It’s All One Struggle at Base:
Abolitionist Solidarity, Grassroots Movement-Building, and the Contradictions of Revolutionary Organization Across Prison Walls
draft submitted September 2019
Well, we’re all familiar with the function of the prison as an institution serving the needs of the totalitarian state. We’ve got to destroy that function; the function has to be no longer viable, in the end. It’s one of the strongest institutions supporting the totalitarian state. We have to destroy its effectiveness, and that’s what the prison movement is all about…. We’ve got to organize our resistance once we’re inside, give them no peace, turn the prison into just another front of the struggle, tear it down from the inside. Understand?
But can such a battle be won?
A good deal of this has to do with our ability to communicate to the people on the street. The nature of the function of the prison within the police state has to be continuously explained, elucidated to the people in the street because we can’t fight alone in here. Oh Yeah, we can fight, but if we’re isolated, if the state is successful in accomplishing that, the results are usually not constructive in terms of proving our point. We fight and we die, but that’s not the point… The point is… in the face of what we confront, to fight and win. That’s the real objective: not just to make statements, no matter how noble, but to destroy the system that oppresses us. By any means available to us. And to do this, we must be connected, in contact and communication with those in the struggle on the outside. We must be mutually supporting because we’re all in this together. It’s one struggle at base.
George Jackson in conversation with Karen Wald,
“Remembering the Dragon,” 1971
“It’s All One Struggle At Base,” offers a multi-textual archival study and radical political theorization of the historical (and largely experimental) practices and technologies of grassroots movement-building that are utilized by (proto)abolitionist prisoner solidarity activists (community organizers, legal, artistic, culture, and care workers; scholars, writers, and public intellectuals) whose positionality, discourse, standpoint, and praxis is embodied in “freeworld” spheres of social formation and civil society. For our purposes, “grassroots” refers to modes of political organization that are community-based, relatively autonomous of corporate/state authority, and rooted in relations of material solidarity, reciprocity, and transformative mutual aid. The historic conjuncture interrogated in this dissertation spans approximately thirty years (from the late-1980s onward), while the sites/scenes of struggle I engage compose what might be called a domestic geography of opposition.to the (global) U.S. prison industrial complex (Gilmore 2007) and prison regime (Rodriguez 2006). Operating from a principled methodological approach to social movement historiography and counter-narrative genealogy, rooted in the dynamic process of cultivating abolitionist intellectual, social, and political community in practice, I look at the way non-imprisoned abolitionist and proto-abolitionist activists have most effectively leveraged their relative freedom of bodily mobility (and access to resources) in solidarity with imprisoned activists, organizers, and intellectuals.
How do members of grassroots abolitionist groups, who are positioned in the categorical “Outside” of counter-carceral movements, articulate the terms of their praxis & establish structures of belonging and aspirationally reciprocal political kinship across prison walls? What are the existing analytical frameworks and rubrics through which the non-imprisoned activist’s performance of solidarity can be judged, evaluated, and measured? What degrees of transformative political agency (spontaneous, coordinated, legal, extralegal) are revealed about ourselves when we study the forms of relationality that are organically prototyped within and beyond inside/outside models of grassroots political organization? Drawing on a wide-range of archival and memorial materials, such as documentary texts (organizer’s manuals and resource guides, radical newspapers, popularly circulated books, DIY zines, and other prisoner-edited media-cultural forms), the strategic analysis produced by grassroots movement-building formations (Critical Resistance, the North American Anarchist Black Cross, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence), and ethnographic/oral-history testimony collected during eight-years of fieldwork in California and the Midwest, this dissertation fixes renewed theoretical scrutiny on the fundamentally antagonistic yet relationally inescapable structural position that non-imprisoned activists inhabit in the age of the prison industrial complex and the material contradictions which determine the sites, scenes, and trajectory of abolitionist engagement.
At its heart, “It’s All One Struggle At Base” urges scholars in the fields of Black Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Critical Prison Studies, and certain popular non-academic/journalistic writers to think differently about the spatial, organizational, strategic, temporal, archival-memorial, and performative-aesthetic aspects of contemporary counter-carceral insurgency by (de)centering an analysis of the dynamic relationalities, mutually-supporting (and/or consistently reciprocated) intimacies, and shared sense of trajectory and obligation-to-the-communal that characterize a process of abolitionist becoming that I term “inside/outside collectivity.” Building on such premises, I argue that as “PIC abolition” comes into fruition as a mass concept in the late-1990s/early-2000s, groups like Critical Resistance and INCITE! had begun to conceptualize the inside/outside binary as a delimiting spatial framework for envisaging the site(s) and scene(s) of counter-carceral movements. These organizations, among countless others on local and broader regional scales thus sought to challenge existing approaches to prison praxis by dramatically revising the spatial-temporal common sense of abolition. What trajectories, possibilities, and vistas of/for movement-building are imagined, conjured, and enacted when we begin to understand the inside/outside binary (and thus the reified category of the U.S. prison/jail, figured as a discrete space isolated from the alleged societal “outside”) is not as the sole fulcrum of struggle in movements to abolish the prison industrial complex? What novel orientations to space and time and approaches to praxis are produced in this moment of discontinuity from prior traditions of counter-state, anti-prison activism?
I believe such questions challenge, in constructive ways, contemporary prison activist formations by pushing them to contemplate their own experiences and strategies in the context of over several decades of lessons generated (often times documented with scholarly foresight) by abolitionists waging struggle against the PIC.
