Rebecca Stout | Reflections on Abolition 2/13

By Rebecca Stout

The two Abolition 13/13 seminars thus far have, in discussions of forms, theories, and praxes of abolition, brought the arts, lived experiences, and human rights to the fore of the conversation. The panel of Abolition 2/13 was composed of writer and activist Christopher Wolfe and scholars and activists Gayatri Spivak, Robert Gooding-Williams, Carlos Ivan Calaff, and Kendall Thomas. Whereas Abolition 1/13 saw and heard original songs by activist and formerly imprisoned musicians, Abolition 2/13 heard the reading of one of Wolfe’s moving and heartfelt essays that brought his own experiences into conversation with ideas of abolition democracy. In addition to Wolfe, many of the other panelists also mentioned their own experiences, including Spivak, who specifically discussed the struggles she herself has had to overcome to be an American scholar as a woman, person of color, and international person when her colleagues were mostly white American men. Like Abolition 1/13’s panelists, those of Abolition 2/13 were primarily interested in promoting human rights for a better, more just society. Moreover, Abolition 2/13 raised compelling and significant questions for understanding abolition democracy both in theory and in various potential practices through the panelists’ explanations, analyses, and criticisms of W.E.B. DuBois’s and Angela Davis’s depictions of abolition democracy and through the discussions of where those ideas could be applied, including in the policing, prison, and educational systems.

Christopher Wolfe’s reading of his thought-provoking and moving essay at the beginning of the seminar laid some of the groundwork for the following discussion of abolition democracy. Discussing layers upon layers of white privilege in the United States, as well as in the country’s domestic policies and war tactics, he points to the inner turmoil he faced as a Black soldier under orders from the United States government to round up people with darker complexions in the Middle East when he was stationed there. As his narrative unfolds, he discusses walking around New York City, where he sees the stark differences between life at Columbia University and life in neighboring Harlem. One of the most striking symbols he points to in his piece is the white man that signals when people can cross a road, which he explains perfectly describes the feeling that he must wait for the white man to tell him he is able not only cross the road but also to go on with his life in general. There was so much to unpack and theorize about in Wolfe’s essay that, as a former literature major, I think I could easily have spent the entirety of this response delving into his use of imagery, symbols, and various stylistic approaches to portray the complexities of his identity in relation to the world around him. However, most importantly for tonight’s discussion, Wolfe’s essay, as moderator and Columbia law professor Bernard Harcourt analyzed following the reading, demonstrates the furthers elements of abolition democracy.

Following Wolfe’s essay, Abolition 2/13 focused on a rich discussion and analysis of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 and Angela Davis’s Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prison, Torture, and Empire. Each scholar first began by briefly offering their major criticisms, analyses, and explanations of the various ideas discussed in both books, albeit with a heavy emphasis on Du Bois.

Robert Gooding-Williams, the first panelist to address the readings, organized his comments around distinctions among abolition democracy, compensated democracy, and the actual movement of abolition democracy, which he followed with a discussion of why DuBois emphasized the years 1875 to 1877. On his first point, Gooding-Williams explained that abolition democracy is genuinely universal democracy and extends to all, which makes it the ideal of democracy. Contrastingly, compensated democracy is “not actual democracy” because it provides for the compensation for freedom that was taken by the government and is therefore both a libertarian ideal and a preservation of capitalism. He also claimed that the movement for abolition democracy has somewhat stripped the concept’s ideal, because its advocates do not always seem to entirely understand it and therefore tend to misrepresent it. Gooding-Williams ended his presentation by claiming that 1875 to 1877 were crucial years to DuBois because those years included the end of Reconstruction, the intervention in the Congo, the “scramble for Africa,” the surplus of democratic despotism, and the rise of “new slavery,” which Gooding-Williams interpreted Du Bois to mean a new imperialism.

