If You’re New to Abolition: Study Group Guide

Please note that we are currently working to make this guide fully accessible with the addition of ASL interpretation. We’re sorry for the delay on this, and excited to publish a more accessible guide soon.

Abolitionists, simply put, are those beings who look out upon their time and say, ‘no’.

Mumia Abu Jamal

Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore


abolition journal logo - The word "ABOLITION" in white on a black ribbon, draped over the capital letters, A and J, superimposed on a red circle background and a diamond made out of quilt material with a pink rose pattern. This logo was made by Amanda Priebe.

to our introduction to abolitionism!

We invite you to meet our historical moment, in which a Black-led popular uprising, launched in response to the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, and the white supremacist killing of Ahmaud Arbery, is spotlighting police violence and racist criminalization. Many people who witnessed the horrifying murder of George Floyd on camera, and are now confronted by the continuation of so much more racist state violence, suddenly feel that abolition can’t wait.

As this moment of drastic change continues in rebellion, spreading from Minneapolis to over 2000 cities and towns in the US and many more globally–while police violence continues to mount–we hope you’ll join us in radical study. This study holds the promise of both refusal of the current order, and the creation of a new one: sometimes, worlds are created in the midst of uprisings, in mutual aid efforts like the Minneapolis Sanctuary Hotel and the Capitol Hill Organized Protest. These are examples of what we call “making abolitionist worlds”. 

The essence of abolitionism is the construction of a society without imprisonment and policing.

You may be new to abolition as a movement or concept. While definitions range widely, the essence of abolitionism is the construction of a society without imprisonment and policing. It is about dismantling institutions and systems like prisons, jails, detention centers, psychiatric institutions, policing, immigration restriction, state surveillance, and many others.

However, it is also about  building. Prison abolitionists follow those dreamers and warriors who imagined an end to the slave economy and settler colonialism on which the US was founded. We imagine what would be required for a society without prisons, and propose different means to support collective thriving and more effective ways to address harms.

You can read many definitions of abolition–we like this definition from the organization Critical Resistance, whose materials are utilized a lot in this study guide.

A black and white linocut graphic by Eileen Jimenez of two hands clasped tightly from the wrist up. Above the hands “Together we lift the sky” is written, with “together” in lower case flowing cursive script and “we lift the sky” in blocky capital letters.
By Eileen Jimenez
“This linocut was created with the yəhaw̓ story in mind. ‘The Creator has left the sky too low. We are going to have to do something about it, and how can we do that when we do not have a common language? …We can all learn one word, that is all we need. That word is yəhaw̓ – that means to proceed, to go forward, to do it.’ — taqʷšəblu / Vi Hilbert (Upper Skagit) in her telling of Lifting the Sky.” This image is available at Amplifier–for more great art and the yəhaw̓ story, check out the yəhaw̓ Indigenous creatives collective.

How to use this guide

What follows is a suggested design for a six-week study group. Each week is organized by theme; we recommend doing the readings/viewings/listening in the order listed. We have included materials that you can read and watch in under 5 hours each week. We hope that you will do what you can, but really, we hope that you’ll eventually study more than what we list here–because we know that radical study, often named “political education,” is one key to movement-building, and only we can do it for ourselves. Abolition is, in addition to being about dismantling and building, also about transforming things. And perhaps first and foremost, it is about transforming ourselves in concert with others. Sometimes this happens when we study together!

This guide is here for you to self-organize weekly meetings for discussion (remotely or otherwise safely during the COVID crisis) with your friends, co-workers, neighbors, comrades.

We hope that these materials will be both informative and transformative for your group. When you’re ready, we have some tips for matching your knowledge with practice: some abolitionist actions are included at the end of this document.

You are asked to obtain just one book to do this introductory series: the classic Are Prisons Obsolete? By Angela Davis. While the book is available for free online, if you have the means to do so, we ask you to consider purchasing it from a Black-owned bookstore (you can order from these) and to continue to buy from them when you read the many recommended books listed in our additional resources!

abolition journal logo - The word "ABOLITION" in white on a black ribbon, draped over the capital letters, A and J, superimposed on a red circle background and a diamond made out of quilt material with a pink rose pattern. This logo was made by Amanda Priebe.


“Each of Us”
A black and white linocut graphic by Annie Morgan Banks. The image is in a portrait format surrounded by a thick black border with a quote by Mutope Duguma at the top: “Each of us have a responsibility to ensure that the civilization we establish for humanity is consistent with securing the livelihood of each and every human being on the planet. To allow only a few to live privileged lives and the rest of us half butchered lives is violence.” Below the quote is an image of a prison watch tower and rows of curling barbed wire. Out past the barbed wire, a single tree stands next to the watch tower with a black bird sitting in it. Five more black birds rise on swirling patterns in various stages of flight towards the quote at the top of the image.
Art by Annie Morgan Banks, “Each of us”, 2015. This artwork is a collaboration with Mutope Duguma, a New Afrikan educator and author currently incarcerated at Calipatria State Prison. As we discuss later in this guide, we hope that you will consider taking up a practice of writing letters to incarcerated people, as many abolitionists do. You can find the contact information to write to Mutope Duguma at his website, and you can find a lot more information about correspondence with some of the many political prisoners held across the U.S.–including a contact list–at this site.

Podcast: The Case for Aboliton

To begin, listen to the podcast, “Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition” (or read the transcript here).

