Longtime abolitionists, thinkers, writers, militants: Amanda Alexander (Detroit Justice Center), Kim Wilson (Beyond Prisons) and Ruth Wilson Gilmore speak with us in this hour-long episode about abolitionist struggle in this moment of pandemia and social crisis.
Image credit: Baba Wayne Curtis of the Emory Douglas Youth & Family Arts Program and Feedom Freedom Growers
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Alejo: My name is Alejo, here with Maria. And you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement building project. Today we have the extraordinary opportunity to speak with three longtime abolitionists, thinkers, writers, activists, militants: Amanda Alexander, Kim Wilson, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Amanda Alexander is the founding executive director of the Detroit Justice Center. Kim Wilson is an artist and co-host of the Beyond Prisons podcast. And last but not least, Ruth Wilson Gilmore is a professor of geography at the City University of New York Graduate Center. We are so very glad that you all can join us today. Welcome.
Amanda Alexander: Thank you.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore: Thanks. It’s great to be here.
Kim Wilson: Thank you for having me.
Alejo: So we wanted to start out by asking the three of you, sort of, how you’re facing this pandemia or this social crisis. Some of us are feeling a bit overwhelmed, perhaps even feeling a kind of disempowering sense of impotence — as if we could not perhaps interrupt this tragedy that is unfolding right before us.
So just last week for example, as some of you know, we spoke with him, published our conversation, with Bruce X, who’s a friend and comrade that is being held captive inside the Macomb prison just north of Detroit. For weeks, he’s been warning us about the dire situation inside. Needless to say, I think, no precautions were taken by the Michigan Department of Corrections, and since we last spoke, he’s now tested positive for COVID-19.
So I’m sure that maybe some of you have faced similar situations, either with loved ones inside or outside the walls, and we wanted to sort of begin by asking you, what are the singular ways in which each one of you are sustaining this? What are you doing? How are you facing the load of this tragedy that we’re faced with across the world today?
Ruth Wilson Gilmore: This has been an astonishing experience for me, as for everybody. Although I’ve lived through several major health scares over the years, other pandemics and lived through a number of economic catastrophes, as well as periods of war, of the rise and then fall of certain countries and projects. This one that seems to have brought so much of, especially but not exclusively, the capitalist world to a halt has been a complete shock to me, but a shock in a good sensein which I’m trying to think in the context of both what we can do quickly to save as many lives as possible, and how we can also put forward in as persuasive a manner as possible: the vision for abolition that underlies everything that we do.
Kim Wilson: I also had the experience of, you know, growing up in Dominican Republic for the first 10 years of my life. Knowing what it’s like to have food scarcity, and people lining up, and having military on the streets, and being detained and all of those things — not me personally detained, but had been stopped on the streets –so, seeing the kind of militarization that we’re seeing with the national guard being deployed in several states the ramping up of police, and the kind of violence that’s coming out of that, has been traumatizing in a lot of ways.
But I’ve managed to deal with my own anxieties about the moment with two sons in prison, both of them sentenced to life. I have focused on organizing and really taking to heart what Mariame Kaba has said about, ‘don’t let this lead you to despair, let it radicalize you.’ And I think I’m butchering that there, but the sentiment is there. That’s really what I’ve been focusing on for the past six weeks is organizing and spending 10, 12 hours a day engaged in those efforts with people across the country — including in my own state of Pennsylvania as well as in Delaware here my sons and many people I know are also incarcerated.
Alejo: Thank you. Amanda?
Amanda Alexander: As I know you all know, Detroit has been hit especially hard by this and it’s because the virus is moving along existing lines of divestment, capitalist dispossession, structural racism on people who have been in a state of emergency for a really long time now. And this is just worsening all of that. So I think in the communities that I’m in here in Detroit, people are holding a lot of grief and it’s a big city, but it feels like a small town in a lot of ways. So I feel one degree removed from people who have lost very close loved ones, if not dozens of loved ones and friends in some cases, so holding that — and also trying to hold the team at the Detroit Justice Center, where we’re doing our best as movement lawyers to do some rapid response work in this moment. But also understand that we need to really pace ourselves for the long haul and do what we can because yes, we’re showing up as lawyers, but we’re also caregivers and movement builders and just individuals who need to take good care of ourselves so that we can continue to show up for each other.
a María: Along those lines, Detroit is definitely a sacrifice zone: from the air pollution and asthma rates courtesy of the marathon oil refinery, years now of battling water shutoffs, the widely reported proposal by the U.S. vice president to make experimental anti-COVID drugs available to be tested on Detroiters, not too far removed from the suggestion in France that the same be done in the continent of Africa… Ruthie, throughout your writings you’ve provided us with several critical concepts that really help us grasp the multiple dimensions –particularly the racialized dimensions– of this pandemia. In particular, you defined racism as the group-differential vulnerability to social death.
