What are the ways in which the “prison industrial complex”—as keyword, concept, and unit of analysis—enables new landscapes and vistas for counter-carceral revolt and underground movement to take flight? How does this conception of carceral-police violence, in its systemic state and interpersonal modes, articulates a fundamentally more radical, instrumentally useful, and discursively comprehensive notion of incarceration than the reformist political categories of “Mass Incarceration,” the “New Jim Crow,” and “Prison Slavery”? What are the political consequences of the “prison industrial complex” as an analytical device for the construction of a popular sense of space, place, geopolitics, home, community, praxis, relationality, and social transformation?
Divergence of Strategic Culture
To my knowledge, the most succinct definition of “P.I.C. abolition” is thus found in The CR Abolition Organizing Toolkit, created in 2002, which I exhibit at length in image-quote below (as well as in this chapter’s opening epigraph):
P.I.C. 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 P.I.C. both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people. Because the P.I.C. 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.
CR and INCITE! invoke a qualitatively new approach to abolition praxis with its own historically specific cartographies of struggle (McKittrick 2006) that break from a spatial-temporal sensibility at once peculiar to: 1.) the immediate post-1971 conjuncture of Berger and Losier’s (2018) “American Prison Movement”; and 2.) the terms of debate that are determinate of existing interdisciplinary scholarship on the “prison industrial complex” and “abolition,” particularly in my home fields of Black Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, and audaciously, Carceral Studies. This Black feminist conception actually augments the perceived dichotomy between inside and outside because systemic carceral-police logics materialize in structural and interpersonal scales. It is from the standpoint and ontological groundings of Black, Third World, and Native womyn in particular that the “prison industrial complex” illuminates the ways carceral-police violence overdetermine inhabitation in every sphere of society from free-world to incarceration., rendering everywhere site a nascent of struggle
To be clear, I would not privilege CR and INCITE! as the lone epic enter of abolitionist movement-building activity but attempts to trace the material historical shifts in discourse and praxis which lead to explicit transformations in the spatial and temporal common sense of movements against carceral-police violence. A radical genealogy of Critical Resistance and INCITE!’s historical formation and political impact does in fact highlight a paradigmatic shift in the discourse and praxis of (P.I.C.) abolition as a mass concept-vision which between the late-1990s and early-2000s, which in turn appears to galvanize a rupture and departure from problematic and outmoded cartographies generated by earlier movements against the U.S. regime of imprisonment.
What are these outmoded geographies? Either get to below or start explaining here…
I argue that breaking from such inherited analytical demarcations of space, time, and organization is a necessary chore for contemporary abolitionists because the “prison industrial complex” is not a static configuration but dynamic, flexible, and adaptive set of power relations. Formative to Critical Resistance and INCITE!’s theoretical framework of “prison industrial complex abolition” and their covalent methods of dis/organizing and rearticulating the material collectivity found in contradictory sites of political struggle such as the university campus, the non-profit infrastructure, and more formal punitive-carceral setting has been a problematization of the reigning spatial-temporal common sense and cultural-juridical mythology of the American Prison Movement, which invokes the reified enclosure of the U.S. “prison/jail/detention center” as a discrete and geographically isolated zone of inhabitation, removed from the broader landscape of social formation.
“Policing” and “criminalization” in this context become key technologies to be theorized in a Black radical critical theory that demonstrate, by analytically discerning, the material institutional and historical continuities of the P.I.C. as a system that is determinate of embodiment and self-activity across every scale of social reproduction imaginable
Define the “American Prison Movement”
The turn-of-the-century marks a decisive moment in the historical formation of counter-carceral revolt, particularly the movement the abolish the U.S. prison-industrial complex, as groups like Critical Resistance and INCITE!: Women of Color Against Violence begin to conceptualize the “inside/outside” binary as a delimiting spatial framework for envisaging the site(s) and scene(s) of political struggle.
Rather these two national organizations typify the political desires of a vast bloc of (proto)abolitionist activist opposing gendered and racialized (carceral-police) violence on smaller regional-to-local/intimate scales around the country.
This binary discursive technology is an historically specific spatial conception of where abolitionist movement-building and community organizing, praxis and transformation takes place, and thus how strategic, operational, tactical, logistical, and organization needs are determined.
