Modern Abolitionists Share What Emancipation Means On Juneteenth 2020

Originally Published: 
Bill Tompkins/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

June 19 is Juneteenth, which commemorates the day in 1865 when the last formally enslaved people in Galveston, Texas were informed of their legal emancipation — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. But in 2020, 155 years later, activists are still fighting systemic racism across the United States. Following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, among others, more and more people have called on elected officials to defund police forces, and ultimately to abolish the prison-industrial complex. So for Juneteenth 2020, here are six modern abolitionists on what emancipation means to them today.

According to Critical Resistance, an Oakland, California-based grassroots organization that challenges existing perceptions of public safety, modern abolitionists have long advocated for a world that doesn't rely on punitive measures as a response to harm. These activists want to abolish the prison-industrial complex, which Critical Resistance defines as "the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems."

For many young people who are starting to think more critically about racial justice, the idea of a world without policing, prisons, and surveillance may be a new one. However, activists and scholars have studied and advocated for modern abolition for decades, and there is a sizable body of work dedicated to the subject. Now, as protests continue across the country following the police killings of Black people, this concept is quickly entering the mainstream as Americans increasingly start to question the effectiveness of police reform. For many people, it has become clear that police departments across the country have implemented reforms without any substantial decline in racist police brutality. In fact, according to many abolitionists, police reforms are antithetical to defunding and ultimately abolishing police forces, because they require putting more funding into police departments rather than diverting it away.

For Juneteenth 2020, abolitionists around the country told Elite Daily in their own words what emancipation and liberation mean to them, and what a world without imprisonment and policing would actually look like. It's important to note that while everyone is talking about abolition right now, this work has been going on for a long time. If you want to learn more, you can read about abolition efforts from activists and scholars like Mariame Kaba, Angela Davis, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, as well as all of those who shared their voices below.

The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Herzing

Herzing is the executive director of the Center for Political Education, which serves as a resource for organizers and activists working on progressive social movements. She is also a co-founder of Critical Resistance, and has spent more than 20 years working as an organizer, activist, and advocate in movements against the prison industrial complex.

We need to understand freedom as a process rather than a specific action or stopping point. We need to struggle to win our freedom, and then struggle to maintain it. For Black people, some of the biggest obstacles to our liberation are surveillance, policing, criminal sentencing, and imprisonment. So to me, emancipation means the elimination of these harmful systems and the development of life-affirming institutions, practices, policies, and services that give us the best chance of living in right relation with each other and with the natural world.

To me, prison-industrial complex abolition, which is the kind of abolition on which my work is based, means the elimination of coercive systems of retribution, vengeance, containment, and control, and the blossoming of systems that support us to live healthy, well, self-determined lives. There will be lots of unknowns since it requires us to transform our society. They’re opportunities for us to create new ways of relating to each other, new ways of caring for one another, new ways of managing life together. We’ll need to operate from an ethic of collective care rather than individualism, for instance. We’ll need to create dynamics in which we put more care and effort into ensuring people have enough to eat and have safe, stable shelter than into containing and controlling people who have been pushed to the margins.

Transformation takes time and requires risks. We may try things that don’t work out (just like happens in the current systems of policing and imprisonment), but with time and the ability to practice, we can create more well-being for more of us.

Woods Ervin
Courtesy of Woods Ervin

Ervin has been an organizer with Critical Resistance for over a decade. They started organizing with Critical Resistance's Oakland chapter in 2010 through the Stop the Injunctions Coalition, which fully eliminated gang injunctions in Oakland. Ervin has also worked on movements to stop new jails from being built in San Francisco, and to end a Bay Area-based SWAT team training expo called Urban Shield. On June 15, Ervin, Kaba, and author Andrea Ritchie released their #DefundPolice toolkit, illustrating what divestment from policing looks like.

Abolition is a broad-based strategy for systemic change. It is a complete transformation of our society, so that the conditions under which the kinds of systemic harms and oppression that actually prop up the prison-industrial complex (PIC) can no longer occur.

PIC abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment. From where we as a society are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and control of millions of people.

Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal. We understand that the root causes of harm are societal inequalities, racism, sexism, transphobia, poverty, and lack of access to resources. Policing, criminalizing, and imprisoning people does nothing to address why people and systems carry out acts of harm in the first place, will not stop future harms from happening, and will ultimately create more harm and violence in targeted communities.

Our people are safe when their needs are met. We need guaranteed housing, quality health care including mental health services, jobs that pay a living wage, food, education, and child care. Our communities have already worked hard to build systems to support and care for each other without the PIC. When these systems are prioritized with resources, capacity, and power, our communities will flourish. As Critical Resistance has seen with our work over the last 20 years and as we’re currently seeing all over the country: When we use abolitionist practices and actions, we win.

Benji Hart

Hart is an author, artist, and educator currently based in Chicago. Their blog, titled "Radical Faggot," is thusly named to capture their "inherent opposition to current social, political and economic orders." Hart has led political education workshops about prison abolition, trans liberation, and more for grassroots organizations around the Midwest, and they have also given guest lectures at multiple Midwestern colleges and universities.