I. Literature Review
The prison industrial complex (often called “the PIC” in shorthand) is a dynamic set of institutional and historical relationships that link private business and U.S. government/state (or “public”) apparatuses together in multi-scalar projects of criminalization, human immobilization, and imprisonment. These mass-based punitive-carceral projects are, in turn, contextualized by variable forms of domestic warfare, declared and undeclared international wars, and the structures of global empire. The term “prison-industrial complex” was first invoked in 1995 by Los Angeles-based scholar Mike Davis, in an article published for Nation magazine titled “Hell Factories in the Field: a prison-industrial complex.” However it was not until the late-nineties that “the PIC” was popularized by the national abolitionist organization Critical Resistance as a framing concept for transformative counter-carceral movement-building projects. Mobilized through a loosely affiliated and complexly decentralized constellation of grassroots movement-building organizations and multi-sited activist solidarity networks scattered around the country, including Critical Resistance (CR), the North American Anarchist Black Cross (ABC), and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, the movement to abolish the prison industrial complex emerges in the closing years of 1990s as a radical rejoinder to the left-liberal penal reformist’s compliance with the hegemony of “law and order” (Parenti 1999; see also Hall et al. 1973), the acceleration of (proto-)genocidal anti-Black/racial domestic warfare (Costa Vargas 2008; see also Rodriguez 2009), and the normalization of a phenomenon that Ruth Wilson Gilmore (1998) refers to as “industrialized punishment.”
To my knowledge, the most succinct definition of “PIC abolition” can be found in statements culled from the CR Abolitionist Toolkit self-published by Critical Resistance (2002), of which is exhibited at length in image-quote below:
In this context, “abolition” is understood as a praxis and critical discourse that is constantly in formation and deeply historical. Throughout this dissertation, “PIC abolition” is not conceptualized as a “program,” “formula,” “ideology,” or “agenda” per se, but as a horizon, a desire, a dynamic process of envisioning revolutionary social change. As Rachel Herzing (2016) explains, this processual notion of abolition put forth by CR (among others) is rooted in a “proactive” orientation to transforming social relations: “It is not only ‘I want to eliminate imprisonment’ or ‘I want to eliminate the cops’ but an affirmative…practice. Affirmatively, this is the world I want to live in, therefore I need to take these steps to create the conditions that make that world possible” (73, emphasis added).
Early iterations of a qualitatively “community-based” approach to prison abolitionist organizing, specifically in the United States and Canada, are traceable to a period as far-back as the Attica revolt and the thunderous rolling prison strikes of the early 1970s, the Black Panthers’ transport programs for families visiting imprisoned loved ones, and parallel fights throughout the era to form a National Prisoner’s Union. These struggles are well recounted in essays like Liz Samuels’ classic “Improvising on Reality: The Historical Origins of Prison Abolition” (2010) and Daniel Burton Rose’s inventive undergraduate thesis “‘War Behind Walls’: Work Strikes and Prisoner Self-Organization in US Prisons, 1967-76” (1998). As Samuels’ article explains, “In the mid-1970s, there were numerous calls and efforts to develop national organizations and a coordinated strategy to fight for prisoners’ rights, prison reform, and prison abolition. By the decade’s end, these calls faced limited support . . . owed, in part, to a combination of limitations within the prison movement and expanded policing and retributive legislation.” Important here is Samuel’s acknowledgement that by the mid-1970s abolitionists not only had already identified the limitations of penal reformism but began laying the ideological and organizing foundations of the movement to abolish the PIC in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.
Recent scholarship illuminates the traditions of theory, practice, and political imagination produced in the inaugural decade(s) of what Dan Berger and Toussaint Losier (2018) call the “American Prison Movement,” spanning the late 1960s and late 1980s with a great memorial depth and analytical rigor. While the dominant historical framing of the “American Prison Movement” suggests a low-ebb or downturn in revolutionary community organizing across bars moving from the 1980s into the 1990s, my archival research alternatively suggests how this era witnessed a blossoming of insurrection and political dissidence and a proliferation of collective confrontations with the prison regime—a steady stream of prisoner self-activity and a constantly shifting assemblage of dedicated accomplices facilitating operations on multiple strategic social and institutional scales. These interrelated communities of (proto)abolitionist struggle have left a dispersed but extensive archive of print culture, including newspapers, books, inter-organizational documents, flyers, zines, photographs, documentary audio-visual materials, and assorted ephemeral debris that I examine in relation to collected ethnographic/oral-history testimony and their narrative-memorial context.
Relatedly, Berger’s Captive Nations: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era (2010) and Emily Thuma’s All our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence (2019) appear to deepen our understanding of the social context that precedes prison activism in the present-tense—specifically PIC abolitionism—in the United States. Thuma’s research in All Our Trials is incredibly useful in its traditional historical analysis of the bridges built between feminist antiviolence movements and movements against gendered-racist criminalization and imprisonment from the 1970s into the 1980s. Documentary anthologies, like Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners, edited by Matt Meyers (2008), record the ideological composition and intellectual history of the (still ongoing) political prisoner human rights campaigns and its discursive intersection with an array of smaller-scale insurgencies addressing prison torture, lockdown, and control unit prisons in the 1980s. These retrospective linkages are made even more clear in landmark books like Safiya Bakari’s The War Inside (2010), Nancy Kurshan’s Out of Control: A 15-year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons (2013), Juanita Díaz-Cotto’s Gender, Ethnicity, and the State: Latina and Latino Prison Politics (1996), Victoria Law’s Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated Women (2012), Karlene Faith’s Unruly Women: The Politics of Confinement & Resistance (2011), Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s “You Have to Dislodged a Boulder: Mothers and Prisoners in the post-Keynesian California Landscape) (1998), and Beth E. Richie’s Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation (2012).
