“There’s no doubt that we have to abolish the carceral state. And there’s no doubt that policing and racial capitalism go hand in hand so that we can’t be pursuing abolition in a capitalist context,” says author and organizer Andrea Ritchie. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Ritchie and host Kelly Hayes talk about why the Democrats will not save us, the relationship between abolition and the state, and why it’s so hard for most people to imagine political transformations.
Music by Son Monarcas and Imprismed
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity, and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. Imagining the world we want is complex work, especially on the edge of so much disaster. As organizers, we need to envision the world we hope to inhabit, so that we might build it together. In these times, most people are clinging to the status quo and holding on for dear life, so if we want to call people toward something else, that has to involve more than uncertainty, because uncertainty scares the shit out of people. It’s important to have a concept of what we are fighting for, even if that concept involves some contradictions. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore has pointed out, if we embrace the idea of Indigenous sovereignty, for example, and also demand a world without borders, that’s a contradiction. We won’t refine or expand our politics by ignoring contradictions, but by exploring them, and turning them over in our minds and dialogues until we arrive at ideas worth inhabiting and pursuing together. So we are going to talk through some of that exploratory work today, as I resume my conversation with Andrea Ritchie, co-author of No More Police: A Case for Abolition, and co-founder of the Interrupting Criminalization initiative.
Before we dive into these more theoretical questions, I want to talk a bit about what just happened with the 2022 midterm elections, which went poorly for the Republicans, thank god. Because there are some connections to be made here. The fact that Republicans did not see a “red wave,” as many predicted, has led to waves of relief among liberals, some of whom have declared that Joe Biden is actually a political genius after all. Unfortunately, all of those sentiments are misplaced. While I don’t begrudge anyone a bit of relief, we are still dealing with the rise of global fascism, and if the Republicans oust Trump as the party’s unofficial leader, that means Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is positioned to ascend. Unlike Trump, DeSantis does not have a staunch base of national opposition that is entrenched in its hatred of him. Most people don’t really know who the guy is. We have discussed DeSantis in previous episodes, and I really recommend checking out my conversation with Melissa Gira Grant — an episode called “As Attacks on Queer and Trans People Accelerate, We Need Solidarity Now” — to learn more about him. For now, it’s important to understand that he’s actually more dangerous than Trump, because he understands how to leverage state power. DeSantis does not have an entrenched opposition, at the national level, and unlike Trump, he is picking up steam.
DeSantis also has a veneer of respectability, which can be disarming to liberals. When I look back at the Trump administration, and I think about how many liberal fits were thrown over matters of respectability and decorum, I worry that they will not be appropriately afraid of men like DeSantis, who are unlikely to engage in Trump’s more childish antics. I also see the mainstream media working to rehabilitate Republicans who have begun to distance themselves from Trump. For example, a recent op-ed in the Washington Post claimed that, as a Republican presidential candidate, DeSantis would represent “a return to normality.” As Zack Beauchamp recently wrote in Vox, DeSantis represents “an evolution of Trumpism, a new way of channeling the illiberal populist forces unleashed by the former president’s rise to power in 2016.” It is deeply important that we understand that the same politics will be driving the Republican agenda, even if the party’s messaging is less overtly offensive. DeSantis has been a leader in the Republican crusade against trans people, and has championed the right-wing takeover of school boards. Now that he’s been reelected as Florida’s governor, legislators are expected to further restrict abortion in the state. While some Trumpian candidates lost big recently, we should take note of Chase Strangio’s recent warning published in Truthout that “Some of the most rabidly anti-trans politicians won reelection, paving the way for another year of anti-trans bills in state legislatures and a national landscape of anti-trans rhetoric in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. In other words, this election all but guaranteed the continuation of the most insidious governmental attacks on trans life at the state level.” Notably, the only library in Jamestown Charter Township, in Michigan, is slated to close because voters opted not to fund the library, due to its refusal to ban LGBTQ-related books. So it’s important to remember that those people, and that political energy, are still very much with us
The sudden praise of Biden’s political acumen reminds me of people who claimed that Biden ran a brilliant presidential campaign, when in reality, most people were actually voting against Trump, rather than voting for Biden. In this midterm, a lot of people were fired up about reproductive rights and fed up with MAGA politics. Even though Trump wasn’t on the ballot, many people saw themselves as voting against his comeback. Given that Republicans will continue to ramp up voter suppression — a strategy that predates Trump by more than a century — and that Joe Biden is definitely not a political genius, we need to understand that we are not safe from Republicans. Nor are we safe from Democrats, who have gutted COVID protections while throwing funding bonanzas for police, and who are doing their part to ensure the ongoing destruction of the biosphere. The Democrats are maintaining their legitimacy with a crusade for “normalcy” that has a massive body count. While neoliberal Democrats are less immediately terrifying than Republicans, we cannot afford any illusions about them, or what our situation demands. Above all, the neoliberal obsession with pouring vast amounts of money into police coffers, in response to any social crisis, points toward authoritarian outcomes in a world on fire.
