Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
In almost all debates about police and prison abolition, someone will undoubtedly ask: What about the rapists? We tell ourselves very simplistic stories about gender violence, particularly sexual assault. The story usually goes like this: if you’re bad, you go to jail, but if you’re good the police will protect you. Prisons are important because they keep rapists—and people who abuse women in general—locked away to protect the public.
This story, while conveniently tidy, obscures more complicated truths. Survivors of gender violence—particularly those who are Black, queer, trans, Indigenous, poor, or nonbinary—are often also victims of state violence. Most women and girls in prisons are survivors of sexual abuse; thousands now face compounding forms of violence behind bars. Police often dismiss or criminalize people who report sexual violence, which is one of the reasons why less than 31 percent of sexual assaults are reported to police. Those who do report receive scant justice. Only 5 percent of sexual assaults lead to an arrest and only 1.3 percent are ever referred to a prosecutor. Worse yet, sexual violence is the second most frequently reported form of police misconduct after excessive force. Police households are more likely to experience domestic violence than the general population.
It turns out that many of the people and places that claim to protect the public from gender violence are often horrific sources of that very same violence. And –unlike a neighbor, partner, or family member—the abuse carries the power and protection of the state. Suddenly, our simple stories fall apart; the solutions become less clear. Who do you call when the police officer is the rapist? What do you do when calling the cops on your abuser brings violence—not relief—to your door?
This is the challenge taken up by Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth E. Richie in their new book Abolition. Feminism. Now. They introduce readers to a global movement of survivors, overwhelmingly Black, brown, queer, and trans, who realized decades ago that violence in the home could not be solved by violence from the state. That the care and safety survivors need will never be delivered by the people and places that violate and imprison them. So, instead, these survivors rejected carceral solutions and built new community-based systems of care, support, and accountability. They organized mutual aid for survivors; pooled their money, time, and resources to release family and friends from prison; and fought tooth and nail as cities responded to violence by draining public services and fueling mass incarceration. This is abolition feminism: the union of two movements—one seeking to build a world that negates the need for prisons and police, the other seeking to end gender violence—that targets deeply ingrained forms of violence that keep people trapped, in danger, and distinctly unfree.
Abolition. Feminism. Now. is a demand in every way. It pushes readers not to accept simple stories but to embrace complexity and new ways of thinking. But it is also a celebration of feminist agitators and freedom fighters who undermine the carceral state while building new sources safety, repair, and accountability. Of an ever-changing, growing, and evolving movement that puts survivors at the center of its analysis, not the periphery. And of a historic political struggle that considers freedom worth the fight. And, in the end, the authors make it clear that abolition feminism isn’t on its way; it’s already unfolding all around us.
Editors’ note: Angela Davis, Gina Dent and Erica Meiners were interviewed virtually, with Beth Richie providing additional responses in writing.
NIA EVANS: Abolition. Feminism. Now. is so many things all at once: a movement genealogy, a celebration of freedom work, a call to action, and a challenge to those who think of abolition and feminism as separate—or even incompatible—politics. What is abolition feminism? Why is it important to understanding our political moment?
BETH RICHIE: Abolition feminism is an aspirational political practice that demands that we understand freedom and liberation as central to the goal of bringing justice when harm is done. It is an ideology—a way of thinking—that is committed to safety and healing not as the end goals, but as a way to create opportunity for people to live full lives. It requires that we think beyond immediate crises and free up our imagination to consider what we want our lives to be like; how we want to live, who we want to be, what we want for the future and what we can contribute to that.
