Abolition & the Commons

In this episode we explore the relationship between the abolitionist horizon and the defense and reinvention of the commons. We speak with author and historian Peter Linebaugh about the ways the carceral state is founded upon enclosure and dispossession, and about hidden histories of collective resistance.

We also speak with Reverend Edward Pinkney, imprisoned activist and community leader, who discusses his experience of fighting racist enclosure and dispossession in Benton Harbor, and the possibilities for building collective power.

We wrap up the episode with an abolitionist poet who is currently imprisoned at the Women’s Huron Valley Prison in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Her poetry traces a genealogy that moves from the emergence of capitalism as the enclosure of the commons, and passes through the rise of the penitentiary to our present day.

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Read Peter Linebaugh’s piece on Catherine Despard, Abolitionst.


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Episode Transcript:

Andrés: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is Andrés. In today’s episode, Abolition and the Commons, we explore the relationship between the abolitionist horizon and the defense, extension, and reinvention of the commons. We speak with author and historian Peter Linebaugh about the ways the carceral state is founded upon enclosure and dispossession, and about hidden histories of collective resistance. Our second guest is Reverend Edward Pinkney, imprisoned activist and community leader, who speaks about his experience of fighting racist enclosure and dispossession in Benton Harbor, state repression, and the possibilities for building collective power. We conclude the episode with a poem from Colleen, an incarcerated abolitionist in a Michigan prison. But first, here’s Kaif Syed with some news you may have missed.


Kaif Syed: On April 17th, Palestinian Prisoners Day, approximately 1,500 palestinian political prisoners held by the Israeli state have engaged in an open-ended hunger strike demanding basic rights and an end to abuse. Rallies erupted in every major Palestinian city as a show of solidarity to those caged by the settler-colonial state. There are currently about 6,500 Palestinian political prisoners locked up across 6 Israeli prisons. Communications from these prisons has been cut off by Israeli authorities, and one prisoner so far has died.

On April 21st, the Michigan Abolition Alliance held a speak out and demonstration in Detroit in opposition to plans to build a new jail in Wayne County. This speak out followed an action by the alliance that shut down a county commissioner meeting on the new jail plans. Several people impacted by the carceral state spoke out, including Mertilla Jones, the grandmother of Aiyana Jones, a 7 year old girl who was murdered by the Detroit police in 2010. The protesters demanded an end to mass incarceration, and for the $400 million that is allocated to spend on a new jail be redirected toward community needs like schools, water, and housing.

Bresha Meadows’ trial begins May 8th, in Warren, Ohio. The Free Bresha campaign is calling for local court support and solidarity actions around the country. Bresha was just 14 years old when she was charged with aggravated murder and incarcerated for defending herself and family against her abusive father.


a Maria: I’m a Maria here with Kaif Syed and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement-building project based in Detroit, Michigan.

Kaif Syed: How does the practice of enclosure dispossess working people and enforce anti-blackness in our society? How do the commons play a role of resistance to the inhuman machine of racial capitalism? These are the kinds of questions abolitionists ask.


Andrés: Alejo Stark, a Maria, and David Langstaff spoke with historian Peter Linebaugh about the role of capitalist enclosure in the rise of the carceral state, hidden histories of resistance, and the relationship between abolition and the defense and extension of the commons. Formerly the editor of Zerowork and member of the Midnight Notes Collective, Linebaugh is perhaps best known for his writings in service of a history from below, from his acclaimed book with Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, to his more recent collection, Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance.

Peter Linebaugh: My name is Peter Linebaugh. For most of my life I’ve been a scholar of working people and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. I taught for more than 50 years, and have been retired from university teaching for a year or two.

Alejo Stark: You were telling us a little bit about your experience teaching at Attica, as well as the social movements in the 70s, particularly about the Attica Rebellion. Can you talk a little bit about that, your involvement with that?

Peter Linebaugh: My prisoner movement did not begin with Attica. Remember Attica started many causes, but one of them was the assassination of George Jackson in California. And George Jackson had been in prison, and learned from others. But as a 19 year old, he had been incarcerated for robbery in a felony station. During his time in prison, there was a large movement across the United States of black power, of anti imperialist aggression by the United States in Vietnam, and a huge amount of turmoil and creative exchanges from factories to universities. And young people played a big role in this, and it was on the whole led by African American people, men and women. So it’s out of that ferment that we can understand Attica.

