Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth E. Richie's Abolition. Feminism. Now. was published in 2022 by Haymarket.
The Inseparability of Abolition and Feminism
Our Liberation Praxis Must be “Both/And”
Forgetting Feminist Organizing Weakens the Fight for Prison Abolition
Cultivating an Abolitionist Ethics
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
The Inseparability of Abolition and Feminism
On December 23, 2021, fourteen-year-old Los Angeles high school student Valentina Orellana Peralta and her mother Soledad went shopping for a quinceañera dress in North Hollywood. While Valentina was in a dressing room trying on gowns, a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer’s bullet ripped through a wall, striking the teen in the chest. Police were in pursuit of a man who had assaulted a woman with a metal bike lock. The teenage girl who dreamt of attending college and becoming an engineer died in her mother’s arms. The police violence that snatched Peralta’s life just days before the Christmas holiday was senseless. And unfortunately, Peralta’s killing is not exceptional. History sadly reminds us that Peralta was not the first nor would she be the last girl or women of color to lose her life to police violence. She joins a morbidly long and growing list of women and girls who were – and continue to be –assaulted and killed by police on crowded thoroughfares; in police cars, precincts, and city jails; in their homes; and in public spaces, including schools and clothing stores.
With the release of police body-camera footage and extensive media coverage of social-justice campaigns on behalf of victims of police violence such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, there is a growing public interest in longstanding conversations about state and police violence, abolition and defunding campaigns, and social-justice and antiviolence movements. Beyond academic and political activist circles, lay audiences are attentive to grassroots leaders’ and intellectuals’ decades-long conversations and political work aimed at addressing race, gender, and sexual violence and policing, punishment, and incarceration. Those discussions and intellectual and political labor and organizing have gained traction in American political and popular culture. In op-eds, blog articles, and other public writings by journalists, activists, and scholars, broad audiences are engaging and debating ideas once considered radical and impractical—ideas about abolition, anticapitalism, and ending all forms of violence. No doubt, abolition, as a theory and practice, is gaining in public visibility. But abolition’s feminist genealogies are less visible. And at this moment—one of political uncertainty, a global health crisis, the simultaneous proliferation of misinformation and intellectual curiosity, and a collective willingness to discuss and commit to abolitionist ideas and practices—influential thinkers and activists Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth E. Richie offer a beautifully and accessibly written text on carceral systems and abolition and feminism. Abolition. Feminism. Now. is a timely work, offering an essential and critical genealogy of anticarceral feminism and ongoing conversations about the tools and solutions needed for structural change.An ecosystem of abolitionist feminism and its promises are essential, now.Click To Tweet
Borrowing from feminist writer Audre Lorde, Abolition. Feminism. Now. emerges out of “a sense of urgency.” An urgency to challenge and upend systemic and structural forms of state violence; an urgency to expand dialogue and practice; and an urgency to reflect on histories of political organizing that illuminate the connections between abolitionism and feminism. “Feminism is unimaginable without abolition and abolition is unimaginable without feminism,” write the authors. An ecosystem of abolitionist feminism and its promises are essential, now. Such histories inform and strengthen contemporary political mobilizations, showing lessons learned, legacies, and insights about what is possible for our future. Offering decades of political and organizational experiences and wisdom, the authors, all of whom have contributed to my intellectual maturity, encourage us to commit to social and political transformations and mutual aid and self-care and to imagine a world free of punitive regimes. At the same time, Davis, Dent, Meiners, and Richie encourage readers, telling us to remain in the struggle for a more compassion and fair society, one that does not employ violence and punishment as a solution to societal issues.
LaShawn Harris is an associate professor of history at Michigan State University and Assistant Editor for the Journal of African American History. Her area of expertise includes twentieth century African American and Black women’s histories. Harris’s scholarly essays have appeared in the Journal of Social History and Journal of Urban History. Her first monograph Sex Workers, Psychics, and Number Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2016.
Our Liberation Praxis Must be “Both/And”
I’ve always wondered how one could be feminist without being abolitionist. For me, the two have always been tethered together explicitly. Now, at this moment, I’m grateful to the prolific Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth E. Richie for illustrating why, especially at this time in history, the two must be considered together. In Abolition. Feminism. Now., our feminist comrades and foremothers encourage us to embrace a both/and approach to abolition and feminism as a moral, ethical, and philosophical imperative.