The closing chapters in Faith’s Unruly Women offer considerable perspective into the traditions, methods, and political impact of “inside/outside” organization in women’s prisons during the formative years of California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). Texts like Thuma’s, Bakari’s, and Richie’s remind scholars that there are great stakes in elaborating a radical genealogy of feminist (and specifically Black womanist/feminist) interventions in this emergent praxis and critical discourse. Understanding the militant Black/antiracist feminist foundations of presentday PIC abolitionist political thought (Davis 2002) is easily the most important reason for historicizing this political-intellectual lineage. I find the bibliographies of scholar-activist Joy James’ two major edited anthologies to be useful surveys of this genealogy’s “inside” sphere, Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals (2005) and The New Abolitionists (2007). A connecting scholarly text that I heavily rely on for historical, bibliographic, and methodological insight is Dylan Rodriguez’s Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime (2006).
Building on the groundwork laid by PIC abolitionist scholars like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Y. Davis, Joy James, Julia Chinyere Oparah, and Dylan Rodríguez there is no mistaking how the categorical differentiation between the “Inside” and “Outside” that anti-prison activists casually invoke is an abstract spatial schema which impresses sometimes vague and conflicting divisions onto relations between the nonimprisoned and captive-imprisoned. This inside/outside binary construct—as an abstract discursive-political structure—relies on a reified idea of the U.S. prison/jail as a closed-faced instiutionality and the central scene of collective struggles against criminalization and incarceration. In this vernacular context, the dividing lines between “free” and “unfree” zones of praxis can indeed at times be murky in the abstract. What is often concealed by this spatializing binary is the deceptively porous nature of the prison’s putative boundaries.
Important to mention, scholars like James and Rodriguez push us to maintain that, albeit this discursive problematic, there do exist rather serious antagonisms and contradictions that counter-carceral movements are challenged by, simply by default of the relations of power that they operate and maneuver within . There are quite literal distinctions that must to be made between the political discourse of inside/outside relationality and the multiplicities of lived experience of both imprisoned and nonimprisoned practioners of revolutionary abolitionism. Moreover, when we begin to analyze popular conceptions of the categorical “outside,” there are range questions to ask regarding the degrees of freedom that such historical subjects (broadly-speaking) experience, given their status/signification before the horizon of the law or as their positionality in an order socially structured in capitalist, white supremacist state dominance. Furthermore, as “old spaces for radical praxis close down, disappear, or become superfluous,” Rodríguez writes, “the historical nexus embodied by the rise of the prison industrial complex may introduce a new center for invigorated opposition and militant resistance.” (26) What is clear is the significance of learning from the political praxis of activists and intellectuals whose right to exist has been eliminated precisely because “imprisoned radical intellectuals are practitioners of a qualitatively different ‘politics’,” whose field of engagement is “defined through a relation of direct violence with the state.” (27) Here, for scholars of contemporary prisoner activism, the question of an appropriate (ethical?) method of collaboration with this intellectual lineage of political subjects, who are “putatively constituted as nonsubjects,” becomes central to knowing. The majority trend in disposition held by freeworld activists seems to be a systemic (but tacit) presumption of bodily mobility, political subjectivity, and access to civil society, which in turn influences the protocols and cultural structures of their radicalism, forms of organization, and social transformation.
II. Theory and Methods
Radical prison praxis, as conceptualized by Rodriguez, thus carves an opening for examining new orientations and approaches to struggle emanating from imprisoned activists and revolutionaries whose (largely discursive) political practices demystify carceral power in fundamental ways, while in turn making demands for freedom that cannot but provoke questioning (or possibly a total rejection) of the white supremacist state’s legitimacy and coherence of the United States as an ethical (read: “free,” “just,” “peaceful,” “orderly”) national, social, and political-economic formation. While Rodríguez is most concerned with the cognitive praxis of intellectuals held captive by the U.S. state (a formation still largely neglected by mainstream critics, theorist, scholars, artists, academics, and movement researchers), there are a handful of “grassroots” activist projects—scholarly and journalistic, located largely on the margins of the historical record—that have performed the task of transcribing, editing, publishing, translating, distributing, circulating, archiving, and weaponizing the pedagogical force of “prison praxis” through the creation of national movement-building organizations that linked a distinct and likely unquantifiable number of counter-carceral blocs across prison walls, within prisons, and throughout established spheres of freeworld society. The frame of my study therefore includes both freeworld and incarcerated activists, and the interrelated discursive technologies and embodied processes that disarticulate the boundaries and connections between activists “Inside” and “Outside.” How are accepted and problematic distinctions between the in/out theoretically troubled or disarticulated altogether through protracted community-building, public pedagogy, rigorous internal debate, and the seeding of (proto)abolitionist perspectives on social change? on different geopolitical scales (i.e. regional, national, international)? How do dominant conceptions of space, time, and resistance alter when we begin our genealogy of radical prison activism with a mapping of the intimacies, organizational protocols, and cultural structures that constitute counter-carceral insurgency during this timeperiod?
While it might seem counterintuitive to analytically privilege the positionality of freeworld activists when the praxis of imprisoned people is already so greatly erased, I argue that free-world facilitators of counter-carceral insurgencies like the movement to abolish the PIC must continue to grapple with the generalizable relations of power, antagonism, and contradiction that define dynamic formations and collective activist practices bridging words across prison walls, in defiance of liberal co-optation and counterrevolutionary penal-reformism.
By mapping, theorizing, and developing a language to describe the mechanisms and modalities through which the discourse of prison praxis circulates (as its embodied truths vectors into different publics by way of newsletters, periodicals, letters, legal publications, webpages, zines, activist directories, meetings, demonstrations, vigils, conference panels, workshops, research papers, spoken word, oral histories, books, academic articles, poetry, posters, music, and other cultural forms), a number of important historical lessons can be discerned for contemporary abolitionist movements.
