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Envisioning a New World Through Abolition Geography
For more than 30 years, Ruth Wilson Gilmore has created scholarship on an idea once considered radical: that society can and should abolish prisons and policing.
Today, with greater attention being paid to how people of color, and Black people in particular, are disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system and prison industrial complex, Gilmore’s ideas are being taken seriously.
In 2019, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy profile of the academic and activist, crediting Gilmore with helping “transform how people think about criminal justice.”
Gilmore is a professor of earth and environmental sciences and American studies, and she is the director of the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the City University of New York Graduate Center. She co-founded several grassroots organizations, including the California Prison Moratorium Project, Critical Resistance, and the Central California Environmental Justice Network, all of which are actively working to abolish prisons.
She spoke with YES! Racial Justice Editor Sonali Kolhatkar about her latest book, Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation (Verso, 2022). The book is based on Gilmore’s numerous abolition-themed lectures and papers spanning several decades.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore: Thank you so much for having me. It’s good to be connected again.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Yes. It’s been many, many years. I think we last spoke about a decade ago. And I remember every time I would hear the word “abolition” in relation to the prison state over the past couple of years, your name would pop up in my head, and I would think, “Folks like Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis, Dylan Rodriguez, they’ve been saying these things for a very long time, this idea that we can actually imagine a world where there are no prisons.” Only in the last few years has it been taken seriously by the likes of The New York Times. So, when we talk about the geography of abolition, what does that mean, exactly?
Gilmore: Well, you know, the title of my book isn’t The Geography of Abolition. It’s Abolition Geography. And I put the words together in that order to make a peculiar kind of point. And the peculiar kind of point I’m trying to make is that we create the conditions for our everyday lives by organizing ourselves and materials and environmental resources. And, in putting those things together—sometimes institutionally as states or corporations or communities or unions, and sometimes in more free-flowing ways, let’s say, how mutual aid societies work—what we’re doing is we’re creating a place. Whether that place is small or big makes no difference. And those places can become abolition geographies. So that’s why “abolition” goes in front of “geography” rather than after a [preposition].
Kolhatkar: So, thinking about space, is that a way to visualize, in real terms, what abolition could look like, because otherwise it might seem abstract?
Gilmore: That is exactly right. That’s a really good way of putting it. For many people, when they first encounter this idea that seems so far-fetched, that we might abolish institutions of organized violence, such as police and prisons, they imagine some kind of void, something that isn’t, rather than all of the things that must be for that imagination to come into reality. And for us to make reality, we have to—and I’m going to repeat myself already—we have to make places. There is no social life that is not spatial life. There is no, kind of, dream of a better future that isn’t also a dream of organizing ourselves with one another and the environments in particular places, wherever they might be.
So, while most of my political experience over the last 30 years has been based in California, it’s not exclusively there, and the kind of thinking that I and others have been trying to develop in close collaboration with, and as, organizers, is work that is … it’s emerging all over the planet, all over the planet, in different kinds of places, propelled by different kinds of urgencies.
Kolhatkar: One of the first places that you discuss [in your book] is the academy. You’re an academic. The realm of academic thought, especially around race and policing, has become very fraught these days politically. The Republican Party and conservatives have realized that universities are increasingly functioning the way they’re supposed to be functioning because of people like yourself asking critical questions and encouraging critical thought. And so, there’s a war on “woke” academic thought. But yet, of course, the university remains a place that has engaged in supremacist thinking because it has white supremacist origins. So, let’s talk about what abolition geography can look like in the university.
Gilmore: OK, great question. First thing I must say is the oldest piece in the book, called “Decorative Beasts: Dogging the Academy in the Late 20th Century”—it’s in that first section—I wrote when I was a dropout. I was not even remotely an academic, not even minimally, marginally, not even an adjunct, yet. (I was a car mechanic, if you must know.) But what I was thinking about in those days and had the opportunity to discuss and eventually publish on, was the kind of places that universities could become, not so much because the various authorities and powers in charge of universities then or now would be individually and collectively amenable to certain sorts of changes; rather, because universities are, and have been, crossroads. And people encounter one another in universities the way they encounter one another in other places where people who are not neighbors, or otherwise likely to encounter one another in everyday life, can meet and learn and study and form ideas that otherwise might not have come into being.
