The theoretical foundations of “PIC abolition” as a critical discourse and articulation of radical praxis finds its catalyst in the political-cultural imagination and social geographies of Black women in particular and the mass generalization of a Black feminist cartography of struggle in general at the turn of the 21st century.
While 2010 marks another important conjecture and paradigm-shift in the American Prison Movement, a phase that reprioritizes the revolutionary “self-activity” of imprisoned people and models of organization that place emphasis on direct action, solidarity, and mutual aid, I am more concerned in this chapter with the processes of movement building and nascent traditions of grassroots revolutionary abolitionist organizing to emerge between the mid-1990s and early-2010s. Primarily, I am interested in the role of what Patricia Hill Collins calls “black feminist consciousness” in the resurgence of anti-prison activism in the United States on the one hand, and the material significance of Black feminist thought in the gathering of a storm of dissidence aimed much broader and porous carceral landscapes than prior generations had initially perceived.
Two figures whose work must be considered at great length in this first chapter is Angela Y. Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Looking at the contributions of Black women like Davis and Gilmore to the production of a movement geography and the generalized conception of abolition’s cartography we see several key elements define PIC abolition in its holistic lineages, inheritances, and thus historical responsibilities.
Following scholar activist and political philosopher Joy James, it is also important to differentiate this epistemology further by noting a distinction between “radical” and “revolutionary” black politics and feminisms specifically. James’ critique of Black feminism as a monolithic constellation recognizes the need for an autonomous revolutionary abolitionism that desires separation from civil society in its infrastructural entirety. This perspective creates a useful point of reference for interpreting certain limitation of the existing (ongoing and adapting) movement to abolish the prison industrial complex. James’ edited volumes of incarcerated writers also offers a through line of archival texts, as well as a repository of criticism and self-criticism encompassing all revolutionary Black/New Afrikan feminist/Womanist/protofeminist articulations historically seeking freedom from criminalization and incarceration.
The first half of this chapter, traces the emergence of the “prison industrial complex” (PIC) as an analytic, and thus a discursive object, in the writings of Angela Y. Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and embeds their well documented theories of transformation within a mapping of their concrete social contexts, the broader movement to abolish the prison industrial complex as such. Clyde Woods provide useful theoretical frameworks examining this consolidation of oppositional forces and its engagement with the form of literal and figurative terrains, through the onto-epistemological lens of “Black geography,” while Katherine McKittrick offers great analytical specificity on the political implications of drawing lead and inspiration from the texts, and thus discourse and praxis of Black feminism.
Not only does the inherent internationalism of radical and revolutionary Black feminisms establish this particular trajectory of movement as always-already a struggle against global geopolitical dominance but the multi-sitedness characteristic of these lineages raises complicated questions regarding agency, solidarity, and relation in the fields of Black Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, and so-called Carceral Studies. The scholarship of Julia C. Oparah shows breadth and scope of liberatory coordinates that Black women began establishing using the prison industrial complex and PIC abolition as a guiding dialectic to orient collective struggles against carceral-police and systemic interpersonal violence. Cassandra Shaylor is another scholar-activist in the CR milieu who also prioritizes the experience of women in prison, which is a move that not only representationally “includes” incarcerated (Black) women into discussions they are typically excluded from in the public domain but rather changes the entire standpoint from which abolitionist processes of transformation are named and given practical and agential meaning.
The second half of this chapter organizes an epistemology of PIC abolition around three core primary source texts, weaving statements from members, oral testimony, and archival documents produced under the name of the organization into a more general critical appreciation for the framework of movement-building and community organizing that Critical Resistance (and adjacent communities of struggle) is proposing with their ongoing experiment. However, unlike traditional methods of intellectual history in the study of the Black radical tradition, I juxtapose a reading of key thinkers and texts as they are constituted in relation to an a sweeping and incalculable supporting cast, what Saidiya Hartman calls the “chorus” that scaffolds sociality and the body of “movement”; an entire ensemble of instiutional and organizational affiliations, with their own historically specific orientations and approaches forged out of historical necessity; no less the ongoing material realities and fatal consequences of slavery’s political economy. I am thus interested in questions of hierarchies and internal contradiction, leadership and the the rank-and-file as much as I am mapping the sense of community in which PIC abolitionists envisages themselves a part of, are born from, or may in fact be welcomed into.