“For anybody who is caught up in the systems that are shaped by extractive capitalism and organized violence, there is a cumulative and compounded effect on their persons and their lives,” says scholar and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Gilmore talks with Kelly Hayes about prison abolition, the climate crisis and what must be done.
Music by Son Monarcas and Silver Maple
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 things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. We talk a lot on this show about organizing and what solidarity demands of us. Well, this week, we will be tackling those topics with one of my favorite people: scholar, activist and author, Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Ruthie’s work, including her book Golden Gulag, has had a profound impact on my own analysis and activism. Some of you may be familiar with her often cited definition of racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Ruthie’s new book, Abolition Geography: Essays Toward Liberation, includes work created over the course of 30 years of study, organizing and struggle. Ruthie and I had a great conversation last week about the ways that organizers map and transform the world.
As I was telling a friend today, when I like a book, I tweet about it, and when I don’t like a book, I message Ruthie about it. Lately, I have been making my way through an advance copy of Ruthie’s latest book, Abolition Geography, and I am just so grateful for this wealth of knowledge and analysis, amassed over the course of so much learning, teaching and doing. In an essay called Race and Space, Ruthie wrote, “if justice is embodied, it is then therefore always spatial, which is to say, part of the process of making a place.” I have always appreciated Ruthie’s assertion that prison abolition is about making things. In abolitionist organizing, we foster new relations, developing new configurations of care and justice-making that demand, rehearse and manifest the world we want. Prison abolition is about making a world composed of everything we are denied when “security” is presented as the solution to all ills. So, I really wanted to hear more about this idea of justice-making as the work of making a place.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore: What I find the most exciting about being a geographer is thinking about how we make the world and make the world and make the world. That’s the most exciting thing to me, and that the concept of place, which for many people, understandably enough, seems only to mean location, Oh, I’m in this place, and you’re in that place, has actually a dynamic expansive fullness to it that I love to think about. So, when trying to figure out how in South Central Los Angeles or Central California, or peripheral Lisbon or peripheral Durban, how people are making the world. One of the key things that I have come to think about is how they are making place. This is not original to me. This is just “geography think.” Capital G, Geography, think, how people are making place. It occurred to me, I don’t know, 20, 25 years ago, to realize that freedom is a place. That it’s not like a destination, it’s the place that we make.
So, I mean, it might be a time-destination, but it might be like under your feet already, if not made. And by making the place, we then enable ourselves depending on how we configure ourselves and the kinds of expectations and rules and dependencies that we embrace, we make it possible to share that freedom by sharing space that every embodied consciousness who joins together in that struggle is then joining together, at least provisionally in being free there, like wherever the “there” is. Is it the Republic of New Afrika? Is it where the Water Protectors set up a camp? Is it something smaller or bigger? Is it a little co-op? Is it the mutual-aid group that your people have been circulating through since the pandemic started, wherever it is. A place need not be geometrically unbroken, that it could be an archipelago in which people at each of the, we might say same elevations are doing the same thing. I’m speaking metaphorically.
My friend Cindi Katz calls thinking this way a “counter-topography.” So you know, topo[graphic] maps show the heights and depths of the surface of the earth, and so if we think of that, as it were metaphorically, then we can think, oh, all of us who are at the same elevation or same depression are somehow not only engaged in similar practices and processes, but we can both imagine ourselves combined and then do the work of literally combining our struggles.
KH: In our conversations about prisons, criminalization, and the climate crisis, Ruthie and I talk a lot about extraction. Because it is the violence of extraction that is killing imprisoned people, the natural world, and all of us, as we live and breathe in a collapsing biosphere. Extraction and bordering are the drivers of the apocalypse, and they are also shaping our experience of this catastrophic era. Many people frame prison abolition within a larger, generalized arc, in which chattel slavery and U.S. prisons are part of a single, continuous process — making the struggles to abolish them different eras of the same movement. I personally grew into this work with that perspective, but by reading Ruthie’s work, I came to understand the prison-industrial complex as a distinct mechanism that must be countered on its own terms. The majority of imprisoned people do not have jobs in their facilities. Many are not allowed to work, and notably, when jobs for imprisoned people are eliminated, no one is set free. Because the extraction of labor is not the primary function of prisons. As Ruthie taught me, people are extracted from our communities, and then the defining resource of life itself, time, is “extracted from the extracted.” Time is stripped from the “territory of selves.”
RWG: I’ve been thinking and rethinking a lot about extraction for some years, many, many years, in fact. And oddly enough, I came to that particular focus, not by way of a certain thread of Latin American political economic criticism, which is where a lot of it arose in the last 30 years, the extractivist, so people like Jim Petris and so forth, but rather because in studying a lot about rural America actually, rural United States actually, I had been thinking about how so much rural economic activity is indeed extractive. I mean, technically speaking. It’s farming or mining or logging. It’s extractive. And the kinds of relationships that people have to extractive activities make for sometimes a different sense of place and political possibility than for people who work in urban environments, whatever their work is, whether they’re building things, cleaning things, fixing things, teaching people, driving buses, whatever they do. There’s a kind of different sense of place making.
