In the summer of 2020, at the onset of a deadly pandemic, George Floyd’s murder propelled unprecedented numbers of people across the globe to take to the streets. From Australia to India, from Johannesburg to Saskatoon, demands reverberated to defund police and invest in safer communities.
While people flooded the streets in anger and grief, these crowds also represented the success of decades of political education, supported by grassroots Black and Indigenous-led abolitionist campaigns and networks. The crowds also telegraphed a clear message: Communities are stronger and safer without police and prisons.
Despite the predictable backlash — an indication of the profound impact of these massive street protests — demands to defund police have persist. #StopCopCity, the movement to defeat the largest proposed police and military training facility in Atlanta, continues. In Winnipeg, Vancouver and Montreal, Canada, students continue to organize to remove police from public schools. Chicago’s Treatment Not Trauma campaign resoundingly won a referendum (non-binding) to invest in police-free mental health and trauma services.
While the abolitionist movement is international, many in the U.S. struggle to learn from the tactics and analysis outside of our borders. In the summer of 2022, halfway through a year with the highest recorded number of police-perpetrated killings in the U.S., we (Erica, Shirley and Melanie) talked with two organizers from the French abolitionist organizing group Collectif Matsuda (Chris and Klara) and traveled to the U.S. to research our movements. We talked in Chicago and Oakland with Chris and Klara, who asked to be identified here by pseudonyms due to concerns about surveillance both at home and in the U.S., to learn more about abolition, race and transformative justice in France. We spoke in English — not their first language. Below are excerpts from our conversations.
Melanie Brazzell: Talk about the contemporary abolitionist movement in France.
Chris: In France there is a tradition of contestation. People like to fight the state. Space is different in France; the rich people live in cities and the poor people — often people of color with ties to nations colonized by France — live in the banlieue [the suburbs of a city]. In my genealogy, the first major confrontation with police in the 21st century in France is 2005: The banlieues revolted following the death of two young people. But the uprising did not remain only in the banlieues. A nighttime curfew was implemented in some cities.
“Everybody hates the police” became more popular in 2016 when students and workers fought against a reform of labor laws that would decrease worker protections. It was mostly students — [including many] young white people who “discovered” police violence at this moment and experienced lots of repression.
The “Yellow Vest” movement in 2018 started when the white working class, who had to use their cars to commute to work from suburban areas, fought against a proposed tax increase on gas. This attracted a lot of older people who really struggled in everyday life, working with no chances for success. [Racism and antisemitism erupted during “Yellow Vest” actions, and this movement did not center racial or gender justice.]
These movements have been really, really, really repressed by police. People participating in street actions lost eyes and hands, and went to jail, and as it was often their first time protesting, they often did not make a safety plan. Through participation in social movements, a new part of the population discovered police violence and now hate the police forever.
Klara: But why are people not abolitionists? For the same reason that people hate work, but they then became workers. Many struggle to really know how to live without the police. Also, the state is a lot stronger in France than in the U.S. We still have a welfare state, even though it’s crumbling. This welfare state gives the police some legitimacy, even though increasing numbers of people hate them. Police also represent the state that people know they depend on.
A critical difference is that France has one national police force. Our police across the country operate under the same law, with the same budget, and the same weapons. We have some municipal police, but the national police are the main ones in the cities. In the U.S., with 18,000 police departments, it is possible to say in one city, “Okay, I want to abolish the police,” even if it won’t abolish all the other departments. Our centralized system makes total change more difficult to imagine and to generate in France.
MB: Movements over the last half century in France for decolonization, against racist police brutality, and for labor protections and economic justice have slowly sharpened the knives of antagonism between the police and the people. Talk about how white supremacy and colonialism shape carcerality in France, and also your own work, as white people in abolitionist organizing in France.
Klara: Race is not structured in France the same as it is in the U.S. We are a colonial state, but France is not occupied land, and chattel slavery in France did not last as long as in the U.S. Confrontations against racism largely unfolded in the colonies, like the Caribbean [for example, the Haitian Revolution]. France’s carceral state is not the same as the U.S.
There are proportionally and numerically less people in jail and less police murders in France than in the U.S. But it’s the same racial structure as in the U.S. People of color are the ones locked up and killed by the police. But we don’t have any official statistics on race. It is not legal in France to collect racial data.
Chris: France is not built on the same racial foundation as the U.S., even though race is central to social antagonism in France. People with Collectif Matsuda come from mainly white anarchist or autonomous groups. These organizing networks in France are ignorant about race, as are many white dominant left organizations around us. Studying the abolitionist movement in the U.S. is one good way to make race become a real issue for white activists in France.
Shirley Leslie: During the pandemic shutdowns and uprisings of 2020, collective study and community action against the violence of policing gained popularity and new projects emerged, globally, to fight the prison-industrial complex (PIC). Although there is no one model to PIC abolitionist organizing, Collectif Matsuda translated policing abolitionist materials available in the U.S. and produced a short book, Abolir la police: Échos des États-Unis to build shared analysis across organizers and to work toward projects that no longer legitimize or expand policing in France. Describe how this particular project come about?
Klara: Before COVID-19, we talked about abolition with our friends and political networks. During the start of the pandemic there was a hard lockdown while mostly people of color still worked and experienced a higher rate of death from COVID-19. The police were very present in the banlieues or outer suburbs where there are mostly people of color. Police killings were increasing, but it felt like we were not able to politically respond to what the government was doing.
