An abolitionist frame of thought is a rebirth, a spiritual process, a painful undertaking, and an ancestral conjuring for Black and brown people.
“Abolition has become a salient part of the conversation, yet many wouldn't see themselves as unfree.”
In this series we ask organizers, artists, and academics to share books that inform their thinking about abolition. This week’s contributor is Asha Noor.
“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison)
As an eager and hopeful, yet sometimes jaded 18-year old, I read Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault. Even at that age I was no stranger to the prison system and visited my share of detention facilities. Foucault’s work was an early introduction to the parallels between everyday life and prisons under capitalism. It made me look at the metal detectors and School Resource Officers (SROs) in my high school in a more clear, and nefarious way.
Today, with a backdrop of glaring Black death, police brutality, and social uprisings, concepts like liberation, abolition, and freedom are central in the popular discourse in a way that I’ve never seen before. Abolition has become a salient part of the conversation, yet many wouldn't see themselves as unfree.
Angela Davis, a thinker, activist, former political prisoner, and a writer has remained consistent, and poignant on abolition, and her work has shaped my understanding of the carceral state in a way that no single person has. Her analysis includes the gendered, racialized, and capitalistic dimensions of incarceration. In her book Are Prisons Obsolete? she makes a case for a world beyond prisons, and develops a vision for a world free of punishment, domination, and isolation for “criminals”, and invites us into restoration, reparation, and rehabilitation. She states, “...casting the net of alternatives helps us to do the ideological work of pulling apart the conceptual link between crime and punishment” (Davis 112), which is a critical piece in building a world free of prisons.
“Her analysis includes the gendered, racialized, and capitalistic dimensions of incarceration.”
Davis also connects the different forms of detention and linkages in the expansion of these industries. She explores immigration detention centers, which are also over-represented with Black people. Recent reports from RAICES alongside organizing led by Haitian Bridge Alliance show that Haitian immigrants account for 50% of family detention, yet the discourse on immigration is not viewed as a Black issue. Immigration detention has recently been in the forefront of media with images of children caged in overflowing, makeshift prisons, starved, and separated from their families:
“One obvious and very urgent aspect of the work of decriminalization is associated with the defense of immigrants' rights. The growing numbers of immigrants – especially since the attacks on September 11, 200 l – who are incarcerated in immigrant detention centers, as well as in jails and prisons, can be halted by dismantling the processes that punish people for their failure to enter this country without documents. Current campaigns that call for the decriminalization of undocumented immigrants are making important contributions to the overall struggle against the prison industrial complex and are challenging the expansive reach of racism and male dominance.” (Davis 110)
“Haitian immigrants account for 50% of family detention, yet the discourse on immigration is not viewed as a Black issue.”
The carceral state is so far-reaching and invisible that many feel free, even though that sense of ease is not rooted in reality. When “1 in 2 adults in America has had a family member in jail or prison,” which is the most visible leg of the carcel state, it's a wonder why any of us feel free.
The carceral state is death. We are conditioned to experience life through the lens of death, and bell hooks writes about American’s worship of death in popular culture and its impact on the way we live. bell hook’s all about love is a book that I think with every day, whether I’m thinking through embodying a love ethic, rejecting domination, or centering the power of repairing harm in our communities. bell hooks proclaims that “...forgiveness and compassion are always linked” and goes on to pose a question of restorative practice, “...how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” (hooks)
I think about the way abolition is a mechanism to meet freedom beyond the four walls of a prison. We live in a time and place where our liberation is from open-air prisons, physical prisons, detention centers, “alternative schools,” debt, surveillance, facial recognition tools, lateral policing, self-policing, and colonization of the mind. We are over-policed and abolition is the only remedy.
“Abolition is a mechanism to meet freedom beyond the four walls of a prison.”
Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth is a text that any abolitionist, and seeker of a decolonial lens should read. It’s a text that half a century later inspires colonized people, political prisoners, and oppressed people of the world towards the emancipation of mind, body, soul, and spirit. Well ahead of his time, Fanon sums up how America as a settler-colonialist project has surpassed its colonizers in replicating, and perfecting methods of domination, and evil: “Two centuries ago, a former European colony decided to catch up with Europe. It succeeded so well that the United States of America became a monster, in which the taints, the sickness, and the inhumanity of Europe have grown to appalling dimensions.”(Fanon)
My journey to understanding abolition has been incremental as well as cyclical. When I was a teen, there were several harrowing acts of violence and dehumanization in prisons domestically and abroad that struck me. I was 15 when I first saw the images released from Abu Ghraib. I'm not sure if the linkages around the carceral state in the U.S. and the War on Terror were there, but I did know that those images were the furthest thing from freedom -- they were the essence of cruelty and domination. This realization was another stride towards abolition, because I saw no justification for the exportation of US prisons in the name of liberation.
A decade and a half later, I read Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing by Stuart Schrader. This is a new text, but it does an excellent job of tracking American exportation of policing, surveillance, and detention tactics around the world. Angela Davis noted similarly that the policing we export through imperialism informs how law enforcement apparatus functions in the U.S. So when we engage in the “War on Terror” domestically and abroad, it creates the over-policing, surveillance, and criminalization of Muslims. It means that for as long as I can remember I’ve had SSSS (Secondary Security Screening Selection) on my boarding passes, because of a dubious watchlist that I’m on alongside countless Muslims. The list provides no transparency, rationale or legitimacy, and is another profiling mechanism of the carceral state.
“The policing we export through imperialism informs how law enforcement apparatus functions in the U.S.”
Programs and policies like the Watchlist, No Fly List, Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP), Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF), National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), and Muslim and African Ban are tools born out of the vilification of Muslims. This well-crafted, systemic, and nefarious apparatus continues the longstanding entrapment and criminalization of Black and Muslim communities. These policies are interconnected and shape the ways in which dehumanization, domination, and exploitation are codified.
I grew up hearing “aqoon la’aan waa iftiin la’aan”, which is a Somali proverb that means to be without knowledge is to be without light. When I read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, it illuminated and reified this proverb. This text is a staple for elevating one's consciousness around radical education and it's liberatory power.
I believe to envision a world free of cages in all the ways they restrict us, and kill us and our dreams before they manifest, is to be reborn. An abolitionist frame of thought is a rebirth – it is a spiritual process, a painful undertaking, and an ancestral conjuring for Black and brown people. I pray every day is another awakening, and new commitment to liberation.
A Black Muslim woman, mother, wife, daughter, community member, and political prisoner told me, “I may never find justice in this place, but I have my faith in the afterlife. This place is full of people like me, innocent women whose only hope is contact, contact with the real world; This place is meant to break our spirit, and each letter is a reminder that our spirit still has a fighting chance, and we are not forgotten.” Our lives and our liberation are interconnected, and we can never forget that.
Asha Noor is a Somali racial justice and human rights activist. She is a peace-building and conflict resolution specialist, trainer, and public speaker. Noor is a Senior trainer, and long-time member of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative. On a national scale, Noor has worked on issues of policing, mass incarceration, surveillance, immigration, and criminalization, with a focus on Black Muslims. She holds a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and a Bachelors in Political Science from Michigan State University
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