An Interview with Rachel Herzing
The specific timing of this interview is important to highlight, as we’re now about midway through Black August. Could you possibly explain what Black August is, and why it is so important for people to recognize today?
Rachel (RH): Black August is a call for reflection, study, and action to promote Black liberation. Its roots go back to California prisons in the 1970s, during a period of sustained struggle and resistance against racialized violence against Black imprisoned people, especially those calling for Black liberation and challenging state power. Ignited by the deaths of Jonathan and George Jackson in August 1970 and August 1971, and honoring others who gave their lives including Khatari Gualden, William Christmas and James McClain, a group of imprisoned people came together to develop a means of honoring that sacrifice and promoting Black liberation. While August is significant because of the deaths of the Jackson brothers, it is also a month with many other significant moments in Black history in the United States including the formation of the Underground Railroad, Nat Turner’s rebellion, the March on Washington, and the Watts uprising, to name just a few. So there was an idea that this could be a time that imprisoned people in the California prison system could use for reflection, study, and to think about how to strengthen their struggles. During the month, people wouldn’t use radios or television, would fast between sun up and sun down, and practice other measures of self-discipline. Eventually the commemorations during that month were taken up outside of prisons, too. Malcolm X Grassroots Movement became the stewards of the commemoration outside prisons, although many people honor and celebrate this legacy and the roots of the practice. Black August is important to commemorate (and I hope that the variety of ways that people commemorate that legacy can be nurtured and encouraged), in part, because it connects imprisoned organizers and revolutionaries with communities outside of prisons that are struggling for similar things. It’s often the case that imprisoned communities are meant to be invisible, and essentially cut off from non- imprisoned communities, especially communities of struggle. I think that is an important reason to reflect, as well as to study and honor the sacrifices Black revolutionaries have made over centuries and recommit ourselves to the struggle. Black August provides one important vehicle for doing that.
On this note, how did the contemporary prison and policing abolition movement emerge? What are some of the major theoretical and historical connections existing between abolitionism in its current iterations and these earlier articulations of the Black/Prisoner liberation struggle just mentioned?
RH: Well I think the periodization probably depends on who you talk to. So since you’re talking to me, you’re going to get something pretty specific [laughter]. I think it also depends on what you mean by “contemporary.” In my mind, there is a long through line of people fighting particularly for the abolition of imprisonment that goes back to Eastern State Penitentiary, which was the first modern day US prison. That was in Philadelphia, 1829. Almost immediately, the Quakers, who played a role in building this institution to encourage reflection, understood that this was a mistake. And Quakers ever since that time have been on the frontline of advocating for the abolition of imprisonment. So there is that old-timey version of it, which links back to the development and the build up of penitentiaries as institutions of containment and human control.
If you jump ahead to the 1970s and 1980s, you begin to see organizations that are fighting for a moratorium on prison construction, but also groups advocating actively for the abolition of imprisonment. For instance, there is a book that came out during this period called Instead of Prisons, originally published in 1976, by a group called Prison Research Education Action Project (PREAP). At that time, they were looking at a national prison population that was 250,000. They thought surely this is a tipping point, we need to take action now. And so, as we know, the imprisoned population in the US is now nearly 2.3 million. So this struggle dates back, then, to the seventies and eighties, and became somewhat quieter in certain periods, but never completely went away.
1998 is another important year: the founding Critical Resistance (CR) conference was held in Berkeley that year. That conference did some work to reinvigorate the concept of abolition, and not just as a thing to organize around intellectually, but to organize campaigns and projects around, as well. It also introduced the concept of the prison industrial complex (PIC) into a more popular consciousness. While that conference didn’t form some kind of modern abolitionist movement, it did reignite an energy that may have been less prominent or less active just prior to it. That conference was still very focused on imprisonment and it wasn’t until 2001, when Critical Resistance East happened that there was a really strong attention toward thinking about the abolition of the prison industrial complex as a whole. That was kind of at the forefront of what that conference was all about.
I think today, and since becoming an organization in 2001, CR plays a particular role in advocating for the abolition of the entire system—of the entire prison industrial complex—rather than just being a prison abolition organization. CR was really at the forefront in the early 2000s as an organization advocating for the abolition of policing, too. Nowadays you hear a lot more people talking about policing itself as something to fight, as opposed to resisting its function within the PIC or even just its relation to imprisonment. It is more common these days for people to think about ways to live without some idea that law enforcement is a kind of natural feature of our world.
So I think there is a through line there from early Quaker opposition to imprisonment to the contemporary movement for PIC abolition. And like all movements, there are some ebbs and flows to it, but those are some of the key markers that I would use to talk about its development.
