Skip to content Skip to footer

To Build an Abolitionist Future, We Must Look to Indigenous Pasts

Worlds without police and without prisons have already existed, predating colonization and slavery.

Part of the Series

The movement to abolish systems of policing and prisons is often discredited as an unfeasible, utopian notion that is not possible in the context of human “nature.” We live in a violent society built from the violence of settler colonialism, slavery and patriarchy. The violence of this system and its origins make the violence of police and prisons seem necessary to many.

When I talk about abolishing the police and prisons, I’m often met with the same question: How is abolition possible in a world where people enact harm and violence on one another all the time? I understand how the notion of busting open the prison doors tomorrow and dismantling police forces seems like a tall order, but as Angela Davis reminds us, “Abolition is not primarily a negative strategy. It’s not primarily about dismantling, getting rid of, but it’s about re-envisioning. It’s about building anew.”

To abolish prisons would mean shifting the carceral paradigms, frameworks and ideologies that operate in the world around us, and take root within us and our individual actions. It means reflecting on the ways we, as individuals and communities, perpetuate punishment and exclusion in our daily interactions and redefining what safety and security means to us beyond the parameters of systems steeped in violence. To abolish police would mean shifting our culture and our society in a way that prioritizes addressing the root causes of violence, rather than waiting until violence has occurred to punish it. It would mean funding programs and structures that support our collective well-being so that violence no longer happens in the same ways. There can be no abolition without land sovereignty. Abolition is not possible without racial or economic justice. To begin the process of building anew, abolition requires established structures of communal care, support, mutual aid and holistic approaches to healing. Indigenous cosmologies and practices can help guide our processes of reenvisioning a future without prisons and policing in theory and in practice. Abolition is not only a future possibility, it is a lineage of ancestral practices. Worlds without police and without prisons have already existed, predating colonization and slavery.

Prisons and Police Are Not Solutions

In her book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Davis writes, “Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the only human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.” In the same way that prisons do not disappear the problems they perpetuate, police may arrest people, but they do not stop crime. The system of policing works in tandem with the structures of incarceration to disappear people, but neither the police nor prisons disrupt the cycles of violence and trauma that create these issues in the first place.

A report published last year by Catalyst California and the ACLU of Southern California found that despite annual budgetary increases, police departments don’t actually solve the majority of violent crimes. The data showed that police often spend the majority of their time “conducting racially biased stops and searches of minority drivers, often without reasonable suspicion, rather than ‘fighting crime.’” In The Condemnation of Blackness, Khalil Gibran Muhammad traces the origins of modern policing as a strategy to criminalize newly emancipated Black people. And today, the U.S. carceral system continues to function primarily as a way to criminalize people at the intersections of marginalized identities of race, class and gender.

Frameworks of abolition show us how prisons and police don’t actually solve, or even prevent, our most pressing issues. When we shift our understanding to reflect this, we see how obsolete prisons and policing already are. But creating a future without prisons and policing requires a complete reconceptualization of ourselves, our relationships to one another, our individual complicity in upholding violent systems and our collective responsibility to build systems that promote the healing and well-being of our communities. Returning to the wisdoms and practices of our ancestors can hold powerful clues to our own process of reconceptualizing and re-envisioning society.

Ancestral Constellations of Abolition

In the same way that so many of my realities were the wildest dreams of my ancestors who were enslaved, many of my ancestors who predated slavery and colonization experienced my wildest dreams as their realities. I used to imagine a future without prisons or police as a sort of Afrofuturist fiction, until I stumbled upon the book that would show me not only how realistic and possible this sort of world was, but that it had, in fact, existed before.

There can be no abolition without land sovereignty. Abolition is not possible without racial or economic justice.

In African Cosmology of the Bântu-Kôngo: Tying the Spiritual Knot, Principles of Life and Living, Kimwandende Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau explores many of the abolitionist and anti-capitalist ideas I saw as an elusive future horizon. The frameworks and ideas of abolition were integral to many Indigenous cosmologies and precolonial societies and the ways people understood themselves and their communities. Within the belief systems of the Bântu-Kôngo, “crime” was not considered an individual act but a symptom of a failing system and a product of the collective social, cultural, economic and environmental shortcomings of a society and its values. Fu-Kiau describes his earliest understanding of his community’s Indigenous cosmologies and the ways they shaped his daily reality:

I grew up in a village of at least 1,000 inhabitants.… There was not a single policeman, the jail was unknown, no secret agent, i.e., a people’s watchdog. It did not have a bureau of investigation, no sentry to watch on people’s goods.… Everybody felt responsible for everyone else in the community and its neighborhood. When a community member suffered, it was the community as a whole who suffered.

