A grand jury in Staten Island declined to bring charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who put Eric Garner in a choke hold and killed him. In Ferguson, another grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, a police officer, for the murder of unarmed black teenager Mike Brown.
Almost everywhere, outraged Americans are protesting, marching, shutting down highways, and stopping trains, but many find it difficult to discern a way forward.
Walidah Imarisha, a writer and activist, coined the term “visionary fiction” to describe how we can use science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres to envision alternatives to unjust and oppressive systems.
I talked with Imarisha about how science fiction can inspire us to build a more just world, where an unarmed African American person isn’t killed by police or vigilantes every 28 hours.
Imarisha is editor of Another World Is Possible: Conversations in a Time of Terror, a collection of personal reflections on the 9/11 attacks. She’s also co-editor, with Adrienne Maree Brown, of the forthcoming Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, named after the legendary science fiction writer Octavia Butler.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Mary Hansen: What was your reaction to the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot the unarmed black teenager Mike Brown?
Walidah Imarisha: Someone on Twitter posted, “Just because I’m not surprised, doesn’t mean I’m not heartbroken.” And I think that was a succinct way of summing it up. I think that a reaffirmation of an unjust system by an unjust system is not surprising and is utterly heartbreaking because we are talking about lives. We’re talking about Mike Brown and Tamir Rice, and, unfortunately, thousands of black and brown folks who have been murdered by the police.
I think that I would have been incredibly surprised if they had indicted Wilson, given the ways that policing functions in this nation. What’s most amazing and powerful is the response from the people. The fact that there were over 170 protests around the world in response to that is incredible. And that it’s not just about Darren Wilson; it’s about people mobilizing to say that this is not the world we want to live in.
Hansen: For you, science fiction offers a useful way of thinking through these issues—especially the writing of Octavia Butler. What’s the connection there?
Imarisha: I think that science fiction and visionary fiction, as my co-editor Adrienne Maree Brown says, are a perfect testing ground to explore the countless alternatives that could exist to policing and institutions like prisons.
It’s incredibly important that we begin to shift our thinking away from the state keeping us safe, given that that has never been the purpose of the state—it’s never been the purpose of the police or the prison system—and instead begin to ask, how do we keep each other safe? How do we prevent harm from happening? How do we address harm when it does happen in our communities in ways that are about healing, and about wholeness, rather than about punishment and retribution?
Hansen: Do you see any glimmers of hope or communities where people are building these alternatives now?
Imarisha: Absolutely. There are communities working every day to figure out ways of keeping each other safe using things like community mediation—like the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore. There are organizations like Creative Interventions that are specifically looking at ways to address intimate violence and incest without relying on the state. Organizations like INCITE Women of Color Against Violence offer clear ways of seeing that the interpersonal violence that women and trans folks live with every day can’t be separated from the state violence those people also experience.
Hansen: What would you say to those who argue that there will always be crime and “bad people”?
Imarisha: Again, this is why we need science fiction. We often can’t imagine that things could be different because we can’t imagine alternative systems. Ursula LeGuin just gave an incredible speech at the National Book Awards, where she talked about this and said people can’t imagine a world without capitalism. Well, there was a time when people couldn’t imagine a world without the divine right of kings.
But the writers, the visionaries, those folks who are able to imagine freedom are absolutely necessary to opening up enough space for folks to imagine that there’s a possibility to exist outside of the current system.
I think it’s been a concerted effort to erase those possibilities. These systems that we live under are incredibly unnatural. This is not the way we’re supposed to live. It takes indoctrination to get us to a point where we believe that this is the way things should be. When we take a small step outside that, we are able to break that indoctrination and see that this is not the only way, and in fact there are as many ways to exist as we can imagine.
Hansen: Where do you see some of the consequences of that indoctrination? And what role does visionary fiction play?
Imarisha: In our collection, Octavia’s Brood, my co-editor Adrienne Maree Brown’s story, “The River” explores this idea. What does justice look like? What does holding people accountable look like for crimes that this system does not consider crimes—like gentrification, economic displacement, the violence of poverty?
These are not considered crimes by the system: They’re actually just the system functioning as usual. We actually don’t even have a language to describe these real crimes that are happening every single day in our communities. And instead, we focus where the media has worked very hard to get us to focus, which is on interpersonal violence, which is often a result of institutional oppression.
One of the things that Octavia Butler’s work does very well, and one of the principles of visionary fiction, is that it centers those who have been marginalized, those folks who are sitting at the intersections of identities of oppression. When we’re centering folks who have been marginalized, when we’re seeing black youth centered, when we’re seeing young black women centered in these struggles, we see an entirely different way of engaging. We see the system from an entirely different perspective.
Hansen: What are the implications of seeking to understand the system from marginalized perspectives?
Imarisha: We’re often told that we just need a little bit of reform, but when we see these systems from the lives of folks like young, queer and trans people of color, then we see that actually these intersecting oppressions are so rooted in the system that reform can’t be the answer. That what is going to be needed is an incredible, deep, and complete systemic change.
And I think that those folks who have been marginalized, who have been in many ways living outside the bounds of the acceptable system, are not victims. They’re the leaders who can show us how to build a different world. Because in many ways they have been building those communities out of necessity and survival. And we have incredible lessons to learn from their guidance and leadership.
Hansen: What are some lessons we can learn from their leadership?
Imarisha: We see an emphasis on the wholeness of community, and that the individual is inextricably linked to the community. Every single individual in our community is our community. And recognizing that when those individuals are murdered, when they are stolen and taken to prisons, it actually destabilizes our entire community.
And that the repercussions of that are often carried by black women who are left behind, in many cases. Even though black women are the fastest-growing population in prisons. We’re also being stolen.
But that emphasis on looking at this as a community again is what indicates that systemically things have to change. It is about individual cases, but it is also about these individual cases linked to the larger community. They can’t be seen and separated out.
It’s a more holistic, community approach to what justice looks like.