Abolitionist Practices, Reformist Moments

Rachel Herzing, Erica R. Meiners, and nuri nusrat

Despite campaign promises to restore “law and order,” the Trump administration might not be able to arrest the momentum of prison and policing reform movements, which intensified under the Obama administration with Black communities at the forefront of these struggles. However, across the US many reforms proposed by the state are far from innovative. They are instead deeply familiar—calls for more research data, police review boards, more “scientific” risk assessment tools. Other reforms reflect changing technologies and times: cops must wear body cameras. Importantly, these proposed reforms are fully compatible with a “law and order” agenda and do not challenge the prison industrial complex (PIC), the target of abolitionist movements.

As people committed to building freedom through both reducing harm and building responses to harm that do not rely on imprisonment, surveillance, or policing, this political moment offers an opening and a caution for abolitionist organizing. Galvanized by the changing landscape of abolition and reform, we came together to discuss our collective investment in creating changes that lead to increased self-determination, and in movements that build community power rather than increase the size, scope, and power of the carceral state. Our work and thinking originate from our shared investments in abolition. The Oakland-based organization Critical Resistance offers us a working definition of abolition on their website, which can be understood as encompassing global movements working to eliminate “imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.”1 As both an organizing tool as well as a goal, an abolitionist perspective challenges the “belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe,” and that “basic necessities such as food, shelter, and freedom are what really make our communities secure.” Our shared commitment to abolitionist liberation requires us to think beyond reform and toward the abolition of the PIC in all its forms. As such, in this roundtable we are interested in a common question: how can we move beyond reformist limitations and build strong communities that do not rely on the state violence inherent in systems of imprisonment and policing?

This roundtable reflects our individual work in overlapping movements in the US: abolitionist initiatives to decrease people’s reliance on imprisonment and policing, creating dialogues and practices capable of reducing sexual and gendered violence, dismantling sex offender registries and community notification laws, and building quality and accessible public education, including for those both in and released from prison. This roundtable offers a discussion about how abolitionists are organizing in the US, some of the current limitations we are seeing, and some ideas about how to move forward.

Rachel Herzing lives and works in Oakland, CA, where she fights the violence of policing and imprisonment. She is a co-founder of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization dedicated to abolishing the prison industrial complex and the co-director of the StoryTelling & Organizing Project, a community resource for sharing stories of interventions to interpersonal harm that do not rely on policing, imprisonment, or traditional social services.

An educator, writer and organizer, in 1998 Erica R. Meiners co-founded an alternative high school for people exiting prisons and jails where she continues to teach, and in 2011 started to work with others to organize education and art programs at Stateville Prison. Involved with a range of ongoing abolitionist mobilizations, Erica is the Bernard J. Brommel Distinguished Research Professor at Northeastern Illinois University and the author of For the Children? Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State (University of Minnesota Press, 2016).

nuri nusrat is the child of two survivors of child sexual abuse. She is currently looking into how a pre-charge restorative justice model could be used to address sexual harm between children while protecting them from the potential legal consequences of being labeled a victim or child that did harm. She comes to this work deeply committed to supporting those harmed and those who have done harm in ways that support their dignity and agency. nuri’s prior work supported people accused of or convicted of crimes and their families.

All three authors were 2015-2016 Soros Justice Fellows and have benefitted from the time provided by the fellowship to explore these issues together.

What are the openings for abolition in the areas in which you work, study, and resist?

