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Liberation For Everybody: A Call For Abolitionist Feminism

DUN-DUN. The theme music starts. Within the next hour, Benson will serve justice to some monster (after Stabler gets a few hits in). The criminal will leave the courtroom in handcuffs to be thrown into a cage, and the girl he victimized will be vindicated. The story is familiar, comforting—once again, he won’t get away with it. The good guys won; the bad guys lost. The real story of the justice system, however, is more complex than that presented on an episode of Law & Order: SVU. Mass incarceration, a vital instrument in the patriarchy’s toolkit, is both empowered and concealed by such simplistic framings of complex questions of ‘crime’ and ‘harm.’
The recent uprisings following the murder of George Floyd by police have—again—forced the country to reckon with policing’s blood-soaked legacy, again reinforcing the impetus of abolitionist feminism. Since the inception of the modern mass-incarceration machine, Black and indigenous thinkers and activists (especially women and femmes) have developed theories and practices for addressing harm beyond the prison system. Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Angela Davis are just a few of the prominent theorists dedicated to fighting for abolition of policing and prison. To achieve widespread liberation from patriarchy, feminism in all of its forms must unweave itself from carcerality.

Complex Relations: Gendered Violence, the Carceral State, and Feminisms

Gendered violence has fostered a complex, counterintuitive relationship between some forms of feminism and the carceral state. “Gendered violence” often refers to sexual assault or domestic abuse, but can apply to any form of harm on the basis of someone’s gender—usually, grounded in the victim’s relationship to womanhood or femininity. Victims in such cases generally have extremely limited options for healing and for justice. The carceral society equips them with one ineffective instrument—the legal system—which frequently fails to yield even its own definition of justice for victims. To consider a common example, a person who reports a rape will have to recount the traumatic experience several times to various authority figures. The person may complete an invasive medical forensic exam as part of a ‘rape kit’—only for the kit to sit, untested, among thousands of other backlogged kits. Even as they reel from their trauma, they know they must tell their story with attention and caution; if they omit a detail or recall it incorrectly, their story may be discounted. They must perform the role of victim as perfectly as they can—alcohol, flirting, drug use, cleavage, and previous sexual encounters are all strikes against them. If they happen to be a member of a criminalized community, if they’re Black, brown, gender non-conforming, transgender, queer, disabled, or not a native speaker of English, the legal system will regard them with suspicion. If they have a criminal record, or if they’re incarcerated, they stand little chance—they cannot be a “victim” if they’re already a “criminal.” Further, the most ‘ideal’ victim doesn’t stand much of a chance if the perpetrator has social, institutional, or economic power. 
Many feminist organizations and activists have advocated for improvements to this system and for expanding the scope of the law. In “Prison Abolition and a Culture of Sexual Difference,” Sarah Tyson identifies the limitations of feminist anti-violence work that depends on the carceral system, as well as the origin of the relationship between the anti-violence movement and incarceration. Rape crisis centers, Tyson explains, initially resisted the hierarchies of adjacent institutions—not only the police, but also social services and hospitals. They instead emphasized care for the victims, education, and community healing. However, crisis centers have struggled to persist; without aligning themselves with the state’s institutions, advocates often cannot raise state or federal funding for these centers (210). 
The state has legitimizing power in addition to financial power. It was not enough to show the personal and societal harms wrought by gendered violence—advocates had to qualify those harms as ‘criminal’ to foster widespread public concern. In The Prison and the Gallows, Marie Gottschalk explains that during the 1980s and 90s, “women’s groups entered into some unsavory coalitions and compromises that bolstered the law-and-order agenda and reduced their own capacity to serve as ideological bulwarks against the rising tide of conservatism” (p. 211). Today, mainstream feminism calls into question the effectiveness and adequacy of these “unsavory coalitions” without questioning whether they need to exist in the first place.


