Week 9 – Black Radical Imagination II – Abolition

Page Illustration: Kaitlynn Radloff, Justseeds, 2020

Assigned Readings & Media

Podcast, Parts I and II

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson (2020). Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition interview with Chenjerai Kumaniyka Parts I and II. The Intercept, June 10, 2020.

Readings – Only 2 pages!

Hartman, Saidiya (2019). “Wayward: A Short Entry on the Possible,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 227-228. New York: Norton.

Dear White People and Non-Black People

Dear White People poster, 2017

This course, as I’ve re-enforced over the past 8 weeks is constructed through an engagement with ideas, projects, and artistic expression that emerges out of the experience of Black people in North America – what we call, drawing from Robin D.G. Kelley, “the Black radical imagination.” As a non-Black instructor in this course – a course that is primarily made up of non-Black students – I want to take a moment here to reaffirm the need for action on our part.

Often in talks or discussions on social justice, once the panel is over, one of the first questions that come out of a Q&A session is, “Now that we have learned what you’ve told us, what do we do?” This is a draining and challenging question for the panelists to respond, partly because we each have our own pathways, responsibilities, capacities – and it places that labour and responsibility back on the speaker to help guide you there. That’s an undue burden.

I hope that weeks 8-10 of this course provide you with some potential pathways where non-Black folks in North America can make themselves useful and productive in the struggles for Black liberation – not simply as “allies” – but as people who understand that Black liberation (among other forms of struggles) is inherently tied to our own liberation. And, I hope equally that the Black students in this course might be able to engage more deeply with some of theory, movement knowledge, and practices emerging out of these ongoing struggles for liberation.

We don’t need more allies in the world. We need more people willing to see the interconnection between their own struggles for justice and those of other people, but who also see the way in which we benefit, are complicit, and have work to do to unlearn and disengage from white supremacy as the dominant paradigm of our society.

Content Warning: The following scene contains a graphic and realistic portrayal of the racial targeting with a weapon by a police officer toward a Black youth

There’s this scene in the Netflix series Dear White People (2017) where a conflict breaks out at a house party on the campus of a fictitious Ivy League school and Reggie, one of the lead Black characters on the show, ends up with a gun pointed at his face by a university police officer.

This incident causes Reggie significant trauma and, in the process, opens the audience up to the life and death politics and carceral realities of the education system for Black students. By carceral realities, I am talking about the systemic and all-encompassing ways in which young Black people’s lives are circumscribed by their relationship with mechanisms of state coercion (i.e. police, social workers, teachers, school administrators). This means that seemingly mundane activities (i.e. a small argument, sleeping on a bench on a university campus , going to class) can result in an escalating interaction between that person and at some point an agent of the carceral system that can have significant consequence on their lived experience (including trauma, violence, incarceration, having children removed from their custody, and death). In fact, a recent study has showed that the primary cause of death of young Black men in the United States is killing by police officers (Edwards et al. 2019).

Spoiler Alert: Later in the show Reggie and other students in the Black caucus (as well as the audience) discover the police were called by a white Teacher’s Assistant named Gabe who is a romantic interest of Sam, one of the show’s lead Black female characters. In the process of calling the police, Gabe sees himself as trying to return his school to peace after conflict between Black-led anti-racist activists and a group of students mobilized by the rhetoric of the white supremacist alt-right.

A foil for white liberalism, Gabe, (consciously or unconsciously) works to secure the context of carceral violence against Black students on campus in the interests of stability and order, the hallmarks of peace within liberal democracy (Coulthard 2014). In Dear White People Gabe and other white students on campus (whether representing left or right on the political spectrum) are, as Harney & Moten (2013) exemplify in their analysis of the films Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and Shaka Zulu (1987), portrayed as being surrounded by “natives,” inverting the role of aggressor so that acts of upholding or reproducing colonialism and white supremacy are made to look like self-defense (17). While Dear White People is a fictitious television series, the themes underlying the show are prevalent and familiar to racialized and Indigenous students on university campuses throughout North America and more broadly within all aspects of the education system.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Two Questions

In her interview on the Intercepted podcast, Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains to guest host Chenjari Kumanayika, that two fundamental transformations have happened in the way policing is understood in our society:

a) So many more agencies and people (i.e. store clerks, teachers, social workers, nurses, day care workers, food workers, etc.) have absorbed functions of policing as part of their day-to-day job.

b) The police force has absorbed more and more the roles of social workers as their budgets have ballooned and other sectors of society have seen drastic cuts.