And by saying that, I’m not saying that universities are where radical thinking starts. That’s an absurdity. But it is where certain kinds of energies can come together, and have. So, we can look across time and think about events in recent history, as in the sad story that I tell in “Decorative Beasts” about the assassination of John Huggins and Bunchy Carter, who were members of the Black Panther Party, Los Angeles chapter, who were also students at UCLA, one having done his service in the Navy and become radicalized while serving in Vietnam in the Tonkin Gulf, the other having become radicalized on the streets of Los Angeles and had done his service time in prison.
So, they, together with many different kinds of people whose paths crossed at UCLA, were trying to develop a vision for Black studies that would be attentive to issues pertaining not only to race, and in particular the experiences of people of African descent in the Americas, whose ancestors had been enslaved, but also to class, and to colonialism, and imperialism. All of those things mattered to them.
Or, we could go halfway around the world at the same time, where the University of Dar es Salaam was such a central place, where people from all over the decolonizing world encountered one another, developed ideas for strategies.
Or, we could go to Lisbon, Portugal, where, in the late 1950s, students from the overseas empire came to Lisbon to study anything from engineering to agronomy to English literature, [and] were segregated from living with mainland Portuguese students. But in living together, they formed ideas, developed study groups, and did a lot of the preparatory work that resulted eventually in the revolutions in Guinea, Bissau, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Angola, and so forth.
So, these are all examples of universities being crossroads. And, the fact of the matter is, it is not surprising that the state of Florida is going after universities and trying to frighten people from pursuing certain kinds of thought. It’s not the magic of words, it is rather the energy of people coming together that matters. So that energy actually won’t be, or shouldn’t be, completely suppressed, even if the state of Florida is trying completely to suppress it.
And I’ll give one more example to make that vivid. And that is the University of Western Cape in South Africa. You probably know that the apartheid government came to power in 1948 in South Africa. Under apartheid, the state developed a university system that was rigorously segregated according to the multiple segregation categories of South Africa. And one of the “Bush” universities was University of Western Cape. So, in the context of segregation at the UWC, what happened? Not unlike the students from Portugal’s overseas empire who met in Lisbon, people congregating at the University of Western Cape spent a lot of time and energy, underground, but there, organizing and promoting ideas informing political alliances that eventually, over time, helped to bring about the demise of apartheid.
So, these are some of the many examples. And each one of those examples, in my view, is an example of a university becoming an abolition place. So it’s not completely changing the whole university, but rather using resources and the dynamics available to make new things happen.
Kolhatkar: And I suppose it’s not a surprise at all that the university ends up being a place of origin for many freedom movements around the world, in places like Iran today, and in Latin America, where you see a lot of student-led movements. In your book Abolition Geography, you write in your essay “Decorative Beasts” that for those who are “fighting for power in the Academy in crisis,” “the stakes are the control of epistemology: Who teaches? What is taught? Who learns?” It seems as though those are the very stakes that are still relevant today, even though you wrote this essay a long time ago. And that’s where the power lies, right? Where the intellectual agenda for society can get set?
Gilmore: That’s correct. And, you know, thinking with you along this trail, one thing that we can dwell on briefly is that making curricular decisions is obviously a form of power. It shapes what happens in classrooms, why—or, to raise those questions that you just cited—who studies, who learns what, and to what end?
The large context for abolition geography is necessarily racial capitalism.
We can do that in a number of ways. We can do it in, you know, sort of noisy ways, trying to demand change from the top. Or we can do it somewhat more quietly in the context of classrooms. I know that my colleagues in Florida are figuring out how to do these things, continue to do what they’ve been doing quietly in classrooms. And anybody who’s listening in from the “Florida thought police” will probably never figure out the multiple ways that people figure out how to teach.
Kolhatkar: And you cite Florida because that seems to be the epicenter of attacks on things like critical race theory by Gov. Ron DeSantis?
Gilmore: Exactly. And, of course, although Florida’s leading the way, plenty of other states, and school districts, and so forth, are rapidly following. So, one of the ways that people sort of struggle to figure out how to fight in the context of so much fascist and proto-fascist repression is sometimes to make huge declamations, which are correct, and other times, as I said earlier, to work more quietly and persistently and in collaboration with as many other people as possible.
