Challenging Our Visions of Abolition: An Open Letter to the Students of Village Leadership Academy

Before January 15, my associations with the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center were memories I wish I didn’t have.

I remember when my sister was locked up there at 15—the sharp weight that hit my stomach when I realized definitively that the “Audy Home,” as it was called casually, was really a jail.

I remember a letter I received a couple of years later from an incarcerated 13-year-old girl, in which the first line read, “I feel like my life ended the second I stepped in the door.”

I remember a press conference I attended as a young reporter, in which the youth jail’s superintendent announced that big changes were coming: They’d soon provide incarcerated kids with pajamas and pillows. He said the items would provide much-needed “comfort to a child who is scared and alone.” Authorities may have decided that the mostly Black and Brown youth behind the jail’s walls were worthy of pillows—but they apparently did not see them as worthy of the basic right to exist in the world.

But since January 15, I’ve been blessed with some beautiful new memories. These memories make me believe, deep down, that the youth jail’s days are numbered—and that abolition, more broadly, is happening. And that is thanks to you.

I now remember your signs, as I walked toward the Reclaim MLK Day rally: “Freedom,” and “The universe is on our side,” and the Assata Shakur quote: “If I know anything at all, it is that a wall is just a wall. It can be broken down.” Plus, of course, the phrase that became the rallying cry of the evening: “Free us all.”

These messages contained a sureness, an energy, a knowledge that abolition is rising.

I now remember the chanting, on the path to the jail, of the names of Black people who have recently died at the hands of the state (including those of whom are still not chanted as often as others): “We do this for Tanisha.” “We do this for Rekia.” “We do this for Damo.”

Death is silence. Prison is silence, too. These chants were refusing to let the silence set in.

I now remember the messages of the youth inside the jail that day, written in soap on the windows: “I love you,” and, “Free us!” And the crowd shouting back, led by you: “We love you!” “Free us all!” This acknowledgement—that freedom and love are inextricably tied, much as prison tries to crush them both—felt like such a central truth of abolition.

The hope and inspiration in the air that night wasn’t just about ending the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (though that was certainly part of it). What I heard that moved me so deeply was a broader incarnation of justice: One filled with love and life. When Kaleb Autman said, “We want justice to be served,” he defined that justice as the end of the criminalization of Black and Brown youth—and also an educational system that lifts up and supports youth of color and more jobs in Black and Brown communities. He described a wide-open future—and a wide-open present; a present where anything can happen. That, too, is what abolition is about.

At an event last week geared toward discussing how to talk with children about incarceration, Project NIA director Mariame Kaba (aptly dubbed a “high priestess” by Malcolm London at the rally) mentioned that sometimes, it is a lot easier to talk with young people about abolishing prison and policing than it is with adults. This is because, often, conversations with adults are riddled with doubts and gripes and fears about what’s possible. Adults think they know the world and its limits. They think they are being “realistic,” when really they are caging themselves in a trapped version of what “freedom” could be. Youth often know that something larger and better and freer is possible.

Last year, I wrote a book about the deadening effects of the prison-industrial complex, and the need for abolition. I wish I would’ve written it a year later. This is because I wish I could have included the recent work of We Charge Genocide and the Village Leadership Academy students here in Chicago: youth-led work that is raising the stakes for what we ask for, when we ask for a freer world. The work that you are doing is not only pushing this movement forward, but also challenging and opening up our visions of what abolition looks like.

You have reminded me that the goal at the heart of this movement, to “free us all,” is wholly possible—and that we should say nothing less.

In love and solidarity,

Maya Schenwar