Perhaps another concept that can help us think this crisis is that of the uncanny. We talked this morning before the show about how we both find a striking resemblance with the ways in which racial capitalism and the carceral state has always-already produced the kind of organized abandonment and organized violence, but we’re also quite perturbed and estranged from the simultaneous novelty of the situation. This unsettling resemblance, a strange familiarity, seem to call for an analysis that doesn’t simply confirm what we already saw and felt. And thinking of that grief that a lot of us have already been holding… How do you all think through the uncanniness, as it were, of this current moment?
Amanda Alexander: So the thing that I have been thinking about is that it just, you look around and things that we have been told were impossible are happening every day. So to get back to the water shutoffs community organizers in Detroit, especially We the People of Detroit, have been demanding an end to water shutoffs for years. And they have said that this is a public health crisis, that it’s absurd that we live on a quarter of the world’s fresh water and yet thousands of people don’t have water because they can’t afford their water bills.
And so they’ve been saying for a very long time that in the interest of public health, in an interest of collective humanity, we have to turn water back on. And now shortly after the pandemic hit, Governor Whitmer announced a moratorium on water shutoffs and a $2 million fund to help restore water to people across the state. This was something where it was impossible for so long to provide safe, affordable water to everyone, and now suddenly it’s happening.
The same thing with the evictions and foreclosures. So the Coalition for Property Tax Justice has been fighting for years to get Wayne County to stop its brutal tax foreclosure auction where, you know, thousands of homes are on the auction block because people have not paid their back taxes. And in many cases those are taxes that people should not be paying because they’re over-assessed and they’re too poor. And so within a few days of the pandemic hitting, Wayne County announced that the foreclosure auction won’t go on this year. And finally I think we’re seeing, you know, some long overdue changes in policing and court practices.
So the Michigan Supreme court announced that the courts are going to be limited to only essential functions. The chief of police had said that the police staff should relax when it comes to low-level misdemeanors. People aren’t getting warrants issued for failure to come to court. These are things that activists have been saying, and that people with loved ones inside had been saying, needs to have stopped all along. Because of organizing of people inside their loved ones, we’re seeing jail populations, in some places, the lowest that they’ve been in 30 years. We just learned yesterday that Macomb County, which neighbors Detroit and Wayne County, they’ve scrapped plans to build a new $300 million jail — and that’s because people have been fighting to get people out of the jail.
Our attorneys in partnership with many other organizations have been arguing individual motions by Zoom to get people out of the Macomb County Jail. And the population has been cut by half in the past several weeks, and so county officials decided that it no longer made sense to move forward with this jail that they had said it was absolutely necessary last month. I just think it’s time that we’re recognizing that all of these things that were deemed impossible are really just a matter of prioritizing people’s needs, and that abolitionist solutions that people have been calling for. There’s a real opening now that there wasn’t before.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore: Yeah. I just want to echo what Amanda was saying and point out that similarly impossible things are happening in many places around the United States as well as abroad. So, for example, in some of the counties in Northern California, local officials in conjunction with Sacramento have been acquiring housing at various times, whether it’s motels, hotels, or vacant residential property, so that some of California’s probably multiple, hundreds of thousands, of houseless people can have shelter. So this is something that people have been fighting for for years and years and years.
Or, another example is here where I am in Portugal now, where the Minister of Health, in preparation for being ready to handle whatever the pandemic brought to this country, has rationalized the entire hospital system throughout the entire country (private hospitals and public hospitals) and essentially assigned to each hospital what their chief functions will be in intensive care, and in dealing with people who have chronic or other conditions that are not COVID-related. At the same time, the immigration service regularize the status of people who would apply for residency, and for people who are refugees in this country — just did it overnight, as can always be done, as can always be done! Anywhere, overnight. So these things are happening, they’re happening in pieces. But we see, again to echo what Amanda said, the rather instant realization of the abolitionist vision for a just and safe and healthy society for people regardless of where they are, what their resources are, what their citizenship is, what their conviction record is, and so forth.
