With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Anything is Possible: Toward an Abolitionist Vision

This is an excerpt of Marc Lamont Hill’s We Still Here (Haymarket Books, 2020).

As I reflect on the current moment, I see a widening sky of possibility. The public sphere is filled with radical voices, radical ideas and radical action. We are dreaming together, envisioning a free and safe world where we finally turn to each rather than on each other.

If we have learned anything from this moment of COVID-19, it is that we cannot survive a crisis through individual action and practice. It means nothing for me to wear my mask if you do not wear yours. It means nothing for me to establish social distance if you walk up in my space. For me to be safe, you have to be safe. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” This sensibility must guide us through not only the crisis of COVID-19 but also the crisis of living within a fascist, white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist empire in decline.

In the midst of loss and death and suffering, our charge is to figure out what freedom really means — and what our next move is to get there. I do not mean a specific tactic or strategy but the larger vision that we are to embrace. Historian Robin D. G. Kelly talks about “freedom dreams,” which speaks to the need to conjure the radical imagination in order to do the work of liberation. At this moment, we must ask ourselves, what does freedom actually look like? What does justice require? What will the future demand of us to one day declare victory?

The answer to these questions comes through an abolitionist vision. When I speak of an abolitionist vision, I am speaking to the beautifully audacious freedom dreams described by Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, Joy James and so many other brilliant and courageous Black women. They teach us that, to be truly free, we must struggle to create a world where harm is met with restoration, justice is not confused with punishment, and safety is not measured by the number of human beings we imprison. They teach us that a world of police and prisons and cages is not free or humane or sustainable.

But an abolitionist vision is about more than dismantling the prison. It is also about building a world where we work together to meet one another’s needs; a world built on communities of care and networks of nurture; a world in which every living being has access to safety, self-determination, freedom and dignity.

This moment of rebellion has spotlighted the harm caused by our collective investment in blame and punishment rather than restoration and healing. All of the money spent to reform the police, enhance the punishment state and build more prisons did not protect George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It never could. Their tragic deaths reinforced what abolitionists already knew: the problem with policing is not one of good versus bad apples. Our crisis is not rooted in the actions of particular police but the institution of policing itself, which cannot be disentangled from its origins as a mechanism for surveilling, criminalizing, punishing and killing Black bodies.

Some are leveraging this moment to call for criminal justice reform. These measures are designed to coerce us into believing the lie that the prison and its entangled institutions are salvageable, that the institution of policing is fixable, and that the system of capitalism is regulatable. But the truth has been laid bare again and again. They are not. What will secure us is embracing an abolitionist imagination that forces us beyond the posture of reform and dares us to imagine a world of new possibilities.

Read entire article at ROAR