Unlike any other assemblage of social movements, the prison struggle in North America is sustained by what the critical theory of Sharon Luk (2017) dubs “the life of paper.” As Luk writes of the social forms of correspondence and knowledge-bartering, the written word provides a material basis for social and historical movement against the policing-criminal justice-prison nexus. The most tangible bridge inside-out exists on the basis of the circulation of letters, and even these lines of communication are subjected to pervasive monitoring and repression as a rule of law.
Marking the centrality of print media (Wilson 2019) and paper-based textual communication (Law 2007) was to movement-building during this bracketed conjunctural period a key object of archival inquiry, I am able to closely examine the shifting discursive and political practices utilized by freeworld organizers to sustain organizational configurations across prison walls. What precisely were the technological mediums that enable the transmission of information, material culture, concepts and discursive technologies, and critical knowledges between prison activist resource networks? across prison walls? in spheres of civil society? at the dawn of the “digital divide,” or after the emergence of activist outreach on the internet? The relational assemblages of abolitionist political community that I engage throughout this dissertation not only represent a challenge for movement historians to consider but also contains important lesson for prison solidarity activists currently in motion. Possibly the central importance of this project, then, is the way it methodologically centers carceral radicalism as a way to respond to the ethical questions and political-discursive antagonisms at stake: what is to be made of the responses from carceral sites that push and challenge the non-incarcerated to move and work (and critically theorize) within their positions of (relative) mobility and “freedom”?
Beyond looking at the circulation of texts and discourse between individuals and collectives, I am furthermore interested in the spaces of collective social and inter-organizational convergence that mediated the emergent U.S-based networks of PIC abolition (and a variety of adjacent and cross-cutting proto-abolitionist political forms). The conference setting provides what might be called a “zone of intentional convergence”: a manufactured realm in which collectives of individuals and groups of like-mind and political affinity can effectively congregate to reframe their vision and goals, to realize a clearer sense of identity and purpose, and to cultivate new intimacies in the course of struggle that were prior unbeknownst. The basic importance of the conference as a tool for building mass movements is in its capacity to breakdown the sense of isolation that characterizes the historical struggles of the deprived, exploited, and oppressed. Conferences are envisaged by many as sites where potential bonds between co-strugglers are cultivated, nourished, and provides an intentional context for such bonds to be tended to.
Organizing through a recurring conference model, according to Marge Frantz and Cassandra Shaylor (2000), has impactful “programmatic implications,” such as the momentary occasion for “pause” that defines the conference setting serves as a tangible anchoring tool for movements with long-term perspectives on social transformation, which often enables more permanent forms of organization to emerge from contacts established and plans subsequently acted on in its aftermath. (Of course, this is somewhat of a romantic account of what the historical process of the conference usually entails. What also must be theorized as part of this “zone of intentional convergence” are the myriad fights and disagreements that surface, and the often vexing ways they are (not) resolved. Furthermore, when placed in a serious account of class warfare and political economy, we also must be aware of such over-determinations of the conference form as a reinscription of relations structured by access to different forms of capital.)
I have sorted my archival materials and objects of analysis into three overarching distinct categories or domains of research: first, I consider an eclectic and wide-ranging ensemble of influential “movement texts/scripts” as my central object and port of inquiry into the transformational paradigms, strategies, and tactics popularly employed by nonimprisoned activists entering into the twenty-first century, for the purpose of cultivating abolitionist and proto-abolitionist consciousness and organization in so-called “freeworld” zones of political activity.
Such movement texts include popularly circulated books like: the Committee to End Marion Lockdown’s Can’t Jail the Spirit (1983), George Jackson’s Soledad Brother (1969) and Blood in My Eye (1971), The New Dragon Prison Project’s New Year’s Calendar (c. 1980s/90s), Jessica Mitford’s Kind and Unusual Punishment (1973), Angela Davis and Bettina Aptheker’s edited volume If They Come in the Morning (1971), Assata Shakur’s Assata: An Autography (1987), Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Live from Death Row (1995), NOBO’s Black Prison Movements U.S.A (1995), Chinosole’s Schooling the Generations in the Politics of Prison (1994), Marilla Arguelles’ Extracts from Pelican Bay (1995), Burton-Rose, Pens, and Wright’s (ed.) The Celling of America (1995), Elihu Rosenblatt’s Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis (1995), Beth Richie’s Compelled to Crime (1996), Juanita Díaz-Cotto’s Gender, Ethnicity, and the State: Latina and Latino Prison Politics (1996), Luana Ross’ Inventing the Savage (1997), Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? (2002), Prison Research Action Project’s Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists (1973/2005), Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag (2007), and The CR10 Publications Collective’s Abolition Now!: Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle Against the Prison Industrial Complex (2008) and regularly published zines like Sundiata Acoli’s An Updated History of the New Afrikan Prison Struggle, Eve Goldenberg and Linda Evans’ The Prison Industrial Complex and the Global Economy (1997), Black August: History, Origins, and Significance (2002), Tenacious, edited by Victoria Law (ABC No Rio, New York), and Attacking the Prison at the Point of Production reprinted by Boston ABC; organizer’s manuals and print/digital tools distributed by freeworld groups like the Prison Activist Resource Center (Oakland), the Sylvia Rivera Law Center (New York), and the South Chicago ABC Zine Distro; and a historical material reading the narrative-political strategies deployed by grassroots media collectives in their mediums of communication and popular pedagogy (Prison News Service: A Bulldozer Publication/The Marionette, Prison Legal News, Chain Reaction, Statesville Speaks, 4struggleMag, and The Abolitionist).