Kim Wilson: Yeah, I would add to that and enthusiastically agree with what both Ruthie and Amanda just said, I’ve been reading a book about the austerity in Greece and what was happening in terms of the healthcare crisis there and everything that was going on there. In the introduction to that book, Sylvia Federici writes and asks us to think about how we organize society. Right? And that’s something that really resonated with me. I’ve started reading it about a month ago or so, right at the beginning of when the thing was ramping up. And the idea of how we think through our relationships to one another and our relationships to means of production, to the land, to government, what it means to govern from below, who gets to hold wealth, and what does wealth mean in terms of, you know, like natural wealth and the kinds of cooperation or cooperative movements that are happening, that we’re seeing all over the country in terms of mutual aid.
Something that really struck me a few weeks ago as folks like Kelly Hayes were posting mutual aid resources online is that for a lot of people who are not in the movement or weren’t really familiar with that kind of community building process, it felt like it was new for them. And that’s okay, you know? But also pointing out that these things have been in place for a very long time, that people have been thinking in these various ways, that abolitionists had been thinking in these various ways and that those things have helped me feel less disempowered in this moment. Right? Because everything that we’ve read, all of the books, all of the lectures, all of the convenings that we attend, we’re constantly thinking about the questions and the issues that are happening right now in this moment.
Amanda Alexander: Kim, I agree. I mean, that feels like one of the most beautiful things about this moment is the way that mutual aid work is just flourishing. And in Detroit it’s been, you know, these are very deep networks of mutual aid that people have had to have in place for a while. So, even though the governor put in this moratorium on water shutoffs, of course people still don’t have their water turned back on. And so people are delivering water every week. In a church near downtown and folks load up trucks and get water to people without running water in Detroit and Flint. And they’re still doing that and they’ve been doing it for over seven years. It’s just the fact that in some places I think this is new and it’s a new opportunity for people to come into it, and in other places, it’s really built along these kind of existing arteries of mutual aid.
This is a way that I think that we can practice keeping each other safe and caring for each other outside of policing. I think the fact that people are figuring out how can we get protective masks to each other. They’re fundraising to get COVID care packages to people who are getting sick inside prisons. They’re finding ways to safely house people and support them after they’re getting out of prison. And these are the types of things, you know, that I think that abolitionist organizing is about — how do we care for each other? How do we create networks of mutual aid and safety? It’s been beautiful to see people experimenting with that and building on a lot of existing wisdom around that.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore: I agree with what you said, Amanda, and I’m thinking also about Kim’s observation that for some people this work, throwing themselves into mutual aid seems new and wholly unprecedented, whereas we all know, all of us doing this show together, know that this kind of work not only has a long history in the long 25 years of the contemporary abolitionist present, but that work itself built on long work that was in many ways inspired by the kinds of activities that are best summarized in the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense motto, ‘Survival, pending revolution.’ And I want to emphasize that ‘survival, pending resolution,’ whatever one thinks about the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, because fundamentally the mutual aid that we’re all engaged in will have immediate meaning for the people who are the beneficiaries of that aid.
However, that in and of itself can’t sustain itself unless we also lift up the larger demands and insist on things like this temporary end to water being shut off must become permanent. The temporary availability for shelter for houseless people in Northern California must become permanent. The kinds of packages in to our loved ones inside must not only become permanent but must show the cracks in the wall between the inside and outside have got to turn into gates, so that people can walk out free. All of these things have got to be combined together.
I’ve been thinking a bit too about the fact that in the last 45 years or so, since the US made a dramatic turn to prisons and policing as an all-purpose solution to social problems, what’s happened at the same time is the number of hospital beds in the United States has fallen by about 50%. Which is say, there are about half the number of hospital beds in the United States today as there were in 1975, and this is important as well. If the US can, as is happening in fits and starts around the country, construct either out of a convention center or out of a shuttered hospital, beds adequate to the task of helping people who are suffering from COVID and from other things, then clearly we also have before us an indication of what we should be doing for employment for workers, for all kinds of people, to rebuild our healthcare system and make it possible for everybody to have the kind of wellbeing and treatment, so that the underlying conditions that are contributing to premature death among black people in Detroit and among Navajo on the Navajo reservation, will not persist. So these are all connected I think.