We cannot say we have abolished slavery in this country when we have allowed the vestiges of slavery not only to remain, but to take up the lion's share of local and federal budgets. Emancipation, the true end of enslavement, means the permanent and complete abolition of the police and prisons systems. The defunding of those systems is a small but crucial step toward abolition, and a demand anyone who claims to care about Black lives should be uplifting now and moving forward.

A world that doesn't rely on police and prisons is the world oppressed people already inhabit, since many of us don't have the luxury of looking to these systems to protect us. The difference in a post-abolition reality is the billions spent on militarizing, training, and allowing police to harass and kill our communities would be diverted into the efforts that actually protect and keep our communities safe — many of which already exist and are already community-led. Mentorship programs, well-paid jobs, affordable housing, free mental health care, robust public education, arts, and after-school programs. These are the things, in my vision of the world, that take up the lion's share of local and federal budgets.

We are in a moment of cooptation. Many politicians and police departments are openly discussing alternatives to policing, claiming to support social services, but are actually continuing with the same values and commitments they've long held, disguised with newfound language. If it doesn't take money, power, and resources away from the police system, it's not abolition. Read between the lines, and don't let the hard work of Black organizers be disrespected through cooptation. Defund police means defund police. Abolish police means abolish police. Anything else is a ruse.

Eli Dru and Mon M
Courtesy of #8toAbolition

Eli Dru and Mon M are co-authors on #8toAbolition, an effort launched by a team of police and prison abolitionists in response to Campaign Zero's 8 Can't Wait campaign. Dru is a community organizer from the Bronx working with Black trans-led initiatives around the world, and who is committed to engaging in political and popular education. M is an organizer from India working on ending the era of mass criminalization in NYC. The team behind #8toAbolition argues that "abolition can't wait," and that the reforms espoused by the 8 Can't Wait campaign have already been tried without success.

Eli Dru: To emancipate means to liberate — we want freedom. The need is not to re-define emancipation, but for people interested in freedom to draw connections between various assaults we see committed on African and African-descended people. Emancipation is for all African people, those indigenous and of the African diaspora.

Mon M: Abolition, very simply, refers to the practice and preparation for a world in which we prioritize collective care, safety, health, and happiness of every single person and reorient ourselves around this priority. It means creating the conditions for a world in which police, prisons, and prosecutors cannot exist. It necessitates the dismantling of imperialist, cisheteropatriarchal, capitalist extraction, and provides a prefigurative model for being in our communities in ways that reflect the world we want to build.

Modern abolitionists see it as our mission to provide the models of community safety, security, mutual aid, and harm reduction that are needed, and to do the political education, relationship-building, and movement work to bring others into demanding transformative economic and social change for abolition. Our project, 8 to Abolition, was designed to reframe reformist responses to the problem of mass criminalization as insufficient. Anything that does not imagine the end of the prison industrial complex — that is, the military, ICE, police departments, prisons, and more — is not abolition or liberation. Liberation, to us, means so many things that cannot be captured here, from everyone having what they need to live well, to restoring our relationship with the Earth.

Yasmin Nair

Nair is a writer and activist, as well as an editor-at-large for Current Affairs. Alongside Ryan Conrad, Nair co-founded the Against Equality editorial collective, where queer writers and artists critique mainstream ideas of equality and inclusion. Nair is also the policy director for Gender JUST (volunteer position), a Chicago-based radical queer collective that envisions and strives for a world without prisons, wars, and capitalism.

For 2020, emancipation has to mean a break from the past in terms of the systems that we have invested in so far, which imply that what individuals do for themselves is what enables a better society. Emancipation has to be from systems which place values on people based on our perceptions of their morals or their wealth or their character. We have to start moving toward systems that don't make decisions about whether or not people deserve equality, resources, schooling, free water, all of that.

Abolition requires us to demolish certain kinds of systems that have already begun their own kinds of surveillance and exploitation of various populations. The entire system of education at all levels, all the way up to the higher education level, and the nonprofit-industrial complex (which commercializes social services and social justice) — to me, those are the two systems that are most invested in policing in the sense that they are assisting in creating class categories.

Both these systems are about creating good and bad subjects, about funneling resources based on the desires of neoliberal and capitalist systems. There are forms of policing that have nothing to do with walls. We have to understand the brutality of the prison-industrial complex, and we have to understand that we have normalized the existence of the prison-industrial complex in our lives.

Abolition has to do with understanding that there is no such thing as a good police force. No one is saying we’re getting rid of all the cops right away. What we are saying is to take money away from cops and the policing system, and give it to more resources like mental health care resources within schools. We’re taking the money to social work within cities.

A world without policing is a world where resources are not allocated to a severely and overly militarized security force, which is really what the cops are now. They’re not here to really help most of us. They’re here to surveil and brutalize. The police are a visible manifestation of a world that requires abolition.

This article was originally published on