ANGELA DAVIS: At least since the mid to late 1990s, I’ve considered abolition a feminist project. When we organized the 1998 Critical Resistance conference, Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, feminism was integral both to our analytical strategies and our organizing strategies. When we were writing this book, we went back and looked at the numbers of women and nonbinary people who were on the organizing committee for Critical Resistance, and the overwhelming majority were either women or nonbinary. Something like twenty-five out of twenty-nine. But at the same time, I don’t think we had ever explicitly expressed the connection between abolition and feminism. And precisely because of the tensions between mainstream feminism and what we now call carceral feminism and abolition. The feminist mention of abolition is not simply that we want to attend to women and nonbinary people who are survivors of state violence and intimate violence, but that we want to understand the connections between violence that is perpetrated by the police and violence as perpetrated by someone with whom the survivor imagined themselves in love. That is the essence of the feminist dimension of abolition, that it not simply focuses on discrete projects of getting rid of the police or getting rid of the prison, but that we understand the economic connections, the relationship to global capitalism and struggles in other parts of the world.
NIA EVANS: The book complicates popular notions and neat narratives about gender violence and the state’s capacity to address it. What do we miss when we default to police and prisons as solutions to gender violence?
ERICA MEINERS: We miss everything. We miss that the state, in the form of prisons and policing, is one of the deepest perpetrators of gender violence. We miss that the state’s response, prisons and policing, is a false response to gender violence. Decades of data show that police and prisons do not end gender violence, or even act as a deterrent. We also miss the long history of communities, particularly women of color communities, that rejected these state responses, these carceral responses to gender and sexual violence.
BETH RICHIE: We lose the possibility of freedom from violence. Even if we can promise “immediate safety” (which we really can’t), then we still have to exist within the confines of a society, community, or relationship that isn’t free. More specifically, if we default to police and prisons, we bring perhaps the most dangerous institution into the situation and leave those who experience gender violence at the mercy of a mean-spirited, disempowering, controlling, and indeed violent set of policies and practices to solve the problem of violence. That won’t work. And it especially won’t work for those who are most at risk in the face of those policies. For Black women, queer and trans people, young people, disabled people, immigrants, and so many others.
GINA DENT: We miss the interrelationships. We quote Mari Matsuda early in the book to make this point about always “asking the other question.” We really are trying to emphasize the nexus of interrelationships that are the ones that have oppressed us. And that means that we look beyond a simple notion of what the police means, and a simple notion of what prison means. We have to look at the prison–industrial complex and the entire arena of carcerality.
NIA EVANS: Gender violence, and sexual assault particularly, is getting more attention than ever before, but we typically understand it as a problem driven by bad actors. You, however, write that “struggles against individual and intimate violence are tied to struggles against state and structural violence.” You argue that when we focus solely on individual perpetrators, we neglect the “structural and institutional underpinnings of sexual assault and other forms of gender violence.” What does a structural analysis add to this work?
BETH RICHIE: A structural analysis is essential to responding to the issue of gender violence. Yes, it happens to people. Within the context of relationships often. It is personal. Bodies are hurt, permanently scared. Fear, isolation, degradation, ruined social and economic opportunity, death. Yes, these are felt very deeply as individual traumas. But they are also reflected in and reinforced by structural violences. At the most basic level, people reach out for help and their pain is denied or minimized by so-called “helping institutions.” More broadly, gender violence is a direct result of unequal social, political, racial, and gendered power. The targets suffer from many sources of violence—even those who have more elite status in society. Back to the first question, if we don’t look at the root causes of gender violence—how it is enabled by social domination—then we will (only) be ready to respond to the individual incidents, time after time. Supporting people in crisis is essential. Yes. But so is looking at the structures that enable the violences to occur and keep them pounding down on people’s lives.
ERICA MEINERS: The feminism that we’re advancing is queer, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-ableist. And those terms just really remind us of the ways in which people’s lives are constrained by white supremacist, capitalist heteropatriarchy. Our lives are made more vulnerable because of the lack of childcare, health care, livable wages, stable housing. All of those factors create vulnerabilities in people’s intimate and domestic lives. We live in a culture where people’s lives are constructed as disposable through systems of homophobia and white supremacy. Those harms are felt in the lives of everyday people, particularly women. There has always been organizing that has amplified and paid attention to those big isms, those big systems and structures that engineer vulnerability for particular communities and people. The mainstream anti-violence movements often just focus on the individual: What can we do to address your living situation in this moment? And none of us is saying that that isn’t important. But at the same time, if we’re thinking about movements to end gender and sexual violence, we need systems and structural change too. The structural question is always a tension in organizing. How do we keep our eyes on the prize and work toward systemic and structural change at the same time that we support each other in situations that are harming us?
