Making Abolition in Geography

Introduction by
Stefan Chavez-Norgaard, Leah Montange, Jah Elyse Sayers, Megan Ybarra

[W]e make solidarity when [we constitute] communities across boundaries and borders, engaging in radical placemaking to make new life-worlds.

Introduction: Making abolition through one million experiments

This forum traces the ways that thinking with abolition geography facilitates moves from everyday “cops off campus” struggles to coalitional solidarities across seemingly disparate spaces. In so doing, the forum develops one of many conversations that trace the vitality of anticolonial and internationalist movements in the making (on this, see Gilmore’s foreword in Maynard and Simpson, 2022). We developed this Forum through a non-hierarchical working group that began as a series of dialogues, petitions and conference sessions about abolition and the “cops off campus” movement during the 2020 uprisings, supported by the AAG’s Socialist & Critical Geography Specialty Group. Whether reflecting on a direct action, a campaign or a mural, contributors come together to share in the spirit of one million experiments in liberation.

A core theme of the special forum, highlighted in the “Cops Off Campus” conversation, asks who is the constitutive “we” of abolition? There is tremendous diversity in the “we” -- geographers, artists, movement workers, activists, and people of various life-worlds and perspectives. There are likewise many definitions of abolition that vary in political orientation and how we identify in terms of reformist, non-reformist and revolutionary strategies. Here, we posit that the “we” of abolition geography is not an identitarian project. Instead, we invite you to join us in a conversation that invites experimentation, practice and learning in everyday collective care to build new life-worlds.

Multiple modalities of radical placemaking

We think of our work as making abolition through one million experiments. These experiments, individually and collectively, strive for the goal that Dr. Gilmore (2022: 80) has explained succinctly as “walk-plus-talk.” The contributions’ multiple methods reflect organizing practices and engage the politics of knowledge production. They reveal the ways that geography as a discipline is learning from practitioners, even as we increasingly openly identify as organizers. At its core, the special forum aims to enact and further movement work, and not just talk about or study it. As bell hooks (2000: 4) writes in All About Love, “The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun…we would all love better if we used it as a verb.” hooks’ quote echoes Gavriel Cutipa-Zorn’s contribution in this forum, which explores how it is essential to achieve internal transformation and self-care to propel and sustain revolutionary change. This individual and collective work happens simultaneously, or not at all.

A key lesson we have learned since the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic is the importance of art, healing and collective care that has historically been dismissed by masculinist organizing. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2022: 23, original emphasis) teaches, “the world has been cripped,” meaning that we have opportunities to learn from the lessons of radical disabled women and nonbinary people of color who coined the term “collective care” and framed it as a political act. In those moments where death and disablement are about more than an individual choice to wear a mask (or not), the ways we keep each other safe and alive point to the ways we can affirm our lives together. Samuels (this issue) points to the importance of communing where we hold ourselves accountable to both the work and the rest we need. As we scale up, we can move from giving the need to tear down death-making institutions (prisons, mental hospitals, etc.) all our collective attention and shift toward building up life-affirming institutions where we provide each other with food, shelter and safety (Kaba, 2021). The way we do this is not just with a big successful campaign, but by making a world through what Robin D.G. Kelley (in Maynard and Simpson, 2022: 269) calls communing -- with each other, comrades, friends and family, and the movements to which we make ourselves accountable. Making community through accountability is both messy and necessary. After all, as Ruth W. GiImore (in Maynard and Simpson, 2022: 10) reminds us, “practice makes different.” As contributors to this forum share in the Cops Off Campus Everywhere panel, rather than engaging with each of our experiments as a success or failure based on the outcome, our work together emphasizes the ways that process is community-building. 

Since McKittrick and Woods’ (2007) foundational volume, Black Geographies and the Politics of Place, Black, Indigenous and geographers of color have found power and the promise of liberation in claiming radical placemaking. Through pen pals, murals, dancing, music and yes -- even Zoom -- we stretch our imaginaries and the politics of the possible. Cutipa-Zorn (this forum) engages in material practices of place-making with a mural that connects movements from Guatemala to Palestine as a reminder to care workers in New York. Likewise, Lawrence’s artwork (this forum) reminds us of the centrality of art as a way to hold inside-out anti-prison organizing. Instead of a campaign’s success or failure, we think about radical placemaking as part of a poetics of landscape (McKittrick, 2006: xxiii) and a material land-based politics that links struggles for freedom to territorial autonomy from Turtle Island to Palestine, and beyond.

Rethinking solidarities as linkages across “localized struggles”

Another core theme that weaves through the textual and visual contributions to this special forum is the scales of struggle, and especially the work of making abolition across boundaries and borders. Part of our work as geographers coming together across various campus, community, and national contexts is to draw out linkages across what Yogesh Mishra in this forum refers to as “localized struggles.” Each localized struggle maps onto a project of coalitional solidarity that, in turn, makes new life-worlds possible.