Gilmore suggests that this is not a coincidence but a direct result of the neoliberal policies of the past 40-50 years that have seen social services and community benefits gutted, while state funding for police and prisons has skyrocketed. She discusses the political economy of this context in her interview and suggests that the prison-industrial-complex is a direct result of this cycle of impoverishment, defunding, and then the bloating of the carceral system.

In thinking about this condition, Gilmore poses two fundamental questions to the audience:

  1. What makes peoples lives vulnerable?
  2. What are the process by which we seek to deal with harm in our society?

Go back to the scene in Dear White People.

Either you’ve seen the series or you’ve just watched this short clip, but within the clip, you should be able to reflect upon Gilmore’s two questions in some detail.

Take a pen and paper if that helps or jot some thoughts out on a note pad. I want you to be able to visualize your response.

Then, follow me in a thought experiment, just for a moment. Go back to the scene and this time imagine that the police did not exist.

Using Gilmore’s two questions as your guide, I want you to identify both the short-term and long-term issues that are required to address question 1) what makes peoples lives vulnerable and question 2) what could be the processes by which we seek to deal with harm in this situation?

This is not a simple: they need to talk it out activity. There are structural elements at play. There are beliefs about who belongs and doesn’t belong on campus. There are values about whether having peace (i.e. limiting conflict) and having justice (i.e. creating the conditions where this specific conflict is limited or would not happen) that need to be worked out.

Take a pause. Once you’re ready, let’s jump into the lecture content for Week 9!

The Origins of the Police

Wikipedia Commons

In North America the modern police has its origins in three distinct but interrelated pathways. We’ll cover them each below.

Pathway #1 – Poverty & Work

As Gilmore notes in her interview on the Intercepted podcast, one of the core functions of the modern police force first organized in London, England was to force people to work. If you have taken my course SDS 331R: Social Inequality, Social Justice, and Social Action – you will remember that Karl Marx teaches us that the rise of capitalism produced two main conditions for peasant populations: (a) the privatization of lands (enclosures) forces people off of their communal lands and often into the main cities (dispossession) and (b) the separation of peasant populations from their means of livelihood creates a condition where the only thing that they have left to sell is their labour (proletarianization).

People, however, didn’t willingly just flood the factories in search for work. Factories were (as they are today in many places globally) dangerous, poorly ventilated, exploitative, and provided very little funds for workers. Children under the age of 6 years of age could be found toiling away in these desolate conditions alongside grown men, widows who had lost their husbands and many other populations.

Many people refused to work in those conditions and for them it was safer to beg in the streets, to pilfer food from shops if they could, to work piecework when possible, and to roam around looking for opportunities outside of the inevitability of factory life.

Modern police were invented within the span of a few decades – roughly from 1825 to 1855 (Whitehouse 2012) and the origins of the police in this regard are not the result of the need to deal with violence or crime in our society, but rather indigence and the refusal to work (Neocleuous 2000).

unknown artist; Patrick Colquhoun (1745-1820); Thames Police Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/patrick-colquhoun-17451820-135240

In A Treatise on Indigence, Patrick Colquhoun ( this guy), the “father” of the modern police force, does not frame policing as a response to crime, but as a practice of social control.

Specifically, the police’s function is to punish, confine, and regulate the lives of people who are considered able-bodied and refuse to sell their labour within the capitalist system.

