Long and Variegated Struggles: On “Abolition. Feminism. Now.”
By Amna A. AkbarJune 28, 2022
Abolition. Feminism. Now. by Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth E. Ritchie
I landed instead at legal services in Queens, representing battered immigrant women in divorce, custody, orders of protection, and child support proceedings. My clients were primarily from South Asia, with limited English fluency and uncertain immigration status, who were working at home without pay. Sometimes they would ask me to call immigration on their husbands. I would demur and ask whether deporting their husbands would pay their rent or feed their children. Other times, I explained that working with the police might lay the groundwork for a temporary visa. (The crime to be solved would be the violence that their partners subjected them to.) Sometimes, when clients called the police because they feared for their safety, they ended up in cages. The administration of child services — the city’s family policing agency — was never very far behind.
The police showing up to arrest my clients or their partners, to throw them in jail or remove their children, did little to abate the violence or the unequal conditions that governed my clients’ lives. What my clients seemed to need most — housing and income to pay their bills — were almost impossible to come by. They were poor and trapped in abusive relationships and dead-end options. I spent countless hours in court trying to enforce child support orders against working-class men, many of them driving taxis or working cash jobs. The state provided squat, and then it built laws and courtrooms, and hired judges to extract money from my clients’ partners (even paid part of my salary), purportedly so that my clients could feed their children. There had to be a better way.
The 2020 uprisings in solidarity with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor covered the country with signs and chants to “defund the police.” The riotous nature of the protests at the outset, and their endurance through the summer, pressured elected officials, as well as the liberal news media and those who consume it, to contend with the idea that racial justice requires a diminished footprint for prisons and police. As Mariame Kaba explained, “a ‘safe’ world is not one in which the police keep black and other marginalized people in check through threats of arrest, incarceration, violence and death.”
In Abolition. Feminism. Now., Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners, and Beth Ritchie push the argument further, by peeling it back: to expose the feminist roots of abolitionist organizing. As they explain, incarceration and policing do not meaningfully decrease patriarchal violence against women, queer, trans, and nonbinary people, but rather contribute to and draw from it. At the battered women’s shelter where I volunteered, the staff shared vignettes about how, when women in relationships with cops ended up at the shelter, it was hard to shield them from their partners and other cops in the department: they would harass the survivor at the shelter (that otherwise had a confidential location) or excessively stop the survivor in their car for purported traffic violations. Criminalization, moreover, obscures alternatives. At legal services, I eventually understood that my clients sought to call immigration — hoping, in essence, to deport their husbands — because there were few ready options or ways out.
The authors argue that “building a world without prisons and policing” requires “building a world free of gender and sexual violence.” That means experimenting with “collective practices of safety, accountability, and healing untethered from the existing criminal legal system,” while simultaneously organizing to provide for the basic human and social needs outside of the conventional family structure. In other words, working to shrink the footprint of the prison industrial complex while growing care, provision, and dispute resolution.
The connection of abolition to feminism has been built through lived experience by organizers battling the violence of the state, the family, and capitalism. From Kaba’s We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice (2021) to Derecka Purnell’s Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom (2021) to Treva Lindsey’s America Goddam: Violence, Black Women, and the Struggle for Justice (2022), a growing number of books have documented how we got here and where we go next. Abolition. Feminism. Now. illuminates the feminist histories that made the explosive 2020 protests possible. It reads as a powerful meditation on the queer, trans, and feminist politics at the core of organizing against criminalization, which are often obscured in public discourse. And while leaders in the Movement for Black Lives have often championed their Black queer feminist politics, this book explores with great care what that means and has meant for those who embrace prison abolition.
The authors highlight the gendered labor behind much of the organizing, vision, and day-to-day tasks of movement building. Prison abolitionist organizing is overwhelmingly driven by Black, queer, trans, and nonbinary feminists. All four authors have been central to this work. Twenty-two of the 28 people who put on the 1998 Critical Resistance conference Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex that launched the eponymous organization were women or nonbinary. But while Critical Resistance is typically cited as the protagonist in the origin stories of prison abolitionist organizing, an organization called INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (later Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans People of Color Against Violence) was central to the story. INCITE!, too, began as a conference, organized by 18 women of color in 2000 and dubbed the “Color of Violence,” that aimed to recenter antiracism and anti-imperialism within gender justice work and to explore the connections between gendered and state violence. As Mimi Kim has explained elsewhere, the mainstream feminist anti-violence movement had endorsed the Violence Against Women Act and its passage alongside the 1994 Crime Bill, thereby soldering a white liberal feminism with the carceral state.