It’s true as well that universities and colleges in the United States are all going through a very, very long sea change. And … in the time that I was coming of age in the middle of the 20th century, the opportunities for higher education were expanding really significantly, so dramatically. You know, the number of seats [within higher education] grew every year. So, while the desegregation of post-secondary education by both race and gender shifted dramatically in that time, it’s also true that the entire size of universities grew quite dramatically from the ’50s until the early 1980s.
During that time, school was not exactly free, but even private schools were, relatively speaking, affordable, because of how financial aid works, because of how debt was a very little—if present at all—aspect of how individuals and families paid for school, and so forth. And it was starting in the very late ’70s, early ’80s, that the price of post-secondary education took off, hand in hand with the rise in the availability of student loans, which had been a very small component of federal financial aid up until the late 1970s. So, all of this weight of debt has had a conservatizing effect on people for the obvious reason.
Debt always makes people more conservative, whether your debt is to pay your credit card, or to pay your house mortgage, or to pay your car note, or to pay your school debt, or the other kinds of debts that people have. Debt is a frightening thing, and it makes people somewhat more conservative, until and unless they figure out, as the, I think, hundreds of thousands of people who have been active in the Debt Collective in recent years have learned, that if they band together, then instead of becoming more individualized and conservative, what people can do is agitate nonstop for relief from this debt. And, it might be news to your listeners, it might not, that the Debt Collective, which has a very high profile in being a leading voice against the debilitating consequences of student debt, are also equally committed to relieving people of medical debt.
Kolhatkar: What can abolition geography look like outside of the academy, in society, in ways that can thwart white supremacy? How can we envision an abolition geography that is anti-racist?
Gilmore: A way to think about the book is to think about it as a book about class war. Because that’s what it is. And, if you read through the essays—it’s a long book, it’s 480 pages, I think, a lot of essays—read through them, you see war pops up pretty frequently. And frequently, war will pop up and it’s in relation to a war like the war on Vietnam or the Second World War or other wars. And other times, war pops up as a way of describing the conditions under which people are living and struggling and trying to maintain themselves and their lives and communities. And that latter war, which is not unrelated to the hot wars that I just mentioned, is at the bottom, class war.
And class war is, as we learn by reading people like Stuart Hall, one of my great mentors and influences, very carefully, class war is … lived through the modalities of race, of nation, of national origin, of sexuality, of gender, all of those different categories of existence that we all invoke all the time, all together shape class.
I don’t like the word “intersection” very much. But … I think what people who find Kimberlé Crenshaw’s idea useful are trying to say [is] that there are these multiple interactions that shape experience. They don’t necessarily, though, create a specificity of experience that makes it wholly separate from the experiences of people whose categorical aspects come together in different ways.
So, the large context for abolition geography is necessarily racial capitalism. And if it is necessarily racial capitalism, it is also, as you were saying earlier, the carceral state, or states in general.
Now, I’m not anti-state. I’m not an anarchist. I have not concluded yet—and I’m almost 73 years old—that something called the state must at all times be more against me than for me. I think that we need big things, like transportation, and clean water, and adequate housing. And I believe in education and all of those things, and health care. And I haven’t been convinced that these are things that we can make through some kind of mutual aid self-sufficiency. But those are things for us to debate.
However, where abolition comes in to our ability to understand the specificities of class war, as we look around the world, which is to say even leaving aside the experiences of people who live in the white supremacist settler colonial states—because most people on the planet don’t—and yet class war is as vibrant and devastating in those places as it is in the U.S. or Canada or Australia or South Africa.
So, what then, I ask myself, does abolition bring to a general concern about the question of class war and the underlying question about how we understand class composition?
This takes me back again to Stuart Hall and many of the other people I’ve learned with and from over the years. And that is that the way many people have tended to define class has been outdated for as long as a lot of people have written about it.
Let us say when Marx was still alive and the Paris Commune had, quite successfully, even for a limited period, taken over a good deal of that city, one could not say something crisp and clear about what the class that composed that uprising and successful takeover looked like.
Or, if we look around the world as it transformed in the 20th century into the U.S.S.R. or the People’s Republic of China and other places, we see that the class composition of those revolutionary societies was not an industrialized proletariat. It was really mixed. It was proletarian and peasants and all kinds of people in between. And yet the revolutionary fervor arose from the ground up, given how people connected their senses of vulnerability and their demands for protection and opportunity.