Historian Peter Linebaugh goes deeper into Colquhoun’s background to show that his interests in policing and labour were also spurred by his economic position as a planner of the trans-Atlantic (slave labour) “cotton economy compiling stats of the workers, wages, factories, and imports in order to assist the prime minister and cabinet of England maximize profits from the cycle of capital in England, India, America, Ireland, Africa.”

Linebaugh shows that when this work was interrupted by the revolutions in France and Haiti. He became hyper-aware of the need to secure wealth from the possibilities of slave rebellions and the revolutions of the poor. He instituted the hanging of those committing money crimes. And as Linebaugh continues, “He led the apprehension of those in textile labor who re-cycled waste products to their own use. He organized political surveillance by spies and snitches of those opposing slavery. In addition to his Virginia cotton interests he owned shares in Jamaican sugar plantations. Financed by West India merchants and planters in 1798 Colquhoun established the Police Office. In 1800 Parliament passes the Marine Police Bill expanding and making official the police as a centralized, armed, and uniformed cadre of the state. His treatises on police inspired the foundation of police in Dublin (Ireland), Sydney (Australia), and New York (USA)” (Linebaugh 2015).

Playlist Track #1 – Listen to the track “Police State” by Dead Prez including an opening sample of a speech by Chairman Omali Yeshitela. Think about the way in which the rap duo historicize the police in a similar way to Gilmore and Linebaugh. This track, released in 2000 is an important predecessor to the music that will shape and be shaped by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Pathway # 2 – Slave Patrols and Bounty Hunters

The second pathway of the emergence of the modern police can be understood through the slave patrols and overseers who violently ensured the productivity of the enslaved workforce and investigated, prevented, and led search parties for people who sought to (or successfully) escaped bondage.

Where did slave patrols originate? To understand that we need to take a brief history lesson to the Jamestown colony in Virginia and the site of Bacon’s Rebellion. The legal foundations that would separate poor indentured Europeans from the condition of chattel slavery faced by Africans can be understood through the legislation passed following the rebellion, a rebellion, that was also about who would have the right to colonize the land of Indigenous peoples – resulting in the massacre of numerous Indigenous communities (including children).

Content Warning: This animated cartoon contains graphic scenes of massacres, death, and violence towards enslaved peoples.

The conditions that underlie the pact between poor and rich white people is what upholds white supremacy in North America. Poor whites, now able to buy their freedom from servitude were utilized as overseers, slave patrol officers, and worked as bounty hunters trying to track down people who had liberated themselves from enslavement.

Courtesy of Duke University Libraries via North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.

Playlist Track #2 – Listen to the track “Sound of Da Police” by KRS-ONE. In this 1993 track KRS-ONE traces the history of policing in America. Follow the lyric sheet, how does KRS-ONE teach about the history of the police that touches on the theft of land, the role of the slave overseer, and the current economic/social context for an understanding of harm and vulnerability?

Pathway #3 – As Colonial Force

The final pathway in the emergence of the modern police force are the militias (regulated and unregulated) that acted as colonial forces seeking to dispossess Indigenous peoples from their territories. Many of the most celebrated U.S. Presidents were land speculators and militia leaders (George Washington, Andrew Jackson, etc.). The U.S. War of Independence was specifically fought over who would gain access and control of the conquest of lands west of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers – lands protected in the 1760 British Proclamation.

In Canada, we see the rise of these formal militias in the Northwest Mounted Police – who would eventually become the RCMP.

The myth of the RCMP is that they came to protect us from the whisky traders and bad guys. They came to protect the conqueror’s property and they still protect the conqueror’s property.

Maria Campbell, 1989

Like other forms of policing, the RCMP’s origins and the origins of militias like the Texas Rangers were never about protecting people or reducing harm, but about securing property and land. This puts the current context of RCMP officers violently arresting Wet’suwet’en land protectors in 2019 and 2020 into a historical light.

This excellent article in The New Inquiry provides a brief timeline of the RCMP’s origins and history.