Andrea Ritchie: Not only are the Democrats creating a culture of absolute and complete deference to the institutions and political power of police in all forms and really telling us that we will not succeed, we will not be able to survive, we will not be able to live without police and without police having absolute power or in ways unless we make sure that police are completely satisfied at all times and are never questioned and never challenged and never interfering with their morale by critiquing the violence that they engage in every day or suggesting that we might need resources for housing or healthcare or community needs instead of pouring them into police budgets. But I think Democrats are advancing fascism both by feeding the biggest institution of fascism, which is police, with more and more and more money, power and legitimacy, but also by creating this culture of profound and unquestioned deference to every demand that police make, every claim that police make, every feeling that police have or claim to have, and every vision that police have in terms of what is necessary to create safety. And that to me is paving the road towards fascism in ways that Democrats are certainly not acknowledging or taking responsibility for and which is an immediate cross purposes to the claim that they’re making to be the party fighting fascism.
KH: I read a book recently called A Theory of System Justification by John Jost that I think explains a lot about U.S. politics and why our movements struggle. Many of you will be familiar with Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, which attempts to describe how the values, perceptions and beliefs of a society are shaped and manipulated to reflect the “common sense” of the ruling class. System justification theory zeroes in on something more specific to human nature than the larger sphere of relations that Gramsci was summarizing, and suggests that many people, as Jost writes, “not just those at the top — have a psychological interest or motivation to uphold the legitimacy of the social system.”
System justification theory proposes that, “To varying degrees (based on dispositional and situational factors), people are motivated — whether consciously or nonconsciously — to defend, bolster, and justify aspects of existing social, economic, and political arrangements.”
Jost argues that such rationalizations are a palliative human impulse. To make life more bearable, we revise our perceptions, and sometimes, even our memories, to make the systems we feel dependent upon feel more fair, or at the very least, inevitable, and thus, not worth freaking out about. In the face of threats or uncertainty, our propensity to defend systems increases. This is especially true of marginalized people, because according to system justification theory, the more reliant upon a system we become, the more likely we are to justify it. This is a huge problem, whether we are barreling toward fascism or some neoliberal authoritarian nightmare.
AR: It’s the classic frog boiling to death in water as long as the temperature rises slowly enough. And it has felt throughout the previous administration and now that we’re in that kind of moment. And I think there was a moment, I’m trying to remember when it was, I think it was around the 2020 elections, when I realized that I was the only person in my organizing circle that had grown up for a short period of time in my childhood under dictatorship. And I was trying to tell people it doesn’t show up in epaulets and aviator glasses, always. People go about living their daily lives under fascistic regimes, under dictatorships. I went to school every day. I came home. I played with my friends. My parents would talk about the ways that repression was happening to people who were organizing against dictatorship, to people who were trying to engage in mutual aid or other forms of aid, would talk about the impacts on people around us.
And then people would go on about their lives trying to survive and trying to live them as normally as possible. And I think that’s the human condition. I mean, humans are incredibly adaptable to the worst of conditions. If you think of Albert Woodfox living  years in solitary, I’m not saying it’s okay, I’m saying he managed to find a way to survive that horror and that torture. And I think that that’s part of what is manifesting in the phenomenon that you’re describing is that humans adapt to survive. And the key is to interrupt the instinct towards normalization that makes us ignore suffering and mass death, whether it’s millions of people dying and sick and disabled and bereaved by this massive pandemic or the slow march of fascism that is pulling more and more people into increased suffering. And folks thinking, “So long as it doesn’t affect me, I’m going to try and normalize as much as possible and defend the status quo by saying it’s not happening.”
I literally remember having conversation with a fellow organizer around the 2020 elections who was like, “It’s not possible. It can’t happen here. A coup cannot happen here. I just trust that our institutions are strong enough to resist them.” And looking at them and saying, “People in my family who lived through the Pinochet coup said the same thing. They said as it was happening, people were like, ‘This can’t happen here. We’re a democracy in Latin America. We’re a shining light of freedom. This can’t happen here.'” It’s always “this can’t happen here” until it happens. And I think it’s one reason why we really need to expand our perspective as organizers in the United States beyond the United States. Because I think U.S. exceptionalism is not only something that the U.S. government engages in or that the right engages in, it’s something that the left engages in, in thinking that there are not lessons to learn about how fascism forms, strengthens, spreads, entrenches itself and becomes the fact of the day in ways that people in the U.S. just don’t think about and don’t think applies to this context.