Despite its frequent perception as a solution to gendered violence, the carceral state is a frequent perpetrator. Mariame Kaba argues, “Our current punishment apparatus are sites of terrible and incredible violence. The sites of policing and imprisonment and containment—Dean Spade says this correctly, he says the prison is a serial killer and a rapist.” The state enacts control over individuals’ bodies from the moment an individual interacts with law enforcement. Some reports estimate that a police officer is accused of sexual misconduct once every five days, and the same systems that empower police officers to murder enable sexual abuse. Phoenix Arizona, for example, has one of the deadliest police forces in the nation. The Guardian reported that sexual abuse runs rampant among the same officers. This culture of violence leaves women in Phoenix, especially Black women, vulnerable. The day after Christmas in 2018, police pulled Erica Reynolds over in South Phoenix.// Although the officer found no evidence connecting her to their ongoing drug investigation, he detained Erica and brought her to the station. Officers stripped her and conducted an invasive cavity search that left her injured. She went straight to the emergency room and told the doctors “I think I was raped by police.” After doing a rape kit, the emergency room diagnosed her with sexual assault and called the police, who declined to investigate. This sexual violence traumatized Erica; Phoenix police would go on to arrest her several times after she shared her story on social media and in public, including on the day she had been scheduled to speak before the City Council.
Such cases emphasize the inherent limitations of a feminism that has equal opportunity within the existing social economic structure as its goal. Anarchafeminist He Zhen (何震) asks: “When a few women in power dominate the majority of powerless women, unequal class differentiation is brought into existence among women. If the majority of women do not want to be controlled by men, why would they want to be controlled by women?” Both the officer who raped Erica and the city’s chief of police at the time of the assault were women. A fully female police force could not guarantee the safety of Erica or persons in circumstances like hers; only dismantling the police might do so.
            Erica partnered with a local group for support throughout the case. Notably, she did not work with a traditional feminist anti-violence organization. Instead, activists from a group called Poder In Action supported her through City Council meetings and interviews. Poder’s most prominent work focuses on community education and activism surrounding police violence and accountability. Their mission statement echoes calls like those of He Zhen and other anarchafeminists to overthrow systems of oppression, instead of coopting them: “to build power to disrupt and dismantle systems of oppression and determine a liberated future as people of color in Arizona through our lived experience, leadership development and civic participation.” While Erica ultimately received a $1.6 million settlement, the department has never apologized or admitted to sexual assault.

Prisons As Sites of Gendered Violence

When men are victims of the carceral system’s violence, the violence is nonetheless gendered. Tyson argues that theorists have long criticized the way prisons inherently foster “destructive forms of masculinity.”  Her work takes sexual violence as its primary example, quoting Don Sabo: “Prisons reproduce rape culture, even when women are not present” (97). Sexual violence, Tyson observes, plays a role in establishing power relationships in prisons. Guards benefit from sexual violence between incarcerated people, Tyson explains, because it creates a binary between “victims” and “perpetrators,” so they are less likely to organize against the prison. There are even cases of guards facilitating or committing violence to silence particularly charismatic incarcerated individuals, who could threaten the power structure. “Sexual assault in prison serves multiple interests and, like all sexual assault,” Tyson asserts, “it is not only a crime of interpersonal violence but also a means of social control” (99). Gendered violence in prisons shows that the institution does not protect vulnerable people. Prisons reinforce oppressive power structures by imposing them on each prisoner, systematically stripping them of their humanity.
Incarceration alienates people from their human environments, from the contexts in which they can shape others and are shaped by others—limits outside human interaction to letters, phone calls, and short visits, and restricts even these to punish those incarcerated (and those close to them). What we call a “person” is not delimited to a stagnant body; persons are made up of their environment, what is both inside of them and outside of them, their locations, and their relationships with other persons. By caging and isolating a person, providing them with inadequate healthcare (or no healthcare at all), malnourishing them, and cutting them off from the fullness of human interaction, the carceral system commits uncontainable violence, its scope far surpassing the individual incarcerated.
The carceral system maintains its grasp on formerly incarcerated people by limiting their civic, social, and economic participation. In the U.S., forty-eight states forbid people in prison to vote, and thirty-one of these restrict voting to some degree after release (e.g., in Virginia, Kentucky, and Iowa, a felony conviction permanently prevents a person from voting). The ACLU estimates that 3.85 million people across the country are barred from voting in accordance with such interactions with the justice system. Though voting is not the only way to participate in one’s community, one can appreciate the symbolic significance of this disenfranchisement without necessarily romanticizing electoral politics. Criminal records of any kind keep people from jobs and housing. Discrimination is rampant even in states having laws that prohibit employers and landlords from asking about criminal backgrounds. Each of these restrictions has a unique impact on women and queer or gender non-conforming people, who are more likely than non-queer people to be abandoned or alienated by families from a young age. Incarceration fractures communities.
The carceral system violently reinforces heteronormativity and the gender binary, and punishes people who challenge them. In “Critical Theory, Queer Resistance, and the Ends of Capture,” the authors in conversation draw a direct parallel between abolitionist and queer struggle. “Gender self-determination is abolitionist in its anti-policing ethos and is ultimately an abolitionist political project,” begins Eric Stanley. Queer politics and activism reject the normative, rigid structures that dominantly infringe upon so many aspects of life. Governing entities vie to retain their power over the most intimate details of people’s lives by criminalizing individuals or groups that deviate from the norm in any way. Stanley asserts, “the prison industrial complex is a site of anti-black penal slavery in which gender is violently regulated and trans identities/embodiment are treated as invalid and nonexistent.” Profiling trans women of color, who are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime, exemplifies the carceral state’s role in enforcing normative gender expression. According to the American Bar Association, a survey conducted in LA in 2018 showed that 60% of transgender Latina women reported being stopped by police while running errands, a problem so prevalent that the queer community coined the term “walking while trans” to describe it. Inside prisons, 40% of women identify as queer. It is fitting, then, that the LGBTQIA community has historically been at the forefront of abolitionist theory and action.

