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Let’s Imagine a National Organizing Effort to Challenge Mass Incarceration

Prisons and policing sustain US capitalism.

(Photo: Marcia Straub / Getty Images)

Part of the Series

This story is the seventh in Truthout’s “Visions of 2018” series, in which activist leaders answer the question: “What would you like to see created, built, imagined or begun this year?” Each piece will focus on a bold idea for transformation, to give us fuel as the year moves forward.

In circles of prison abolition and criminal legal reform, the call to imagine a world without prisons — a sort of cageless utopia — has recently grown louder and stronger. The point of doing this is to allow us to break free from the present reality in which it has become so normalized to have millions of people locked up or incarcerated in open-air prisons of various forms. When asked to imagine a world without prisons, many people talk about peace, the absence of police, or a world where everyone’s basic needs are met so we wouldn’t see poverty and inequality driving criminalization and “crime.” White supremacy would be a distant memory in this world. This exercise can be valuable and inspiring, but also at times a little off base. Frequently there is a tendency to leap from the present to utopia without thinking concretely what the path to that utopia might look like. So, in imagining this world, I would like to make three points that might take us in a slightly different direction than most considerations of a world without prisons.

The first is that I would hope that this world would not be one where e-carceration, that is incarceration via technology, becomes a substitute for steel and concrete cages. We tend to think of eliminating incarceration as getting rid of places like Rikers Island jail, or prisons like Angola and Pelican Bay and the jail at Champaign County where I live. But we need to also include in our vision ways to make sure that the power of the state and corporations to deprive us of our freedom via technology does not substitute for our present reality. We don’t want a world where our every movement, our every heartbeat, our every moment of anxiety gets stored on a cloud somewhere and ultimately used to deprive us of our liberty. And we definitely don’t want the creation of technological prisons where people are locked up in their own homes and paying a daily fee for the “service.” The present version of electronic monitoring — these things they call ankle bracelets but are really technological shackles — represents the thin end of the wedge of this.

Along the path to a prisonless world, we need to be mindful of how the Microsofts and the Corrisofts and the Amazons conceive the future and the ways they can come up with to deprive us of various forms of liberty, whether it be freedom to move or access to information.

Second, I want us to recognize that in the US a world without prisons must mean a world that is not dominated by the drive for corporate profits and military power. A world without prisons is also a world without Exxon and a world without Pfizer and a world without B2 bombers at $20 billion a pop. I say this because mass criminalization and mass incarceration are fundamental parts of the social, political and economic landscape of US capitalism. To get rid of prisons and jails necessitates eradicating, or at least substantially reducing corporate and military power. Such changes are necessary not only to fundamentally restructure the criminal legal system but to ensure the survival of the planet. So, mass criminalization and mass incarceration are not just about policing and courts and prisons and jails. They are one of the modes through which capitalism at this particular moment sustains itself. We need to find a way to build something different.

This brings me to my final point, which is that I feel a little uncomfortable visioning a prisonless future without giving at least as much time to considering the types of political struggles and the kinds of organizations we need to get there. This uneasiness comes from my experience of living in South Africa and working with the liberation organizations there in the 1990s, during the moments when apartheid was finally about to fall. We engaged in such visioning then — drawing detailed maps of what a democratic country and economy would look like after 46 years of legalized white supremacist rule. But when we did that visioning we did it as part of a movement with vast political powers and breadth. I worked mostly with trade unions that had several million members, trade unions that could call a general strike on a week or two’s notice and shut down the entire city of Johannesburg — the industrial and financial heartland of the country with a population of 3 million people. But more than that, these unions were part of something called the Mass Democratic Movement — a coalition of hundreds of organizations from all sectors — from students, to religious organizations, women’s organizations, organizations of rural folks, and NGOs. They had a political vision that extended not only across the range of social justice issues of the day but to international solidarity.

My work then was to do education programs, and I did workshops for hundreds of shop stewards from the municipal workers to metalworkers to restaurant workers who had not more than an eighth-grade education. For many of them, English was a third, fourth or even fifth language, yet they could talk in great detail about the global strategy of the World Bank, about the trade policy of the European Union and why workers in South Africa should support the Palestinian struggle. Their education was a product of the intentional efforts by the unions and other national structures to inform and empower the rank and file. These were organizations with popularly elected national and local leaders, with a national platform but with lots of local decision-making power at the branch level. They had the collective courage to stand up to one of the most repressive states in modern history, a vicious South African corporate apartheid state prepared to do anything to crush their power. In short, they were willing to pay the price and they understood what the price of struggle was. These were not perfect organizations by any means. They had problems, including a serious lack of gender analysis. And ultimately, they were not powerful enough to make their vision a reality. Still, they were the closest thing I have experienced to a movement that had the potential to actually transform society, to make their vision a reality.

Now, when I think about a US without prisons, I want to think more about what an organization that is powerful enough to challenge mass incarceration would look like — how it would develop a national structure while ensuring local democracy, how it would embrace solidarity and intersectionality with all struggles for social justice, and how it would prepare itself for the vastness of the task of confronting corporate and state power. We don’t have anything like that now. In this vein, I want to recognize the work of All of Us or None and JustLeadershipUSA, groups that are engaged in trying to build a national structure of formerly incarcerated people and those critically impacted. These are membership-based organizations with a national structure, local chapters and the power of a collective voice. The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls is engaged in similar efforts. These are important efforts that deserve our attention and support.

The focal point of these organizations is mobilizing those of us who have been locked up, because we have been invisible and silenced. Our voices need to be heard, for sure. But we need more voices in our choir. And we need our choir to connect with other voices and other choirs. Ultimately, we must give voice to not only what it would mean to live without prisons and jails, but also what kind of a society, what kind of a world we live in. In South Africa, there is a rich tradition of choral singing. Churches have choirs, but so do trade unions, so do student organizations. And on many occasions, they have choir festivals where dozens of choirs come and assemble in one of those huge halls like Madison Square Garden. And they sing. The individual choirs sing, soloists sing and then the group sings as a whole. It is hard to describe how beautiful that is. That’s what I think a movement against mass incarceration must be like in the US, people singing their own songs and then all of us singing together. But we need a lot more voices in our choir.

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