Photo by Life Matters on Pexels
The concept of abolition has existed since the first enslaved Africans were brought to the United States in 1619. The contention between abolitionists and their opponents has remained consistent throughout this time. On July 4, 1852 Frederick Douglass expressed his fatigue and frustration with having to justify abolition:
Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. . . Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively, and positively, negatively, and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.
Legal professionals are the biggest culprits dissecting and undermining the core ideas of abolition. Legal professionals are the ones applying and enforcing “the rules of logic and argumentation” that leads to overly-simplistic, dramatic, and incorrect perceptions of what abolition is. Legal professionals define what justice is and who has access to it, therefore eviscerating a natural right to freedom. Law Schools tell their students that we are the leaders of the world and the arbiters of justice. What that really means is that we are the gatekeepers of power. We are indoctrinated into an elite club whose primary function is to maintain the status quo through social control. Our black letter law classes teach us to remove law from humanity by uplifting “objective and reasonable” standards. Consequently, law transcends personhood because it governs society. The culture of the legal profession thus elevates and separates us from “laymen.”
In this context, it makes sense that aversion to abolition happens even when law students participate in activities and hold ideas that further an abolitionist future. To say that we as law students are merely complicit in state-sanctioned violence perpetuated by these systems is to misattribute passivity. We play an active role in this violence, and we must actively unlearn and undo the harm caused by us and our predecessors. At the crux of abolition is human flourishing, creativity, and safety. I am sure that many of you reading this are experiencing skepticism. Acknowledge it and let it pass. As you continue, I implore you to seek out and embrace curiosity and courage.
Critical Resistance defines prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition as “a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.” In a recent event held by the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, abolitionist Mariame Kaba stated that abolition is first and foremost a building project. In other words, abolition is about eradicating the institutions perpetuating harm and replacingthem with frameworks that prioritize healing. While the contemporary abolition movement is rooted in the movement to abolish slavery, there are crucial evolutions. Namely, the focus on both the systems and the ideologies in which they are rooted. While Frederick Douglass and other radical abolitionists uplifted the humanity of Black people, many abolitionists were also white supremacists who believed in Black inferiority. Today’s abolitionists articulate that abolition and white supremacy/racism are diametrically opposed. It is impossible to disentangle American society from racism and white supremacy because it is the soil in which our society is rooted. Thus, an abolitionist vision uproots these problems andrestores and replenishes the soil so that a new society can grow.
Achieving an abolitionist future therefore requires consistent hard work and flexibility. Meaning, that praxis adapts to the specific context and conditions of the time. Mainstream demands to #DefundthePolice manifested due to the combination of decades of grassroots organizing laying the groundwork, and the space created by our current moment of unrest. While these demands are gaining traction, there is always backlash that blocks and/or undoes any progress made. The system will recalibrate, like it did post-Reconstruction and after the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. For this reason, I cannot tell you concretely what abolition will look like. If you need a perfect plan in order to subscribe to abolition, then we cannot even begin to have a genuine conversation about abolition. Such a requirement disregards the necessity for flexibility in movement space and imposes perfectionism, a white supremacist tool, on abolitionists.
Abolition does have core values, which I’ve distilled from abolitionists like Angela Davis, Ruthie Gilmore, Beth E. Ritchie, and Mariame Kaba, from organizations like BYP100, and from my own personal and professional experiences:
- Abolition rejects the expansion of all aspects of the prison industrial complex. This means eliminating prisons and police as well as removing “policing” from society. Ruthie Gilmore beautifully articulated that as police took on more social functions (e.g. responding to mental health calls), social institutions (e.g. education, public housing, student loans, welfare) took on policing functions. The result is that most systems in our society are punitive. Abolitionists do not support “reformist” reforms, which pour more resources into the punitive aspects of all institutions, because the goal is not to develop more streamlined and efficient systems of punishment. Rather, abolition asks what is actually needed to create accountability and safety.
- Abolition denormalizes violence. Criminalizing certain kinds of violence misleads us into thinking that these are the only kinds of violence. The Black and indigenous communities who birthed abolition are inundated by violence and have never been protected by police or by society at large. There has always been a need in these communities to create alternatives. Abolitionists want to normalize these alternatives because no one deserves to live in a society that traumatizes its citizens daily.