My own involvement in the prisoner movement had begun earlier. It preceded the Attica Rebellion. In the 50s, that was a real repressive environment, and we were able to break out of it. And one way that we broke out of it, thanks very much to Malcolm X, he called our attention to the fact that a huge amount of working and poor and oppressed people were incarcerated. And he showed us that an incarcerated brother could by study, in his case of the dictionary, and by exchanges with others which he did in the Walpole penitentiary in Massachusetts, they could transform themselves and begin to understand how their personal rebellion was connected with an emancipatory project which in our era occurred in the colonial countries. You know, Algeria, Vietnam, Ghana. So it’s out of that that we began to see that prisoners were part of the working class, a part of the proletariat.

David Langstaff: Can you tell us a little bit about the rise of the penitentiary? What was its function? When does it emerge? And what does it have to do with Marx refers to as the enclosure of the commons?

Peter Linebaugh: A penitentiary means a place of penitence. So as the scholar Foucault put it, it is a punishment of the soul. And the way that they organize the punishment of the soul, the theory of it develops in the 1770s, the practice of it in the mid 1790s. The way they understand the punishment of the soul is to put you alone, to make you alone, to put you in a solitary confinement, into a little cell. So that’s on a monastic model that they had. So of course, it drives people insane. Secondly, the way they wanted to organize the punishment of the soul was by incessant labor. They wanted you to work non-stop. So the penitentiary became a place of work and solitary. So that gets us to the next part of your question, which is what is the relationship of the penitentiary to the enclosure of the commons. And there, let’s remember that punishment used to be outside. I mean I’m not advocating that we punish people outside anymore, certainly not by public hangings. Good lord, you know I was just reading about the Mankato hanging in Minnesota.

Everybody should know this: 1862 Abraham Lincoln signed 303 Lakota people, they were sentenced to death and 38 of them were actually hanged outside with vast crowds. What we call lynching stems from this outdoor punishment. Of course, what the effect of lynching and outdoor punishment is, is to brutalize those who are witnessing it. So it’s a method of brutalizing the public, in the case of lynching to teach racism, in the case of the Makato hanging to teach racism against Native peoples. I know, it’s frightful. Now, the relationship to the commons of course is that the Lakota people had commoned, that is they shared the earth, they shared their hunt, and they shared the uses to which the hunt led. I’m just trying to indicate the gesture to you, a commoning economy is different from the settler economy that’s brought in by European settlers. And their call is for enclosure. They want first of all to survey land, secondly to produce roads to it to bring in armed forces, and thirdly to put up walls and fences. Generally, the ruling institutions do not want us to know about the history of the commons. And we’re taught that it’s utopia, we’re taught that it’s just a figment of imagination, we’re taught that it’s pie in the sky. But actually, it’s varied, it’s living. And we know it as soon as it’s taken away. So when Marx, Marx sees the origins of capitalism in the enclosure of common land. Because agriculture in England, and then in subsequent countries, was not based on private property. It was based on community farms of subsistence. And the purpose of it was to meet human needs, the purpose of it was not to exchange commodities for profit. They’re fundamentally different principles, which is why the capitalist regime now doesn’t want us to know about the commons.

The role that the penitentiary plays in this is crucial, because it is meant to teach people to stay away from the big house. It’s a bogeyman that’s put up. Of course people end up in the penitentiary because you can’t get money anymore, once the commons has been enclosed there’s no subsistence except by being exploited. And you can only be exploited in so far as it produces surplus value for others. That’s not just Marxist dogma, you’ll find that in classical economics, that’s basic knowledge on how the world works. The penitentiary was always essential to that. Sometimes like with the convict lease system, which supplanted the slave regime of the South with leasing out convicts. During the second half of the 19th century the the era of Jim Crow, so there’s always been some labor. Generally the factory, the architecture of the factory, and the architecture of the penitentiary are very similar. They’re all based on the law, this is why I speak on enclosure.

Alejo Stark: So there’s some corollaries directly in relation to the wall between the prison and enclosures and the creation of capitalism as a motive, relating and reproducing the social, right? In relation to that, how do we then think about what might be the relationship between the commons and abolition? Not only prison abolition, but abolition as a world in which there will be no borders, no walls, no cages. What do you make of abolition, and the relationship it might have to the commons or refiguring the commons?

