Political imagination at work: Jaime Amparo Alves on Abolition

I see Abolition as both a social praxis and a utopian project. As a social praxis, it asks us the insurgent question of how to respond to state terror against black communities without making concession to the language of peace and rights that requires a loyalty to the state. As a utopian project, it requires a permanent exercise of our political imagination to not fall into the trap to demand justice (and ask protection from) the penal state and yet to imagine a new ethics of life. If police violence and mass incarceration are technologies of social reproduction, what alternative mode of sociality can we imagine? Co-teaching a class with social activist and black scholar Joao Costa Vargas, I faced this question when Joao asked students to imagine a world without prisons. They could not! To a certain extent, their failure is also our failure to put political imagination to work. How do we imagine justice in our current historic moment? How might the black paradigmatic condition help us to re-imagine the social world? And finally, what kind of radical social practices are needed to dismantle the criminal justice system? I think Abolition can be the place for a intellectual and political experiment that illuminates the dystopic present and helps us to make sense of the future.

My interest in the struggle against state carcerality comes from my own experience as a black man coming to age in a highly violent favela in Sao Paulo/Brazil. Forced evictions, widespread police brutality, residential segregation and premature death amounted to a macabre racialized geography that could be better named as a plantation. The naturalized state of confinement in which black people find themselves in Brazilian favelas makes it clear that the city itself is a carceral unity in which black bodies are caged, exploited, brutalized and killed. This generalized ‘prison regime’ (as Dylan Rodriguez has it) renders any demarcation between free and enslaved, favela and prison, irrelevant. Yet, the favela-prison pipeline asks us to have an holistic critique against state carcerality and at the same time to give visibility to the cynical and brutal dimensions of the Brazilian prison-industrial complex. As Brazil becomes a new global player, it also becomes a leading penal power in Latin America. Brazil’s prison population is one of the largest in the world, behind only the USA, China and Russia. The country has as many as 1.5 million people under the supervision of the criminal justice system, half a million of whom are confined behind bars. According to the Brazilian Ministry of Justice, between 1995 and 2010, the prison population increased 175 percent, jumping from 148,000 to nearly 500,000. This growth was mainly due to drug-related crimes. The demographic make-up of the prison population is as follows: 53 percent black, 31.5 percent white, and 15.5 percent other (Ministério da Justiça, 2012). This reality, added to the astonishing levels of black violent deaths (276,000 black homicides in the last decade!), asks for a radical approach to interpret and fight against state racial terror.

—Jaime Amparo Alves

[This post is part of a series of “Abolition Statements” from members of the Abolition Journal Collective and Editorial Review Board. See here for a brief introduction to these posts.]