INCITE! went on to form chapters, such as the one in New York City I stumbled upon around the same time I met the legal-aid boss. At the 14th Street Barnes & Noble, I attended meetings facilitated by Andrea Ritchie and Paula Ximinez Rojas — who, decades later, are still at the heart of growing resistance against the carceral patriarchal state. Ritchie, who has written a number of books about police violence, builds infrastructure to connect organizers and campaigns around the country, while Rojas organizes with the reproductive justice collective Mama Santa Vibrant Woman and Communities of Color United in Austin, Texas.
In the mid-to-late aughts, I carried with me a few key pieces of INCITE! paraphernalia. There was a trifold pamphlet that explained “police brutality against women of color and trans people of color” as a “critical intersection of gender violence & state violence.” And there was a poster that featured a woman in hijab and her children, with an imposing tank behind her. The poster read: “Invading Armies Have Never Liberated Women of Color and Third World Women.” Even now, when I imagine those objects, I can feel their protective gravity: they provided a common language for intersecting modes of violence at different scales whose discussion felt forbidden in many of the professional environments I navigated.
I knew that Black and brown feminists had organized against VAWA at the federal level, and in New York against the 1994 passage of the state law requiring the police to “mandatorily arrest” at the scene of a domestic violence incident. But at the lawyers and advocates conferences I attended, the problems of criminal law and intimate partner violence were more commonly understood in terms of under-enforcement rather than a fundamental questioning of criminalization and what it accomplished for whom. Alongside a coziness with the carceral state, many liberal feminists supported the imperial War on Terror, in which the US is now estimated to have directly killed 929,000 people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and Pakistan. Many of those killed and displaced have been women.
The pamphlet and poster made clear that it was possible to refuse all these forms of violence, to see none as righteous. Not the military, not the police. Not racial or gendered violence. Not that of the father, the husband, or the United States. INCITE! underlined the possibilities of solidarity with Black and brown people, in the United States and around the world, against intersecting forms of violence and exploitation. In the projects chapters took on, they activated connections among forms of oppression often understood — and resisted — in isolation: the New Orleans chapter engaged in mutual aid for poor women of color after Hurricane Katrina, the Philadelphia chapter fought anti-gentrification battles, and the Brooklyn affiliate Sista II Sista organized against the NYPD’s sexual harassment of women of color.
The authors remind us that an abolition-feminist lens expands a past authored by and for the mainstream organizations of white women. They recover histories of anti-carceral and abolition feminism, in stark contrast to what Vikki Law dubbed “carceral feminism” — a feminism where violence against women is reduced to a crime and criminalization is the solution. They tell of campaigns like the one to free CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman who was caged for 19 months for an act of self-defense against racist transphobic violence. They account for Rosa Parks’s work documenting the rape of Black women such as Recy Taylor, who was kidnapped and gang raped by six white men in Alabama in 1944, during her time working with the NAACP and alongside the Communist Party’s defense committee for the Scottsboro Boys. But they also remember lesser-known formations: the Santa Cruz Women’s Prison Project in the 1970s, and the first public hearing on battered women and the criminal legal system in Bedford Hills prison in 1985. There were books and handbooks and editorial collectives: Fay Honey Knopp’s Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists in 1976, Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s anthology This Bridge Called My Back in 1981, and Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.
What we understand of our past has everything to do with how we understand our present, and how prepared we are to fight for our future. In their preface to Abolition. Feminism. Now., the authors observe that “as abolition becomes more influential as a goal, its collective feminist lineages are increasingly less visible.” Encountering this phrase had a kaleidoscopic effect on my memories of my experiences with abolitionist organizing, and on my understanding of our struggles today. As a scholar, I have written thousands of words on abolitionist organizing. I attended INCITE! meetings, I read the INCITE! anthologies, I carried that pamphlet and displayed that poster. And yet, I hardly mention the organization in my writings.
When thinking about my failure to hold it all in frame, I was reminded of legal scholar Patricia Williams’s statement, “That life is complicated is a fact of extraordinary analytic importance.” The sociologist Avery Gordon later took Williams’s provocation up as she unpacked how the histories of dispossession and exploitation haunt how we live and die. Repression tracks the relations and circuits of inequality — even of memory. The right-wing attack on critical race theory attempts to vanquish these ghosts, precisely for fear of the rebellion they may inspire.
Saidiya Hartman’s phrase “the afterlives of slavery” captures the persistence of the forms of race, gender, and class war that have survived the legal end of enslavement (at least, as she notes, outside of the prison). It is also true that there are afterlives of freedom struggles. We are living within the afterlives of the long civil rights, feminist, anticolonial, gay, lesbian, and trans liberationist movements of the 20th century, and the abolitionist struggles before that. The fact of the afterlives is just as important as their many shapes and forms. The pluralities create radiating pathways for how we name and understand our past. For what and who we remember and forget. For what we try to build and who we aspire to be.
