The Vigilant Imagination of Abolition

by Madison Snider, Simpson Center 2021–2022 Writer in Residence

Barbed wire silloutted against a blue sky and bright sun.
Erzen and Vaught Books Expose New Trends in American Prison System

“What if abolition isn’t a shattering thing, not a crashing thing, not a wrecking ball event? What if abolition is something that sprouts out of the wet places in our eyes, the broken places in our skin, the waiting places in our palms, the tremble holding in my mouth when I turn to you? What if abolition is something that grows?”

— Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Abolition Now: Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle Against the Prison Industrial Complex

Before I set out to write this essay abolition was, to me, a theoretical concept. I happily voted for abolitionists in local elections and donated to bail funds, but like a conceptual hot potato, the practice of abolition was tossed around over dinner and wine before the inevitable question of “… but how?” could be broached. This relationship to the idea of abolition is abstract at best and performative at worst. Becoming the inaugural Writer in Residence for the Simpson Center for Humanities carved out the space to engage with researchers, teachers, organizers, and public scholars for whom abolition is not merely a concept. Rather, abolition is — in Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s words — “a constant becoming.” The assignment allowed me to sit with the topic and learn from a whole universe of writers, thinkers, and activists who are embroiled in the becoming of abolition. The taken-for-granted-ness of carceral logics necessitates unlearning the limitations we face in its continuation. This essay offers a guide to the resources that helped me understand the reach of the carceral state and the abolitionists’ acts of liberation infrastructuring working to interrupt harm and create opportunities for care.

Like me, you also may have learned about abolition in an elementary history class which set the concept firmly in the context of abolitionist movements to end slavery in the U.S. and Western Europe. The language of abolition is important, as Alexis Pauline Gumbs reminds us, “it automatically invokes slavery — and the philosophy and practice of abolition targets enslaving practices in general, and points out that prison and policing are enslaving practices that are directly related to the history of U.S. chattel slavery.” Today, abolition focuses on collective liberation from the prison industrial complex (PIC). PIC abolition is, as Mariame Kaba says, “a political vision, a structural analysis of oppression, and a practical organizing strategy.” Today’s abolition movements work to interrupt harm perpetuated by policing, incarceration, and detention of racialized, criminalized, and undocumented communities and build infrastructures to reduce harm without relying on oppression and violence. When setting out on my research, I read and listened to as much on the topic as I could. My commutes to campus were filled with lectures and essays by Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Angela Davis. Their sweeping and inspired ideas and actions positioned abolition as more than a means by which mass incarceration ends: it is a path toward healing on a global scale.

Seemingly as my feet brought me closer to campus, the locus of abolition got closer as well. There is a constellation of abolitionist research, activism, and organizing taking place on the three University of Washington campuses. I found it helpful to approach the breadth of this work through the lens of my own community of scholarship. Critical infrastructure studies examine our reliance on the social, material, and informational infrastructures that sustain life and allow us to see the relationships across different kinds of infrastructure. Investigations of power have found that infrastructure is often only visible when breaking or broken. Entropy is part of the “constant becoming” of any infrastructure as is repair and rebuilding. The destruction of systems upholding harm opens the opportunity to create systems with care at their center. Infrastructural care is an emerging concept in feminist science and technologies studies (STS) scholarship. It foregrounds the relational aspects of infrastructure building and breakdown, and importantly, how infrastructures of harm — upon breakdown — might make way for something more akin to care. (This essay is part of a series, the next installment of which will focus more closely on the role of power in infrastructure building and repair.)

Infrastructural transformation is not always something that happens naturally. The work of dismantling is just the beginning as the status quo continues its gravitational pull on our future. Or as Saidiya Hartman writes: “So much of the work of oppression is about policing the imagination.” But it takes not only imagination but the work of creation, building, and infrastructuring to live in an abolitionist future. The “constant becoming” Gilmore speaks about is a recognition of, and engagement with, the relationality of abolition work which she exemplifies in her vast and varied partnerships with organized interest and affiliation groups across the country. As she puts it: “things can be torn down by being reconfigured for something else.” Abolition is a praxis of reconfiguring.

My own standpoint as a fourth-year graduate student at UW-Seattle frames my explorations of the ideas and actions of abolition within the context of our university institutions. The university as a site for imagining and creating an abolitionist future is an opportunity to bring into conversation many of the tensions that animate debate over carceral institutions more generally. Like any infrastructure, there are relics of old systems in place that are in a constant state of decay. They can be sustained, neglected, or repurposed and the consequences of these choices become our shared future.

You can see this in the buildings lining the quad on UW Seattle’s campus. While their facades are similar, each building tells a very different story. Savery Hall, for instance, has been retrofitted with efficient windows, functioning facilities, and sleek interior features. Smith Hall, just across the green, was without a functioning elevator when I took a Geography course there in 2019. Just up the hill, Paccar Hall, home to the Foster School of Business, is a foreboding modern tower with floor-to-ceiling windows. These infrastructural investments tell an important story about who we are and what we care about. When it comes to institutional investments in carceral systems, this often looks like growing budgets for campus police and surveillance systems over investments in mental health services, worker protections, and student learning.