PART ONE: Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition (Podcast: Intercepted)
PART TWO: Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition (Podcast: Intercepted)

At the start of this interview, Gilmore introduces us to the history of her family. Of her father, who worked both as a union organizer and an antiracist organizer, she says, “he was somebody who saw, long before Black Lives Matter, that when Black people’s lives matter, everybody’s lives get better.”

Here, as in much of her work, Gilmore (affectionately called Ruthie) references the Black radical tradition–both anticapitalist, and Black liberationist–in the spirit of which this study guide is created. Ruthie urges us to board a bus of “dream riders”: to join in a multiplicitous abolitionist movement for the end of prisons, in the interest of all. As she often says, “where life is precious, life is precious”. She begins our work by showing us that abolition isn’t, at its core, about inducing fear or discomfort–though it is often perceived that way.

While those feelings may arise in our study, abolition is a liberatory movement, responding to the “organized abandonment of vulnerable populations” that forms the conditions in which the prison industrial complex arises today. In response to this system of abandonment and violence, abolitionists strive to “make freedom out of what we have:” to reduce harm and clear the way for our radical imagination to materialize into the potential for a world in which everyone can have a chance to survive and thrive.

Video: Abolition 101

For an introduction to abolitionist theory as a supplement to the current uprising, we recommend that you watch or listen to Abolition Collective member Orisanmi Burton’s June 2020 presentation, Abolition 101. In addition to the dual sense of refusal of the current order and the “yes” that abolitionist alternatives offer, Burton further understands abolitionism as a lens.

Abolitionism takes the criminal punishment system as a “strategic site to focus our attention, because it’s a site in which many of the contradictions that are present throughout the society are concentrated.” Using “abolitionist historiography”, Burton examines historical and contemporary examples of policing to reveal the criminal punishment system as a mode for enacting class warfare: securing racial hierarchy to maintain property at the expense of life. Through struggle against the injustice secured by this system, Burton argues, we enter a collective, humanizing process. This “101” introduces many key features of the abolitionist movement that this study guide explores.

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Prisons and Policing in the U.S. as a History of anti-Blackness

“Fred Hampton”
A bold graphic image in a screen print style by Melanie Cervantes in a landscape format. A close up of Fred Hampton’s head in front of a grey mic takes up most of the canvas on a light blue background. His mouth is open giving a speech and his eyes look upward. Next to him in large black cursive script is his quote “We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.” Under the image in very small text reads: “Chairman Fred Hampton. Illinois Chapter Black Panther Party. August 30, 1948-December 4, 1969. Serve the people, body and soul.”
“Fred Hampton” by Melanie Cervantes

Here’s what you’ll be studying this week

As historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad explains, the system of policing in the US emerged to control Black people through brutal force, both in the South and the North. This week, you’ll listen to a podcast featuring Muhammad, who explains that one origin of the contemporary police were “slave patrols,” in which all white men were required to participate; these patrols enforced the “slave codes,” the laws governing enslaved people, and were meant to prevent rebellion, through surveillance and brutal punishment. Following emancipation, the “Black Codes”, the growth of a prison-plantation system, and the rise of white vigilante groups all enshrined the criminalization of Blackness as the method to extend racial hierarchy. As Jim Crow was solidified and Black people fled the violence of the South in the early to mid 20th century, police were key to securing segregation and racial oppression across the US. Muhammad describes the early US police force as “a critical feature of establishing a racial hierarchy–even among white people,” as immigrants and ethnic white populations became subjects for racist, classist policing. 

This week introduces both policing and the US prison system as a continuation of anti-Black racism in chattel slavery.

Together with a chapter from Are Prisons Obsolete?, this week introduces both policing and the US prison system as a continuation of anti-Black racism in chattel slavery. Angela Davis considers the modern prison, designed as a humanitarian reform that would supplant more brutal punishment, as another in a series of racist institutions that appeared permanent: slavery, lynching, and segregation. For the next five weeks, we will follow Davis’ charge to imagine the impermanence of the prison and the entire criminal punishment system as a racist regime. 

As Davis argues, the fact that US prisons and policing developed in the context of anti-Blackness, the slave codes, and the convict lease system does not mean that state punishment has refrained from attacks on other populations; indeed, she argues, anti-Asian, Latinx and Native racisms “congeal and combine in the prison.” This week, Orosco’s new essay details police racialization of Chicanxs, while the link to the website “States of Incarceration” focuses on the example of Minnesota’s history to show the ways that settler colonialism relied on incarceration as a colonizing tactic. Finally, Dylan Rodríguez names the importance of culture, even more than “facts,” to demonstrate the necessity of joint struggle for humanization in the face of violent systems of racialized social control.


Throughline: American Police (1 hour podcast) – (or read the transcript here)


Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? Chapter 2: “Slavery, Civil Rights, and Abolitionist Perspectives Toward Prison”


Joseph Orosco, “Lessons About Police Brutality From the Chicanx Experience”


Website: States of Incarceration: Minnesota


Dylan Rodríguez, Abolition is our Obligation (6 minute video)

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The Prison Industrial Complex

“Prisons: Slave Ships on Dry Land” -
A two colour graphic by Andalusia Knoll in an exaggerated portrait format. A historical graphic depicting the stowage plan of a British slave ship in cross section, showing how people were lined up in rows around the hull of the ship is depicted in light blue at the bottom of the image. Above this in the same shade of blue is an historic architectural drawing of a prison entrance and its walls. Above both of these images, an aerial schematic of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia is seen in brown. The cell block plan is a panopticon, composed of six long wings, each radiating from a central point, contained by external walls in a square. The wings containing the cells are roughly the proportions of a slave ship and six of the slave ship images are printed in blue underneath each cell block wing. “Prisons” is printed in a bold serif font in brown at the top of the image above the architectural plan and “Slave Ships on Dry Land” is printed above and below the bottom slave ship schematic.
Andalusia Knoll, “Prisons: Slave Ships on Dry Land”, 2009