And here, I’m not drawing a sharp line between the city and the country because we know that they are completely interdependent, no matter what. We know this. But rather, just thinking as hard as I could about what kinds of consciousnesses and possibilities have arisen in the context of rural, which is to say not very urban, United States that has led to, on the one hand, the proliferation of prisons and jails, but also, on the other hand, a lot of really radical work against them. What is it? What is it? How are people tied and not tied to place? Whether, because of what they do, their work or their love of it or something else. How do people move around, between and among different levels of surveillance and the state capitalist hostile to union organizing, the state ready to criminalize people not documented to work, et cetera, et cetera? And how do those things come together in really strong, if relatively local, movements to undo what we’ve come to call mass incarceration?
And the people who are working to undo it have very much in the fronts of their minds, not in the back of their minds, how criminalization regimes are part of what constrain and threaten their lives, regardless of their individual relation with the criminal justice system. Like, they see the bigger picture is really there. So it was really in the context of all of that, that I got to thinking about how so many people who I’ve become very close comrades with over time, some of whom have passed, I mean this is a long time we’re talking about, were farm workers, let’s say. And so, they were working in extractive industries. And because of, for example, their exposures to pesticides and arsenic that has poisoned the water table in some regions of, for example, California, they’re being killed by the extractive activities almost directly. And so, it was the combination of all those things that made me think, “Oh, aha. What prison is and unfreedom is, is the extraction of time.” That explains a lot, to me, in terms of how time itself becomes monetized, no less than a grape or a ball of cotton or a stand of trees or the cobalt under the ground or anything else that comes from extractive activities. So that’s how I got to extraction.
And then, I happened to give a talk about 14 years ago, 12 or 14 years ago, and said, “Blah blah. Here, in my view, what’s happening with prison and unfreedom is the extraction of the one non-renewable resource, time.” And all these people in the audience said, “Oh, oh. This is so interesting that you’re connecting with Latin American thinking and Indigenous thinking and so forth. And I said, “That is really great. And I can’t take credit for that, but I’m glad we all met in the same area of thought, of political thought, very glad of that.” So to the extent that you have any interest in exploring some of these connections, which I think give us the opportunity, not just to dwell in the local of specific rural political economic environments, but also to stretch across the globe and think about how extraction and displacement connect, both in terms of exasperating climate crisis, in terms of pushing people out of their living places and into vulnerability that results in detention, deportation and death, as well as the kind of incredible struggles that people have engaged in to restrict and stop the kind of extractivism that is killing the planet and all of us.
Whether it’s water protectors or people trying to figure out how to reconfigure the economy in most of the continent of Africa, a place that is filthy rich with natural resources and filthy poor in terms of racial capitalism, or anybody’s capitalism. Make some connections or land theft, land grabbing in Brazil, where again, the prevalence of people killed by cops and locked up in prisons is very high, as people are displaced from land. It’s also true in many other places. That all of these connections, I think, give us some view into thinking about abolition on a global scale, without becoming too abstracted from the actual struggles people are actually engaged in on the ground.
I can’t speak for most geographers on the planet, although I think we recognize each other in certain tools and approaches that we share in thinking about how humans write the world. And I don’t mean write about the world but make it. We make it, in that sense, [we] write the world. And one of the concepts that we geographers share and also dispute the meaning of is the concept of scale. And while for some people, including some geographers, scale amounts to nothing greater, more than size, bigger scale, smaller scale. Or if you think of what a cartographer does, a map maker does is that they examine the terrain that they want to represent in two dimensions, and then they figure out the scale, so that you can see things in proportion, one to the other. So those are two ways of thinking scale.
There is another way of thinking scale that I learned from my, now late, doctoral advisor, a guy called Neil Smith, who died 10 years ago, who proposed, as just something to work with in thinking, not this is how things are for all time, but he proposed a typology of scale for us to think with. And he said, “What if we thought about scale as, in capitalist society, so not in all human society for all time, but under the capitalist mode of production, what if we thought about scale as a kind of series of configurations of people, places, and things that capitalism exploits in order to reproduce itself, but which therefore are constructed of contradictions, which means we can seriously think about how to counter exploit, in the context of contradiction, and perhaps do something else.” All right. So, that’s all quite abstract. Let me make it a bit more concrete.
So, 30 years ago or so, Neil worked out a typology of scales, and he kind of went from the body to the global, and there are a bunch in between. So it’s not just local, global. There’s body and home. Whether or not somebody has a house, people have a sense of something called home, which has certain contradictions inherent into it. Community, the urban, regions, nation states, which continue to be pretty powerful actors, the first among equals being the United States still. And then, the global system, which is not the entire planet, but global systems that capitalism can put together through global corporations, through global NGOs, through trade agreements, like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and so forth. All of this gives us some sense of scale. And therefore, we can think about what it would take to weaken the domination of capitalism in a particular place if we’re mindful of the scale and what the opportunities and constraints might be that capitalism is working through or against, or trying to skirt, right? So far so good. So I want to go back to the first scale that I mentioned, which is the scale of the body. When you think of the body as one of this series of kinds of places. So the home is a kind of place. The community is a kind of place. The region is a kind of place. It might be sub-national, it might be trans or international. Nation state, we know is a kind of place. It doesn’t mean that all nation states are equal, but it is a kind of place. Has certain characteristics. And the global, again, for various sectors of capitalism and war making and so forth. Yet again, kind of place. Back to the body.
