Two young Black men named Ahmaud Arbery (read about his case here) and Sean Reed (read about his case here) were murdered on February 23 and May 6 (though Arbery didn’t make headlines until the video of his killing was released on May 5), prompting national (and some international) outrage over the abhorrent deaths. The murder of Black people, especially in America, especially by white people, is so common and without justice, that arrests made and charges brought seem like some small token of wrongs being righted. In the extremely rare occasion that a killer pig (see Amber Guyger) or white supremacist (see Dylan Roof) is imprisoned, families and communities of the slain are brought to justice and the world moves on to the next victim. When masses of people are shocked at and disgusted by viral videos of Black people being killed, it’s easy to disregard the fact that there are so many other Black people who have been murdered off camera—names we don’t know and won’t hold in as sacred esteem because they don’t become hashtags. The frequent response to the ones whose deaths are recognized seems to be justice is found in incarceration by removing the killers from the communities from which they stole a life. As someone who doesn’t believe in imprisonment for anyone, my abolitionist response is that relying on incarceration for Gregory and Travis McMichael (who killed Ahmaud) and the Indianapolis cops (who killed Sean) is not the way to hold them accountable for what they’ve done, and will ultimately only justify jails and prisons for people of color (and Black people specifically).
By no means do I want my perspectives to come across as dismissive or infringing upon issues that don’t affect me. Ahmaud’s and Sean’s murders were entrenched in the type of violence that America was built upon—where Black people are seen as criminals and disposable. The people who took their lives must be held accountable for their actions, and an abolitionist response requires that we find ways to keep people liable for their actions (especially when they’ve caused harm and/or committed violence against others) without relying solely on the criminal legal system that was already created to work against Black and Brown citizens. Even though I sometimes find myself selfishly agreeing with the people who immediately want killers locked up, I know that ultimately, justice is not prison, and that relying upon a system that we know for a fact disproportionately incarcerates poor people of color will only justify putting more poor people of color in the same cages. Colorado attorney and abolitionist Elisabeth Epps wrote an article in The Appeal last October about why Amber Guyger shouldn’t be in prison after murdering Botham Jean. In the piece, she writes, “Too many well-meaning people mistake prison for justice and confuse punishment with accountability. We do this not through shortcomings of our own, but because we live in a country obsessed with cops, courts, and cages. We haven’t seen many alternatives to punishment-driven, racist, and capitalist reliance on cops, courts, and cages. Because we have not seen any other version of pursuit of justice in the criminal legal system, many of us never considered moving punishment from the top of our goals. Because we haven’t imagined what non-carceral justice would look like, there is a natural tension when we are challenged to define justice as other than prisons and punishment.”
The criminal legal system that exists in America was never established to bring justice to Black people and non-Black people of color. We know from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, that the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution essentially kept slavery legal as punishment for a crime. And we know that the U.S. disproportionately incarcerates Black people more than any other minority population. If these facts are true (researched by the Prison Policy Initiative), then how can we believe that utilizing prison for anyone wouldn’t eventually mean that more Black people would end up in the same place? Why are we legitimizing the existence of jails and prisons for those we think “deserve” it and leaving the door open for more poor Black people to continuously be shuffled through cages? Instead of insisting that horrible people like the McMichaels and the Indianapolis PD (or any PD for that matter since ACAB) be imprisoned for taking the lives of Ahmaud and Sean, my abolitionist response is that I think we need to consider what justice without cages would look like, especially when it comes to acts of violence. Would putting the McMichaels and every other killer pig stop harm coming to every other Black person who goes running across America? How will imprisoning them change the behavior of others who would also see a Black person existing in the world and decide that that person’s life is theirs to take (see Citizen’s Arrest, Stand Your Ground laws, etc.)? Are Black people collectively safer without the McMichaels, the Indianapolis cops who killed Sean, and Amber Guyger? Is the world less racist with them in prison?
Justice without retribution does not mean people like the Gregory and Travis McMichael and the IPD are free to live without consequence for their actions, it just means that we interrogate our desire for the same type of violent punishment and create tangible safety measures that keep people out of harm’s way without relying only on incarceration. Saying that throwing every white person who commits an act of violence against a Black person in prison forever means that we are legitimizing the exact same structures that we seek to dismantle for the sake of the same Black and Brown people. As an abolitionist response, we don’t need more people in prisons, we need everyone free. I also don’t think that the men who committed harm are forced to face what they’ve done and reconcile with their actions by just being in prison. That’s not holding them accountable. Like Epps wrote, “But so long as we prefer punishment to accountability, violence to safety, we just brace and wait for the next dead Black young person. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Instead of inflicting state violence on Guyger and punishing her with prison, we should demand justice from the system that already employs the next killer cop. Neither criminal legal reform or gun control get us there, and imprisoning Guyger doesn’t. Prison abolition does. Anything short of the pursuit of abolition means a recommitment to the cops, courts, and cages of the criminal legal system.” In order to create a world where Ahmaud Arbery and Sean Reed aren’t murdered, we need to follow the processes that restorative and transformative justice advocates and abolitionists practice: “Stop the harm; prevent the harm from reoccurring; make whatever amends can be made for the harm, no matter its magnitude or nature.” Justice for Ahmaud and Sean from an abolitionist response looks like attacking racism from a young age and engaging adults in comprehensive anti-racist theory and studies, so people like the McMichaels don’t share the same prejudiced beliefs; dismantling police forces that criminalize, brutalize, and murder Black people more than others; taking away guns and weapons forever from the people who commit violence; enrolling people with mental illnesses in community-led cooperatives where they can receive help and resources; and ultimately undergoing intense restorative and transformative justice processes where people who have harmed are truly held accountable.
We as abolitionists believe wholeheartedly in justice. And because of this type of conviction and the overwhelming value we place on the lives of Ahmaud Arbery and Sean Reed, we work to end incarceration, not perpetuate it—even for Gregory and Travis McMichael and the Indianapolis cops.