Think about the history of the RCMP as told in this article and then reflect on its portrayal in this famous Kent Monkman painting

Image: A Story of Canada, Kent Monkman, 2017

How does this line up with the way in which the RCMP have been portrayed within popular mainstream culture?

Abolition & The Black Radical Imagination

Image: Andalusia Knoll, 2009, Just Seeds

We must begin by noting that from the very onset, the first singular moment in which Europeans began kidnapping Africans to force them into servitude, there was resistance. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was never and can never be understood as an act in which those who were being subjected to this institution stood by and let it happen.

Many African people, different nations and communities, successfully fought off, evaded, and/or killed their would-be captors before they were ever brought to the slave ships.

If captured and forced onto ships for the Middle Passage, enslaved Africans resisted by organizing hunger strikes, forming rebellions, and even committing suicide by leaping overboard rather than living in slavery. Scholars believe that roughly one slaving voyage in every ten experienced major rebellions” (Low Country Digital History Initiative).

The resistance was so fierce that Europeans redesigned slave ships with the express purpose of containing rebellion. Uprisings also happened in the settler colonial states of Canada and the United States. As we learned in the video above, indentured Europeans and Africans often organized in tandem to escape bondage from the elites who were seeking to steal Indigenous land and use them as cheap labour. However, even after the passing of racial hierarchy laws in the United States, Africans continued to mobilize.

They organized insurrections and rebellions that killed their enslavers and allowed them to escape. They fled in the cloak of darkness (and sometimes in broad daylight) to establish Maroon communities of free Black folks who lived outside of the bounds of white re-capture. They repurposed the Christian religion forced upon them to centre their story of enslavement and their quest for liberation. They created and facilitated underground communication, cross-continental networks, and other forms of infrastructure that provided for the possibility of escape. They negotiated with their enslavers to purchase or win their freedom.

They burned entire cities to the ground in search of liberation. For instance, watch this short video on the story of Marie Joseph Angelique, an enslaved African woman in Montreal whose story had been lost until the historian Afua Cooper rescued it from the archives and gave it the life and power it deserved.

Read more: CLICK HERE

I want to take a moment to pause and reflect here.

To understand the abolitionist movement, we need to take a moment to reclaim those “minor figures” and re-centre the movement. Too often, the historical teaching of abolitionism has been limited to a specific era of cross-racial (often upper class) advocates like Harriet Beacher Stowe and Frederick Douglass that flattens or is unable to make links between abolitionism past and present.

In her book In the Wake, scholar Christina Sharpe gets us to refocus on the meaning of “trans*” in Trans-Atlantic in thinking about these unnamed abolitionists.

She writes,

As we hold on to the many meanings of Trans* we can and must think and imagine laterally, across a series of relations in the ship, the hold, the wake, and the weather – in multiple Black everydays – to do what Hartman, in “Venus in Two Acts,” describes as ‘listening for the unsaid, translating misconstrued words, and refashioning disfigured lives’ and to do what NourbeSe Phillip calls the necessity of ‘telling the story that cannot be told (33)

Christina Sharpe, In the Wake, 2016

We need to understand the history of abolition in the same way we explored the network of mychorrizae in Week 8. There was a long and fierce history of resistance. In between the key events and moments in history that culminated eventually in the US Civil War, there were rebellions and uprisings, there were refusals and strikes, and there was, as anthropologist James C. Scott describes, “footdragging, dissimulation, false-compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so forth.” All of these actions by individuals, groups, and then broadly as a mass movement are part of the history of abolitionist struggle.

The U.S. Civil War, 13th Amendment, Reconstruction

We are about to go through a vast amount of history in a small amount of space – so I want to acknowledge that in this piece of the lecture we cannot do justice the importance and depth of these multiple historical moments. However, given how central the U.S. Civil War is in the lore of abolitionism in the United States, I think it is critical that we set some basic parameters that will help us bridge the abolitionist struggles of the 16th-19th centuries with those of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Let’s begin in Haiti.

