Critical Resistance to the Prison Industrial Complex:
Black Feminist Consciousness and the Intellectual Foundations of PIC Abolition
An historical epistemology of “PIC abolition” departs from the intellectual production and political imagination of radical-to-revolutionary Black women, their vision of maneuverable countercarceral geographies , and the generalization of a Black feminist cartography of struggle known as the “prison industrial complex” beginning roughly in the mid-1990s. While the 2010s certainly mark another important conjecture in the formation of the “American Prison Movement” (Berger & Losier 2018)—moment that fixes renewed attention on the militant “self-activity” of imprisoned peoples and an articulation of abolitionist insurgency that prioritizes direct action, concrete solidarity, and nonidealist mutual aid—this chapter is more concerned with the paradigms, protocols, and cultural structures of grassroots movement building and community organizing at the nexus of criminalization, policing, and incarceration in the decade that precedes it.
What is significant both in a theoretical and world historical sense at the turn of the twenty-first century is 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 on the other a gathering storm of dissidence poised towards the abolition of a much broader carceral landscape than prior generations initially had formulated.
This chapter thus begins by tracing the emergence of the “prison industrial complex” (PIC) as an analytic (and thus as a discursive object) in the archival narratives of members Critical Resistance and adjacent communities of struggle. I embed various well documented theories of procedural revolutionary transformation within a mapping of their literal and figurative context of insurgency: the broader movement to abolish the prison industrial complex as such. Clyde Woods and Katherine McKittrick provide useful 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 McKittrick offers greater analytical specificity on the political implications of Black feminism as a modality of rearticulating hegemonic modes of inhabiting and resisting gravely normalized carceral landscapes. Following Joy James, I differentiate this epistemology further by noting a distinction theoretically and in practice between “radical” and “revolutionary” black feminists and feminisms. James’ critique of Black feminism as a monolithic constellation thus desires a separation from civil society in its infrastructural entirety, creating a point of reference for interpreting the movement to abolish the prison industrial complex. James’ collected body of writings and edited volumes of incarcerated writers also provides a through line of criticism and self-criticism established over time by revolutionary Black/New Afrikan feminist/Womanist/protofeminist articulations.
Departing from this theoretical and vernacular groundwork, an epistemology of PIC abolition can be broadly mapped in its spatial and temporal breadth through a meditation on three core primary source texts, weaving statements from members, oral testimony, and archival documents produced under the name of CR as an “organization” into a more holistic appreciation for the framework of opposition that Critical Resistance proposes moving into an abolitionist present-tense. Looking at the classic special issue of Social Justice journal guest edited by Critical Resistance in 2000, conference documents from gatherings in 1998, 2001, 2003, and 2008, and the CR Publishing Collective’s tenth-year anniversary compilation Abolition Now!, it becomes apparent that the sites and scenes of struggle in the imagery of this emergent movement to abolish the prison industrial complex are uniquely plotted and spatialized by active members; internal contradictions are seriously taken into account to mitigate patterns disruptive to movement trajectory; while paradigmatic ideas seem to be revised and evolve quite rapidly over the first ten years of CR’s archive. 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 abolitionist scholars like Davis and Gilmore toward producing a movement geography and the blueprint conception of abolition’s emergent cartography we see several key elements define PIC abolition in its holistic lineages, inheritances, and thus historical responsibilities to be unpacked.
My methods of historical inquiry also work outside of traditions in continental philosophy such as Foucauldian “genealogy” which enables a detailed analytical study of modernity’s regimes of truth by way of a “subjectless” theorization of domination/power in modern social formation. While I understand it important to understand how bodies, structures, histories, and cultures are overdetermined by various sanctioned and instiutional practices, my training in African American history as taught me that Black consciousness is not to be theorized as something diametrically other than a sovereign subject that is presumed static or unmoving but forms the constitutive outside, the materiality of “the surround” (Moten). Thus if one were to follow Foucault’s lead, and venture into a subjectless critique of any movement against racist state violence throughout the global North for that matter, the historian of ideas would collude with white supremacy in their method by constraining the “field of decidability” from which the insurgent ground of Black women abolitionists, in its transformations over time and space, can be mapped, debated, and further generalized in the ongoing process of struggle. I am invoking, by way of my training and with cautious attention to the politics of “voice,” “authority,” and “idealization” an epistemology of Black feminist consciousness which can only be properly understood sufficiently by attending to on the one hand, as McKittrick writes, the embodiment of the theorist in which a liberation movement gains coherence around, if a cohesive relation to a theorist is built around any one individual at all, and also on the other hand consider what inhabiting the structural position of “Black woman” does (or rather implies) in retrospective assessments of PIC abolition as a discourse and praxis, and the movement to abolish the prison industrial complex as a research object more generally, must be conducted with what Huey Copeland writes “tending toward Blackness” in its cartographic renderings, trajectory, and imaginings of social change.