Peter Linebaugh: Well it’s an essential question to ask, it’s an essential question for us to figure out. This is the task of the present generation, and the next generation. There’s no answer or blueprint for it. As everyone knows, you can’t abolish the penitentiary without changing the human beings who are in it. And you can’t change the human beings who are in it, without changes in the human beings who are without it. And the institutions of the human beings outside the penitentiary, the schools, the factories, the jobs, the office, these have to change. The class relations of institutions have to change. I say that, and I think that logic is on my side. I say that because I think that history is on my side. But I hesitate, because nobody knows what institutions are gonna have to change.

Just as we changed serf labor or slave labor on the plantation on a mass scale, surely we can change the penitentiary also on a mass scale. So sort of technically it’s possible, these institutions can change. But if I’m right, and the logic and the history that they’re interlocked, they’re going to be interlocked in the future as well. And if the USA and the UK were essential political entities for forming that interlocking social system, the question arises what are we gonna replace them with in our future. That the USA and the UK are no longer viable political entities that serve humanity, and we need to start thinking of something else. And that something else cannot be based on that class relation of oppression and exploitation, which George Jackson taught us about.

Alejo Stark: Thank you Peter, for this wonderful interview.

Peter Linebaugh: Yeah, I really like your radio programs. You know, I can’t praise it enough.


David Langstaff: a Maria also spoke with Reverend Edward Pinkney, presently incarcerated at Brooks Correctional Facility as a consequence of the state repression he and other black community members faced in the wake of the Benton Harbor uprising. Pinkney spoke to us about the struggle against enclosure and dispossession in Benton Harbor, and about the importance of recognizing and exercising our collective power to resist.

Reverend Pinkney: My name is Reverend Edward Pinkney, I’m calling from Brooks Prison in Muskegon, Michigan. The battle started in Benton Harbor. We had the uprising in the year 2003, and it was basically about Whirlpool’s attempt to not only take over the city of Benton Harbor, but also the school system. And BANCO, the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization, we decided that we was going to resist. That we was no longer going to allow them to do whatever they want, take land from the people. And they had a message that they did give us. They would come out and cut your water off, and once they cut your water off, they would condemn your building. Once they condemned your building, then they would take over, they were tearing down buildings left and right.

We decided that we were going to resist, we was not going to allow them to continue take over the city, so we started picketing. We decided to do something that would help stop them. We decided that one of the things we was going to do, the electric officials at Benton Harbor was working along with Whirlpool to help take over the city. And unfortunately, Benton Harbor is a city that’s 94% African American. But yet still, the electric officials who were working with Whirlpool, who helped pry out the African Americans that lived inside Benton Harbor. So we had decided that we was going to do a recall.

One of the commission head honchos, his name was Glenn Yarbrough, he was the person that was receiving the stipends underneath the table and distributing them to the other commissioners in order to get things done. He knew that we had nobody to really help us other than the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization, but they had the sheriff’s department, they had the court system, they had Whirlpool, they had an organization called Cornerstone Alliance which was a middle person between the city commissioners and Whirlpool themselves. And they decided that he was going to win by a landslide, since they had invested so much money in him. But unfortunately what we did, we went out, we got people to vote absentee. We got over 300 people to vote absentee, and that gave us 300 votes ahead. That’s when they realized that they was about to lose the election, so they came up with a gimmick. Their gimmick was that Reverend Pinkney and the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization was buying votes for $5 dollars. They got one person to say that I paid them $5 dollars, to Marquel Williams, and that started the sheriff’s department going through every person’s home. Kicking down their doors, putting them on the floors 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, and bringing them in and trying to get them to say stuff that they was paid to vote. So they couldn’t get nobody to say that they was paid to vote other than what Marquel Williams said, so the sheriff’s department decided they would try something different. They went out and tried to get people now to say that I was in possession of an absentee ballot. They got 3 people to say that they gave me their absentee ballots, and they put me on trial. We had a couple of trials during that period of time, one of them ended in a hung jury, the other one they found me guilty. Also during that process, they reversed the election, we had won the election. But unfortunately, the judge said that since I was involved with, Reverend Edward Pinkney was involved with it, that he was going to overturn the election. You know, allow Glenn Yarbrough to have his seat. And didn’t do another trial or anything, they found me guilty and they sentenced me probation. But unfortunately, I wrote an article as a piece of tribute, and I quoted Deuteronomy. And it simply said that you do not harken to a false law that God’s law does not see as right. And after that, they said it was a threat on the judge’s life, and they sentenced me to 3 to 10 years in prison. Very interesting because people from all around the country came to join me in that fight, the ACLU, the Lawyers Guild, Thomas Jefferson Law Center, the Catholic Church, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Wayne State Law Department, not sure about other departments. Everybody, I had maybe 15-20 different colleges came here to put in. And the good news was it was overturned, which was very very important for that process, but it also made them angry because now they had to come after me again and find a way to neutralize me and the people in Benton Harbor. But it’s important that people understand the value of standing up for what’s right. You see, if your gonna be an activist, you gotta be an activist who acts. And to me there’s nothing more important than that. We got to deal with the system, we got to show them who we are. I always tell people there’s more of us than them, so we have to get that through our heads that there’s more of us than them. So we have to stand up and stand up for what’s right. A lot of times we allow them to push us around because we get intimidated. I’m here in prison today, so I’ll tell you one thing. I’m not mad, I’m not angry, I’m not upset, because I’m hoping people will understand the value of standing up. And I miss my family, but this is for a cause and this is bigger than that. It shows that if we stick together, we can win.