When we begin to address the underlying oppressive structures that produce inequities in housing, food access, education, earnings, healthcare, and civil liberties, it becomes clearer that the violence of capitalist white supremacist heteropatriarchal institutions is not only located within the prison walls but all around us. As Davis and her coauthors write, “Abolition feminism is a praxis—a politically informed practice—that demands intentional movement and insightful responses to the violence of systemic oppression.” This calls us, as movement makers, self-proclaimed allies, and interdependent comrades, to confront our own opposition to change and our potential rigidity in the face of liberatory politics.The violence of capitalist white supremacist heteropatriarchal institutions is not only located within the prison walls but all around us.Click To Tweet
Embracing this both/and approach means acknowledging that heteropatriarchy exists within the same ecosystem as ableism, classism, and sexism. Likewise, it requires the acknowledgement that misogynoir (a term coined by Moya Bailey) stands alongside an oppressive global capitalism that functions not only to compress labor markets and opportunities but also to dehumanize and diminish the work of Black women who are deemed fungible by a system that buffets us like mere objects. Rightly, Davis, Dent, Meiners, and Richie connect today’s pushback against abolition to the resistance to Black women activists’ antiviolence efforts in the 1970s and 1980s; many of those activists were victims of gender-based and state-based violence simultaneously. These mutual points of origin show that radical feminisms emerged alongside and within models of abolitionist visioning.
While many in the mainstream have encountered abolition as a solution to the burgeoning prison industrial complex (a term introduced by Davis in Are Prisons Obsolete?), it is actually a response to the societal principles and logics that silently justify and support prisons and the prison nation (a term defined by Beth Richie in Arrested Justice), writ large. Abolition, then, is not just about dismantling and ending prisons themselves but about challenging the legitimacy of incarceration as a rehabilitative device and form of punishment.
Smartly, the book builds on the canonical works of each of the authors, providing an expert genealogy of abolition, feminism, Black-led movements, and social policies that lay the foundation for the fundamental argument of the book: “Abolition is unthinkable without feminism and our feminism unimaginable without abolition.” The authors remind us that early white mainstream feminisms were rooted in a carcerality that criminalized marginalized peoples and therefore revictimized women of color seeking solutions to interpersonal violence and institutional oppression. Reconceptualizing the prison as a location of gender violence, among so many others, has helped to articulate the ways that a feminism without abolitionist praxis is yet another site of oppression.
Closing with the “everydayness” of Black death at the hands of and in the custody of the state, Davis, Meiners, Dent, and Richie trace the historical road map of abolition feminism from early movements for Black liberation to the #SayHerName movement and the police murders of Laquan McDonald, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. By doing so, the authors reveal how such evolutions are often coopted by white-led philanthropic organizations whose liberal agendas frequently derail a more radical politic. But this is precisely why this book is so important: it challenges us to move beyond the accessible, popular, and trendy toward a substantive and meaningful conceptualization of abolition feminism that is capacious enough to fundamentally change us.
The most profound contribution of the book is the rebuke of carceral logics that often push us (as civic society) toward prescriptive and parochial models like templates, how-tos, and the proliferation of “read this to get smarter about [blank]” books. This text is not about getting smart quickly nor is it a shorthand for deep knowledge creation and the tireless study that Black feminisms, queer feminisms, and abolitionist theories ask of us. Rather, it is an offering that beckons for us to see the world more clearly, as it is right now. And for us not to take for granted the foundational principles of abolition feminism, which have long rested at the roots of our movements for justice and liberation.
Jenn M. Jackson (they/them) is a queer, androgynous Black woman, an abolitionist, a lover of all Black people, and an assistant professor at Syracuse University in the Department of Political Science. Jackson’s research is in Black politics with a focus on Black feminist movements, racial threat, gender and sexuality, and political behavior. They are a columnist at Teen Vogue and the author of the forthcoming book “Black Women Taught Us” (forthcoming from Penguin Random House in 2023). Jackson has written peer-reviewed articles at Public Culture, Politics, Groups, and Identities, Social Science Quarterly, and the Journal of Women, Politics, and Policy. Jackson received their doctoral degree in political science at the University of Chicago in 2019.