Similarly, abolition as “constant becoming” is a story about infrastructuring. At present, the story is one of a politics of abandonment in which efforts to retrofit existing infrastructures of care and imagine new ones are sidelined in order to maintain carceral systems that perpetuate harm. Carceral systems extend beyond prisons, jails, and courts and encompass, as Nora Krinitzky puts it, “policies, practices, and institutions that scrutinize individuals and communities both before and after their contact with the criminal justice system.” Movements like Defund the Police are infrastructuring projects in action. The demand is clear — divestment from a key infrastructure of harm — policing. Moreover, the demand is matched with a call for the reallocation of those funds to infrastructures of care like transformative justice programs.

Transformative justice is an exemplary model for what an infrastructure of care can look like in an abolitionist world. Rather than relying on punitive, carceral, and violent systems to give the illusion of safety (for some), transformative justice works to protect those who experience violence from further harm without perpetuating harm. It relies on accountability outside of the criminal legal system and ongoing support for the community as the root causes of violence are addressed and healing begins. This approach takes time and effort and as such, resources. These are the choices we make in infrastructuring: perpetuate harm or invest in healing. The breadth of this work is ever-expanding, but abolitionists are a tireless bunch. Their rejection of cynicism and defeat necessitates hope. Hope is a very abolitionist thing.

You can see the ways that hope functions as an ember among abolitionists. The work is a continual, slow burn of justice. Abolition rejects the idea that anyone is disposable and reinstates hope in healing. While optimism as a mindset can pave the way toward hope, hope is based on action, agency, and a recognition of the capabilities of community. Abolitionists are illuminating paths forward in the eradication of infrastructures of harm and building and maintaining of infrastructures of care. Now I want to look more closely at abolitionist projects, particularly those affiliated with UW’s three campuses.

Vector graphic of a black female wearing a red and gold necklace, pink and teal face mask, gold geometric glasses, and gold, teal, and red top and backdrop.

Abolition as happening

Abolition and higher education intersect in much of the work of UW Seattle English Professor Gillian Harkins, who was awarded the Barclay Simpson Prize for Scholarship in Public in 2019. She has worked in partnership with University Beyond Bars (UBB) which offers courses inside the Washington State Reformatory for men, the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound inside the Washington Corrections Center for women, and the Black Prisoners Caucus T.E.A.C.H. program inside the Clallam Bay Correctional Center. In an effort to bring education, abolition, and public scholarship together Harkins, alongside Dan Berger (Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, UW Bothell), Megan Ming Francis (Political Science, UW Seattle), and Megan Ybarra (Geography, UW Seattle), was awarded a 2018–2019 Simpson Center Public Scholarship/Community Engagement award to develop the Prison Education Collaboration. This work led me to reach out to UBB to understand how abolition work was happening on the ground.

“What does an abolitionist future look like?” I asked Kelly Johnson, the Operations & Community Resource Manager at UBB. I was hoping to provoke a discussion that would engage with abolition as practice. Essentially, I was asking, “but what would that even look like?” That was the wrong question as Johnson’s response quickly, and kindly, made clear. Their response was at once a litany of hopes and dreams for an abolitionist future and a proclamation that abolition is here now.

Abolitionists are working across a wide array of initiatives. The diversity of approaches reflects the innumerable ways carceral systems creep into our communities. The challenges abolitionists are up against are vast and varied, and as Micah Herskind puts it, “hegemony is antithetical to abolition.” This is to say abolition is the work of building solutions that reflect community needs which are best attended to through a bottom-up approach and will necessarily be as diverse as the communities that create them. This makes the work of abolition complicated in many of the same ways infrastructuring is complicated: To prescribe top-down solutions conspired by a narrow set of power-wielding individuals with relatively less to lose in regard to the infrastructure’s success has foreseeable shortcomings. There will be no one-size-fits-all solution and as such there will be tensions where different approaches run up against each other. You can see the wide array of abolitionist tactics and practices, from art-based activism to community-led harm reduction initiatives, playing out at the Everyday Abolition blog.

Tensions in abolitionist work can be seen in efforts to increase access to the university to those impacted by incarceration. This work is not just about providing credit courses to incarcerated students but challenging certain carceral systems embedded within the university itself. As an example of such systems, Dan Berger, Simpson Center 2021–2022 Society of Scholars Fellow, professor of comparative ethnic studies at UW Bothell, and a coordinator of the Washington Prison History Project put it, “one of the things that I so appreciate about abolition as a politic and horizon is equipping our imaginations with permission to fight for the world that we want.” Berger recalls university policies weaponized as carceral tools. When he started at UW Bothell in 2012, undergraduate applicants were being asked a criminal history question — effectively signaling that the university system was not a place for the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated. Citing safety as a rationale for this discriminatory practice, the university was pressured by students and faculty protests to remove the question several years later. These kinds of practices, even when overturned, have “collateral consequences of knowing that it was there … people think they can’t apply even when they can,” said Berger. Therefore, the abolition work necessary to the university, Berger and other abolitionists agree, is continual. That is to say, it is not enough to rid our institutions of carceral logics; it is necessary to build something better in its place.

