Trayvon Martin and Prison Abolition

2 Apr

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)

Angela Davis on the Prison Abolition Movement and Frederick Douglass

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)

 

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22 Responses to “Trayvon Martin and Prison Abolition”

  1. pennylibertygbow April 2, 2012 at 9:54 PM #

    Thank you for a very insightful perspective. I’m not one for prisons either, I opt more towards rehabilitation, mainly because we lose so many young people and their best years to prisons. It does them no good, and like you, I struggle with the absolute atrocities human beings commence on others. I enjoyed the read. Please visit my blog, I think we are on the same page. Penny

  2. ehammouch April 3, 2012 at 5:51 AM #

    It is awesome to see you grappling with your ideals and your (our) reality. It is honest and courageous and it sets a good example. We are all grappling everyday with making meaning and making SENSE out of our lived experience and our assumptions or the things we have learned in school, in the home, on tv, etc. Thank you for this awesome post. Bravo!

  3. MissMeandI April 3, 2012 at 5:54 AM #

    I just wanted to point out that prisons/jails were spoke of in the Bible. There HAS always been prisons and I doubt that we will ever reach a day when we don’t/won’t need them. Everybody is not rehab-able and for those types, unless you just plan to outright execute them, you’re gonna need some place to put them.
    I vote for lightless dungeons like way back when.

  4. MissMeandI April 3, 2012 at 6:03 AM #

    I just wanted to point out that prisons/jails/dungeons were in the Bible. They HAVE always been around. Everybody just is not rehab-able, and some people NEED to be separated from the general population of life. Unless you plan to outright execute those people, I don’t see a world where we won’t/don’t need prisons.
    I vote for light-less dungeons underground like back in the day. I think ppl get too much freedom in prison.

    • S. Mandisa Moore April 4, 2012 at 1:46 PM #

      Im sorry-I am really not seeing how that is a viable reason why prisons should still exist. The Bible can not be a reference point for what we should expect in the 21st century-the Bible (old testament in particular) also allows for enslavement and women on their menses to be in isolation-things that we think are morally reprehensible and absurd, respectively. Furthermore, the prison system that exists today is NOTHING like the prison system that existed in ancient times(case in point, I dont think you can call the prisons of ancient times a system)-the one we live in is directly tied to profit and has been proven time and time again not to actually keep us safe.

      I also take issue with your false dichotomy that either people who are “not rehab-able” (which is an opinion in and of itself) must either be executed or reside in prison.

      • MissMeandI April 7, 2012 at 10:04 PM #

        I was just saying that we did always have them. I can’t argue the Bible, many things in it I just don’t understand; It would be pointless of me to even try. And I’m sorry that you took offense, but I just believe that SOME people ARE NOT rehab-able. I don’t know that you should execute them, but they definitely don’t need to be put back into the general population of life when they’ve committed some of the most heinous crimes over and over again. These things are just my opinion, however, again…I’m sorry you took offense.

  5. Maisha Z. Johnson April 3, 2012 at 10:32 AM #

    This is a really important conversation. I’m also struggling with how to reconcile this, but I agree that it’s not about the prisons. I don’t know what I want exactly, but I know that having so many people of color locked up unjustly and having Zimmerman walking free feels wrong to me.

  6. Maisha Z. Johnson April 3, 2012 at 10:34 AM #

    Thank you for this important conversation. I’m also struggling with how to reconcile this. I don’t know what I want exactly, but I know that having so many people of color locked up unjustly and having Zimmerman walking free feels wrong.

  7. A April 3, 2012 at 6:05 PM #

    I had similar questions about being an abolitionist and wanting justice for Trayvon Martin. Thanks for writing this.

  8. RevKev/Kevin E. Taylor April 3, 2012 at 9:32 PM #

    Masterful commentary. Searing perspective Sistah!

  9. Anita April 3, 2012 at 10:15 PM #

    I think what Canada and America needs is community based justice like the Inuit in Nunavut. I watched a very interesting documentary (although the name escapes me) about a man who murdered his wife in an alcoholic black out and came out of the Nunavut system through therapy and volunteer work. Here is the website for the department of justice: http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/pi/ajs-sja/prog/nunavut.html. In response to MissMeandI, I believe the “non-reformable” need to be treated at psychiatric facilities and/or prisons and that these facilities need reform to be a safe environment for inmates. How many times have we heard stories of an OK man or woman going to prison and coming out “hard”? This narrative exists because this is what happens in the prison system, there is no escaping it unless you reform it. And this is all connected to education … the day we reform the education system …………………. I hope I see it in my lifetime.