Defining the distinctions between terms and their practical uses was incredibly clarifying. In addition to differentiating the terms, it was interesting to have a scholarly reclaiming of the term abolition democracy. However, instead of pointing out that advocates misrepresent the idea, I would have liked to see him go into depth into one of the ways he thinks abolition democracy is misused and to reframe it in a way that is a better representation of the concept. Almost by definition, theories operate much differently in writing than they do in action, so actually explaining how to properly use the idea in practice seems like it would be more helpful than criticizing a movement trying to adopt it. Essentially, it would have been a great opportunity to make the theory easier to digest and reproduce in society.

Gayatri Spivak responded to the readings next, emphasizing a criticism of Angela Davis’s reading of Du Bois in her book Abolition Democracy. Spivak claimed that democracy is more complex and complicated than her colleague made it seem, which she attributes to Davis reading DuBois too idealistically. While I agree that Davis’s reading was more idealistic, I am not sure it was idealistic to the point that she misrepresents or misreads DuBois, which is, I think, what Spivak was attempting to imply, particularly when she said that she hopes she can hear Davis’s response to her criticisms. I was also struck by Spivak’s critique because it lends itself toward a further discussion of theories in discussion versus in practice. Because many theories and their proponents (including with socialism, communism, and indeed as Gooding-Williams described it, even abolition democracy) tend to focus on attaining the ideal, Spivak’s criticism raises the tangential question of whether idealistic implementations and discussions of theories are more or less productive than those that are more realistic, or perhaps more accurately, simply slightly less idealistic.

Ivan Calaff’s remarks centered around why abolition democracy is appealing and how it could function in today’s world. Abolition democracy, he argued, works on two levels. The first is that it has a humanitarian and an emotional front, which encourages everyone to care about and help each other. The second is that it works on an institutional level because the costs of society remaining as it currently is do not outweigh the plentiful benefits. The later portion of his response looked at what abolition democracy could be applied to, including a discussion of crime rates in the United States and the possibility of not having police. He concluded by claiming that people tend to solve problems by “locking them away,” but that to actually fix anything, “we have to work together” instead of simply trying to pretend it does not exist. This last point was particularly striking because he essentially seemed to nail the “solution” to many of today’s problems with the United States government, which is, exactly, to pretend the problem either simply does not exist or is actually not a problem at all.

The final panelist, Kendall Thomas, discussed both abolition education and the criminalization of learning. He began by explaining that public educational for all and at the expense of the public in the south was an idea supported and implemented by African Americans. He pointed out that there has also been a long history of the criminalization of learning while being Black, citing a law that had permitted whipping up to twenty lashes for Black people attempting to get an education. He also claimed that the United States was the only country to punish slave literacy. He concluded his discussion by weaving together the ideas of racial literacy, critical race theory, and abolition democracy. Using this historical perspective was particularly powerful because it allowed him to show the roots of part of the modern educational system while also allowing him to invoke the disparities in how education has been and is still given and received depending on race throughout the history of the United States.

Following the panelists’ presentations, Harcourt raised questions for further discussion, reflection, and analysis of abolition democracy in theory and in practice. One of the most intriguing questions many panelists followed up on was an idea Kendall Thomas had raised in his discussion of abolition education. In response to this point, Spivak noted the distinctions made between literacy and education, focusing on the negative connotations surrounding literacy and the positive connotations surrounding education. This claim deserves more attention because, although education is more all-encompassing than literacy, it is, in discussion, commonly linked to rates (of literacy) and is constantly compared to illiterate people. On the other hand, when talking about education, the conversation is rarely directed toward rates (of education) or comparing levels of educatedness with a lack of education.

In his response to the idea of abolition education, Chris Wolfe discussed his experiences as a student and a teacher, noting that there are probably consequences to Black history barely or not being taught and to a lack of Black teachers. While these are not new criticisms, the way he phrased it in the context of abolition education was incredibly important because it implicitly questioned the legitimacy of the current education system and curriculum.

Abolition Democracy 2/13 did not stumble on quick answers, instead, the panelists’ discussion began to chip away at the confusions and misunderstandings of abolition democracy and offered thoughtful critiques, clarifications, and opportunities for its potential applications.

Bernard Harcourt