Here’s what you’ll be studying this week

As Mary Hooks says in the first video for this week, the Prison Industrial Complex, or PIC, is a vast and complex “web.” It has been named and defined in large part through the work of the organization Critical Resistance, which was founded in 1999, after the conference, “Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex” took place at UC Berkeley. This gathering joined formerly incarcerated people, activists, revolutionaries, academics (and some people who were more than one, even all of those) to create a movement against the prison and policing as anchors of US governance, and as corollaries to the US in its global role as the “policeman of the world.” Critical Resistance defines the PIC as “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” When we speak of the PIC, we speak of the massification of the prison and policing, and their extension into every facet of life. 

The PIC is a web of productive forces: a system that claims to resolve a problem (the problem of “crime”) but that in fact relies on and reproduces that problem, industriously and often, profitably.

The PIC is a web of productive forces: a system that claims to resolve a problem (the problem of “crime”) but that in fact relies on and reproduces that problem, industriously and often, profitably. As Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans write in a pamphlet that is now nearly 25 years old–but still, sadly, too relevant– “Like the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex is an interweaving of private and government interests. Its twofold purpose is profit and social control. Its public rationale is the fight against crime.”

The PIC is industrial: it is linked to industry, even when it’s purportedly a public, state service. As Mia Armstrong explains, “private prisons house only a twelfth of the country’s prisoners,” but outsourcing produces a link between public prisons and private business, as does the “prison economy,” the extremely underpaid, productive labor that incarcerated people do. Systems of policing and imprisonment have expanded in the neoliberal era (the last 50 years), and their tactics have been replicated in bordering and immigration control, school systems, and in health and social services.

As the prison system expanded in the 1980s and 90s, privatization increased; as Livia Luan writes, private prison companies now manage much of the massive, carceral system that targets migrants. Many industries and governmental functions are now entwined with the prison, and large swaths of the population are swept into its reach as employees, employers, as criminalized targets, and their family, friends and communities–as Brett Story’s film, The Prison in 12 Landscapes, eloquently documents.


Mary Hooks, “What is the Prison Industrial Complex?” (1 minute video)


Angela Davis, “The Shifting Concept of the Prison Industrial Complex” (4 minute video)


Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “When the Prison Industrial Complex Masquerades as Social Welfare” (3 minute video)


Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans, “The Prison Industrial Complex and the Global Economy”


Mia Armstrong, “Here’s Why Abolishing Private Prisons Isn’t a Silver Bullet” 


Chart: Mass Incarceration and more data visualizations on current prisons and policing at the Prison Policy Initiative 


Livia Luan, “Profiting from Enforcement: The Role of Private Prisons in U.S. Immigration Detention”

Recommended: watch film

Recommended film: Brett Story, The Prison in 12 Landscapes
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Policing and Imprisonment as Racial Violence

“Let Them All Go” - A bold five colour graphic by Zola in a portrait format. A single pair of vibrant lemon yellow and sap green hands extend through six vertical purple lines which appear as ‘bars’. The thumbs of the hands intertwine and the fingers extend like ‘wings’, as you would hold your hands to make a shadow puppet bird. Above the hands and over the bars is the text “let them all go” in a bright orange calligraphic script outlined thinly in darker purple.
Zola, “Let Them All Go”, 2020

Here’s what you’ll be studying this week

Now that we’ve seen a history of the police and prisons as modes for securing race-class hierarchy in the US, and we understand the massive growth of the carceral system in recent US history and its extended reach into all facets of life, we consider, once again, the way that Blackness is criminalized and Black people are targeted for policing.

Michelle Alexander–whose book, The New Jim Crow, is recommended for future reading (especially chapters 1 and 2)–argues that US legal practice creates a racial “caste system,” as the criminalization of Blackness takes hold both in the courts, and many other cultural realms.

In this week’s reading, Mariame Kaba’s essay, “Summer Heat,” emphasizes the genocidal effects of police violence, much of which occurs under the auspices of the “War on Drugs,” as Jay-Z and Molly Crabapple’s short video shows. 

The website “mapping police violence”, our next source, helps us consider the current, horrifying state of police murder. We can begin to understand patterns of police violence through demographic demarcations: urban and rural populations, as well as by race–and by particular police departments. As former political prisoner and current organizer with RAPP, Laura Whitehorn, explains in a short video, the historical advent of mass incarceration of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color attacked revolutionary movements, and continues to disempower entire communities who might otherwise have more strength to agitate for social and political change. However, it is important to note that while police are twice as likely to use force against people of color, as this chart shows, and communities of color and immigrant populations are subject to disproportionate state violence, nearly half of police killings in the U.S. are of white people. Indeed, white people–complexly bifurcated by ethnicity, ability, region, and class–are vulnerable to violent police control and the criminal punishment system. How do we account for this?

