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Abolition in the Interstices


Jamelia Morgan (@JameliaNMorgan) is Professor of Law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.

This post is part of a symposium on non-reformist reforms. Read the rest of the posts here.

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Professor Amna Akbar’s recent article Non-Reformist Reforms and Struggles over Life, Death, and Democracy explores how left social movements have relied on non-reformist reforms as a framework for radically reimaging and pursuing new worlds free from predation, violence, exploitation, and subordination. In this brief post, I examine non-reformist reforms from the vantage point of the prison abolitionist movements that I study and work alongside. Within these movements, non-reformist reforms provide an invaluable framework, yet even here, activists need to think holistically about their obligations and strategies, for pursuing non-reformist reforms will sometimes conflict with our duties to mitigate harm in the here and now.

Over the past decade, non-reformist reforms have taken hold of abolitionist movements and discourse. For many, the idea serves as a kind of litmus test for assessing campaign goals and strategies: interventions that qualify as a non-reformist reform are to be pursued, while reformist reforms are to be avoided. The appeal of the concept in this domain is not hard to understand. Non-reformist reforms – which aim to undermine the prevailing political, economic, social order, and construct an essentially different one – provide a clear response to the oft-posed question of “what is abolition” or “what do abolitionists want” in particular cases. They help us envision a viable path from where we are today to where we want to be. In contrast to reformist reforms, which fundamentally accept the life of the state in its current form—a state that kills, deprives, imprisons, exploits, and subordinates —non-reformist reforms thus provide an orienting framework for building abolitionists movements for radical social change. 

Yet as a mere framework, or a “heuristic” (as Akbar describes it), the concept itself leaves open which specific strategies, campaigns, policy proposals, or legal cases will constitute a non-reformist reform in a particular context. For example, abolitionists groups committed to dismantling the prison industrial complex (PIC) are clear that the set of policies, legal cases, and executive orders building safer, cleaner, and more humane prison and jails do not qualify as non-reformist reforms. These groups, which aim at decarceration and divesting from the PIC, see efforts to merely make prisons more humane as failing to advance those ultimate goals. Indeed, some worry that making prisons more humane will serve merely to make them more acceptable and therefore prolong their existence.   

But like with most things, the devil is in the details. Even if the ultimate goals are clear, and even if one is clear about what does and does not count as a non-reformist reform, should the pathways to achieving those goals include non-reformist and reformist strategies? As a theoretical matter, pursuing reformist strategies as an abolitionist would be blasphemous, but while engaged in the day-to-day activities of abolition on the ground—the million experiments, as Mariame Kaba has called it—the answer is much less straightforward.

Take abolitionists groups that have supported electoral campaigns or worked to elect district attorneys, or so-called progressive prosecutors. In some cases, these activities might themselves be a non-reformist reform—if, for instance, there is an effort to expand power (indeed, democratize power, as Akbar puts it) within and across the campaign and importantly, after the electoral victory or loss. But how should abolitionists groups relate to electoral politics in cases where this isn’t plausibly the case? On the one hand, working to elect “progressive prosecutors” can be seen as providing support for, and thereby legitimizing, the existing carceral structure. Yet, on the other hand, sitting on the sidelines can result in significant harm to members of the community, if a more aggressive prosecutor is installed in office.

Or what about groups that litigate cases seeking relief in the form of access to accommodations or medical and mental health treatment for incarcerated people? These are reformists strategies, since they leave untouched the structure of the prison, but in many cases like this one, the imperatives of harm reduction—a life-saving strategy within communities facing imminent harms due to police violence, environmental degradation, housing instability, etc.—require pursuing reformist, piecemeal strategies. Abolitionist groups do not, and arguably need not, reflect or practice the kind of intellectual purity so often seen in academic theorizing. But what is required of abolitionist groups (at least those that adopt the moniker and practice) is a clear sense of which strategies should be pursued and why—which is not an easy task.

The challenges of discerning when and how to pursue non-reformist reforms, or whether to pursue reformist reforms alongside non-reformist ones, is the work of what I call “abolition in the interstices.” Abolitionists working within and alongside movements constantly have to grapple with one important reality: that the radically reconfigured world abolitionists seek is not the world abolitionists have now. This in-between state leads to difficult and complicated questions regarding how to dismantle systems and structures that cause harm today, while simultaneously working to build systems and structures for the abolitionist horizon. That in-between state is abolition in the interstices—the work of abolitionists dedicated to dismantling while building, protecting vulnerable groups now while pushing toward futures where protection from harm is unnecessary, providing for material needs now while working towards a new world where all material needs are met.

Non-reformist reforms provide a guidepost for how abolitionists can and should shape their strategies for radical social change. They invite deliberation and thus clarity about whether to engage with a particular strategy, how to engage, and whether and when to disengage. Yet recognizing that the work of abolition is largely work done in the interstices, non-reformist reforms take on new meaning for abolitionist movements.