Forgetting Feminist Organizing Weakens the Fight for Prison Abolition
In the summer of 2020, after the police killing of George Floyd, calls to defund the police (and invest in communities) exploded across the United States. Abolition went from a pie-in-the-sky ideal of a handful of dreamers to a more widespread political demand that could be achieved.
This might have seemed like a spontaneous moment. It was not. Demands to defund (rather than reform) emerged because of decades of abolitionist organizing in many different places and forms. As Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners, and Beth Richie remind us in their most recent offering, “Our movements are directly responsible for this changing landscape.”
Yet, the authors caution, “as abolition becomes more influential as a goal, its collective feminist lineages are increasingly less visible.” This erasure, they say, “weakens our ability to struggle, collectively, for the long haul.”Demands to defund (rather than reform) emerged because of decades of abolitionist organizing in many different places and forms.Click To Tweet
This is certainly true within prisons and in movements for prison justice and abolition. In the 1990s, when I first started to ask about organizing and resistance in women’s prisons, I was told, again and again, “Women in prison don’t resist, they don’t network, and they don’t organize.” Incarcerated women told me that they had no examples—contemporary or historic—and believed that women weren’t willing to band together, organize, or mount any type of collective resistance to prison conditions. Instead, they assumed that women passively endured the many abuses behind bars.
This is certainly not true, as I documented in my first book Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women and in many subsequent articles. Even now, however, as abolition gains momentum in mainstream consciousness, gender—and women’s organizing—is frequently seen as a side issue.
The first chapter of Abolition. Feminism. Now. opens with incarcerated women’s organizing inside the Women’s House of Detention, a now-razed jail in Greenwich Village where Angela Davis, Afeni Shakur, Joan Bird, and countless queer women and gender-nonconforming people were detained between 1932 and 1974.
During the 1970s, people imprisoned inside and supporters outside organized a bail fund. Floor by floor, those in the jail organized and then yelled the names and bail amounts out the window to their supporters, who were standing, quite literally, on the sidewalk below. Those supporters then raised the money—frequently by canvassing passersby around them—and posted bail.
“These rich organizing histories have been largely scrubbed from abolitionist movement histories,” the authors note. Indeed, not many people today know about this bail fund. But, even without widespread remembrance, this organizing prefigures the Black Mamas Bail Out, a crowd-funding campaign started in 2017 to bail Black women out of jail and reunite them with their families.
In chronicling the genealogies of abolition feminism, the authors also name the people who have been doing the work, often for decades and with little recognition. They cite authors, books, organizers, organizations, and campaigns. They start with the ground-breaking 2001 Critical Resistance/INCITE! statement, which became key to the growing intersections of abolition and feminism. But not everything is laudatory—the authors don’t shy away from INCITE!’s initial shortcomings (e.g., the organization’s initial exclusion of trans people in their framing) or its ongoing issues (the widely-publicized investigations about founding members’ Indigenous identities). “These are critical aspects of INCITE!’s history and must be factored into any story of its achievement,” they write.
Finally, the authors caution, abolition isn’t solely about “winning.” It’s also about “reframing the terrain upon which struggle for freedom happens.”
They point to the #NoCopAcademy campaign to stop Chicago’s $95-million police training academy. Organizers fought the proposal, asking what other resources the City of Chicago could provide with $95 million. Organizers lost the vote one year later when the city approved the contract, but they had changed the terrain—over 120 organizations had endorsed the campaign, agreeing that contracting the power and scope of policing is achievable. “This,” the authors remind us, “is an enormous win.”
Both this and their exhortation to remember abolition’s feminist lineages are important reminders now that large-scale protests have quieted into less visible (and more protracted) organizing.
Victoria Law is a freelance journalist and author. Her books include Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, Prison By Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reform, and “Prisons Make Us Safer” and 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration.
Cultivating an Abolitionist Ethics
As I read Abolition. Feminism. Now., I was transported back to 2001, when a small group of prison abolitionist organizers and activists gathered at Blue Mountain Center in upstate New York to outline a future for a new organization called Critical Resistance. We vowed to be bold in our vision, precise in our analysis, and specific in our demands––to stay “fresh and radical.” While we certainly had hope that transformative change was possible, I don’t know that any of us imagined that in less than twenty years we would see widespread calls for abolition. In fact, we explicitly acknowledged that we weren’t likely to see the fruits of the visions we were seeding in our own lifetimes.
