As the powerful movement to abolish policing and imprisonment has come further into the spotlight, it’s been met with a flurry of questions: Where did this movement come from? Does “abolish” really mean abolish? What do prison abolitionists say to the reality of sexual violence? What do they say about gender violence? Thanks to the efforts of organizers and scholars, an abundance of resources and tools exist to grapple with these questions. Abolition is, in part, a movement of collective engagement, analysis-sharpening and living conversation. Into that conversation comes a new book — Abolition. Feminism. Now. — written by renowned authors and organizers who’ve been doing abolitionist work for decades: Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners and Beth Richie.
Abolition. Feminism. Now. chronicles many strands of abolitionist history, showing how, from the start, feminism — and in particular BIPOC-led anti-carceral feminist responses to mainstream white feminist movements — played an integral role in the movement to abolish the prison-industrial complex. The book starkly exposes the deep harms of carceral feminism, which relies on policing and criminalization to “address” gender and sexual violence, and shows that incarceration is itself a form of gender violence, citing organizer Monica Cosby’s work on how “prison is abuse.”
The book also depicts the vast reach of the systems of prisons and policing (including new forms of prison like electronic monitoring, and lesser-recognized forms of policing like the family policing system), and their impacts on women and trans and nonbinary people, particularly Black and Indigenous people, immigrants, working-class and disabled people. But even more than exposing the systems that must be torn down, Abolition. Feminism. Now. emphasizes that wherever these oppressive systems have existed, there have been movements to resist them and to nourish a just, life-affirming, feminist world in their place.
The book urges us to remember that, as leading abolitionists like Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Mariame Kaba have always reminded us, abolition is not only the work of dismantling, but also of building and creating. The book highlights grassroots groups dedicated to abolition feminism, from organizations founded in the early 2000s, like INCITE, Critical Resistance and Creative Interventions, to more recently formed efforts like Survived & Punished, Love & Protect, the Palestinian Feminist Collective, and many more. The authors emphasize that abolition is a collective project composed of many community-based campaigns, support networks, mutual aid groups and relationships, dedicated to “building flourishing communities for the long haul.”
I gathered on Zoom with Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners and Beth Richie to discuss abolition feminism, internationalism, art, the process of writing a collaborative book in a pandemic, the importance of documenting movement work, and how they hope their book will be used in the world.
Maya Schenwar: This book really meant a lot to me to read, as an abolition feminist myself — and you all are a big part of what brought me to abolition feminism. Also, I’m in the collective Love & Protect [which supports women, trans and gender-expansive people of color impacted by state and interpersonal violence], which you all so kindly mention in the book. I was excited to see so many grassroots abolition feminist projects highlighted.
Toward the beginning of the book, you quote Mari Matsuda as saying that “A feminism that can truly challenge domination is one that’s flexible enough to ask the other question.” She says: “When I see something that looks racist, I ask, ‘Where is the patriarchy in this?’ When I see something that looks sexist, I ask, ‘Where is the heterosexism in this?’ When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask, ‘Where are the class interests in this?’” This idea of “asking the other question” surfaces at other times in the book, and I found it to be one of the keys to understanding your project. Would one or more of you like to start by explaining what it means to “ask the other question” in the context of your book, and how it’s important to abolition feminism?
Gina Dent: I believe that Erica first introduced using that. It was really a touchstone for us throughout the project. We really made sure to weave that theme throughout so that people could understand that abolition feminism requires this dexterity and movement very much akin to what people sometimes talk about when they’re talking about gendered labor, and the way in which, especially women, move through the world — that there’s always a need to recalibrate, to figure out, to reschedule, to multitask.
Abolition feminism is really that kind of scrappy work. It’s the work of doing the everyday low-level, low-scale attending to people individually and collectively. It’s also, and we think importantly, the necessary theoretical examination of the practices that we’re engaged with so that we also are simultaneously focused on the long view, and on the things that maybe are not in our immediate community world, but require our attention.
Erica Meiners: We’re thinking about “What is abolitionist about feminism?” — in terms of our histories, both collectively and individually — but also “What is feminist about abolition?” I think that that framework of “asking the other question” that Matsuda raises was really a theme to try in this project, of trying to get both abolition and feminism to be asking the other question of each other, as well.
Beth Richie: I want to reflect back on how you started with appreciation for lifting up the work on the ground. To me, when I think about Love & Protect, for example, and that work on the ground, that is always “asking the other question.” How do we get people free, and welcome them home … responding in a mutual-aid way to what people need today, tomorrow, the next day; write letters, talk to families? Also, how do we make sure that it’s not just that, but also lifting up the larger questions around the structural conditions that led to the mass criminalization of survivors? How do you do both at the same time? To me, it’s also asking the question: When I’m writing the letter, what am I doing tomorrow about the structural inequality? While I’m working on the structural questions … how are we welcoming people home?