Close readings of these predicative texts/scripts reveal the material composition of peoples, bodies, discourse, political desires, aesthetics, affects, and lifeworlds that constitute networks of counter-carceral insurgency in the United States more generally. For example, I interrogate the politics of ideological struggle against the hegemony of “law and order” during this period of monumental prison expansion throughout the country in the prisoner-edited periodical publication Prison Legal News (1996), which levees one of the most radical public criticisms of early liberal-to-progressive “criminal justice” reformisms found in the The Real War on Crime edited by Steven R. Ronzinger (1996), a book that was influential in late-nineties public policy circles.
Second, I am concerned with mapping the institutional and interpersonal relationships that compose nationwide—and to some extent transnational and Black-diasporic—abolitionist (and proto-abolitionist) movement-building organizations and solidarity networks during this conjunctural period. While I focus primarily on the historical formation of Critical Resistance, the North American Anarchist Black Cross, and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, I am actively conducting research on the political impact of such other prison activist groups and solidarity networks as the Prison Activist Resource Center (PARC), American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Anarchist Prisoner Legal Aid Network (APLAN), a variety of Black/New Afrikan prisoner collectives (e.g. The National Jericho Movement), All of Us or None, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Center among countless others who I will acknowledge deferentially in citations throughout the process of research, writing, editing, and producing this dissertation. The dominant frameworks of pedagogy, consciousness raising, mobilization, and discursive-intellectual intervention mobilized by this emergent constellation of counter-state, anti-racist, and anti-violence organizations can be seen unfolding from roughly 1990 onwards in the back-issues of Social Justice: a Journal of Crime, Conflict and World Order (1974 to present) as well. Social Justice was/is home for leading thought in the interdisciplinary field of “radical criminology” Stein 2017) and plays an important role in establishing the institutional conditions of possibility for Critical Prison Studies itself emerges as a radical field of scholarship and extra-professional association contiguous with the rise of PIC abolition as a vision and strategy for transforming social relationships.
Third, my most relied upon sphere of archival engagement is a collection of oral history testimony and public statements from nonimprisoned members of activist groups building radical political community with imprisoned activists and intellectuals around the country. One central collection of records I am currently looking is audio-documented oral testimony from The Pelican Bay Information Project (active in the early-1990s), as well as the transcripts and audio and visual documentary footage of panels and keynote speakers from major abolitionist convergences such as Jericho ’98 (New York City), Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex (1998 Oakland), Break the Chains (Eugene), The Revolution Will Not Be Funded (Santa Barbara), Transforming Justice (San Francisco), CR South (New Orleans), and the CR10 national strategy session (Oakland).
Working Chapter Outline
I have organized the structure of this dissertation into an introduction, three chapters, and a concluding section (accompanied with an “index” containing certain important images, documents, and excerpts from primary source materials referenced in each chapter). While a general retooling of the historiography, temporal sense, intelligible archives, and memorial narrations is a more basic intervention that I attempt to make throughout this dissertation, I am primarily interested in describing the cohering intellectual and aesthetic political practices of abolitionists whose day-to-day operations are conducted in what is referred to by activists as “freeworld” spheres of movement-building activity, or what is commonly invoked by incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated people as the position of “the Outside.”
Chapter 1, “Recalibrating the Abolitionist Impulse” thus looks at the production and programmatic implications of radical-to-revolutionary print culture circulating across prison walls in the 1990s into the early 2000s. I look most centrally at the discursive and material politics of Prison News Service: A Bulldozer Publication and its prisoner edited in fold The Marionette, which I consider documentary portals into the years that bridge prison movements of the 1980s and the re-emergence of PIC abolition as a guiding vision for popular insurgency in the latter 1990s. The discourse generated by the newspaper’s back catalog allows me to unpack the different lessons from criticisms and self-criticisms articulated during this period.
The Bulldozer collective curates a textual medium in Prison News Service that evinces continuities between the principled struggles for Black/Third World liberation, Native sovereignty, and anarchist fights against the capitalist, white supremacist state. Connecting histories of plantation slavery, colonial genocide, and imperialist conquest to an analysis of the present-tense realities of (prison) slavery, ongoing settler colonialism, and US/NATO military empire is the stuff of PNS. These continuities in struggles against the carceral state power make themselves known through rather simple and subtle analytical moves. These gestures include linking stories of past and present-tense movements by way of storytelling (memory work) and promoting the writings of imprisoned organizers and non-imprisoned PP/POW solidarity activists. Furthermore, media collectives like Bulldozer were innovative in their dissemination of radical prison praxis. The politics embodied by the collective demonstrates a commitment to disarticulating the alleged “inside/outside” binary that liberal reform movements impose on emergent prison radicalism. Back issues of Prison News Service contain an analysis that challenges the myth of the prison as a reified “elsewhere,” opting instead for a discursive bulldozing of the regime’s most visible institutional strictures—its concrete, razor-wire, and steel.
What is demonstrated through a close reading of the movement-building practices and networks as they appear in paradigmatic “movement texts” and popularly circulate print mediums like PNS is that the 1990s, rather than being period of downturn or regression in radical prison activism, actually represents a period of vibrant experimentation with the methodological art of organizing abolitionist political community across prison walls. Throughout this dissertation, I trace a genealogy of such publications similar to PNS into the early 2000s, placing texts like Prison Legal News edited by Paul Wright et al., Tenacious edited by Victoria Law, and early issues of The Abolitionist published by Critical Resistance at the center of this unfolding milieu’s trajectory.
