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Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Patrisse Cullors on Abolition & Imagining a Society Based on Care

StoryJanuary 31, 2022
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We speak with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors about her new book, “An Abolitionist’s Handbook,” which lays out her journey toward abolition and 12 principles activists can follow to practice abolition, which she describes as the elimination of police, prisons, jails, surveillance and the current court system. “We have to imagine what we would do with these dollars, with these budgets, and they have to really be an imagination that’s grounded in care,” says Cullors. She also speaks about her community organizing in Los Angeles, which fought $3.5 billion worth of jail expansion, and her multi-year contract with Warner Bros. Television Group to create original storytelling content around abolition.

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

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now!

President Biden comes to New York City this Wednesday to meet with the mayor, Eric Adams, about gun violence. He said in a statement the effort will include, quote, “historic levels of funding for cities and states to put more cops on the beat,” among other strategies. This comes as Mayor Adams delivered the eulogy at a funeral Friday attended by thousands of police officers for officer Jason Rivera, who was shot to death along with his partner while responding to a domestic violence call.

Mayor Adams is an African American former police captain who took office this year after campaigning on public safety. Last week, he released his “Blueprint to End Gun Violence” with plans to rely heavily on plainclothes police officers to make gun arrests. The announcement drew alarm, because these officers have a documented history of discriminatory policing through stop-and-frisk and were involved in the police killing of Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and Eric Garner. This is Mayor Adams.

MAYOR ERIC ADAMS: The NYPD is our first line of defense against gun violence. We will make new efforts to strengthen and reinforce it, while continuing our mission to involve the community. We will start by putting more officers on patrol in key neighborhoods throughout the city. We will enhance existing public safety units with new neighborhood safety teams, which will focus on gun violence. We will launch these additional teams in the next three weeks, with deep focus on 30 precincts where 80% of violence occurs, even as the public safety units continue their lifesaving work. In doing this, we will avoid mistakes of the past. These officers will be identifiable as NYPD, they will have body cameras, and they will have enhanced training and oversight.

AMY GOODMAN: Police accountability advocates have called Adams’s 15-page plan a Trojan horse that would be a major setback for efforts to defund the police. It comes amidst a nationwide discussion of how to address public safety without relying on police and jails and prisons. Mayor Adams has also vowed to reinstate solitary confinement at the notorious Rikers Island jail complex, where inhumane conditions during the pandemic have already led to a hunger strike by prisoners, echoed by others incarcerated nationwide.

To discuss this and so much more, we’re joined by Patrisse Cullors, author, educator, artist and abolitionist. She’s the co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a founder of Reform L.A. Jails. Last year she stepped away from her role as executive director of Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation. Patrisse’s new book is just out; it’s titled An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World. She’s also author of her memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.

Patrisse, welcome back to Democracy Now! Congratulations on your new book. Could you start off by defining abolition?

PATRISSE CULLORS: Sure. I mean, it’s a simple definition, which is, abolition is getting rid of police, prisons, jails, surveillance and the current court system as we know it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me just ask a quick question that might be confusing for many. When you have someone like Derek Chauvin or the McMasters [sic], who were found guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery — the McMichaels, a police officer, former police officer, and his son — what should happen to them? Should they be imprisoned?

PATRISSE CULLORS: A good question, and it’s a question that many abolitionists are thinking about and talking about. But I want to say that abolition isn’t devoid of accountability. And so, when we talk about abolition, we don’t say that we aren’t holding people accountable for harm that is caused. But we don’t think the current system of accountability actually meets the needs of the community that is harmed. And so, listening to the current mayor of New York rattle off ’80s and ’90s rhetoric around law and order is deeply disturbing, because we know that the ’80s and ’90s rhetoric and policy only decimated our communities.

And so, when we have these conversations about what we do with white supremacists, what do we do with vigilantes, what do we do with law enforcement, this current system of accountability, the criminal legal system, it doesn’t actually get us to the place where we want to get to, doesn’t transform the communities that we’re in. It doesn’t stop white supremacy. It doesn’t stop vigilante violence.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we started with the headline being New York, because Biden is coming here, and he’s going to meet with Adams, a former police officer, who in fact actually sued the New York Police Department for racism, but we’ll put that aside for a moment. I’m talking to you in Los Angeles.

PATRISSE CULLORS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And you are very active on prison and jail issues in Los Angeles, and you’ve had many victories. Explain what’s going on there and how you fit that into the abolitionist framework.

PATRISSE CULLORS: Of course. Well, we’ve spent almost two decades here in Los Angeles challenging what was going to be a jail expansion effort that would have been a $3.5 billion — not million, $3.5 billion — jail plan here in Los Angeles. And in that challenging, we were met with little to no attention. For a long time, the County Board of Supervisors told us, “These jails are being built. This is for public safety.” And then, as organizing does, it challenged and changed many of the elected officials who were sitting on the board, and we effectively stopped those jails from being built.