- Abolition invests in human flourishing. Many people believe that abolition is about destruction, but that is only half of the conversation. Positive abolition focuses on investing in organizations and institutions who prioritize people. Abolitionist demands are not asking for more money, but rather for the reallocation of funds bolstering the PIC. Another way to think about this is advocating for “non-reformist” reforms. These are incremental changes that take power and money away from harmful institutions and reinvests it into solutions that actually benefit the community. A present example is removing police from schools and using that money for school guidance counselors and free lunch programs.
- Abolition embodies a “both, and” mentality. Approaching abolition from “good-bad” and “right-wrong” dichotomies oversimplifies the complexities, nuances, and general messiness of movement work. Abolition is iterative and non-linear. All of these values are constantly interacting to produce ideas and solutions that may or may not propel us towards an abolitionist future. Either way, we are learning by engaging in a constructively critical feedback loop. The “both, and” mentality prevents abolitionists from being limited to any one theory, idea, or method.
If you are new to abolition, I do not expect you to fully embrace these values. Rather, I again ask you to be courageously curious. When presented with new ideas, people project their own wants and needs onto them to make them familiar. Because abolition is borne from Black radical imagination, most people’s projections evoke fear. Black radical imagination is completely counter to the standard we are told to orient towards. Even with more people discussing race issues, we as a collective are still taught to fear and criminalize Blackness, especially in law school where the golden standard is white male “objectivity.” But why does a standard established when white men slaughtered indigenous people for their land and profited off the backs of enslaved Black people dictate today’s legal creativity?
The structure of the U.S. Constitution provides some insight into these rigid and racist standards. Our Constitution establishes a framework of negative rights, rather than positive rights. Our societal institutions are obligated to do nothing, rather than to provide services to further these rights. This in turn eliminates an inherent interpersonal obligation amongst citizens. I will refrain from a more in-depth discussion on the Constitution because Dorothy E. Roberts’ Foreword in last year’s Harvard Law Review does an excellent job analyzing the Constitution’s “futility” and “utility” in building an abolitionist future. However, I think it’s important for us as law students and lawyers to acknowledge and understand our role in protecting these systems of violence.
When I referred to us as gatekeepers of power, I meant that we are trained to carry out lawfare. Lawyers make it extremely difficult to have transparency and accountability around institutions, especially law enforcement institutions. Judges establish and strengthen legal rules, like qualified immunity and disparate intent, which place an almost immovable burden of proof on the person harmed. The power and privilege held by law students, and especially white law students, fosters a safe environment to experiment and take risks. The consequences for considering and acting on abolitionist ideas is minimal, if not negligent, for most law students. My hope is that we can shift our role within the PIC from gatekeepers to key-makers. Meaning, we foster transparency and provide abolitionist organizers with access to resources, language, and people needed so that one day the gate dividing us and protecting these systems comes down.
168 years ago, Frederick Douglass stood before an audience to expose the fallacy of their freedom. 168 years later we are still caught in this facade, and will continue to be under the thumb of white supremacy unless we all embrace abolition. Black people been fighting and will continue to fight for a safe and flourishing future that benefits everyone. We as lawyers and law students have a responsibility to support them in a New Founding. Your curiosity got you this far, I hope your courage takes you the rest of the way.
 See Davis, Angela Y., Are Prisons Obsolete, pp. 23 New York: Seven Stories Press, (2003). Print.
 See generally Alexander, Michelle, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press, (2012). Print.
 Personally, my favorite example is the transformation of a Confederate battle song into a celebration of Black radical women who defined freedom for themselves that newly freed Black people sang on the streets on Juneteenth. Glymph, Thavolia, “I’m a Radical Black Girl” Black Women Unionists and the Politics of Civil War History, The Journal of Civil War Era, Vol. 8, No. 3 359-387 (Sept. 2018)
 Brown, Adrienne Maree, Emergent Strategy : Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, pp. 106 Chico, CA: AK Press, (2017). Print.
 See generally, Roberts, Dorothy E., “Abolition Constitutionalism,” 133 Harv. L. Rev. 1. (2019)
Alexis Yeboah-Kodie is an abolitionist, organizer, and 3L at Harvard Law School. Supporting grassroots movements is central to her legal work. She approaches U.S. civil rights issues from an international human rights framework through the International Human Rights Clinic. She is the first Black Executive Director of the Prison Legal Assistance Project, where she advocates for the rights of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. She is also the co-chair for the Black Law Students Association’s Political Action Committee, P.U.L.S.E. (Powerfully Utilizing Law School Education).