We turn to the notion of “racial capitalism”, which Ruth Wilson Gilmore explores in a 16-minute film. This documentary begins with a discussion of capitalism’s emergence in Europe. As Gilmore claims, and as Cedric Robinson theorized in the foundational text, Black Marxism, inequalities and enslavement among the people of Western Europe forms the historical basis of capitalism; this European social hierarchy emerges through racial practices. Therefore, Gilmore argues, antiracism is and must be anticapitalist:

“capitalism won’t stop being racial capitalism if all the white people disappear from the story. Capitalism requires inequality, and racism enshrines it.” 

To understand today’s PIC as a racial system, we recommend watching the first hour of Ava Duvernay’s extremely popular film, 13th, which gathers many short clips from activists, political figures, and scholars to offer an overall picture of the reality of prisons and policing as anti-Black violence, created by consensus of the US political class (both Democratic and Republican parties). However, we want to issue a warning: the film includes many images of racist violence against Black people, including lynching. Duvernay also includes a clip from the dramatized narrative film, 12 Years a Slave, that depicts a slaveowner raping an enslaved woman, and then striking her violently. We ask you to consider not watching that scene, which runs for 20 seconds: from 33:40 to the 34:00 minute mark.

This week’s study shows that the struggle against anti-Black police violence is consistent over time. This subjection to violence produces feelings of rage, which June Jordan’s poem evokes.


Mariame Kaba, “Summer Heat”


Jay-Z and Molly Crabapple, “The War on Drugs is an Epic Fail” (4 minute video)


This website: Mapping Police Violence


Laura Whitehorn, “The Effects of Mass Incarceration” (5 minute video)


“Geographies of Racial Capitalism with Ruth Wilson Gilmore” (16 minute video)


The first hour of this film: Ava Duvernay, 13th 


June Jordan, “Poem About Police Violence” 

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Reformist Reforms vs. Abolitionist Steps

“Street Art, Graffiti”, Minneapolis, George Floyd Protests 2020” - A photo of a boarded up storefront of a grey concrete building, taken from across the road during the day. Most of the building has been boarded up with sheets of particle board, although above and below the boards you can see a pastel pink, yellow, blue and green rainbow painted horizontally across almost the entire length of the building. Over the boards “ABOLISH THE POLICE” has been painted in huge white block letters with a red drop shadow. Below this “Justice” “BLM” and “Love” have been painted colorfully with a heart and peace symbol. Two empty grey benches stand in front of the graffitied storefront.
Renoir Gaither, “Street Art, Graffiti”, Minneapolis, George Floyd Protests 2020

Here’s what you’ll be studying this week

Much of the discussion of prisons and policing as problems circles around the notion of reform. We begin this week with an 11-minute discussion from Gilmore, who advocates for abolition, rather than reform, as an “offense” against the violent conditions of racial capitalism, with “aspirational” human rights as a paradigm shift that can honor all peoples’ lives, without making problematic demarcations between the “criminals” and the “innocents” that reformist efforts preserve. Gilmore briefly considers several examples that make this point, beginning with the demands of prisoners on hunger strike in California. We might think of these demands as “non-reformist reforms”. Hunger strikers had several demands: one was to have a way to get out of solitary confinement–a form of torture that some had been subject to for decades. Another demand was for adequate nutrition. These demands were refused, but if they were met, they would be “reforms” that would help prisoners’ lives–working to abolish, rather than preserve, the prison. Considering the problem of the PIC from the point of view of the criminalized and incarcerated, Gilmore argues–in harmony with Spade, Bassichis, and Lee, whose work we read next week–there is another way: we can create abolitionist movements “with all we’ve got”. 

For this week’s reading, we consider the possibilities imagined for reform through an investigation into the recent history of police reforms which, as Alex S. Vitale argues, do not achieve their stated aims–decreasing racist violence, for instance–but rather, extend funding and grow the reach of police. Vitale’s chapter addresses contemporary incidents, like the “broken windows policing” that led to the murder of Eric Garner, and reviews the many proposals for police reform that consistently fail to eradicate police violence, allowing for the continued circumstance in which police violence is blamed on a few “bad apples”. Vitale argues for the replacement of police with increased access to democracy that can challenge race-class inequality. 

Many proposals for police reform that consistently fail to eradicate police violence, allowing for the continued circumstance in which police violence is blamed on a few “bad apples”.

For a deeper exploration of the history of criminal punishment as a history of reform, we recommend reading chapter three from Are Prisons Obsolete?, where Davis reveals that the advent of the prison, in the 18th-19th centuries, was a product of reform movements that sought to end more brutal punishments that preceded incarceration. Even solitary confinement, widely viewed as a form of torture, and in no way linked to hope for “rehabilitation” today, was conceived as a rehabilitative reform, meant to discipline the “habits and ethics” of the white working class. Today, prisoners often have to fight for their right to transformative or rehabilitative processes like access to books, spiritual practice, exercise and educational programs. Prisons have largely ceased to even claim to rehabilitate, but rather are known to warehouse surplus populations.

Having considered the relationship between reform and the growth of the policing and punishment systems, we now ask you to study the infographic created by Critical Resistance: “Reformist Reforms vs. Abolitionist Steps in Policing,” which distinguishes between “reformist reforms which continue or expand the reach of policing, and abolitionist steps that work to chip away and reduce its overall impact.” Looking closely, we see that Critical Resistance argues against increasing police training. Instead, they argue for defunding. As Rachel Herzing writes, the function of policing is “armed protection of state interests.” Herzing examines recent reform efforts, arguing instead that we “take steps forward toward a future free of the violence of policing.” 