Rachel: Across the US, policing reform is a hot topic right now. Everyone seems to be getting in the game: law enforcement agencies from the Department of Justice to municipal police departments, academics and think tanks, politicians, NGOs, and grassroots organizations. This high level of activity has opened both interesting opportunities as well as challenges for those committed to the abolition of the PIC. One challenge has been that conversations about policing are increasingly reduced to conversations about Black people being killed by the police. The United States’ genocidal policies and practices against Black people are real and date back to the foundation of the nation-building project. It is also true that Black people are disproportionately policed and killed as a result of that genocidal drive. That being said, the tendency to narrow the conversation and analysis about the violence of policing to its role in killing Black people obscures the breadth and range of the violence of policing. Additionally, it limits our abilities to bring a wide range of constituencies into the fight against the violence of policing and runs the risk of exceptionalizing instances in which people are killed by law enforcement, rather than highlighting how central physical harm is to everyday policing practices. Similarly, the fanfare around reform efforts which have emerged since 2014, such as those mentioned above, have attributed all recommendations for change to a single group or handful of people, thereby reducing a long-standing, varied, and dynamic movement against the violence of policing into a single tendency. That inclination is dangerous, and those of us working on these issues need to resist that.

Don’t get me wrong. There are also opportunities presented by the increased interest and agitation about policing in the US. American culture increasingly reflects this shift, from professional basketball players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts on the court, to fashion designers running clips of policing violence before their shows during New York Fashion Week, to prime time television show plots revolving around resistance to policing. New laws and policy proposals have flooded state legislatures and city council chambers. Resources have flowed into the non-profit sector ostensibly to mitigate the harms of policing in poor and   communities of colour. However, this interest and investment has also generated new questions. What gives us the best chance of making long-term systemic changes to policing? Will recent funding patterns encourage organizations to give up more substantial long-term gains for short-term flashier victories such as putting more cops of colour on police forces or introducing new training requirements? Will the recent burst in energy get co-opted by the state, or broken up by counter-insurgency efforts under the Trump administration? Or, is what has emerged in recent years representative of a new era for the movement against the violence of policing?

nuri: Related to what Rachel just mentioned, there has also been increased attention on mass incarceration. Despite this increase, the dominant narrative in the US maintains that certain people deserve to be incarcerated, while others do not. In other words, those convicted of non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual harms merit freedom, while the rest require confinement. This narrative does not question the punitive logics of confinement practices, policing, surveillance, immigration detention, and so on.

My work primarily deals with restorative justice (RJ), which is an entirely different paradigm of justice than that of the criminal legal system.2 RJ centres on understanding and addressing harm to human relationships rather than solely on laws broken. When harm occurs, the criminal legal system asks the state: What law was broken? Who broke it? How should they be punished? These questions are centered on the person who committed the harm, leaving the survivor’s healing as a separate concern. Instead, a RJ framework asks survivors: How were you harmed? What do you need? Whose obligation is it to meet those needs? These questions orient around the survivor’s needs, asking the survivor to identify the harm and what they need to repair the harm for themselves.

Even though it is often understood as an alternative paradigm of justice, some RJ practices have become deeply connected to the criminal legal system. This has occurred for two reasons: first, stakeholders in some jurisdictions face perceived or real pressures to not over-incarcerate. In this case, RJ practices can both appear to signify a commitment to reducing incarceration, and may sometimes reduce participation in the criminal legal system. Second, while RJ is gaining a buzz, practices and policies within the criminal legal system are often labeled RJ, whether or not the content is actually restorative. These trends dilute the fundamental principles of restorative justice. Often, much-needed programs that offer material support are called restorative, regardless of whether they allow survivors to identify their own needs, and whether they support those responsible in being accountable to those needs. Of course, moving the criminal legal system towards diverting cases to RJ is a welcome step, but it is important not to forget that these instances of diversion still fundamentally rely on the institutions and actors of the criminal legal system.

However, there are organizations providing survivor-oriented, community-based accountability work entirely outside of the state. Inspiring examples such as Safe Outside the System,3 an initiative of the Audre Lorde Project, and the Story Telling and Organizing Project,4 are just two of many organizations that have generated effective examples of community accountability. Despite the continued reliance on the criminal legal system, non-state interventions may lead to long-term changes in the way harm and responses to it are conceptualized by the public.

Erica: I find this both an incredible and a dangerous moment for abolitionist organizing in the US. Reforms of different aspects of the PIC are being celebrated, but we must ask: what do these reforms achieve? I will just highlight two areas where I have observed a shift: first, news articles and other often mainstream media critical of the sex offender registry are gaining some momentum, and second, access to education for people in prison (and those formerly incarcerated) is now on the agenda of some major philanthropic and political stakeholders.

