In recent weeks, the United States has experienced a nationwide uprising demanding change. From this, the abolition of police and prisons has emerged as a leading demand of protesters. Contemporary abolitionists see themselves as completing the unfinished work of ending racial slavery. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, one of the most influential contemporary abolitionists, argues that prisons have become the catch-all solution to any political problem: political dissent, interpersonal violence, the people and land rendered surplus by capitalism—all these and more are “solved” through building and filling cages. Therefore, to abolish prisons and policing, Gilmore and others argue, we must create a culture with a robust set of solutions to crises of housing, safety, health care, education, and joblessness.
Incarceration and counterterrorism are two arms of the same state apparatus. This is driven home by the sight of police attacking citizens with surplus weapons from the War on Terror, using counterterrorism techniques learned abroad.
In their effort to inflame opposition to protesters and their demands, President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr recently named Antifa a terrorist organization. It isn’t clear, so doing, whether they understood what Antifa (an umbrella term for antifascist activism) is, or how it stands in relation to ongoing protests. Nonetheless, their actions draw attention to the fact that incarceration and counterterrorism are two arms of the same state apparatus. This is further driven home by the sight of police attacking citizens with surplus military weapons from the War on Terror, often using counterterrorism warfare techniques learned from the Israel Defense Forces and other counterinsurgency training abroad.
This suggests that abolition can offer a compelling perspective on terrorism as well, as an alternative to the standard liberal and conservative approaches. For conservatives, terrorism typically refers to non-state political violence—mostly from the left and from people of color—and it should be crushed with the full weight of the state. Liberals are mostly in agreement with this definition, but add that the violence committed by white supremacists and other far-right extremists should be considered terrorism as well. In both conservative and liberal readings, it is not possible to conceive of abolishing the concept and infrastructure of counterterrorism.
Abolition offers a third option, charting a path to safety from non-state and state violence by allowing us to ask an unspeakable question: What makes the terrorist bad in the first place? From there, we may generate new possibilities that conventional liberal and conservative approaches both rule out.
For much of its history in the twentieth century, abolition was terrorism in the eyes of the state. By the Cold War and into the 1960s and ’70s, a range of politics inside of domestic freedom struggles, which included communism and anticolonialism, were painted with the broad brush of terrorism. For the U.S. empire, fighting communism abroad meant keeping a close eye on Asian and African struggles to expel their European colonizers. What would happen, the United States feared, if the newly decolonized nations turned to communism, as had Cuba? And so the United States preached its gospel of freedom while crushing colonized people’s efforts toward it. Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation has long served as the dictionary definition of terrorism. Meanwhile, terrorists back home also included anticolonial actors, specifically Puerto Ricans seeking independence and Black Power organizations. The Black Panthers were called terrorists in the late 1960s and ’70s, and many continue to be political prisoners even in today’s global pandemic. In 1985 the local police in Philadelphia used the term terrorist for the black organization MOVE before the police bombed its residential headquarters, killing five children. And since 2013, Black Liberation Army and Black Panther member Assata Shakur has been on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists. In short, the contemporary concept of terrorism arose from the U.S. counterinsurgency to anticolonial, antiracist, and anti-capitalist struggles, whether or not they actually hurt or killed people. Joseph Dibbee and the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, for example, have been identified as terrorists even though the state has never accused them of harming anyone.
The contemporary concept of terrorism arose from the U.S. counterinsurgency to anticolonial, antiracist, and anti-capitalist struggles, whether or not they actually hurt or killed people.
Moreover, many domestic issues of concern to abolitionists—ranging from national inaction on climate change to the frightening political aspirations of Amazon to the state kidnapping of migrant children—have been raised in the house that counterterrorism built. For example, New Orleans residents who survived Hurricane Katrina found themselves facing private military contractor Blackwater—of Iraq War infamy—which was hired to patrol the city’s streets and police survivors the Army Times described as an “insurgency.” After 2001 FEMA, which was responsible for much of the mishandling in the aftermath of Katrina, was moved from being an independent agency to operating under the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which fields a lot of the resources that go toward counterterrorism. The state continues to expand and bureaucratize counterterrorism. The creation of the Denaturalization Section of the Department of Justice was announced on February 26 of this year; this section of the DOJ’s immigration office strips citizenship rights from naturalized citizens in order to “bring justice to terrorists, war criminals, sex offenders and other fraudsters who illegally obtained naturalization.” These are but a few of the many examples of how federal restructuring organized around counterterrorism has worsened the lives of poor people and people of color.