I also look at the emergence, guiding principles and self-conceptualization of the Anarchist Black Cross in North America. Drawing on an assortment of materials supplied by the International Anarchist Black Cross Archive (housed in Los Angeles), I explore questions of what constitutes the rhetorical “Inside” and “Outside” of prison organizing and explore the power relations that these largely white (though antiracist and politically radical) freeworld activists had to account for, unlearn, and grapple with in their movement work across prison walls; efforts that supported primarily Black and Indigenous revolutionaries and other core country anti-imperialists. This is also an interrogation of my own positionality and embodied confrontations in the historical present-tense.
I have a particular interest in examining the political implications of Assata Shakur’s paradigm-shifting “escape,” as well as her public intellectual work and writings, which I argue offer a unique movement-building in such texts as Assata: an Autobiography (1987); while in turn thinking about the experiential theories, political imagination, and principled solidarity modeled by her most notable accomplices Sundiata Acoli and Marilyn Buck, whose ongoing criticisms of revolutionary movements in so-called North America can be seen sustained throughout the documentary record of Anarchist Black Cross activity in this particular geopolitical locality.
After establishing a schematic understanding the various configurations and tactical reiptiores that the ABC formations in the late-1990s and early-2000s devised, I look specifically at the work of the South Chicago ABC Zine Distro, founded in 1998, whose zine production and circulation of intel has been increasingly central in allowing prisoners to self-organize and offers a literal archival record of prison struggle history that has yet to be documented in any comprehensive way. In fact, the entire ABC distro catalog is housed at DePaul University Special Collections and I have access to oral history testimony from the founder of the distro, Anthony Rayson, in both interview form and from ethnographic notes in fieldwork.
Chapter 2, “The Prison Struggle Elsewhere” focuses on the historical formation of Critical Resistance, tracing the paradigmatic shifts in popular thinking with regard to where struggles against criminalization and imprisonment take place, shifting to a popular community-based perspective to growing abolition and a fight against reformist prison/jail expansion. As such, CR offered different models for abolitionist movement: not just engaging in prisoner support but sought to draw connections between the prison and the larger society that sustains/underpins the PIC, organizing in every sphere of society, including universities.
By 2003, the approach to movement-building that Critical Resistance was experimenting with can be described as manufacturing an abolitionist culture of resistance along three general lines of tactical significance. On one hand, the organization mobilized through grassroots organizing campaigns carried out by local chapters scattered mostly in the United States, with international analogs. These campaigns intend to strengthen the work of community groups and activists who were already at work on the issues of state violence specific to their home regions. Some members describe this supporting function as a type of infrastructure for bolstering community organizing at the local level, a framework that might guide and inform but never override the activism already going on in these different geographies.
Beyond an organization, Critical Resistance was thus also consolidating as a “concept”—adaptable, applicable to a far-range of possible struggles in different geographical contexts. On the other hand, CR understood early the imperatives of abolitionist “consciousness raising” through public education projects, injecting an abolitionist analysis of the PIC into the public discourse at multiple institutional sites and on numerous social scales. Truly multi-sited activism, CR chapters began hosting radio programs, making CD’s and video productions, held film festivals, spoke in classrooms, on TV news, in churches and “virtually anywhere people are interested in learning” about the PIC. In tandem with these two processes integral to promulgating a mass abolitionist movement, Critical Resistance emphasized their conference model of organizing. Critical Resistance used these large national and regional gatherings to “connect people and organizations, to birth local CR chapters, to build powerful lasting coalitions, to gather information on local and regional needs and efforts and most significantly, to build the movement by both initiating and supporting existing grassroots organizing efforts against the PIC across the country.” (author’s personal notes, citing Herzing)
This second chapter will offer a textual analysis of the programs from the organization’s conferences in 1998, 2001, 2003, and 2008; the writings of CR members in academic and non-academic texts; the internal documents from local chapters of organization housed in their Oakland office and at the Freedom Archives (San Francisco); and oral history testimony. I also explore the organization’s use of The Abolitionist newspaper, a project I am currently a co-editor on (although temporarily on hiatus as I write this prospectus).
The underlying objectives of CR’s first major national gathering in Oakland, 1998, was simple and straight-forward from the start: to put forward a consensus around the idea that the prison-industrial complex was in fact operating as intended rather than a system that is broken. This corrective to mainstream reformist perspective is common knowledge for millions today, yet at the time it was a notion that hardly circulated outside of particular activist communities. Cutting against the grain of common misconceptions that the prison struggle is solely a fight of and for men or “the masculine,” the commitment of a cross-generational cadre of feminist and queer leadership of color to multi-sited praxis of popular political education, the configuration of solidarity networks autonomous of state and corporate funding, and experimentation with the recurring conference model then held a key function in terms of granting CR’s capacity to popularize and circulate an accessible rhetoric of the “prison-industrial complex” (PIC), speakable regardless of educational training or literacy background.
That INCITE!: Women of Color Against Violence held their first “Color of Violence” conference just two years after CR is no coincidence, inspired in large part by both positive aspects and elements lacking in the ‘98 convening. Two more Color of Violence conferences: “Building A Movement” held in Chicago (2002) & “Stopping The War On Women of Color” in New Orleans (2005) were to follow, and in the organization’s nascent years published various anthologies included in “Color of Violence” (2006). Andrea Smith as early as 1999, in an interview following the ’98 CR convening, notes how a desire was invoked by numerous participants for more a intentional approach to addressing interpersonal power relations (specifically gender-based violence) if there were to be future meetings. The stakes of INCITE!’s first gathering was organized “primarily for a small group of impassioned women of color activists who were fed up with existing organizations that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) address violence faced by women of color. They wanted to understand and actively confront violence while placing women of color at the center” (cited from INCITE! website). Each conference held by this national organization of mostly Black, Brown, and Indigenous women was framed by obstinately abolitionist antiviolence objectives in transforming conditions of systemic state and interpersonal harm, bringing more abolitionist activists into the fight against interpersonal gender-based violence and an influx of anti-violence organizers into the movement for PIC abolition.