What exactly brought you into the abolitionist movement? Do you identify as an abolitionist, or is this one aspect of a larger, overarching framework which informs your praxis?
RH: I think it is both. I definitely identify as a prison industrial complex abolitionist. I do that work because I believe in the liberation of Black people and I think that it is one of the foremost ways to see that broader goal fulfilled. Without the abolitionist movement and without a commitment to ending mass criminalization, containment, and death of Black people, I don’t think Black liberation is possible in the United States—or elsewhere, frankly. So I come to this work as a survivor of sexual harm and law enforcement harm who doesn’t believe the PIC makes me any safer, and as somebody who is committed to the liberation of Black people.
You alluded earlier to the differences between a politics of gradualist police and prison reform and a prison-industrial-complex abolitionist praxis. What are your thoughts on framing political struggle in terms of either “abolition” or “reform”? Are there not limitations to framing the conversation in this way?
I don’t think it’s very useful to position those as binaries. I think it’s more about different end games. Back in the early 2000s, Critical Resistance started using a framework that a lot of people are using now, and almost never credit CR by the way (which I hope just means it has permeated the common sense and not that people simply don’t credit CR [laughter]). We started saying that the distinction between abolitionists and reformers (or people who either have abolition as their end goal or reform as their end goal) is that reformers tend to see the system as broken— something that can be fixed with some tweaks or some changes. Whereas abolitionists think that the system works really well. They think that the PIC is completely efficient in containing, controlling, killing, and disappearing the people that it is meant to. Even if it might sweep up additional people in its wake, it is very, very effective at doing the work it’s meant to do. So rather than improving a killing machine, an abolitionist goal would be to try and figure out how to take incremental steps—a screw here, a cog there—and make it so the system cannot continue—so it ceases to exist—rather than improving its efficiency. Whereas reformers, with criminal justice reform being their end goal, believe there is something worth improving there. So the groups have different end games.
I have never understood or participated in moves toward abolition that didn’t take steps of some sort. A reform is just a change, right? So there can be negative reforms and there can be positive reforms. You can make a change that entrenches the system, improves its ability to function, increases its legitimacy, so: a non- abolitionist goal. Or, you can take an incremental step that steals some of the PIC’s power, makes it more difficult to function in the future, or decreases its legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
I think the false distinction between reform and abolition assumes that there is some kind of pure vision that doesn’t require strategy or incremental moves. If it is possible to get everybody to open all prison doors wide today, fantastic! If it is not, then what can we do to chip away, chip away, chip away so that the PIC doesn’t have the ability to continually increase its power or deepen its reach and hold on our lives?
What do you see being the most significant overlaps between: the past two decades of abolitionist organizing, “Black Lives Matter,” and the movement for Black lives in its current phase? I know it’s a messy question, because there are folks at the forefront who are situated both ideologically and physically at the intersections between each. Maybe a better way to phrase it is: do you see any tensions or contradictions between the abolitionist work that has unfolded over the past two decades and the emergent Black-led political forms taking shape today?
RH: First off, I want to be very clear: I cannot speak for Black Lives Matter. I’m not a member of Black Lives Matter, I’m not involved in that organization, and do not have the ability to speak on their strategy or form. But I know there is a distinction between them and the Movement for Black Lives, which is a network of nearly sixty Black-led organizations across the US that came together to meet first in Cleveland, and then out of that, have continued to work together. And Black Lives Matter is one of those organizations. The Movement for Black Lives recently released this policy platform, titled A Vision for Black Lives, with more than thirty policy pieces in it. I guess I would say a few things to this question: First, I think that what we are seeing emerge today—what I would loosely call a Black protest movement, which includes a lot of these organizations and formations just mentioned—would have actually been impossible to come out in the way that is has (to have the foundation to stand on and to have people move in the way that they have) if there hadn’t been growing movements against imprisonment and policing in the United States over the previous two decades. I don’t know if there is a single set of politics within Black Lives Matter (and I know it’s not true within the Movement for Black Lives) that compels an abolitionist orientation towards their work. I think there are some people who lean that way and I think there are some people who lean other ways and I think there are a variety of political perspectives and orientations that I’ve seen emerge from this broader network. I guess, at various points, I’ve been surprised that so little attention has been paid to the decades of work (well actually centuries of work, but recent decades in particular) done by Black people and Black organizations to fight the violence of policing in the United States; especially when the protest movement jumped off. I understand that people participating in that protest were fueled in no small part by outrage and in just complete disbelief at the scale and scope of the violence, and that people are being activated and drawn out for the first time. There are some who felt compelled to action right away and weren’t necessarily connected to those other organizations or movements.