Baskin, Cutipa-Zorn, and the Cops Off Campus panelists all discuss abolition and anti-colonial struggles localized on university campuses. Each of these pieces addresses how campus activists problematize the boundary between campus (inside) and neighborhood, city, world (outside), often because police and their entanglements have also problematized these boundaries. We see the porosity of a campus-community binary as contributors break the bubble of any one campus, or campuses more generally, to reveal the extension of campus police into the community; the training of police in our universities; and the relationality between abolition struggles on and off campus. Lawrence Jenkins’ digital portraits mark the linkages between struggles inside and outside prison walls. Meanwhile, Henderson and Montange’s contribution frames the intersection of policing and geographers at the disciplinary level, highlighting how our departments and the American Association of Geographers (AAG) are implicated in the expansion of carceral space. Finally, Cutipa-Zorn and Mishra each highlight decolonial and abolition solidarities across international borders. In doing so, they also draw out the interconnectedness of policing and military apparatuses globally.

When contributors analyze carceral conditions with attention to the production of space, we see connections between discrete locations. In the contributions to this forum, we see solidarities across campuses (CUNY and University of California systems), international solidarities (US, India, Palestine, Iraq, Puerto Rico, Mexico), and solidarities that cut across scale. These linkages are not only alignments of a vision or politic, but recognitions that our struggles are both localized and shared. Contributors model Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s (2022: 421-422) heuristic of stretch, resonance, and resilience by maintaining the particularities of the struggles they describe while offering questions that reach across distance within the scope of their immediate work and research and beyond to make possible the hum felt across these articles. As you read, feel for resonance in the struggles where you stand; be invited into solidarity. 

Making abolition in geography requires choosing and developing methodologies that strengthen the interconnectedness of struggle, carrying the analytic to not only ask how we produce abolition, but to plan how we will continue to produce it. In making abolition, the plan is not about the outcome, but about the process we forge together. A path forward for making abolition is rethinking solidarity as a way to understand how we are interconnected despite a series of state systems that represent us only through difference and distance. In other words, we make solidarity when we realize that we are constituting communities across boundaries and borders, engaging in radical placemaking to make new life-worlds on a multitude of fronts. 

Contributions of the pieces

The transcript for the “Cops off Campus, and Everywhere Else” panel at the 2022 AAG meeting features student organizers and leaders of campus abolition and liberation movements. The conversation came together as an opportunity to think about the broader movements for Cops Off Campus within and beyond academic institutions. Panelists discussed what it means to build an inclusive and intersectional movement, what it means to work within public universities within the American settler-colonial context, and how the concept of radical placemaking might offer an entry point to contest the university as a space of carcerality, but also to organize and build communities of solidarity and mutual support in the face of militarized policing and universities’ neoliberal economic policies. Camille Samuels points out that one of the most important innovations in the campus abolition group was the ways that Black activists had an accountability check-in, where the group worked hard to take care of themselves and each other, and not just further broader abolitionist work. This is a radical rethinking of care, where we demand not just work from each other, but we make a community that values each of our lives and health amidst the state violence that demands our premature death (as queer, crips, and/or communities of color). SA Smythe, noting that “abolition is a big word,” proposed that there are many ways, big and small, each of us can work to be a reliable and empathetic person for our respective communities. 

Lucien Baskin outlines a politic of moving through contradiction toward abolition by gathering a tale of two universities: a carceral City University of New York (CUNY) and an abolitionist CUNY. Methodologically, they model a practice of seeing through the cracks of carcerality and ground this practice in histories of abolitionist organizing from within CUNY. Baskin pays particular attention to the ways organizers have oriented themselves in relationship to carceral functions of the university. Baskin likewise considers how organizers made explicit connections with and redirect university capacities toward abolition, even toward making something we might call an abolitionist university. We can read Baskin’s gathering of CUNY’s abolitionist history as offering grounds for the connective work of the ongoing struggle for abolition across institutional horizons. 

Jane Henderson and Leah Montange, writing on behalf of the Making Abolition in Geography group, invite spatial thinkers to consider a critical link between our spatial disciplines of geography and planning and the institutions of policing and prisons. Specifically, they interrogate geo-spatial analysis tools and platforms that are increasingly integrated into the production of carceral space. They unpack Esri as a key example of how geo-spatial technologies are sold to police departments; how geo-spatial analysis companies are involved in training police forces; and how companies like Esri promote the use of digital tools for hot-spot, predictive, and community policing. They call for a divestment from Esri, and propose that the discipline of geography move beyond carceral geo-spatial analytics.

Gavriel Cutipa-Zorn draws on Toni Cade Bambara’s essay, “On the Issue of Roles,” to show how the revolution begins in the earth, and with the self. The essay centers on a mural collaboration celebrating the restorative role of the earth for those engaged in healing work. In order to imagine a revolution that is not yet realized, Jess X. Snow and Cutipa-Zorn lift up the role of art, acupuncture and healing in building up a community of care. While Cutipa-Zorn’s dissertation focused on the violence of technologies in service of genocide and apartheid against Palestinians, Central Americans, and communities of color in the US, the substance and celebration of transnational solidarities draws on the earth to create “networks of care and solidarity that persist where power seeks to dominate but cannot entirely.” Transnational solidarity, then, is survival in the meantime through radical placemaking that makes it possible for us to imagine abolition in a world otherwise.

