A Handbook for Abolitionists
Patrisse Cullors’ new book offers guidance for personal, as well as systemic, change. Breaking the cycle of harm starts with us.
I still remember the first time I answered a call from a jail. I barely heard the name, but I recognized the voice. It sounded like my father. Confused, I couldn’t figure out how to accept the call and mistakenly selected the option to disconnect. I was so upset. I immediately called my mom and asked, “Would Daddy be calling from jail?” She hesitated to respond before she reluctantly said, “Yes.”
My dad, a factory worker, struggled to pay child support. Not because he didn’t try but because he didn’t make enough money to pay the court-ordered amount and make rent, his car payment, and buy basic necessities, like food, medicine, and personal hygiene products. Each month, the amount he owed grew. He would pay what he could but it was never enough. At some point, the court determined he “willfully” failed to pay and ordered him to jail. This started what felt like an unending cycle.
As you can imagine, it is hard to be consistent with payments if at any point the State can put you in jail for unpaid child support. My father lost his job, his apartment, his car, and was homeless for nearly 10 years. Absolutely no one was better off because my father was incarcerated for inability to pay the full amount of child support owed. In fact, everyone—he and his children especially—were worse off. In my name, in my sisters’ names, in our mothers’ names, the court caused harm. This is how my journey to abolition began.
In her new book, An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World, Patrisse Cullors starts with courageous conversations. She says, “We have courageous conversations because our goal is to live inside of a healthy community that values the dignity of every single human being.” These conversations typically arise out of our lived experiences. They are conversations we have because we care. They are conversations that first start with us.
Like Cullors, I had one of my most formative courageous conversations with my mother. I wanted to know why child support was the reason my dad was in jail. I wanted to know what role each parent played in the process. I wanted to know what we could do to make things better. Unbeknownst to me, my mother had already decided that the costs of this punitive process far outweighed the benefits. She told the court she didn’t want court-ordered child support if this would be the outcome every time my father could not pay the full amount to my mother and my half-sister’s mother. Eventually, she told the court she didn’t want it at all.
Through Cullors’ own story, she demonstrates how hard courageous conversations can be, especially with family, friends, other organizers, or elders in our communities. She points out that “Many of us, including myself, were taught in homes, places of worship, schools and many other institutions to hold back our words, not necessarily because someone explicitly told us to be secretive but rather because we witnessed all the adults around us who lacked the courage to be honest with themselves and others. This is not a judgment; it is an observation.”
We replicate the behaviors around us. Challenging the status quo, even in conversation, even with our mothers, is hard and requires courage. To question deeply entrenched beliefs and values about each other and ourselves and to dismantle massive, violent systems requires tenacity and the readiness to understand the difference between responding to the world and reacting.
When I initially called my mom after receiving the first jail call, I cried. I blamed. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t listen. I just reacted. Fortunately, my mother chose to be courageous and remain in conversation with me. But some of us don’t always have the space to respond rather than react. In fact, many of us with the knee of oppression on our necks learn to keep secrets or to just keep moving through unresolved harm and trauma in order to survive. The systems around us were built to keep some people in perpetual survival mode. They were built to keep us trapped, reacting to harm rather than responding in ways that heal and prevent harm.
Abolition is about getting free. Being forced by oppressive systems and unjust material conditions to react abruptly is not freedom.
These are the same forces that drive our children into the school-to-prison pipeline, leave our elders vulnerable to eviction, steal our loved ones from our homes, and perpetuate harm and systemic violence through punishment and incarceration. Many of us live in conditions that force us to be constantly reacting with little time to formulate a helpful response. Cullors writes, “Abolition is about how we respond to harm caused and how we respond when we cause harm.” Abolition is stopping the cycle of reaction and creating space to respond with care and dignity.
My mother could have reacted to my father’s inability to pay child support. She could have demanded the court continue utilizing punitive and harmful tactics. After all, my mother carried her own hurt from the relationship she and my father shared. She instead chose to respond from a place of care and dignity. She knew that the more time my father spent in jail, the less time he spent working and, more importantly, the less time he had with his children. While my mother’s decision to stop child support payments did not immediately end the court’s tyranny in my father’s life, it did transform the relationship between me and my mother. Her choice to respond rather than react prevented further harm and brought healing into our lives.
Justice should transform. At minimum, justice should not perpetuate harm. At most, it should bring healing and accountability. Our current so-called “justice” system is reactive—and punitive. It fails to actually respond to our needs for safety, healing, and accountability. Cullors writes, “Our practice toward grounded responsiveness offers a model for both our personal relationships and our movement relationships. We can choose to center our values over our reactive vitriol. We can choose to be in community and model a new approach toward naming requests.” When our responses are grounded in care and dignity first, we are developing an abolitionist culture that has the capacity to be truly just and transformative.