  10. veryslowwriter April 5, 2012 at 6:36 PM #

    I too can imagine a world without prisons. Just as I can imagine a world without lawyers or consumer advertising — but every world needs doctors and firefighters.
    A world without prisons will very quickly turn into a world where no one can remember why we ever had prisons. The category of nonrehab-able will essentially disappear.
    But getting there has many obvious obstacles.
    1. The prison industrial complex is extremely powerful. They have a vested interest in keeping prisons full. In some states the only construction area that’s booming is the building of new prisons.
    2. North Americans — particularly the religious — believe in punishment and fear that without punishment we’ll all turn into murderers, etc. Canadians are generally proud of not having the barbarity of capital punishment but all it takes is one horrendous crime and people start talking about why it’s a shame we can’t kill that @$^$@#.
    3. And of course, the Big Daddy of them all — racism. As people we’d have to evolve at least to the point that everyone understands exactly why there are so many black and brown people in the system. We’d also have to evolve to the point that society is willing to spend money to keep people OUT of jail. Then, after a few generations, all the old ideas and old people will die off. Not quick, but necessary.

    That said — George Zimmerman should be arrested and brought to trial. ALL the “George Zimmerman”s should be arrested and brought to trial. As long as it’s open season on people of color (particularly Black boys/men), we have the right to demand that killers be brought to justice, such as it is.

  11. Anna Renee April 6, 2012 at 12:10 PM #

    It’s ironic that if George Zimmerman is brought to trial and sentenced, society would be footing his eating bill. He’d be eating his grub on my dime. I kinda don’t like the thought of that.

  12. Kristen April 7, 2012 at 5:04 PM #

    I totally did a report on how Disney artists specifically create villains that are darker! Not only did scar wear a dark cape – he was the darkest dude out of all the characters in the room 9 times out of 10. To make matters worse – everyone sounds like their from Nebraska, Jafar sounds like a complete foreigner. To make matters worse, a Disney artist actually stated that in most cases, villains have more angles because audiences tend to like/identify more with rounded characters. Case in point – Mickey Mouse. His head is made up of 3 circles. Jafar – look at that pointy chin! Scar, all angles compared to Mufasa.

  13. C'mon Son April 17, 2012 at 1:03 PM #

    HOW DOES HOUSE ARREST POINT TO A WORLD WITH NO PRISONS IF IT IS IN MANY WAYS FAR WORSE THAN PRISONS? IF YOU LITERALLY FIX RACISM (IE MINORITIES GET THE SAME EDUCATION AS WHITES, ALL RACIST THOUGHTS IN EVERYONE’S HEADS DISAPPEAR, DISNEY MOVIES HAVE WHITE VILLAINS), THERE WILL STILL BE CRIMINALS. YOU ALSO SAY IT’S NOT ABOUT ABOLISHING PRISONS BUT FIXING THE RACISM WITHIN IT. YO, THAT’S NOT THE SAME THING AS ABOLISHING PRISONS SO WHAT THE FUCK YOU TALKING BOUT? YOU THINK ZIMMERMAN SHOULD BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE TO THE COMMUNITIES? WHAT THE FUCK DOES THAT MEAN? EVERYONE SHOULD GIVE HIM STERN LOOKS? STERN TALKING -TO’S SO HE PROMISES TO “CHANGE”? OR SHOULD COMMUNITIES JUST BEAT HIS ASS? IT SEEMS LIKE YOU JUST WANT LESS RACISM, SO THIS POST HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH MARTIN OR ZIMMERMAN OR PRISONS. “MY CALL FOR NO PRISONS ISN’T REALLY ABOUT ENDING THE PRISONS.” FUCK OUTTA HERE WITH THAT BULLSHIT

    • crunktastic April 17, 2012 at 1:57 PM #

      I’m at pains to understand why you felt that this fucked up comment had any value whatsoever. Fuck outta here with that, Son. (In fact, I’ll make sure of it.)

      • C'mon Son April 17, 2012 at 2:54 PM #

        BECAUSE THIS POST QUITE LITERALLY CONTRADICTS ITSELF AND I’M POSING LEGITIMATE QUESTIONS TO THE AUTHOR. LIKE FORREAL TELL ME IN DETAIL HOW A COMMUNITY HOLDS SOMEONE ACCOUNTABLE FOR MURDER WITHOUT KILLING OR PUTTING THEM IN PRISON. AND HOW CAN YOU CALL YOURSELF A PRISON ABOLITIONIST WHEN YOU ONLY WANT THE INSTITUTIONALIZED RACISM TO BE ABOLISHED. WHERE DO ALL THE WHITE MURDERERS GO?

    • Chanel April 17, 2012 at 10:32 PM #

      @ C’monSon I’ve updated this blog and included some resources for your enjoyment and education.

  14. Progressive Pupil April 20, 2012 at 8:40 AM #

    Thank you for sharing your personal struggle with these two “opposing” notions – demanding accountability and prison abolition – as it is something many activists can relate to. Luckily there are many grassroots movements (like Critical Resistance) that are slowly chipping away at the racial injustice of the Prison Industrial Complex. This blog post has some simple steps we can all take that will help in this mission: http://progressivepupil.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/lessons-from-trayvon/

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