So I think the interruption can come from looking to other places and hearing stories from other organizers who have experienced and people who have experienced U.S.-supported and -condoned fascist regime change, as they call it, and taking those lessons. And I think, again, the work that you’ve done around making space for people to really grieve the millions of deaths from COVID, making space for people, really to see what’s happening in real time, and to keep interrupting the normalization. I think someone made a joke on the internet that if the apocalypse happened and everyone was sent to hell that within three days people would be making memes about it. That it’s really this normalization inclination that you’re talking about that we need to interrupt with — and I don’t know that it’s constant reminders of how bad things are because I think that bumps up against this mechanism that you’re talking about that people have of trying to normalize to survive, to try and normalize to adapt, to try and normalize to make it to the next day and then defend what is because it’s better than what could be or because that makes us feel more normal.
I think it has to be some other kind of interruption that keeps us focused on what kind of society we want and what kind of world we want to live in. And then the contrast between that and the world that is manifesting in front of us, I think that’s maybe where the shaking the frog out of its stupor might be able to happen. Where we say, what kind of world do you want to be in? Does this look like that? And if not, then what are you doing to ensure that it looks more like the world you want? And I’m hoping that that’s maybe some way that we can jar people out of this system defense status quo acclimation that you’re talking about that is actually how fascism is able to exist, is able to rise and establish itself in a way that is not the overnight, I woke up one day and the world was incredibly different scenario that people imagine.
KH: I think it’s deeply important that people understand that “normalcy,” whether it’s being packaged and sold by Democrats or Republicans, can only end in catastrophe for us, and for life on earth. The fact that one path is worse than the other should not legitimize the Democrats or make neoliberalism acceptable in our minds, although I know that happens. Environmentally and otherwise, we have a lot of catastrophe ahead of us, no matter what choices we make from here, but the terms under which we will experience those catastrophes, politically, are not set in stone. But we are conditioned to believe that they are, and to give up on each other as the system dictates.
In A Theory of System Justification, Jost explains that research participants who learned about a woman’s suffering, but were denied any means of intervening or assisting, were more likely to blame the woman for her plight and insult her character than participants who were offered some means of helping the woman. Such studies suggest that people are “generally threatened by the presence of injustice” and may be motivated to restore justice. But, Jost writes, if they are prevented from doing so:
They will engage in mental gymnastics (such as rationalization) to deny or minimize the unjust event. When opportunities to help are blocked, people are prone to derogate those who are impoverished, unlucky, and unemployed; those who are sick with cancer, pneumonia, and HIV; and victims of sexual assault, spousal abuse, and electric shock.
We have all seen what this looks like. The devaluation of those who are left behind, the inability to imagine different ways of living in relation to each other. When the status quo becomes an electrified fence, we are conditioned to blame people for colliding with the fence, rather than trying to cut the power.
With so many imaginations trapped in this cycle, it is imperative that we imagine other ways of living. We must dream new worlds into being, and we must rehearse and prefigure the worlds we want, so that others might believe in their possibility. But those conversations can get dicey, even among abolitionists, since some abolitionists believe some version of a nation state will be necessary, to administer justice in a post-capitalist world, and some believe that the construct of the nation state is incompatible with life on earth. That’s why I was really excited that Andrea and Mariame Kaba so ambitiously took on the subject of abolition’s relationship to the state in their book, No More Police.
AR: That was definitely one of the hardest parts of the book to write and really required both of us to dig deep. We both came up in communist socialist traditions, and particularly the time I spent with Insight on the national leadership body of INCITE! and in the INCITE! community really helped me see the state as a central organizer of gender-based violence, not only in terms of the police violence against Black women, girls, queer and trans people and women, girls, trans people of color that I’ve been documenting the last 30 years, but in many other ways of the work of Beth Richie and many of the Black feminists who co-founded INCITE! or were part of INCITE! Illustrates. And so I think that had me start to question the state in and of itself as something that we want to capture and repurpose.
And what also had me questioning that is the last 60 years of efforts to do that, including in places where I was an active supporter of anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa and the struggles in Nicaragua, El Salvador and elsewhere. And I think there’s just been an evolution in thinking around the notion that we can capture a carceral state and repurpose it in some way. And as you say, not all abolitionists agree on this point at all. In fact, we’re all in very deep conversation or thought about it, or at least we should be. And I do think the uprisings of 2020 really forced us to confront those questions very quickly because as the demand to defund police and fund community safety initiatives gained traction across the mainstream, then the question was, well, what are we funding as a community safety initiative?
Do we want public housing which has policing thread all the way through it? Or do we want some other kind of housing? Do we want health care that embodies other forms of policing and punishment and containment and surveillance and control or do we want something else that’s rooted in community and care? Do we want to move money from one state department to another that might engage in policing in different forms or do we want to move it into the community? And then how, when we move it into the community, do we not then have our community organizations be conscripted to the work of the carceral state, right? Yes, you can have your violence interruption program in the community, but you have to work with the cops, you have to respond with the cops, you have to give the cops all the information about all the people in your community.