A Future Free of Incarceration

The view that prisons, police, and the broader legal system are objective distributors of justice can no longer rely on widespread acceptance. Media outlets like The Appeal and The Intercept, first-hand accounts shared through various social media platforms, organizers and activists like Black Lives Matter, and even TV shows like Orange is the New Black have worked to erode public trust in ‘the system.’ However, it can be daunting to imagine a world without incarceration. The question remains: without police or prisons, what do we do about harmful behavior? I reply that the answer is not singular; there are a thousand alternatives! Without prisons, our communities will have to adapt to less binary conceptions of justice. In “Black Queer Feminism as Praxis, Building an Organization and a Movement,” Janae E. Bonsu of Black Youth Project 100 explains, “Conflict resolution and community accountability through a Black Queer Feminist Lens is sensitive to avoid replicating punitive and carceral logics, which are inherently racist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic” (Beyond Survival 50). Queer theory is one tool in theorizing abolition because it has the capacity for imagining a future that is radically other.

“The future,” José Esteban Muñoz writes in the introduction to Cruising Utopia, “is queerness’s domain” (1). While the book deals with queer experience outside of the carceral system, its commentary on the validity and importance of Utopianism has relevant implications for abolition. Muñoz draws on Ernst Bloch’s distinction between abstract and concrete utopias. While abstract utopias are fantastical, concrete utopias “are relational to historically situated structures” (3). They recognize the underlying potentiality for radically different futures, and, in doing so, help to create those futures. Muñoz points to works of art and mundane objects as sites for this potential future. Perhaps that framework can be applied to abolitionist utopias as well–organizers and educators can encourage reflection on “ornamental” sources of potentiality.  Muñoz treats the “educated hope” of utopia with academic seriousness. Potentiality and actuality are not necessarily mutually exclusive: “A potentiality is a certain mode of nonbeing that is eminent, a thing that is present but not actually existing in the present tense” (9). I propose that queerness and abolition both are “about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world” (Muñoz 1). Queer theory and activism set an example for how imagination and action work together to bring about change.

Abolition is a feminist issue and a queer issue. The overwhelming functions of police and prisons are to punish deviation from strict cultural expectations and to maintain oppressive power structures. Peggy Kornegger says that “Liberation is not an insular experience; it occurs in conjunction with other human beings” (496). This statement has perhaps never been clearer in my lifetime than it is today. As of September 22nd, 2020, at least 1,108 people incarcerated in state or federal prisons have died after contracting the Novel Coronavirus, not including those in immigrant detention. Since Minneapolis PD murdered George Floyd on May 30th, police have brutalized protestors of all genders on the streets of every major city in the US. People who menstruate have reported that the tear gas police routinely use to subdue protestors in 100 cities has caused early periods, bleeding, and even miscarriages. In Austin, police hit a pregnant Black woman in the abdomen and back as they shot into a protest crowd with “non-lethal” ammunition. In New York City, plainclothes cops violently pulled an 18-year-old trans femme named Stickers from the streets into an unmarked van in what looked like a kidnapping. This is not what safety looks like; this is not what liberation looks like. The work of Black Queer Feminists and other women of color has shown that community safety, accountability, and support can flourish outside of carceral systems. A better world is more than possible–it is necessary.

Cailin Potami is a writer and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism M.A. program at The New School for Social Research.

Cailin Potami is a writer and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism M.A. program at The New School for Social Research.

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