Today it is possible for the state to execute any degree of violence against those it labels terrorists. The power and value of this label for justifying state violence comes from its accumulated racial meanings from the mid-twentieth century to today.
Since 2001 the terrorist has come to be imagined almost exclusively as Muslim or Arab. This confusingly ill-defined minority has been made the domestic subject of the War on Terror and is subject to its devices, including indefinite detention, the No Fly List, extraordinary rendition, and extrajudicial killing. For example, in 2011, President Barack Obama ordered a targeted drone strike to kill sixteen-year-old Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen from birth, while he was in Yemen. Leading up to this act of preemptive state violence, the teenager was not charged with—nor even suspected of—having committed or supported any acts of terrorism. But his father, Anwar Al-Awlaki, was charged with providing material support to terrorists and killed two weeks earlier in a targeted drone strike. The young Al-Awlaki was the second (his father the first) extrajudicial killing of a U.S. citizen via drone strike. Violence against children is common practice in the house that counterterrorism built: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was also a creation of the post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security, and so the migrant children being abused and dying in U.S. custody today are also victims of the furious rush of resources and energy into fighting terrorism.
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Increasingly there are calls on the left for the state to classify the KKK as a terrorist organization, renewed this week after a KKK member drove his car into a crowd of protesters at the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond on June 7. But this call is misguided. To correct the problem, we do not need things on the right to be classified as terrorism, too; we need to void the category of terrorism completely. It cannot be salvaged because the very thing that gives it its meaning is its racial connotations, even when it is used for white supremacists. Far from a neutral word meaning very, very bad, terrorism is a deeply racialized concept. It is because of those racial meanings that the word has more punch than “white supremacy,” for example.
To correct the problem, we do not need things on the far right to be classified as terrorism, too; we need to void the category of terrorism completely. It cannot be salvaged because the very thing that gives it its meaning is its racial connotations.
Liberal arguments attempting to challenge the violence of counterterrorism practices and the stigma of the label of terrorism will emphasize what they believe to be hypocrisy: if a white man and a brown man do the same thing, the former is explained away as an individual aberration due to mental illness while the latter is a terrorist. The naming of hypocrisy here is not only insufficient for challenging this problem, but is also misguided. Counterterrorism is an organizing principle for delineating and managing problematic populations domestically and internationally. This is not an inadvertently racist label that can be peeled off of brown men and stuck onto white men. Rather, the racial history and significance of the concept is constitutive of terrorism. The terrorist is a racial, epistemic, ideological, and material other.
By calling Antifa terrorists, the president and attorney general sought to use this power of terrorism as a label to nullify the critique of the so-called terrorist. To be called a terrorist is, by definition, to have one’s political ideas exist outside the scope of acceptable discourse and licit protest. In this way the terrorist can not only be disappeared as a person, but their politics can be disappeared, too.
To change the meaning of the word “terrorist” would require that we dismantle the global infrastructure built around fighting terrorism—a truly abolitionist goal. If we want to call white supremacist violence “terrorism” as part of an effective strategy to stop it, then the word terrorism has to lose all the racist meanings that give it rhetorical value in the first place.
In approaching a solution, abolition, often maligned as extreme, is instead perhaps the least violent of all potential remedies to the carceral state and its counterterrorism because it grasps at the root of the problem and would not trade in partial remedies that simply reproduce the problem. Conservative and liberal approaches, meanwhile, ramify the problems they claim to stop. For example, counterterrorism relies heavily on coercing informants into entrapping people in fake terrorist plots, usually in exchange for money or to avoid jail time. Cases of this include a Bangladeshi Muslim teenager who was under NYPD orders to “create and capture” terrorist suspects in order to avoid a drug charge, a Pakistani Muslim gas station owner in the case of the Newburgh Four who served as an informant to avoid deportation, and so many more: there were 580 terrorism prosecutions from 2001 to 2015, and 317 of these cases involved an informant. This is one way that counterterrorism quite straightforwardly produces the very problem it purports to stop, which is to say nothing of how war, colonialism, dispossession, and other means of repression produce more violence.
To those who nevertheless would entrust their safety to the police and state counterinsurgency agents, abolitionists ask: But are we safe right now? Do we feel that we are safe surrounded by prisons, police, and preemptive anti-terrorism and policing measures? In response to this question, many feel a visceral no, which tells us not only that we need to fight for a different world, but that we are ready for it.