Define discourse and the discursive technology
Apparatus – Agamben/Foucault
While useful as both an ontological and existential descriptor in certain contexts, this lay rhetorical distinction between “inside” and “outside” serves to provincialize a dichotomist narrative-cartographic imagination which in turn reasserts the juridical authority, normative morality, and sociological validity of U.S. law, social order, and punitive-carceral statecraft.
If scholarly accounts of the “prison industrial complex” and “abolition” overlook the ways oppositional epistemologies are responded to and disciplined by and enfolded into the matrices of practical reason that compose the “inside/outside” technology’s narrative-cartographic renderings, then we can predict and prepare for (or alternatively strive to ruin) a similar trajectory for counter-carceral revolt fatum ad infinitum.
What points of departure for theorizing abolition praxis and movement-building are rendered possible (or even simply “intelligible”) when we consider the relation between a carceral “inside” and “outside”—and thus the reified category of the U.S. prison/jail signified as a discrete space isolated from the alleged societal “outside”—as emphatically not the foci of revolt against the prison industrial complex?
How have prison/penal/P.I.C. abolitionists over the last half-century produced models of collective being and radical political community that attend to the needs of co-strugglers enduring state captivity, liquidation from civil society, social death, and targeted bodily disintegration while still remaining persistent and committed to the pedagogical project of demystifying the consequences of the “inside/outside” binary in the play of strategy and tactics?
What I am tentatively calling the narrative-discursive technology and cartographic ideological hold of the “inside/outside” binary is a singularly troubling aspect of this larger process of the carceral state’s continuous reinvention and normalized juridical-institutional reform.
If the expansion of the prison/criminal-justice/policing nexus during this historic conjuncture is in part a “geographical solution to political economic crises, organized by the state, which is itself in crisis” (Gilmore 2007) then an analysis that is critical of spatializing technologies, both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic, as they discursively frame, sculpt, and ideologically bind the formation of abolitionist community organization and resistance over the last three decades is far beyond needed.
The turn-of-the-century marks a decisive moment in the trajectory of Black, Third World, Indigenous, Queer and radical anti-racist counter-carceral revolt globally, and particularly for the movement to abolish the U.S. prison industrial complex. Within this historical conjuncture, national organizations such as Critical Resistance and INCITE! began to conceptualize the “inside/outside” binary as a delimiting spatial framework for envisaging the site(s) and scene(s) of counter-carceral revolt situated in the domestic realm of U.S. policing, criminalization, carceral punishment, and state dominion.
I focus 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 P.I.C., organizing in every sphere of society, including (importantly) universities. Reading a range of primary source materials and placing these texts in conversation with oral history testimony and analysis generated from my own concrete practical experience, I argue that between the late-1990s and early-2000s Critical Resistance generates a unique variation of counter-state, anti-racist and anti-violence praxis that is:
- 1.Multiply-scaled and decentralized in its orientation to space and anti-carceral organization;
- 2.Methodical in its pace, notions of temporality, and reflexive in its remembrance of political ancestral and historical lineage;
- 3.Scrupulous in its autobiographic and documentary techniques and the curation of intellectual and social-philosophical milieu (an awareness of insurgent lineage);
- 4.Dynamic in its approach to the craft and artistry of radical pedagogy and abolitionist “consciousness raising.”
By focusing on the formation and political impact of Critical Resistance’s narrative-cartographic imaginings and re-articulation of abolition’s inherited spatial common sense, I demonstrate how this discursive project in its flowering bloom lends impetus to a broader shift in abolitionist praxis toward a methodology of strategic demystification and transformative re-spatialization. I perform a close reading of several foundational movement texts published and circulated by Critical Resistance: ranging from publicly accessible conference materials and internal documents like Melissa Burch’s important 2003 report on the third conference of Critical Resistance in New Orleans, Critical Resistance South: A Report from the Southern Conference and Strategy Session and The CR Abolition Organizing Toolkit (2002), to special editions of Social Justice: a Journal of Crime, Conflict, and World Order (2000) and a range of field-notes, correspondence, letters in the public record, and oral testimony generated by former and present members housed in several archival databases and institutions, including the Freedom Archives and Southern California Library, and of course on the official CR (national staff and advisory committee) website and digital video source resources.