Alejo: Yes. Wow. I think we’ve opened up a whole series of questions here. I sort of agree with this sense in which, as Amanda pointed out, that all of what seemed impossible is now all of a sudden possible. And the mutual aid networks that have sustained — and which I think racial capitalism also sort of vampirizes, right?– I think capitalism will not sustain itself without the kind of reproductive labor and the kind of love work that we do in the margins of commodity society and in the margins of prisons and police.
But I think the question that Ruthie just placed, which is: how is it that these cracks can become gates? I think this is the question that we face. Because, I think, what the three of you were were saying, is that it’s very clear that prisons are now a public health crisis. We have more prison beds than hospital beds. Cook County Jail has become the leading cluster of COVID-19. And there’s a way in which, again, that which seemed impossible is now possible — people being free from jails– but it seems to me that there’s a question of permanency.
There’s another element to this, which is the kind of international, or as the Panthers say, inter-communal aspect. Right? So I think that’s a really difficult question that I wonder how you all can think about, what an international –or intercommunal– abolition movement can be in a moment in which these cracks have to be turned into gates so that we might pierce into something like an abolitionist future.
Amanda Alexander: Yeah. So I think we’re at this turning point where either of these solutions, we’d like to make them as progressive as possible and then keep them in place, or there are certainly counterforces that want us to go back to criminalization, to filling the jails just as quickly as we’ve emptied them. So it’s worth pointing out that Mayor Duggan here in Detroit is threatening that for people who don’t abide by the emergency Stay at Home order, they could risk a fine up to $1,000 or six months in jail. He’s talking about using the Project Greenlight surveillance system of cameras that are on businesses throughout the city to monitor compliance with this order. As much as we’re seeing openings across the country, we’re also seeing aggressive policing and criminalization. And so, you know, we just need to also keep those things in mind.
But I think, you know, when it comes to emptying jails and keeping them empty, we have guides to look to. So there have been people organizing across the country for years to close down and block jails and also fighting for visions of what they’d want to build instead. I think of places like Los Angeles where Dignity and Power Now and JusticeLA spent over a decade building power, and then this time last year they succeeded in defeating a proposal for two new jails that would have been over $3.5 billion. And instead they won this unprecedented investment in public healthcare. I think of folks like formerly incarcerated women in Atlanta with the Racial Justice Action Center and Women on the Rise who over years systematically emptied the Atlanta City Detention Center and through getting city ordinances off the books that were jailing people essentially for being poor, through breaking city contracts with ICE, and got the population down so low that they said, ‘no longer do we need this to be open.’
And so they didn’t just stop there — They had work groups of folks to decide, okay, how would we reinvest this $32 million that we’ve been spending every year to keep this jail open? And so they’re working on repurposing it as a hub for wellness and freedom that will be a place where people can access healthcare and employment support, and childcare, and things like that. There’s, in Philadelphia, the Close the Creek campaign — I think across the country, you have organizers who have now built up skills around closing or blocking jails and fighting for what communities actually need. There’s just some great work to be built upon. In Colorado, they won $88 million in community reinvestment over the last several years to shift money away from prisons and into healthcare reentry supports. So I think that’s where I always look to, is who are the people who have realized that we have been in a state of emergency for a very long time, and that we’ve needed to shift things, and what can we learn from them right now?
Kim Wilson: Yeah, absolutely. In terms of what we’ve been doing Beyond Prisons. We started thinking about how I was going to address or deal with supporting my sons inside. But it’s never just limited to how I’m supporting my sons, because through them and through a lot of other people, I know so many incarcerated people. So I started just writing down the things that I do all the time.
Whenever there’s a crisis or whenever I’m having to organize a phone zap and things like that for them, you know, just started putting together this thing that became the Support Guide for Prisoners. You know, we included a list of demands and we put out a call to organizers around the country to help us build and think through the kinds of things that people would need in their own community. So something that I’ve been saying for years now is that every single person in prison needs an advocate. Every prison needs to have its group of folks that are supporting and advocating for, not just release of people, but also recognizing that as we’re working on releasing people and decarcerating, that the people inside also need things, and how do we meet those needs, right? Not just for what’s happening in this moment, but we were thinking long term.