Angela Davis: That impulse to always “ask the other question” represents something very important about the anti-racist, anti-capitalist feminism we refer to in the term “abolition feminism.” We use “feminism” not only to refer to issues of gender and sexuality but rather to refer to that impulse that is often named as intersectionality. (I’ll say parenthetically, intersectionality has become a concept that doesn’t always open up new ideas and new thinking; it’s a concept that is often used simply to name an existing process.) Mari Matsuda’s insistence on always asking the other question allows us to formulate a feminism that does not subscribe to closures, that does not attempt to provide definitive answers to the question, but rather encourages an ongoing process of articulation, disarticulation, re-articulation — terms we get from Stuart Hall. I think that this is really the heart of what we mean by feminism, aside from all of the issues that are always linked to feminist theories and practices.
Schenwar: Thank you, all of you! I really appreciated how, throughout the book, you include a lot of examples of abolition feminist projects from around the world, beyond the United States, from Germany to India to the U.K. to Palestine to Australia. Sometimes, in conversations about incarceration here in the U.S., there’s a national focus that ignores the global context, but you are infusing this book with an internationalist vision. Could you explain a little bit about why it’s important to recognize abolition as an international project?
Dent: We all agreed, very early on, about the need to try as much as possible to have an internationalist approach. I’ll say that it’s more internationalist than it is truly representative of the globe — we tried to stick to organizations that we had some relationship with … that were key to how we’ve developed our understandings.
It’s so important for us to disrupt the narrative that’s been developed inside the United States, which is sometimes helpful when people are talking about mass incarceration but also can do some damage. For example, I often find that people talk only to me about Black people, sometimes even Black women, if they have that focus in prison and jail — yet are not talking about immigrant detention, are not talking about Indigenous incarceration, are not talking about the other kinds of factors that make incarceration a problem, which can’t simply be addressed by undoing anti-Black racism. It was important to us, to think about what true liberation would be like, to incorporate a whole range of perspectives and to try to illustrate the ways in which our knowledge fails us if we don’t attend to the multiple ways in which we are engaged.
The prison-industrial complex is a global capitalist entity, and therefore, an approach that myopically focuses on the United States — which sometimes can be excused because of our international role in generating the practices of incarceration — is actually a problem in terms of our ability to address the fundamentally international problem of the prison-industrial complex.
Davis: Also, we were intensely aware of the extent to which Black feminists in the U.S. are upheld as the measures of Black feminism wherever. Some of us have had the experience of traveling to Brazil and being lifted up as the examples of Black feminism — at the same time as the traditions in Brazil, which are deep and which hold lessons not only for Brazilians but for us in this country, are then ignored. All of us are internationalists, and we specifically use the term internationalism as opposed to transnational feminism, precisely because we want to reference an era of connectedness across our borders, and across nation-states.
We want to also gesture toward the possibility of a future that is not characterized by borders, and walls, and nation-states. The international dimension of our analysis is absolutely essential. It’s not just tacked on. It is at the very core of what we are trying to do.
Richie: Part of the process of writing this book for, I think all of us, but certainly, for me, is how much we get to learn from each other. For me, one of the things that was most both inspiring, and that I learned the most from, was to not do the kind of add-on that Angela just mentioned. I was trying to redo my own writing, but more importantly, my own thinking, to be more internationalist. The book appears as it does, but the process, I think, also is important to lift up, because it gave us a chance to learn from each other. We all came at this from very different perspectives. I feel like one of the gifts was the chance to learn from each other about [internationalism] in particular, but of course, many other things.
Meiners: Our goal here is not to be exhaustive. As we were working on the project, we would learn about new initiatives, campaigns, projects. That was a real challenge as [to] how to represent something that is active, that is unfolding, that is now — and that internationalist lens gave us a framework and a balance. One of our goals is not to have people read this as the exhaustive finite list [of abolitionist efforts]. We’re excited about the kind of projects that other people are going to build in conversation with this — documenting different kinds of work, or sharing different kinds of projects.
Schenwar: One thing that struck me really deeply about the book was its recurring discussion of how important it is to document the history of abolitionist movements and campaigns even when they “fail” by some external measurements. You talk about doing “slow work in always-urgent times.” I’m wondering if you could explain a little bit more about why you chose to focus on the stories of so many grassroots projects that have not resulted in some grand legislative change or obvious mainstream victory.
