More than five years ago, I started noticing that people whose positions on mass incarceration and its discontents were similar to mine were identifying as “prison abolitionists.” Whenever I was asked whether I, too, was an abolitionist, I used to defiantly say “no,” until I buckled down and wrote this post, which still accurately reflects where I stand on the question of abolition. TL;DR for you: I think crime is real, it has an ontological existence beyond the repressive state and causes real harm for real people, and some people who commit crime–far less we have behind bars, but more than zero–need to be behind bars to protect the public. If anything, the work I’ve done since that post–writing a book in which an aging Charlie Manson is one of the characters, and participating in crime prevention summits in which victims and perpetrators come together in a call to put an end to real, actual violence happening in the streets–have strengthened my commitment to radical realism.
Last night, at James Forman‘s excellent talk about Locking Up Our Own at City Arts and Lectures, I had another opportunity to think about this. At the Q&A part of the evening, a young man rose and asked Forman and Lara Bazelon (who was interviewing Forman) whether they were abolitionists, and why or why not. Forman gave a nuanced and interesting answer. He said (I’m paraphrasing from memory) that there is something very appealing in envisioning a system that does not rely on law enforcement and incarceration as the ultimate solution to its problems. At the same time, he said, he was struggling with notions part of him still harbored that prison was still appropriate for some people. The examples he gave were Michael Cohen, Harvey Weinstein, cops who shoot people of color, and perpetrators of hate crimes.
I thought about Forman’s answer a great deal later in the evening. My first, facile interpretation of his response was that, like many of my friends, it showed the unbearable lightness of doing away with due process and civil and human rights for defendants we don’t like. But we later had a brief conversation in which I realized that Forman and I actually agreed on far more than I thought. We both believe that the prison apparatus is used exponentially more than it should be, that it exposes people to horrific violations of their human rights and to threats to their basic existence, and that it hasn’t been shown to reduce crime or rehabilitate people. And we both believe that there is a small minority of people who need to be behind bars–Forman highlighted retribution, I’d be talking more about incapacitation. Also, my shortlist of people that should stay behind bars might include folks that belong to categories of people “we” like as well as those we dislike. Forman’s response to the young audience member was a model of humility and honesty, but we end up pretty much in the same place.
Later at night it occurred to me that most of the self-defined abolitionists would probably agree with both of us that there is still room for institutional confinement, though not in its current shape and not to the degree of its current usage. And then I thought that, like so many other terms, the term “prison abolitionism” has suffered from a serious dilution of its meaning. In its original formulation, by Norwegian criminologists such as Thomas Mathiesen, abolitionism meant absolutely no prisons. Or, a revolutionary reversal of fortune – using them to lock up the bankers and environmental destroyers. Crime, Mathiesen argued, is not a real thing, and prison is nothing more than a manifestation of state repression. It is a fairly extreme position, but it has the benefit of being ideologically genuine and undiluted.
In a lot of ways, the fight over the semantics of “abolitionism” reminds me of a similar fight over a term that is fashionable among the same milieu: anti-Zionism. Most of my encounters with self-defined anti-Zionists indicate that they either do not understand what Zionism is, or have such a reductive definition of the term so as to equate it with right-wing Messianic racism. As an Israeli who studied Zionism extensively by reading original texts, and being exposed to the many strains in Zionist thought, including multicultural, liberal and tolerant Zionism, I confess that these New York Times paragraphs really resonate with me:
Israelis experience anti-Zionism in a different way than, say, readers of The New York Review of Books: not as a bold sally in the world of ideas, but as a looming menace to their earthly existence, held at bay only through force of arms. It’s somewhat like the difference between discussing the effects of Marxism-Leninism in an undergraduate seminar at Reed College, circa 2018 — and experiencing them at closer range in West Berlin, circa 1961.
Actually, it’s worse than that, since the Soviets merely wanted to dominate or conquer their enemies and seize their property, not wipe them off the map and end their lives. Anti-Zionism might have been a respectable point of view before 1948, when the question of Israel’s existence was in the future and up for debate. Today, anti-Zionism is a call for the elimination of a state — details to follow regarding the fate befalling those who currently live in it.
Note the distinction: Anti-Zionists are not advocating the reform of a state, as Japan was reformed after 1945. Nor are they calling for the adjustment of a state’s borders, as Canada’s border with the United States was periodically adjusted in the 19th century. They’re not talking about the birth of a separate state, either, as South Sudan was born out of Sudan in 2011. And they’re certainly not championing the partition of a multiethnic state into ethnically homogenous components, as Yugoslavia was partitioned after 1991.
Anti-Zionism is ideologically unique in insisting that one state, and one state only, doesn’t just have to change. It has to go. By a coincidence that its adherents insist is entirely innocent, this happens to be the Jewish state, making anti-Zionists either the most disingenuous of ideologues or the most obtuse. When then-CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill called last month for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” and later claimed to be ignorant of what the slogan really meant, it was hard to tell in which category he fell.
When someone who holds oversimplified, reductionist thoughts about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which were shaped by American liberal education, tells me proudly that they are anti-Zionist, I have to ask myself: Does this person believe I do not have a right to exist? That my family and friends, whose lives are rife with activism for peace, multicultural friendship and relationships, and a strong commitment to coexist with Muslim, Christian, Druze, and Circassian friends, should drop dead? That it was justifiable, and maybe even laudable, to bomb a university cafeteria and kill nine of my friends? This reductionism worries me greatly, not only because it reflects great ignorance, but also because it is fashionable among well-meaning social justice folks whose understanding of the realities of Israel/Palestine lacks nuance and empathy.
That is exactly what I feel about the equally fashionable identification with abolitionism. When someone–typically a middle-class, economically comfortable, highly educated white academic–tells me proudly that they are a prison abolitionist, I have to ask myself: Does this person believe that lethal violence over drugs, which ravages lives and destroys cities and neighborhoods, does not have an ontological existence? Does this person understand that the victims of the crime, whom they claim is nothing more than the fabrication of a perverse, oppressive state, are real people who miss their loved ones and need to be taken seriously? Is this person comfortable with some sort of alternative community reaction to, say, serial killers?
Or maybe this person agrees with me that prison is essential, but on a much smaller and humane scale, and adopted the diluted label of abolitionism because that’s part of the fashionable argot of this discipline? And if so, what exactly makes them an abolitionist?
I’m curious to hear more from you, especially if you consider yourself an abolitionist. I think you’ll find, like me, that we are virtually in agreement on how broken the system is, but I seem to have a more severe allergic reaction to labels.