To understand the success of abolitionist movements in Canada and the United States, we need to start in Haiti. As the great historian C.L.R. James helps us to understand, the Haitian Revolution, itself inspired by the calls of Liberté, égalité, fraternité during the French Revolution and the Declaration of Independence during the U.S. Revolutionary War is a critical event in the global history of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. From August 21, 1791 – January 1, 1801, enslaved Africans rose up under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture and defeated the French colonizers and slavers – successfully creating the democratic republic of Haiti, the first free republic led by ex-enslaved people.

A painting of Toussaint Louverture on the side of a bus in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2008. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

The Haitian Revolution shook the colonialist west to its core. France, fearing economic devastation, from the loss of wealth derived from their largest slave colony, threatened to bring the weight of their entire military force on the newly liberated republic of Haiti if they did not agree to compensating France for its “lost wealth.” That lost wealth literally being the enslaved Africans who fought for their freedom. In 1825, France amassed a number of war ships along Haiti’s shores until the government agreed to pay “reparations” of 150 million francs (IN 1825!!) for the lost slaves in order for them to recognize the island as a sovereign country. Haiti was forced to pay those reparations until 2010. No, I didn’t make a typo.

These reparation payments decimated Haiti’s economy and through the threats of violence and political coups, France, the United States, and Canada have continued to destabilize the nation-state to protect its own interests. Including most recently when they orchestrated a coup d’etat against the democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after he suggested France should repay Haiti these stolen funds.

Less than a decade after Haiti was recognized as a sovereign state by France and the rest of Europe, Britain began to see the writing on the wall with uprisings in Jamaica, Barbados, and Canada (among other places) becoming much more frequent. Also Britain had gone into a significant amount of debt due to the 7-Year-War with France (1754-1760), the US War of Independence (1776-1783) and as they claimed more and more territories under the Empire. Abolishing slavery was a way to preserve their control over the territories without necessarily changing the economic model of wealth extraction drastically. In 1833, Britain abolished slavery throughout its empire – and then immediately set forth to re-introducing indentured servitude – which brought a mass influx of migrants from India and China to the Caribbean to do the work that enslaved Africans had been doing.

Abolitionism as a moral platform upheld by white people in Europe and the Americas was itself a response to the movements for liberation of Black folks.

U.S. Civil War

While the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) is often uncritically painted as a war against slavery and Abraham Lincoln is hailed as a great Emancipator, these are narratives that are reconstructed that centre white leaders/society as developing a moral compass rather than as a response to the pressure, effectiveness, and resilience of the Black abolitionist struggle.

Watch this short video and think about the way in which Lincoln is portrayed in our cultural zeitgeist and the material facts of his conduct:

Reflect on this video, then in relation to the most recent Presidential election. As the United States was thrown into instability during the mass rebellion for Black Lives in the wake of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s murders in the spring/summer of 2020, think about how President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris framed their position on defunding/abolishing the police in response to BLM.

How can you relate Biden & Harris’ campaign and politics to that of Lincoln prior to the US Civil War? Do some research on Kamala Harris’ work as a Prosecutor in California – what was her role/position with respect to the incarceration of Black Americans?

Back to the Civil War. The Union under Lincoln’s leadership had no interest in passing what would become the Emancipation Proclamation until Robert E. Lee took over as head of the Confederate forces and posed an imminent threat to the power of the wealthy industrialists backing the Union. It was then, in a move of desperation, that Lincoln determined emancipating Black people from slavery should they join the Union forces to defeat the Confederates was the only way to secure victory.

And victory was secured! The Union defeated the Confederacy thanks to the influx of Black soldiers fighting for their own liberation.

This led to the passing of the 13th Amendment:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Take note of the wording. The 13th amendment, widely considered the amendment that abolished slavery – doesn’t fully do this. It leaves it open to “except as a punishment for a crime”.