You have to basically be an arm of surveillance of the state in order to get this money. Well, now we’ve expanded the carceral state, we haven’t shrunk it. So the question of what our demands were. The other question that came up was how closely do we want to get involved in the workings of the state? Because many cities responded to demands to defund police by establishing public safety task forces. And people in many places thought, “Well, the strategy is for us to get the organizers on the task forces and get these task forces to advance our agendas.” And Interrupting Criminalization has a publication called Navigating Public Safety Task Forces, which documents some of the lessons, pros and cons of that. But what some folks felt like is that one way the state captured the energy of the movement and dissipated it, which is what capitalism does, is it absorbs and saves itself from the challenges that are presented to it, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore teaches us.
People were like, “Oh, now we’ve just been conscripted to being functionaries of the carceral state in our task force.” Or as Woods Ervin says, “Task forces are where abolitionist dreams go to die.” And that’s where they sent us. So the question really came up for people very immediately and very concretely in the 2020 uprisings. And that’s why we spent time with it in the book. I think it is important to recognize that the state is not one thing. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore remind us in Restating the Obvious, it’s a collection of institutions that are made up of people. And there are visions of the world that are being contested and enacted in the relationships between those people, within those institutions and the relationships, the polity with those institutions. We all are very much shaped by the notion of the state that has been given to us that has evolved co-terminusly with racial capitalism, settler colonialism and chattel slavery. Western states, the U.S. nation state, carceral states. And we have also combined the notion of nation and state, which Indigenous peoples have nations that operate differently and not to essentialize Indigenous peoples, but there are ways in which Indigenous nations operate as a collective polity without necessarily operating as a carceral nation state. And so we have to be open to… And I’m talking Indigenous peoples in North America, but also there are historical examples around the world.
And so we have to really question what we think of as the state and what the functions are that the state performs that we think should be collectively performed and which we don’t and whether it’s possible for those to be performed without policing or if the function of a state is to sort people and distribute resources accordingly, which requires to some degree some policing at the very least by the existence of a border around the state that determines who’s a citizen, who’s not, who’s in or who’s out, who benefits from what the state is redistributing, who doesn’t. Also questions about what the state is redistributing because what they’re redistributing is taxes, and that is what corporations or individuals pay into. And a lot of that is obtained through extraction and stolen wages. So there’s a question about what the state is, whether it’s possible for the state to not be carceral, whether it’s possible for the state to be the mechanism through which our abolitionist dreams, the system of governance through which our abolitionist dreams are realized.
And we have to figure out what our relationship is to it in the long term. And in the book and I think in our organizing, we’re really inspired by folks in the Global South who have been tackling and grappling with this question for decades and have advanced a framework. And this came out of resistance in Chile to the Pinochet regime and neoliberal policies. It came out of Zapatista uprising. It came out of folks in uprisings in Brazil and Argentina and elsewhere. But really just thinking about having multiple relationships to the state. To saying we are going to practice new forms of governance and we don’t need to be stuck in this “it’s socialism or anarchism.” We can practice new forms of governance that take the best from multiple ideologies and traditions and also allow something completely different to emerge. Because it may be that abolition requires something that we can’t imagine yet, but that we just have to practice our way too in terms of forms of governance and social and economic relations.
But we need space beyond the carceral state to practice those things. And we need the resources that the carceral state has stolen from us in order to do that. So we need to find a way to contend with that carceral state for power to extract resources and power from it. And we need to defend our experiments. So we need to move beyond the state, against the state and to the extent that we’re going into the state to try and make the conditions more favorable to the worlds that we’re building. And also to pull the resources and power out of it, we are acting within the state. And Mijente has a fantastic video that articulates this framework. Paula Rojas, a former member of INCITE! who has very shaped my thinking around this, has a great article about it. But that’s the framework that we adopt.
We come to the conclusion that there’s no doubt that we have to abolish the carceral state. And there’s no doubt that policing and racial capitalism go hand in hand so that we can’t be pursuing abolition in a capitalist context. And then beyond that, we really want to be open to what the possibilities are that are unfolding now everywhere that create new possibilities for living otherwise and for building the world that we all long for. And that’s where we land. But we’re hopefully going to have more resources for folks to think through these questions in their groups, in their organizing, because these are questions we need to grapple with. And literally, it becomes the core question very quickly. We write in the book about being at a gathering in January of 2020 about, that we co-organized that was thinking about where movements to defund, abolish police were at that time.
