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Scholars Angela Davis, Gina Dent & Beth Richie on Why the World Needs “Abolition. Feminism. Now.”

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Abolitionist scholars Angela Davis, Beth Richie and Gina Dent discuss their new book, published Tuesday, titled “Abolition. Feminism. Now.” As abolition becomes increasingly mainstream following the racial justice uprisings of 2020, they argue feminism is at the root of the politics and practice of abolition, which they define as the elimination of carceral and interpersonal gender-based violence paired with social investments in more “opportunities for freedom” and safety within communities. The book, which was also co-authored by scholar and activist Erica Meiners, highlights feminist histories — particularly from queer, grassroots and women of color — that have been erased but are central to the movement. “We want to be able to imagine a world in which that violence has been reduced and eventually eradicated,” says Davis. “Abolition feminism is the perspective that allows us to move in that direction.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

A surge of COVID-19 cases in prisons and jails nationwide is drawing attention to dire conditions behind bars. More than 600 men at a federal prison in Mississippi — a third of the prison’s population — tested positive for COVID-19 this week. Infections among people jailed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, shot up by more than 500% in the last two weeks. Many prisons are now locked down with visits cut off.

At the massive Rikers Island jail in New York City, a group of prisoners went on hunger strike to protest their treatment during the pandemic. Most are held there because they can’t afford bail and have been held for months amid court backlogs. Hunger striker Ervin Bowins described some of the conditions that led to the protest in a voicemail recorded by his attorney.

ERVIN BOWINS: We are currently on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week lockdown. This particular mod that we’re in now, Mod 4 Lower North, we’ve been isolated about 15 days and counting, supposedly due to COVID protocols. As we know, the CDC guideline states we have to be in isolation for five days once we receive a COVID positive testing. We are on our 16th day currently of isolation. We are not receiving law library services. This is hindering our due process. As you can imagine, court dates are currently constantly being adjourned, bail hearings and motion hearings, as well. We are not receiving communication in a timely fashion, as well. So we’re basically here stuck in limbo.

AMY GOODMAN: Protests echoing the demands of the hunger strikers say the only solution is to close Rikers. Instead of moving people held there to other facilities, they’re calling for the abolition of jails and prisons.

This is the focus of a new book published this week by four feminist scholars and activists titled Abolition. Feminism. Now. One of the authors is Angela Davis, who wrote the 2003 landmark book Are Prisons Obsolete? and has worked on this issue for decades, stretching back to when she herself was incarcerated as an activist in the 1970s, which she also explores in a new edition of her autobiography, also published this week. We’ll talk more about that later.

But first, Angela Davis joins us now, along with two of her three co-authors on this book. Angela Davis is the world-renowned abolitionist, author, activist and distinguished professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Also with us in Oakland is Gina Dent, associate professor of feminist studies, history of consciousness and legal studies at UC Santa Cruz and an advocate for human rights and prison abolition. And in Chicago, Beth Richie joins us, head of the Department of Criminology, Law and Justice and professor of Black studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her scholarly and activist work focuses on women’s experience of violence and incarceration. They wrote the book with a fourth colleague, the scholar and activist Erica Meiners, who has written about confronting sexual harm and ending state violence.

Congratulations to you all on the publication of this new book, Abolition. Feminism. Now. Professor Richie, we’re going to begin with you. Can you talk about what an abolitionist feminist is and link that to the whole idea of what it means to be an anti-carceral feminist?

BETH RICHIE: Yes. Good morning, and thank you for having us.

We’re super excited about the publication of this book, because, in fact, what we’re trying to do here is, in a very straightforward, simple, using the life experiences of activists all over the country, bring together the essential — the essential connection between feminist activism and abolitionist praxis. That is to say, we believe, from our work, from our study, from our discussion with people both inside prisons and jails, detention facilities, and our work outside in communities, that it is essential to take up the questions of abolition, of policing, of prisons, of surveillance strategies — it’s essential to take up that work from the perspective of feminism.

And the best example that I can think of from my own work is what happens when we don’t do that to criminalize survivors — that is, people who end up incarcerated or otherwise under control of the carceral state, people who experience gender violence, who turn sometimes to the state for protection, and in fact the state turns on them, because we know — we know that one of the institutions that uses violence most is in fact the carceral state. So carceral feminism is the turning to that violent institution, the carceral state, to solve the problem of gender-based violence, and we realize that the result of that is more people who experience gender-based violence, in fact, detained, incarcerated, serving long sentences in U.S. correctional facilities.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Richie, you mentioned your own work. You have had experience teaching at a state prison in Chicago. Could you talk about how that’s informed your views on this issue?