But not only did we stop the jails from being built, we really created a new model around how we vision Los Angeles County that can focus on things like mental health, focus on things like having our community have access to green space, having our community have access to mental healthcare, having our community have access to food, housing, jobs. And so, we have really pushed and challenged both the county and the city here in Los Angeles to recreate a model here in L.A. that does put abolition first, does put care first in the city. And frankly, we’re winning.

I’m deeply concerned about the move to continue to fund police departments as a way to deal with harm and violence. We’ve seen time and time again that it actually doesn’t work. What works is when communities have access to their basic needs, when communities have access to being able to be full, dignified human beings.

AMY GOODMAN: In An Abolitionist’s Handbook, you draw on your father’s experience in AA, the 12 steps, to lay out the 12 Steps to Transforming Yourself and the World. Talk about that.

PATRISSE CULLORS: You know, I wanted to write a book that could both help the person who’s on their journey towards abolition or confused about abolition, but also for those of us who have been in abolition work for a long time. Much of the conversation of abolition has a lot to do with the ending of the current criminal legal system, but I believe that abolition is more than that. Abolition has everything to do with how we engage with each other, how we treat each other. If we’re living in the current environment of what I call an economy of punishment, where our interactions are really undergirded by vengeance and punishment, then I’m really calling for something else, which is how do we relate to and build an economy of care. And that’s an abolitionist framework, one that really centers the care of human beings and all living beings. And so, this book gives — charts that, with both my real-life experiences; also I look to different activists, so every chapter ends with a leader both either living or an ancestor that has practiced abolition in real time. I also tell my readers to look at other people’s books. And so, abolition is not something we do individually; abolition is something that we do inside of community. And I’m really trying to push the readers to live inside of that practice.

AMY GOODMAN: Your book that you wrote, that I consider one of the best books that I have read, When They Call You a Terrorist, where you talk about your brother Monte, who deals with mental health issues — talk about how that fits into your abolitionist critique of what we’re seeing right now and what jails and prisons do.

PATRISSE CULLORS: Sure. You know, I was listening to your segment about Leonard Peltier right before and was moved to tears, hearing his plea to us on the outside to get him the support, get him out of what he is calling hell. I can’t tell you how many times, as a young person, that I had to get those types of letters from my brother or my father or different family members of mine, telling me that what’s inside of our jail system is beyond inhumane, it’s torture. And I grew up reading those letters. I grew up thinking there has to be more than this.

My brother, who I’m now the primary caregiver for, who suffers from severe mental illness, wasn’t diagnosed in a hospital. He wasn’t diagnosed in a treatment center. In fact, he was diagnosed in Twin Towers, one of the worst jail facilities in the world, that, quote, “treat” people with mental illness. I understood at a young age that what we have now, jails and prisons, these are not things — these places are not places that actually rehabilitate. These places actually torture our family members. These places are places that our family members don’t deserve to be in. And so, this critique that I have is a critique that started inside of me as a young child. And I was really blessed and honored to learn about abolition from Critical Resistance, founded by people like Angela Davis and Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, whom I consider mentors of mine in this abolitionist movement.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to New York City’s new mayor, Eric Adams, who’s meeting with Biden this week to deal with increasing gun violence. Shooting incidents in New York are up 24% this year compared to the same period last year. During his campaign, Mayor Adams came under fire from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party for endorsing what they said was solitary confinement, but what he termed “punitive segregation.” This is what he said.

MAYOR ERIC ADAMS: For people to continue to say Eric supports solitary confinement, that is just a lie. I support punitive segregation. I am not going to be in a city where dangerous people assault innocent people, go to jail and assault more people. … If you are violent, you must be removed from population so that you don’t inflict violence on other people. That’s clear.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s New York Mayor Adams. Patrisse Cullors, your response?

PATRISSE CULLORS: If our goal is to rehabilitate human beings who cause harm, if our goal is to transform those human beings, we have to actually treat them with compassion and care. Doesn’t mean that we don’t hold them accountable for what they’ve done. All we’ve seen solitary confinement do, or what he’s calling punitive segregation do, is deteriorate human beings. And I believe the goal that we have, as people who are public figures, elected officials, is to transform the person who’s caused harm, and also transform the conditions that they come from. Putting more cops, more law enforcement in the streets doesn’t actually transform the conditions that currently exist in our communities.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you talk a lot about nonreform reforms, and you talk about transformation. Talk more about transformation.

