This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2020

We want abolition in our lifetime

Activists are demanding an end to prisons and police

Syrus Marcus Ware


We are living in revolutionary times. The ground is shifting beneath us every day. We are seeing a radical shift in our collective consciousness about ideas pertaining to abolition and defunding the police. We are beginning to awaken to the idea that we can solve issues of conflict, crisis, and harm in ways that do not rely on the prison industrial complex and police systems.

Far from being new, these concepts have had recent groundswells globally. From “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police” being painted big and bold across city streets, to colonial statues being toppled, to people organizing collective care circles and mutual aid networks that ensure no one is left behind—including organizing from home and from beds—this movement is so vast and so impressive a footprint that it can literally be seen from space. ( reported that a satellite was able to see Black Lives Matter painted on the road in Washington, D.C. from space.)

Abolition offers a possibility for self-determination, the ability for all of us to live the lives that we choose and that we want. It offers a possibility for the end of slavery—something that was technically abolished but continues through the prison system. Abolishing police and prisons allows us to finally complete the project of the abolition of slavery—and our children’s children will be born free from that system of domination, punishment, and control.

Abolition is being taken up in the most unlikely of places—from the playground, to the family dinner table, to Cosmopolitan magazine. More importantly, it is firmly supported by a bedrock of abolitionist struggle that is 500 years strong on Turtle Island. We are fighting for this new system to be a more just one, one that is rooted in justice and freedom. We are moving steadily towards abolition and our victory seems close and sure. Now is a time to reflect on the history of the abolition movement and what the future could look like if we reach abolition in our lifetime.

Abolition, which is necessarily rooted in Indigenous resurgence, disability justice, and anti-capitalism, is based on the not-so-radical idea that we could treat each other like human beings deserving of love and care and as beings that are inherently valuable. It’s this idea that we don’t need prisons or police to keep our communities safe or secure. It suggests that we could reinvest these resources into community to ensure all of our basic needs are being met. Abolition is rooted in the idea that we could stop relying on punitive measures to solve moments of distress, interpersonal disagreements, and harm. That we could stop caging living beings. I spent a few weeks in August, in the immediate months after revolutionary action sparked in the streets across Turtle Island following the killings of George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet, speaking with abolitionists from coast to coast about the movement to defund the police and about their wildest abolitionist dreams for the near future. What I found out was not surprising: there are expansive networks of abolitionists, with new additions springing up regularly. I found that these are coordinated and ready to give abolition its final push into place.

I spoke with Morgan Switzer-Rodney, one half of BlackChat, a podcast focused on intergenerational learnings and Black liberatory culture based in western Canada. She explained, “I think it’s something like above 50 percent of Canada is in favour of defunding the police. And so that’s really great. We see different cities in the states who are actually having whole defunding programs becoming a thing. And I can’t look at those things and be like, ‘Wow, there’s nothing to hope for here.’”

Rajean Hoilett is a member of the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project. I spoke to him about this moment and how he came to be involved in the abolition movement. “When the carceral system hit me personally, when my brother was locked up and serving a two-year sentence, I had to navigate how hard it was to continue to exist, to continue to maintain a connection with him. I was moved to use those skills, to use my practice as a community organizer to contribute to this movement specifically for prisoners.” He joined the project in December 2019, at first focusing on the exploitative pricing scheme that Bell Canada holds as the provider for prison calls in Canada. After the pandemic hit, the group amplified its efforts. “The pandemic has opened up everyone’s imagination into what kind of world is possible. And the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project has been very well placed as a group that has started to do activism and started to do organizing and bringing people together around this particular issue.”

The Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project has organized several COVID-safe protests during the spring and early summer of 2020 aimed at pushing for decarceration and abolition. Importantly, they used the newfound time and online world that the COVID lockdown brought about to conduct a weekly series of webinars on abolitionist topics from how to get involved in organizing to Black liberation to Indigenous resurgence. These resources aim to build up community capacity to fight for change. “I think what’s beautiful about abolition is that we hold space for everybody. And there’s definitely some space for leadership to be taken and for folks who have been doing this work to help guide all of us as we’re moving forward.” As much as drawing on experienced organizers, there’s room for everyone in this movement. Hoilett continues, “As we’ve been talking to people, as new people have been getting involved in our organizing, folks are like, ‘Oh, I need to read up on transformative justice, and I need to do all my readings about abolition, and I need to do this, and I need to do that, in order to feel like I’m comfortable enough to organize.’” Hoilett makes note that while people feel the need to be completely prepared, the movement encourages people of all knowledge levels to participate, “We need your energy, we need your ideas, we need your thoughts,” he says. The group has provided these resources in a multitude of ways; as well as the weekly webinars they’ve also been organizing a support fund for people just getting out of prison or jail.

