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"Abolition Is...": A Roundtable

As the language and logics of prison industrial complex (PIC) abolitionism enter the liberal mainstream, they also become subject to increased co-optation, bastardization, and de-radicalization. Black rage, Black grief, and Black militancy are incorporated, distorted, and sold back to us as Black capitalism, Black punditry, and Black “representation” in electoral politics. Burning police precincts becomes an appeal for small budgetary concessions. “Abolish” becomes “Defund” becomes “Reform.” We make promises for more diversity and more inclusion. We issue statements and elect the “lesser” of two evils. From the academy, we get what Joy James terms “academic abolitionism” – the rhetoric of abolition so severed from any Black radical, working-class, or grassroots origins that it no longer has radical potential. “There is nothing about the academy that has revolutionary desire,” James notes in a 2019 lecture, “And if abolitionism is about revolutionary desire, then you’re caught in a contradiction.” We become ahistorical about abolition. Business continues as usual.

Intentionally reconnecting with the Black radical past is one way to intervene and challenge ahistorical, purely academic abolitionism. More specifically, the study of pre-1900 Black radical abolitionist activity (subversion, rebellion, insurrection) in the Americas affirms the historical roots, present responsibilities, and future possibilities of PIC abolition. By returning to the first abolitionist movement in the Americas—a movement of Black radical resistance against unfathomable odds—I believe we can amplify corrective historiographies to make sense of abolition in our time. Using these histories of resistance as blueprints may enable us to forge new pathways forward against the enduring realities of capitalism, colonialism, and anti-Black racism that shape our lives and deaths.

The following roundtable features three young people currently organizing and theorizing around issues of PIC abolition. As recent graduates and soon-to-be graduates of New York University, we are attuned to the proliferation of academic abolitionism in our lives and our work. We all contribute to the multimedia resource hub and living archive Abolition Is, a political education resource for students of abolition by students of abolition. Here, we compile Black radical and abolitionist projects from across time and place to create an expansive educational space beyond the confines of a classroom or the commands of an academic institution. By developing free resources for learning in our “Study Series,” centering radical young people’s creations on our Feature Page,” and hosting virtual teach-ins, letter writings, and other events for connection and community, the digital landscape of Abolition Is… offers us a platform to name, navigate, and ultimately, resist, the spread of ahistorical abolitionism.

Throughout Abolition Is…, we utilize the term “student of abolition” in acknowledgement of  the profound historical significance and the inherent present responsibility of aligning ourselves with the Black radical tradition and the tradition of radical abolitionism. When considering our choice to call ourselves “students” of abolition, I often think of something Dylan Rodriguez said in a 2016 interview:

Many student activists call themselves ‘abolitionists’ when their political agendas are fundamentally opposed to abolition! So that leaves us with the task of teaching and demonstrating what it means to inhabit the long historical responsibilities that accompany the declaration that one is an abolitionist. You have to be willing and able to say that shit to Sojourner Truth’s ghost.

As ahistorical, de-radicalized forms of PIC abolition are promoted in the mainstream, we reflect on the following questions: Why should we, as students of abolition, be (re)turning to and (re)considering the archive of slavery abolitionism in the Americas? How can we be utilizing the archive of Early American history in the present? What insights, affirmations, and/or warnings can folks fighting for the abolition of prisons and policing learn from mobilizations against chattel slavery in the pre-1900 Americas? 

Read entire article at Insurrect: Radical Thinking in Early American Studies