BETH RICHIE: Yes. I am part of an amazing group of scholar activists, cultural workers, who teach at Stateville prison, maximum-security prison, Illinois Department of Corrections. We go to Stateville in part because we believe that all people inside deserve opportunities for education. We go there week after week, when we can, when there’s not a lockdown. We go week after week to try to bring both the resources of our academic institutions to the students who are inside, but also we go there to learn from the students inside about what struggle means, about what freedom would look like, about what anti-carceral feminism or the possibility of abolition would mean for them and their families, what it would have meant for their lives.

The book Abolition. Feminism. Now. really speaks to the ways that we have to learn from people inside, the way that, as people on the outside, we have an obligation to bring the resources that we have, whatever they might be, in service of their freedom. Being part of the teaching collective that goes inside Stateville prison, just like all over the country where people are going to try to bring opportunities for education, teaching and learning, mutual, reciprocal opportunities, it’s an amazing opportunity. I think Abolition. Feminism. Now. speaks to the importance of that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to bring in Angela Davis, as well. Angela, you’ve been writing about this, about abolition, for decades. Could you talk about the importance of this book and how the climate in the country has been changing in terms of discussing this carceral state?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, first of all, thank you for inviting us to appear on the program this morning.

And yes, Juan, you’re right, I have been writing about this issue, along with many others. I’ve been an activist around these issues, along with many, many others. Sometimes we feel as if we sound like a broken record. We’ve been talking about it for so long. But, of course, this is a different era, when issues of abolition have actually entered into mainstream discourse. And when we began to write this book, it was before the pandemic, and we had a very different book in mind.

But precisely as a consequence of the developments over the last two years, we think it is even more important to insist that abolitionist strategies also be feminist strategies, that we assume as broad a perspective as possible. I mean, we’re not simply talking about myopically examining what is happening in jails and prisons. And, of course, that’s a huge issue, so I probably should not have even used that word, “myopic.” But we’re thinking about the interconnectedness, the interrelationality between the predicament in jails and prisons and detention facilities, the violence of the police, the intimate violence that happens to so many women and gender-nonconforming people all over the world. That is, as a matter of fact, the most pervasive form of violence in the world. And we want to be able to imagine a different world. We want to be able to imagine a world in which that violence has been reduced and eventually eradicated. And we think that abolition feminism is the perspective that allows us to move in that direction.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Gina Dent, if you can talk about the history of abolition and feminism, and then talk about the inverse, if you will? What does it means to be a carceral feminist?

GINA DENT: Sure. And good morning. Thank you for having us and for paying attention to this issue and this book.

Yeah, well, the history of abolition, we argue in this book, has actually been very much concerned with feminism. In fact, one of the things we try to demonstrate in the book genealogically is that we have left out, in a lot of the records of contemporary abolition, the feminist components. So, if we’re thinking about this modern abolitionist moment, which we date, as others do, from the period of Attica and the uprising, we can think about the many different ways in which the participants who were engaged came from, obviously, communities of color but also came from communities where women were prominent in the organizations, and that prominence disappears as we render that history into the present. And so, we’re really trying both to uncover that, not only to credit those who were participating, but to redress the problem of omitting those presences and those analyses and those understandings that were generated through feminism. In other words, an abolitionism that accounts for itself only through thinking about one part of the problem is not sufficient. What we’re saying is that the strongest abolitionist work has been abolition feminist work, and yet we often disappear the feminist nature of that practice.

We’re not so much concerned with whether or not things are labeled as abolitionist or feminist. We’re more concerned with documenting the practices and helping people to understand the ways that they can participate and really focusing on the problem of addressing harm and violence in our society. We’re focusing, as abolitionists do, on the causes of violence and on harm, but we’re simultaneously paying attention to interpersonal and state violences. And those harms are the harms that carceral feminism, or an approach to feminism which sometimes is linked to glass ceiling feminisms or other kinds of feminisms that see from above, is really a way for us to turn to the nature of feminism, which must engage with the other forms of violence. And we know, as Beth started to point out here, that feminists have often called on the state to do the work of punishment. And yet so many people have suffered at the hands of the state, both as victims and survivors and as those who then are incarcerated in the wake of that violence. And so we want to pay attention to both of those things, and we feel that we can’t do abolitionist work without both of those things simultaneously.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to turn back to professor Beth Richie. Could you, concretely, for those people who cannot envision the idea of abolishing prisons — you’ve said that abolition is about the building of community capacity, not just about the closing of prisons. Could you elaborate on that?