NIA EVANS: I want to discuss the radical roots of the anti-violence movement and the role Black feminists played in building an abolition feminist practice. Your book shows that there is—and always has been—real differences among survivors and deep disagreements between those who embrace the prison–industrial complex as a solution (or carceral feminism) and those who insist on abolition feminism. Can you walk me through the history of the tension between carceral feminism and abolition feminism and why it matters today?
BETH RICHIE: This is a long history. Contrary to current thinking, Black and other activists have always been worried about and working against what I call the buildup of a prison nation and carceral solutions to gender violence since the beginning of the modern anti-violence movement. We knew it was wrong to rely solely on legal and legislative strategies to bring safety and freedom to our community. Why would solutions to gender violence be any different? A review of notes from early meetings, coalitions position statements, policy papers, organizational mission statements reveal that there were Black folks who warned—over and over—against overreliance on the state. As the power of the mainstream (white) feminist movement evolved, these critiques were ignored. And, as I say in my book Arrested Justice, they won the mainstream, but lost the movement. Not only did they assert the centrality of prisons and policing and policy as solutions (carcerality), but they also abandoned all other radical aspects of the struggle for gender justice: political organizing, resistance strategies, mutual aid instead of relying on state funding, etc. Today the tension is raging as we find radical groups aligning with the defund movement and conservative carceral feminists saying we need to stand aside from those racial justice demands in order to keep women safe. The Moment of Truth Statement that we describe in the book points to the contemporary version of that tension.
NIA EVANS: There’s such a rich history of abolition feminist tools, tactics, and interventions referenced in the book. From grassroots bail campaigns organized in the 70’s by people outside of and within prisons to modern-day iterations like Mary Hooks’ Black Mama’s Bail Out campaign, you make it clear that abolition feminism isn’t an abstract theory or an intellectual exercise; it emerges, as you say, “from everyday practices, collective experiments driven by necessity, practice, and reflection.” What does abolition feminism look like in practice?
BETH RICHIE: The Creative Interventions Toolkit, Fumbling Towards Repair and the work of Survived and Punished are great examples of abolition feminism in practice. These interventions 1) take the problem of gender violence very seriously and provide support for survivors; 2) use transformative justice approaches and mutual aid to do that; 3) analyze the root causes of violence and develop strategies to change those conditions; 4) build coalition with other social justice groups where those most affected are in leadership; 5) assess their campaigns when they fail, regroup, and try again; and 6) recognize and lift up the everyday abolition strategies that people use who are taking care of themselves and each other without relying on the carceral state. It is not formulaic, but rather a set of practices that are geared toward abolition feminist goals.
GINA DENT: No intervention is ever perfect. It’s important to acknowledge the difficulty of the task at hand. There are so many sources of violence and ways to heal, so our responses have to be community-based, and they have to be local. Ultimately, abolition feminists practice the art of both/and. We don’t succeed only by addressing the harm happening right now. And we also don’t just abstractly talk about how we could change everything immediately, while doing nothing in the meantime. We’re constantly shifting between those registers, and I think every successful project and organization has tried to engage with that practice.
NIA EVANS: What does an internationalist lens add to this struggle? What is gained when we understand abolition feminism as a global effort?