Chapter 3, “Kill the Cop in Your Head,” therefore attends largely to the cohering narratives of INCITE!, at the center of a constellation of organizations and media collectives whose efforts pushed discussion regarding PIC abolitionist movement-building further toward an emphasis on the internal work of transforming the self and the everyday interpersonal relationships as a commanding political principle and defining component of praxis. I seek to delineate the distinct approaches and interventions developed by INCITE!, whose central idea was to create an abolitionist formation that centered gender-based violence, and demonstrate how (proto)abolitionist formations that arise after the late-nineties illustrate this general pattern of shifting ideological focus toward the interpersonal and theorizations of what abolition looks like in everyday life. The work of INCITE! forces us to ask: How do we practically mobilize strategies that center the most marginalized of criminalized populations? How do we begin addressing gender-based violence, misogyny, abuse, and harm without policing and incarceration on an everyday level, in our homes and most intimate relationships? The “Color of Violence” conferences were certainly in part a culmination of this urgent desire for transformation within.
My objects of reference include public records and video footage of these conference gatherings generated over a ten-year span by the organization and various reflections from co-founding members, including references from Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation by Beth E. Richie. I also look at foundational inter-organizational documents like the CR-INCITE! Statement on Gender-Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex. This joint statement, written by Critical Resistance and INCITE! in 2003, intends to hold the mainstream antiviolence movement accountable for its perverse reliance on incarceration and the abolitionist movement’s ignoring of gender-based violence as a center concern of PIC-abolitionist praxis. This statement is useful for our purposes also because its circulation, if properly understood, illumines disparate pockets of insurgency and multiple and overlapping communities of struggles formed between different tendencies of mass struggle against criminalization, policing, and imprisonment, as it is a movement text that appears (or is referenced) by organizations, scholars, and/or popular publications under examination in the previous two chapters.
In 2004, INCITE! also led an organizing effort to hold another landmark conference: “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond The Non-Profit Industrial Complex” at UC Santa Barbara. This conference brought activists together to discuss the effects of the non-profitization of the U.S. Left and “global North” progressive movements more generally, producing an analysis how organizations since the 1970s—parallel to the PIC’s late 20th century expansion—have become increasingly entangled in the economic and legal machinery of capital, corporate governance, and private philanthropy. This radical critique of the emergence of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex is documented in the audio transcripts of The Revolution Will Note Be Funded conference and its culminating book. (2004).
INCITE!’s influence is foundational for a myriad of grassroots formations that are operating today, from work against the criminalization of sexual assault survivors and survivors of domestic abuse to youth empowerment and transformative justice education projects—shifting conversations toward the internal work, addressing power relations in the spaces we organize within, and creating a shift toward people starting to model abolitionist ecosystems in their organizational homes.
INCITE! over time considerably deepened its conscious theorization of an abolitionist idea of gender-based violence by adapting their analytical approach and groups capacities to account for the lived experience and particular systemic vulnerabilities of criminalized trans and gender-nonconforming people. The latter tendency can be seen making its largest strides in a time period roughly between the 2006 “Transforming Justice” conference (organized by members of groups such as INCITE!, CCWP, CR, the Sylvia Rivera Law Center, and larger queer and trans prisoner support entities) and publication of the groundbreaking book Captive Genders: Trans embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (2011): evidence of a massively influential circuit of radical intellectuals rearticulating the narrative landscape of PIC abolition through a queer and trans analysis.
“Transforming Justice,” like so many others not mentioned in this cursory survey of the time-period, is a historic landmark that should be highlighted, most especially in terms of shaping the national discussion around the oppression of trans and gender-nonconforming people imprisoned by the United States government. As the conference website describes, it was the “first-ever national gathering of LGBTIQQ former prisoners, activists, attorneys, and community members” to meet together and “develop national priorities towards ending the criminalization and imprisonment of transgender communities.” It is noted by conference organizers to be the first ever gathering of its kind in scale of participation, but also the first to do so in an explicitly abolitionist framework (cited from author’s personal notes).
Throughout the dissertation I rely on video footage and audio testimony to provide an in depth look into the context of this intellectual production and the opportunity for retrospective ethnographic description. For example, each “Color of Violence” conference organized by INCITE! is documented and located in several different locations online and is made accessible on their website. The San Francisco Freedom Archives has also made available audio recordings of imprisoned people and anti-solitary legal activists in the early-1990s documented by The Pelican Bay Information Project, with invited permissions from the collection’s owner.
In a concluding section, tentatively titled “Schooling the Generations” I plan to juxtapose paradigmatic statements generated in the audio records of The Pelican Bay Information Project with an analysis of the discursive and aesthetic project of movement texts/scripts like Voices from Pelican Bay (1995) and landmark articles from The San Francisco Bayview newspaper as a method for tracing the changes in the narratives and political imagination of struggles solitary confinement over the course of two decades, which for the nonimprisoned eventuates in the formation of California-based Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Network in 2011.
More broadly, this concluding section explores several spatial, temporal, and archival-memorial reframes of existing popular cultural and journalistic accounts of contemporary prison activist solidarity efforts roughly 2010 into 2018, examining the limitations and strategic possibilities of the current “strike-based” models of inside/outside prison mobilization and organizing, as well as flaws in the existing methods of collaboration in the age of social media activism, left-progressive cults of celebrity, and the disciplinary machinations of non-profit/NGO and academic regimes.