Far from a Toronto phenomenon, abolition work is spread all across Turtle Island and Inuit Nunangat. I spoke with Paige Galette, key organizer for the movement for Black lives in the Yukon. She explains, “We have been trained to believe that systems such as police, court, and prisons are created to keep us safe. But when we look at who is placed in these systems—predominately Black and Indigenous People—we can see how these systems rely on Black and Indigenous bodies for their functioning. It’s quite obvious to me whose ‘safety,’ ‘security,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘comfort’ we are upholding.” The police and prison system are steeped in white supremacy and Galette speaks to the disproportionate targeting of racialized people in order to keep white communities in a position of dominance and control. It is their safety that is considered first and foremost.

As we move towards an abolitionist society, one wherein we have eradicated white supremacy, uprooted racism, ableism, and classism, wherein we have ended colonial and imperialist practices, we are already planning for the world we are going to live in in the future. Talking with activists about their ideal abolitionist futures is insightful as they offer us rich fodder for imagining possibilities. As we talk about the future, we dream together about what could be.

I asked the activists I spoke to about their visions and what they were doing to prepare. As for Switzer-Rodney, her preparation is rooted in intergenerational work. “My current work in the movement is focused on bridging intergenerational relationships. Helping bridge that gap is crucial. I’ve been doing a lot of youth education, particularly in relation to abolition and Black liberation.” We do work together in community to prepare but there’s also our personal work to begin this journey. She continues, “I’ve been doing my own deprogramming. I am looking at systems of harm that I perpetuate and am working to dismantle those systems…. In the midst of a revolution, on a path towards abolition, I am trying to get myself right and build up my skills for the resistance so that I have something to provide.”

From the personal to the broader community, we are learning how to be in relation with ourselves and each other again. Ravyn Wngz, an Afro-Indigenous artist and organizer with Black Lives Matter – Toronto says, “One thing that I believe will help us get in better relationships with each other is to treat each other as if we were chosen family. To approach abolition as the most loving thing that we can do for one another. I believe the most loving thing that I can do for you is to set you free. This is what we were asking people to consider—to be a part of this struggle until we are all free.” Wngz encourages us to find familial ties and community connections as part of our work to build a more just society. Hoilett shares the sentiment: “As we move away from relying on the same systems that are hurting us, we can have those transformative conversations about how we see people who have done harm. Can we still hold space for them in our community without writing them off and without exiling them from our community?” He says, “In the future we will find ways of taking care of each other even in the face of harm or conflict. And because of this community care, there would be less harm overall to have to address. We would all have what we needed to survive and thrive.”

Switzer-Rodney is engaged in similar conversations in her community in Vancouver. “My dream is a world where Black people are everywhere and are free from police. I dream of a world where elders are seen and cared for, and are well-respected. I dream of a world where we are taking care of each other, and we are holding each other accountable in ways that are focused around healing individuals, both those who maybe enact harm as well as are harmed…. We will all get in right relations with the people whose land we occupy and work towards sustainable climate and food systems.”

Everyone I spoke with expressed the importance of the longevity of this movement and the impact of the work we are doing now on society around us. Switzer-Rodney said, “I have a sticker that I recently put on my computer, it says ‘Every generation demands liberation.’ I think that even if this current moment—this movement—if it doesn’t succeed in the way that we want it to, it has still planted so many seeds in so many people. It has done a lot of prep work for a lot of youth, youthier youth than me even! And so I think it will just come back. I think abolition will just keep coming.” Considering her words, I’m imagining cutting back raspberry cane in the heat of late summer and seeing it grow back fuller and deeper the next year. Perhaps abolition will be like this?

Hoilett is sure that we will continue pushing towards freedom. He says, “I’m excited. It’s a beautiful thing. I think that most of this future I can’t even imagine. I trust all the people that we sit with in community, I know that we’ll continue to push this forward.” Galette senses an urgency in this moment and says, “We need action. Time waits for no one…. The time to act is now. Start allowing your mind to imagine a world possible without police, prisons, and court systems. It is possible and is happening sooner than you think. Familiarize yourself with words like ‘community safety’ and ‘accountability’ and ‘restorative justice.’ These words exist because they are (and have been for centuries) being put into practice.”

We are on the edge of a new world. As statues topple—such as the John A. Macdonald dethroning in Montreal—and streets are painted in Tkaronto, and communities are gathering in B.C., the Yukon, Halifax, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Hamilton, and beyond demanding justice for the many Black and Indigenous people killed by policing and prisons in Canada—a new world is being birthed. Abolition offers us the chance to build communities founded on love and social justice values. We can finally get free. As Galette encourages us, the time is now to get involved in shaping this change. Switzer-Rodney reminds us, “I see enough people being willing to have conversations and slowly start to move along with it. And so that gives me hope.”

Have these conversations and then prepare yourself, your family, and your community—change is coming. We are all about to be so much freer. It’s time to get ready.

Syrus Marcus Ware is a Vanier scholar, visual artist, activist, writer, curator, and educator. His writing has appeared in Canadian Art, c magazine, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, CBC Arts, and various anthologies. He is co-editor of the best- selling anthology Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada. He is part of the Performance Disability Art Collective and a core-team member of Black Lives Matter - Toronto. 

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