So if the body is a place, then that means something that we all always know but maybe don’t think about in the front of our mind. And that is each of us and all of us are time, space. That’s what it is to be alive, time, space. Body held together by skin, the largest organ. So much time, whatever it is, or so little. And the extraction of time from people who are detained, captured, disappeared, incarcerated is the annihilation of space by time, which is something that nappy haired philosopher Karl Marx said in the middle of the 19th century capitalism was busily doing to the planet, annihilating space by time. And so in taking back time in the various ways that we can provisionally is indeed part of the anti-capitalist struggle when it is part of the anti-capitalist struggle.
KH: Rather than understanding time in mere countable units, some Indigenous cultures measure time in life events, relationships and seasonal changes. Some understand time as being fundamentally related to place. Runa communities of Ecuador believe in the concept of a ‘living future’, wherein the future is “interlinked with practices of everyday life” and also rooted in a person’s spiritual connection to animals and the natural world. Such understandings of time underline what’s being extracted from imprisoned people — not abstract units of measurement, but their human experience of other people, places and beings that are the stuff of life itself. On my own reservation, early in the pandemic, elders in a local women’s group told members to view social distancing as a form of fasting — a time to abstain from togetherness and contemplate what they had made of their time with others, up to now, and what they would make of it in the future. To me, the idea of giving up time with one’s community as a form of fasting, because we are indeed social beings, nourished by human interaction, highlights the reality that the forced isolation imprisoned people experience is a form of social and spiritual starvation — a siphoning away of life.
In a variety of ways, capitalism is stripping us all of time. Labor. The years that pollution and contamination rip away from us. The ongoing climate catastrophes that could end or displace any of us at any time. Many people experience such losses steadily without reconciling what’s being taken from them, or that a system and its operators are directly responsible for that theft. Meanwhile, people who are acutely aware of what is being stolen from us, who are fighting to curb the damage, are being punished and isolated. Water Protectors, for example, are being hyper-criminalized with outlandish charges. In retaliation for their efforts to halt extraction, they are being extracted from their communities, isolated, as time is extracted from their lives by the carceral state. I wanted to hear Ruthie’s thoughts on the connectivity between the extractive forces that are shaving years off of humanity’s potential time on Earth, and the experience of resistors gripped by an intensified form of that extraction within the prison-industrial complex.
RWG: Well, you know, you just said it perfectly. There is, for anybody who is caught up in the systems that are shaped by extractive capitalism and organized violence, there is a cumulative and compounded effect on their persons and their lives. So let me say this in a third way, talking about, let’s say, air pollution. For a very long time in the United States, in spite of the Environmental Protection Act, which was, and actually to this day still is one of the few federal laws that if enforced does not have to prove that a perpetrator of the harm intended the harm, it only has to show the harm occurred. And in almost all other law relating to racism, sexism and so on and so forth, civil rights, voting rights, the standard against which people who have harmed others must be judged is did they intend to do it.
So we see that in the recent cases that have come before the United States Supreme Court about voting rights, which let me remind you, a lot of people died for this shit 100 years ago. You don’t have to believe in voting solving things to take seriously this was life or death, and can easily be understood to continue to be life or death. The U.S. Supreme Court saying, well, if the legislatures of these state governments that are restricting access to ballot boxes, to people in poor communities, communities of color and so forth haven’t said that’s what they intend, they cannot be held responsible for the effect. This is different or has been different from environmental harms. And so what spurred and motivated a lot of people to very good organizing, starting with Bob Bullard’s Dumping in Dixie exposé of how environmental racism was encountered with impunity by these big corporations throwing lead, and you name it, various carcinogens into people’s water tables and so on and so forth.
People organizing against environmental racism came together to make lots of demands in lots of different kinds of situations. And in these encounters where I met lots of people over the years, we would learn that the officials who were judging whether or not the environmental harms produced by one or two or three or many capitalist firms were indeed causing premature deaths in workers and people who lived in the environment. What I found, not surprisingly, is the kinds of studies that the decision makers were relying on were not studies at all. They were kind of bullshit charts and graphs. And so I would show up, Dr. Gilmore, geographer, in a suit and say, “Now, now, now, this study that you just presented that says that these people who are sitting in the audience who you say aren’t dying of these things, and they say they are dying of these things, well, your study doesn’t show anything. And under the Environmental Protection Act, we’re going to push against that study and demand that you do the right kind.”
