"Capitalism requires inequality, and racism enshrines it," -- Ruthie Gilmore.
We are in an earth-shifting historical moment, unseen before in our modern world. On May 25, the world witnessed a Black man named George Floyd pinned against asphalt by three men in uniform, with Floyd calling out for his dead mother as he, knowingly, began to die. Collectively, a pandemic-isolated and hyper-vigilant world responded to his murder and a tsunami of other Black men and women murdered -- while sleeping, jogging or fleeing in terror -- by those invested with the full force of the state.
Over the last two weeks, two cries for change have become standard refrains online and in the streets: "Defund the police!" and "Abolition now!"
The first is self-evident: It is a call to reduce police department annual budgets and to redirect money to communities that, as Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors often says, have been "deeply divested from" -- in Canada, those communities are Black and Indigenous communities. Specifically, the call to defund is a demand for an investment in social services for mental health, domestic violence and homelessness -- three areas where police officers are most often first responders, and are crudely, violently insufficient, as the recent death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet confirms.
Abolition is a longer-term project in which prisons and police are permanently replaced with well-supported social services, community care networks, and mechanisms for accountability. The first is, of course, a precursor to the second, and while both refrains have become popular culture in our current moment, it is fair to say that, for many people, trepidation and sophomoric understandings underlie both ideas.
But what is it, really, that makes people so nervous about defunding the police and imagining a world without prisons?
The most concise answer is our commitment to individualism, a steely conditioning borne of the long arc of classical liberalism and more recently, neoliberalism. This schooling renounces care and connection as the most essential needs of all human life. As radical as our protests and hubristic cries for abolition may be, most of us have no idea what to do when something harmful or violent occurs, including those of us who grew up with domestic violence.
We fear terrible things happening without a buffer. We fear violence without protection and a world where people who harm can continue to rage unchecked. Crucially, we have no idea what to do when harm occurs in our own homes. We lack the tools to navigate interpersonal violence. We run away from and sometimes discard friends, co-workers, and "bad" organizers on a whim. And we have even less of an idea what to do in order to shift or avert the very ground of violence -- that is, to imagine and reshape material conditions that prevent, lessen or obliterate violence itself.
In short, the fear that comes to us when we imagine a world without police is a fear of uncertainty that is tied to our own private spaces -- our private relationships, private apartments, private homes, and insular communities, like the one in Portapique, Nova Scotia -- that produce misogynists and mass killers. Our current moment is a clarion call for radical change and equally, a reminder that "the revolution starts at home."
Transformative justice (TJ), the bedrock of abolition, is the learning model that guides us to begin reckoning with violence and harm, first, at the smallest scale and within all of our interpersonal relationships. At its most basic, TJ pushes us to find ways to respond to violence without generating more violence. It is not a script, because violence, while tied to identifiable conditions of scarcity and trauma, is emergent.
TJ is a set of everyday practices that guide human relations to respond to harm and violence non-punitively. It is a commitment to accountability, rather than punishment. For many of our people who live with conditions of deep scarcity that are intractable, TJ is also harm reduction.
We can look to existing resources and stories for examples of what TJ looks like in real time. In the 2016 book The Revolution Starts At Home, Meiver De la Cruz and Carol Gomez share the story of a Korean immigrant named Sun-hi. Sun-hi was in an abusive marriage where she ended up losing her children and was at risk of deportation and homelessness.
Sun-hi reached out to her local network for care for support, and colleagues and activists built a long-term solidarity team around her. Their strategy for support was grounded in knowledge of institutional racism, interpersonal racism, misogyny and other forms of oppression.
The actions they took to offer Sun-hi support over the next two years included support navigating the criminal legal system, translation services, physical protection from violence against her abusive husband, financial support and socio-emotional support. Although Sun-hi ultimately lost custody of her children, she avoided deportation. Further, her 27-member team of support helped Sun-hi maintain her mental health, remain connected to her children and develop personal advocacy skills.
In this way, TJ is about building and opting into communities of care right where we are, rather than replacing the police with a "more caring" institution. We must be willing to wander outside the nuclear family structure and take responsibility for the well-being and safety of those we call friends and even acquaintances. What would it mean to hold the intimacy and wellness of our friends as "our business," rather than allowing the domestic and interpersonal to remain the business of the state?
These are the very issues that elder organizers, such as Angela Davis and Joy James, have been centring in conversations and lectures regarding abolition over the last few years.
During a luncheon in Halifax in the fall of 2018, Davis pointedly asked local prison abolition organizers "How are you connecting it all, sexual violence and prison abolition?" While abolition is a political platform that invokes images of Black men in cages, our radical organizing histories teach us that such visioning is both partial and pathological.
Given the proliferation of popular and media representations of Black male criminality, as well as the radical growth of carceral institutions targeting Black men in the 20th century, our communities often protectively encircled Black men in ways that forcefully undermined Black women's experiences with intraracial violence. Over time, the results were the relegation of gender violence to the private sphere and the castigation of individual histories as harmful distractions to community organizing.
Davis and James have reminded us that the outcomes of fighting for a world without police, without working, in parallel fashion to transform harm and violence at home, are communities that remain traumatized by both systemic and interpersonal violence. When we neglect to protect and prioritize Black women and children, we reinforce old hierarchies of organizing that gutted partnership violence from its agenda.
During a workshop on TJ in Montreal in March 2018, James offered a reflection on the role of gender violence in radical organizing that arose in the late 1960s:
"At this age, I am really grateful that younger people are now the leaders. Because I feel that you have the courage to call out contradiction where we would just endure decades of silence. This means that we just gave you a picture of the world that's not real because we buried the violence. And that's our complicity."
The work of reimagining and rebuilding safer communities is not simple or quick. We are standing on the shoulders of organizers from our past who brilliantly created free breakfast programs for our children, but struggled to challenge the misogynist hierarchies that left Black women and children at risk.
In our current moment, opportunities for reflection and growth must be central to our abolitionist imaginings. Let us have the courage to dream, try, fail, try again and fail better. As we demand the dismantling of our current policing systems, may we simultaneously cultivate robust communities of care. May we meditate on and take inspiration from the words of poet Gwendolyn Brooks: "We are each other's harvest; we are each other's business; we are each other's magnitude and bond."
Reakash Walters is a descendant of Jamaican Maroons and committed to Black liberation. She is a community organizer, writer and articling student. You can find her on twitter @reakash.
Rachel Zellars is an assistant professor at Saint Mary's University. She is also a mother of three, and co-founder of the Third Eye Collective, a transformative justice collective by and for Black women.
Image: Mitchel Raphael
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