In a Critical Resistance video, Kamau Walton argues that policing cannot be reformed, nor outsourced to “community control”, because it’s working as intended: to oppress, disempower and further marginalize particular populations. Yet this powerful argument is up to debate, as some new initiatives in Black-led radical movements show. Here, we want to highlight this debate to begin to show the scope of possibilities offered in the current movement to overturn state racism. Max Rameau and Netfa Freeman describe the Community Control Over Police initiative of DC’s Pan-African Community Action (PACA) to shift power to Black working class masses. Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò argues that community control provides a bedrock for defunding and abolitionist efforts to operate independently of the state.  These examples show different attempts to dismantle repressive state institutions and to defend the lives of communities made vulnerable by state violence.


Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Don’t Reform Prisons, Abolish Them” (11 minute video)


Alex S. Vitale, The End of Policing, chapter 1: “The Limits of Police Reform”

Recommended: Read

Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? Chapter 3, “Imprisonment and Reform”


This chart: Reformist Reforms vs. Abolitionist Steps in Policing


Rachel Herzing, “Big Dreams and Bold Steps Toward a Police-Free Future”


Kamau Walton, “What’s Wrong with Community Control of Police?” (5 minute video)


Max Rameau and Netfa Freeman, “Community Control v. Defunding the Police: A Critical Analysis”


Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, “Power Over the Police”

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Feminist, Queer and Trans Abolitionism

“End Trans Detention” - A colorful illustration in portrait format by Rommy Torrico. The background of the image is a warm red-peach shade with detailed flowery and lacy patterns. “END TRANS DETENTION” is written in bold red text at the top of the image over a goldenrod yellow background with a hummingbird on each side of the text. In the center of the image, three Black trans people are standing with their fists in the air. On the left is a fat person wearing a white tank top with the text “still here” in red, tight black shorts and black boots. In the center is a long haired person wearing cream coloured high heeled lace up boots, a pair of black short shorts with a pink belt and black bra, with chains draped around their neck and waist. To their right, is a person with short hair, dressed in black pants and black shoes with a large black t-shirt with the text “detention center” in grey on it. In the foreground, two Black legs – one wearing white high heels and the other wearing blue jean shorts and brown boots emerge from the sides of the image to stomp on white hands holding a police night stick and handcuffs and a police riot gear helmet. There are three roses in a lighter shade of pink in each of the bottom corners of the image.
Rommy Torrico, “End Trans Detention”

Here’s what you’ll be studying this week

This section examines abolitionist praxis as central to the aims of trans, queer, and feminist liberation, which we begin to consider through review of a document produced in the movement against gender-based violence 40 years ago.

We explore a common criticism of abolition: “what about rape and domestic violence?” Don’t perpetrators of misogynist, homophobic, or transphobic violence “deserve” incarceration–or some kind of state punishment?

Advocating for state punishment in order to alleviate the problem of gender-based violence is a strategy that abolitionists critically name “carceral feminism”, and as Mariame Kaba shows in this “new zine”, the current outcome–that carceral feminists hold sway in the movement against gender-based violence–was not uncontested. Kaba re-published this 1977 “Open Letter to the Anti-Rape Movement” to emphasize that feminist antiviolence activists have questioned the role of law enforcement for forty years, but their critique has been demobilized by the professionalization of the movement and its co-optation in nonprofits, a hallmark of neoliberalism. 

Criminal punishment responses to gender-based violence overwhelmingly increase state violence without abolishing sexism.

As many anti violence activists agree, criminal punishment responses to gender-based violence overwhelmingly increase state violence without abolishing sexism. This is a critique that has been historically repeated and revisited: nearly twenty years ago, the organization INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence joined with PIC abolitionist organization Critical Resistance to urge us to “develop responses to gender violence that do not depend on a sexist, racist, classist, and homophobic criminal justice system.” This foundational document of abolitionist feminism stands against the misconception that abolitionists sideline the very real problem of the interpersonal violence and harm that is endemic to life in heteropatriarchy.

Instead, feminist, queer and trans abolitionists question whether state punishment responses to abuse, harassment, and sexual violence are effective at ending violence or, indeed, even intended to be so. As Victoria Law notes, the irony of carceral feminism is that it “does not acknowledge that police are often purveyors of violence and that prisons are always sites of violence.” Further, carceral feminism “ignores the ways in which race, class, gender identity, and immigration status leave certain women more vulnerable to violence and that greater criminalization often places these same women at risk of state violence.” Against criminal punishment responses to harm, as abolitionist feminists, it is upon us to imagine and enact transformative approaches that truly address and uproot gender-based violence, leaving no one behind. 

In our final reading for this week, Bassichis, Lee and Spade begin with the rebellious energy of the “sexual and gender outsiders,” principally people of color, who mobilized in the Stonewall uprising that is often considered the catalyst of the modern LBGTQ+ movement. This essay begins with a chart that highlights the difference between elite-driven “official solutions” to big problems, which privilege those constituencies most likely to already have some privilege, contrasted with “transformative approaches” that radical movements utilize to build solidarity and advocate for collective well-being. Bassichis, Lee and Spade carefully and plainly explain the ways that progressive, even radical movements have been driven towards these “official solutions” due to the strategies of global capital and neoliberal governance in the last 40 years. 

Now that you’ve heard all about the demobilization and co-optation of our antiviolence feminist, queer and trans liberation movements, want to spend some time with a real revolutionary, who was at the Stonewall uprising and dedicated her entire life to the ethic of mutual aid in the service of survival and thriving for trans people who are targeted by the punishment system? Watch the film Major! –we’re not crying, you’re crying.

