A handbook for abolitionists – YES! Magazine
I still remember the first time I answered a call from a prison. I barely heard the name, but I recognized the voice. It looked like my dad. Confused, I didn’t know how to accept the call and mistakenly selected the disconnect option. I was so upset. I immediately called my mother and asked her, “Will daddy call me from prison?” She hesitated to answer before reluctantly saying, “Yes.”
My father, a factory worker, had trouble paying child support. Not because he didn’t try, but because he didn’t make enough money to pay the court-ordered amount and pay the rent, his car payment, and buy the commodities. necessities, such as food, medicine and personal hygiene products. Each month, the amount he owed increased. He would pay what he could but it was never enough. At one point, the court determined he had “willfully” failed to pay and sentenced him to jail. It started what felt like an endless cycle.
As you can imagine, it’s hard to be consistent with payments if at any time the state can put you in jail for unpaid child support. My father lost his job, his apartment, his car and was homeless for almost 10 years. Absolutely no one was better off because my father was incarcerated for failing to pay the full amount of child support owed. In fact, everyone – him and his children in particular – was worse off. In my name, in the name of my sisters, in the name of our mothers, the court has done wrong. This is how my journey towards abolition began.
In his new book, An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World, Patrisse Cullors strikes up courageous conversations. She says, “We have courageous conversations because our goal is to live in a healthy community that values the dignity of every human being. These conversations usually stem from our lived experiences. These are conversations we have because we care. These are conversations that start with us first.
Like Cullors, I had one of my most formative courageous conversations with my mother. I wanted to know why alimony was the reason my dad was in jail. I wanted to know what role each parent played in the process. I wanted to know what we could do to improve things. Unbeknownst to me, my mother had already decided that the costs of this punitive process far outweighed the benefits. She told the court that she didn’t want court-ordered child support if it happened every time my dad couldn’t pay the full amount to my mom and my stepsister’s mom. Eventually, she told the court that she didn’t want it at all.
Through Cullors’ own story, she demonstrates how difficult courageous conversations can be, especially with family, friends, other organizers or elders in our communities. She points out that “many of us, myself included, have been taught in homes, places of worship, schools and many other institutions to hold back our words, not necessarily because someone has explicitly told us. to be secretive, but rather because we saw all the adults around us who lacked the courage to be honest with themselves and with others. This is not a judgment; it is a report.
We reproduce the behaviors around us. Challenging the status quo, even in conversation, even with our mothers, is difficult and takes courage. To challenge deeply held beliefs and values about each other and ourselves and to dismantle massive and violent systems requires tenacity and a willingness to understand the difference between responding to the world and reacting.
When I called my mom for the first time after getting the first call from jail, I cried. I blamed. I didn’t ask any questions. I did not listen. I just reacted. Luckily, my mom chose to be brave and stay in conversation with me. But some of us don’t always have the space to respond rather than react. In fact, many of us, with the knee of oppression on our necks, learn to keep secrets or just keep going through unresolved wounds and trauma in order to survive. The systems around us were built to keep some people in perpetual survival mode. They were built to keep us trapped, reacting to harm rather than responding in ways that heal and prevent harm.
Abolition is to free oneself. To be forced by oppressive systems and unjust material conditions to react abruptly is not freedom.
These are the same forces that push our children down the school-to-prison pipeline, leave our elders vulnerable to deportation, steal our loved ones from our homes, and perpetuate harm and systemic violence through punishment and incarceration. . Many of us live in conditions that require us to constantly react with little time to formulate a useful response. Cullors writes, “Abolition is about how we react to harm done and how we react when we cause harm. Abolition stops the cycle of reaction and creates space to react with care and dignity.
My mother could have reacted to my father’s inability to pay child support. She could have demanded that the court continue to use punitive and harmful tactics. After all, my mother carried her own wound because of the relationship she and my father shared. Instead, she chose to respond from a place of care and dignity. She knew that the more time my father spent in prison, the less time he spent working and, more importantly, the less time he spent with his children. Although my mother’s decision to stop paying child support did not immediately end the tyranny of the court in my father’s life, it transformed the relationship between me and my mother. His choice to react rather than react prevented further damage and brought healing to our lives.
Justice must change. At a minimum, justice should not perpetuate evil. At most, it should bring healing and accountability. Our current so-called “justice” system is reactive and punitive. It does not really meet our needs for security, healing and accountability. Cullors writes, “Our practice of grounded responsiveness provides a model for both our personal relationships and our movement relationships. We can choose to center our values on our reactive vitriol. We can choose to be in community and model a new approach to naming requests. When our responses are first grounded in care and dignity, we develop an abolitionist culture that has the capacity to be truly just and transformative.
is a Seattle-based creator, community organizer, abolitionist, educator, and advocate. Working at the intersections of arts, law, education and community organizing, they strive to create experiences that bring us closer to our humanity and invite us to imagine what we hope to see in the future.