An abolitionist approach, as it applies to transformative justice, came out of a feeling of hopelessness about racial disparities. In October of 2019, a colleague shared with me the study titled Race in the Heartland which looks at racial disparities in the Midwest. I grew up in the Midwest so cannot say I was surprised that the numbers are horrible in every category from homeownership, to health care to employment, education and mass incarceration. As they drew out the correlations between the negative outcomes, the study helps us understand the impact of multiple generations of structural violence on Black communities–an impact started with enslavement. Another study that details the interrelated systems of structural violence is 1619 Project.
A few weeks ago, Lafollette High School Students walked out of their school to protest the shooting of Quadren Wilson. They included that violence against an unarmed Black man in a whole spectrum of policing behaviors, many of which are practiced inside their school building every day. The many reasons they walked out are almost exactly like those compelling myself and my classmates to walk out almost 50 years ago.
What is critically important to me as a community-based educator is that we develop an understanding of the institutionalization of harm. Our public schools like every other major institution are contemporary iterations of the US’s archetypal institution of slavery that benefited from and helped to solidify and deepen racial hierarchies. Contemporary institutions reproduce violence against Black people. We don’t really need to look at studies to know this. Listen to the youth who walked out in protest. We can listen to the social histories our families share. We can talk to our grandparents and we can be very curious about what is getting passed down from one generation to the next about power, race and class. Race and class inform identity as a product of institutionalized dominance.
My grandfather was born in 1897. His mother was around seven years old when slavery ended. I I learned the stories about how they lived, what mattered to them. What the stories my family shared have made clear is the ongoing need for abolition practices. The recentness of enslavement and the replication of its objectives of control and dominance in every major US institution make abolition practices necessary. We cannot afford to pretend that the de facto agenda of enslavement has ended even if policies, lip service and other misinformation claims otherwise. After all, one of the best ways to mitigate resistance is to claim that you are “free” and to rave about how much better things are. As Mumia Abu Jamal has said “Don’t believe them when they tell you that you are free. Their lies will kill you.”
In any transformative justice endeavor we must ask; how does our practice transform power?
How are the views, concerns and decisions of the individuals involved reflected in the agreements and commitments that come out of that process? How do they benefit the systematically marginalized? How is repair achieved? How are the conditions transformed? Power is necessarily more equal in the outcome of truly transformative practice.
What needs to be said is that we have normalized the practice of putting children in jail. In Wisconsin 70% of youth behind bars are Black. We carry on our lives as if this is a reasonable and healthy response. How can this be considered civil society?
An abolitionist approach breaks with the complicity of language and other practices which normalize and accept the status quo. The school to prison pipeline is an atrocity. The practice of locking up our children is a norm that is supported by complicity and performativity by liberals and so-called radicals alike. We don’t need to check a box that allows us to feel better about ourselves. We need a willingness to become intimately involved with transformative justice as an abolition practice and take that on as a lifelong commitment.