Jed Walsh and Mackenzie Barton-Rowledge are close friends who do police and prison abolition work together. They sent Western Friend a conversation about what abolition means to them, and how it fits into their lives as Quakers.
Mackenzie: Let’s start with: What does being a police and prison abolitionist mean to you?
Jed: The way I think about abolition is first, rejecting the idea that anyone belongs in prison and that police make us safe. The second, and larger, part of abolition is the process of figuring out how to build a society that doesn’t require police or prisons.
M: Yes! The next layer of complexity, in my opinion, is looking at systems of control and oppression. Who ends up in jail and prison? Under what circumstances do the police use violence?
As you start exploring these questions, it becomes painfully clear that police and prisons exist to maintain the white supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist status quo. The racial dynamics of police violence are being highlighted by the recent uprisings and the Black Lives Matter movement. We also know that there are more Black men under carceral control today than were enslaved in the U.S. at any time in our history. Nearly three-quarters of people in jails haven’t been convicted of any crime, but they’re too poor to make bail. Police use chemical weapons banned in war against Indigenous people praying for the water, but largely ignore the epidemic of wage theft committed by businesses. Leroy Moore, a disabled Black educator and activist, estimates that 70% of people killed by police are disabled. We know that trans people are both explicitly targeted by police for being trans, and much more likely to be abused while incarcerated. Detention centers are also a part of the prison industrial complex: a monument of cages and human rights abuses to demonstrate our xenophobia.
Honestly, the data is overwhelming, so it’s easy to start focusing on small reforms like: “Let’s ban chokeholds!” But abolition challenges us to hold the radical truths that nobody deserves violence, and that the institutions of police and prisons are essentially about using violence to oppress and control. We know that even when chokeholds are banned, police still use them to kill people like Eric Garner.
Abolitionists recognize that the only way to stop the violence of police and prisons is to get rid of them. Police and prisons don’t actually offer safety or healing; we get to figure out new strategies ourselves!
J: For me, being an abolitionist has required me to really interrogate and clarify the ways that I approach harm, safety, and healing. I have been tremendously instructed by the brilliance of queer and trans people of color, who have developed models for transformative justice and community accountability.
Some of the groups I’ve learned the most from are INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, generationFIVE, Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, Philly Stands Up and Philly’s Pissed, and many more. One of the main lessons for me has been that everyone has the capacity to cause harm to others, and everyone has been harmed by someone else. Instead of trying to divide the world up into “good” and “bad” people, we need to learn to support healing and wellness for everyone, so that the harm doesn’t happen again.
M: Yes! So often, when we feel hurt, we lash out at the person who hurt us to try and force them to see our pain. But just because it’s instinctual (and understandable!), that doesn’t make it morally right -- and data shows it’s not very effective. Peace can never be demanded at gunpoint. That’s not what nonviolence means, and more than that, it’s not what safety looks like.
J: Thanks for this point! Something I find myself coming back to all the time is this formulation that really resonates for me: “The opposite of violence isn’t nonviolence. The opposite of violence is care.” I’ve been thinking for a long time about what it takes to challenge, reduce, or prevent violence, and I think care is an essential part of the puzzle. I also really like how Mia Mingus describes transformative justice. She says that, “At its most basic, transformative justice seeks to respond to violence without creating more violence.”
So, when there’s something violent happening in our community, we need to look for ways to respond that aren’t just calling in armed police officers or trying to have someone shipped off to prison. I’m really eager for Friends to continue building, strategizing, and learning with each other, so that we have more tools for responding to crisis, rather than just defaulting to calling the police.
Communities of color, particularly Black people, have long recognized the police and the prison industrial complex are bound up with white supremacy and are a continuation of slavery. Our criminal legal system is fundamentally shaped by colonialism, anti-Blackness, capitalism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia. As Friends, our Society has a long history of participating in social movements to challenge oppression; but in our recent experience, Friends have seemed very hesitant and resistant to embracing police and prison abolition. I believe that part of this resistance is because the majority of white Friends have been unable or unwilling to overcome our allegiances to a culture of white supremacy.