Yet here we are today, in a deeply exciting political moment: many people are unapologetically taking up the idea of abolition at an unprecedented pace and scale. Abolition. Feminism. Now. intervenes in this burgeoning space to offer guidance around how we might most effectively seize the opportunities engendered by the current moment. Though the authors attest that their offering is not a prescription nor a blueprint, they draw a compelling map of abolitionist possibilities by tracing examples of projects operating in the present, as well as those that emerged and unfolded in the recent past. The book provides an important analysis not only of what abolition is and is not but also of how we do abolition.
In particular, the authors highlight the indivisibility of abolitionist work and feminist praxis–specifically, feminism that is antiracist, anticapitalist, and, crucially, internationalist. And they begin to address the historical erasure of the feminist nature of the abolitionist work that has led us to this moment, particularly work led by women of color and other queer, trans, and nonbinary people.
At this time, when calls for abolition are flourishing, Abolition. Feminism. Now. helpfully emphasizes the importance of practicing an openness to new ideas and strategies while maintaining a commitment to basic principles of abolition, including vigilantly interrogating reformist approaches, which inevitably further entrench carceral culture as common sense.
Indeed, without such rigor, and in light of racial capitalism, I do wonder how soon the abolition brand will proliferate – the Pepsi ad, the Target product line, a Kardashian wearing a “Team Abolition” T-shirt. There is humor in that, but such cooptation holds dire consequences for people who are targeted for punishment and exclusion by the carceral state.I do wonder how soon the abolition brand will proliferate – the Pepsi ad, the Target product line, a Kardashian wearing a “Team Abolition” T-shirt. There is humor in that, but such cooptation holds dire consequences.Click To Tweet
The authors point to the value of feminism as a practice that invites self-reflection and self-critique, and they urge us to appreciate the messiness of struggle: the tensions, fissures, contestations, and mistakes that are inevitably part of movement building. For instance, they examine the pitfalls of decades of “get tough” responses to gender-based violence that have only served to expand the carceral state. In my time at Justice Now, a California-based abolitionist feminist organization that worked with people in women’s prisons, we collaborated with more than 2,500 people in prison to confront a prison-expansion project cloaked as “gender responsive” prison reform, and we were consistently engaged in heated debates with our colleagues, comrades, and potential allies around the dangers of such reformist approaches. The success of our movements depends on us leaning into the places of friction and discomfort in our work, and, importantly, reflecting honestly on those conflicts in the accounts of our histories.
Abolition. Feminism. Now. reminds us that while many people may ascribe a particular, fixed meaning to the term abolition, it actually has a capacious quality that is part of its power and worthy of attention. In fact, in the span of this 170-page book, abolition is variously described as a practical organizing tool, long-term goal, vision, philosophy, theory of change, practice, method, tradition, adjective, identity, strategy, and provocation. This abundance does not serve to empty the term of meaning. Rather, it reveals abolition as a route to thinking expansively not only about how we can eliminate carceral systems but also about how, by necessity, we fundamentally shift the larger world in which they operate.
Such a shift requires us to also embrace abolition as an intimate practice, one that necessitates a commitment to relating to one another in ways that simultaneously challenge cultures of punishment and scarcity wrought by capitalism and white supremacist heteropatriarchy and encourage cultures of support and belonging. We must cultivate what we might call an abolitionist ethics, rooted in reciprocity, generosity, mutual aid, gift-economics models of sustainability, networks of care, and noncarceral approaches to harm.
I was left with a renewed appreciation for the value of this particular kind of genealogical work to document activist histories, in this case grounded in, and producing, abolition feminism. I also felt a deep longing and a sense of urgency – a feeling that this account only touches the surface of what is crucial to trace and preserve. We need to expand the practice of producing such genealogies. The work of abolition feminism is an archive worth re-membering, not merely for the sake of preserving a particular history but because it supports us to build our most effective strategies for the radical restructuring of our world.
