Reflections by R.B. Brooks
On November 10, 2020, I had the honor of facilitating The Rise of a Trans Abolitionist Vision in conversation with four incredible change-makers—Ar’Tesha Saballos, Dominique Morgan, Justin Toliver, and Qui Alexander. During a year of frenzy and depleted energy, being anchored in a space of necessary reflection on abolitionist practices from these brilliant minds was a welcome rejuvenation.
As I’ve replayed the conversation in my mind, I'm grateful for the continued emergence of new questions and considerations that will guide and influence my own abolitionist efforts. While the list of lessons I’ve extracted from the space is still unfolding, there are a few highlights I keep revisiting.
We must center Black, queer, and trans people in our abolitionist envisioning
Ideally this is common sense, but given the continued reality of white supremacy and its interconnectedness with heterosexism, patriarchy and additional systems of oppression, we still have to contend with movement work that does not internalize this vital lesson. There are major gaps in both queer and trans liberation and abolitionist spaces, at least the ones that get the most media hype and political attention. Each needs to gravitate toward the priorities of those most impacted by systems of policing and imprisonment.
During the discussion, I invoked a quote from Angela Davis where she says:
"If we want an intersectional perspective, the trans community is showing us the way. The trans community has taught us to challenge that which is perceived to be normal. If we can challenge the gender binary, we can challenge prisons."
As we dove into reflections on this statement, I appreciated how Qui held this question and quote in tension, asserting that they believe Davis must have been implying that Black trans folks are showing us the way in challenging modes of social control such as the gender binary and prisons.
Abolitionists don’t agree on everything
We can all agree that abolition is inevitable, but the pathways we take, the methods we use, and the approaches we lean into are not as evident. I am reminded of Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ call for humility at Creating Change 2020 when she said there are no experts on racial justice, because no one has ever lived in a racially just society. And I think that idea easily transposes into thinking about abolition– there are a lot of unknowns and no magic elixir to take us to our liberated future. What we do know is that our current systems are not working for us. What we do have is collective, instinctive, and ancestral knowledge that can inform a wide variety of bold experiments that we can launch to get us closer to actualizing a future where our safety and wellbeing is assured.
Giving grace will get us far(ther)
This lesson came up when reflecting on what it means to be in community with others who flat-out reject or are not ready to invest in an abolitionist vision. Several points made by the panelists accumulated in the idea that it is important to deeply engage with those in our ecosystem in order to both invite them into thinking about meaningful change and because the changes we envision must include everyone. What was technically unnamed, but conceptually present in this part of our discussion is that this work still requires preserving our energy. Therefore, we are wise to note the difference between those who just wish to antagonize us and diminish our vision versus those who, even when there’s significant ideological differences between you, can be engaged with in generative ways.
Giving grace to others was just a fraction of this lesson. The humility of doing this work and being implicated in the messiness of it all was also emphasized. We are humans who are molded by the same toxic systems we aim to usurp and we all succumb to the simplicity of participating in the continuation of those violent systems everyday. This can range from guilty pleasure binge watching Law & Order: SVU to finding ourselves in situations where we don’t know what else to do besides call the police.
While we have a large, vibrant sky full of constellations to guide us to new and different ways of being , we are still making up a lot as we go. And there will be mistakes, there will be times we don’t have the energy, resources or knowledge to contribute and we’ll feel like we’re not doing enough. But giving ourselves grace to know that we’re doing for ourselves what is not being done for us by these current systems, that will carry us so far.
There is an abolitionist future because we are in an abolitionist present
Abolition is not a one-time event far off in the future, it’s right now. We are surrounded by daily actions and behaviors that deliberately reject systems of policing and imprisonment devised by those who have long-since learned that they are targets of state-sanctioned violence against their existence. With each wave of uprising against police brutality, we see community-based practices that were previously illegible to the general public suddenly adapted and put in place in other communities. Practices such as mutual aid became more common-place in response to the impact of both COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd. But mutual aid and the sourcing of materials needed by community members is hardly new, it’s just possible it’s existed in our communities on such a small scale that we wouldn’t be aware of its existence unless we interacted with the resource directly. We need only scan our communities to discover models that could be adapted or scaled-up as tactics for eliminating systems of policing and imprisonment.
QTI/BIPOC have been given countless reasons to craft alternatives to calling the police, utilizing the court systems, relying on legislation and policy, or expecting justice from our current structures. This way of knowing is rooted in survival, but also in imagination and the propensity of systemically disenfranchised people to dream, scheme and create new worlds while still contending with the conditions of the current one.
This space reminded me of my initial invitation into abolition and how I originally compartmentalized it from the queer and trans liberation work I was involved with because I wasn’t seeing the linkages and overlaps. Over the years these seemingly separate aspirations of change have melded together and this deep reflection with Qui, Justin, Dominique, and Ar’Tesha revealed more connections and possibilities for alignment. Like anything that’s practiced, I believe embodying abolition requires commitment, repetition, study, and execution. This conversation was a testament to how putting concepts and ideas into practice plants seeds that will flourish into nourishment in our liberated future.
R. B. Brooks (they/them) is director of programs for the Midwest Institute for Sexuality and Gender Diversity. Find them on Twitter or Instagram at @TranzWrites or contact them at email@example.com
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All panelists were compensated for their labor on the panel. Unfortunately, abolition work is often uncompensated. If you'd like to tip the panelists, their pay app information is provided below.
Ar’Tesha Saballos: Venmo @Artesha-Saballos
Dominique Morgan: Venmo Dm120660 / CashApp $DM56892 / PayPal firstname.lastname@example.org
Justin Toliver: Venmo @JustinUniverse1 / CashApp $JustinUniverse1
Qui Alexander: Venmo @Qui-Alexander