Abolition & freedom
1 October 2020
Below, an excerpt from a podcast-produced interview with Ruth Wilson Gilmore by Chenjerai Kumanyika for The Intercept, from June. I didn’t learn of it until a few days ago (via another, recent, with Mariame Kaba). So it wasn’t in mind when I wrote that long June post, of course, but when I heard it, the segment I reproduce here caught my ear in connection with some of what I’d written then.
On my mind: liberalism’s emergence half a millennium ago; its answers and accommodations to evolving European war-making and conditions of societal violence authorized and unauthorized; the challenges conceiving a post-liberal turn in positive terms presents; and whose proposed conceptions of a post-liberal world should have priority as we find ourselves attempting, more or less consciously, to negotiate that turn.
Gilmore: … Some people might say, ‘Well gosh, Ruthie, why wouldn’t you want the people who killed your cousin to be locked up?’ The answer is, that wouldn’t bring my cousin back; if they were locked up forever, that would mean that their families would suffer as my family has suffered; and it wouldn’t solve the problems that the Black Panther Party, that other parties striving for liberation, were trying to realize in the world. All of that made me an abolitionist. Other abolitionists can tell you their stories. We all came together, not because we thought the people in prison were innocent, but because we knew that prison wasn’t solving the problems that we in our communities were struggling to resolve. All of them could see how the vulnerability, everyday vulnerability, for modestly educated people in the prime of their life could not be addressed in a meaningful way as long as the forces of organized violence and prison expansion took the place of solving the problems that people actually experience.
Kumanyika: I can’t count the number of times that I’ve used the word freedom in protests here in Philadelphia, in places like Ferguson Missouri, New York, and elsewhere. ‘Back up back up, we want freedom!’ It’s a cry we use to back down the advance of police in the carceral state. But in the introduction to Ruthie’s 2007 book Golden Gulag, she says something that is both disturbing and clarifying: ‘The practice of putting people in cages for all or part of their lives is a central feature in the development of secular states, participatory democracy, individual rights, and contemporary notions of freedom.’
Gilmore: Concepts of freedom are constantly struggled over, circulated around the planet over the last five hundred years, and didn’t begin with the expansion of European colonialism and imperialism. But certainly these concepts, concepts of freedom, central to the struggle of how we make life — so the American project has the word freedom written large across every document (although ‘liberty’ kind of more strongly than ‘freedom’ in some places). And for some people, perhaps people for whom a reformist reform is adequate, freedom to participate in all of these institutions and agencies of opportunity and control is adequate. For others of us, that freedom isn’t enough. That freedom actually doesn’t make possible the flourishing of life as it should be, in part because it rests on an unspoken (or not spoken enough) foundation of colonialism, as well as an unspoken problem of the redress for slavery and displacement and dislocation that has characterized so much of the last five hundred years. That said, what we’re trying to do in thinking with so many people in so many places about abolition is, how can it be possible to realize a new way of being, given what it is we already know how to do? We can look back through history, or around the world now, and see, for example, as DuBois taught us in Black Reconstruction in America, that post-Civil-War communities in the the South develop all kinds of institutions for well-being and opportunity and safety that did not rely on organized violence, but rather were opening up to the possibility of greater and greater freedom through the institution of such things as public education and so on. We know from talking with and working with colleagues and comrades who are fighting against land-grabbing, whether it’s from Black farmers in Mississippi, or landless peasants in Brazil or Mozambique, that given the fact that seventy percent of all the food that’s consumed on this planet is still produced by small producers, that we have already there the opportunity to free ourselves from the deprivation and degradation that agribusiness produces. So this is another way of thinking about freedom. So these are some of the large ways that abolitionists are trying to think, but think concretely about what it is people already do, or already know how to do, or already should be able to do, if they only felt empowered, if you will, to do it.