BETH RICHIE: Yes. Thank you. We spend a lot of time in the book talking about “both/and.” And what we mean by that is it is critically important that we keep our eye on and engage in campaigns to reduce mass criminalization in this country in all of its forms — that is, reduce the number of people going into jails and prisons, release people from detention facilities, eliminate the mass spreading of things like electronic monitoring and house arrest practices, etc. We really need to decrease the number of people who are under the control of the criminal legal system in this country. That’s an important goal.

At the same time, we have to make sure that we do that in a way that keeps people safe, and safe not only from incident-based violence but safe to live their lives in their communities in ways that they choose to, where they have opportunity, where they can create relationships, where they’re free to move without worry in the public space that they occupy. And we have to make sure that we are addressing the root causes of the incarcerations and the violences so that we’re building a world where people are free, the kind of opportunity that I just talked about, where people can move in their space, can raise their children, can get an education, can afford their housing.

So we use the “both/and” metaphor in the book to talk about, yes, campaigns to close Rikers, campaigns to eliminate cash bail, and work that is looking much more at the root causes of suffering and pain and harm and violences, so that we don’t ever have to rely on those kinds of systems — not that they work anyway — but never have to rely on those kinds of systems as if they bring safety and freedom and opportunity. So, we’re really not — we are indeed talking about decarceration, but we’re also talking about building opportunities for freedom. And that’s what a feminist analysis brings to the project of abolition. And, indeed, feminists who are looking to create freedom and opportunity, not just safety from harm, have to be engaged in some of these abolitionist struggles.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, the pandemic has been a kind of X-ray on inequality in the world, and we certainly see that when it comes to the prisons. We began the segment by talking about the surge in COVID cases in prisons and jails around the country, and we played a clip of a hunger striker right now inside Rikers, where many are protesting the conditions, that have been worsened under the pandemic. You have at the massive Rikers jail facility the call now for — by the city and the state to build other jails in other — in the boroughs to shut down Rikers. But the abolitionists are saying, “We don’t want other jails built.” If you can respond to that, Professor Richie?

BETH RICHIE: Yeah, I want to also say, when you were playing that clip and the discussion about what a lockdown means, what an abolitionist feminist analysis allows us to do is also understand that the widespread policy of lockdown, both inside facilities and in the community, leaves people at risk. So, in the world of gender-based violence, for example, a lockdown, having to stay at home, having to cut off contact with community who might offer support, you see, there is a parallel danger that’s created when we lock down inside, of course, but also when we lock down in community for those people where home is not safe. So, a stay-at-home policy to create safety doesn’t work for people who experience gender-based violence in their homes, right? I just want to make that point. And that’s what an abolition feminist analysis allows us to do: make those connections.

In terms of what I call the movement of a prison nation ideology, from one jail to another jail, to a maximum facility, to house arrest, to use electronic monitoring, to build community-based jails, to do gender-specific or -sensitive programs inside — all of the efforts that are under the guise of reform that allow somehow people to believe that a kinder, gentler space of incarceration is a better place distract us from the real goal of abolition. That is to say, moving people out of one space of confinement into another space of confinement is what we call in abolitionist work reformist reform. That is, it doesn’t do anything to set people free. And that needs to be our goal. That always needs to be our goal, to figure out where we can open up the opportunity for liberation, not replace one system of domination and control with another. And that, I think, is what the critique is on the ground.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your book also addresses the issue of abolition not just within the context of the United States but an international framework. I’m wondering, Gina Dent, if you could talk about some of the abolition strategies that you look at in other countries, as well.

GINA DENT: Yes. Well, fortunately, this work has always been international. When we think about even the campaign to free Angela, its internationalist component was so key to her freedom today. And we wanted to make sure to build on the work that we’ve been able to be exposed to all of these decades with people in other parts of the world, who have come to the same conclusions, that the spread of the global capitalist relationship to the prison-industrial complex is not something that anyone can and should support, that the development of supposedly nicer, more modern jails and prisons is not a mark of the increasing fairness of society. And so, we draw on campaigns in South Africa, in Brazil, in Australia, in the U.K., where people have been coming to similar conclusions, but we try to lift up especially the work that has been feminist and has been responsive both to domestic violence and other forms of gendered harm but has also been engaged with feminist practice in thinking about those issues.