Yet, closer scrutiny illustrates why these two reforms are increasingly visible to the public. For example, many current articles on the “sex offender”—critiquing the high number of young people on the registry, including the “Romeo-Juliet” relationships that are criminalized—are in fact a recirculation of an old criminal justice trope: the system occasionally does harm to the innocent. Simultaneously, the increased energy around access to education for people in prison—particularly by wealthy and restrictive-enrollment post-secondary institutions—is occurring at a moment when the wider public value of post-secondary education is under greater scrutiny.

While some prison and sentencing reform is on the table, these generally do not address the root causes and risks that are deepening rather than shrinking our collective material and affective investments in a carceral state. This moment has the potential to provide radical openings to talk about what really makes children safe from sexual violence—as a quick example, meaningful and comprehensive sexual health education and ending poverty are two clear ways to dramatically reduce child sexual violence—and to discuss access to quality and free public education for all. Some days I believe that abolitionists can leverage the openings created by this political moment toward more radical ends that create more freedom and do not leave anyone behind.

What can get us there? Perhaps it sounds too empty for some, but this reformist moment is a strong reminder of the importance of ongoing political education and collective movement assessment, which would strengthen a generalized abolitionist politic amongst our movements. We must continue to create spaces inside and outside of our movements for this work.

What are some current strategies, campaigns, and practices that activists are participating in that strive toward an abolitionist future? What is the role of reform in this process?

nuri: There are different groups drawing on RJ principles to access the strength embedded in communities themselves to address harm, while simultaneously drawing connections to the multiple ways that state violence and the PIC produce patterns of interpersonal harm.

As I mentioned earlier, RJ practices are scattered throughout the criminal legal system. Pre-charge juvenile diversion processes seem like incremental steps towards decreasing the number of children imprisoned. Furthermore, restorative community conferencing models used in cities like Oakland, San Francisco, Long Beach, and Baltimore divert cases from the juvenile legal system, stopping many young people from facing incarceration or probation, in favour of processes that centre accountability to survivor-identified needs.

I would say that the gradual embodiment of restorative justice practices within the criminal legal system, while incremental and dependent on the state, doesn’t foreclose the possibility of abolition. Specifically, pre-charge youth diversion to restorative justice for cases that would have otherwise resulted in probation or incarceration creates an avenue away from correctional control. Continued diversion efforts allow participants to see a new framework, one that imagines accountability instead of punishment, operationalized into a real process. This may incrementally shift participants towards imagining justice processes that are not punitive. Moreover, the cities and counties that are diverting cases are beginning to see that alternative processes for serious crimes are viable options. An important result of this “chiseling away” at the PIC is the subsequent education-by-example of the possibilities of operationalizing non-punitive responses to harm, allowing people to see accountability as different from punishment. This can be effective when working with grassroots organizing. Pre-charge restorative youth diversion for serious crimes can shift paradigms when working in tandem with communities organizing for both systemic changes and unlearning punitive ideologies.

Erica: In Chicago, abolitionist politics continue to be challenged by the ongoing violence of policing. Those who survive its extreme forms—being burned by radiators, shot, suffocated, beaten—sometimes define retribution and justice within the confines of criminal prosecution. Of course, this notion is also often held by the general population, where solutions to the violence of policing are found in the very laws the police are mandated to uphold. Yet, as Rachel often says, the only way to reduce the violence of policing is to reduce contact with police. More cameras on police won’t help.

I reiterate the need for ongoing political education in our movements. We have little space and time set aside for unlearning, for admitting something didn’t work, for assessing the costs of using particular tactics, and for learning from and archiving these discussions. I think about my own work against the school-to-prison-pipeline, for instance. I supported this framework, associated movements and tactics—including policy reforms—for a decade because it offered a framework and important policy goals and new practices to ensure that young people and teachers were not feeding the PIC. Slowly, however, the tools and language developed by communities, teachers, and young people were co-opted by the criminal justice system itself. Simultaneously, the work to ensure that young people were not criminalized in schools began to operate in isolation of broader anti-PIC and abolitionist projects. For example, the rationale for organizing in schools only concerned youth rather than targeting the broader structural issues of surveillance, policing, and the PIC itself. In other words, the rationale for removing police from schools was because young people did not deserve to be policed. But what about their parents? Or when they turn 18 years old?

