Abolition is the collective practice of productive refusal. It is an immoderate rejection of white supremacy (and whiteness itself), patriarchy, hetero-normativity, ableism, settler-colonialism, border imperialism, political hierarchy, and the rule of capital. It is a politics of discomfort, constant reflection, continuous analysis, and what Alisa Bierria has eloquently named, a practice of “subversive proposition.” It is a demand that those at the center take on what the late Iris Marion Young calls the fearless practice of “respectful listening” to those relegated to the margins (which also means starting from a serious skepticism about anything said about abolition by folks like myself). It is an insistence to actively support and center those most targeted by intersecting axes of oppression and domination.
It must be all of these things, not in spite of, but because abolitionist projects necessarily focus on specific institutions and practices in order to be concrete and meaningful material projects. Of course, by focusing narrowly (on prisons, police, the death penalty, etc.) we also run the risk of abolishing institutions and practices but allowing their functions to thrive in a new and more deeply entrenched form. As Angela Davis reminds us, invoking W.E.B. Du Bois, the current state of incarceration in the United States is a direct result of the “abolition” of chattel slavery. Having only negatively abolished slavery without positively enacting the social, political, and economic institutions promoting black liberation, hetero-patriarchal white supremacy was easily retrenched in convict leasing, lynch law, and the entire criminal punishment system. This is to remember, as Joy James reminds us, that chattel slavery was abolished in the United States not just with an explicit exception as punishment for crime, but through this exception in law. We have not simply failed to achieve Du Bois’ abolition-democracy, but we have seen abolitionist projects fail through their own success, shoring up the wages of whiteness, colonialism, and masculinity. This implies internal refusals as well: a refusal to grant the premise that we can abolish the prison without abolishing white supremacy, a refusal to believe that we can end white supremacy without the death of hetero-patriarchy, a refusal to accept that we can destroy hetero-patriarchy without rejecting colonialism, and imperialism, and capitalism, and ableism, and so on, and so on… In this way, we realize that the particular narrow foci of abolitionist projects are in fact always already broadly focused if they are truly to be transformative and not reformist.
We must think and live abolition broadly, always recognizing that our targets are produced and maintained by interlocking and intersecting conditions that must themselves be refused, rejected, and abolished. These are both the strategic and substantive locations to do the work, to think reflectively about the freedom of others, and to build a world that is otherwise.