Interesting, in January, 2020, we were like, “Oh, we’re a long way. There’s a lot we need to do to align around this and do it.” And then it was different five months later. But very quickly within the first three hours of the meeting, the question came down to, this is about what is the role of the state? What do we need to regulate? What do we think needs to be regulated, how, and by who? How do we think resources should be distributed? How do we think we should be in relationship with each other? So it was basic things like people were saying, “Yeah, we need to civilianize things like enforcing park rules.” Well, but do those rules need to exist and do they need to be enforced? Or is there some other way that we can be around shared public spaces together that isn’t about, well maybe it’s not a cop and it’s somebody wearing a different uniform, but they’re still going to move the unhoused person out of the park who’s sleeping there.
Or they’re still going to say you can’t do X, Y, Z in the park as a young person, be loud in the park or whatever and we’re still going to remove you from that or try and control or contain your behavior in some way. And there was a plethora of other examples of things that people were trying to civilianize enforcement to instead of questioning whether there should be a regulation or enforcement at all, and what purpose and relations of power that regulation enforcement served. And whether they were consistent with the world that we were, in our imagination sessions, dreaming. And I think that’s really where we need to be in deep conversations with ourselves and each other to really think about and practice governance and social and economic relations in ways that, again, require us to really unseat the ways that policing is embedded in every way that we think of how to engage with each other in the world around us.
KH: There are a lot of takes on this subject among abolitionists, and we are going to be hearing more on this topic when Robyn Maynard and Leanne Simpson join us to discuss their book Rehearsals for Living, which is highly critical of the state as a political construct. I think that both Rehearsals for Living and No More Police make invaluable contributions to abolitionist dialogues about the state and what it means to envision abolitionist futures.
One of the concepts Mariame and Andrea explore will be familiar to some of our listeners, who may have checked out our episode with Brendan McQuade back in February, “Abolition Means Reclaiming the Commons and Rejecting Securitization.” In that episode, Brendan talked about the idea of “commoning against security.” The term “the commons” refers to cultural, social and material resources that are available to everyone. It’s an idea that is often misconstrued in our times. For example, Twitter has sometimes been referred to as the “digital commons,” but as recent events have illustrated, social media is a commercial space. Even though we have often utilized it as a town square, the infrastructure of the app has always belonged to wealthy actors. That infrastructure is now owned by a maniacal billionaire with delusions of grandeur, who seems bent on eviscerating the social gains of marginalized writers, activists, and others who have built a platform on Twitter. His ability to do so is a reminder of the distinction between the commons and the commercial spaces we tend to move through.
Part of our mission, therefore, must be the reclamation and recreation of the commons — both in-person and in the digital world. As Brendan explained on the show, capitalism shreds “communal practices into alienated drudgery.” Capitalism generates insecurity and isolates us from one another, and tells us that, as Brendan says, “the whole of society exists only in order to guarantee to each of its members the preservation of his person, his rights, his property.” So a force that generates insecurity, and frames every crisis as a question of insecurity — such as being food insecure, as opposed to hungry, or housing insecure, as opposed to in need of a home — promises us “security” as a larger solution. But the systems of surveillance and control that are generated in the name of security do not actually resolve our troubles. They simply stabilize the capitalist system and enforce its norms, as needed.
As Mariame and Andrea write in No More Police:
Rebuilding the commons doesn’t mean expanding institutions of soft policing in the name of building up “the public sector.” Instead, it means abolishing the social order that privatizes and polices the commons so that we can build a new society and forms of governance that will reinstate the commons and grow it sustainably.
AR: One thing we talk about in the “Experiment and Build” chapter, and I think this is really important to the question of the role of the state, is that we recognize that there are state institutions like public schools for instance, that Black people have fought for and that have been essential as spaces of not only education, but of community building and shaping our communities. And that’s the reason — and shaping who we are as people, right? Because that’s what education does. And that is why the right wing is very much focused on public schools and contending for power around what’s taught in them, who teaches in them and who controls them. And so in this world of thinking about the role of the state, we don’t want to withdraw from the state such that the right and the powers of fascism can take over the institutions like public schools and then destroy them, which is their goal.
And so we do want to think about which institutions we want to fight for and fight to expel police and policing from in order to practice the new world. So in other words, we don’t need to be doing that always outside of existing institutions, that in fact there are institutions that exist now that we want to fight in and against. So we want to do that in schools, we want to do that in libraries, we want to do that in parks, we want to do that in … So there’s just an invitation to look where the right is contesting for power, because that’s a good indicator of where we need to also be looking and not abandoning the resources and the possibilities and the community access that those spaces can provide to liberatory possibilities. And to be sure that we’re fighting for the resources and spaces that those institutions create.
And I do absolutely appreciate Brendan’s interventions and we were in dialogue a great deal around writing particularly this part of the book around commoning against security. And I think this question that we were talking about earlier around safety, that what the state sells us is security, which is a different thing and is policing, is violence, and that we need to create the relative safety or what Mariame’s pushing us to think of as individual wellbeing, because safety is delusory and relational and conditional, to really think about that as the source of safety lying in our relationships with each other and in our shared resources. And that the only way that we’re going to survive the very real climate apocalypse that we are living in, the very real collapse of the structures and systems that we believe keep us safe is in each other and in learning how to meet our needs, share resources, do that in a way that is sustainable for each other and the planet we are on.