From this and other experiences, where and when possible, I always try to ask questions I have learned from others, such as:
1. Who benefits from this campaign, initiative, reform, form of resistance? Who doesn’t, and why?
2. What are the logics, languages, and “common sense” discourses that initiatives validate and/or reinforce? Are these logics liberatory or punitive?
3. Who is working on this initiative? Who is not? Why us? Why now?
4. Is this something that we, or others, will be organizing to undo in five years because it is used to cage or dehumanize people?

For example, when “family reunification” emerges in migrant justice discussions, queer challenges to the traditional family model supported by the state make visible the heteronormative logics that anchor these campaigns. When children, students, or mothers are elevated as more deserving of justice (less harsh sentences or conditions of incarceration) than those categorized as “sex offenders” or “violent criminals,” questions arise about how these categories function as proxies for innocence or guilt. For me, a crucial part of developing an abolition politics is a commitment to identifying and critiquing the wider PIC, and its ties to white supremacy, while working on a specific campaign or a project.
Rachel: Thinking specifically about the abolition of policing, many of the ideas currently circulating about how to change the way policing is practiced—even from more radical elements of the movement—have closely mirrored plans that are already being discussed by law enforcement agencies at all levels of government: body cameras, independent prosecutors, or increased data collection on police stops. In some cases the proposals are reiterations of standard remedies already in play, such as civilian review or community oversight boards, improved training, or community policing. In other cases, there are recommendations that seem to miss the point, such as stopping “for-profit policing,” or requiring police departments to hire more people of colour or more local residents. 

Despite these shortsighted responses to the violence of policing, there are also many promising proposals. For example, I’m excited about Critical Resistance Oakland’s Oakland Power Projects,5 a local project to help seed community capacity building to reduce reliance on policing. I’m also excited about policy campaigns, like Youth Justice Coalition’s 1 percent Campaign,6 that demands a shift of resources from policing to communities, as well as work by organizations such as Malcolm X Grassroots Movement7 and National Day Laborer Organizing Network,8 both of which have developed different kinds of self-defense strategies and manuals that I think are promising. All these examples expand our ability to think creatively about alternative means of keeping ourselves and our communities safe without relying on law enforcement, regardless of whether or not they understand themselves as abolitionist campaigns. While none of these projects immediately eliminate all aspects of the PIC, they offer affirmative incremental measures that lead us in the direction of a world free from the violence of the PIC without extending its life, scope, or legitimacy. And these are just a handful of the many promising projects out there right now.
I think using all available strategies is essential for working toward an abolitionist future. While some abolitionists take the rigid stance that working with legal or policy realms is anti-abolitionist by its very nature, I think it’s possible to imagine legal strategies that increase imprisoned people’s ability to fight the PIC from the inside out and chip away at prison regimes in a way that erodes them and their power. It is important to note that there have been policy wins that have incrementally created more space for abolitionist possibilities. The campaign against the use of civil gang injunctions in Oakland, for instance, was successful because it integrated grassroots organizing, legal defense, policy advocacy, and cultural work. All four aspects were balanced toward winning the demand; without legal defense of people named, or continued pressure on local lawmakers,  the organizing strategy would have failed.

That said, neither legal nor policy remedies alone will move us towards abolishing the PIC. Those strategies are only useful abolitionist tools when used in service of meeting organizing goals. When legal or policy approaches begin to set the course rather than working symbiotically with or following grassroots organizing, they tend to entrench the PIC, even (or maybe especially) when those approaches are aimed at reforms.

