Justice is not an event: Towards understanding abolition
Jesse A. Goldberg

An introduction to the uprooting and planting contained in abolition, which brings in the scholarship of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba and Angela Davis, among many others.

On Tuesday, 20 April, this year, a jury in Minneapolis, Minnesota found police officer Dereck Chauvin guilty of murdering 45-year-old George Floyd. Minutes after the verdict was delivered, police in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. Floyd and Bryant were two human beings with full, complex lives enriched with many different kinds of relationships, struggles and triumphs. And they are now two more names in a long list of Black people killed by police and self-deputised law enforcers in a centuries-long history of anti-Black violence that demands nothing short of prison-industrial complex (PIC) abolition.

This essay is an introduction and an invitation. It is broadly written for people who witness the routine violence of the state against Black, Indigenous and other people of colour, trans and gender non-conforming people, disabled people and the poor (groups that often overlap), and who ache for a different way of doing things. It is more specifically written for people who are deeply disturbed by the converging events of 20 April, who are curious about slogans like “defund the police” and words like “abolition” and wonder, “Is justice possible if even when it seems like a victory is delivered, our reality immediately reminds us that a conviction is not enough?”

This is an essay on abolition, accountability and justice. Its central claim is that justice is not an event. That is, justice is not something that happens at a specific moment and it is certainly not something that happens in response after the fact of harm. Justice is collective improvisation grounded in unending critical, communal reflection and relationship-building. Justice is safety, not security. The two events of 20 April together articulate and necessitate our understanding of this.

The first thing to understand is that Chauvin’s conviction is not justice. More people today than ever before are recognising that jailing a single killer cop is not and cannot be a solution to the problem of police violence because the problem is not one of a few exceptional “bad apples” but rather the entire structure and function of policing itself. As Dylan Rodriguez explains, the phrase “police brutality” is redundant because all policing is brutality and in the specific context of 20 April, as Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie write, “A single conviction of a single cop won’t change the system that produced and enabled him; in fact, it will embolden it to continue business as usual under the pretext that it can deliver justice.” Analyses like these are grounded both in the overwhelming evidence produced by increased scrutiny of the prison-industrial complex since Black Lives Matter has become a hyper-visible social justice framework and in the long histories of policing written and spoken about by scholars such as Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Garrett Felber and Alex Vitale. The police who killed Floyd and Bryant, then, are not exceptional but embodied examples of the logical extension of the function of policing in the United States.

As people begin to understand that the problem of police violence is not reducible to individual “bad cops”, often a more difficult leap to make for some is that the court and prison system is insufficient for providing justice when someone is killed by the police. That is to say, it is relatively easy to comprehend that Chauvin is not singular nor exceptional, but rather, representative of policing. Yet, to many, it remains unclear what to do about that and how to proceed from this understanding, outside of the framework he represents.

If, as Kaba and Ritchie write, Chauvin’s conviction is not justice, what would justice be?

Justice is collective improvisation grounded in unending critical, communal reflection and relationship-building. Justice is safety, not security.
Jesse Goldberg

There is a definitive answer to that question:

Justice would be a world in which George Floyd and Ma’Khia Bryant (and Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Korryn Gaines, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and so many others) were still alive and not subject to the imminent and immanent threat of premature death that structures Black life in the afterlife of slavery. This is why justice is not an event. It is not a moment or a response.

Abolitionist thought refigures our sense of justice from something that we can point to that happens in response to harm to something that is always happening to build a world where harm is less ubiquitous and where there are mechanisms in place to respond to harm in restorative, transformational ways.

This answer is definitive, but in many ways unsatisfying. We do not live in that world and it is hard to think outside of the carceral logics of our current one. But defining justice in this way moves us away from thinking of “justice” as something that is “done” or “served” in response to harm and towards thinking of justice as a practice of worldmaking.

While “a practice of worldmaking” sounds frustratingly abstract, the rest of this essay will outline what it looks like in practice by briefly defining a few key concepts in abolitionist thought. Readers will note that there have already been quite a lot of links to other sources in this essay, and there will be many more in the next half as I fulfil my promise of only briefly defining key abolitionist concepts.

Justice, accountability and punishment

First, it is important to distinguish between justice, accountability and punishment, three terms that our current so-called justice system conflates into being near-synonyms.

For example, in the wake of the jury’s decision in the Chauvin trial, many folks took to social media to declare that while a guilty verdict was not justice, the trial offered accountability. Others went further and claimed that Chauvin’s conviction was neither justice nor accountability but merely punishment. To be clear, abolitionists absolutely believe in the importance of accountability. As Eric Stanley explains, though, the imposition of carceral punishment is not actually accountability.