Explain archival method and process
Decentralization of the Movement Against Incarceration in1998
– Joy James as critical intellectual
– The Jericho Movement
Angela Davis speaks -introduce her work here
– North American Anarchist Black Cross
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin
the principled abolitionist as exception
Kom’boa Ervin’s statement on “United Prison Front”
The issue with the language of “unity” in prison solidarity activism
Inherent racism of white liberal universals
white supremacy has always been an issue in the abolition movement
Lorenzo – critique of NA-ABC Conference in Denver the white Left
and his comments at the very same Anarchist Bookfair
- Ruthie Gilmore – The Forgotten Seeds of Grassroots Planning:”
Golden Gulag as paradigmatic text
Consider the words from afro-pessimism and the way this genre of Black Studies sharply criticizes the racial formation of this text while simultaneously dismissing the importance of it and its relevance for historical struggles over social power which gain their importance as objects of study because of their foundations are rooted in concrete practical experience and not merely philosophico-theoretical texts and immaterial—not magical—academicism.
Infrastructure of Feeling
This infrastructure enables an abolitionist ontology ? What is the ontology of abolition if not Black? At the very least in the historical relevance for its orientation and approach to praxis.
This serves as a material basis for the propulsion of struggles against the prison regime at the turn of the century. How was this infrastructure cultivated? Who performs what tasks of labor, logistics, and other necessary facets of social reproduction
I conceptualize how CR chapter members understood their movement work as providing a loose-knit scaffolding structure to amplify, materially support, and embolden smaller “local” groups organizing in their home communities, as well as in their emergent/extant kinship structures. This shifting network of abolitionist “grassroots planning” and its manufactured “infrastructure of feeling” (Gilmore) is sustained between “free-world” spheres of U.S. civil society and across the walls of seemingly impermeable carceral-state enclosures, yet sees beyond these boundaries in terms of the formation of its cartography of struggle.
Central to this construction was queer intimacy
haunting as always queer, asymmetries in the potential to form intimacies internal to movement spaces
Queer not in its effects as a universal political category, but as a marking of difference, which in some sense means it must also be Black.
Cite Jackson on manufacturing conditions
CR mobilized through national-to-regional and local grassroots organizing campaigns carried out by chapters, staff, and volunteers scattered throughout the United States predominately, of course 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 organizing against carceral state violence at the local level, a framework that might guide and inform but never override the activism already going on in these different geographies.
Beyond the organizational level, Critical Resistance was thus also consolidating as a “concept”— adaptable, applicable to a wide-range of possible struggles in different geographical contexts. Here I use the term “grassroots” in reference to mode(l)s of political-cultural organization that are community-based, relatively autonomous of corporate/state authority, and grounded in concrete relations of solidarity and transformative mutual aid. I trace the organization’s emphasis on ideological struggle through practices of autonomous, collective study and radical political education that injects an analysis of the “prison industrial complex” into the public discourse across multiple institutional sites and on numerous social scales.
CR understood early the imperatives of abolitionist “consciousness raising” through public education projects, injecting an abolitionist analysis of the prison industrial complex 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, in their words, “virtually anywhere people are interested in learning” about the P.I.C. In tandem with these 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 P.I.C. across the country.” (author’s notes, citing Herzing) 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) re-solved. 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.
As “old spaces for radical praxis close down, disappear, or become superfluous,” writes Rodríguez, “the historical nexus embodied by the rise of the prison industrial complex may introduce a new center for invigorated opposition and militant resistance.” (26) 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 abolitionist and proto-abolitionist prisoner solidarity 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 radical prison praxis through the creation of mass-based movement-building organizations that linked a wide-range of counter-carceral activist formations within prisons, across prison walls, and throughout established spheres of free-world civil society.
Fixing geographic attention to a spectrum of structural positions (ranging from incarcerated-to-freeworld 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 in- and out-side demystified, theoretically troubled, or collapsed altogether by organizations like Critical Resistance, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, and to an extent North American ABC (of particular interest for me) 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 conjecture?
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 settler-colonial, white supremacist state dominance. How do members of grassroots abolitionist groups that 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? How do nonimprisoned prisoner solidarity activists most effectively leverage their (relative) freedom of bodily mobility and access to resources in solidarity with imprisoned activists, organizers, and intellectuals?
Open next chapter with Ruthie’s quote at Abc book fair and Lorenzo’s quote from ABC conference
Grassroots networks of insurgency pre-1998, late-1980s to early-1990s.