Abolitionist Democracy: Fear, Loathing and Violence in the 2016 Campaign

by Joy James (10/25/2016)

[Image: October 2016, San Antonio police officers wearing Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” caps.]

Any chronic illness is a curse….the nature of the beast is a complete loss of control—of your emotions, of your intellect, your instincts, your common sense—basically your sense of yourself, a really frightening aspect of this insidious disease.

—Deborah Danner, “Living with Schizophrenia”

Fear and Loathing

The dread that Deborah Danner—a sixty-six year-old black woman living in the Bronx—had concerning herself, family, society, and police meant that her prescient fear of becoming a fatality of poorly-trained, indifferent, or hostile police became a reality on October 18, 2016: Nude in her apartment, armed with a baseball bat, she confronted a police officer who chose his revolver over his Taser.

The electorate has a limited capacity to focus on Danner’s anxiety and death. As a casualty outside mainstream citizenry, her presence dissipates into a frightened political persona coping with dread and depression generated by its political leadership. A fear-based presidential election in which significant numbers of gendered, racial and economic elites feel the sting of anxiety is the new normal in US democracy. (NPR’s WNYC and The Nation chronicle this in their co-produced podcast “The United States of Anxiety” which focuses on Long Island communities.)

In 2016, unprecedented levels of unease and combativeness among Americans who consider themselves valued citizens obsess over whether this democracy remains “the greatest nation on earth” or will be dragged into chaos and dustbins by immensely unpopular presidential rivals. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are disparaged for betraying electoral democracy. Yet, few note electoral democracy’s dependency upon captivity, exclusion, and consumption. Electoral democracy values structure that is stable and predictable, in spite of bureaucratic inertia, corporate-written policies, celebrity politicians, and deceptions safeguarded by secrecy. In electoral democracy, wealth controls access and benefits—quality health, dignified work, safety—to determine who is electable, although the “electable” is not viewed as inherently desirable or even respectable.

Clinton and Trump are not demonized for advocating the abolition of prisons, slavery, white supremacy, poverty, sexual violence. Despite their ideological differences, they are in agreement that they are not abolitionists. Abolitionist democracy, based in real and imagined freedoms from captivity and fear, remains a dark horse candidate in 2016, campaigning to destabilize the master-mistress/slave relations.

The political rivalries define US democracy. But battles extend beyond party affiliation. Electoral democracy has contested abolitionist democracy, dismissed it as too radical, impractical, and impatient, a “spoiler” in elections. The differences between the two are stark. Electoral democracy, does not seek equity, rather, it seeks “winners” (free citizens who are ideological compatriots) and not “losers” (those locked up or locked out of social and political power). Abolitionist democracy, on the other hand, challenges structures of confinement in a quest to transform the non/anti-human into a citizen who controls not only her/his votes but also how their bodies are treated.

Compassion and ethics expressed during elections prioritize agency and citizenry through the voter (working within systems that she does not control) and victimization of those targeted by prison systems, exploitation. Elections recognize struggles against indignity, captivity, and violence (and demands for protection or self-defense). Channeling them into strategies for winning office, electoral democracy refashioned political protests as campaign props (e.g., the DNC informed staffers through [leaked] emails to chant “Black Lives Matter!” at the July Democratic National Convention while avoiding substantive policy and advocacy to end anti-black violence). Abolitionism probes the boundaries of violence—legally or illegally enacted with impunity—in order to discover democracy’s fault lines and the extent to which some of its predatory characteristics and practices need to be abolished. Electoral democracy maintains that the political will of the people is expressed in its elections. Yet, the political will of (some) of the people is also expressed in police violence that targets citizens denied full rights. Electoral campaigns and policing campaigns reflect political will and intent.

In 2015, distressed by the rebellions and riots following Freddie Gray’s homicide through severed spine/neck while in the custody of the Baltimore police, President Barack Obama asserted that he could not “federalize” or control the police. This signaled the limits of reform (body cameras, trainings, community review boards). If the police are like the ballot (ballots with bullets) then they are an expression of the “will of [some] of the people”—but not those people who are disproportionately violated or killed by police. With or without mental illness, Deborah Danner had been outvoted in electoral democracy by the social workers, advocates, police who regulated and eventually terminated her life.

Police use an unofficial acronym “NHI” (“No Humans Involved”) for murder victims who are African Americans, prostitutes, and the drug afflicted. That is political speech or campaign rhetoric. Electioneering determines social life and social death. Police fail to find and grieve with the kin of the deceased (aka “NHI”), or adequately investigate their murder, because this political speech nullifies embrace and protection as a civic and governmental duty. NHI is its own political campaign that will run past November 8, 2016, as policing sectors conflate blackness with criminalized labor and/or disease.

This starting point—that no humans are involved in democracy—is an aspect of policing in democracy that elections can dismiss or diminish as electoral reforms conflate power with policy and voting with ethics. Progressive politics admirably oppose voter intimidation; racist “voter fraud” charges; felon disenfranchisement; biased redistricting or gerrymandering. The law has not recently worked for progressivism. Civil rights protections were gutted in 2013 Shelby County v. Holder; and, “shadow” political parties or patrons were expanded through 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In addition, progressivism seems to avoid the need to abolish structures in order to safeguard against captivity.


Electoral Democracy v. Abolitionist Democracy

Electoral democracy has distinct factions that suggest ideological differences are the sum total of the game. During this campaign season, in progressive quarters, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren decry that democracy is “rigged” by corporate wealth and politicians who lack a moral compass. In the liberal-centrist mainstream, Hillary Clinton adapts progressive populism for campaign victories, deploying the virtue of critics who wield influence as post-primary surrogates. In conservative-reactionary factions, Donald Trump rages against a “rigged” system to channel fascist, rebel yells (with “2nd amendment solutions”). President Barack Obama states that “one of the few regrets” of his presidency is that citizens increasingly view democracy as being “rigged” due in part to their exclusion from power and resources, and admonishes Trump for “whining” about potentially losing the election. None of these sectors (or the mainstream conservatives repudiating Trump) recommends abolitionist democracy as part of the architecture for the future, i.e., as a form of democracy that should rival if not supplant electoral democracy’s focus on declaring a victory without having waged a battle against captivity.

