Yesterday was awful. Lets not really talk about it. On a positive note, some of you devoted fans of blackmaps have begun submitting maps, links, and geeky news items for me to share with the blackmap-o-sphere, and that my friends, is totally awesome!
Interview by Andalusia Knoll
From Sept. 26th to 28th, nearly 3,500 people from across the U.S. gathered in Oakland California for the CR10 Conference and Strategy Session. Organized by the national Grassroots Prison Abolition group Critical Resistance, conference attendees strategized and shared stories of their work to end societies use of prisons and policing as an answer to social problems. At CR10 Andalusia Knoll along with The Thousand Kites Project interviewed conference attendees and attempted to capture the stories of those organizing against the prison industrial complex.
In the following interview Andalusia Knoll speaks with professor, author and founding member of the Critical Resistance collective Ruth Gilmore.
AK: You have spoken about how the concept of Prison Abolition has become more accepted over the past ten years, since the founding of Critical Resistance. Now that more people have an understanding of what you mean when you speak about abolishing Prisons, how do do you think we should move forward?
RG: One thing that has been happening a lot that is really encouraging to me is that people work on all different kinds of issues that are across the landscape of social justice, economic justice and racial justice and gender justice activism are starting to see that every issue connects in really profound ways and one place that they all connect is around and in the prison industrial complex. The abandonment of schools and the growth of prisons go together; enforced gender normality and the growth of prisons go together, white supremacy and the growth of prisons goes together. So now people are persuaded of the connections; practically speaking how do we craft campaigns that will move us forward? I had the good fortune yesterday to facilitate a workshop of people who worked on three different campaigns to stop jail expansion; one in New Orleans, one in Monroe County, Indiana , where the second Klan was born in the 1920’s and the third in the South Bronx. They talked about their strategies, what worked, their campaigns at different levels of development. It was exciting and inspiring to have people share their best strategies, and figure out their failures. Also, it was really obvious that the kinds of people who are drawn to the work are much more diverse in every imaginable way than people who I encountered ten years ago.
That example that you gave is definitely an inspiring one, of people who organize against the construction of new jails. That fits into the prison abolition framework, but what about many people who are more engaged in more reformist activities. In Pennsylvania there is a group called Fight for Lifers; comprised of prisoners serving life without parole and their loved ones who together are fighting for people to be able to be sentenced to life with parole, as opposed to life without parole. What advice do you have for people doing this work that is clearly necessary and how they can incorporate an overarching abolitionist thought into their work?
One of the simple rules of thumb, for me is to ask does the work that I or anybody else is doing in any way extend the scope or the life of the prison industrial complex. If people are fighting on behalf of people who are lifers to get the possibility of parole for them, what they are doing is shortening the life and scope of the prison industrial complex, by trying to figure out how, even if it is one person at a time, they can get them out. That is what abolition work is, even if it doesn’t feel like abolition work and that’s what abolition work its that kind of detail, painstaking, troubling work and that’s different than saying: That’s different from saying “We are against the death penalty. Let’s have life without parole.” That’s not abolition work even though abolishing the death penalty is a good thing.
Today after I presented a workshop about the Prison Poster Project this woman came up to me and asked “Okay I get it you don’t want people to be in prison.” But what do we want? What are these alternatives? I told her personally that I was opposed to the capitalist system at large, but to me abolition work includes a whole restructuring of society. Do you believe that prison abolition has to include this kind of restructuring and if so and how so?
The two biggest reasons that people are in prison are issues around income and issues around illness. That’s the reason most people in prison are in prison. These are things we can address without putting people in cages and employing other people to watch the people in cages. So yes, we are talking about a wholesale restructuring of society. Now some people say to me, and I’m getting old I’m in my late 50’s, “this will take forever.” That may be true, but anyone who has been paying the least attention to the news in the U.S. in the last week and a half, sees that things that take forever can happen overnight. The U.S. nationalized two major mortgage banks and the biggest insurance company in the world and in some way shape or form put up 700 billion dollars to bail out investment banks and Wall Street. If that can be done overnight, then a lot of things that we are talking about can also happen overnight if we had the political will. It takes clout
Andy Smith, (a founding member of INCITE! Women Of Color Against Violence) during her open plenary said there is some way in which we start to get a little worried that we cant get everything we want, so instead, we say lets make what is just a little bit better: better prisons, cleaner prisons, more spacious prisons, better education in prisons.. That’s not it. Political will is what we need to change things overnight There are more of us than there are them. All this money they have been talking about [with the bailout] is actually us. Abolition is taking control of all that social income for ourselves. Its kind of straightforward, we made it, it’s ours.
I’ve seen CR shirts that say something like “One day there was a world without prisons, that day will come again.” Can you speak to that, I think its become so much a part of the American mindset, that there are prisons and they have always existed.
Well a lot of people think “gosh, there have always been prisons.” But really what they are imagining are dungeons. Prisons and dungeons while they seem similar are not the same thing. Large scale individualized but impersonal cage systems are very modern. They are about the same age as the United States of America, they weren’t invented here but they were launched large scale in the early nineteenth century here and perfected here. They are currently being exported to a lot of the world. Before that, what happened? All kinds of things happened, some good, some not so good, but a lot of the sorts of problems of today that are dealt with conviction, criminalization, punishment and imprisonment are things that once upon a time were not crimes or were dealt with in sort of customary ways. Through making restitution or whatever it would take to make both the person who did the harming and the person who was harmed whole, which is to say able to get on with their lives. The intervention of cages has completely disrupted that, and it gets worse and worse and worse, as prisons become a normal part of everyday life.
Here we are at cr10, how do you envision the next 10 years?
I feel very strongly and have written about this some, what’s important in social movements is to keep the movements going, and sometimes the organizations don’t last. It doesn’t make that much difference, even though organizations are necessary to make movements happen, I imagine [Critical Resistance] will be around for ten years, if not it’s not a bad thing because other things will come into play. What my hope is, is that the kinds of things that we have learned over the past ten years and the connections we have made will make us a whole lot more successful than we were in the past ten years. The fact is that there are a million more people in prison in the U.S. than there were ten years ago, during the first conference. Some people say: “Well then ya’ll failed, didn’t you?” Well maybe, but maybe there would be 2 million more if we hadn’t been doing what we had been doing. Knowing that our small, medium and every so often large successes are I actually think there would be way more people in prison. But there are also way too many people. My hope is we are going to start seeing reduction and see this group more and more, and I hope people [reading] will make the connection between the 700 billion bailout, offered to Wall Street and the U.S. Congress and the fact that 1 out of every 100 adults eligible to go to prison based on age is in prison.
Ruth Gilmore is an Associate Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and Geography at the University of Southern California. She is a member of the founding collective of Critical Resistance and author of Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California
Andalusia Knoll is a Station Organizer with the Prometheus Radio Project in Philadelphia and a reporter for Free Speech Radio News. She is also a member of the Prison Poster Project collective working to create a visual education tool that will challenge current reliance on prisons as a solution to social problems.