ANGELA DAVIS: We’ve emphasized how much we take seriously the antiracist and anti-capitalist dimension of abolition feminism. That necessarily involves an internationalist dimension. For many years there’s been a tendency to use the term “transnational”— “transnational feminism” and so forth—but we explicitly embrace the older notion of internationalism precisely because of the implications of struggling against capitalism, challenging imperialism, and fighting for a better world. And it is also necessary to urge people to become more cognizant of the ideological impact of U.S. superiority. Even activists often assume that if they’re located in the United States, they can do a better job than activists in South Africa. What we try to do is adapt a much more humble posture, to learn from struggles that are unfolding, for example, in Brazil, where the incidence of racist police violence is so much vaster than here in the United States. We learn from South Africa, where we can understand structural racism perhaps even more clearly, given the fact that even though apartheid was dismantled, the structures of racism still remain and define the way police and prisons work. Or Palestine. We learned so much about the structural character of racism in relation to police violence from Palestinian activists. This book is a testament to feminist collectives all over the world that have engaged in all kinds of incredibly creative projects and assist us as we try to move forward here in the United States.
NIA EVANS: In the book you argue that abolition feminists are pursuing a “Radical Reconstruction” inspired by Du Bois’s vision of abolition democracy in Black Reconstruction (1935). Can you talk the importance of Black Reconstruction and how it shapes modern abolition feminist efforts?
ANGELA DAVIS: Black Reconstruction is at the heart of Abolition. Feminism. Now. It helps us understand where we are today as we attempt to address issues that were not acknowledged, much less solved, in the aftermath of slavery. Du Bois’s argument in Black Reconstruction is that evolution does not simply focus on the negative process of getting rid of the chains, of dismantling the institution of slavery, but rather of answering the question of how to create the kind of democracy that will allow formerly enslaved Black people to play a vibrant role. That question was never sufficiently answered. Even during what we might call the second abolitionist era, or the civil rights era, the major question there was not so much how to transform the structures of society in order to guarantee the participation of people who had basically been rendered civilly dead. It was about how to guarantee assimilation into the existing state of affairs. And so the mandate of abolition feminism is to change the world not simply to guarantee that those who have been pushed outside of the borders of society have the capacity to participate as it stands, but rather to change that world. And that’s the revolutionary impulse of abolition feminism. You see, there’s an anti-capitalist essence of abolition feminism, just as there is an anti-racist essence. Yes, our inspiration comes from Black feminism, which goes all the way back to Anna Julia Cooper and so many others. But we also broaden that because some Black feminisms may not necessarily be anti-capitalist. We insist on an anti-capitalist and anti-racist dimension of feminism and of abolition. And that is one of the very deep inspirations of Du Bois.
GINA DENT: We really wanted to create a genealogical relationship to the project that Du Bois lays out, and the way in which he accounted for what happened in the nineteenth century, so that there was this feeling of dialectical momentum. And hopefully we can expose the liberatory framework in that text. For Du Bois to have been able to say that it was the slaves who freed themselves, versus others doing that work, is a really important part of that project, and in this case for us, abolition feminists have been doing the work of freeing themselves. And people inside are often the ones doing the work of freeing themselves.
NIA EVANS: Toward the end of the book, you write, “an abolition feminist lens teaches us that our work isn’t simply about ‘winning’ specific campaigns but reframing the terrain upon which struggle for freedom happens.” This is such an important point and runs contrary to how many think of the efficacy of social movements. Can you expand on what success looks like for abolition feminist movements? And how does racial capitalism shape our understanding of “winning”?
GINA DENT: It’s often tempting to think about it in terms of language—that abolition feminism will be successful if people start saying “abolition feminism.” Which I think is precisely how we did not define it, that it is actually not very important to us that the label, “abolition feminism,” be attached to things either historical or in the future. What we care about is that the ways in which people analyze situations and work to create solutions on the ground are shaped by a both/and approach; and that they integrate the concerns that we have brought together from women of color feminisms, and queer feminisms, and trans activism, and from people with disabilities. The abolition feminism framework changes the way people think about justice, and what type of justice truly allows people to thrive and heal.