So it’s not just about asking for free commissary for incarcerated people right now, because we know that there’s going to be a shortage of food — there already is a shortage of food for incarcerated people. New York DOC released their plan for how they were going to feed prisoners and it included meals ready to eat, right. They said that they were going to give them MRU. So for folks who aren’t familiar with that, the military uses dehydrated food pouches and you add cold or hot water and you know, food kind of blows up, expands, then you eat that. Commissary is a way to supplement what the state gives to people that are incarcerated and getting free commissary, because if you don’t have someone putting money on your books and you don’t have even a crappy prison job, you don’t have access to money so that you can go to commissary. So you’re left to do whatever you have to do to kind of scramble to meet your own food needs and what have you.
So we thought about that as an immediate thing that people would need access to food to stay healthy and for all the reasons that people need food, but also thinking in the longterm, we should not go back to a system of paying for commissary. I mean, I’m tempted to add up the amount of money that we’ve spent over the last 10, 15 years, putting money on different people’s books, and the only thing that stops me is that I really don’t want to know how many tens of thousands of dollars we’ve spent. And it’s, you know, it’s offensive.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore: I’d like to pick up on, on the point that Kim was just making and, and perhaps reflect on it a little bit. And that is the emergency policies implemented so that people who are locked up do not go hungry, have adequate nutrition and so forth. And then some of the points that Amanda was making about the long-standing fights not only to stop prison construction and jail construction, but also to redirect the resources that would have gone into those death-dealing institutions to life-affirming and life-enhancing institutions.
And of course that work, I mean even in Los Angeles, started long before the Dignity and Power and Justice LA folks came into the scene, it started actually in 2003 in an earlier iteration of that long struggle. And I raised that to say that already the people who have created this greatest achievement in LA were building on work of people who are doing that work longer.
However, all of this discussion is raising, I know, in the minds of people listening a question which more or less is ‘Well, but how can this be afforded? How can we afford it? Who is going to pay for it?’ This is a question that people, especially in the United States have been conditioned to ask because in the United States, the political-economic culture is one that’s based in austerity and also based in the notion that a dollar that one has is a dollar that somebody else should not have. So that, combined with the notion that some people are more deserving than others, that doctrine of least eligibility, if you will, then would make somebody listening to us discussing what’s been going on inside, and Kim’s example of the commissary say, but ‘Wait a second, if the military can eat that reconstituted food, why shouldn’t prisoners eat it too? Isn’t that enough? If it’s enough for the military?’
So this should compel us to take a step back and say, what is going on that anybody is eating those RMEs? Why do we have so many people in the military? In hundreds of bases around the world? ,Why Is that the employment opportunity for way too many people as well as the path, a hopeful path to citizenship for many people, going into the military? Why do we think that somehow the only way to justify free food in schools is to point out to people that prisoners get allegedly free food, right? This is the wrong way of thinking in my view, and what abolitionists bring to the analysis is the understanding that there is already enough, and the problem is how we share the enough, how we distribute the enough.
If the people in Detroit and in, around Michigan are living on a quarter of the freshwater on the planet, clearly there’s enough, there’s enough and what stands between people and their ability to have water, to have food, to have freedom, to have an option for how they make their living other than going off to kill somebody else’s children, is how we determine to use our collective resources, which is what I call the social wage. Some people call it tax money to support life in general, to support life in general.
So where the federal government and the federal reserve bank in Washington has allocated now trillions of dollars. And for those who aren’t sure, a trillion is a million million a million million dollars, trillions of dollars to give to banks and to give to businesses. Some businesses, and they call them small, and some of them have as many as 500 workers who do not have a right to paid healthcare and sick days, right? That money should be going to everybody, not one $1,200 to people who had jobs or filed taxes last year, but to everybody. And it should go month after month after month after month. The money exists, the wealth exists. We would use the wealth to make more if we could do the right thing, which is to build a sustainable socialist economy that we could all participate in.
And these are the questions that all of the emergencies that we’re talking about must bring to the front of our attention and that we have to put away the idea that mutual aid is some form of philanthropy. It’s not. It is a way of surviving, pending revolution. And all philanthropy is merely the private allocation of the social wage and we’re talking about the public allocation of the social wage.