M: Oh yeah. It’s wild how doing anything that challenges white supremacy is so difficult, internally, collectively, and societally. I’ve been working on my internalized white supremacy for my whole adult life. I started with the more obvious things, like noticing that I would cross the street to avoid walking past Black men, or educating myself about the racism in the U.S. “justice” system, or just reading and listening to people of color speak about race and racism more generally. Pushing back on my defensiveness is a pain! Even after years of work, when the Black Lives Matter movement started, it became clear that I was still awkward as hell in Black spaces, tripping myself up trying to be politically correct while I interrupted people who were far more wise and experienced than me. I make so many mistakes, but I feel like the most important things are that I keep showing up, and that I listen when I am asked to show up differently.
J: I appreciate you sharing all of this. I think it’s important for white folks to talk with each other about our experiences, our mistakes, and our continuing journeys in anti-racist movements.
M: Thanks. One of the lessons I learned from the Black and POC folks I organize with is that white supremacy is deeply embedded within every aspect of our society, including within every individual’s conditioning. What we think are the “normal” ways of treating other people, the “normal” ways of dealing with conflict, the stuff we fall back on when we’re feeling stressed or tired – it all so often reinforces these huge systems of racism, colonialism, white entitlement, and so on. Tema Okun put together a powerful and concise summary of “white supremacy culture” that I can’t recommend highly enough! (Google it, it’s great.) White supremacy culture really loves both punishment and shaming. Both of these things are at the core of a punitive “justice” system.
J: And just like how white supremacy has manifestations everywhere, abolition can also be applied at every level! One of the things that I value in our friendship – and that can be frustrating! – is that we have this shared commitment to recognizing that we both are going to mess up, make mistakes, and sometimes harm each other – and that we are still going to strive to see the other person’s inherent goodness, no matter what. I also appreciate that both of us see our own healing and well-being as priorities, and that we expect that from each other. How do you think our abolitionist politics have affected our friendship?
M: I feel like your way of showing up to our friendship has always been this breath of fresh air, even when you’re being a jerk, because you own who you are, and you allow me to be who I am. I’ve learned so much from you about what liberatory relationships feel like.
You really make space for me to consent to everything, whether it’s asking if I have time to talk right now or telling me the impact of my actions on you so that I can make informed decisions. Abolition means acknowledging when something isn’t working and advocating when your rights or needs are being ignored, but without shaming. Like you said, we regularly run into the limits of what each of us is able to do, but we both believe each of us is good enough, even with all our imperfections. That belief in being “good enough” and the ways we both remind each other that we are always good enough, even when we have accountability work to do: that has been transformative for me.
This starts to answer the question of what a future without police and prisons might feel like. Walidah Imarisha is a brilliant visionary fiction/science fiction writer and prison abolitionist who taught me that we can’t create what we can’t imagine. So, what would an abolitionist world look like to you?
J: My vision of the future is grounded in relationships and in a belief that we can build communities of care that undo violence. I see the larger, collective “us” striving to be in good relationships with ourselves, with our neighbors, with non-human life, and with the places where we live. I believe that we can have a future with laughter, play, good food, music, rest, and self-determination, and I believe that this future is within our reach.
M: Yes! I also want to ground our visions for the future in the struggles of our past. Quakers in particular have such a rich history around the original abolitionist movement to end slavery. We still often lift up William Penn, who enslaved and trafficked Black people, conveniently forgetting to mention this “nuance” of his background. It took us a hundred-odd years to decide as a body that the enslavement of Black people was wrong. And yet, we did. Quakers were the only Christian denomination to formally denounce slavery in the antebellum U.S. In the book Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship, Vanessa Julye and Donna McDaniel describe how white Friends in the U.S. succeeded in becoming abolitionists, but failed (and continue to fail) by repeating the racism that white society is steeped in.
And again, we are in the same place, with a call to imagine a culture radically different than the one in which we live. Abolishing police and prisons, like abolishing slavery, would change the structure of our society: dramatically decreasing violence and undoing one set of power relationships that create domination and marginalization. And in place of this violence, we could, instead, have care.
Mackenzie Barton-Rowledge is a scientist who loves learning and has a deep commitment to integrity. She is grateful that Jed introduced her to Quakerism and has helped guide her on her path to becoming an abolitionist.
Jed Walsh is a queer and trans Friend, a youth worker, and is invested in social movements for liberation. He’s been a Quaker since he was a teenager and an abolitionist since 2012, when a friend loaned him the book Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis.
Both Friends live in Seattle and are members of University Friends Meeting (NPYM).
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