Teaching Penal Abolition

Amna Akbar –

In April, the New York Times ran a profile on abolitionist visionary and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and the Harvard Law Review published an entire issue on prison abolition. This fall, the University of Texas Law School Human Rights Center is hosting a conference on abolition. The new journalistic outlet The Appeal runs abolitionist pieces as a matter of course, and outlets like Rolling Stone, The Nation, and Jacobin have too. Podcasts like Chris Hayes’s Why Is This Happening, The Appeal’s Justice in America, and Beyond Prisons have featured probing conversations on abolition with leading organizer-intellectuals Rachel Herzing and Mariame Kaba. And behind it all is a growing movement of abolitionist organizing and campaigns, calling to defund and delegitimize police and prisons, shift resources towards the social wage, and build alternative methods to dealing with the pains and crises of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy that prisons and police now deflect and exacerbate: Critical Resistance, BYP100No New Jails Seattle, Mijente, Survived and Punished, INCITE, and more.  

Like the movements abolitionist ideas emerge from and are circulating in, abolitionist praxis is shaping the urgency and discourse around criminal law reform. A primary difference between abolitionists and mainstream reformers is the end goal: Abolitionists work toward eliminating prisons and police, and building an alternate and varied set of political, economic, and social arrangements or institutions to respond to many of the social ills to which prison and police now respond. Importantly, abolitionists see their struggle as part of the unfinished work of transforming  the afterlives of slavery in economic, political, and social life.

Abolitionist thinking is central to contemporary debates over how to interpret the meaning of the criminal law and our criminal processes and enforcement mechanisms: it is literally part of the subject of “criminal law” today. We should teach it that way. More broadly law scholars teaching any course touching on criminal law and procedure, police and prisons, borders and border enforcement, should teach abolition. I have written before, including with Jocelyn Simonson, about how to teach criminal law differently, in this movement moment, and attune to the centrality of racialized and anti-black violence to our criminal legal system. Here, I share some notes and resources on teaching abolition. In my experience, teaching abolition requires study, but the study and teaching are more fruitful than I can say in this brief post. Teaching and learning abolition has deepened my study of the history of the United States and the unfinished social movements that define its shape, expanded my imagination of the future, and profoundly reshaped my sense of the work ahead. 

Continue reading

The Movement for Black Lives Offers an Abolitionist Approach to Police Reform

Amna Akbar – 

For several years, I have been thinking about the rise of racial justice movements that account for political economy—specifically, those with anti-capitalist commitments. I am thinking of the Movement for Black Lives, and aspects of the immigrant justice movement. These social movements mark the revival of anti-capitalist racial justice politics in the United States in a way that we have not seen since the civil rights, Black power, and Chicano movements of the 1960s and 1970s. As these movements continue to organize in the face of growing global inequality and right-wing populism, they offer another way forward.Black_Lives_Matter_logo.svg.png

To illustrate the creative potential of studying radical social movements, consider the question of policing. The Movement for Black Lives is the leading example of a contemporary racial justice movement with an analysis of political economy and a vision to transform the state. In my forthcoming article, Toward a Radical Imagination of Law, 93 N.Y.U. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2018), I consider policing through the lens of the Movement for Black Lives policy platform, “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice.”

I compare the Movement’s analysis with the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Ferguson and Baltimore reports. The Vision and DOJ reports offer alternate conceptualizations of the problem of policing and the appropriate approach to law reform. The comparison offers a study in the difference between an abolitionist approach to police reform, and a more traditional one.

Continue reading