Meiners: All of us recognize that those are the movements that have built and continue to build the world that we know that we need. Having participated in these clusters, in these campaigns, in these projects, in these organizations that do the slow work in the urgent times — this is what has built the moment that we’re in now. Of course, “victories” — and I think that’s a complicated term — matter. Whether someone is executed or not, whether a jail is built. We’re not diminishing the importance of those tangibilities, those material outcomes. But we’re also trying to lift up the movements, the organizations, the collectives that have actually changed consciousness, changed language, changed cultural lenses.
Davis: We’re really indebted to Erica for insisting on this. It allowed us all to develop a kind of new philosophy of history, a new historiographical approach. How does change happen? We’re always urged to subscribe to the idea of the “great man in history,” the “great man” figure who changes history…. Erica really offered us this gift of asking us to look at all of these small formations that sometimes existed only for a short period of time, but left a mark on the way we talk about the issues, the whole level of discourse, the way we struggle around them. I always talk about the fact that it was the Black women maids in Montgomery who refused to ride the bus, and made that boycott successful, and therefore, offered us the gift of what we usually call the Civil Rights Movement, but nobody talks about them.
Richie: Movements are built by work, not success. Movements are built by connections between people who not only share analysis, but also fall in love with each other, and movements are built because there’s a sense of care that emerges. Love & Protect, to me, is the perfect example. There’s radical work happening, and there’s also care about each other’s lives and losses, and sharing food and drink and stories, and all that. I think part of it is turning our gaze away from campaigns that win to work that builds a movement. You sometimes gain more solidarity when you “lose” and have to reevaluate, recalibrate. I think that is a unique contribution of this book…. It’s really about what you can learn, and what you can do, and how you can struggle outside of the parameters of some more formal, patriarchal, masculinist, white supremacy way of evaluating what you just did. I think there’s a sense of joy, sense of possibilities, a sense of holding each other when you fall apart because you just lost. Chicago is good at that because we’ve lost a lot. We’ve lost people, and we’ve lost campaigns.
Dent: The gender mainstreaming and feminist expertise industry was very much what we were writing against. The idea that you have — especially as a scholar — your set of things that you’re going to argue, and you are going to be prepared with your facts and your figures, and whatever else. Instead, we were really trying to take from the experiences we’ve all had doing this work, to share that sensibility with others so that it could be, even in the face of all of the death and destruction, about joy, and about love, and about imperfection.
Schenwar: I want to talk for a minute about the art in the book. One of the most beautiful things about the book is its inclusion of protest art, campaign posters, mutual aid art, memes and banners. Why did you decide to include those pieces in the book?
Meiners: If you’d asked me 20 years ago if we would include images in something, I probably would have said no, but the work that I’ve had the privilege to do with Beth through PNAP [the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project] has really just reminded me and educated me about the power of cultural products in movements…. Like all of us, I have stacks and boxes of fabulous posters and zines and all kinds of work that really functions pedagogically and politically in incredibly powerful ways — I think sometimes even more effectively than text, than lectures.
Dent: I’ve been involved in a project called Visualizing Abolition at UC Santa Cruz. It’s a combination of work that I’ve been engaged with for a long time…. A lot of times in prison abolitionist movements, the idea is that the visual culture that we care about is the visual culture that tells people what’s wrong with incarceration. For example, when we’re talking about film, people are interested in the documentary that lays out the cruel conditions of this particular facility or another, and many of those films are really important — but it’s always felt very important to me to account for the degree to which people are exposed to ideas about incarceration that they don’t register as forming their own ideas about incarceration. When people are asked questions about what they think should happen in a particular case, I believe they’re drawing not only on their own experiences — which for some people, if they’re fortunate, are very limited, around the prison system, for other people those experiences are severe. Often in both cases, the popular cultural environment around law and order and incarceration almost supersedes their experiential knowledge.
The really savvy [abolitionist] campaigns have both tried to inject some joy and humor into the work, so that people can feel lifted up by it, but they’ve also known that we had to attend to the long history of visual culture that has represented the prison as normal to us, as something that will remain in our landscape, and that’s always been there. I love the selection of images we included, and we included them even though we wouldn’t be able to show them properly. We knew that they wouldn’t get displayed on the page in the way that would be most beautiful, but they felt like important bits of the archive that we understood and part of the genealogy that we were trying to convey and display. I think their inclusion is both inspiring for the people who generated those images and the campaigns that use them. I think it’s also inspiring for people who might pick up the book and realize that they’re usually exposed to very different kinds of images, and that this set of images might run counter to that and might help them along the road to abolition feminism.
Davis: In lifting up all of these organizations, many of which no longer exist, we’re helping to create a genealogy that holds possibilities for the future. I would say the same thing about the visual artwork. These are the ephemera of the movement that we wanted to try to point to as having played a major role in the emergence of abolition.