The uprising in the U.S. — the response to George Floyd’s murder — was unexpected. We [hadn’t dared to] hope that this uprising would happen in our time in the world of capitalism. We were translating some texts and realized, “we have enough texts, we have to make something.” We decided to widen the project’s focus to include the legacy of Black struggles in abolitionist organizing. We also added a chapter on feminism and abolition because in both the U.S. and France, carceral feminism plays a big part in criminalizing people of color and deepening racist state practices.
We made this book during the fall of 2020 and we printed it in May 2021: an intense six months. Our collective is mostly activists and non-professional translators — we are not writers, and we are not attached to any university. Our name, Matsuda, is a bit of an internal joke about our group being imposters — not experts at translation or editing. (Matsuda references a martial artist in Japan who excelled but was never formally taught.) Someone in the collective made the graphics for the book. Collectivity throughout the process was really important.
During the book tour throughout France and Belgium, we came to really appreciate the political education workshops that are done in the U.S., which we don’t have much of in France. We recognize the importance of creating spaces to dialogue about policing and to make abolition less taboo. Running workshops was the most pleasant thing to do during the tour.
Mostly activists went to our events. People were happy to do workshops because created openings for people to think about making material changes, beyond the world of ideas. We would have liked to get out of the activist world and go to other places for young people.
SL: Is there any feedback from the carceral feminist networks in France? In the U.S., in particular over the last five years, some mainstream anti-violence organizations are interested in abolition, while there is also a total retrenchment and backlash, especially around challenges to policing.
Chris: I would say it’s quite the same in France…. Transformative justice is opening up places on the left, but [some] radical feminists still distrust people who want to hold someone who caused harm accountable outside of jails. Feminist spaces are just beginning to talk about abolition as well as transformative justice — a move led by small networks such as Mwasi-Collectif Afroféministe, a Black feminist abolitionist collective. Another small collective of queer people in Paris actually does transformative justice sexual assault processes for queer people only, Collectif Fracas. Both Fracas and Mwasi have done a great job creating resources and opportunities for political education. [Collectif Cases Rebelles is another majority people of color network producing strong abolitionist political education materials in France.]
Erica Meiners: What is the next work for Matsuda?
Chris: The first step was to translate and to write the book and then we wanted to come and to see the work with our own eyes.
EM: Lots of problems here. [all laugh] Also, there is joy and things are messy.
Klara: We wanted to know what does a collective look like and…
Chris: What’s the reality of the movement.
Klara: Yeah, what’s the reality of the propaganda. We want to see how people organize, do they have physical places and how do they feel? This is the first step. The second step is that it is two years after the uprising which brought huge hope to a lot of people and moved abolition to the front seat. Two years later, where is the movement and this hope?
Chris: Everybody’s in despair or what?
Klara: We are going to at least four different cities to try to meet people and ask them all kinds of questions and also to just look around at organizations and organizing. If there are enough materials, maybe we will translate and create a booklet or something.
Chris: Certainly we will remain alert and keep feeding the abolitionist network in France. We will keep being in touch and be able to translate materials when it’s important. Some people in France do find it easier to focus on the U.S. because it’s elsewhere. It’s not our country and it’s not our history. We look from the outside, so it’s easier. We are saying, “This is not the French history. We are not just going to copy what people are doing in the U.S.” Rather we bring these abolitionist materials to France to help us think but not just to “copy and paste.”
EM: Whether we are paid “officially” to do organizing work or not, many of us struggle to integrate abolitionist principles and practices into our daily lives. Can you just talk a little bit about your day-to-day lives? Does it connect to this abolitionist work?
Klara: Good question. I’ve got two main things in my everyday life. I am a midwife, and also, we have a place with my political friends with whom I organize. It’s in the center of the city. It’s quite a big place. We just bought it last year. Nobody’s a paid worker here, but we sell hot/cold food, beverages and stuff like that to make money, both to have the place and to be able to make money for the struggles of different collectives…. We have public events like book talks and discussions, stuff like that — where people engage struggles.
Chris: It’s a place of community organizing.
Klara: Yeah, it’s a place of community organizing — I should call it that. We don’t call it that in France.
It is important for us to have an everyday place where people we are connected with can meet to eat together, to have a drink, to share something, because if not, our lives are too separate and too individual. In the back room, we have a lending library.
This is one of my main activities. The second one is midwifery. I’ve been a midwife for two years — I am just starting. This work is very important to me. I support women to give birth as they want, often a home birth, which is difficult in France. I am a part of a small group of midwives. We are not in the same city, but we are not very far apart. We try to meet twice, three times a year and to exchange ideas about our practice. It is important not to be alone in a practice. For me, it’s not politically directed or linked to the rest of my work, but these are also my friends and my political connections, so it’s a kind of community work.
Chris: For my day job, I am a social worker with asylum seekers, but this not my area of expertise — I didn’t study to be this. As my main activity, for the past few years I have been involved in a collective, a non-professional political education group, a free school of philosophy. Actually, in the past three or four years, a few other autonomous schools have started from our political network. We met together during our studies and decided we wanted to keep practicing together, but not in the university. Regularly throughout the year we have regular classes, but also lots and lots of discussion, in small groups. One weekend per month we gather together — 50 or 60 of us.
We’ve discussed situated knowledges. We’ve done informal chats about feminism in part because of sexual assaults in our communities and we have also studied some very, very abstract stuff, like contemporary political theory. I want it to keep going.
This year we are doing some background thinking about institutions, and how to make things last. And that’s also why we are interested in organizational structures in the abolitionist movement. How can we defeat institutions like the justice system, or schools, and still be capable of offering something else and not just destruction? Fighting the state or big institutions with small and community-based institutions is hard. We reflect about it in an abstract way, but our day-to-day practices link to this question.
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