When I say I’m a prison abolitionist, people think that means I want to tear down the walls of the prison and free everyone today. But what it really means is that I want to work towards building a society that does not rely on prisons to address all of our injustices. As a prison abolitionist, I recognize that prisons treat the symptoms and not the root cause of social issues. I recognize that prisons have history, we did not always have them and we can get to a place where we don’t use them (hell, I see evidence of this already with the increasing use of house arrest to monitor people. Of course this is not better and is in many ways far worse, but it does point to the possibility of a prisonless world).
And while I wholeheartedly believe in the possibility of a world free of prisons, I find myself struggling with this Trayvon Martin situation. How can I demand a criminal conviction for Zimmerman when I am opposed to prisons? This kind of struggle between my politics and my real life is not new. I often go through these “ok, now what do I think” moments when I am forced out of my activists bubbles filled with hope and promise. But when I walk into my home and my house has been robbed, or I turn on the news and little girl has been raped and murdered, or I log onto Twitter and a young black boy has been killed, that theory shit goes out the window and find my non-prison believing ass saying “lock his ass up!”
So how do I reconcile these things? I’m not sure yet. But what I do know is that this really is not about the prison, but about a prison state that targets black and brown bodies in problematic ways. It’s about a system of policing and surveillance, in which some bodies are always under the eye of the state. Be it police constantly circling their blocks, surveillance cameras in the project hallways, metal detectors in their schools, or overzealous neighborhood watchmen finding them “suspicious” Li’l Kim had it right in saying “police stay on us like tattoos.” #WeAreAllTrayvon not just because we are brown bodied in a state that recognizes us an inferior, but because we all live in a system that sees us as toxic and worthy of elimination—either by locking us up or killing us. Thus, my call for no prisons is not really about ending the prisons but about ending a system that disciplines us for having the audacity to breathe.
But this does not mean I do not wish to hold Zimmerman accountable. I world without prisons does not mean less accountable, it means more. It would mean that Zimmerman would have to be held accountable to the communities he harmed and not just the state. It would also mean that the world that creates a Zimmerman would also be held accountable for fostering a culture that sees dark bodies as suspicious. It’s about recognizing the structural and cultural conditions that make a Trayvon possible. So we must talk about policing in conversation with the ways in which Disney participates in this socialization by making all of the evil characters dark (Scar was the darkest lion on, Ursula was a black octopus, and Jafar wore a dark cape).
So we can and must continue to demand accountability from Zimmerman, but we must also recognize the ways in which Zimmerman is the product of a larger culture. We must recognize the ways in which our culture breeds individuals that perform such heinous acts and who do we hold accountable for that?
Update: I have included a few resources for those who would like to know more about the growing prison abolition movement.
For more information on prison abolition check out:
Critical Resistance (National organization working to abolish prisons)
Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault
Are Prisons Obsolete? and Abolition Democracy by Angela Davis
Three Thousand Years and Life (shows what alternative models of accountability are possible, even inside the prison!)
Visions of Abolition from Critical Resistance to a New Way of Life (featuring Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis, and other academics)