Yesterday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted a string of comments defending the idea of prison abolition. Representative Ocasio-Cortez began by tweeting, “I know the term ‘prison abolition’ is breaking some people’s brains. The right is already freaking out. Yet the US incarcerates more than anywhere in the world. We have more than enough room to close many of our prisons and explore just alternatives to incarceration.” She went on to tweet about the injustices of money bail, the incarceration of people with mental illness and the problems with focusing on the idea of “violent people” as a justification for prisons.
What we might call the classic definition of prison abolition comes from Critical Resistance, a grassroots organization founded by Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and the late Rose Braz in the 1990s. Their definition targets a “prison-industrial complex” and summarizes abolition as “a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.”
Up until now, no politician would be caught dead defending abolition. What has changed?
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I don’t normally live on Twitter, but yesterday I just kept reading those tweets about abolition from Ocasio-Cortez. I was overcome by excitement, then disbelief. Is this “fake news”? Is this the real AOC or someone trying to sneak words in her mouth via a Twitter clone? Are those of us who have carried the banner of prison abolition (often simply referred to as “abolition”) for a while finally seeing our ideas represented in the halls of Congress? Maybe we have a legitimate champion.
Once the excitement subsided, my hypercritical faculties surfaced. Is this a true step forward? Is this enhancing the power of our ideas, or is there a danger that the word “abolition” could become the new prison reform, the glamorous new repackaging of cries for piecemeal change, while the actual principles behind abolition are lost? If it were nearly anyone on the Hill besides AOC, I’d be skeptical. If it were Jared Kushner or even presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker tweeting about abolition, I’d be crying hijack. But we must take AOC, who emerged from grassroots movements and has pushed the line on numerous issues already during her short time in Congress, seriously.
Still, while we may celebrate AOC opening a dialogue about abolition on the Hill, we have to pay homage to the roots of this idea, lest the ahistorical media try to convince us that AOC invented it. The real historical roots of the notion of abolition lie in the struggle to abolish slavery. They rest with Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Toussaint L’Ouverture and many others. They are all about freedom, not tweaking the system.
The specific idea of abolishing prisons rose to the fore 50 years ago. It emerged both in Europe and the United States, and not just in radical circles. In the early ‘70s, Wisconsin Judge James Doyle, included this in his judgement of the case of Juan G. Morales:
“I am persuaded that the institution of prison probably must end. In many respects it is as intolerable within the United States as was the institution of slavery, equally brutalizing to all involved, equally toxic to the social system … and probably less rational.”
Surprisingly, Republican Congressman Stewart McKinney from Connecticut, after voluntarily spending 36 hours in a prison in 1972, emerged to tell the media, “I can’t see consigning any human being to this kind of existence.”
But the cutting edge of prison abolition in that period likely rested in Walpole Prison in Massachusetts, site of an intense rebellion and strike in 1973. Both the strikers and some leaders of the administration embraced abolition. Despite gaining some traction in the 1970s, abolition soon went into hiding as the backlash of neoliberalism and the punishment paradigm sparked the herding of millions into cages.
In the 1990s, Critical Resistance laid the foundation for ideas of abolition in the era of mass incarceration. Their ideological framing has kept thousands of activists from being drawn into what Gilmore calls, “reformist reforms,” the kind of changes in law and policies that activist and author Mariame Kaba reminds us that we can pass today only to have to mobilize against not too far down the road. As she puts it, “That reform itself becomes the new common sense and that’s so dangerous on so many levels.”
These reforms are the path of least resistance for politicians eager for a high-profile quick fix that will land them headlines and votes, while making little or no systemic change. They end up normalizing punitive abnormalities as “alternatives to prison,” like requiring 12-year-olds to wear an electronic monitor to school. The national First Step Act legislation, much lauded by politicians on the right and left, promotes small reductions in incarceration but increases the use of racist risk assessment tools. These are just a few examples of reformist reforms.
The question then becomes, where will AOC take her newfound defense of abolition? While no one (besides, perhaps, Donald Trump) can fully elaborate their ideas via tweets, AOC’s postings indicate an opening for deeper understandings of abolition. For example, she advocates working “to an end where our prison system is dramatically smaller than it is today.” This is a start, but it amounts to bet hedging in the world of abolition. Reducing the size of the system is not our end goal, though it is a necessary step. We seek new ways of solving problems and addressing harm that don’t rely on cages, policing, techno-tethers or restrictive surveillance.
When she asks, “If we invested meaningfully, what do you think would happen to crime?” It’s not quite an abolitionist question. We want to know what would happen to communities, to society if we begin to reallocate resources in ways that contribute to reparations for past wrongs and to imagining new ways of shaping communities and doing justice. Crime is a concern, but we don’t sit on the edge of our chairs every year waiting for the crime statistics to come out to see how we are doing. We need other measures of justice that center the voices and experience of oppressed communities.
Lastly, comes Ocasio-Cortez’s statement, “Our lawmaking process means we come to solutions together.” In order to move toward abolition, it’s important to get clear on who the “we” is. Right now, the millions who live behind bars and cannot vote are not part of any “we” that exists under the law. Neither are the millions who are disenfranchised by anti-“felon” laws or legislative shell games. If we are speaking of a solution like abolition, we need a different type of coming together. Not only do we need ideas that fit clearly into the abolitionist framework, we also need organizations that extend well beyond the current boundaries of the Democratic Party, and that voice the power of the grassroots and mobilize to confront those who currently come together to make “solutions.”
Of course, all this is not largely the responsibility of a congress member — grassroots movements will continue to be at the forefront of fighting for abolitionist policies and practices. AOC was courageous in risking “breaking some people’s brains” by introducing abolition in mainstream circles, and her desire to explore “just alternatives to incarceration” is admirable. I look forward to how she advances these ideas and how she elaborates her abolitionist vision. Let us hope she takes us down a new path.