And that is what Brendan describes as commoning against security. And I love that framing as well. And I think it does sound like a lot of political traditions, and I know Brendan’s very rooted in one in particular, but it’s one that I think all of us can step into to think about what are the conditions, what are the processes, what are the individual and collective transformations we need to be organizing towards every day that make that more and more possible. And that for me is a point of hopeful entry. That for me is a place of creativity and of possibility that just opens doors beyond the fatalism and nihilism or doing of the same thing we’ve always done without different results that we get trapped in sometimes. So I really feel like that opens doors and possibilities that we need to fully step into in order to get to the abolitionist futures we’re longing for.
KH: I am so in love with the idea of “commoning against security” and have been since the first time Brendan mentioned it to me in a DM on Twitter, after we had both attended a webinar about abolition and the state. I think these conversations are important and I hope we keep having them. Ruth Wilson Gilmore tells us that “freedom is a place” — and that it is “the place we make.” We are not all in agreement about what that place should look like, or how it should function, but personally, I am excited that people are trying. These are discouraging times, in many ways. But the fact that there are people who recognize the severity of our situation who are not rationalizing the status quo or retreating into their own lives, and who are out here taking risks to model new ways of living, gives me a lot of hope. Because if there’s one thing we cannot afford in these times, it’s fatalism.
AR: It’s so interesting to me, I’m trying to remember if it was Alexis Pauline Gumbs or Alexis De Veaux who wrote about this, or probably both of them. But I was always struck by the fact that Audre Lorde was in St. Croix at the time of a serious hurricane, and it was at a time when she had stopped treatment for breast cancer and was in the final years of her life. And everyone really tried to pressure her to leave the island at the time because there were food shortages. She describes water in their house and around them and everywhere. And it just seemed like why would someone in late stage cancer stay in an environment where there wasn’t regular power, electricity, ability to keep medications cold, just all the aftermath of a devastating hurricane? She chose to stay there. And they talk about how that decision was informed by her desire to live through that moment and the possibilities it created and her excitement at seeing how communities were coming together and caring for each other without resources in what for them was an apocalypse at the moment.
Their houses had been destroyed, their streets, their community, their infrastructure, and they were without aid for the most part. And she wanted in the final years of her life to witness that, to be part of that, to see that and to experience it. And that was something that she actively chose against great resistance from everyone who cared about her. And that always struck me. And when we’re thinking about this question of what comes when everything we know falls apart and how that had her living in a different imagination than the one that all of the stories that we’re talking about, the Lord of the Flies, “The Yellowjackets,” The Purge, all of those things would have us believe. And so it was that, what you call “a jailbreak of the imagination” in your piece with Mariame Kaba that Audre Lorde manifested in that moment has always really struck me and inspired me.
KH: Like Andrea, I take a lot of inspiration from Audre Lorde’s decision to remain in St. Croix. As someone who has always been in love with possibility, it’s a choice that resonates with me. I think of organizers today as builders in an era of collapse, and I find hope in that conception of us. But not everyone has that worldview. In fact, a lot of people are quite attached to the idea that the system can work, and that if we support the right politicians, they will do the right things, and everything will be okay.
To circle back to the relief some liberals are currently experiencing, and the post-midterm lauding of Biden, we need to understand what’s being reinforced here. Because neoliberalism is always setting the table for fascism or plain old authoritarianism. In a time of mass catastrophe and mass migration, the capitalist system needs us to be increasingly tolerant of the mass disposal of other human beings. In the past, much of that disposal was outsourced to distant lands — where governments extend fewer protections to people, land, water, and animals — or concealed behind the walls of prisons, jails and detention centers. Now, it also looks like us being told there’s no need to wear masks, and that we should live our lives as normal, with hospitals full of children with COVID and RSV, and a medical system that’s falling apart. It also looks like the increased criminalization of homelessness. Escalations of human disposal as a normative practice, in plain sight, are inevitable under this system, and the powerful want us to remain indifferent. And their tactics, which are aimed at eroding our sense of empathy, and making unnecessary, premature deaths seem so inevitable that we play along, without argument, appear to be working.
The project of getting us to care less and less about each other, is proceeding apace, because it’s a bipartisan effort. It has to be, because whatever else they might prefer or claim to champion, both parties are tasked with the maintenance of capitalism, and that means cutting a lot of losses. From COVID deaths to imprisoned people or folks who are left to die at the border, they need us to care less and less about what happens. They need us to justify the system.