And that’s where we are, I think, in the current moment, that abolition lets us look at how people are struggling and understand that the organized abandonment that characterizes so much of everyday life under capitalism, which is to say racial capitalism, all capitalism, that that organized abandonment is maintained, is bordered and boundaried by the forces of organized violence. And we can see that most explicitly in prison and police. It’s not only there. But that’s [where] we see it most explicitly, with prison and police.
So, taking then that wider view from the lens of abolition, we can see that the contours of class, in any number of circumstances in which people are actually struggling, will not necessarily reflect categorically something called the industrial proletariat. And yet, what we’ll see are people who are struggling because of the organization of capitalist accumulation, whose need to control land, to have housing, to have food, to have water, to be able to move around, to stay put, is all shaped, again, by the forces of organized violence. And abolition then says clearly, this is a central struggle in all class war.
Kolhatkar: So then, would it be safe to say that abolition of prisons does not, and cannot, happen in isolation, that if we want to see an end of the prison state, we have to understand how deeply it is a part of our racial capitalist system? And then, in order to envision a world without prisons, we need to envision an entirely different world all together?
Gilmore: That’s exactly right. That is exactly right. And some people who are listening to us now say, “Oh, that’s so unrealistic, envisioning an entirely different world!” And I say to people, “Are you looking at me through a computer screen? That is a world entirely different from the world I was born into.
“Sonali and I are talking to each other. These are entirely different worlds from the worlds our parents were born into.
“We are both speaking English. These are entirely different worlds from a century and a half ago. We can go on and on and on.”
Imagining the impossible is what people have been doing in the struggle for liberation. That’s what it is. That’s what it is. And there are all different kinds of actions and energies that come together to realize these struggles.
I’ll give an example from a recent experience that I had. My partner, Craig Gilmore, and I were in South Africa for three weeks at the end of November and into the middle of December. And we’d been invited there by some comrades. I mentioned the University of Western Cape. [Members of the UWC] were my hosts in Cape Town. Also, an organization called The Forge in Johannesburg. And the “Shack Dwellers” organization, Abahlali baseMjondolo, which is kind of dotted around South Africa, most strongly in Durban, but also in Johannesburg and elsewhere.
And the people who are active and organized in Abahlali are people who have, in the desperation of needing a place to live—this is basic, a place to live—have collectively occupied land and built houses. And then, to the extent they can, used every possible means to defend them, using legal means, and appeals to the constitution, and other means, even as the forces of organized violence, whether it’s the central state police, provincial police, metropolitan police, eviction units, and so forth, are constantly destroying the communities the people have built.
Abahlali has been around now for 15 or 16 years. We had the opportunity to visit several of the different “villages,” let’s call them, dotted around the country, meet with leadership, talk to people. It was quite astonishing to do.
And what we saw, of course, in the context of people building socialism from the ground up, was people realizing the impossible. There’s nothing utopian about the everyday lives of people in the communities, and yet there were places where people feel a lot of hope and energy and possibility because of what people have accomplished together.
Have they exited, as it were, “the state?” No, they are demanding that the state, whether it’s the municipal or provincial or central government, provide water and sanitation and all of the other things that the state should provide. So, it’s not as though they’ve built a self-sustaining community that doesn’t need running water, doesn’t need electricity, doesn’t need all the things. It needs those things, and by working together in building and maintaining the communities, what has happened is in some cases—but not all—people have successfully gotten the infrastructural support that any residential community needs. And these are fights over urban space.
If we turn our sights to Brazil—somewhere I haven’t been yet—we see that the MST, the landless workers movement, is doing similar kinds of work. And Abahlali and the MST are in conversation with one another in a really beautiful and, I believe, strong, internationalist, solidarity move, that is happening other places as well.
So, these to me are examples of abolition geography. They’re examples of people doing anti-racist work, not only by polemicizing about racism—which is necessary when it’s necessary—but by making something, by making and doing things. And quite often some of that possibility doesn’t even seem realizable until, for example, artists have helped people kind of open their imaginations to what can be done.
And I don’t mean our artists making up a kind of science fiction fable that then ordinary people realize, but just the way that art enables your mind and heart to open, to sense, even if you can’t quite explain the possibilities for different configurations of human and resource interaction.
Kolhatkar: “World building,” they call it these days.
Gilmore: World building! That’s even better.
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com