Mass Incarceration

America Beyond Bars: The Importance of Abolition

By Candacé King on February, 22 2024

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Black History Month is not only an opportunity to celebrate the beauty, excellence, and culture of Black life, but it a reminder of the struggle for freedom. Centuries in the making, the abolition movement has been an essential chapter of Black History.   

“The history of abolition was portrayed, at least in academia, as a predominantly bourgeois conservative movement,” Manisha Sinha, Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, explains. “African Americans were the leading thinkers, tacticians of the movement, and that their importance had been really belittled by scholars who either tended to emphasize racism in the movement or those who simply ignored their presence.” 

When talking of abolition in the mid-19th century, that meant the ending of slavery. One of the early voices of dissent against slavery and advocate for full emancipation was David Walker. In 1829, the unabashed black abolitionist held up a mirror to the United States forcing white Christian slaveowners to confront themselves and the ugly truth of slavery.  

“Do slave-holders think that we thank them for keeping us in miseries, and taking our lives by the inches?” Walker wrote in his scathing Appeal. “America is more our country, than it is the whites-we have enriched it with our blood and tears.”  

Drawing critical connections between the captivity and capital, Walker’s Appeal was among the first sustained public critiques of slavery and calls for immediate emancipation. 

When slavery was outlawed, a new form of bondage took its place. The “convict lease” system was a form of privatized slavery that unjustly and disproportionately targeted Black people to build capital for the South. 

While she is best known for her anti-lynching advocacy, Ida B Wells- Barnett was an outspoken critique of this system. “The Convict Lease System and Lynch Law are twin infamies which flourish hand in hand in many of the United States,” she wrote in 1893. Wells-Barnett pointed out the similarities between slavery and the convict lease system as well as its impact on Black political power. “Every Negro so sentenced not only means able-bodied men to swell the state’s number of slaves, but every Negro so convicted is thereby disfranchised.” 

In many ways, this system became the blueprint for mass incarceration, which picked up during the “War on Drugs” era. In 1971, President Nixon declared drug abuse as “public enemy number one.” However, his use of the phrase, “drug abuse” is a misnomer, as it was a stand- in for Black and Brown people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of drug arrests tripled to a high of over 1.5 million.  

During this period, activists and organizations picked up the baton from abolitionists like Walker and Wells to condemn these practices. One of the important writings to come out from this period was a 1976 pamphlet from The Prison/Research/Education/Action project which called for the end of the carceral state. “Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists” wrote out three pillars of abolition: “moratorium,” “decarceration,” and “excarceration.” These three pillars became the basis for which activist Angela Davis and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore founded Critical Resistance in 1997, an organization that continues the fight for abolition to this day.   

“PIC abolitionist organizations are made up of everyday people,” Woods Ervin, National Media and Communications at Critical Resistance said. “People who are often directly or have a loved one impacted by imprisonment or policing. It’s important to join or create PIC abolitionist organizations and get to concrete work on a campaign or project chipping away at the PIC in your local context.” 

When it comes to liberation for Black and Brown people in America, there are two possibilities: the way we never were and the way we should be. The (Divided) States of America has never been the land of the free. It has always been up to the critical masses to fight to make the so-called dream a reality. 

“The bad news is that we're so far from where we need to be, that there's so much work to do,” Dan Berger, Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington Bothell, said. “The good news of that is that you can be an abolitionist in so many areas. There are steps people can take that might lead to other steps. It’s about defunding police, it's about closing prisons, it's about things that we can do that principally target those institutions, but it's also at the same time about the sort of robust policy vision and social transformation.” 


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