The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and more Black Americans revealed once again how incapable our current systems are of protecting life and creating safe communities. As prison and police abolition hit the mainstream as necessary alternatives, it’s important to remember that abolitionist work must also happen in our everyday engagement with others. Engaging with abolition on an interpersonal level includes fighting against carceral logic, integrating accountability into your response, and affirming community support. It’s about forming more thoughtful and compassionate responses. Here are a few ways you might consider implementing these practices.
We are more comfortable blaming someone else than we are acknowledging a system breakdown or acknowledging our own personal faults.Indigo Mateo
Punishment seeks retribution for harm, whereas abolition urges us to look toward transformation and restoration. SESP senior Soteria Reid points out that one way to subvert this logic is by asking, “What caused this?” This question pushes us to not just react to harm but take steps to understand why harm occurred and prevent it from being replicated.
Artist and activist Indigo Mateo recommends reframing and challenging thoughts that center blame and revenge. “It’s so funny how my mind so quickly goes to ‘who can I blame for this,’ because as humans we are more comfortable blaming someone else than we are acknowledging a system breakdown or acknowledging our own personal faults,” she says.
Thoughts like “Who took my keys?” or “This person didn’t text me back so I’m not going to text them back,” although seemingly mundane, use the same logic also used for victim-blaming or perpetuating carceral punishment. Blaming someone for not texting back instead of inquiring why they didn’t text back is akin to our justice system, which seeks to punish someone for a crime without inquiring the cause behind why it was committed.
Pre-colonial traditions can also inform our responses to conflict. Dr. Catherine “Kinewesquao” Richardson, therapist and director of First Peoples studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, highlights a current Metis tribal practice of bringing in an elder to mediate issues that arise through a ceremony.
“What the elder presence does is to say ‘I’m not trying to get you to admit, but…I’m here to help you and show people…you are worthy of being part of this team,” Richardson says.
Bringing in a mediator creates an environment where the person who enacted the harm is able to reflect and have a conversation about the harm they caused, possibly paving the way for new actions in the future. Mateo notes that it’s also about removing the victim-wrongdoer binary.
“We know that people in prison, some of them were survivors before they were ever harm doers,” she says. This response centers accountability and healing for everyone involved.
“Accountability means really understanding your impact…owning that impact and harm and being willing to make amends,” says Ching-in Chen, assistant professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell.
Part of owning that impact is acknowledging the vulnerability that it takes for another person to let you know that they have been hurt.
“The first thing that I always do is say, ‘You didn’t have to tell me that, and I am grateful to you for bringing it up,’” says Reid.
Depending on the magnitude of the hurt that the other person feels, there might be specific actions that they need you to take. Other times, it might be up to you to reflect on how that hurt was caused and what will be needed from you to make sure it doesn’t happen again. This is a very vulnerable thing to do, and feelings of guilt and shame may pop up.
Reid’s advice: “I recognize feelings of shame that are coming up and that it’s valid for me to feel ashamed [but] it’s not about me. I try to move past the shame into constructive reflection over my biases that caused someone else to experience harm from me.”
During that process, community support is vital to the transformation that has to occur. Before harm happens, it’s important to reflect on the shared values within a community or space.
“When we can live together with shared values, then we don’t have to look outside to institutions and structures,” says Dr. Richardson. Forming those shared values involves establishing boundaries and communicating expectations. That way, mutual trust and understanding are built within the foundations of relationships.
One way that Chen reflects on this is by asking themself: “What agreements have I made with them, am I living up to those agreements and if not, owning that, naming it, and then how can I do better?” By doing this, they are not only able to reaffirm shared expectations and values, but also able to reflect on how they currently engage with their community.
Community and Healing
“When we can live together with shared values, then we don’t have to look outside to institutions and structures.”Dr. Catherine Richardson
A core aspect of actively practicing abolition is building a community. Reid says community is “a space where mistakes can be made and tension can be had but there’s also room for grace and growth.” Building life-sustaining institutions begins with forming spaces where we can practice more thoughtful actions.
Like much of abolition work, building a community requires imagination and planning. As Chen puts it, “You can’t really do community organizing on an effective level without being visionary and framing your imagination.” They say that a useful way to practice re-imagining is by forming safety plans with your community. The Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective suggests pod-mapping, a process of designating a group of people that you can call upon for support during violent or abusive experiences. This is a great way to plan for the future and it also helps identify the people and spaces conducive to one’s growth.
One question that may come up in attempts to heal is: what happens when harm has occurred and trust can’t be rebuilt? The answer to this is specific to the situation and people involved. However, Mateo says that “a survivor’s entry point to healing is their agency…healing will not start until I make the conscious choice to do something for myself.”
Additionally, it’s necessary to acknowledge that trust may not be regained and that people within the community might have to engage differently with each other. Much like the harm caused by the prison system, merely removing someone doesn’t spark healing for anyone. And in certain situations, Mateo explains that facilitating healing may require that each person have someone from their community to support and advocate for them.
“Just because I don’t want to sit in [a healing] circle with them doesn’t mean that their healing cannot continue, doesn’t mean that in five years they can be a transformed person, and maybe I would want to sit in that circle with that person.”
Everyone is at different places in their abolition journey. Reid advises to “be self-aware of where you do depend on carceral methods for a solution; don’t be ashamed but [ask] ‘how can I lean on something different’ and get involved in building it.”
The work that abolition calls us to do also calls us to take care of ourselves and have grace for ourselves and others. Abolition is a multi-layered path that involves all of us having the courage and imagination to take a new step forward.