Andrés: We close this episode with the poem “Big Daddy” written and read by Colleen, an abolitionist who is currently incarcerated at the Women’s Huron Valley Prison in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Colleen’s poem traces a genealogy that takes us from the emergence of capitalism as the enclosure of the commons, and passes through the rise of the penitentiary to our present day.

Colleen: Big Daddy, By Colleen

Whoever sows injustice reaps calamity – Proverbs

Big Daddy, I guess got all the answers…

England, 1777-

Disagreeably rough, whipping, branding, hangin,

Lawbreakers flip, lawmakers,

Common song, no rank.

Open flesh makes for live entertainment.

No mercy.

Answer:  salvage the unsalvageable.

New World, 1787-

Ten years of incarceration.

Pennsylvania Prison Society offers penitence;

Quakers in their light,

Souls worthy of simple prescription.

Dear prude of solitude,

Elixir of knucklebone work.

Man’s definite scheme-

Label, classify, control.

Big Daddy’s divineness decked out.

United States, 1790-

Thirteen years of revision.

Philadelphia’s Wall Street Jail.

America’s first prison.

Yes, let freedom ring in the city of brotherly love;

Start an empire on the cracked Liberty Bell.

Isolate social beings.

Combine shoulder to shoulder.

Crowds, human funk,

Breakdown, minds lost, split imaging,

Big Daddy hears mercy.

Hang ‘em, pimp ‘em out like the 70’s.

New York, 1800-

23 years of installation.

19th century city-dwellers,

Dirty beggars,

Sharing cement with overgrown rats.

Institute permanently,

Divided streams,

Auburn versus Zamara

Punishment versus reform,

Politicians mind fuckin.

Auburn Days, 1821-

44 years after slickness.

Silence, no utterance of words.

Don’t recognize anyone.

Antisocial training,

Profit out of bone-ached work,

Humanness separates into pieces,

Rules engraved in metal bars.

Blast, limb from limb

Big Daddy’s proud and arrogant

From ill-gotten gains.

Successful creation torn apart,

Into eye hangin insanity

1876, 99 years since the Declaration of Independence-

Elmira Reformatory.

Penal obedience.

Jump Street sociable robots.

Paint with the old ripped hardware

Can’t control, just distract.

Scare tactics same as the street thugs.

1930s, 153 years of instituting-

New blood.


More like, habilitate.

Social virus, no vaccine.

Human expenditure reaps no benefits.

Big Daddy wanders for food,

His belly howls for pain.

1960s, 183 years of distillation-

Take ‘em to the streets.

Halfway footing,

Unleashed social beings,

Barb wired scarves,

Still shadowed

Shake off, shakedown.

Raid, ravage, confiscate,

Like snarling dogs in the dark.

1990’s, 200 plus 13 years of pillory-

Capitalism at its lofty peak.

Starve ‘em for gain-

Grimy prisoners, lyin bitches

Smut filled rotten asses.

Fat person make for

Big Daddy made his table.

State stance is bowl back

There is no need for a bowl from that table

2015, 238 years since infestation-

Devour state issue,

Human property,

Law and order for profit.

Wickedly confused, hard down,

Ain’t that his goal?

Proud of walls, incoming, congestion,

Snotty malfunction.

Gavel marches on and on

Crash dummy ritual,

Revenue to serve.


The degree of civilization a society exhibits is best determined by how it treats its prisoners.

I am not the prison environment.

I am a prison abolitionist.


Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. Check out our website at w-w-w-dot-rustbeltradio-dot-o-r-g. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio Team: Andrés, a Maria, David Langstaff, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.