of Incarceration’s analysis of the carceral state places special emphasis on the process of carceral devolution, through which the administration of punishment — such as the “rehabilitation” and supervision of formerly incarcerated people — is transferred both to civil agencies and to community, third-party, or nonprofit organizations.

Shanahan and Kurti’s rigorous depiction of the carceral state and its penetration into the daily lives of tens of millions of Americans — they speak of the “porous” border between prison and the streets — forces us to ask what role such a system plays in the reproduction of social relations, and why it is that Black and Brown people are disproportionately caught up in its snares. Doing so requires that we break the habit of imagining the carceral state as a response to higher crime rates and see it instead as a way to compel specific patterns of behavior among those with the most tenuous relation to the labor market, “tightly regulating how they are allowed to congregate, support themselves when consigned to informal economies, shop, and even drive their cars.”

Drawing on a wide range of research on the history of policing and the modern penal system, States of Incarceration traces the rise of these institutions to the establishment of the wages system in Europe and the United States, in response to the need to control the movement and comportment of “formally free” laborers once bound to rural landlords, above all to ensure their availability for the labor market. In contrast with the United Kingdom and Western Europe, however, the wage-labor regime in the United States grew up alongside a system of unfree labor. In the 19th century, the authors point out, the primary form in which millions of Americans were held against their will was not the prison system but the institution of chattel slavery. Emancipation for Black workers after the Civil War was met with a particularly vicious form of labor discipline, in the form of the infamous Black Codes in the South and the racial segmentation of the labor market in the North.

Yet the carceral system as we know it today did not take shape for another century, long after the migration of millions of Black Americans to industrial centers in the North and West. Following the pioneering work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Shanahan and Kurti argue that the explosion of the prison population since the 1970s was a response not to urban crime waves, as tough-on-crime politicians had it, but to a systemic crisis of the postwar welfare state. As northern industrial cores were hollowed out, a crisis of profitability rocked the postwar regime of accumulation. Unemployment soared, especially among Black workers, as the manufacturing base of the economy collapsed, setting in motion the long-term decline of the labor movement, and a breaking down of the labor market itself. As a long period of stagnation set in, with job growth confined to low-wage and low-skill occupations, the foundations for the mid-century welfare state eroded. The mediations that once stood between workers and the labor market were replaced by an expansive, and comparably cheaper, regime of punishment. Black workers, historically the group of workers most affected by the ups and downs of the business cycle, were not alone in their vulnerability to this discipline, which either removed them entirely from the labor market or pinned them along its bottom edge. But they felt — they feel — its coercions more broadly, and more bluntly.

Shanahan and Kurti have written a polemical book, and much of its last third is devoted to critically assessing the role played by advocates of prison reform in, paradoxically, expanding the footprint of the carceral state. Indeed, the book is keen to register a shocking turnabout in the politics of punishment in the United States over the past decade. Today, criticisms of the American carceral system have broad bipartisan support: even Newt Gingrich now speaks the language of “decarceration.” If the political Right sees mass incarceration as too costly, progressive critics typically appeal to humanistic language, like “care” (“care first, jail last” is one particularly grim slogan). These bipartisan calls for reform represent complementary responses to two crises: a fiscal crisis, on the one hand, and a legitimation crisis on the other.

Yet, as States of Incarceration’s fourth chapter convincingly demonstrates, most “alternatives” to incarceration proposed by prison reform advocates function above all to shore up the punishment system rather than replace it. Indeed, as the authors put it on more than one occasion, reform advocates often play an “insidious” role in the development of the carceral state, extending its reach and offloading responsibility for reintegrating prisoners into social life onto community-based organizations, who come to serve as the “research and development arm guiding the state’s punishment policy.” Shanahan and Kurti take great pains to distinguish these initiatives from what they call “abolitionism,” an activist movement and network whose most visible figures are Angela Davis and the aforementioned Gilmore, and whose sophisticated analysis of the carceral state the authors largely share.

The political horizon of abolitionism is not just the end of mass incarceration; it is the abolition of “violent compulsion” as a “central feature of social life.” Its conception of political practice is rooted in the articulation of what Gilmore calls “non-reformist reforms”: demands that do not directly target broad-based social transformation — the overthrow of the wage relation — but the patient “unraveling” of the carceral system. Within this general strategic framework, a number of more concrete demands and practices have been formulated. One orientation that had particular resonance during the George Floyd rebellion is the “defund” movement, which construes abolition as the demand to reallocate funding for police and the criminal justice system toward otherwise lacking or underresourced social services, be they schools, food stamps, or public housing. Yet Shanahan and Kurti underline that the simple replacement of carceral with non-carceral institutions supposes too vivid a frontier between the “penal and welfare arms of the state,” in particular the role these institutions play in monitoring, shaping, and coercing the behavior of the poor, often through stigmatization and shaming.

States of Incarceration is that rare thing among books of its type: openly militant, yet thoughtful and self-aware, opting for even-handedness and sober self-assessment rather than the tired sloganeering typical of left-wing activism, or the edifying lyricism of defeat. The authors acknowledge their debt to the abolitionist current, especially its expanded conception of the carceral state and its unflinching criticisms of the insidious effects of liberal projects of “decarceration.” Yet they are also quick to point to the way the events of the summer of 2020 revealed mainstream abolitionism’s limits.

If the work that abolitionists have done over the past two decades “provid[ed] the political basis on which the participants [in the George Floyd rebellion] could understand themselves,” Shanahan and Kurti also describe the ways in which many in the abolitionist movement were caught off-guard by the uprising’s most radical aspects. Soon after the rioters set fire to the Minneapolis Third Precinct headquarters, the “abolition” tag showed up on city streets and social-media timelines; it was not long before the Floyd movement was called to appear before city commissions, negotiating with elected officials over the minutiae of municipal budgets. When the authors observe in their concluding remarks that the “praxis of mainstream abolitionism could not have produced the George Floyd Rebellion,” I would add that their verdict applies equally to any and every already-constituted political tendency or formal organization.

One of the lessons of the summer of 2020 seems to be that militant groups can play a vital role in social struggles in the intervals between large-scale mass movements — doing the essential work of harm mitigation and rolling back the frontiers of the carceral state, for example — while providing a conceptual framework through which these movements can name their enemies. But this very readiness for such eruptions can work to undermine them, when existing groups and tendencies designate themselves the rebellion’s mouthpieces and decide to speak for it: often by addressing the enemy in its own language, rather than patiently sounding the silence, and even insolent mutism, of the rebellion’s most explosive expressions.


Jason E. Smith lives in Los Angeles and writes primarily about art and politics. He is the author of Smart Machines and Service Work: Automation in an Age of Stagnation, and frequently contributes to the Field Notes section of The Brooklyn Rail.