For a great take on what that meant historically check out the Netflix documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay

This film was based on the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Watch Alexander discuss this process in her interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now.

The period following the passing of the 13th Amendment is the time often referred to as “Black reconstruction”. The Black radical scholar W.E.B. DuBois “argues that the period represented an potential revolutionary moment in which the southern black population played an active and crucial role.” It is from this moment that DuBois devises the concept of “abolition democracy” the notion that the United States can only become a democratic space through a reckoning with the politics of abolition – in its fullest.

You can read the entire book Black Reconstruction in America for free – to learn more about this important era in U.S. History.

The Prison Industrial Complex

In 2003, Angela Davis coined the term “Prison Industrial Complex” (PIC) in her book Are Prisons Obsolete? as a way of describing the way in which racial capitalism sustains itself through the incarceration and policing of Black people in America. The concept of the Prison Industrial Complex is borrowed from the term “Military Industrial Complex” coined by former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower following World War II, in his description of the arms race building up around the Cold War.

What is an industrial complex?

An industrial complex refers to a cycle/loop pattern that sinks a society deeper into a specific centre based on its growing importance to the economic viability of a city, community, region, or nation-state.

A simple equation can be understood as such:

  • Framing a community as violent or wayward (see Hartman) leads to calls for more policing and “crime prevention”
  • A need for more crime prevention (see for instance Rudy Giuliani’s “Broken Windows” policy in NYC) leads to more funding for police – including “community police”
  • More police often results for more arrests for minor crimes
  • More arrests requires more space in jails, courts, prisons – which requires greater funding of these institutions
  • We see a rise in the number of prisons built – so now, even if crime is going down, it becomes economically important (to save the jobs created) to ensure that those prisons remain filled
  • This results in stiffer and more long-term penalties (i.e. Three Strikes Laws) and then ever more people being incarcerated for longer times
  • This results in a sense that crime is in fact going up (particularly driven by the media’s need to highlight crime stories because they are often the most sensational).
  • Which results in people feeling less safe and demanding even greater and more extreme forms of policing

This cycle, as we should be aware, is always filtered through the lens of racial capitalism, where those communities targeted for incarceration (Black, Indigenous, Latinx, disabled, neurodiverse, poor) are also the same class that stand to benefit from low level jobs within the carceral system.

In the 1994 track “Work for Peace,” poet and revolutionary Gil Scott Heron dissects the military industrial complex and suggests that to break from the cycle we need to “go to work.”

How can we see the links between the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex in Heron’s song? What would it mean to work for peace? Based on the content in our course thus far and your own experiences and reading – what types of abolitionist processes (think back to Week 5 when we covered INCITE!) could qualify as “working for peace”?

The Prison Industrial complex has created the context of mass incarceration in the United States. This incarceration rate is higher per capita than any other country in the world. The Prison Industrial Complex, however, does not work on its own. It is deeply entwined with the Psychiatric Industrial Complex that locks many people up against their will. It is connected to the Non Profit Industrial Complex that has created a network of professional social workers who collaborate with law enforcement, remove children from homes, and promotes band-aid solutions instead of radical reforms as part of its mandate. There is also Border Imperialism, which re-constructs and re-defines the act of migration as something that is a threat, is illegal, and requires the detention, incarceration, and deportation of people fleeing violence, economic hardship, and social turmoil often caused by the military industrial complex and global capitalisms desire to extract resources and labour from poor countries.

Given these realities, Angela Davis, explains that the Prison Industrial Complex must be a shifting concept to understand how carceral racism and capitalism operates in the current context. Similarly, we must also see how ongoing settler colonialism, land theft, resource extraction, and racism towards Indigenous peoples has resulted in a similar over-incarceration and targeting of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

This context of capture is interwoven in our society – our economies becoming reliant. Our schools churn out students looking for jobs. There is an emphasis on maintaining the system.