I am arguing that it is historically and theoretically significant that Black women in particular, and Black feminist consciousness in general, creates the definitive marker of a break from outmoded and limiting paradigms in the American Prison Movement. 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 raise 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, for instance, 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, and her theories of organization (inspired by experiences as a founding member of Critical Resistance) challenge a number of assumptions made by academics regarding Black political “agency” and its limit-potential as a scholar-activist concept. 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. Moreover, I am arguing that the importance of generalizing such Black feminist cartographies of struggle as envisioned by Critical Resistance during the latter nineties is their specificity as Black analytics and geographies conjured out of historical necessity, informed by a far much broader movement imaginary. The translatability of CR’s framework across space and time is important to consider in our engagement with the philosophical foundations of PIC abolition as a discourse and praxis. Ultimately I argue this is an effect of conceptualizing coalition materializing most effectively through a global communion and kinship of captivity, and that this social bond (or “infrastructure of feeling?” – Gilmore) is comprised behind, across, and beyond the walls of any singular, physical prison facility. I am interested in unpacking the experiential ideas invoked by members of Critical Resistance as a collective abolitionist formation, embedded within a broader movement, within an enveloping and dynamic process of figuratively and literally altering the geography inherited by struggles to come.
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This chapter is written with three specific scholarly (activist) audiences in mind: First, I am writing to communities of struggle whose spatial, temporal, symbolic, and relational frameworks align with the contemporary movements to abolish the (global) U.S. prison industrial complex. Throughout both the process of writing and research, I embrace and attempt a method of “social movement historiography” and analysis of organizations whose stories are ongoing and futures left unwritten, and am rooted in the active process of cultivating intellectual and political community in practice. The knowledges that I trace, interpret, and reinscribe are largely inherited from embodied relationships that are too numerous to cite properly, i.e. political ancestors, elders, mentors, and generous peers that I have met in the process of ongoing combat with regimes of criminalization, abandonment, and social liquidation. In many instances, I turn to directly to collected oral history testimony that I have gathered during the course of “fieldwork” that far exceed the bounds of my academic studies proper, experiences teaching, and own personal memory.
My entry point into this discussion is on the basis of my nine years of participation in spaces and campaigns overlapping with (and at times directly participating as a nonmember in several of) Critical Resistance’s projects since 2011, including editorial work on the national organization’s newspaper The Abolitionist beginning in 2018 and autonomous work as a field educator using the craft and tool of zines to share knowledge of abolition as a vision and strategy of revolutionary abolition praxis. The spaces I have distributed literature on abolition and Black liberation range from antipolice protest demonstrations and smaller activist community forums, to college campuses; however, most centrally with imprisoned people increasingly from roughly 2017 onward. This particular concrete experience sparked my initial interest in studying the elementary aspects of abolitionist movement-building and grassroots revolutionary community-organizing of the at one time international, counter-state antiracist and antiviolence organization Critical Resistance. It is also an ongoing experience that is difficult to theorize from within, however its accumulation has profoundly skewed my perception of the asymmetries and antagonisms that materialize in the processes of creating and sustaining a community in movement, resisting as a collective formation across prison walls.
My second point of departure concerns the delineation of what useful and not so helpful in this archive and the repertoire of the early movement to abolish the prison industrial complex for scholars in my home departmental and disciplinary fields of Black Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, and Carceral Studies. Black Studies is a specifically important entry point into studying the history of the U.S.-based articulations of the movement to abolish the prison industrial complex as each share epistemological, institutional, and pre-instiutional histories, both in terms of geopolitical context and intimacies between communities of struggle. Here I am appealing to Black Studies in terms of an epistemology, scholarly community, and academic-intellectual circuit; in terms of a disciplinary apparatus and methodology of scholar activism, and in terms of a transformational tool for interpreting the world and (dis/re)organizing social relations structured in militarized racist patriarchal dominance. “PIC abolition,” as a widely-circulated discourse and praxis, is in some ways centrally calibrated and disseminated in zones of abolitionist praxis that are carved out through the creative use and expropriation of already extant collectivities, resources, facilities, technologies, and even the classroom spaces of universities. PIC abolition is also, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues (a la Robison), embedded in a lineage of analytical combat known as the “Black radical tradition” and an articulation succeeding late-twentieth century Black radical knowledges and languages that gain coherence and syntax as discourse in the densely militarized environments of U.S. prisons and jails, the “imprisoned Black radical tradition. Both are socially formed as one struggle at base:
The abolition I speak of has roots in all radical movements for liberation and particularly in the Black Radical tradition. The abolition I speak of somehow, perhaps magically—the abolition I speak of somehow…resists division from class struggle and also refuses all the other kinds of power difference combinations that when fatally coupled, spark new drives for abolition. Abolition…is the context and content of struggle, the site where culture recouples with the political; but it is not struggle’s form. To have form, we have to organize (Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “What is to be Done?” American Studies Association, Keynote Address, 2011).