And one air quality management district science guy said to me, for the record, “You are correct Professor Gilmore, but the kind of study you think we should do is too difficult so that’s why we don’t do it.” And it’s just a study that shows cumulative effects. If you have a hypothetical, which is to say a statistical child born on day zero, what happens to them if they’re exposed to this toxin, let’s say, polyvinyl chloride, over time? And you could say, “Well, they’ll make it to 70 without dying because the healthy infant will have enough to withstand these negative effects.” And you say, “Yeah, but this healthy infant lives in a place where pesticides, tire fires, arsenic in the water, low birth weight because of nutritional problems going back at least a generation, et cetera, means that the cumulative effects of all of these environmental hazards suggest that child born on day zero is not going to make it to year 11, much less year 70. Not even to year 11.”
And this kind of thinking, understanding cumulative causation, let us say, is what I think lots of people who are doing abolition work, even if they don’t call themselves abolitionists, are trying to achieve. They are making the time, if you will, to think about what you described so well. That people who are vulnerable because of the conditions under which they grew up, the conditions under which they’re fighting, the conditions produced by pipelines and so on and so forth are also then experiencing cumulative harm by being put into lockups or into an ankle shackle or otherwise deprived of their freedom means that the time extracted from their time, space being is going faster and therefore premature death, whether it happens when they’re 70 or 60 or 12 is still something that was preventable, that was preventable. And that is the definition of premature death.
About eight or nine years ago, a little girl, daughter of immigrants to London died of asthma. And her name was Ella. Her parents and some other people, who were in the kind of environmental justice and fighting against climate change community in greater London, just said, “We are not satisfied with the explanation for Ella’s death. Yes, she died of asthma. Why did she die of asthma? What made it lethal for her?” And they fought and fought and fought and fought and continually demanded that the chief medical examiner for London, I think they’re called a coroner, reopen the case and look at different kinds of data, different kinds of studies and especially take seriously the fact that Ella grew up in an apartment. Parents of modest income people. Very near to a highway, a motorway, a big one. One of the big post World War II motorways built in London.
And about a year and a half ago, the coroner ruled that the reason this little girl died was because of the level of pollution produced by the automobiles on that motorway. And the fact that even though the City of London and the country, the UK, have very strict levels, acceptable levels, and expected controls on this sort of pollution, none of that was ever enforced. And so in her short life, there was some astonishing number of days that the crap spewed out by the vehicles on this road far exceeded in parts per million the kind of crap that somebody with the kind of delicate lungs that she had could withstand and it killed her. Now, as it turns out when I, Professor Gilmore, was studying the question of air quality and air quality management in California under different circumstances but for the same purpose to interrupt vulnerability to premature death, I got to know a number of environmental scientists who specialized in the vulnerability of children’s lungs to these kinds of harms and who are particularly taken as researchers to understand why there are asthma epidemics when asthma, again, shouldn’t kill anybody.
So some people might be prone to it, but nobody should die of it. It’s something that with steroids is reasonably, quickly, easily treated. Steroids produce their own downside sometime, but nobody should die of this. And yet the epidemic exists. It exists mostly among poor children, whether they are red, white, yellow, brown, black, poor children suffer from it. And the studies showing the relationship between and among children, childhood asthma, proximity to freeways, and the fact that children who are assigned girl at birth are the most vulnerable, those studies have been completed 20 years before this little girl died. It’s not like the knowledge isn’t there. Is that her parents’ fault? Of course not. But here again is the question of the murderous relation that unchecked capitalist development, fossil fuel dependence, automotive transport and so forth have on little lives, as well as the life of the entire planet.
We can see it and we can, as it were, scale it. And then we can ask ourselves questions like, is scale here the problem? Is it a problem that is not just a matter of the absence of knowledge, because it could very well be that the people who were the bosses of managing this problem in the city of London knew all the same research I did and they just didn’t care. I mean, that is an eminently possible explanation. But of course, it’s also true that solidarity that can build across communities, those who have experienced these tragedies and those who do not want to ever experience these tragedies gives us a view into how it’s possible maybe to jump scales and have really strong solidarity between and among people who are in California and in São Paulo and in Durban and in London coming together in common purpose, in the fight against the use of fossil fuels and the fight for the lives of children and adults and elders.
KH: I have heard a lot of people talk about feeling listless or adrift in this political moment. There is an ominous uncertainty in the air, and I do not want to downplay what’s at stake, or what people are likely to endure in the coming years. But we have to remember that the world is much bigger than our particular fears or frustrations about what is or isn’t happening. Deeply powerful work is unfolding all around the world, and it is our duty, in this moment, to learn all we can from people who are taking bold and effective collective action. I appreciate that, throughout the pandemic, Ruthie has urged us to learn from people who are doing life-giving work.
RWG: So where I’ve been, kind of had my political imagination focused a lot in recent years is on what already organized people do. Whether they call themselves abolitionists or not doesn’t matter to me if I can see in their principles and programs, something that is at least tending toward non-reformist reform, that also has the stretch and resonance necessary to help all kinds of people not be or feel isolated in their struggles, so those things. So, what am I talking about? I’m talking about the people I’ve been talking about nonstop since the pandemic started: the MST. The MST, the landless workers’ movement, rural workers movement in Brazil that has been around for 38 years, that has managed in incredibly hostile and in the face of organized violence, militias as well as the organized violence in the state, to achieve land occupations, establish villages, establish schools, grow the biggest amount of organic rice produced anywhere in Latin America, is produced by MST. Send cadres out through the world, not only, but mostly through the global south, but also to places like Detroit and Mississippi to work with people on the ground to make the earth that they have some control over fruitful, organizing against land grabbing and land thefts everywhere, working in close cooperation with Via Campesina and others. Sam Moyo African Institute is based in Kenya, and so forth.
