Abolitionist Struggles Are Also Matters of Global Justice

After many decades of organizing, the resurgence of Black-led uprisings have brought abolitionist demands to “defund, disarm and abolish” into the mainstream. These struggles largely center on local police department budgets and prison expansion projects in major cities and jurisdictions across the continental United States. But abolitionist struggles are also matters of global justice, and interconnected to the movements to abolish the military-industrial complex, colonization and imperialism. The connections between decolonial and abolitionist struggles are deep and full of coalitional possibilities.

Building global justice movements are what Angela Davis calls intersectional solidarity — bringing struggles together to end systems of oppression and exploitation across national borders. Julian Aguon’s new book, The Properties of Perpetual Light, speaks the language of intersectional solidarity; while it is geographically specific to Guam and the Pacific, it is also all about the world.

Aguon is a CHamoru writer from Guam — a territory of the United States located in Micronesia. Aguon illuminates a decolonial vision grounded in Indigenous struggle for self-determination, and one that overlaps with the fight against militarization, colonization, climate destruction and the ravages of predatory global capitalism. The Properties of Perpetual Light draws on Aguon’s life work as an Indigenous human rights lawyer and his personal history. Aguon’s essays are a reminder that Indigenous struggles are a shared struggle.

As the poet Audre Lorde once said, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives,” and this is embodied in The Properties of Perpetual Light. Through an alchemy of poetry, critical essays, memoir and manifesto, Aguon’s voice seamlessly and unapologetically blends the personal with the political, and the universal with the particular.

U.S. Militarization of Guam

The militarization of Guam is tied to five centuries of colonization and the destruction of the natural world. The U.S. Department of Defense is the biggest polluter in the world, and Aguon captures how devastating the environmental harm is for the planet, and specifically the Indigenous people of Guam. Aguon writes about the U.S. militarization of Guam, including the development of a massive firing range complex which will destroy more than 1,000 acres of native lime-stone forest — home to many endangered endemic species.

Aguon laments, “If only superpowers were concerned with the stuff of lower-case earth — like forest and fresh water. If only they were curious about the whisper and scurry of small lives. If only they were moved by beauty.” He recognizes that the destruction of the natural environment is tied to and is part of “the latest course in a long and steady diet of dispossession.” But Aguon refuses to accept dispossession — not as a human rights lawyer, and not as a writer.

Aguon writes about radical reimagining of our world: “Growing up in Guam, we constantly hear the word ‘can’t.’ We are always hearing about what we don’t have, what is not possible, what can’t change. We become fluent in the language of limitation.” He goes on, “So many of us so early on in life give up on our dreams. We place our dreams in boxes, seal them shut, and shelve them somewhere just out of sight. Maybe that’s what colonialism looks like: Dreams Under Duct Tape.” Aguon urges the Indigenous people of Guam, and all of us, to keep imagining and dreaming, and not to give in to fatalism.

Linking “Defund the Police” to Defund the Pentagon

In a book reading in March, I had the opportunity to ask the author about the connections between his work and abolition. Aguon said that he has been deeply influenced by Black feminists and abolitionists and hopes his book brings new life into the conversation around demilitarization, and how the demands to defund the police are intricately connected to the demand to defund the Pentagon. Both are shared demands to reprioritize and reallocate funds in order to sustain life-affirming services and institutions, instead of life-destroying systems. Recent reports indicate the Biden administration plans to increase the defense budget to $753 billion.

With respect to intersectional solidarity, Aguon elaborated: “If the U.S. colonies could better link our struggles, if we can have more of that intersectional solidarity so that Black Lives Matter movements can connect with the call for demilitarization in the Pacific, it would be so powerful.” Indeed, “intersectionality is not an option — it is the option. It is the only way forward.” His words remind us that if we are to survive, we must build interconnected mass movements.

Aguon’s analysis builds on critical race theory to elaborate on the meaning of self-determination, beyond the limits of law. Aguon recognizes “the law, especially American law, is limited in its power because harms like colonization, land dispossession, and racial subordination are woven into the very fabric of this country’s being. As close to this country as a jugular vein.” He brilliantly draws on a depth of experience, perspective and passion as an Indigenous human rights lawyer whose references to the law are followed by sharp critiques of the law and legal institutions.

The Personal Is Political, and the Universal Is Particular

To be clear, The Properties of Perpetual Light is not limited to political commentary or legal analysis. Weaved together with Aguon’s critical analyses of colonization and the military buildup in the Pacific are personal stories of his relationship with family, loved ones and home. He gives us a glimpse into the vulnerabilities underneath the armor of activist-lawyer. At the crux of his personal narrative are stories of loss, grief and coming of age. He writes of his father’s death from pancreatic cancer. He writes about reconnecting with his grandmother who had dementia and singing to her before she passes. He writes about his mentor “Uncle” Tony de Brum, who spent his whole life fighting for nuclear disarmament and on behalf of the Marshallese people in the face of climate destruction; and he writes about other forms of loss, like for Auntie Frances, a healer whose life’s work comes from plant medicine, now endangered by the military’s destruction of the natural world.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Aguon finished writing The Properties of Perpetual Light. At a time when we have all suffered so much collective loss, reading Aguon’s words are a comfort. By writing in such personal terms, he tries to make sense of his grief while sharing with the world his struggles and his spirit, and for all of us to bear witness. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker describes The Properties of Perpetual Light as “A powerful, beautiful book. Its fierce love — of the land, the ocean, the elders, and the ancestors — warms the heart and moves the spirit.”

Aguon’s writing is not prescriptive, so much as it is a call to action to reimagine, to reclaim language and to inspire young people to “do battle,” as he says. His vulnerability and the intimacy of the text draws the reader in from wherever you may be reading. Ultimately, if colonization fails the imagination, and it kills dreams and self-realization, then self-determination is the cure and Aguon inspires a future of connection and liberatory possibilities.