I think as the past two years have unfolded I’ve seen, particularly in the Movement for Black Lives, some of that leadership and some of those organizations doing good study, thinking about other Black liberationist platforms, thinking about the histories of Black struggle around a variety of other issues and really broadening their understanding of the violence facing Black people. That is, not only issues surrounding the prison industrial complex, but also the economic, social, and political features of it. I don’t know that there is a direct relationship between the previous decades of work—and again, I mean prior work along the spectrum from abolitionist to moderate reform—and these new Black protest formations. I think there is probably overlap of people, probably some overlap of thinking, and probably some overlap of strategy. But I don’t know if they are in direct relationship to each other. I would say that while there can be no doubt that Black Lives Matter has had unprecedented cultural significance and impact on US popular culture (on US media and the cultural life of people in the states and globally), it is less clear to me what the organizing impact will be. And in a place like Oakland where I live, there are strong organizations with decades of strong organizing going back to the Panthers and before that set the stage differently than what might be true for other places that have a different history. So I think the longer term impacts of this most recent activism on the power of the prison industrial complex over Black lives (and the lives of people of color and Indigenous people more generally) has yet to be seen. That said, I think there has been a change in the conversation. I think there is no doubt that there is a really significant cultural impact, even though some of it is still in the making.
How do you understand the prisoner hunger strikes and other prisoner-led activisms that have occurred over the past decade in relationship to such mobilizations against policing and criminalization in the so-called “free world”?
RH: I think it depends on how you define mobilizations in the free world. I think there is a strong movement outside of prisons and jails. Sometimes it gets more attention and sometimes it gets less attention, but I think it has sustained. I don’t necessarily think that is the same thing as this Black protest strain. Again, there are overlapping people and overlapping players and that sort of thing, but I have yet to see (which again, isn’t to say that it couldn’t happen) an engagement or activism beyond direct action that has meaningfully connected to more sustained organizing around imprisonment.
So I’m not sure that it’s fair necessarily to say “they’re not doing a good job,” because I’m not sure that’s their goal, right? I think the goal is a much more media focused one. With that being said, I think there is what I would call (and this is me showing my age and crabbiness about social media) an overreliance on social media which has meant that a lot of people are just left out. I personally have the luxury to make choices about being on social media or not and the choice to opt out of certain types of feeds of information and conversations. But there are many people who are living in cages who don’t have access to social media. And even for those who do, they might not have access to it in the same real-time that people living outside of cages do. A lot of that organizing, a lot of that conversation happens over Twitter, happens via Facebook, happens via Instagram. So there are potentially millions of people who don’t have a voice in the conversation. Which is not to say that all imprisoned people are not finding ways to participate. There are many who are finding ways to engage. It’s complicated to organize with imprisoned people and there are all kinds of structural and institutional barriers to doing that. Like I was saying, the system is set up to make people who live in cages invisible and disappeared. So it’s not without all kinds of challenges. And again, I don’t know necessarily if that’s their intention or that’s what the mobilizations against policing are set up to do.
But to return to the movement that is meant to do that and is engaged in all of that: the 2011 and 2013 prisoner-led hunger strikes in California really re-energized the movement outside of prisons and jails and activated a lot of people. The strikes gave an injection of energy. Part of that was the inspiration of the leadership of people who are imprisoned in solitary confinement, living under the most excruciating conditions that human beings can imagine. They managed to study together, build bridges across the racial divides that are perpetually stoked by the prison regimes, and were able to engage people outside of cages to take up this call to end indefinite solitary confinement—to get people in conditions that they could actually live and fight from. The work of people imprisoned inside of Pelican Bay, Corcoran, High Desert, Folsom . . . wherever they are living and working, really, was a shot in the arm for the outside movement. And I think that’s sustained and spread. California isn’t the only place, and California wasn’t the first place. You also see Alabama, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Washington, and others. In these places you see imprisoned people using this last resort, their own bodies, to highlight just how excruciating and torturous these conditions actually are.
Pieces like the agreement to End Hostilities that came out of the California prison system and was then taken up by other communities across the state and nationally is an important organizing tool. It refocuses attention to the fact that people are always struggling inside. There are also imprisoned people who are behind the elimination of the use of sterilization on people in women’s prisons, working to increase visitation or organizing against prison and jail expansion or construction. Imprisoned organizers are important players in all of these campaigns and many more.
*This interview was first published in Propter Nos 1.1 (2016), then published by The Black Scholar (2016) and in The Abolitionist newspaper, Spring 2017