We Can Dismantle the System at the Polls Too
This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.
Imagine a society in which prisons, police, and all other institutions that inflict violence on Black people are abolished. Now imagine the money previously funding those institutions being used to create housing and mental care investments that actually prevent harm from happening in the first place.
Imagine these funds are used to create opportunities for under-resourced and under-invested communities.
Imagine these funds are used to create effective systems of accountability and strengthen voting rights so that voting is a system not anchored in anti-Blackness.
Close your eyes for 20 seconds and really visualize it.
You’ve just reimagined public safety. This is what abolition can look like.
I stand firmly in the belief that the American carceral, criminal, legal, and electoral systems are rooted in racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. These systems must be abolished in order to build a new system of justice that ensures that the basic needs of all people are met. To achieve this goal, we must engage in abolitionist visioning while participating in political processes that help us gain power and control of the resources necessary to build the new institutions that replace the harmful ones that exist today.
My father, the late mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, and human rights icon Chokwe Lumumba, once said, “Mass incarceration is a symptom of a rotting system.” I agree. The carceral and criminalizing systems represent a tremendous symptom of government-sanctioned violence and oppression.
When you have 59 people die in Mississippi prisons in less than six months, that is a symptom of a rotting system. When you have women serving life sentences for drug use, being criminalized for addiction, that is a symptom of a rotten system. When you have children sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, that is a symptom of a rotting system. When you have parents arrested at work and detained in ICE prisons while their children are attending their first day of school, that is a symptom of a rotting system. When you have more than 200,000 formerly incarcerated people denied the right to vote in one state, that is a symptom of a rotting system.
We see these symptoms most evidently in prisons like the notorious Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi and Angola Prison in Louisiana, where people have died due to torture and inhumane living conditions. We more readily see these symptoms in the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Ricky Ball, Jonathan Sanders, George Robinson, and countless others killed by police.
Since America’s inception, our communities have been denied our right to our full humanity. Our Black bodies have been subjected to violence in the form of chattel slavery, lynchings, police terrorism, state neglect, inadequate health care, inadequate housing, toxic living conditions, mass incarceration, and state-sanctioned theft of Black-owned land. As a consequence of this violence, as Black, Brown, and poor people, we are consistently making the case against racism, yet we are still suffering under White supremacy and White fear. While our protests are necessary and have resulted in us seeing some policy changes, it is time to redouble our efforts to gain control of all of the political processes that govern our lives and thus the resources to support a system overhaul.
Current conditions and many of the failed punitive approaches to “criminal justice reform” have clearly demonstrated it’s time to take a new approach to dismantling the system — one that combines abolition with electoral justice. If we want to intervene to reduce and eventually end the murders of our loved ones, part of our strategy must be to remove from office the sheriffs, district attorneys, and judges that are allowing this violence to occur.
Engaging in the electoral process is about unseating over 400 years of White supremacy that still plagues the U.S. system in very real and systemic ways. It is about creating a system of justice that values Black, Brown, trans, gender nonconforming, gay, lesbian, and disabled lives and does not condone modern-day lynchings as we have seen in the murders of Korryn Gaines, Alton Sterling, and the deaths of Sandra Bland, Rexdale Henry, and Andre Jones that took place behind jail walls. It’s about government representation that protects the lives of our children and their children.
It’s not about a particular party. Instead, as Jessica Byrd, co-founder of The Electoral Justice Project of the Movement for Black Lives teaches us, it’s about “the process of making change — in politics, policies and social practices.” Electing judges, district attorneys (DAs), mayors, senators, state legislators, city council members, county commissioners/supervisors, and sheriffs who not only have experiences in common with their communities but are delegates from their communities that understand the need for a system overhaul is critically important.
Participating in the electoral process is about creating policies such as decarceration for marijuana and other drug use, ending pretrial detention and cash money bail, stopping rent hikes to prevent homelessness, and the BREATHE Act to end police violence and invest in a new vision of public safety. It is also the creation of programs that prevent violence through community-led efforts of violence intervention like the Credible Messenger and Cure Violence models. It is the creation of community-based services that tackle the effects of poverty and its criminalization by creating community land trust and housing cooperatives, worker-owned and cooperatively led businesses that get at the root cause of economic injustice, instead of building more prison and jails to lock up poor, Black, and mentally ill people for prison dollar profit and to legitimize the need for warlike city police. It is beautifully about a Vision for Black Lives, a comprehensive and visionary policy agenda endorsed by over 50 Black-led organizations.
The merger of electoral justice and abolition allows for a return of politics to the people. Community should be central and not peripheral to system change. Individuals, grassroots, faith, and neighborhood organizations in local communities are most effective in doing work that is transformational and liberating. Seizing electoral justice for the sake of abolishing prisons and jails allows us to use community co-governance tools, such as people’s assemblies, toward the long-term practice of educating, motivating, and organizing our people to be prepared and committed to helping design new systems of accountability that do not rely on our current systems of oppression. People’s Assemblies are instituted around the world as well-facilitated gatherings of community members to determine solutions to common problems to then be implemented by their city or state governments.
So, as we dive into the visioning and implementation work of abolition, let us also engage in the politics of it. A politics that encourages full participation in the process of achieving abolition and puts frontline community members in positions of power. That includes mothers who are separated from their children because they can’t afford bail. Children who have to navigate decisions without the benefit of their incarcerated loved one’s support. Grandmothers who are forced to take on the full financial burden that incarceration causes the entire family.
As municipalist Debbie Bookchin encourages, let us reenvision what society could be if we developed a program of abolition that includes a “caring economy,” equal access to technology, and the opportunity for “every human being to live in freedom and exercise their civic rights as members of flourishing, truly democratic communities.”
This article is dedicated to all of our political prisoners that stood on the front lines of protest and movement for Black lives in the 1970s and 1980s and have remained incarcerated or in exile for several decades as a result. It is past time for them to come home. Free our elders — Mutulu Shakur, Sundiata Acoli, Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, Mumia Abu-Jamal, David Gilbert, and allow Assata Shakur to come home free! Free Em All!