One part of this infrastructuring process is increased access to enrollment for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. But too often programs creating pathways to higher ed are only available to a small subset of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated folks. Megan Ybarra, Simpson Center 2022–2023 Society of Scholars Fellow, Simpson Center 2021–2022 cross-disciplinary research cluster Abolitionist Futures & Intentional Kin-Making lead, faculty in the Geography at UW Seattle, and organizer with Decriminalize UW, challenges efforts that do not center the most marginalized:

“Because I’m an abolitionist I don’t focus on the easiest things, I focus on the people who are most oppressed because if I help those who are both undocumented and racialized and criminalized… if those folks can get access to classes, if those folks have space and time to think about what their spaces in the world are, then everybody will have access to it.”

To believe in our university is to believe that it is a community that can transform. But the efforts to increase access for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students are troubled by the extension of the carceral state onto our campus buildings and grounds. Even when we reach the goal of providing access to all, as it stands, abolitionists agree that we are welcoming formerly incarcerated students to yet another carceral space.

Campus decriminalization efforts are taking place across all three UW campuses. Decriminalize UW, on the Seattle campus, is organizing to push the administration to get rid of police on campus on the grounds that their presence on campus perpetuates harm. Their $8 million slice of UW Seattle’s Office of Student Life budget drains resources that, proponents argue, could be better put to use in building a more robust infrastructure of care. On December 2, President Cauce’s Office of the President post announced a plan to better coordinate campus safety, emergency management, and the UWPD — a response to these pressures. However, the plan is a far cry from an investment into infrastructures of care like better non-punitive and preventive approaches such as better mental health care and transformative justice interventions. Instead, reactionary and harmful practices continue to be funded at the expense of more just and effective alternatives.

The three UW campuses have different relationships with the police. UW Seattle has its own police force that is currently reckoning with internal racism. UW Tacoma and UW Bothell subsidize local police forces to extend their jurisdiction over campus. The policy changes needed to move beyond a carceral campus will differ among them, but at their core, abolitionists on the three campuses share a vision for the future of our universities without police presence.

Abolition as hope

Engaging in practices of “constant becoming” pave the way toward a world built on a foundation of care rather than harm. Abolition is at once the generative, creative, and loving practices we might associate with Alexis Pauline Gumb’s words in the epigraph, but it is also a perpetual undoing of long-held assumptions about the harms of crime and the perpetuation of that harm in carceral systems. What abolitionists have taught me is the value of holding space simultaneously for worldbuilding and radical dismantling. Being an abolitionist necessitates engaging the question I had previously evaded — “..but how?” — within this duality.

Abolition troubles our clean delineations between the present and the future. It is both a vision for a world in which prisons are closed, police are obsolete, and social welfare is the measure of our community’s success — and it is also our present.

Abolition, to those less familiar with its daily practice, may connote conceptions of destruction, tearing down, and elimination of those systems put in place under the banner of safety. Abolition is as much about creation as it is about destruction. Abolition is not complete without the creation of an infrastructure of care that sustains life in all its wondrous complexity.

Safety and protection are the myth upon which carceral systems continue their harm. Abolition, therefore, is often framed as a movement to take away, tear down, and expunge systems that provide protection against chaos. This veneer of protection is a privilege, but it is not impermeable. In the colossal breakdown of the past two years, what has become clear is that systems that were made invisible to many by design — including the prison industrial complex — are not just failing some. They are failing all. Overcrowded prisons, an inability to control viral spread among inmates and guards, deleterious nutrition and living conditions, and the decades of activism to make these abuses visible, have led to the lowest prison occupancy rates in 15 years. And yet, the United States continues to have the highest prison rate per capita in the world. Yes, abolition means “free them all,” but it doesn’t end there. Abolition is reimaging infrastructures that were previously part of the prison industrial complex. It is reallocating the hundreds of millions of dollars no longer going into these infrastructures to undo harm and build something better outside of the criminal legal system. In the next essay, I will explore infrastructures of care that have emerged from community-based initiatives to minimize harm, especially considering the disruptions and destructions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Infrastructures of care like mutual aid and community childcare networks offer a blueprint for building what we need in community with one another beyond carceral and capitalist logics.

Growing consciousness of our collective precarity in the past two years, especially among those privileged to have evaded a daily reckoning with it previously, has given us an opportunity to rethink and reconstruct our infrastructures at every level. Abolition reallocates funding away from police, prisons, and courts that siphon monies to pay for the perpetuation of harm in order to sustain themselves. Abolition makes space to ask the question “What could be?” and is as much about reclaiming our collective resources and allocating them to regenerative solutions as it is about getting rid of the police, prisons, and detention.

What ultimately must be abolished are the means by which community resources are drained to perpetuate harm and present the community back to itself as unworthy of care. Those who see the current situation as untenable or too far gone are pessimists. Abolitionists cannot be pessimists. The vigilant imagination of abolition is a confluence of resistance to persistent and evolving forms of oppression and steadfastness in the knowledge that another world is possible.

Madison Snider is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, Seattle, and the 2021–2022 Writer in Residence for the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

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