Everyday Abolition: We Are Responsible for the Prison Industrial Complex

03/30/2015 09:26 am ET | Updated May 30, 2015

I have been thinking a lot about violence at the hands of the state -- the police state we have become -- and the prison industrial complex (PIC) that we've developed. And since I work in higher education, I have been thinking especially of everyday abolition in the college setting. Police violence has become more acceptable to us, reinforced by the training we get in school. To abolish the PIC, we must change our daily interactions and ways of being. And we cannot just tweet about abolition. We need to live it.

What follows is part one of train of thought that includes more questions than answers, but I hope it starts conversations on how we can find alternatives in our daily lives to abolish our prison industrial complex.

The police in our lives

In March UVA student Martese Johnson sustained head injuries that left him bloody and bruised following St. Patrick's Day celebrations near the UVA campus in Charlottesville. According to ABC news,

He was arrested outside a Charlottesville bar by state Alcoholic Beverage Control agents who are charged with enforcing alcohol laws in Virginia. In Virginia, there is no legal requirement that customers entering a restaurant where alcohol is served must be over the age of 21. So Johnson had every right to attempt to enter Trinity so long as he was using his lawful identification. Trinity's decision to enact a 21 and over policy after 10 p.m., for busy evenings, did not make Johnson's attempt to enter illegal.

Two elements of this story are being picked out as significant: First there was the rumor that Johnson was using a fake ID to enter the bar. Then there was the fact that he is an honor student and has no criminal record. But what does it matter that he is an honor student? What does it matter if he had a fake ID? Why does it matter whether or not he had a criminal record? The real point is that it is not ok for authorities to brutalize a human being like this.

A year ago, City College San Francisco (CCSF) students held a demonstration calling for the resignation of Special Trustee Robert Agrella and the reversal of a new tuition policy. After a rally, the students marched to the administration building, a traditional site of student protests and sit-ins which is open to students and the public. To the students' surprise, CCSF Chancellor Arthur Tyler ordered the building closed to the demonstrators, and called in the San Francisco Police as well as the San Francisco Community College Police. Otto Pippenger and Dimitrios Philliou, CCSF students, were injured and arrested in a violent attack on student demonstrators by the police.

Why such heavy reliance on police and law enforcement on and near college campuses? What are we teaching our students when we show them that we need to rely on police?

On Last Week Tonight John Oliver had a segment about municipal fines. The core of his argument was that fines and punishment for minor crimes are part of living in community. Oliver says he's not advocating that minor offenses go unpunished, but that we should have the "right to fuck up once in a while without completely destroying our lives." He describes the "fuck barrel" as a system of fines added when someone is unable to pay the original fine, which might land the person in jail for failure to pay the fines. My question is, why are we ok with these fines for minor infractions in the first place? Do municipal fines make our communities safer? Do police make our communities safer?

Incite! reminds us to always ask, "How do we commit to an ongoing development of all members of the community, and the community itself, to transforming the political conditions that reinforce oppression and violence?" For me, without this community transformation, abolishing the PIC is not possible.

Our harmful patterns

Here are some examples that range over a wide field of harmful patterns of thought and actions that contribute to the prison industrial complex:

  • "Calling out" instead of calling into dialogue and accountability about harmful speech and actions.
  • Teaching children that some people are "bad people" instead of teaching that it is the actions that are harmful, not the humanity of the person.
  • Our calls for more police instead of better education and greater equity.
  • Punishing drug use instead of setting up better resources to end poverty, like livable wages!
  • Hostile communication with neighbors about such matters as their dog wandering.
  • Misogynistic and sexist language
  • Labeling people "aliens"
  • Outsourcing labor "we" don't want to do

Questioning and changing these everyday patterns will help set up stronger and safer communities, one step in working towards a world without cages.

What is "everyday abolition"?

Steph Turner explains "Abolition, is not just about liberating us from a capitalistic distortion of justice. While opening us to full social justice, it can also liberate us all into our full collective potential."

S. Lamble in the book Captive Genders explains,

Abolitionist practice means questioning punitive practices in our intimate relationships, rethinking the ways we deal with personal conflicts, and reducing harms that occur in our homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools. In this way, 'living abolition' is part of the daily practice of creating a world without cages.

I've been following the tweets from the Incite! Color of Violence 4 conference. Rasmea Odeh said, "The whole system of incarceration is designed to destroy people's humanity and make them feel hopeless and in despair." A tenet of everyday abolition is to restore people's humanity and bring hope and healing to our communities.
Everyday abolition deals with the ways we interact with others. It questions whether we are opening space to bring people into accountability and learning or, are we pushing people out of our space. When we push people out, without any process of accountability, where do we push them to? Do we just push them on to harm another segment of our community?

Policy and laws

Mutual aid and respect within a community is good living. But we live in an inequitable world. Instead of addressing issues of equity we have become a police state where police are policing disorder, those municipal infractions that John Oliver was talking about. Of course this policing of disorder is primarily done in an inequitable fashion, as recently detailed in the Ferguson report. But where else does this desire to control disorder pop up? In education.

From pre-k to college young lives are highly regulated against disorder. For every act of disorder there is an authoritarian consequence. How much regulation is actually necessary? Miss school? Your family is fined. Act out in school? Sit in detention, get suspended, get arrested. Of course this happens inequitably. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, students with disabilities represent a quarter of the students who are referred to law enforcement or subject to school related arrests, while representing just 12 percent of the student population. And according to the US DOE black students represent 16 percent of the student population, but 32-42 percent of students suspended or expelled.

Madeline Levine, in "Raising Successful Children," explained how nurturing self-reliance builds character: "When we do things for our children out of our own needs rather than theirs, it forces them to circumvent the most critical task of childhood: to develop a robust sense of self." Who is most concerned about disorder? Children or adults?

We need to be able to collaborate with, not colonize people, in our increasingly globalized lives. In addition to a strong sense of self, we need to learn to mediate the world on our own and in community. And I think the world is our community. Don't we already know that young people playing basketball can challenge another player about traveling, without the assistance of a referee? Why does the system interfere in their learning?

Our prison culture makes a special problem for women (trans and cis). Angela Davis' "The We That Sets Us Free" suggests that we "begin to think about the state as a perpetrator of violence against women, and understand the connections between intimate violence, private violence, state violence, prison violence, and military violence." Violence against women is a community issue. Part of everyday abolition is standing up against misogyny in all its insidious forms, and we need to foster community solutions to interpartner violence.

The point of opening up and creating these [community] alternatives, means creating a world that is very different from this one. If kids grow up seeing that abuse gets stopped by someone right next to them, if we create subsystems where people know that if they're violent, it's not going to be tolerated -- we're going to create a whole different way of living in this world.

How powerful it would be to have a generation who knew that violence is not tolerated!

The second part of this train of thought will discuss how we might enact everyday abolition.