Back in August I wrote about the importance of organizing and building in community with each other during this incredibly traumatic and terrifying time. Since that post, my friends and I have been learning from a Mississippi-based abolitionist program combining organizing with political education where we meet twice a month to discuss readings and actions we can take to work toward abolition. The first two Study and Struggle sessions were focused on the theme “Abolition as Study and Deconstructing Racial Capitalism” (this is the first webinar we watched from the program) and both provided some history of abolition as an international movement and how racism and capitalism intersect to create the horrid societal conditions we’re working to dismantle.
In the first of the first two Study and Struggle meetings, we read “Introduction: Prison Reform or Prison Abolition?” and “Imprisonment and Reform” from Angela Davis’ iconic book Are Prisons Obsolete?, Robin D.G. Kelley’s “Introduction: When History Sleeps: A Beginning” from Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, and “Chapter 1” from Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (definitely the most difficult to read of the three books). I loved this session because it was the first time 15 of us met (over Zoom obviously) and discussed what we believe abolition is and should look like in our individual opinions. We briefly went through the different texts we read, but the majority of time was spent talking through the basics of abolition, which is what I believe was the purpose of the first of the first two Study and Struggle sessions. I found critical information in all of the chapters we read and some of my favorite quotes came from Kelley’s introduction. Two of the most important ones that felt relevant to the opening of a new abolition group were on page x where she wrote, “How do we produce a vision that enables us to see beyond our immediate ordeals? How do we transcend bitterness and cynicism and embrace love, hope, and an all-encompassing dream of freedom, especially in these rough times?” and “Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us,” on page xii. As new abolitionists, we must remember that abolition is not a place we want to arrive at, but instead is a process we must always be practicing in our daily lives. In Angela Davis’ introduction, she talked about how prisons are so ingrained in our society that we can’t imagine what life would look like without them. We don’t know what justice is without them. However, justice has never and will never be found in incarceration, and we’re increasingly becoming exposed to the horrors of what we inflict upon people who are locked up. Her chapter on Imprisonment and Reform explains the brief history of incarceration and how prisons were the original reform from the capital punishment America inherited from England. In that sense, jails and prisons have always been about suffering in a more “decent” and “humane” way, even though we know their existence is justified by how publicly punitive the first systems were.
The second of the first two Study and Struggle sessions was all about how racial capitalism informs and affects the Prison Industrial Complex. We continued reading Are Prisons Obsolete? with this session reading “Slavery, Civil Rights, and Abolitionist Perspectives.” We also read more of Freedom Dreams by going through “The Negro Question: Red Dreams of Black Liberation” and “A Day of Reckoning: Dreams of Reparations” as well as an article by Kelley called “What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism?” Kelley’s chapters were extremely enlightening about what reparations could and should look like and how different Black-led groups in the early 20th century were informed by the intersection of their race and class struggles (hence the racial capitalism). I most enjoyed the reparations chapter in the second of the first two Study and Struggle meetings because I hadn’t understood the full picture of what reparations might look like for Black people prior to this reading. On page 114, Kelley wrote, “The demand for reparations was about social justice, reconciliation, re- constructing the internal life of black America, and eliminating institutional racism. This is why reparations proposals from black radical movements focus less on individual payments than on securing funds to build autonomous black institutions, improving community life, and in some cases establishing a homeland that will enable African Americans to develop a political economy geared more toward collective needs than toward accumulation.” She explains how reparations is about paying back centuries of labor and violence Black people had suffered and continue to suffer through. In that sense, reparations must be given to Black people so long as racial capitalism rules American society and perpetually oppresses and harms Black lives. The two essential questions in Davis’ chapter is “Are prisons racist institutions? Is racism so deeply entrenched in the institution of the prison that it is not possible to eliminate one without eliminating the other?” (pg. 26). The answer to both is obviously yes, which is why prisons and jails and all other forms of incarceration must be abolished. We know that Black people are disproportionately locked up more than any other ethnic group and that Black people are overwhelmingly harmed by capitalism and policing and all other major institutions in America, so we must destroy racial capitalism in order to relieve the country from its inherent desire to punish those who are Black.
The first two Study and Struggle sessions were truly inspiring and helpful to go through with new comrades who are all learning and growing at different stages in this abolitionist journey. I’m extraordinarily grateful that we have each other to build with during such a time as this!