The Bântu-Kôngo were able to exist without the presence of prisons or policing by integrating systems of collective care into their communities which addressed the root cause of any potential transgressions. Fu-Kiau describes “crime,” from the perspective of the Bântu-Kôngo, as something that “is possible to eradicate … from human society.” Contrast that with our current carceral system, which places the impetus for crime on the individual. The Indigenous, ancestral cosmologies of the Bântu-Kôngo accepted the responsibility for crimes committed as evidence of a failure in how their society cared for and affirmed the well-being of the individuals who committed the crimes. Fu-Kiau juxtaposes these precolonial cosmologies with the implementation of Western systems of law and punishment across Africa. He critiques the Eurocentric policy shifts of larger cities in the region, but notes that in many rural communities, like the one he grew up in, precolonial concepts, and abolitionist principles, were still visible practices throughout the 20th century.

Bantu cosmologies regarded private land ownership and excessive wealth at “[a] level of accumulation [that] cannot come without exploitation” as the most serious crime. To the Bântu-Kôngo, “land was inalienable” and the property of the community to be used “in service of all community members.” Because land was considered a collective asset and not the property of any one individual, the private ownership and sale of land was forbidden. It was the community’s responsibility to support the economic, social, mental, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being of all community members, to engender a sense of belonging and being that opposed the sort of systemic violence and exploitation which creates crime in the first place. By doing this, cycles of harm could be avoided.

Shifting the paradigm from Western concepts of “crime” as an individual act, which emerged directly from the violence of colonization and slavery, to more ancestral understandings of transgression as a symptom of a society’s collective shortcomings repositions the abolition of prisons and policing as a tangible possibility in the future we will build together.

In the Indigenous practices of the Ogu (or Egun) people of Benin, Togo and Nigeria, the Zangbeto was a spiritual force that took up the task of protecting individuals and communities. Within this spiritual framework, there was no need for formalized prisons or police. In precolonial social systems, the Zangbeto functioned as a spiritual force of protection, community accountability and mutual aid. Despite the expansion of Westernized carceral systems, the Zangbeto still maintains a cultural presence in many of the region’s rural communities today. Of course, the reliance on a sort of spiritual safety team depends on shared practices, and we live in a diverse tapestry of spiritual ideas and perspectives. I’m not advocating for adopting such practices, but the legacy of the Zangbeto is another example of the ways Indigenous cosmologies and societies reenvisioned community, safety and harm-reduction from a perspective that supported the collective well-being and integrative care necessary to prevent harm instead of focusing on carceral logics of punishment which encourage violence.

Shifting Culture Towards Abolition

We should blame the patriarchy for sexual assault as much as any individual. We should blame structures of economic oppression and exploitation for any theft as much as any individual. We should blame a culture that lauds guns and promotes images of violence in the media while ignoring the mental health of its citizens for any mass shooting as much as any individual. The crimes we fear the most are direct consequences of a society that perpetuates violent ideologies and hierarchies. This system and the ideals and culture it perpetuates are complicit in all the crimes it condemns.

We make systems like prisons and policing obsolete by making the conditions of the violence those systems uphold and perpetuate unimaginable. These Indigenous cosmologies didn’t rely on prisons as a punitive reaction to harm or the violence of policing to induce a logic of fear. Instead, they emphasized building societal structures that supported the well-being of individuals so that there was no need or desire to perpetuate harm on others or to replicate harm perpetuated on oneself.

Reenvisioning and co-creating a society where individuals had the support to not replicate harm and trauma was a collective responsibility and spiritual imperative. In our present context, there’s an immensity of trauma and harm to heal from in this process of eradicating violence from our society. Abolition is not just a political idea; it requires a process of cosmological transformation that is both individual and collective. If we shifted our perspectives to recognize crime, harm and violence as evidence of a system’s failings, and created systems that support our well-being, healing and care, what reenvisioning could we do? What new systems could we build? What “constellation of alternative strategies and institutions,” as Davis describes it, might be possible?

Many of our ancestors have already lived versions of our liberated futures. When we remember this, we understand no matter how far away they may seem now, our present dreams are inherited wisdoms. It becomes that much easier to imagine a future without prisons or police once we realize the pasts that have already existed. Abolition requires dismantling systems of oppression in their entirety. It also requires a community that is willing to address harm at its root causes, not merely penalize it after it happens. Abolition depends on a collective sense of accountability and responsibility. Abolition pushes us to transform our relationships to one another and return the Kimuntu, “the state of being human.” From the perspective of Bântu-Kôngo cosmologies, a society without prisons and policing is not an impossibly utopic future dream, it is a tangible preexisting reality and ancestral wisdom which has been practiced for centuries.

An abolitionist future is not a utopia where issues or conflicts never arise. It is a paradigm where communities come together to address any harm that has occurred from the root cause to ensure that it does not happen again. It may be a long and arduous road to creating an abolitionist society in practice, and accepting and embracing the transformations it requires of us as individuals and collectives. But don’t think for one minute it isn’t possible when it has already existed before.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $13,000. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.