All right, so MST is one. In recent years one of the things that MST has done is establish a greater presence than it had had in urban areas. Partly in Brazil, partly because the difficulties of the pandemic, as you know very well from people’s experience in Chicago and beyond, has left a lot of people really hungry. Also because the movement of people across the earth’s surface has resulted, as we know, in a lot of people without documentation arriving somewhere and needing to be secure there for a while before they continue their journey. So people moving, for example, from Cameroon and other places in Africa have arrived in Brazil, and they’re on their way to, like, Minneapolis or Toronto. They have a destination that’s hard to get through because the U.S. and Canada have outsourced detention services to Mexico and Guatemala and so on and so forth.
This is the MST and comrades working in collaboration with vulnerable people who are on the move, as well as vulnerable people in the favelas of Rio and São Paulo, who again are perhaps in need of shelter and certainly in need of food. These are things that are happening that, to me, say, ah, this is abolition. As I said, it doesn’t matter to me that the central cadre or any member of MST says we are abolitionists. That’s what I see. That’s what I see. This is also true for a lot of the self-organizing communities in South Africa, sometimes called shack dwellers or quote-unquote, slum dwellers. Anyway, people build their own communities and then live there and figure out how to make an entire life. So there are people, for example, from MST, who will circle through and help people in Durban make the land fruitful.
Also, there are people who are in more institutionally formal and secure positions, like the people at the African Center for Cities, which is based at the University of Cape Town, that are constantly trying to figure out how to, as it were, extend those fundamental infrastructural services that everybody needs, clean water and power to such communities without doing the mid-20th-century planner move of saying, the way we make your life better is we knock down what you built and then we’ll build something new. Given that that is not either a possibility nor in many cases desirable, how then to work with people in communities to convert what they have to what they need? Those are some examples. And while I think a feeling of despair in this day and age is not difficult to understand, I also feel that, as my grandparents taught me, that despair was a luxury that I didn’t get to sport.
And any number of people might be listening at this moment and say, but Gilmore, you’re a professor, you got a job, you got a roof over your head. This is all true. This is all true. I’m not denying any of that. And yet, I still take it seriously, what I learned as a child, which is, despair is a luxury I am not — I just don’t, I don’t have a right to.
KH: We have talked in the past on this show about the corporate funding of police repression, and how, thanks to Enbridge, corporations are now positioned to purchase the state security they need to carry out any action the public might object to. In Minnesota, Enbridge poured millions of dollars into field force trainings, police equipment, surveillance of Water Protectors via drones and helicopters, and the arrest and torture of protesters — all for the sake of ensuring that construction of Line 3 was completed. An astonishing wave of felony charges were also leveled against protesters, and it has since been revealed that a lead prosecutor believed Enbridge would be footing the bill for those cases. I believe in and support the movement to defund the police, but as Mariame Kaba says, “defund is the floor.” I believe that while we support efforts to defund the police, we need to keep having bigger conversations about escalating language and expansive ideas that can help people understand what we are up against. Under capitalism, corporate violence and state violence easily blur, and we should expect that trend to continue. So how do we talk about what we are up against? How do we explore and explain it? Ruthie had some thoughts on that as well.
RWG: As we know, the relationship between large-scale capitalist activity and the forces of organized violence have been intimate for the entire history of capitalism, which has always been racial capitalism. So, if we study things like the British East India Company or the Dutch East India Company, or the Royal African Company, or the Dutch West India Company, and so on and so forth, the Russian company that grabbed Alaska a couple of centuries ago, we study them, we see two things that happened consistently. One, the sovereign authority that gave a license to those companies to go engage in trade and terror did so with the agreement that those companies could either conduct their own practices of warfare, i.e. have their own internal forces of organized violence or depend on the military of that imperial formation to achieve those goals.
One of the strange shifts that occurred from the beginning of the, well, really the middle of the 15th century so before 1492. From the middle of the 15th century until the mid-late 19th century is in the shift in the forms of warfare and treaty that the imperial powers engaged in. They gradually, but not completely, absorbed organized violence to their own array of institutions and possibilities. Now, the way a lot of people talk about this today is, the state monopolizes violence. That’s not telling us enough, and let’s not get all excited about [the sociologist Max] Weber, because Weber was a racist, like he was such a racist, so yes, and no. What Weber actually teaches us, that old racist, is what the state does is it monopolizes the delegation of legitimate violence.
So, the state doesn’t need to come in the house and say “marital rape is fine,” but if the state never prosecutes marital rape, they have delegated legitimate violence, as one example. Or the state engages militias or Erik Prince’s private armies or so on and so forth. That’s another way. Or stand your ground laws. All of these are examples of the delegation of violence. And yet that fundamental relationship remains intact, and that is for the accumulation of value under capitalism to proceed, the inviolability of a certain understanding of property must be intact. Not on any old kind of property, not is that your shirt? It’s your shirt. I mean, I might want it, but it’s yours. I recognize that.