Cassandra Shaylor is an activist, attorney, and artist based in Oakland. She is the cofounder and former codirector of Justice Now and a cofounder of Critical Resistance, both abolitionist organizations focused on building a world free of the carceral state. Her academic and written work has centered on issues of women in prison, abolition, and the intersections of race, sexuality, gender, and punishment. Over the past few years she has focused on nonprofit fundraising and development and spending time with her fierce and funny nine-year-old daughter.
Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth E. Richie
It is a privilege, and also humbling, to review responses to Abolition. Feminism. Now. from comrades/scholars/journalists/activists from different traditions and generations that continue to propel abolition feminism. Given that it would have been impossible to write a complete history at the scale where movement occurs, we elected to think of our work genealogically, both in the sense of legacy and of philosophical critique. As such, the examples in our book were intended to represent cases, allowing us to learn to recognize more quickly the habits, impulses, values, and priorities that have been part of the terrain of abolition feminism. We are grateful to our respondents, all part of that ecosystem, for their work and for their care with our words.
We feel further energized as Vicki Law, Cassandra Shaylor, LaShawn Harris, and Jenn Jackson engage the book’s central themes in their generative responses: the indivisibility of feminism and abolition; the centrality of engaging abolition as both theory and practice; and the importance of naming the interconnectedness of forms of state and interpersonal violence.
All of the contributors also recognized that we did not write the book for the purpose of suggesting paths toward definitive answers. Rather, in the spirit of critical inquiry, we emphasized ongoing questions that resonate through and bring together theories of change and movement practices. As they have noted, we work with a conception of feminism that has been historically produced through precisely the kinds of collective intellectual and organizing efforts that bear a genealogical connection to our current challenges. We also reject claims that incorporate our movements into narrow feminist and capitalist lineages.We work with a conception of feminism that has been historically produced through precisely the kinds of collective intellectual and organizing efforts that bear a genealogical connection to our current challenges.Click To Tweet
Harris, in particular, underscores the urgency that continues to inflect our scholarship and organizing. Yet while these always-pressing demands both mobilized us and pulled us away from the writing, we were also curious to engage this form of temporality, to think through the tensions embedded in the slow time of labor that is always imperative, and to recognize how histories surface in the present.
As we move in the now, Shaylor reminds us that this moment is both breathtaking and risky: abolition emerges as a more popular concept and reports circulate about the backlash to the demand to #defund. This political moment is again the time to study and to organize. Abolition. Feminism. Now. aims to counter or perhaps supplant the inevitable “team abolition” T-shirt or the deflation occasioned by mainstream backlash through inciting a continuous culture of study and engagement. As Jackson puts it plainly, this is not about “getting smart quickly.”
We framed Abolition. Feminism. Now. as unfinished, and the generative responses offered by our abolitionist cotravelers remind us, once again, that the creative practices deployed by feminists to build abolition are limitless. Law’s decades of investigative journalism, for example, center the tireless and ongoing organizing of people inside women’s prisons. These reflections remind us of the countless other brilliant and vibrant engagements that are not included in Abolition. Feminism. Now. but also require remembering, moving us to collaborate in study and struggle, always building communities and envisioning new futures.
Angela Y. Davis is professor emerita of history of consciousness and feminist studies at University of California, Santa Cruz. An activist, writer, and lecturer, her work focuses on prisons, police, abolition, and the related intersections of race, gender, and class. She is the author of many books, from Angela Davis: An Autobiography to Freedom is a Constant Struggle.
Gina Dent is associate professor of feminist studies at University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the editor of Black Popular Culture and lectures and writes on African diaspora literary and cultural studies, postcolonial theory, and critical area studies. Her current project, Visualizing Abolition, grows out of her work as an advocate for transformative and transitional justice and prison abolition.
Erica R. Meiners is a professor of education and women's, gender, and sexuality studies at Northeastern Illinois University. A writer, organizer, and educator, Meiners is the author of For the Children? Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State, coauthor of The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Sexual Harm, Ending State Violence, and a coeditor of The Long Term: Resisting Life Sentences, Working toward Freedom.
Beth E. Richie is head of the Department of Criminology, Law, and Justice and professor of Black studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Richie is the author of Compelled to Crime: The Gender Entrapment of Black Battered Women and Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence and America's Prison Nation and a coeditor of The Long Term: Resisting Life Sentences, Working toward Freedom.