How Anti-violence Activism Taught Me to Become a Prison Abolitionist

January 21, 2014
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By Beth E. Richie

Richie-Anti-Violence activismSometimes we learn our most profound political lessons in the contours of our everyday activism.  This is certainly the case for me as I recount my journey as a Black feminist activist working to end gender violence for the past 20 years, during which the United States was engaged in building itself up as the world’s leading prison nation. My journey began in Harlem, the renowned community in New York City that was at the center of struggles for racial and economic justice.  The on-the-ground work at the time included organizing for material changes (safe and affordable housing, better schools, accessible health care, jobs that offered a future, political representation, neighborhood businesses that support the local economy, and the end to growing expansion of the prison industrial complex). The organizing work was sustained by rhetoric about the “liberation of our people” and the vision of what our community would look like if we could sustain grassroots activism in the service of broad-based social change.

As many Black and other feminists of color will remember, the promise of liberation within racial justice formations was critically hampered by the lack of an analysis of how gender oppression figured into the work.  Indeed, despite our demands that the analysis include: 1) how women experience injustice (like poverty or incarceration) in particular ways 2) that the particular oppression that women suffer (like sexual assault by individuals or state agencies) be included into the activist agenda and 3) that women’s leadership be recognized and supported as critical to political advancement, we were disappointed.

This disappointment was part of what propelled me to immerse myself in the anti-violence movement against rape, battering, sexual harassment, emotional abuse, and economic exploitation of women and the non-gender conforming. These activist organizations provided a temporary relief, and my commitment to feminist ideas was rejuvenated. But the respite provided by local and national anti-violence organizations was brief; very quickly I became aware of the political limitations that a gender-essentialized notion of violence held for a truly transformative agenda related to women of color. Indeed, substituting a gender analysis that did not include a very well articulated position regarding racial or class hierarchy was as much a roadblock as a racial justice project that does not include gender.  In particular, an analysis of gender oppression that did not include state violence excluded a large part of the abuses that Black and other women of color experienced because of their position as racialized bodies in a heteropatrichal society. A second major disappointment.

The ongoing work of trying to find the political crossroads that link racial and economic justice with an analysis of gender oppression became more difficult in the 1980s and 1990’s when the United States deepened its commitment to building itself up as a prison nation. The complications looked something like this.  First, both the public and private sector committed more and more resources to the prison industrial complex while at the same time elite leaders advanced an ideological campaign to frame public “risk” in racialized terms.  Second, neoliberal policy decisions lead to the divestment of economic resources from already disadvantaged communities who suffer deepening degrees of material and political liabilities that turned social problems into “crimes”. Third, political organizing strategies used by both anti-violence organizations and racial justice groups got coopted by a “not-for-profit/social service” mentality that served as a distraction from the root causes of structural inequality and the violence that results from it.  Groups organized to resist racialized oppression or class exploitation or gender violence or other monolithic formulations, treating them as separate issues. And they lost focus on how the state colludes to construct a hierarchy of oppression that cannot be agreed upon or changed.

On the ground today, it looks something like this. The anti-violence movement buys into the carceral state by advancing “anti-violence” campaigns that rely on arrest, prosecution, and punishment as ways to solve the problem of gender violence. The focus of the problem is individual incidents of abuse rather than public policies that result in state violence against women and queer communities, which are ignored by feminist groups who invest in or accept resources that are tied to the growing punishment industry. Those racial justice organizations that do resist state violence and the concomitant crises that result from mass incarceration see their work in mansculinist terms. Some even point to anti-violence activism as one of the culprits in the mass incarceration of poor men of color. Many fail to understand that the criminal legal system is not only racist, it relies on heteropatriarcal assumptions that narrate a kind of social order that is based on domination.

So how do anti-violence activism and prison abolition politics get politically reconciled when the movements have been so set apart from one another?  Angela Davis, Ruthie Gilmore, Alicia Beira, Andrea Smith and other members of the INCITE national organizing committee articulate this more fully. We are learning collectively that the way out is not to simply keep pushing back against each of those policies, strategies, and movement organizations that have disappointed us, but rather to adopt a feminist political strategy that embraces the possibility of Prison Abolition. This is where we would bring together attention to state violence as an essential aspect of ending violence against women of color and non-gender conforming communities.  All people would be safer. It means investing in a new kind of community, especially within communities of color, where those who are most disadvantaged are in leadership of sustained, base-building activities for justice. Concerns about gender justice and sexuality liberation would necessarily be included. Strategies to address the harm caused by violence would be grounded in these stronger, more equitable communities. Safety would come from communities, and, therefore, prisons could eventually become obsolete. Here, in a feminist prison abolition project is where I find the best possibility of the kind of liberation that I have been working towards for so long.

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Beth Richie photoBeth E. Richie is Director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy and Professor of African American Studies and Criminology, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  The emphasis of her scholarly and activist work has been on the ways that race/ethnicity and social position affect women’s experience of violence and incarceration, focusing on the experiences of African American battered women and sexual assault survivors.  Dr. Richie is the author ofArrested Justice: Black Women, Violence and America’s Prison Nation(NYU Press, 2012), which chronicles the evolution of the contemporary anti-violence movement during the time of mass incarceration in the United States,  and numerous articles concerning Black feminism and gender violence, race and criminal justice policy, and the social dynamics around issues of sexuality, prison abolition, and grassroots organizations in African American Communities. Her earlier book, Compelled to Crime: the Gender Entrapment of Black Battered Women, is taught in many college courses and cited in the popular press for its original arguments concerning race, gender, and crime.  Dr. Richie is a qualitative researcher who is also working on an ethnographic project documenting the conditions of confinement in women’s prisons.  Her work has been supported by grants from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The National Institute for Justice, and The National Institute of Corrections.  Among others, she has been awarded the Audre Lorde Legacy Award from the Union Institute, The Advocacy Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and The Visionary Award from the Violence Intervention Project. Dr. Richie is a board member of The Woods Fund of Chicago, The Institute on Domestic Violence in the African Community, The Center for Fathers’ Families and Public Policy, and a founding member of INCITE!: Women of Color Against Violence.  In 2013 she was awarded an Honorary Degree from the City University of New York Law School.

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3 Responses to How Anti-violence Activism Taught Me to Become a Prison Abolitionist

  1. True Grit Project: Season Of Incubation | on January 24, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    […] How Anti-Violence Activism Taught Me to Become a Prison Abolitionist, The Feminist […]

  2. […] activist Beth E. Ritchie writes about her ‘journey as a Black feminist activist working to end gender violence for the past 20 […]

  3. […] addressing violence against women without expanding the prison culture […]

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