Growing up female in poor, rural, white, Appalachia Pennsylvania, I was taught to avoid politics. Going into my undergraduate education as a first-generation college student, I also had little exposure to philosophy and critical thought. My first real step towards abolition as a politics and an epistemology came during my third year at college in a course entitled “Democratic Theory.” I went into this course thinking “democracy doesn’t exist, never has existed, and never will exist in any formal manifestation due to systems of domination like slavery and patriarchy.” Reading Specters of Marx by Jacques Derrida midway through the seminar, I was astonished that someone could theoretically lay out these same intuitions while simultaneously arguing for the ongoing cultivation of those attributes associated with democracy that I was longing to see. Put differently, democracy is not an institutional order that once achieved successfully quells all tensions, but rather it is a project filled with disensus aimed at procuring equality. It is an ongoing practice. After engaging in a scholarly journey into “Radical Democratic Thought” from my small liberal arts school in upstate New York to the institutionalized mecca of this tradition found at the University of Essex, I landed at the University of California, Santa Barbara as a graduate student in political science. Knowing the tendencies of my own discipline in replicating the status quo, I turned towards the margins and found respite in disciplines like Feminist Studies and Black Studies. Working with scholars like Cedric Robinson and George Lipsitz, exposure to the Black Radical tradition pushed my understandings. By engrossing myself with the thinkings of W.E.B. Du Bois, Ella Baker, Angela Davis, and Joel Olson, I began to see abolition as part and parcel of Radical Democratic Thought.
Abolitionist thought remembers that historically marginalized struggles are the starting point for, rather than an afterthought of, radical democratic visions. Today, everywhere we look the paradox of democracy (i.e. the dilemma of which comes first to produce an equal society—just laws or just people) devolves into an attack on the most marginalized—the expansive reach of the prison-industrial-complex, the militarization of police, perpetual violence against women both in the home and without, “racism without racists” (to use the words of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva) and the continued military conquests of Third World spaces couched in the language of counterterrorism. Abolition becomes necessary in order to expose, critique, and combat the counter-revolutionary tendencies that have been falsely associated with freedom, equality, and solidarity. This is difficult work. In Angela Davis’s words, “the challenge for us is to complicate the discourse, and to make it very clear that it is not an either/or, nor a for or against situation” (Abolition Democracy, 2011). The revolution is both universal and particular, operating in relational terms (both/and) rather than as an exclusive binary (either/or).
Tapping into the revolutionary tradition, abolition today is to be aimed at both physical and mental acts of domination. Practices, traditions, and institutions that maintain exclusive binaries (e.g. white supremacy, misogyny, capitalism, and colonialism just to name a few), require not only elimination but active cultivation of collective well-being. Abolition teaches us that difference is not antithetical to democracy, but part and parcel of it. I come from a region which has been historically plagued by centuries of colonial extraction, from extensive coal mining to contemporary hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking). Similar logics used to place environmental burdens near or in communities of color have been used time and again in discussions of spaces like Appalachia. These discourses are perpetuated by and perpetuating what Ange-Marie Hancock calls “the politics of disgust” (2004). This is the very mechanism that demonizes difference through the policing and self-policing of those least advantaged. Despite my public identity as white, I grew up in a community that has internalized the hatred aimed at them as “not quite white” or “white trash” (Matt Wray, 2006). I consider myself white, but not quite, and with that identity I claim abolition as method and politic.
– Jasmine Yarish