Chauvin shall be punished. However, that punishment is a consequence imposed by the force of law. Precisely because this process was carried out by an adversarial court system rather than through engagement with the community that Chauvin harmed, it is not an example of accountability. That is because accountability requires relationships and Chauvin has no real relationship with the people he has harmed. Accountability could come out of a long process of building a relationship between Chauvin and Floyd’s family, or the police department and the Black people of the city, but adversarial court processes, as a fundamental matter of their structure, certainly don’t build such relationships.

That is to say, we must ask: to whom is Chauvin being held accountable? Certainly not to the Black people of Minneapolis, who are absolutely in no way represented by an adversarial court system whose primary job on a normal day-to-day basis, is locking them away.

As Kaba explains throughout her work, especially in this interview, relationships are the core of abolitionist worldbuilding. That is because an abolitionist conception of justice is built on the fundamental distinction between safety and security. As Kaba puts it, “Security and safety aren’t the same thing. Security is a function of the weaponised state that is using guns, weapons, [and] fear…” In this way, as Angela Davis outlines in detail in her monumentally important book Are Prisons Obsolete?, prisons function more to create illusions of safety by disappearing people construed as ‘threats’ through a use of violence that we are all supposed to just accept.

Photo: Abolition Detention Hassockfield [UK]
Photo: Abolition Detention Hassockfield [UK]
Security is not safety

Instruments of violence do not create safety; they create security. As incarcerated activist Stevie Wilson writes, “as prisoners, we live in a very secure environment. But security doesn’t mean safety. There are barbed-wired fences, concrete walls, locked doors, cameras, gun towers and officers with riot gear, shock shields, tear gas and metal batons. But are we safe?” Of course not. While locking up Chauvin gives us security – a killer cop is no longer roaming the streets free to kill someone else – Ma’Khia Bryant was not made any safer by the punishment inflicted on Chauvin.

This further shows that even accountability, when it is true accountability in the sense that it is in relation to the victims of harm, on its own is still not safety, because holding Chauvin as an individual to account for the harm he has caused does not transform the conditions that allow for the kind of harm he enacted in the first place.

That is, even the implementation of a restorative justice process to hold Chauvin to account would not have kept Bryant alive. Only an even more fundamental commitment to safety over security could do that. And that commitment to safety means cultivating what Stevie Wilson calls “right relations”. While the restorative justice process hinges upon accountability as a relationship to the victimised, it is still isolated to the incident. To have relations that engender safety, Kaba contends, “necessitates a whole transformation on so many levels”.

That necessity for “a whole transformation” is why Ruth Wilson Gilmore says we need to “change everything” in our pursuit of abolition. Gilmore repeatedly makes the point that abolition is not merely about getting rid of the prison-industrial complex, but that “abolition is a presence”. Angela Davis concurs, saying that “abolition is not primarily a negative strategy. It’s not primarily about dismantling, getting rid of, but it’s about re-envisioning. It’s about building anew.” And because abolition is so comprehensive, it is also radical – as in, it gets at roots. It is beyond partisan politics and in Stanley’s words, it is, “a commitment to dreaming collectively beyond and against the pragmatism of the political as such”. Abolition is about completely uprooting our currently dominant ways of organising sociality by way of law-and-order thinking in order to plant and nurture seeds of collective care, a concept that scholars like Christina Sharpe and Saidiya Hartman thoughtfully meditate on in their work, as it exceeds the boundaries of the academy.

The good news is that this work of simultaneously uprooting and planting seeds is entirely practical, grounded and individually conceivable even as its aims are overwhelmingly far-reaching and conceptual. The even better news is that this work is already ongoing and there are people to join and learn from in figuring out how to organise for the world we so desperately need.

Abolition is about completely uprooting our currently dominant ways of organising sociality by way of law-and-order thinking in order to plant and nurture seeds of collective care
Jesse Goldberg

The organisation Critical Resistance (CR) has done incredible work creating tools and guides for activists, including important explanations of the differences between “reformist reforms” and “non-reformist reforms” to help organisers strategise around specific policy proposals. CR has also worked with INCITE to articulate principles of abolitionist feminism. These principles build on decades of activism, scholarship and organising, and can be seen in specific historical examples of anti-carceral feminist forms of justice outlined by Victoria Law, Kristian Williams, Beth Richie and Emily Thuma. They can also be seen in and are expanded upon in the principles guiding queer abolitionist organisations like Black & Pink and in the analyses of the contributors to Stanley and Nat Smith’s anthology, Captive Genders. Taken together, these various sources, which only scratch the surface of on-the-ground abolitionist work, clarify that abolition is not about pretending that harm can be eradicated, but that we can completely rethink how we respond to harm as we transform the conditions which facilitate harm in the first place.