Cultural work of all sorts is also essential to fighting for abolition. Because none of us have experienced a world without the PIC, we need help imagining what an abolitionist future could be like. Visual art, performing arts, film, creative writing, and theater are all vehicles that spark our imaginations and create space to experiment as we work our way toward abolition. For this work to move from theory to practice, however, it is best developed in relationship to organizing.

What are some of the pitfalls and limitations you have observed in abolitionist organizing? How can we effectively organize beyond reform and toward abolition?

Erica: I think fragmentation, by which I mean focusing on one issue at a time, in isolation of its connections to broader systems of domination, is a major challenge. I borrow a comrade’s analogy of playing the “whack-a-mole” game to describe the crisis-mode organizing we are often in: working to stop a new prison construction, to defeat a bad law, to support an individual, raise money for bail, stop an execution, show up at court. We are forced to engage with a specific manifestation of the PIC in the immediate present, and often do not have the time to interrogate the conditions, contexts, or histories that produce individual crises we seek to respond to. Of course we can’t take on all its manifestations at once, but do we have an analysis of the wider context? And beyond dismantling the PIC, how can we build movements that are more than reactive—what helps us to imagine and build understandings of community and safety beyond borders and surveillance?

For example, I think about my collaborative work building access to educational programs for people in prison. How can our goal be to create excellent education programs in a prison when there is shrinking access to quality public post-secondary education and skyrocketing student debt across the country? Who wants a future where the only free quality public education in the US is available for people in prison? Building an abolitionist analysis into the creation of education programs in prison push for these linkages and creates new sites of organizing and new coalitional possibilities.

The current reformist logic concentrates on “chiseling away” at the PIC, either to save those deemed worthy, or with the belief that chiseling over time will dismantle the system altogether. If our abolitionist practice does not consider the underlying structures that make immigration detention, policing, mass incarceration, and other manifestations of the PIC possible, then we not only keep moving from “mole to mole” without a defined political direction, but we also normalize the system itself.

Rachel: I agree with Erica, that considering only one aspect of the PIC at a time makes us more vulnerable in ways that can hurt our overall ability to gain or create the kinds of things that ultimately help us live more healthy, self-determined lives. If, for instance, one only thinks about imprisonment without considering how patterns of arrest or sentencing impact how and why people wind up in cages, then their work to improve conditions of confinement or decrease the current prison population can easily be sidestepped or undone by the system. It could similarly create new penalties or sentencing practices that might drive even more people into imprisonment than another’s efforts could release.

What I’m suggesting is that we be responsible to educate ourselves about how other aspects of the PIC impact our work and that we be in conversation with people focusing in other areas. My interest in preventing the violence of policing requires, for instance, that I pay attention to who is being imprisoned and on what grounds. I benefit from paying attention to trends in sentencing (both efforts to lock more people up and to let more people out), and to changing patterns in probation and parole. I think it’s important to pay attention to who is being targeted for surveillance through what means, and under what justification. Having our independent efforts coalesce into to a larger effort also helps prevent our work from being atomized, isolated, and easily picked off. Especially for people fighting for abolition, staying strongly connected to a broader movement prevents us from being isolated as fringe, extreme, or irrelevant.

Nuri: Echoing Erica’s and Rachel’s sentiments, I think it is easy to get tunnel vision by narrowly focusing on our specific objectives, and thinking that our approach to eliminating the PIC is the only answer. From police in schools, to debtors’ prisons, to prison guard unions, to industries reliant on prison labour, we are working within and against an entire ecosystem of oppression, and resisting one aspect of this ecosystem may not have an impact on the other.

Because these systems are premised on a fundamental belief that inhumane punishment is a proper goal for some, and human rights are not for everyone, it is crucial to challenge these deeply held binaries. State models of “justice” are based on pure ideology. Time and time again, research data shows incarceration and probation to be ineffective in reducing harm. On this account, challenging the PIC cannot be based on gathering data alone, it must also make visible and challenge entrenched ideologies.