Kim Wilson: Absolutely. I think the state has failed to respond to the needs of our communities. And something you said earlier Alejo, is people have been calling for this ‘return to normal’ and I keep saying, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. That’s how we got in this fucking mess to begin with.’ Like let’s not go back to whatever the thing was before. Because we’re taking the networks and we’re establishing or reclaiming perhaps as a way to to think about it, things that are going to sustain us well into the future, right? So who are essential workers and now we’re calling them heroes (which requires its own analysis and unpacking) but that notion of what is essential in our lives now, what is it that we need to get us through, right?
All of the people that are doing this work, all of the care work that is happening now, those are the people who are really essential, right? All of the people who are doing all of the shit jobs that people really look down their noses at don’t want to pay them even, you know, $15 an hour. All of those things are being highlighted. I don’t think that they were obscured that much before. I think people weren’t really trying to pay attention and now even, because I’ve had this conversation with so many young people over the last few weeks and you know, a lot of folks who are very resistant to things like rent strikes or participating in organizing in anything that they feel is really going to upset the balance of things, even as they are being harmed by this themselves. Right? And saying, okay, well you know, let’s think about it a different way. What is it that you need right now? What do you need in this moment?
I shared on social media last week, or maybe it was this week — these are just running together. An example of a friend of mine who just got laid off of his job and found out within the last three weeks that his girlfriend is pregnant. They have three small children and she just tested positive for COVID-19. So all of these things kind of coalescing in this very moment, as he’s struggling financially and now they’ve both lost their income, and saying, okay, well let’s talk about a different way to approach this rather than you struggling to try to find a way to pay rent. Let’s think about the things that are happening in the community. And those aren’t the easiest conversations to have with people. But I think that they’re important and necessary. And there’s a way to approach those conversations that makes room for people to say, I’m not so sure about that, but let me think about it. Does that make sense at all?
Ruth Wilson Gilmore: Completely.
Amanda Alexander: Absolutely. I mean, I love that. Both of you are underscoring this idea of — it’s just such a false scarcity. And I love talking with folks who are doing the frontline work, or care work, or helping them, or asking them, what do we need to be investing in? And you know, folks say, well, you know, I think we’ve designed a program in our community that could really interrupt violence. I think that we figured out a health based solution to things, but of course there’s no money for it. And instead, helping people recognize like, absolutely, we have such abundance, and it’s just misdirected right now. I mean, it’s people say, you know, $80 billion is what we spend every year on jails and prisons.
There’s this great study that came out a few years ago where they actually found like if you count up the cost on housing systems, on foster care, on the cost of families, it’s more like $1.2 trillion that we spend on mass incarceration every year, so 6% of GDP. It’s, it’s about us recognizing that there is such abundance and it’s just about what would we dream up in terms of actually keeping our community safe and allowing us to be able to care for each other?
There was an activist here in Wayne County who started looking into the Wayne County health budget a few weeks ago because he wanted to see how prepared are we, what have we invested in public health? And he found and shared with others of us that in the 2019-2020 budget, Wayne County officials had shifted $4 million from indigent healthcare into new jail construction. So that is precisely the opposite direction of where things should be going. I think in this moment people are becoming more and more attuned to where money is, where it needs to be, absolutely stripped out of systems of policing and jails and prisons, and then thinking about where do we need to put our abundance instead.
Kim Wilson: Absolutely. I wanted to piggyback off of something you just said, Amanda, because I think that this really, for me, and I know for a lot of other people is an important point, is that it’s always the women, right? That it’s the women who are putting money on people’s commissary, paying for the phone calls, showing up, taking care of the children of people that are incarcerated and so on and so forth. Right. So that rethinking of care work during this crisis. I think we need to think about all of those things as well.
Who’s doing all the domestic work in this moment? It was doing all of the healthcare work? Who’s doing all the education? All of this shifting education to being in the home and going online and people trying to figure out how to school at home rather than homeschooling, because there’s, I think, an important difference there to be made. How do we imagine that happening and how difficult that is for so many of us? And then if you have loved ones that are incarcerated, that adds another layer and level to all of this other stuff.
