Jindu Obiofuma | On Abolition: Internal Reflections for External Consumption

By Jindu Obiofuma

First, I would like to hold space for the intersecting interests and values in which abolition is rooted. Because naming things is important, I would like to name for you all that abolition is deeply anti-capitalist, transnational, gender expansive, anti-military, anti-carceral work. Because abolition is more about a state of becoming than a state of being,[1]  you can engage as an abolitionist while on various trajectories in your own education, work, and interpersonal relationships as they relate to these concepts. However, one cannot engage as an abolitionist while policing the gender of others, negating the rightful relationship of Native people to the land, advocating for racial capitalism which is rooted in the brutality and genocidal violence of enslavers and continues to profit at the deliberate expense of a perpetual “underclass,” or while holding onto the belief that there will always be communities who deserve the trauma and harm of policing, detention and incarceration, even when those practices morph into more acceptable—meaning increasingly invisible, efficient and cost-effective—traumas and harms.

I would also like to articulate the value of understanding abolition in its rightful historical context.  The concept of abolition democracy, coined by W.E.B. DuBois, refers to the project of abolition as one that remains unfinished and whose promise remains unfulfilled. The work of abolition, DuBois claimed, was not simply the end of the formal system of human enslavement but the corresponding creation of the institutions necessary to provide formerly enslaved people with the tools and social supports required to become full members of the polis. This expansive definition of abolition is both necessitated and substantiated by the transformation of formal enslavement into its more tenacious iterations– chain gangs, sharecropping, mass incarceration, and mass probation–, premised on recapturing the lost labor of formerly enslaved people, justified through racist narratives positing Black people as deserving subjugation, degradation, surveillance and incapacitation, and rendered in the purposeful absence of equitable social supports.

Having articulated the preceding, I can more easily place the work of contemporary abolitionists along the continuum of ancestral work to end all carceral practices, institutions and ideologies while establishing those practices, institutions and ideologies that will actualize those freedoms owed to Black people and other marginalized community members. I say all, because abolitionists acknowledge that violence[2] rarely happens in a vacuum. Manifestations of oppression either explicitly or tacitly rely on the existence, function, or acceptance of other seemingly attenuated harms. For instance, a system that prioritizes profit so much as to justify the theft and murder of tens of millions of Black people for the purpose of generations of free labor—racial capitalism—makes room for accompanying systems that target and ensnare Black, Brown and poor communities in needlessly punitive and destabilizing institutions for the purposes of extracting free labor—mass incarceration.  The maintenance of  societal narratives justifying the presence of Black, Brown and poor people in carceral systems begets narratives pathologizing said community members for the purpose of “corrective” interventions i.e. the school to prison pipeline, criminalizing surveillance, the treatment industrial complex, the family regulation system, and so on…

For Black, Brown, poor, LGBTQIA*, undocumented, neurodivergent, those with disabilities and femme-identifying community members who form the core of so much of this work, abolition is about a full accounting of the ways in which violence occurs for the purpose of its disruption. It’s about the rejection of oppressive institutions that dehumanize, drain and discard. It’s about “running toward” systems and remedies that will transform the way we experience and repair violence in rightful relationship to one another, our broader communities, and all intervening institutions. Abolition is about an intentional balancing of deep study, proximity and praxis helped along by the radical freedom dreaming necessary to believe that a new world is possible and an ongoing commitment to do whatever it takes to get us there.



[1] Shout out to Ruth Wilson Gilmore!

[2] I’m making the deliberate choice to speak about violence in lieu of “harm” and invite you to reflect on how that changes your understanding of what is being imposed upon marginalized people.

Fonda Shen