So what gets people to break free of system-justifying ideas? Jost is not a terribly optimistic guy, but he does state that group justification, or “motives to defend and bolster personal and collective interests and esteem” can, at times, overwhelm system justification. A sense that change is inevitable, or the argument that some cherished aspect of society is actually being preserved by a campaign for justice, can also help overcome or leverage system justifying attitudes. In my mind, the goal is creating a collective “us” that people want to be part of. According to Jost, people justify systems in order to satisfy epistemic, existential and relational needs. If that’s true, to have a hope in hell of succeeding, our movements will have to help people navigate uncertainty, help people feel safe and establish a sense of belonging. Because we are competing with a palliative tendency that is psychologically harmful to marginalized people in the long run, as Jost spells out in his book, but very appealing in the short term. We need a deep investment in one another to beat that.
We are living through apocalyptic events, and we are going to need to ramp up our communication and conflict resolution skills if we have any hope of creating that kind of mass collectivity. As I told a young friend recently, safety is the product of our mutual investment in collective survival. When people see that, feel that, and experience that, it’s a game changer, but are we building enough containers for those experiences? As Mariame says, we need a million experiments. And we need to think strategically.
AR: I was in a workshop recently that I think was put on by ACRE [Action Center on Race and the Economy] and they were talking about the long game. And it was a question to defund organizers of what is your long game beyond this budget season, beyond moving some money from the police budget to some community based program that’s going to increase safety? What’s your long game vision? And part of the presentation involved the people on the left hand side, and then there was a donkey and an elephant in the middle, and then there was corporations on the right hand side. And they were making the point that people are trying to affect the donkey and the elephant in the middle when in fact the next slide evaporates the donkey and the elephant and shows the forces behind that sort of play that’s happening up front stage, what the play is behind the stage.
And that if we really want to think about what our long game is, we need to look past the donkey and the elephant to the puppeteers who are playing them or at the play that’s happening behind the play that’s really shaping the plot of the play in front of us to carry that metaphor forward. And so I think, to the point that you and I were talking about earlier about police power, we have to look past this politician or this party or this play. It’s an important thing that’s happening, but it’s not the whole thing. And that we have to look at police power as police power and police power as power that is being exercised in service of racial capitalism. And think about how we’re targeting and contending with and against those powers. Because I think increasingly as things become more and more fashy, as you say, those powers are going to become more and more visible as the things that are actually driving what we’re experiencing.
So at Interrupting Criminalization, we have been thinking about how to support organizers in engaging in that way with the forces that are really driving the political conditions that we’re under beyond electoral politics and hope folks will reach out to our new abolition, anti-capitalism fellow Maurice Weeks, who will be throwing office hours open in the new year to think about how to shape campaigns in ways that will more directly contend for power with the forces of fascism in the form of police power and breaking police power as police power and also breaking the power of the formations that police are there to protect, maintain, and grow. And I think those two things aren’t necessarily the same. I think sometimes when we think police are only here to protect property and that they’re acting at the behest of the captains of industry, that is true and police are now very much an independent political power that is about preserving their own power. And we see that more and more visibly across the country every day. And I think we need to start shaping our organizing strategies accordingly.
And a lot of people are tackling the political power that police hold, the power that they hold over budgets through their organizations, their guilds, their fraternal associations, the power they hold over our imaginations and public discourse through propaganda. And I think that that’s really essential to our struggles to fight and reverse the tide of fascism is to really tackle that particular form of political power head on along with continuing to fight the ways in which racial capitalism is manifesting through neoliberalism and organized abandonment. And that does mean challenging the politicians who continue to insist on funneling more power, more money, more resources into this institution that is not accountable to them or to anyone, but only to its own power and to the power of the institutions that feed them.
I sometimes joke that I’m the revolutionary who hates change, conflict and getting up early in the morning, all of which are necessary for the world that I want to come into being. And I think the resistance to change is not just because I’m a Capricorn, but because that is the way that humans, I think, also are wired. And I think you’re absolutely right that if we accept the premise that Octavia Butler and others have articulated that change is the only thing that is certain and that what we’re about is shaping that change, then I think if folks can get past that hump, then it does put people in a more generative space of are we projecting our vision of the future into the change or are we accepting someone else’s vision of the future into the change once we’ve accepted the inevitability change. And that places us more in the position of being actors on the stage of history rather than passive recipients or audiences to what’s unfolding in front of us.
KH: Many of my touchstones have been emphasizing the importance of study in their recent talks. Ruthie Gilmore, Mariame Kaba and others have urged us to form study groups. When I talk to young organizers, I always urge them to read. I know that’s a tall order in these times, in a society where pollution, long hours, social media, and so many other things have damaged our attention spans, and where a lot of people struggle to make time for the things that matter to them. I know what I am asking when I emphasize the importance of study, but I also know there is a reason that the ruling class has worked so hard to divorce us from books and reading.