The 2016 campaign-as-evil-twin of the 2008 election shreds the historic optimism that we made a sizable dent in white supremacy. The soaring rhetoric of “Hope,” “change we can believe in,” and transcending “race” (abstracted from racism, poverty, mass incarceration/slavery, executions) is lost in this political moment. For decades, both parties opportunistically campaigned as tough-on-crime and pro-police. Embracing either “law and order” or “reform,” or some mixture of the two, Democrats and Republicans adhere to policies engineered by corporations, governance, nonprofits but not communities. Democracy’s foreign and domestic arenas include foreign wars that cannot be “won” (thousands of civilians die by drone strikes, twenty US veterans commit suicide daily, and national debt increases); and “pay-to-play” candidates who preside over decaying roads/bridges/schools/affordable housing.

The electoral struggle between the “pragmatist” and the “demagogue” becomes apocalyptic so that the (not-so) good must triumph over evil (and down-ballot candidates), as we vote our fear and loathing but not our conscience (in a society where dominating beats ethics).[i] The 2016 Campaign shows how creepy it is to live captive to fear and disgust, held by forces that “lead” as they derail or threaten your life. Distressed, detained and imprisoned people are intimately familiar with those feelings.

“October Surprises”

In US elections, October Surprises are events that influence the presidential contest. This October, there was the tragedy of Danner’s killing; Trump’s “sex tape”/Town Hall denial of assaults/alleged victims’ public testimonies. (Trump deflected from his personal immunity in sexual assault by (re)demonizing the falsely accused Central Park 5, exonerated through DNA after a racist 1989-1990 interracial rape prosecution during which Trump advertised in the New York Times for the death penalty for the black and Latino children.) In October, Wikileaks’ released hacked emails belonging to 2016 Clinton presidential campaign chair John Podesta and the DNC, revealing Clinton’s Wall Street speeches that contradict her borrowed progressivism from primary rival Bernie Sanders, and Democratic elected officials attempting to control or corral their more radical party members.

October Surprises included a gift from Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary 13th  to abolitionist democracy. 13th dissects slavery and mass incarceration (and features clips of Clinton and Trump promoting racist and classist planks to fortify imprisonment and criminalization). The documentary references political prisoner/fugitive Assata Shakur, a former Black Panther Party member targeted by the illegal FBI counterintelligence program. Angela Davis and Van Jones describe how the US government violently persecuted activists, including Shakur, and used political imprisonment to stalk and derail liberation movements. Yet, neoslavery and political persecution remain discredited topics in a campaign where candidates bemoan their “victimization” by or in the media. Town halls allowed citizens to raise questions while missing opportunities to ask about the relationship of slavery and consumption to mass incarceration; and police violence and torture (including, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s medical mistreatment) as forms of political practices and campaigns; and the role of political dissidents such as Shakur and Edward Snowden in expanding democracy despite self-serving FBI/NSA narratives.

So much of the discourse about criminalization came to focus on the candidates themselves. “Lock her up!” chants were popular at Trump rallies and the debates: Clinton’s private server, missing emails and legalistic mea culpas were seen as FOIA evasion. Trump’s sexual predator immunity card was voided by those outraged that white women had been violated. These events overshadowed the agency of the imprisoned and their attempts to expand and develop democracy through abolitionism.

On September 9, 2016, imprisoned activists went on strike and presented  their own political platforms for an abolitionist democracy. They are calling for the elimination of the exception clause for slavery in the 13th amendment. As members of communities excluded from electoral democracy, with little to no protections of first amendment rights and access to familial and communal kin, they offered political visions that exceed the political capacity of most politicians and voters. Their outline for abolitionist democracy, particularly in the demand to rewrite the 13th amendment in order to serve the common good, provides new architecture, one that surpasses conventional politics and social justice advocacy. Clinton’s social justice platform stabilizes reform as governance, while Green Party candidate Jill Stein—threatened with criminal trespass in North Dakota for solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux reservation fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline—offers a more radical platform with reforms to end: the war on drugs; jailing of nonviolent drug offenders; police brutality; institutional racism and mass incarceration; militarization of the police; SWAT teams and no-knock drug raids; mandatory sentencing; for-profit policing. The 13th Amendment is not central to any major or minor party candidate because abolitionism is not the foundation of their party or platform. Those striking against prison labor as slave labor, and the indignities of captivity, define the scope and potential of democracy by liberation from its most predatory practices. When news of incarcerated people-citizens making demands that would benefit all Americans was disseminated weeks after the strikes began, this became the greatest October Surprise, at least for abolitionist democracy.

When the Supreme Court Justice swears in the new POTUS in January 2017, crimes against humanity and decency will not of course disappear or necessarily diminish. The well shod dancing at the inaugural balls will be upon electoral democracy’s foundation. This 2016 abolitionist blog, however, is dedicated to imprisoned activists who suffer and labor to undo democracy’s slavery, as abolitionist democracy takes the floor.


About the author: Joy James is a member of the Abolition collective and F.C. Oakley 3rd Century Professor at Williams College. She can be contacted at [email protected].


[i] Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 focuses on Richard Nixon and George McGovern’s presidential contest; however, McGovern first had to defeat Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm in the primaries, and move to the right of her anti-racist and anti-sexist platform opposing the war in Vietnam and poverty.