Anita Yandle | Future, Justice, and Reparations

By Anita Yandle

When first drafting this piece, I wanted to focus on imagination as an organizing tool: Dreaming of a better world that can guide us to create it. But then, a police officer killed Daunte Wright during the trial of Derek Chauvin and the world stopped all over again. Sometimes, it feels like the state violence just does not stop. During such times, losing hope is easy and natural. How can we build a better world when police keep killing Black people, when judges keep sentencing people to death by execution or death by imprisonment, when ICE keeps locking people up and deporting them for the crime of daring to seek a different life, when people we call social workers rip families asunder? However, it is during such times that we must most rely on our visions of the future. One of the authors of the pieces for this final seminar, Mariame Kaba, frequently implores people, “Let this radicalize you instead of lead you to despair.” That plea is clearly a challenge. “Challenge” not just in the sense of being difficult to achieve, but in the way it is as a verb — to challenge us to something. So, this piece is now part of a challenge: A challenge to envision the future not just to guide us as advocates, but to bring us hope.

It is fitting that this year’s 13/13 series ends by looking toward the future. After all, abolition is at its core “not only, or not even primarily, about abolition as a negative process of tearing down, but it is also about building up, about creating new institutions.”[1] Indeed, Mariame Kaba tells us abolition is largely about imagination — envisioning “a restructured society in a world where we have everything we need: food, shelter, education, health, art, beauty, clean water, and more things that are foundational to our personal and community safety.”[2] How would that world look? How might we get there?

The latter question is where many people seem to want to start, since the project of abolition seems so big. How can one abolish prisons? However, Kaba asks us to start with the former question.[3] Vision has to be the grounding; developing the path to get there is secondary. A vision of a better future guides the path forward by presenting “many places to start, infinite opportunities to collaborate, and endless imaginative interventions and experiments to create.”[4] And so Kaba presents “Justice: A Short Story,” in which she imagines a world not where no harms are ever committed, but where people are held in community and where people provide for each other, and where when harms do occur, people address root causes rather than focusing just on the individual[5]. The community in “Justice” had abolished private property, so there could not be theft. They supplied basic needs to all of their members. In fact, the narrator was not even familiar with the concepts of police, crimes, or trials — or even the concept of fear.

Others have different visions. A recently published poem by Kyle Carrero Lopez, called “After Abolition,” envisions a world where not only do people remember the prison industrial complex, where children are taught how to identify and prevent new versions of policing from ever developing:[6]

Prisons and cops survive only in tales for the young

like twin Atlantises or two drowned boogeymen.

A cop’s as harmless a Halloween getup as any

monster, while a prisoner costume’s as taboo as a slave one

now that schools teach what makes them kin.

A prison is the far-off past of a structure

turned free housing, each cell wall knocked to sandcastle

ruin, halls reshaped and re-dyed in green paints,

former floor plans carved out like shores

into spacious homes, laundry and A/C a given in each.

Though prisons and cops won’t be found anywhere,

our youths still learn of them, and they know what they mean,

how they look, how they function, what it will take to stop them

if they return with new names.

 

While “Justice” and “After Abolition” depict different dreams, they also show commonalities that reveal the purpose of the exercise. First, both rely deeply on the understanding that in order to build a world without prisons and policing, we need communal, mutual support. Given the many ways one can provide mutual aid, this may help advocates realize the many places where they can best help build this abolitionist world.[7] Consequently, the exercise of dreaming of a new world reveals its dual purposes — to guide advocates in their practice and to provide a source of hope. As Kaba says, “It’s time for a jailbreak of the imagination in order to make the impossible possible.”[8] Imagination is key to organizing, and devastatingly undervalued. Reading theory, of course, is important, but reading (and writing) fiction can unlock ideas that would otherwise never surface. The short story and poem are, of course, just two of many possible visions. Any such depiction of a future without prisons, police, borders, capitalism, militaries, and the like can serve these dual purposes of inspiring hope and guiding people into finding the spaces where they can begin developing an abolitionist society.[9] Each of this session’s readings touch on visions of the future in some way, although differently, given their contexts. While Kaba clearly lays out a whole new world, the other authors for “An Abolitionist Future,” Katherine Franke and B.R. Ambedkar, speak more about the principles that they dream would be valued and honored in their ideal futures.

As this event takes place just a week after Ambedkar Jayanti, it is with perfect timing that we turn to the immortal works of B.R. Ambedkar. In Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar discusses visions for a new world. “If you ask me, my ideal would be a society based on Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” he states, clearly referencing the French slogan.[10] To determine what an ideal society would entail, he posits that one must ask certain questions, including what the consciously shared interests are, whether more forces separate groups in the society than unite them, and the reasons for the defining boundaries of the group.[11] One could say that the final question is most quickly answered because of our previous sessions, as we have already covered the global nature of the climate crisis and the need to end borders; we can therefore view the exclusiveness of the ideal society as a global boundary, although smaller, tighter-knit communities will still clearly develop that will require their own boundary explanations. In Ambedkar’s world, not only is there not slavery in the legal sense, but there is also not “a state of society in which some men are forced to accept from others the purposes which control their conduct.”[12] That is, no one would be compelled to perform work that is not the calling of their choice. Economic reform is not the only necessary reform in his vision. “If liberty is the ideal, if liberty means the destruction of the dominion which one man holds over another, then obviously it cannot be insisted upon that economic reform must be the one kind of reform worthy of pursuit,” he explains, noting that social status, religion, and property are all sources of power and control over others that alternate predominance and which all require change.[13] This is of course in the context of India in the 1930s; in the context of the United States today, one would likely view the categories he outlines differently, based on different current and historical contexts.