AR: I really want to invite folks to engage the study and discussion guide that Rachael Zafer created. It’s got prompts for self-reflection, for research, for practice, for practice articulating these things in conversation with people. It’s got millions of points of … Not millions. It’s got multiple points of entry, depending on how you learn, how you engage, how you think through things. And so I really want to invite folks to use that with themselves, with their family and friends, with their community organizations, at their faith institutions, at their… I don’t know. You’re part of a bowling league. Whatever it is. Maybe pop out some questions or thoughts from the discussion guide to start some conversations including conversations with yourself. And really want to invite folks to check out all of the resources that are available at the Interrupting Criminalization website. We have a binder that we created pulling together lots of charts and graphs and checklists.
And I’m a Capricorn, so I love those things that help us to discern which kinds of demands and reforms are bringing us closer to a world with no more police and everything we need to survive and thrive and which things might be reifying, retrenching, reinforcing the systems that we’re actually trying to dismantle or change. And we also created … This was another brilliant Mariame Kaba idea. These posters that describe policing in a single sentence. And we invited many folks that we cite or were inspired by in the book, but also folks we organize with in community to describe police in a sentence. And that was an important way to introduce the book because the book basically is saying police aren’t broken. They’re doing exactly what they’re set up to do. And we can’t get to safer, more whole, more community wellbeing if we’re not clear about what police are and do. And so the Sentence Project really helps people crystallize that and condense it. So invite folks to check the posters out to buy a set for your friends or family or workplace or community space. The funds will go to the Justice Committee and the Chicago Torture Justice Center, both working with families and survivors of police violence, families of people killed by police and survivors of police violence.
And use them as a conversation starter in your community. Leave a postcard on the lunchroom where you are and then see what conversation comes up around it. So want to plug that. There’s also No More Police merch that’s going to benefit Survived and Punished. So if you need some No More Police t-shirts or tote bags or mugs, that can also start conversations and you want to use those during the upcoming holiday season to start conversations at the dinner table, they’re available and they’ll benefit Survived and Punished. There’s also no more police stickers. You know what to do with those. And yeah, those are I think some of the tools and resources that we’ve created to accompany the book that we invite people to engage with as part of their organizing.
KH: I think it’s wonderful that we already have a study guide to work with for No More Police, and I think engaging with the questions this book raises could be transformative for a lot of people. So I hope folks will tap into those resources. This is a book that we should be engaging with together, if we want to make the most of it, and I look forward to continuing my conversations with people about it.
I want to thank Andrea Ritchie for joining me for not one, but two episodes. We don’t usually do this, but I just love talking to Andrea so much, and before we knew it, we had more than one episode on our hands. I hope our audience has found the experience as enriching as I have. And I hope everyone will check out No More Police and all of the amazing organizing resources available on Interrupting Criminalization’s website. These are incredible tools for the times we live in, so let’s arm ourselves up with knowledge, and get out there and remake the world.
I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today. And remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
- Don’t forget to check out No More Police: A Case for Abolition and the discussion guide created by Rachael Zafer.
Other books that came up:
- A Theory of System Justification by John T. Jost
- Rehearsals for Living by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Robyn Maynard
- Abolition and the State: A Discussion Tool from Interrupting Criminalization
- Are the Cops in our Heads and Hearts? by Paula X. Rojas
- Interrupting Criminalization’s Help Desk is available by appointment to offer thought partnership and one-on-one consultation to organizations/groups/individuals who are working on projects and community-wide interventions to end violence without using the police.
- No borders! No prisons! No cops! No war! No state? (webinar featuring Harsha Walia, Dean Spade and William C. Anderson)
- The Role of the State in Abolitionist Futures (webinar featuring Robyn Maynard, Andrea Ritchie and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson)
- Survived & Punished is a prison abolition organization. Their work specifically focuses on criminalized survivors to raise awareness about the integrated relationship between systems of punishment and the pervasiveness of gender violence.
- The Action Center on Race & the Economy (ACRE) is a nonprofit that takes on “the financial institutions and anti-democratic actors that are responsible for pillaging communities of color and poor families, subverting voting rights, and destroying our environment.”
- One Million Experiments is a project that explores community-based projects that expand our ideas about what keeps us safe. There is also a One Million Experiments podcast.
- Some of the Most Rabidly Anti-Trans Politicians Won Reelection in the Midterms by Chase Strangio
- Restating the Obvious by Ruth Wilson Gilmore & Craig Gilmore
- Ron DeSantis’s War on LGBTQ People Is Essential to His Agenda by Melissa Gira Grant
- Only library in Michigan town to close after voters defund it for refusing to ban LGBTQ books by Emma Stein
- INCITE! is a network of radical feminists of color organizing to end state violence and violence in our homes and communities. You can find some of their organizing resources here.