I understand this presentday phase of revolutionary prison struggle as a momentous conjuncture that, beginning in the late-1980s/early-1990s, brackets and frames the historiographic and memorial-archival collage I assemble throughout the dissertation as it marks a new period of awareness in the discourse of freeworld activists regarding the assumed potential for prisoner self-organization, discursive and representational autonomy, and collaboration with civil society while incarcerated. Here the writings of currently-imprisoned abolitionist organizer and political Stephen Wilson, one of my dearest comrades and co-organizer with the network of prisoner-led study groups “Dreaming Freedom, Practicing Abolition” ( http://www.abolitioniststudy.group / @studyabolition), informs my understanding of how inside/outside collectivity is—in the historical process of movement-building—recurringly fractured/compartmentalized/segregated in contradictory and internally antagonistic ways.
Wilson’s counter-discursive practices, an expression of Rodriguez’s “radical prison praxis” par excellence, deeply problematizes the presentday prisoner support movement’s compliance with the reproduction of a “hegemony of law-and-order” and explores the ways imprisoned and nonimprisoned activists are complexly enveloped by and positioned within regimes of liberal-reformist cooptation, anti-Black romanticization, class treachery, opportunism, and counter-revolutionary humanism.
These closing sections of the dissertation, both Chapter 3 and the concluding section are the least refined in terms of organizational structure and my plan for implementation, but given the significant quantity of archival materials available and access to oral histories that I have at my disposal, I am pleased with the current pace of developments.
The various genealogies of collaboration that I trace all occur simultaneously within a span of roughly three decades. I do not tell a linear story of emergence, but rather describe and examine the disparate pockets of insurgency and overlapping communities of struggle that comprise the movement to abolish the prison industrial complex across each of my chapters.
Countless other vital technologies, movement texts, and convergences thus serve as anchoring objects in this dissertation’s genealogy of a nationwide movement’s becoming, offering unique windows into the internal composition of its ideological tendencies and historical frameworks and articulations of counter-carceral praxis. For example, accompanying and always in some sort of relation to CR and INCITE!s landmark conferences came an outpouring of convergences responding to the prison crisis, from major international convenings like The International Conferences on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) to continental gatherings of the North American Anarchist Black Cross Network (ABCN), the Anarchist Black Cross Federation (ABCF), and other political prisoner/POW solidarity groups.
One case in point is the Jericho ‘98 March, an attempt to galvanize and bring together activists from throughout the United States whose work was centrally the fight for “Amnesty and Freedom for All Political Prisoners.” The ’98 March was more of a convergence than a traditional march, which eventuated in a public gathering that allowed for new connections between prison activists to be made. The initial call for proposals reads: “With Jericho ‘98 we are pushing for the admission on the part of the United States’ government that our political prisoners and prisoners of war do exist inside the prisons of the United States. We are pushing for recognition in the international arena and therefore changing how the world views our liberation struggles inside the belly of the beast.” Hundreds of people met and spent the day in the streets of New York city to march, share resources and information, and listen powerful speakers, including Dennis Banks, Chokwe Lumumba, numerous members of PP/POW defense committee’s, and CR-cofounder Angela Davis among many others. (It is from this period that the national Jericho Movement is formed and still operates as a key organization in the struggle for protecting Black, Third World, and Native political prisoners in the United States today.)
One of the most notable of these turn of the century abolitionist convenings was “Break the Chains”: a multi-day conference organized in 2003 by the Anarchist Prisoner Legal Aid Network, a number of ABC formations, and the Break the Chains crew. Conference speakers included experienced radical prison activists like Rita “Bo” Brown, Safiya Bakari, Chrystos, Ward Churchill, John “Splitting the Sky” Hill, Matt Hart, Paulette d/Auteuil, Ed Mead, Claude Marks, Stormy Ogden, Laura Whitehorn, Vikki Law, Anthony Rayson, Mary Martinez Wenzel, Brigette Sarabi, Peter Urban, Sailor Holladay, Tommy Escarcega, and Nora Callahan. The event’s program contained solidarity statements from Sara Jane Olson, Jeffrey Free Luers, Jalil Muntaqim, John Two-Names, and formations like the International Platform Against Isolation and the Barrio Defense Committee.
A year before “Break the Chains,” we see further that the North American ABC Network hosts its first major conference gathering in Austin, Texas. Other convenings of the ABCN would emerge over the next decade, such as in Chicago, 2006. In fact, it was in a reflection on his experiences at the first ABCN conference that former political prisoner and anarchist community organizers Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin made his famous call to form a United Prison Movement, the likes of which has not yet been fully realized or achieved: “Coming in, I made it clear that I was only interested in a broader based Anarchist Black Cross as a viable movement in the United States, and saw the ABCN as a large part of that. I pointed out that I still supported the entire international ABC movement, even tendencies like the ABC Federation, that the leadership of this ABCN group might be opposed to. In fact, I would like to see a United Prison Front of both ABCN, ABCF, Critical Resistance, and all of the contemporary groups supporting prisoners and fighting racism, as well as Black/POC, women, Queer and other liberation groups, but of course that has to be your decision.” Contemporary abolitionists might do well to return to a few of these historic calls for solidarity amongst all opponents of the carceral state and prison industrial complex.
Building upon Ervin’s gesture toward a “United Prison Front,” I present a wide range of documentary evidence into the frame that accounts for the broader terrain of historical abolitionist culture work, scholarship, pedagogy, and consciousness-raising that was taking space and making place during this very same period. The case studies I focus on in these chapters are therefore indicative of a larger, multifaceted, and interconnected network/ecosystem of abolitionist organizing that takes place in this period and throughout the dissertation I attempt to draw lines between these interconnected and often parallel/simultaneous organizational histories.