So, the inviolability of a certain property must proceed. The only way that inviolability has maintained its force overtime has been through the forces of organized violence standing between that concept of property and everybody else. That is it. So that means that not only can [Enbridge] turn to a public entity of organized violence to defend, to secure their particular version of property, but also it means that if we, again, look at say, the continent of Africa, a vast area that is replete with many kinds of natural resources, we see that the organized forces of violence of the states of Nigeria and a number of other states also step up and intervene murderously between people struggling to make their livings and make their lives and the large-scale corporations, whether local or transnational, who are extracting oil from Nigeria or diamonds or gold from South Africa or cobalt from the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], and so forth. We see this as a pattern on the world scale.
So it seems that when we think about, as we must, what the police are doing in their militarized role, rather than as was the vogue a few years ago, to keep on talking about how urban police departments have tanks or whatever, whatever. It seems like it’s time again to see the unbroken continuum between military that’s sent outside of the territorial boundaries of wherever and the kinds of extreme violent control happening within and put that together again with our understanding of capitalism as it is currently constituting itself in the context of global struggle. Those global struggles have so many different attributes. One has to do with the U.S. is still the power. It’s the power because it has more air power in its military than any other of these countries that also have nuclear weapons. The U.S. has more air power. The U.S. sells weapons around the world, which means that anybody that wants to be in a trade relation with the U.S. is often constrained to purchase U.S. weapons as a condition of trading, whatever the thing might be. Wheat or phones or shoes.
The third is that in the last 25 or 30 years in the rollout of the assassination of whatever remained of the U.S. welfare state and the expansion of U.S. military power, as well as so-called soft power around the world, the U.S. has established many new bases, and from what I understand the biggest drone base that the U.S. has is based on the continent of Africa. I mean, the drones fly everywhere, but that’s where it’s based. All of these considerations make us see that the political economy of the military-industrial complex, the imperial reach of the United States that is coming up against the imperial reach of Russia and China, and also the burgeoning big, but not as big, economies of Brazil and India is in this struggle in which we see fascism rising as a kind of generally accepted form of organization, warfare that is constantly, constantly, constantly, constantly pummeling people in the various proxy war arenas, Yemen, and so forth, no less than Ukraine.
And also that finally, the forces of organized violence, while very much tied to military uniforms, weapons, industrialized killing in that way, what Rosa Luxemburg called organized murder, also has another side to it which is not in itself new, but we can all see it so starkly now. And that is that the organized abandonment that we have discussed quite a few times over the years, that characterizes why and how, for example, people throughout the U.S. have become more and more precarious, also flicks through the same logic, which is the logic of organized death dealing, people in Afghanistan today whose assets have been frozen, and so who are literally starving, or people in Iraq who because of a number of asset seizures and embargoes have been starving. The people of Venezuela who are behind a wall of embargo, and although MST can slide some food under that wall, they are starving. And of course the longest standing embargo of the last 100 and some odd years, and that’s the embargo of Cuba. So the economic sanctions and embargoes are no less expressions of organized violence that result in premature death than the military incursions.
And I just read a piece by a guy called Tom Stevenson, who writes for maybe the London Review of Books or something, I forget what, who quotes somebody he talked to as saying, “One of the things that these economic sanctions do, is not only make it impossible for people to get food and other necessities, to engage in trade, or even like to take their money out of the bank.” I mean, just imagine if you had no recourse to anything, this is what it is. This interlocutor of Stevenson said yes and one of the purposes of these economic sanctions is actually not only to punish people who are suffering under the sanctions, but also to prepare the polity that is perpetrating the sanctions for the necessity of going to war, because what they will say is sanctions against Iran didn’t work, we have to bomb them. Sanctions against Syria didn’t work, we have to bomb them. Sanctions against the breakaway, whoever in the Horn of Africa haven’t worked, we have to bomb them.
And so these wars, most of which are not on TV, like the Ukraine war or the Iraq war. I mean, even Afghanistan was not on TV very much. But these wars are constantly being waged, and they’re waged both with the alleged soft power, which is absolutely lethal of economic sanction as well as military. So these are all things we have to put together when we’re saying defund is the floor, is to think about that word fund, and think about all of its various ramifications in how our political imagination can work it through.
KH: When I was reading Abolition Geography, I came across a mind-blowing story about Ruthie and Angela Davis visiting a prison together, and how Black women prison guards crowded around Dr. Davis in the restroom to thank her for opening doors for them. The story, and its stinging contradictions, reminded me of how conversations around representation tend to simplify what our movements have fought for — and what organizers like Dr. Davis have endured, and to what end. I asked Ruthie about that moment and what it was like to watch that contradiction unfold in real time.
