The criminal legal system is the ultimate expression of punishment culture and customs. It upholds the social order of white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism just as segregation did in the first half of the 20th Century. This culture and these customs extend far beyond jails and prisons; punishment surrounds education, housing, nonprofits, the way we raise our children, form relationships and more.
Our principles serve as a compass to guide the way we work and live our lives so that we may nurture a new culture, customs, institutions, systems and society. As we discover and create new ways to be, we will also call out the practices and culture we have grown up with and still use that further our own oppression.
We are part of a growing movement that aims to eliminate the culture of punishment and the criminal legal system as we know it. This means we must create community-based solutions to harm (i.e. forms of transformative justice). To get there, it is imperative that we build enough power to change culture and to change public policy to reflect our values instead of violent and punitive responses, individualism, patriarchy and capitalism that currently rule the day. As abolitionists, our primary focus is to shrink the system and to stop using it as our go-to solution for conflicts and problems in our homes, streets and communities. As we do this work to dismantle the system as we know it, we concurrently fight for the tools and resources (robust education systems in every community, a full-employment economy, decent and affordable housing, etc) that our communities need to thrive.
Organizing must be led by people who directly experience the impact of systems of oppression in their lives, in this case the criminal legal system. To do this, we meet people where they are and invest in their potential, rather than hiring organizers from other fields who may come with organizing experience, but aren’t directly impacted. Our fellowship program supports individuals who are formerly incarcerated, traumatized by the system and need life skills and supports as they come into organizing. Those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution but furthest from resources.
White supremacy is the worldview, culture and structures that uphold the particular social order of the United States and also influences societies around the world. This worldview comes from the invention of the white race and is so unacknowledged and unchallenged that it operates as a successful mythology to this day. That is to say, the inhabitants of the U.S. who participate in mainstream society come to see life through the lens of white supremacy without even knowing it.
Black Liberation is the antidote to this poisonous worldview and the political and economic structures that come from it. We believe that, in liberating Black communities we make it possible for all oppressed peoples in the US (and ultimately globally) to have liberation from the mythology and oppression of white supremacy.
We must address harm within our own communities in order to achieve liberation. Police, courts, jails and prisons take this process completely out of our community’s hands and gives it over to the state. In doing so, we accept the idea of throwing away our own people in exchange for immediate safety. In addition, the state-administered response to harm rarely centers survivors (even though it purports to), and fails to provide restitution or address the trauma of survivors. We must let go of these individualistic and capitalistic ways that don’t resolve harm, allow for healing or make our communities safe. Instead, when harm occurs in our community, we should use accountability processes that foster behavior change through non-punitive means and helps survivors become whole through trauma-informed practices. Communities can and must create processes where those who commit harm account for their actions and actually transform their behavior. They must do this while also creating space for full or partial participation from survivors to ensure all parties have an opportunity to heal.
Harm reduction is an approach to reducing the negative impacts of drug addiction that can be applied as a philosophy for addressing harm generally. In this approach there is no judgment of those who engaged in harm but rather an attempt to meet the persons ‘where they’re at’ as a necessary first step toward reducing harm. The direct application of harm reduction strategies is more common in addressing harm done to one’s self. In cases of harm committed between people, we apply it to mean that we never engage in victim blaming, but instead center victims experience and right to determine how to proceed in any restorative processes.
Building Movement Power
We need a powerful mass movement lasting many years in order to achieve abolition and the creation of new tools, resources and a new society. No single organization can get us there. We must take movement-building work as seriously as we take the work of our individual organizations. Movements must also be built through intentional relationship and strategy. When the strategy of movements comes into conflict with the strategies of individual organizations, the organizations must be committed to following the lead of the broader collective movement.
Our struggle is not against other people, but against systems and structures which are made from cultural, political and economic institutions. We must not play into the politics of “othering” any other group of people, but instead seek liberation for all oppressed people. This is especially critical in these times where mass social media is being used as ‘hate-machine’ to spread racist, anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ fear and white nationalist movements in the U.S. and Europe in particular.
Ultimately, we want to live in a world where human beings relate to each other and nature through community and relationships of mutual benefit instead of individualism and exploitation. We must continue to hold this as a lens for our work and strive to build relationships across movements and across the globe with all oppressed people.