Even though nearly a century separates us from then, many of the same barriers to change remain. These barriers include that people who benefit from the current systems do “not feel the necessity for agitating for the abolition of Caste, or had not the courage to agitate for it.”[14] Professor Katherine Franke echoes that sentiment in her book, Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition, citing Frederick Douglass’s observation that no one ever gives up power willingly.[15] But there is also hope that people can be moved to take action. Collective faith of a future without discrimination and with equality, fraternity “and — above all — justice,” he says, can move people to take action.[16] To achieve a just society, we must envision one that will encourage people to actually take the necessary steps toward its creation.

Professor Franke takes a somewhat different tactic, focusing more on envisioning what reparation could look like for slavery and anti-Black racism in the United States, although there is clear overlap. Like Ambedkar, economic reform and property are crucial. Potential avenues toward greater justice include reinvesting in Black communities through collective property-based solutions, such as “community land trusts, limited-equity housing cooperatives, zero-equity co-operatives, mutual housing associations, and deed restricted housing,”[17] Of course, property is not the only area that needs change, she explains. There must also be social change. Rather than explaining reparations as direct payments to descendants of enslaved people, there needs to be “a collective reckoning with the badge of inferiority associated with Blackness and the unearned endowment enjoyed by white people.”[18] This discussion of reparation comes not from imagining a utopia, but from responding to a utopian experiment for freed people in the Sea Islands.[19] What Repair showed was exactly what abolitionists imaginations already hold to be true: that “Freedom is much more than the absence of bondage; it requires the tools, the capacities, and opportunities that make independent human action possible.”[20] That passage articulates what the visions presented in “Justice: A Short Story” and “After Abolition” depicted: Liberation requires societal restructuring, community support, and reparation to ensure no one lives as a second-class citizen.

This is all to bring us back to Mariame Kaba. Once we have envisioned an abolitionist future, we must set out on making it. To break down such an Amazonian task, one must have the right mindset. What we learn from Kaba is that abolition requires hope, the genuine belief that we will win; love; and the willingness to do something, even if no one can do everything.[21] Some people will choose to work on the individual level, such as through releasing people from prison.[22] Others may focus on larger, structural changes, such as shifting budgeting priorities from police, prisons, and militarized borders to education, the arts, and social support.[23] Abolition, Kaba explains, “is a flexible praxis, contingent on social conditions and communal needs” that is built on a set of core principles.[24] Such flexibility is a reason that people can find their place in abolitionist movements, where they most feel able to help build this brighter, abolitionist future.

Notes

[1] Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy, 73 (2005). See also Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses, 22 Soc. Text 101, 114 (2004), (“What is, so to speak, the object of abolition? Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but as the founding of a new society.”).

[2] Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, 2 (2021).

[3] Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, 5 (2021).

[4] Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, 5 (2021).

[5] Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, 157 (2021).

[6] Kyle Carrero Lopez, After Abolition, The Nation (Oct. 6, 2020), https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/after-abolition/.

[7] I would be remiss if I did not reference Dean Spade, Mutual Aid (2020).

[8] Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, 25 (2021).

[9] Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, 21, 43 (2021), (explaining “Abolition is a practical organizing strategy” and “For me it is the difference between the question of asking what I can personally do versus what we can do. When I think of what I can do as an individual person, it feels more overwhelming.”).

[10] B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste (1936).

[11] B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste (1936).

[12] B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste (1936).

[13] B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste (1936).

[14] B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste (1936).

[15] Katherine Franke, Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition, 121 (2019).

[16] B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste (1936), (“It seems to me that, other things being equal, the only thing that will move one man to take such an action is the feeling that other men with whom he is acting are actuated by a feeling of equality and fraternity and—above all—of justice. Men will not join in a revolution for the equalization of property unless they know that after the revolution is achieved they will be treated equally, and that there will be no discrimination of caste and creed.”).

[17] Katherine Franke, Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition, 16, 132 (2019).

[18] Katherine Franke, Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition, 16 (2019).

[19] Katherine Franke, Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition, 72 (2019).

[20] Katherine Franke, Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition, 136 (2019).

[21] Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, 185, 197 (2021), (saying that, “Not only do I believe [we can succeed], I know we can,” and “I think that love is a requirement of principled struggle, both self-love and love of others, that we must all do what we can, that it is better to do something rather than nothing, that we have to trust others as well as ourselves. I often repeat the adage that ‘hope is a discipline.”’We must practice it daily.”).

[22] Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, 110 (2021), (explaining that “organizing popular support for prisoner releases is necessary work for abolition”).

[23] Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, 80 (2021).

[24] Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, 190 (2021).

Fonda Shen