And we are sensitive to the fact that in many places around the world we are often asked to speak about abolition as if it comes only from inside of the U.S. But we have, of course, been inspired throughout our work together by organizations like Sisters Inside in Brisbane, Australia, Sisters Uncut in the U.K. And these organizations do, in the case of Sisters Inside in Australia, service work for people who are currently incarcerated and recently released, but they also do legal work. They also do work to support people as they are freed, because, to build on what Beth already established, we do want people out of prison, but they also need to get services that allow them to stay in the free world, because many of the reasons why people are in prison in the first place is because of what they did not have access to. And so, we’ve been inspired, especially by work in Australia, by the fact that there’s a possibility to work across the prison walls. Sisters Inside has been a model because it has been able to have people on its governing board who are serving time, along with people who are in the free world. And that kind of work is inspiring, because it’s something that has been almost impossible to achieve, for example, in the United States. We’re also documenting the work of Sisters Uncut in the U.K. They have been incredibly active in doing work to talk about the problem of a society removing funding and defunding so many of the things that people need. And instead, they want us to defund in criminalization, defund in incarceration and defund in the systems that are not attending to and not enabling us to improve our society.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I’m wondering, as we look at the two of you at home — the pandemic, you know, gives a kind of lens on the world that’s very different right now — if you could comment on — I mean, the two of you are longtime partners, Gina Dent and Angela Davis. What was it like — is this your first book together? And what was it like to write it under pandemic conditions?

GINA DENT: Do you want to take that?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, let me point out that the idea for the book came from Erica and Beth. They had been talking about the possibility of such a book for a while, and they presented us with the opportunity to join this collective. However, it was before the pandemic started. So we imagined ourselves meeting in Chicago, inviting the two of them to Northern California and spending time working together in that way. And then, of course, the pandemic hit. And our communication has been entirely over Zoom. We have not seen them in person since we actually began seriously to work on this book.

The pandemic also meant that the book would have to address different dynamics. We witnessed the entrance of abolition into mainstream discourse in a way we had never imagined to actually experience ourselves. And let me say that now that the mass mobilizations have died down, people are thinking, perhaps, about what might be the lasting impact of this moment, this particular historical conjuncture. We feel that the ideas that we offer in this book will be helpful to the process of bringing about a radical change.

And let me make the point that we all see the feminism that — the feminist practice, the feminist theory as an antiracist and anti-capitalist international feminism, and we hope that it will help people to think a bit more deeply and a bit more expansively about the possibilities of a future without police, without jails and prisons, and a future without the kind of pandemic violence that we are currently experiencing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to —

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I just wanted to ask Professor Beth Richie about the — all four of you were active in Critical Resistance, the organization that began to bring abolition into the public light in the 1990s. For those younger viewers and listeners or others who may not know about Critical Resistance, could you talk about it and its significance?

BETH RICHIE: Critical Resistance was amazingly significant — still is — as the national organization, really comprised of activists both inside and outside, who demand that abolition is possible. It’s not only possible, it is our way to freedom. And it has a long history — much of it, we chronicle in the book — of making sure that we keep our focus on root causes of mass criminalization, that we see a hope and a joy in the possibility of abolition. It helped to sort of name things, like the prison-industrial complex. It brought together people from all over the country, multigenerational, people from different ethnicities, different countries, led by women, many women of color, a visibility of queer people, to say that we are going to unite as a national movement to end the tyranny of mass criminalization in this country.

Importantly, in the book, we link the history of Critical Resistance with the history of another major organization in this country in terms of shaping our analysis of freedom, which is INCITE! And there’s, I think, a — this is one of the first places where INCITE!, which is an organization that came together to name and resist state violence as a form of gender violence — that Critical Resistance and INCITE!, as an abolitionist and a radical feminist organization, comes together. And we talk about how that happens and how that shapes the work of abolition feminism now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you all for being with us. Abolition. Feminism. Now. by Angela Davis, Gina Dent and Beth Richie. Erica Meiners is the fourth author of this book. Angela Davis, the world-renowned abolitionist, author, activist and distinguished professor emerita at University of California, Santa Cruz; Gina Dent, associate professor of feminist studies, history of consciousness and legal studies at UC Santa Cruz; and Beth Richie, head of the Department of Criminology and Justice and professor of Black studies at the University of Illinois.

When we come back, we’ll talk to Angela Davis about a second book, the newly updated edition of her 1974 autobiography, edited by Toni Morrison. Stay with us.

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