Read or listen

“New Zine: Letter to the Anti-Rape Movement” Mariame Kaba 2020/Santa Cruz Women Against Rape 1977


INCITE-Critical Resistance Statement on Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex. This classic document, nearly 20 years old, is soon to be updated! 


Victoria Law, “Against Carceral Feminism” 


This website (and new recommended book!): Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color


Spade, Bassichis, and Lee, “Building a Queer and Trans Abolitionist Movement with All We’ve Got”


Watch film: Major!

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Abolitionist Alternatives

“We Find Safety in Each Other” - An illustration of a broken down police car with the windows smashed out and giant flowers growing through it in pastel blue, purple and green tones. On the hood of the police car is written “we find safety in each other.” Next to the police car, two figures in red and pink are crouched on the ground leaning against one another. One figure has a large yellow star in the center of their chest and the other figure has a star where their eye would be.
“We Find Safety In Each Other”, Kah Yangni, 2020

Here’s what you’ll be studying this week

The final chapter of Angela Davis’s book explores the question that so many of us ask about abolition: “If jails and prisons are to be abolished, then what will replace them?” A similar question that has come up in current anti-police protests is, “if police are to be defunded or abolished, what will replace them?” As you know now–if you didn’t before–abolitionists consider jails, prisons, and police, or the entire “criminal punishment system”, as a site for the production of great harm, and we don’t believe they need to be “replaced.” On the other hand, abolitionists have taken up the charge of addressing the problems that police and prisons purport to resolve: problems of social harm and violence, often interpersonal violence–you can start with a comic that explains just this. Rejecting the notion of “crime” that falsely categorizes some as “innocent” while others are “guilty,” instead, abolitionists focus on the problem of harm

Davis begins chapter six asking us to question the notion of punishment, and instead urges us to use our radical imagination to

envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment–demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.”

Her chapter begins by rejecting the criminalization of drug use, sex work, and migration, strategizing for an end to sexist violence, and advocating for a vastly expanded social safety net. Davis ends by considering an entirely new justice system, with the example of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, for those times when people perpetuate violence. 

This brings us back to the idea of transformative justice. As we began to learn last week, transformative justice is an experimental set of practices designed in large part by feminists who seek to address and “transform harm,” as Kaba writes, through methods of accountability and healing that avoid reproducing the harms associated with the punitive justice system.

Here, we offer several examples from community-based organizations that have worked to transform harm by ending policing, providing interpersonal accountability and healing models, and increasing community-based resources that offer everyone a chance to thrive. What would a world based on transformative justice look like? To begin, it would be one that would completely overturn the ableist basis of capitalism–as Patty Berne writes, disability justice is a “vision and practice of a yet-to-be, a map that we create with our ancestors and our great grandchildren onward, in the width and depth of our multiplicities and histories, a movement towards a world in which every body and mind is known as beautiful.”

When we make abolitionist worlds–when we attempt to build harm-free zones, for example–we’re creating that map. We end this week, and our study series, with Nick Estes, who revisits anticolonial movements that “co-create liberated spaces and communities of freedom,” aligning our present with the legacies of resistance we choose to extend.

Read: Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? Chapter 6, “Abolitionist Alternatives”


Andrea Ritchie, “Building Alternatives is Everyone’s Job” (5 minute video)


Videos: Building Accountable Communities (scroll down to watch four 5-minute video conversations between Kiyomi Fujikawa and Shannon Perez-Darby)


Here are some community-based programs from the Bay Area and Sacramento that have created modes of community-based safety. These “abolitionist alternatives” are experimental projects that can provide models and knowledge for other contexts.


Patty Berne, “Disability Justice: A Working Draft by Patty Berne”


Nick Estes, “Freedom is a Place”

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“Justice Calls for a Copless Future” - A colorful illustration in a square format of a burning police car with thick black smoke billowing from the flames. The burning cop car is framed by peach roses and small bright yellow green flowers. The text above the burning police car reads “Justice Calls for a Copless Future.” Below the car is written: “Disarm Defund Dismantle.”
Image by Kate DeCiccio (@k8deciccio on Instagram)

Now that you’ve studied, it’s time for putting abolition into action! The process of “praxis” is one of combined thought and action. We hope that you will act, and study, and act again, and return to your studies as you grow your revolutionary practice. We’re inspired by the Critical Resistance slogan: “Dismantle. Change. Build.” As abolitionists, we want to change everything. Through both “dismantling” and “building,” these action ideas are meant to do just that.


The violence of the punishment state and the racial capitalism that deals in death-making poverty and criminalization deserve nothing but our energy for destruction. In the spirit of the Minneapolis Uprising, we want to organize, riot, protest and strike! Let’s join the resistance. Now is the time.

  • Did you see them burn down the Minneapolis police station? Is that a possibility in your locale?
  • Did you know that Minneapolis city council voted to dismantle their police department? Campaigns to defund the police–to shrink their budget, curtail their reach, and to limit their presence–are underway in many cities, but it’s up to abolitionists to keep our advocacy strong, holding officials accountable to the aims of our liberation movements. This is happening everywhere! For example, in Durham, North Carolina, the group Durham Beyond Policing has built a successful coalition against the growth of policing. 

Maybe you’ll join a campaign, or otherwise help people gather in your school district, city or town to reduce the police budget and put that money into Black and brown communities. For some practical steps that might work in your region, see this #M4BL toolkit: “Interrupting Criminalization”. You might prevent a new jail from being built, work to disband a school police program, or grow abolition on your campus. Maybe you’ll join a movement to abolish the police, and to free everyone held in your local prison, jail, or detention center!