I was helping a mom friend try to sort out her housing situation and — this is public, so she gave me permission to talk about her story without sharing her name — and she had been incarcerated, recently got out, had lost custody of her children while she was incarcerated, and recently regained them, was living in a shelter. She got in a verbal argument with someone, had a disagreement, and the shelter put her out in the middle of March, in the middle of March with three children during a global pandemic and put her in a motel, and basically gave her very little in terms of resources to help her get through those first few weeks. So we ended up doing a fundraiser for her and the kids, an emergency one, just so that they could get food and diapers and things like that. But the level of stress, I feel like the couple of phones zaps and actions that we did paled in comparison to the amount of hours that were spent doing the emotional labor — where it was just like, I know that this is tough, but let me get on the phone and let you vent and talk about this and process and cry and, you know, scream and shout so that you’re not directing that in other ways that are not going to be healthy. But then they left her in limbo, her voucher ran out, and it was over a weekend and she had nowhere to go, and here we go again.
She wants to keep her children, but they’re not giving her the resources to keep her children, and she’s struggling to figure this out. And then they’re attaching employment to her being able to get long-term temporary housing in the middle of a global pandemic when everything is shut down and everyone is losing their jobs, they’re expecting this mom, who doesn’t have any resources and no childcare or family or anyone, to somehow overcome all of this stuff on her own. And I am like, when I say absolutely furious and livid at how brutal and cruel this system is on folks like that, I just, words don’t even, it can’t even, I clearly, I can’t even put it into words.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore: You know that story, Kim, which I’m so glad you shared, makes so clear the many dimensions of this problem as we think it through in terms of race, gender, sexuality, age, everything comes together. And what came right to the front of my mind as you were talking are the lessons that I learned from the Wages for Housework campaign, many, many years ago, from people like Selma James and Margaret Prescott and Wilmette Brown and others. And they kind of laid out a global situation in such clear terms that I think it’s worth repeating them now — and this certainly is informed how I’ve come to think about abolition, however they might think about themselves in relation to abolition.
They said women, as we know from the International Labor Organization do two-thirds of the world’s work for about 5% of the income (these data are old, it’s probably worse) and own about 1% of the world’s assets. So the way that Margaret Prescott summarized that summary was to say that those data from the International Labor Organization quantify racism and sexism on a global scale. Now, if we put that together with a point that Alejo made earlier, we also realize that the kind of work that women and people who are primary caregivers who might not check the “women box” if there is a box on some survey or census form, but that work that people do that underlies a lot of mutual aid, is also work that capitalism has taken regular, and will always, take advantage of.
So we take care of each other because we love each other — but that is what makes it possible for workers to be produced from birth, and then reproduce through love and sex and food and all the things it takes to get people through the day to the next day to work. That said, all of that activity, all of those resources, all of that energy that you just described so beautifully, Kim, it’s work that also we can put to bringing capitalism to an end because we can help each other. We must help each other. And that is the only way that the double day, which is as it were, the woman’s day, and the triple day, which is the day that you live every day, Kim, the day where you’re doing productive labor, reproductive labor, and looking after people who have been locked away. The justice work day is all, you know, part of what forms the foundation for an abolitionist future.
And the abolitionist future, it’s got to be green, it’s got to be red, it cannot be capitalist, and it has to be internationalist, because that is the only way that we’ll stop drawing the borders that regularize between and among people, whether it’s international, or conviction status, or immigration status, or which community you live in, those who should be sacrificed in this ongoing age of human sacrifice and those who should not. So it’s really been great for me to be together with you, Amanda and you Kim and you a María, and you, my friend Alejo, to have this discussion on Rustbelt Abolition Radio.
a María: Returning to survival. We’ve talked about the fights to release folks from jail across multiple territories. What are some strategies you all have been thinking about in the face of– in Michigan for example Governor Whitmer recently put out an order that QUOTE-UNQUOTE strongly recommends sheriffs and local authorities to release people from county jails. But in contrast, she all but recommended that the Dept of Corrections continue with their “excellent work”. So there is a clear tension — perhaps even legal limits — between releasing people from jail vs. prison. What are some of those limits and strategies and how do we push against the state right now to get people free?