Activity 1: The Roots of Youth Violence

Back in 2005 I was working as a coordinator with the Grassroots Youth Collaborative when we were invited by the Office of the Premier of Ontario to participate in what would come be called "The McMurtry-Curling Roots of Youth Violence Inquiry".  You can see a snapshot of baby me below as our staff gives the middle finger to what became of that process.

In this activity I want you to skim through this report: Rooted in Action: A Youth-Led Report on Our Demands and Plans to Addressthe Root Causes of Violence in Our Communities by Alpha Abebe and Craig Fortier. 

Reflect on the following questions: What were some of the key recommendations that came directly from the youth in our programs? Which, if any, of these recommendations have been implemented since 2005 in Ontario? How many of these issues feel as pertinent now as they did in 2005? Could this report have been written today with little changes? 

Then go ahead and watch the video I recorded talking a little bit about my personal experience with this process. After doing so, I just want you to keep this example in the back of your mind when we begin to explore the ways in which the calls to defund/abolish the police are being re-interpreted through a lens that would bring these calls for action back within the realm of the prison, non-profit, and other industrial complexes discussed above! 

Today’s Abolitionist Movements and the Black Radical Imagination

Over the past year, we have heard the call to defund and abolish the police ring across the uprisings for Black Lives Matter and beyond. There seems to be real momentum and popular support (especially in Canada). Nonetheless, there is a battle happening behind the scenes that seeks to bring this movement back under the confines of the liberal democratic system.

We have begun to hear politicians, leaders of non-profit groups, and even some police chiefs suggest that the notion of “defunding or abolishing the police” doesn’t actually mean defunding or abolishing the police. And, in fact, in Toronto and other jurisdictions motions to cut the police budget were either defeated or, as is often the case, the police were offered more money for “training, body cams, and other activities”.

But abolitionists like Mariame Kaba have been pushing back, linking their work to the long history of abolitionist struggles and arguing that “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolishing the Police.” As Kaba and Noname suggest in their collaborative work, this is not simply about cutting and slashing budgets (as is common in neoliberal society), but it is rather a re-imagining of our social responses to harm, violence, poverty, and need in our communities.

Check out this interview with Kaba and Noname and reflect on the way in which they invoke the Black radical imagination in their abolitionist visions!

As Kaba and Noname suggest, abolition is a process that must be undertaken in community. Think about this in relation to Hartman.

In this course we have centered this process in the theoretical framework of Saidiya Hartman who suggests that the process of abolition and living free requires:

The attempt to elude capture by never settling. Not the master’s tools, but the ex-slaves’ fugitive gestures, her traveling shoes. Waywardness articulates the paradox of cramped creation, the entanglement of escape and confinement, flight, and captivity. Wayward: to wander, to be unmoored, adrift, rambling, roving, cruising, strolling, and seeking. To claim the right to opacity. To strike, to riot, to refuse. To love what is not loved. To be lost in the world. I tis the practice of the social otherwise, the insurgent ground that enables new possibilities and vocabularies; it is the lived experience of enclosure and segregation, assembling and huddling together. It is the directionless search for a free territory; it is a practice of making and relation that enforlds within the policed boundaries of the dark ghetto; it is the mustual aid offered in the open-air prison. It is a queer resource of black survival. It is a beautiful experiment in how-to-live.

Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 227-228.

As we move into Week 10, our final week of content for the course, I want you to keep this history in mind as we turn to the study of Black Lives Matter. I want you to reflect on these frameworks and theories as you begin to brainstorm your playlist for the final assignment.

To move us from Hartman’s analysis to the content for Week 10, I want to leave you with a track by the Sudanese-American Minnesota based non-binary artist Dua Saleh caled “body cast”. This song was released following the uprisings in Minneapolis in response to the murder of George Floyd.

Read Dua Saleh’s statement on the track here.

Follow the lyrics here.

As you listen to this track, think about how you would include it or incorporate it in a playlist. What work does it do? How does Dua Saleh evoke rage, pain, and trauma and then repurpose it as a righteous anger and evocation of the Black radical imagination?

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