RWG: That was a really heavy moment. Heavy way out in the desert, in the Sonoran desert in Southern California. Like way out. We’ve been in a minivan for hours to get to this prison. And we finally get in. The warden, who’s a really diminutive Chicana wearing, not a uniform because wardens wear street clothes, welcomed us to her conference room, scolded us about how we better not go away from there and criticize their way of life. And she said, “We like going to Costco.” And it was actually a good warning. Like, “I don’t know you people, but if you go away and say all those poor United prison employees, they think their lives are good, because they get to go to Costco, you will not have convinced us of anything, because we’re really happy with our lives. Now you can tour the prison and we don’t have enough stab proof vests for you to wear. So you’re going to have to decide which of you it’s going to wear a vest and we have a no hostage policy. So if you’re taking hostage, sorry.” It was very trippy. Anyway, so that was like our introduction.
And then Angela and I went to the ladies room to powder our noses, and that’s when the guards came rushing in. So they were Black women guards who were just so dazzled, and I am always invisible in these encounters, always have been. It was like there were not two tall black women of a certain age in this room, there was one. And it was she. And that is appropriate. And they were just really, really happy. And because she is the most gracious human being on earth, she didn’t say, are you crazy? She said, “Oh thank you very much. It’s nice to meet you too.” And I thought then, and I continue to think that it is an unfortunate fact of everyday consciousness in the U.S. because of its racism and its sexism, that somehow the mere fact of representation is what the entire struggle has been for.
That if people know about a world historical figure like Angela Y. Davis, it’s because somehow in spite of the dramatic story of her coming to national prominence, arrest, FBI most wanted. And in spite of the actual things that she’s written and said over time, that somehow all Angela Y. Davis was trying to do was get a spot in the university, or become something that would reproduce rather than interrupt the kinds of social relations that made her and her parents radical in the first place. So there’s that. So if we draw forward from when 1970, ’71, when, again, Angela was suddenly catapulted to the global stage and was, as she said, says herself, “Saved by the people.” Through time, we see that right in the early 90s, for example, when Clarence Thomas was being interviewed for his seat on Supreme court, and Anita Hill came forward, all these people were having a hard time understanding why black people should not support Clarence Thomas, because since Thurgood Marshall was no longer on the court, we needed to have our guy on the court.
And it was like, no, but it was hard. It was really, really, really hard. And then by contrast at that time, a lot of people thought, oh, well then anything and everything Anita Hill says, we have to be in support of. If she’s against Clarence Thomas. Like no, neither. And a bunch of us, I forget how many, took out an ad in The New York Times saying African American Women in Defense of Ourselves. And it’s an artifact, you can find it. And Angela signed it, I signed it. And the point was not that, therefore, Anita Hill was our new political leader, it was like we recognized a certain kind of harm that we wanted to have taken seriously. It was, like, that straightforward.
And then we come forward to current years, and what do we see? We see that the mayor of Chicago is a police officer, and the mayor of the city of New York is a police officer. In both cases, they are Black police officers, and they will with straight faces say, “But this is an opportunity that I seized, and others should seize. Why do you petulant people not want Black people like us to have the kind of success that a good paying, high respect city job affords us?” This is the area of conflict where I can see very clearly a lot of people feel torn. People who are unalterably opposed to people like Brianna Taylor, and Eric Garner, and George Floyd, and so on, being slaughtered in their beds, and slaughtered in the streets, still hold out that somehow the respect and authority that comes with that uniform is something that Black people and other marginalized people should want, and can transform.
And when we say no, the transformation has got to be actually broader and deeper, the response is that we are out of our minds, even though the possibility of a black person carrying a gun in that way actually was a pretty great transformation, and I don’t mean good, I mean big, transformation in the order of power and difference in the United States. So I mean, this is the mess we’re trying to find our way through. Just as we try to find our way through the mess of thinking, will Judge [Ketanji Brown] Jackson being on the Supreme Court undo the things that the Supreme Court is doing? Well, it won’t, because one, the Supreme Court is balanced or unbalanced the way it is. But two, because Judge Jackson’s agenda is not an abolitionist agenda. Of course it’s not. Whatever good, decent things Judge Jackson might do in her community life, I don’t know.
So there’s the huge question of representation. The notion somehow that if there are enough different faces, let’s say, I was going to say “Black faces in high places.” Different faces in high places, that somehow this representation is going to be the catalyst for fundamental change. And that somehow then at the end of the day, if we just are patient for another 550 years, things are going to work out. Like this is the thinking. So here’s something that I was talking with a student about the other day that might be interesting to you. I’ve been thinking about the fact that the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, that particular phase of abolition, and I’m waving my fingers around to show scare quotes. The abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, which as you know, Britain, which then had the most powerful navy on the high seas, took the lead in enforcing, was a police action. That’s what it was. It was a police action. It was a very complex police action that involved British ships that were faster, and could change direction, and so forth more easily than the slave ships.