PATRISSE CULLORS: Sure. I want to talk about why I believe in nonreformist reforms. And, you know, much of that really comes from an abolitionist critique of how we’ve dealt with this conversation of law enforcement for years. I heard the mayor speak about body cameras, as if body cameras stops police violence. In fact, we’ve seen here in South Central L.A. law enforcement turn off their body cameras. We’ve seen law enforcement still kill while wearing a body camera. And so, a body camera doesn’t actually stop the things that we need to transform.

When we talk about nonreformist reforms, we’re really calling for a divestment out of policing and an investment into the communities who are most harmed, the communities who are dealing with poverty, communities that are dealing with issues of joblessness and houselessness, especially right now during this pandemic. We don’t need more law enforcement, Amy. We actually need our communities to have access to housing, jobs and healthy food. And that is going to be our way towards transformation.

AMY GOODMAN: When you write about the role of imagination in the abolitionist’s work, you cite the work of Adrienne Maree Brown and how she reminds us we must always be, quote, “cultivating the muscle of radical imagination needed to dream beyond fear.” Elaborate on that.

PATRISSE CULLORS: Sure. One of the most egregious acts of living inside of a white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal system is that it’s taken our imagination away. Whenever I speak to people about abolition, one of the first guttural reactions is, “Well, what about the murderers, and what about the rapists?” as if there aren’t other people who are languishing inside of these jails, people with drug addiction, people with mental health disorders. We’ve lacked this imagination. We believe that police and prisons as we know it have existed for millions of years. It hasn’t. It’s a short system, and it’s a system that hasn’t worked for the majority of us.

And so, we are calling, abolitionists are calling, for us to imagine. Imagine a world without police. Imagine a world without prisons. When we did the work here in Los Angeles to stop the $3.5 billion jail plan, the first question we asked our communities: What would you do with $3.5 billion? Let me tell you, not a one human being said, “We would build more jails and prisons.” And so, we have to imagine what we would do with these dollars, with these budgets, and they have to really be an imagination that’s grounded in care.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about the role of those who have been incarcerated, who have experienced the brutal impacts of prison and jail, being the leaders of the abolition movement. Can you talk more about that?

PATRISSE CULLORS: Sure. I think a lot about groups, you know, that I created, like Dignity and Power Now, who are really led by incarcerated people and their family members, groups like Initiate Justice, who is doing statewide work here in California, really challenging sentencing here in California. And I think about work being done by prison feminists, Success Stories, an amazing program that was created inside California state prisons, using bell hooks to challenge men inside prisons to be feminists. There is so much work being led by incarcerated people and their family members, who have told us, “This system that we are inside of does not work for us.” I just — the words of Leonard keep — they’re so resonant in me right now. I see calls for human rights activists to do more. And part of that doing more is calling for abolition.

AMY GOODMAN: In An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World, can you talk about the guiding questions? You end each of your 12 chapters with this series of tips and this set of guiding questions.

PATRISSE CULLORS: Yes. I thought about what I would have wanted as a young abolitionist. So much of the text when I was growing up was very academic. And while I enjoyed those texts, I really wanted more workbooks, more handbooks, you know, something where I can just like write in the margins and highlighter up and practice with my friends.

And I don’t take for granted that abolition is something that people can be really scared of, that people could be really intimidated by. So I wanted to end each chapter with a set of questions that people could ask themselves, ask their loved ones, something that can happen around a dinner table, something that can happen in a Zoom room or in a staff meeting. And I found a lot of joy posing those questions. They’re questions that I go back to. I’ve been relistening to the book, feeling really grateful for these principles, because they’re principles that I try to live by on a daily basis.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, can you talk about the projects that you’re working on now, as you move on from the Black Lives Matter movement, your project with Warner Bros., working on a scripted project about cannabis, others that look at Black women leaders, and the toll, you say, “of living under a system that doesn’t see us, or makes us hyper-visible and also hyper-invisible at the same time”?

PATRISSE CULLORS: Sure. I’m really interested in using the storytelling projects that I’m going to be working on to talk about Black women, Black women organizers in particular, Black women artists, and having us be protagonists in stories that we’re usually not protagonists in. I’m also very interested aestheticizing abolition. White supremacy and patriarchy has aestheticized itself. It’s become a cultural project, not just a political project. So I want to do the same with abolition. I want to show people that abolition is not just a theory inside a book, but it’s something that we can practice, and it’s something that is culturally relevant for this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much, Patrisse Cullors, on being with us and your new book, An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World. Patrisse Cullors is The New York Times best-selling author of When They Call You a Terrorist. She’s an author, educator, artist and abolitionist, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a founder of Reform L.A. Jails, last year stepping away from her role as executive director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation. And we will link to your writings and others, as you move on.

That does it for our show. We have a job opening: human resources manager. Learn more and apply at democracynow.org.

Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke and so many more. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us. Remember, wearing a mask is an act of love.

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