ANGELA DAVIS: In the book, we looked at numerous examples of groups and collectives that have helped to reconfigure the terrain of activism. That is a mark of success, not so much the discrete “measurables” that philanthropic organizations ask you to define, but rather changing the arena of struggle, reconfiguring the language and the space of activism. And in that sense, this current period has indicated that we’ve achieved some successes. We are in a moment where people are calling for defunding the police and embracing abolition. Of course, we’re also told that the rate of crime is rising, and people now want more police, but that is part of the process. We cannot assume we’ve been unsuccessful because of this reactionary moment. The very fact that people in prison are now taken seriously is a remarkable success. Because, as a person who’s been involved in this for a very long time, I can remember when no one wanted to talk about these issues. Even family members were reluctant to talk about their fathers and their brothers and their sisters and mothers who were behind bars. We are having new conversations. To me, this is an example of reconfiguring the terrain. And I think that if we manage to do that, we will have been immensely successful.
NIA EVANS: What are you hoping readers will take away from this book?
BETH RICHIE: I hope that readers will understand what abolition feminism is and the possibility that it holds. I hope that anti-violence activists will demand that we redirect resources away from the state and develop, instead, mutual aid initiatives. I hope that carceral feminists will acknowledge the harm that their work has caused and help build abolition praxis instead. I hope readers will be encouraged to experiment with other approaches to their work.
ERICA MEINERS: One core message for me is the importance of collectivity and engagement. For people to engage in the work of teaching, learning, and unlearning. This book is an entry point. I want people to get involved, find people doing the work, and dive in.
ANGELA DAVIS: I want people to embrace complexity. And we often struggle around language in the book. Because we’re aware that people might not be accustomed to some of the concepts that we use. They might find them unfamiliar. So how do we make those accessible? How do we encourage people to struggle? Reading itself is about struggling. And that also reflects the process of organizing. Engage in the process and the complexity of the process. We want people to appreciate that and learn how to enjoy it.
GINA DENT: The ideas that will enable abolition feminism to succeed come from the very people who are ignored and neglected and, often, incarcerated. We, as four people who have the capacity to travel and move and be out in the world, have done this work, but it’s successful mostly because we’re able to shine the light on all of these other practices. I hope that people will be able to see themselves in this book in ways that affirm the struggles that they have been engaging in.
ANGELA DAVIS: I hope this happens. I hope to see people who are inside reading the book collectively, and finding themselves in the book, and when I talked about that idea of struggling with complexity, so many people who are behind bars have learned how to do that of necessity, because that is the only way in which they can live meaningfully. I really hope that we hear about groups of people behind bars reading this text and giving us feedback and telling us what we got wrong, too.
Angela Y. Davis is professor emerita of history of consciousness and feminist studies at University of California, Santa Cruz. An activist, writer, and lecturer, her work focuses on prisons, police, abolition and the related intersections of race, gender, and class. She is the author of many books, from Angela Davis: An Autobiography to Freedom is a Constant Struggle.
Gina Dent is associate professor of feminist studies, history of consciousness, and legal studies at University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the editor of Black Popular Culture and lectures and writes on African diaspora literary and cultural studies, postcolonial theory, and critical area studies. Her current project, Visualizing Abolition, grows out of her work as an advocate for transformative and transitional justice and prison abolition.
Erica R. Meiners is a professor of education and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Northeastern Illinois University. A writer, organizer and educator, Meiners is the author For the Children? Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State, coauthor of The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Sexual Harm, Ending State Violence, and a coeditor of The Long Term: Resisting Life Sentences, Working Toward Freedom.
Beth E. Richie is head of the Department of Criminology, Law and Justice and professor of Black studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Richie is the author of Compelled to Crime: the Gender Entrapment of Black Battered Women and Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence and America’s Prison Nation, and a coeditor of The Long Term: Resisting Life Sentences, Working Toward Freedom.
Nia is a Black Voices in the Public Sphere fellow at Boston Review, where she writes about race, gender, politics, and policing. She holds a master’s degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Her writing and research has been featured in Slate, The Hill, NPR, Vox, the Washington Post, and USA Today. You can find her on Twitter at @niatonitone.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.