The most difficult and urgent challenge today is that of creatively exploring new terrains of justice, where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor.
Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?, 2003
And still we fought, but increasingly in terrain already absorbed, annexed, turned to purposes other than abolition. Yet, if we imagine the imagined territory from above, which is to say, in an abstract and generalized view, we see movement, lots of movement, many trenches dug, many positions defended, many previously unimagined integrations achieved.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, What is to Be Done?, 2011
[H]uman geography needs some philosophical attention… [N]ot only because existing cartographic rules unjustly organize human hierarchies in place and reify uneven geographies in familiar, seemingly natural ways… [T]hese rules are in fact alterable and there exists a terrain of thought which different geographic stories can be and are told.
Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, 2006
PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems.
Through its reach and impact, the PIC helps and maintains the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and similar privileges. There are many ways this power is collected and maintained through the PIC, including creating mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, etc. as criminal, delinquent or deviant. This power is also maintained by earning huge profits for private companies that deal with prisons and police forces; helping others earn political gains for “tough on crime” politicians; increasing the influence of prison guard and police unions; and eliminating social and political dissent by people of color, poor people, immigrants, and others who make demands of self-determination and reorganization of power in the US.
All these things are parts of the PIC….
PIC ABOLITION is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.
From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people. Because the PIC is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy. An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives.
Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.
Critical Resistance, The CR Abolition Organizing Toolkit, 2002
What if abolition isn’t a shattering thing, not a crashing thing, not a wrecking ball event? What if abolition is something that sprouts out of the wet places in our eyes, the broken places in our skin, the waiting places in our palms, the tremble holding in my mouth when I turn to you? What if abolition is something that grows? What if abolishing the prison industrial complex is the fruit of our diligent gardening, building and deepening of a movement to respond to the violence of the state and the violence in our communities with sustainable, transformative love?
Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Freedom Seeds, 2008
What are the philosophical foundations of “PIC abolition”?
One first place my mind goes is to decribe its fundamental rootedness in the intellectual and cultural fabric of Black women’s counter-carceral geographies. To focus on the social-historical formation of “grassroots” counter-state antiracist and antiviolence organizations Critical Resistance (CR) and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, while in turn considering the multiply-scaled nodal positions that both groups cohabitate at the turn of the 21st century, might generate a more rigorous theoretical understanding of these two political formations within the broader geography of a movement to abolish the U.S. prison industrial complex (PIC), and revolutionary processes more generally.
Departing from Katherine McKittrick’s provocation that “existing cartographic rules unjustly organize human hierarchies in place and reify uneven geographies in familiar, seemingly natural ways,” and simultaneously making space for the sensuous truth that “these rules are in fact alterable and there exists a terrain of thought which different geographic stories can be and are told,” I would suggest we conceptualize its core repertoire of historical discursive practice through which emergent organizations such as Critical Resistance and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence create a situated and historical nessary “poetics of landscape”, ad hoc conception of counter-carceral deep space, and “demonic” cartography of struggle by way of their formative and paradigmatic Black queer feminist orientation and approach to abolition praxis.
There is a demand upon self-described abolitionist scholars and activist in particular to better understand and theorize the organizationally contiguous grammars, activist vernaculars, and Black/Native feminist poethics of Critical Resistance and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence in their formative years and theorize the consequential philosophical implications of this turn-of-the-century abolition paradigm shift: the respatialization of traditional conceptions of “where” counter-carceral movements take and make place. This historically-specific articulation of counter-carceral insurgency is known today as “PIC abolition praxis.”
I understand both CR and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence as multi-sited even in their principled coalition building with different grassroots movements such as environmental justice and decolonization struggles over the use of land (Braz and Gilmore 2006). Not only were these coalitional engagements formed through protracted campaigns combatting the prison crisis but also various other projects over the years such as emergency mutual-aid networks during Hurricane Katrina (2006 INCITE; 2005 South End Press Collective) to improvisational practices of concrete solidarity and sustaining lines of communication across the walls of several focal California prisons during the 2011 Pelican Bay prisoner hunger strike.
By tracing such historic continuities, paradigm shifts, and conjunctural mutations in the socially organizing principles and communal spatial-temporal schema of what I understand to be, following Katherine McKittrick’s (2006) words, the “humanly-workable” counter-carceral geographies of Black feminist and womanist theorists, I demonstrate how the cartographies of struggle produced through “PIC abolition praxis” also differ, in theoretically significant ways, from the popular geography of what historians Dan Berger and Toussaint Losier call the “American Prison Movement,” and mystified conceptions of carceral racial power in the political discourses of Leftist social movements throughout the so-called “global North” more generally.
Fixing geographic attention to a spectrum of structural positions (ranging from incarcerated-to-free-world activists) and their constituting relations of power/violence, permits a more sophisticated mapping of the processes through which state-imposed discursive boundaries between activists both imprisoned and non-imprisoned are made legible, symbolically disarticulated, and cartographies are reimagined. How are accepted distinctions between inside and outside demystified, theoretically troubled, or collapsed altogether by organizations like Critical Resistance and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence through protracted community-building, public pedagogy, rigorous internal debate, and the seeding of (proto)abolitionist perspectives on social change? What are the novel geopolitical scales (i.e. regional, national, international) that emerge in this historic conjecture? 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 animate and co-constitute PIC abolition praxis during this time-period?
I believe such questions challenge, in constructive ways, the political imagination of contemporary counter-carceral articulations but the ultimate presence of the “inside/outside” distinction activates (often in unintentional ways) the “reification” of the prison industrial complex’s (and ultimately U.S white supremacy’s) hegemonic geography of domination. We must push scholars and activists alike to consider their own experiences and strategies in the context of nearly four decades of lessons generated by abolitionists, often documented with scholarly foresight, waging struggle against the PIC. That is, the abolition of all forms of systemic state and interpersonal violence.
In a most basic sense, I am thus asking questions regarding the “where” in which large-scale collective struggles to abolish gendered racist criminalization and punitive-imprisonment produce space that breaks open common sense state-proctored cartographies of normative place toward new liberated geographies that are relationally contrapuntal to the carceral regime, and pose theories as to how a cultural, aesthetic, and intellectual milieu of PIC abolition praxis has endured transgressively and defiantly for what is now approaching a complete full three decades.