Amanda Alexander: Sure. So first of all, they’re not doing a great job. They’re doing a terrible job and could be going so much further in terms of releasing people and organizations across [the nation], they’re organizing inside and outside prison, have been doing an amazing job of keeping the pressure on, of lifting up demands. I would say there’s kind of two tracks here. One is, you know, people are organizing for individual release. Again, like I said bringing the population particularly in jails down by hundreds of people but arguing individual release motions. But certainly there are limits to that, and we need wide-scale releases. We need to releasing thousands and thousands of people.
So, you know, I think that there are certainly things that can be done and I would encourage people to plug into the work that’s already happening in your state to get governors to be much more bold in releasing people, sheriffs, prosecutors, and keeping the pressure on. There was a great report that came out in the Prison policy initiative that talks about there’s a history, a long history of large scale releases of people on mass. You know, just thousands and thousands of people at once and so it’s been done. It can be done and we just need to keep the pressure on until we get people home.
Kim Wilson: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we’ve developed that list of demands. That list has been shared and we’ve encouraged folks to tailor the list of demands for what is happening in their state, in their community. Because these things are hyper-local and what may work in one area may not work somewhere else, and the needs or the asks are different depending on where you are.
But one thing that we’ve been very clear about is not drawing a distinction between violent and non-violent offenders because we don’t find that to be a very useful kind of strategy and this sort of cherry picking that is taking place in terms of, you know, we’re going to choose certain categories of people to rally behind and to demand their release and basically, you know, simultaneously saying, well everyone else can just wait or should you stay inside? And Critical Resistance was out in front of that and provided some very helpful language. The FreeThemAll campaign and a lot of other groups have also been doing tremendous, tremendous work on this.
And you know, it’s grunt work. I know a lot of people have been reaching out to us asking us, you know, what they can do. And a lot of it is just picking up the phone, calling your elected officials, figuring out who in your state region, what-have-you, community has the power to release people and applying pressure there.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore: Yeah. And I’d like to add to those important points that Kim made, that there are resources that people have developed and that people continue to develop, that can be shared around and modified for local conditions. So for example, California Prison Moratorium Project wrote years ago, almost 20 years ago, How to Stop a Prison in Your Town. You can use that and modify it. It was used in Pennsylvania. It was used with great success in Kentucky recently. Just use what people have already done. Don’t try to invent it again.
Similarly, a group of people, I think students at NYU Law School, put together an overview of who in each state has the capacity to grant clemency, or otherwise shorten sentences. And in many cases it’s the governor. Then there might be some limitations, but they have that available. It’s free. Everybody can get that and look at their state for jails. Among other things, of course we know that most people who are in jails, not prisons, but jails are, they’re pending something. So they should all not be there. It’s pending. So they should all not be there too. I’m not saying that they are more eligible than people who are there doing time. However, this is a very clear thing. So while people are donating as they should be to bail funds to help people get out, the demand that bail not be assessed against anyone is also urgent. So Darren Walker, the head of the Ford Foundation said, ‘Oh well, you know, we have to think about this.’ No, we don’t have to think about it. We don’t have to think about, we already know it. So these are some examples of things that people can do.
And I want to also pick up a word that Kim used, and put it back out into the airwaves. And that is grunt or grunt work, a phrase. The work that we talk about, the work of starting organizations, cultivating organizations, figuring out what it is that people want to do and can do and will do. It’s work that takes so much repetition. There’s no glamour, there’s not a whole lot of time on the microphone. And yet the satisfaction is. That’s so people who have the time and have the resources, whether the resources, the internet, or unlimited minutes on their cell phone, who can throw themselves into the work of campaigning to realize certain demands, do it, knowing that you’re going to be tired of doing it long before it’s time to stop doing it. And yet the thrill is that you’ll do it again. And then something will happen as happened in LA after 16 years of struggle stopping those jails in LA, or it’s happening in California, reducing the number of people in prisons for women by a full half after fighting against the expansion of the prisons for women in the state, fighting against that expansion so rigorously that we were accused by carceral feminists of being racist and misogynist because we didn’t want the women to have nicer prisons. So this is the work that we have in front of us and it’s work that we can do.
a María: Thank you –all three of you– for sharing your words and your work today. We’re going to post links to all of the resources that we discussed today on our website: http://www.rustbeltradio.org
Kim Wilson: Thank you so much for having me.
Amanda Alexander: Thank you so much.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore: Thanks. It was great to be here.
Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. You can listen to past episodes on our website at http://www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: a María, Jasmine Ehrhardt, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.