The stakes of remembering the complications and the ghosts could not be higher, even as the task of remembering might foreclose the possibility of making sense of it all. There are many worlds within protests, and it is too easy to think any one account will capture the beautiful furor of an episode of street protest, let alone decades of organizing. Within a single year after the 2020 protests, Tobi Haslett has remarked, the events were already “flattened and foreshortened,” with “the authorities [painting] their account over the true one.”
We have witnessed extraordinary protests around the world over the last decade. In the US, the biggest were the summer 2020 uprisings and the protests against the Muslim ban and the Women’s March, both in early 2017 as Donald Trump took office. It is easy to read these eruptions pessimistically: to note that the mobilization for George Floyd was larger than for Breonna Taylor, that mostly white women wore the pussy hats, that the protests against the Muslim ban had more to do with a public enchanted with a sanitized self-image as a land of opportunity than one that understands we live in the heart of a settler empire.
After reading Abolition. Feminism. Now., I wondered whether these protests suggest rebirths — not just of prison abolitionism but of feminism itself, as well as the possibilities of anti-imperialist movements. In so many ways, these protests were remarkable in their intersectionality: who showed up and where — for Muslims at the airports! — and against and for what — defund the police, fund our communities! They opened sites of solidarity and terrains of struggle, even if the intersecting systems they targeted will take extraordinary amounts of organization and disruption to break.
For much of the public, the moments of eruption are the quintessential mark of protest movements. But these spectacles, however unexpected and unplanned they may be, draw on organizational capacity, mutual aid, and campaign work. That people took to the streets for Breonna Taylor alongside George Floyd was due to the work of many scholars and activists (including the #SayHerName campaign spearheaded by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum) documenting and resisting police violence against women, queer, trans, and nonbinary people.
From the Red Nation and its recent declaration that “Communism is the Horizon, Queer Indigenous Feminism is the Way,” to the transformative justice and mutual aid projects of Black feminist collectives such as BYP100 and Southerners on New Ground, so much of the work on the left today is being authored, imagined, and organized by Black, brown, and Indigenous women and queer, trans, and nonbinary people. The nurses, teachers, and flight attendants — modes of gendered care work — are central labor organizing today. Even the electoral face of the left — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Cori Bush in Congress, or Kshama Sawant and Tiffany Cabán in the city councils of Seattle and New York respectively — is striking in its gendered composition. From Rachel Gilmer of the Dream Defenders to Bhairavi Desai of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, women’s labor is fueling our movements today.
To say that women, trans, and nonbinary people are staffing our movements is quite apart from analyzing how feminist politics are moving within them. Just as it is one thing to claim intersectionality and another to practice it. But to account for and assess our feminist practices and organizations, we first need to understand its resurgence in the now. We need to pause and meditate on gender, feminism, and social reproduction in our movements and the world around us.
Abolition. Feminism. Now. underlines the fact that we are living in a moment of epic struggles, not simply over questions of race and class but also of gender and social reproduction. Not only over the scale of prisons and police, but the shape of schools, health care, and the commons. The right continues with its decades-long onslaught on public schools and teachers. The ongoing consolidation of the health-care industry has translated into a constant shortage of bed space as well as nurses and hospital staff. Like other care workers, teachers and nurses are predominantly women, overworked and underpaid. They have become an important source of labor insurgency, with teachers in Minneapolis public schools and nurses at Stanford hospitals recently going out on strike. The term public health is practically an oxymoron in this country — as evidenced by the further deterioration of state and federal public health departments since the beginning of the pandemic.
The summer at the battered women’s shelter, I worked for the hotline women could call if they needed support in a crisis — an alternative to the 911 calls that typically trigger the police. While I don’t know the history of that shelter or the hotline, chances are it was built in the heyday of feminist organizing in the 1960s and ’70s. Then as now, many feminists fought against criminalization and the carceral state, as they fought for broad social provision. They built collective modes to respond to gender-based violence, rooted in solidarity rather than criminalization. They aimed to put people over profit.
“Abolition feminism is political work that embraces this both/and perspective,” write the authors of Abolition. Feminism. Now., “moving beyond binary either/or logic.” They insist on organizing to meet “everyday needs for safety, support, and resources” while fertilizing efforts to abolish prisons and police. Taking it all in, and figuring out what to do next against daunting odds, requires being nimble and rooted. It requires standing in solidarity with those who are subjected to rape, whether by a loved one or a prison guard, and organizing to transform the world so that many fewer rapes happen. It requires seeing prison abolition as a central component of long and variegated struggles against white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. Because what my clients needed — what so many people around the world need — is not another cop or prison, but a meal, health care, dignity, and a roof over their heads.
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