Abolition, capitalism and individualism

Many abolitionists, including Gilmore, Davis and Kaba, argue that abolition cannot be accomplished without eradicating capitalism. Consequently, some thinkers and activists focus on how the prison-industrial complex performs the logics at play in the very notions of private property. Whereas our present society presumes and takes for granted a “rugged individualism” that conceives of individual, independent subjects, an abolitionist analysis reveals the violent history enabling such a focus on the individual.

It might help to think about the verb separate to make sense of this connection between the PIC and private property within capitalism. Prisons and jails literally separate people as expendable populations, containing them within walls and cages. The notion of private property is emblematised in the instance of privately-owned land. Private property separates space with boundaries of ownership – This is mine, not yours. That is yours, not mine.

There are barbed-wired fences, concrete walls, locked doors, cameras, gun towers and officers with riot gear, shock shields, tear gas and metal batons. But are we safe?
Stevie Wilson

The basis of this, and what this reinforces, is the very notion of the individual Self at the heart of “rugged individualism”. That is, there can be no such thing as “private property” if there are not absolutely independent, individual, separate Selves to do the independent enjoying of individually-owned property. The logic of private property, prisons and – disturbingly for liberals – individual rights all depend upon the Western Enlightenment’s version of the liberal individual Self to cohere.

In historical terms, the very idea of a rugged individual subject was made possible by (1) the legal transformation of people into property through the system of chattel slavery and (2) the violent genocidal disavowal of indigenous conceptions of relation to land and ecosystems through the ongoing processes of settler colonialism. There is no such thing as “private property” without the liberal individual Self, and there is no liberal individual Self without slavery, land theft and attempted genocide. Abolition therefore looks towards relation rather than separation or individuation as a basis for organising society.

Photo: Theodora Danylevich [France]
Photo: Theodora Danylevich [France]
Abolition is a collective project

One way of transforming the conditions which facilitate harm then, is to radically reconceptualise our notions of property, as Rinaldo Walcott encourages us to do, and in so doing begin to practice politically conscious mutual aid, as Dean Spade describes it. Walcott builds on the historical analysis to which Gilmore and Davis are significant contributors that I allude to in the previous paragraphs to extend PIC abolition to include not only the abolition of prisons and police but also of private property itself. And Spade’s work describes ways of understanding a kind of political work beyond the horizon of elections that has been taking place among marginalised communities since before the term “mutual aid” was ever formally used. Through mutual aid, people learn to support each other’s mutual thriving outside the formal machinations of an antagonistic nation-state. In short, Spade introduces and analyses the idea that we can and must take care of each other, because, ultimately, we are not simply radically separate rugged individuals.

Of course, the radical critiques of property embedded in practices of mutual aid were made by George Jackson in Blood in My Eye, the book he completed just before being killed by the state in 1971. I end this long (but in relation to the project at hand, quite short) introduction and invitation to abolitionism by mentioning Jackson because fundamentally, abolition will be steered by the theorising of those who have been directly attacked by state violence. So in addition to all of the resources which I have embedded in this piece for readers to pursue, I would encourage you to seek out the writings of currently and formerly-incarcerated thinkers like Jackson, Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu-Jamal. And even wider, to expand notions of carcerality to include (as an incomplete start): Palestine under Israeli occupation, Native American reservations in the United States and “Indian Boarding Schools” across North America, increasingly securitised K-12 schools, slaughterhouses, and, transhistorically, slave plantations, Jewish ghettos, asylums, chain gangs and concentration camps from colonial southwest Africa to the Western US and Europe during WWII. All of these disparate examples cannot be reduced to being merely equivalent to each other, but understanding them, along with many more unnamed here, as coextensive pieces of a world that needs to be abolished, where that verb indexes both eradication and creation, enriches our understanding of abolition and opens even more possible lanes to run in this team marathon that no one of us can complete alone.

Abolition is not the work of an exceptional soloist. It is choral work. If 20 April 2021 was a day that left you feeling that this cannot be the way the world has to be, that it must be possible to make something different, then I invite you to join the chorus.

Photo: Abolition Detention Hassockfield [UK]
Photo: Abolition Detention Hassockfield [UK]
Body Photos: @abolishdetention
Featured Photo: Elvert Barnes via Flickr [USA]
Jesse A. Goldberg

Jesse A. Goldberg


Jesse A. Goldberg is a scholar in the fields of literary studies, critical prison studies, and critical race and gender studies, who currently works as a postdoctoral scholar in the Humanities Institute at Pennsylvania State University. They are also an abolitionist and lifelong martial artist.

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