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. 

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Teaching from Narrative in Property Law – Part II of II

Kali Murray –

In my last post, I argued that property law needs to tell new stories, and in doing so, a key benefit would be that we would “uncover” the relationship between property and equality.  In this second post, I will turn to another benefit to using narrative as a teaching tool–the ability to “frame” abstract concepts by grounding them in experiential detail.  To do so, I would like to tell a story.

One of my favorite property narratives comes from an entry contained in the diary of Charlotte Forten, a noted antebellum African-American abolitionist. In this entry, written in 1864, Forten describes visiting a government-occupied plantation in South Carolina before she went to work with newly freed communities. During her visit, Forten marvels that when she “[a]rrived at the Superintendent’s house we were kindly greeted by him and the ladies and shown into a lofty ceilinged parlor where a cheerful wood fire glowed in a grate, and soon we began to feel quite at home in the very heart of Rebeldom.” Forten’s narrative offers a new frame by which we can view three subjects that are often poorly understood in property law: dispossession, disruption and spatiality.

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