Throughout the archives engaged in this essay, “abolition” thus appears to be widely understood as a praxis and critical discourse that is constantly in formation and deeply historical. Envisaged by CR “PIC abolition” is never invoked as a program, formula, ideology, or agenda per se but as a horizon, desire, an always dynamic process of envisioning and materializing revolutionary social change. Gilmore’s cumulative body of literature and thus leading scholars whose work has developed over the last decade in conversation, such as Katherine McKittrick and Dylan Rodriguez offer important insights and lines of inquiry into the ways discursive and psychic process that constitute and enable the prison industrial complex. Chapter 1 engages the work of McKittrick, while my second chapter works largely from vital points of departure established by Sharon Luk and her study of the sociality and communal life of paper circulation in print-based correspondences across the boundaries of carceral sites such as Japanese internment camps and U.S. super-maximum security prisons.
In terms of my theoretical framework and archival methodology, Rodriguez provides a definition of “abolitionist thought” which serves as a useful point of departure for thinking about the various “scales” of attention, both in terms of geography and temporalities that must be accounted for in the formation of not only Critical Resistance, but of “PIC abolition” as a discourse and praxis in general, physically embodied by the broader internationalist movement to abolish the prison industrial complex:
In this sense, contemporary abolitionist thought is characterized by an identifiable, theoretical, and analytical concern that is inseparable from abolition as a totality of collective cultural, organizing, artistic, (self-defensive) paramilitary, educational, community-building, and decolonial practices. This critical praxis traces and narrates the institutional transitions and juridical-cultural translations of “involuntary servitude” from the carceral Middle Passage and the rise of plantation chattel to Jim Crow and the emergence of post-1960s carceral domestic war. Such tracing and (re-)narration, in turn, evince the racial chattel relation as a durable, “reformable” paradigm of social, juridical, and cultural power that structures U.S. (global) statecraft and social formation in historical continuity. By extension, this critical abolitionist method considers how the most concrete, everyday historical technologies of slave-state dominance—including but not limited to the slave ship, coffle, auction block, white slave patrol, lash, and slave-hunting animals—are reflected in post-emancipation (and present-tense) logics of policing, criminalization, and incarceration.
In this chapter I take up as a core theoretical concern the particular dynamic orientation and approach to abolitionist political practice that is innovated primarily in imprisoned Black feminist scholarship, social theory, cultural forms, organizational models, solidarity networks, relations of mutual aid, and mappings of workable human geographies figured by mostly (queer) Black, Third World, and Native women whose intellectual genealogies are individually (as in personal story and situatedness) marked by systemic state and interpersonal violence, terror, abuse, and group-targeted premature death. This text is therefore demanded of you to be read with respect and a compassionate pen.
Third and lastly, in the process of research and writing I generate new archives for the study of Black feminist poet(h)ics and intellectual history. The originary use of the term “Black feminist poet(h)ics,” as invoked by ethicist and radical political theorist Denise Ferreira da Silva (2016), refers to the writerly and aesthetic production of radical-to-revolutionary Black theorists whose discursive technologies and relational frameworks are generative of a terrain of movement inhabitable and in the service of all Black people, first and foremost, not only cis-heterosexual men, and by extension all who are criminalized by/within the psychic and physical strictures of the prison industrial complex. As Katherine McKittrick writes, Black thinkers “insist on an alternative vantage point and therefore a different sense of how geography is, and might be, lived out. While the self-evident workings of transparent space have normalized uneven geographies, it is important to remember that they are also experienced, and mapped, vis-à-vis different (in this case black) vantage points. It follows, then, that new or different geographic demands are always taking place. These demands not only document how displacement is differently lived out by black subjects on the ground, they also reify how the production of space, and the project of geographic exclusion, while unjust, can inspire a different kind of spatial politics.” (24)
At once Black feminist/Womanist, Queer, and cosmologically spanning anarchic-to-Marxist, beautifully multitendency, Critical Resistance in its formative years experiments with a dynamically multi-sited and spatially novel orientation to abolition praxis which augments the very way movements against systemic state and interpersonal violence conceptualize and interpret the landscape in which they inhabit and the milieu in which they inherit, maneuver within, and continuously reinvent. Here we see the popular conceptualization of the “prison industrial complex” allowing for systemic state and interpersonal terror and violence to be holistically named across what sociologists often call “macro to micro” structural scales. I attempt to examine the ways paradigmatic narrations of the sites and scenes of struggle against systemic state and interpersonal violence alter during the late-1990s, taking on new imaginative shape when disparate pockets of insurgency and movement collectively sort themselves out into a singular (not to be confused with homogenous, uniform, or nonconflictual) narrative-cartographic landscape and spatial-temporal trajectories of the prison industrial complex and its protagonistic contrapuntality PIC abolition.
