My ‘Activist Profiles’ of the past featured abolitionists like Angela Y. Davis and Mariame Kaba and a lawyer in Bryan Stevenson, so to add to the former category, I wanted to focus on Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who is one of the first architects of Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) abolition as we know it today. Gilmore is an abolitionist, prison scholar, Director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics and Professor of Geography in Earth and Environmental Sciences at the City University of New York, and author of Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. As a baby abolitionist, I first dove into Gilmore’s work after reading about her in the New York Times (I know…why am I still clicking on links to NYT articles?) feature: “Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind.” After reading more about her life, I learned that Gilmore joined forces with my favorite Dr. Angela Y. Davis to fight the carceral and patriarchal state, racism, imperialism, capitalism, and militarism—all of which contribute(d) to the infuriating and punitive Western society Americans live in today. In 1997 she founded Critical Resistance with Davis as a grassroots response to social, political, and economic problems usually handled, if not, exacerbated, by the PIC. Gilmore also founded the California Prison Moratorium Project alongside youth advocate Ernesto Saveedra. In 2003, she co-founded Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) to fight the construction of prisons and jails, and currently serves as a board member. Gilmore spends most of her time—outside of academia—organizing around abolishing incarceration, policing, military colonization, and national state surveillance; all of which lead to the imminent oppression and murder of Black and Brown people.
As an abolitionist organizer for well over three decades, Gilmore’s work has greatly influenced how I feel about demolishing the carceral state and the systems that lead to the disappearance of millions by police and prisons each year. One of her most famous quotes is “where life is precious, life is precious.” This statement truly encapsulates the foundation of abolition, which is that everyone is important and meaningful, even those who have committed harm. A difficult fact that we must all reckon with is that every person in the world is capable of perpetrating unspeakable harm against someone else, but that doesn’t mean that person is unworthy or undeserving of redemption and healing. Gilmore, Davis, and Kaba specifically have taught me to decipher the critical difference between crime and harm (which is why I used the word harm in the previous sentence). What’s considered a ‘crime’ is not necessarily harm, and what’s harm isn’t always a crime. According to Gilmore in an interview with the Intercepted, “So one question that we abolitionists ask ourselves is: What are the conditions under which it is more likely that people will resort to using violence and harm to solve problems?” She forces us to reckon with the fallacy of good and bad people with one group being the only ones who harm others. This belief is something I’ve had to truly dissolve, especially when it comes to retribution and vengeance toward people I once called evil. Abolitionists are always theorizing and conceptualizing what it means to create a world we want to live in—one in which harm is still committed, but we are able to transform the circumstances that force people to turn to harm. Gilmore often repeats how abolition is not only about tearing down the buildings we call jails and prisons, but giving people the resources they need to live healthy and safe lives.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore is an infamous champion of creating better living conditions for all people while dismantling systems of oppression we currently live under. She has fought for incarcerated and marginalized groups her entire adult life, and I can only hope that we’ll see a world without prisons, policing, or military terrorism in her lifetime.