In “Abolition struggles and (fractured) solidarities: Notes from India,” Mishra draws out concrete links of abolitionist solidarity against hierarchy and colonial military occupation –  first between Black liberation and Dalit liberation movements, and then between Palestinian and Kashmiri resistance movements. Mishra also highlights the overlooked militarized occupation of India’s Northeastern states of Nagaland and Manipur. Rather than collapsing all these struggles together as “the same,” Mishra emphasizes the importance of grounding localized struggles and concrete interconnections, including fissures and tension. Mishra calls for us to both globalize our abolitionist solidarity movements and enact abolitionist solidarity as a scholarly method.

Featuring four pensive portraits of Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Martin Ramirez Sostre, and George Jackson, Lawrence Jenkins’ pen and ink prints speak to the linked nature of abolition struggles inside and outside carceral contexts. Each leader wears a furrowed brow and appears deep in thought, highlighting how the work of abolition requires dexterity, creativity, and stamina. Jenkins created this piece where he is currently incarcerated at Stafford Creek prison in Washington state. He works with “current and former political prisoners” to build a “mass movement against the prison industrial complex.” His advocacy on food systems, climate change, and environmental justice ground his abolition work in an ecological context of urgency.  Jenkins’ art and horticulture draw on radical placemaking to enact the world we want to see, as he refuses a fixed identity and engages outward in solidarity with community inside and outside of prison.

Conclusion

We see the works in this forum as part of an upswell of abolition more broadly, bringing new readers to longstanding projects like Project Nia, learning from the works of long-time organizers such as Shira Hassan, Mariame Kaba, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarinha and many others, and new voices in open-source platforms including the Abusable Past, the Barnard Center for Research on Women and Society and Space Magazine. We emphasize the importance of moving beyond engaging with each of these experiments as a ‘success’ or ‘failure’ based on the purported outcome of any one intervention. Instead, our work together demonstrates the ways that process is a form of Kelley’s communing, and, as we work toward freedom, radical place-making. The point of one million experiments is not to ‘succeed’. Rather, the point of experiments in abolition geography is to remake ourselves, create community through collective care, and in so doing make new life-worlds possible.

 

References

hooks b (2000). All About Love. New York: Harper Collins. 
Gilmore RW (2022) Abolition Geography: Essays towards liberation. New York, NY: Verso Books
Kaba M (2021) We Do This ’Til We Free Us. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books
Maynard R and Simpson LB (2022) Rehearsals for Living. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books
McKittrick K (2006) Demonic Grounds: Black women and the cartographies of struggle. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press
McKittrick K and Woods C (eds.) (2007) Black Geographies and the Politics of Place, Cambridge, MA: South End Press
Piepzna-Samarasinha LL (2022) The Future is Disabled. Vancouver, BC: arsenal pulp press

 

 

Authors (equal contributors):

Stefan Chavez-Norgaard is a PhD Candidate in Urban Planning at Columbia University in New York. His dissertation examines areas of apartheid-era forced relocation and how they are being re-purposed by residents and planners. 

Leah Montange is the Bissell-Heyd Lecturer and Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream in American Studies at the University of Toronto. Her research and teaching focus on immigration enforcement, labor, borders and prisons.

Jah Elyse Sayers is a PhD candidate in environmental psychology at The Graduate Center, CUNY, member-worker with Housing Reparations Philly, and artist-researcher with Trophallaxis Study Group. 

Megan Ybarra is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Washington, Seattle.

essays in this forum

Cops off Campus, and Everywhere Else: A Conversation

Abolition is a big word and no matter how much you read, or how much you think you know, it means nothing compared to what you are specifically going to do on the path to horizon to make police irrelevant.

By

Navon Morgan, Camille Samuels, Carlos Serrano, SA Smythe, Megan Ybarra, Laura Chow Reeve

"We Must Learn What We Need to Survive”: Making Abolitionist Presence at the City University of New York 

While the space for radical study, imagination, and experimentation at CUNY is under attack, it remains a place where students, largely working class women of color and long-distance migrants, have time to learn, think, and build relationships across difference. . . [T]he university is a structure that creates the possibility for engaging in radical experiments.

By

Lucien Baskin

Beyond Esri: Moving Toward Abolition in Geography

We call on geographers, planners, geo-spatial analysts, and all spatial thinkers to divest themselves from the creation of carceral space.

By

Jane Henderson, Leah Montange

Abolitionist Struggle and (Fractured) Solidarities: Notes from India

In constructing solidarities across borders, we need to recognize localized struggles and how these struggles are intimately interconnected on a regional and global scale.

By

Yogesh Mishra