It involved establishing towns, bases, in Western Africa, West and West Central Africa, where the intercepted slave ships would be brought. And then the people who were in those ships would be freed. But they weren’t freed, they had to stay where they were. Sometimes they were compelled in some places to live in these kind of enclosed environments, where they couldn’t just make their way home if they had someplace they could make their way to. Were they all abject and suffering? No, of course people made it their lives, as they could. Sometimes sorting themselves or resorting themselves into linguistic communities. In some cases, there were communities that were actually multilingual, and as it were multiethnic who took on a common name for the community, and what they were was anti-slavery no matter what, which was different from having been freed off these boats. And in some cases the British ships would intercept ships that didn’t have any captives in them, but were obviously outfitted or furnished for captivity. I mean, you could tell. You could tell by how much food was in the ship, what the ship was for, or the arrangement of the decks.
So all of this is the case. But here’s the point is that that abolition was a police action that did not result in making freedom for the people who had been captives in the ships, one. And two, quite often there were deals between say, Netherlands, the Dutch, yeah. Netherlands, Brazil slave traders, some Spanish slave traders, some Portuguese slave traders, and some Angolan slave traders, for the Brits to kind of look the other way. So more of the same with police. So I say all of these things to say that while I and others have come to expect the word abolition to open people’s minds to the possibility of life otherwise, it is also true that there’s nothing magical nor inevitable in what abolition might become if we don’t make it into the thing we want it to be. It isn’t something that’s got an untarnished history, if you will. So some people like to complain, “Oh, this abolitionist 19th century, white people.” Other people like to complain, “Oh, some abolitionists in the 19th century, celebrities.” And other…
There are all kinds of reasons to complain. Fine. That’s true of anything that we set ourselves out to do. We can complain about what’s wrong with the categories we have decided to embrace. But what abolition still gives us if we take it seriously, is a way of understanding that if freedom is a place, then abolition is life in rehearsal of making that place.
And so it’s not a police action, it’s not an interception, it is everything that is in excess of the shift of, let us say, a legal category, or a legal designation. And how we can see that now, is not so much looking back to the history of captives. I’ve been trying to train myself to say captives instead of slaves, because I really like it. Back to captives from that period of history, but rather to think about captives in the current moment, and how any number of people, say in the United States and beyond, who have been in captivity because criminalized or detained by border patrol, when they are de-detained are not free either. That there are all kinds of documentarian other weights on them that continue to suppress their ability to enjoy the space time they have left to themselves. Whether it’s prohibitions against employment, whether it’s automatic deportation, whatever it is, that all of this gives us some sense that abolition is something far in excess of shifting a legal category, and certainly can never be reduced or displaced to somehow some kind of police function.
KH: What an amazing conversation. I am so grateful for Ruthie, and for her insights, which have informed so much work. I also appreciate the urgency of discussing time as it relates to extraction, because as we have repeatedly been warned, we are running out of time, and extraction is the reason why. We have also been told we only have three years to transform our relationship with the natural world, and sadly, the scholarship in those reports takes so long to get approval, and gets run through such a political filter, that our situation is likely even more dire.
We are all experiencing the theft of time. As the world becomes less habitable, and more people are displaced, we are living in a collapsing box, where borders and the extraction of time redraw boundaries of habitability and survival, and more and more people find themselves zoned into death worlds and sacrifice zones. On a long enough timeline, under capitalism, the entire world is a sacrifice zone. Bordering, partitioning and extraction are the apocalypse. Prisons, and other sites of detention, are the hyper embodiment of these phenomenon, and of what they do to human bodies, as well as the natural world. The struggle for abolition is a fight for the future. It is the work of making place, in defiance of bordering and extraction. It is a refusal to experience collapse on the oppressor’s terms, because when it comes to who we can save and what we can heal, the exploration of our collective potential has barely begun. Can we build new worlds together that cannot be crushed or contained by the collapsing box of carcerality? I believe that work is already happening, and that it is up to each of us to find our place, and to seed what must be grown.
I want to thank Ruth Wilson Gilmore for talking with me about abolition and all of these subjects that mean so much to us both. Ruthie, I am grateful for your friendship and your wisdom, and I am glad you are in the world. I hope everyone will check out Abolition Geography: Essays Toward Liberation. A collected assemblage of Ruthie’s writings over the course of decades is such a gift to us all, and I hope people will grab onto that opportunity. The book is currently available for preorder through Verso Books, and you can find the link to that, along with some of Ruthie’s other work and interviews in the show notes of this episode on our website.
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.
Check out Ruthie’s books:
Abolition Geography: Essays Toward Liberation by Ruth Wilson Gilmore (available for preorder)
Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing by Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Hear more from Ruthie:
The Beginning of a Perfect Decolonial Moment (podcast audio) featuring Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind by Rachel Kushner
Understanding E-Carceration: A Book Launch (featuring James Kilgore and Ruth Wilson Gilmore)
Interested in abolition?
Check out this Abolitionist Toolbox created by Project NIA, featuring webinars on topics ranging from restorative justice to mapping the prison industrial complex.
What is Time? Indigenous Conceptualizations of Time and the Geoweb by Geneviève Reid and Renee Sieber
Relevant episodes you may have missed:
You Cannot Divorce Murder From Policing featuring Alex Vitale
Abolition Means Reclaiming the Commons and Rejecting Securitization featuring Brendan McQuade
Corporations Are Funding Police Repression featuring Alex Vitale