As well, I am grateful to be working with young people, yet simultaneously troubled by the wider implications of focusing on youth. When we focus on one sector of community, there is often an underlying implication that we are focusing on them because they are more deserving. While it’s true that youth deserve responses based on their unique needs, this doesn’t mean that adults are undeserving. Working with youth is an important aspect of resisting the PIC, but connecting this work to broader systems of oppression that affect them, their families, and communities is the only way to create widespread transformation, not simply localized changes.

Erica: In addition to fragmented organizing, another pitfall is the invocation of concepts and language that deepen divides. One of the principles I learned, which was reinforced by Critical Resistance, is to not use the state’s binary and essentializing language: violent offender, recidivism, criminal, at risk. These terms don’t help us understand the complexity of harm, and make it almost impossible to imagine and build transformative practices of community accountability.

Whenever I go to court to observe or to support someone, I am struck by what is rendered impossible to say or do. The law inscribes oversimplified binaries, and once we enter that system, it is nearly impossible to escape legal categories of guilt and innocence, perpetrator and victim, and so forth, and yet we know, from our loved ones and families, that these categories are inadequate. People who commit harm also experience harm, and the people we love are never defined by the worst thing they have ever done.

Even in the so called “worst of the worst” situations, existing research demonstrates that some people who perpetrate sexual harm often have themselves experienced sexual harm. In other words, people classified as “perpetrators” are also often “victims.” Research also tells us that our criminal legal systems often does not offer a resolution for those who have experienced sexual harm. In fact, it is often re-traumatizing, and ultimately does not act in the survivor’s interests. Yet these are the scripts and there is very little space for nuance and complexity.

nuri: Craig Haney, who was part of the Stanford Prison Experiment, writes about the crime master narrative, the cultural belief that things are good in society, people are good, and a bad individual comes along and breaks the peace of everyday life. It is assumed that people harm others because they alone are the cause of their badness. However, the crime master narrative is devoid of social context and history, devoid of naming the state violence and oppression that are the foundation of this nation. It individualizes the source of harm to the person who does it, which completely removes intuitional responsibility, cultural beliefs, and the historical legacies of inflicting harm. By implying that those who harm alone should be blamed for crime itself, the crime master narrative allows for the excision of people from our communities.
The criminal legal system draws on this crime master narrative to create a binary between “good” and “bad.” People who have been arrested or convicted of a crime are individualized, isolated, and disciplined in ways that allow us to suspend their humanity. This ideology grounds all aspects of policing and regulating bodies. Transforming our ideology is the only way we can change the belief that incarceration is a proper, effective, and necessary response to harm. In order to abolish the PIC, we must remember we are all human, we all have dignity, we are all worthy of care, and we all have a history. We can only expect to reduce harms by fiercely holding people who have experienced and done harm within our communities, and reflecting back to them their intrinsic worth and value through meaningful accountability and support.

We are trained to think in binaries. In my family, there are people who have harmed and also have been harmed, but I loved each of them. All the folks I’ve ever worked with, who have harmed, have also been victimized at some point in their life, not only by other individuals, but also by institutions charged with protecting them. Once they harm, are they no longer deserving victims? Are they no longer worthy of actors being accountable to them, acknowledging the harm? Transforming how we conceive of justice requires transforming our thinking and feeling to realize that healing one person in our community benefits all.


1 See http://criticalresistance.org/about/not-so-common-language/ for more information.
2 Instead of the more popular term “criminal justice system,” I use criminal legal system. Rather than pretending that justice results from criminal legal processes, it is more accurate to call it what it is: legal processes, legal procedures, and legally authorized actors.
3 See http://alp.org/safe-outside-system-sos-collective for more information.
4 See http://www.creative-interventions.org/about/ci-projects/storytelling-orga nizing-project-stop/ for more information.
5 See http://criticalresistance.org/chapters/cr-oakland/the-oakland-power-proje cts/ for more information.
6 See http://www.laforyouth.org/ and http://www.youth4justice.org/take-action/la-for-youth-1-campaign for more information.
7 See https://mxgm.org/ for more information.
8 See http://ndlon.org/en/ for more information.