The other point I want to make is that we gesture toward so much in the book that we were not able to really attend to, and one of the dimensions that we didn’t sufficiently explore was the dimension of culture, music and visual art. We started to do that, but of course, we could’ve been writing this book for the next 10 years, at least the next two, and it could’ve been five times as long as it is now. The images stand in for the importance of culture and developing movements, the importance of art, the role that music plays, that is oftentimes only recognized as entertainment, but not recognized as transforming the emotions of people who listen to it. The visual image [communicates] in ways that would be impossible simply through the use of our conventional language.
Richie: We wrote this book during a pandemic, and I spent a lot of time right where you see me, staring at my bulletin board, not interacting with people…. I populated my space with the images that represented the work, the movement, the people, the struggle, the joy, the art, the communication that’s beyond words. There’s INCITE there, there’s Critical Resistance there, and there are all of these pictures of people, and posters.… When we were writing about the Critical Resistance/INCITE statement, I dug up my dusty, torn copy and taped it up to the wall. It took the paint off when I took it down, but something about the life of the work was found in the images more than the words. I remembered people, I remembered places, I remembered discussions.… There’s something about the combination of images and trying to write a book during a pandemic, when there’s hyper isolation, that brought something forward. We share that by putting them in the book, because the book was about having been birthed during that moment of such isolation.
Schenwar: You talk at the end of the book about how you didn’t want to end this project of writing, because abolition is in motion. It is so hard to end the writing of a book. But of course, your book is going to continue to grow and take new shapes, as people read it and use it, and learn from it and fuel movements with it. My question is, how do you hope that your book will serve as a tool itself?
Davis: We had a lot of conversations about the kind of book we wanted to write. Should it be directed primarily toward scholars? Should it be primarily directed toward organizers? Might it be possible to do a book that would be helpful both to people who are familiar with certain kinds of scholarly vocabularies and to movement organizers who may not have had that kind of preparation? I personally thought about reading practices that develop behind walls. Particularly when people have been in prison for so many years, they never really had the opportunity to acquire any formal educational training, but they become the best readers, the most exciting intellectuals of our time. I imagine the book being read by people who are either in jails and prisons now, or people who formerly have had that experience, and are using it as a way to struggle intellectually with a whole range of ideas.
I’m hoping that the book will help to produce many more texts — whether they are visual texts, whether they are sonic texts, whether they’re written texts. We are offering it as something that didn’t enact a closure, just as we don’t think abolition feminism enacts closures. Hopefully, it does serve as encouragement to organize, to think, to write, to make music, to make art.
Richie: I love that notion of letting the book encourage other people to do their abolition feminism thing now. I think, in part, it arrives in the arms of so many other books that are being written now that take up the same questions, but from different perspectives. This book is in conversation and in community with so many other important things that are being written…. We are filling up this little space, and it’s both filling up a space and opening up other spaces. Having it released now means that there’s just so many other chances for it to be in conversation with other people.
Davis: The book is in community.
Meiners: The genealogy that we’re attempting to chronicle — which is partial and imperfect — is offering some joyousness and optimism for that long, hard, work. A really important value in particular, in this moment, as abolition is more popular, is to try to grow the work to get people to stick it for the long haul — to have a different feeling and a flavor for how social movements unfold. That’s one of the maybe-a-little-audacious outcomes that we’re trying to seed, because we want to grow the work, we want more people doing the work, thinking about the work. I think amplifying all the beautiful, amazing struggles that are unfolding in this moment is one way to illustrate the profound and radical changes that these small networks have made. Maybe that will grow more people to want to do that kind of work, or stick with that work, or stay connected to that work for the long haul.
Dent: I would just also say that I think of [the book] as a historical corrective before the history is written. In other words, what does it mean to know the problems of history addressing certain kinds of populations and certain kinds of organizations and activism, and how can we — in advance of people telling the story of the abolitionist movement — make sure that some people are not left out? When we do crip inclusiveness, and trans activism, and when we do all the other parts that make up this cloth that we’re writing about, it’s about hoping that it will become impossible to forget what made this movement.
And that is also about not hierarchizing the examples. I remember early on when we were writing about Critical Resistance and INCITE, one of the comments was about whether or not we were exceptionalizing those groups. We talked quite a lot about something which I would describe as thinking of the examples as ideas: Each example that we raise is not being talked about just to let people know the facts of what happened, but rather, these examples can become the ideas that can be carried forward, and that can be internalized to do different kinds of actions. We hope that people will feel invited rather than excluded, because that is such a problem for the movement — that it can be discouraging. And the interpersonal problems can be difficult, and the harm, as we’ve tried to mention, occurs not only outside of the movements, but inside the movement — and so how do we attempt to address that? Hopefully, it’s in the feeling that we tried to infuse the book with, that we hope others will feel, and be encouraged by.