An intellectual history of Critical Resistance and archaeology of experimental movement building practices from the late-Nineties onward suggest the “prison industrial complex” is the more proper analytical framework to employ descriptively, a more workable human geography for counter-carceral insurgency to stage its criticism and approach to praxis. Critical Resistance for instance does not solely engage in outside/in prisoner solidarity activism but draws connections between struggles over social power described in lay terms as operating within the reified institutional site of the U.S. prison/jail and counter-carceral struggles throughout various spheres of civil society and other carceral sites. Over time, in this discursive context, the reified site of the “prison/jail” is understood, in the context presented, as one nodal point connecting a whole vast regime of militarized racial dominance formed across what are in all likelihood innumerable scales of carceral enclosure.
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, the first section of this dissertation chapter demonstrates how this discursive project in its flowering bloom lends impetus to a broader shift in abolitionist praxis toward a methodology of iconoclastic demystification and discursive-material re-spatialization of existing cartographic frameworks. This is enabled through the PIC’s discursive-political capacity to frame not only a material landscape of oppression but provide a fluid paradigm of movement-building (relatively open to revision and improvisational adaptation) generated in the synthesis of imprisoned and formerly-imprisoned Black radicals, Black Queer anti-racist feminists, whose theorizing cartographies of survival, resistance, impasse, and collective struggles over social power form a social landscape contrapuntal to the criminalization and racist domestic war-waging regime.
As demonstrated in the writings of McKittrick and other abolition-aware scholars in Black Studies: “Black women’s histories, lives, and spaces must be understood as enmeshing with traditional geographic arrangements in order to identify a different way of knowing and writing the social world and to expand how the production of space is achieved across terrains of domination.” (xv) Departing from McKittrick’s writings on Black women’s cartographies of struggle and the geographies that praxis is both affected by and works to rearticulate, I conceptualize the repertoire and general economy of practices through which Critical Resistance would marshal to generate a Black feminist “poetics of landscape” (Glissant), a more general Black spatial-temporal common sense, and thus a unique demonic grounds (a la Sylvia Wynter) by way of its formatively Black, Queer, feminist, anticapitalist, and internationalist orientation and approach to abolition praxis, which I argue forms a durable narrative foundation and imaginative landscape for movement building that contemporary abolitionists can learn from and reconsider the terrain of movement they operate within.
It is this very anticarceral project that reinscribes a landscape symbolically marked as “unhabitable,” zones of death (Fanon), or “closed” scenes of impossible fight against racial power that rearticulates in popular and relatable imaginaries as the principal arena of struggle and movement-building, the primary landscape wherein revolutionary change begins from, where its seeds are planted and nourished, where abolitionist resistance takes root. The “infrastructure of feeling” (Gilmore) for the insurrectionary-to-revolutionary processes of transformation underway will come from the increasing collective recognition of urgency, immediacy, and eventual motivation of the mass struggle to abolish the psychic and physical structure of historical regimes of violence. The prison industrial complex implies an honest description of the physicality of violence, as it is felt across all spheres of civil society and its underside, its animus based in a white supremacist penality and the organized ritualization of gratuitous violence.
The social-historical construction of the “prison industrial complex” is a landscape not only of oppression but the concrete spatial-temporal schema for perceiving cartographies of survival, resistance, impasse, and struggles over social power that spiral through dynamic historical propulsion into this new centennial conjuncture. If “political contestations are also structured by psychic and physical geographies,” (24) than I argue with significant evidence the discursive framing term “PIC” as mobilized by Critical Resistance—with its fantastic and cognitive reterritorializing capacity—enables a vision of socially organizing methodologies that necessarily rearticulates extant geographic signifiers normatively presumed as objective limits and pre-conceived impossibilities. To recall Gilmore’s assertion: “Abolition… is the context and content of struggle, the site where culture recouples with the political; but it is not struggle’s form. To have form, we have to organize.”