To build the next world while this one breaks down, we want to highlight mutual aid–it’s not merely an action, but an ethical practice we can all get into. Mutual aid contradicts capitalist hierarchy by emphasizing the truth of our interconnection. One mutual aid slogan, “we keep us safe,” was popularized both in the COVID crisis and the 2020 uprising against anti-Black violence and policing. This slogan expresses the anticapitalist feminist notion that people caring for one another is at the heart of a safer, healthier, and more abundant world. For a great resource to learn about and participate in mutual aid, check out Big Door Brigade.

  • Care for each other. Commit to mutual aid (you probably already do it!). While you’re out there practicing it–here are a few more resources for your exploration of mutual aid. 
  • Try some abolitionist mutual aid. These are small actions that can support incarcerated people right now.
    • Plan a letter-writing event! Incarcerated people are far too isolated, and may be in need of communication. See the guide from the organization Survived and Punished here.
    • Get involved with a books-to-prisoners program! This national list includes many.
    • Join the call to #FreeThemAll –none of us are free while some of us are caged.
      • Free Them All 4 Public Health
      • Release Aging People in Prison: RAPP
      • End youth incarceration: support Project Nia
      • Mobilize: contribute to bail funds, and advocate for political prisoners. Providing bail is an immediate way to open a cage. Mutual aid means caring for all people, never distinguishing between those who are or aren’t “deserving” of a chance for well-being. To care for incarcerated people, our goal is to #FreeThemAll.

Keep up your study and keep acting upon it! Imagine. What will you do to make abolitionist worlds? The possibilities are never ending.

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community garden - A detailed pencil crayon illustration in a landscape format. The destroyed Minneapolis Police Department and a broken down police car with smashed windows and lights are depicted in black and white. All of the other elements in the work are depicted in vibrant color. In front of the police station, three children are drawn playing hopscotch, drawing on the sidewalk with chalk and watching corn grow. Three tomato plants grow in front of the children drawing. A person is shown from behind cycling past the children on a rainbow painted bike path. A “Free food” sign covers the bumper of the broken police car and six boxes of vegetables sit on its hood.
Sometimes fire takes the forest so that new things can grow. A clearing. After the fire burns and the smoke settles, the soil is left replenished, fertile and alive. Forest fires make way for the sun to touch the earth so wildflowers can break through. A diversity of insects, plants and animals are allowed to generate and thrive while monocultures, disease and invasive species are restrained. Nature reminds us that healing is a process and it takes many roles to support an ecosystem. We don’t have everything we need in this moment to restore ourselves and our communities, but we have enough to begin.

Art and writing by Jared Ingebretson and Nikki Ann

We hope you do more!

Week 1 (Prisons and Policing in the U.S. as a History of anti-Blackness) further investigation:

Week 2 (The Prison Industrial Complex) further investigation:

  • Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? Chapter 5, “The Prison Industrial Complex”
  • Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California
  • Harsha Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism, especially chapter 1: “What is Border Imperialism?”
  • Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism
  • Robert T. Chase, Caging Borders and Carceral States: Incarcerations, Immigration Detentions, and Resistance
  • Tara Herivel and Paul Wright eds., Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money From Mass Incarceration
  • Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate

Week 3 (Policing and Imprisonment as Racial Violence) further investigation: 

Week 4 (Reformist Reforms vs. Abolitionist Steps) further investigation:

Week 5 (Feminist, Queer and Trans Abolitionism) further investigation:

Week 6 (Abolitionist Alternatives) further investigation:

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Today’s abolitionist movement is formed through the lived conditions of our time; these same forces formed historical freedom struggles. As PIC abolitionists, we are not only descendents of these struggles–we are their continuation. All the very different revolutionaries and radicals who we cite in this document hold a common belief that a more just world is possible, and that we can join in struggle to make it so.

Today’s movement for the abolition of policing and prisons seeks to end dehumanization and punishment enacted through race, class, nationality, gender, sex, sexuality, and ability. As such, PIC abolitionism is consonant with other movements that share this goal. At the start of our study, Ruth Wilson Gilmore proclaimed that today’s abolitionism “must be green, must be red, and must be international.” This guide has offered little of that! Here are some resources to continue and expand our liberatory study.

Please note that a lot of people contributed to this incomplete suggestion for introductory resources on many movements. They’re not in any particular order–just dive in!

Prisoners’ movements, prisoners’ writing

  • The “Daily Realities of Prison Life”: Ear Hustle podcast
  • Listen to Mumia Abu Jamal: Prison Radio
  • George Jackson, Soledad Brother: The Prison Writings of George Jackson
  • Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings
  • Dan Berger, Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era
  • Time Blunk and Raymond Luc Levasseur, Hauling up the Morning/Izando la Mañana: Writings & Art by Political Prisoners & Prisoners of War in the U.S.
  • Joy James, The New Abolitionists: (Neo)slave Narratives And Contemporary Prison Writings
  • Dylan Rodriguez, Forced Passages: Imprisoned Racial Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime
  • Barbara Harlow, Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention
  • Nahla Abdo, Captive Revolution: Palestinian Women’s Anti-Colonial Struggle Within the Israeli Prison System
  • Prisoner Movement Organizations and Projects (Just a few)

Native liberation

Disability justice

Antiracist Feminisms

  • Kimberlé Crenshaw, “The Urgency of Intersectionality” (TedTalk)
  • Anzaldúa and Moraga, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color
  • Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class
  • The Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement” (1977)
  • Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera
  • Sonia Shah, Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire
  • Rabab Abdulhadi, Nadine Naber, and Evelyn Alsultani, Arab and Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence and Belonging
  • Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity
  • Negar Mottahedeh, Whisper Tapes: Kate Millett in Iran
  • Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life
  • Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body, and Primitive Accumulation
  • Zillah Eisenstein, Abolitionist Socialist Feminism: Radicalizing the Next Revolution
  • Antiracist Feminist Organizations and Projects (just a few!)
    • SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective
    • Asian American Feminist Collective
    • GABRIELA National Alliance of Women: “for the liberation of all oppressed Filipino women and the rest of our people”
    • Incite! network of radical feminists of color organizing to end state violence and violence in our homes and communities.
    • The #MeToo Movement Website: metoomvmnt.org

White antiracism

  • Joel Olson, The Abolition of White Democracy
  • Becky Thmopson, A Promise and a Way of Life
  • Mab Segrest, Memoir of a Race Traitor
  • Hilary Moore and James Tracy, No Fascist USA! The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee
  • Alex Zamalin, Antiracism: An Introduction
  • Noel Ignative and John Garvey, Race Traitor 
  • Facilitating growth: an antiracist resource for white people
  • White Antiracist Organizing and Projects (just a few!)

US Capitalism, Whiteness, and the Right 

  • Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine
  • George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics
  • Nancy McLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America
  • David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government
  • Christopher Leonard, Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America
  • AC Thompson’s reports on US Neo-Nazi movements: Frontline and ProPublica

Against Imperialism

  • Robert Vitalis, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations
  • Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire
  • Arundhati Roy, War Talk
  • Juan Gonzalez, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America
  • Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism
  • Nikhil Pal Singh, Race and America’s Long War
  • Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim
  • Faisal Devji, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity
  • Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred Years War on Palestine
  • Cynthia Enloe, Nimo’s War, Emma’s War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War
  • Nadje Al-Ali & Nicola Pratt, What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq
  • Adam Shatz, “‘Orientalism’, Then and Now”
  • Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States
  • Yanis Varoufakis, Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment
  • Anti-Imperialist Projects: 

Migrant Justice 

  • Julie A. Dowling and Jonathan Xavier Inda, Governing Immigration Through Crime: A Reader
  • Martha Escobar, Captivity Beyond Prisons: Criminalization Experiences of Latina (Im)migrants
  • Tanya Golash-Boza, Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism
  • Jenna M. Lloyd, Andre Burridge, and Matt Mitchelson, Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis
  • Shannon Speed, Incarcerated Stories: Indigenous Women Migrants and Violence in the Settler-Capitalist State, especially chapter 3, “Perilous Passages: The Neoliberal Multicultural Settler State
  • Listen: Rustbelt Abolition Podcast – Queering Abolition (features two Tucson organizers who are leading abolitionists efforts for LGBTQIA (im)migrants in detention. 
  • Listen: Radio Cachimbona Podcast – Immigration lawyer and abolitionist deconstructs the criminalization of (im)migrants. 
  • Migrant Justice Organizations (just a few!):

Abolitionism and Education

Decolonization and Internationalism

  • Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
  • Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism
  • Amilcar Cabral, Resistance and Decolonization
  • Aimé Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism
  • Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography
  • Subcomandante Marcos, Conversations with Durito
  • Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World
  • Max Elbaum, “What Legacy from the Radical Internationalism of 1968?”
  • Alex Lubin, Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary
  • Angela Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement

Late-20th century liberation: radical accounts

  • James Baldwin, The Fire This Time
  • Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
  • Kimberly Springer, Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations 1968-1980
  • Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective
  • Bloom and Martin, Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party
  • Pamela Pennock, The Rise of the Arab-American Left
  • Karen L. Ishizuka, Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties
  • Johanna Fernández, The Young Lords: A Radical History
  • Maylei Blackwell, Chicana Power! Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement
  • George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968
  • Dohrn, Ayers and Jones, Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiques of the Weather Underground, 1970-1974
  • Emily Hobson, Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left
  • Dan Berger and Emily Hobson, Remaking Radicalism: A Grassroots Documentary Reader of the United States, 1973–2001
  • Schomburg Center Black Liberation Reading List (many resources listed here)
  • Check out the Freedom Archives for more radical movement history!

Some of us came together to create this study group guide through our shared work in the Abolition Collective. To learn more about us, please visit our blog, and read our journal online! The Abolition Collective’s manifesto claims that abolition “is not about what is possible, but about making the impossible a reality”. We invite you to join us, go all the way, and make it so.

"until we all are free" by Jess X. Snow - An image of a sunset over the ocean in warm blues and pinks. There are a few clouds and you can see far off deep blue mountains in the distance. A border fence of upright posts extends from the foreground into the water, with five small boats floating on one side of the fence. Above the boats, facing in the direction of the fence, a giant hummingbird fills the sky, made up of many smaller birds flying. A trail of people, some holding hands, some with children between them, all with outstretched arms, float through the sky in the hummingbird’s wake. Some enter the outline of the giant hummingbird an appear to transform into the many smaller birds that fill its image.
“Until We All Are Free” by Jess X. Snow
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If you are running a reading group based on this guide, please comment on the Abolition Journal Blog (in the comments section below here) and tell us about your experiences!

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