What Do You Mean by Abolition?

Association for Political and Legal Anthropology for Anthropology News

By Erin Debenport, Melissa Maceyko, Maywa Montenegro, SA Smythe, and Alejandro Villalpando – April 15, 2021

A collaboration between abolitionist groups in California educates and acts for a more just future.

Abolition is increasingly being used in popular and public discourse to describe contemporary social and racial justice movements in various global contexts, for example, appearing in debates in the United States around calls to defund the police and consider the necessity of prisons. Despite the increased visibility of this term, we, the co-organizers of the Abolition Open School (AOS), have all had friends, students, family members, and colleagues, many supportive of or involved with social and racial justice movements, look at us quizzically, and say, “What do you mean by abolition?”

This is a fair question. As the term is associated with and inextricably linked to the eradication of legal human enslavement in the United States, it is unsurprising that people might be confused about how the terms abolition and abolitionist are being used today, and why abolition might matter in the twenty-first century. As unclear terminology can create barriers to meaningful collaboration in and between disciplines and communities, a critical step toward reaching potential accomplices, creating coalitions, and ultimately acting on abolitionist principles is to create and disseminate accessible tools for understanding what existing movements and activists mean when they describe themselves as abolitionist.

AOS is a project in this spirit. It is a collaboration between abolitionist groups working across the California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) systems. Beginning in fall 2020 as a year-long series of interactive conversations, debates, and interviews with activists, artists, and scholars to build shared knowledge of abolitionist principles with and within communities, AOS eventually aspires to be what its name implies: an educational hub for teaching and learning about contemporary abolition that is free and accessible to all. It also seeks to enact abolitionist practice through the content and form of shared event and infrastructure co-organizing (currently mostly virtual). These interactive events, covering topics ranging from food justice to gender ideology to movement organizing, seek to both provide information and embody an answer to the question, What do you mean by abolition?

AOS derives its baseline definition of abolition from the work of scholars such as Ruth Wilson GilmoreAngela Y. Davis, and Dylan Rodríguez . Born through activism around the carceral state or the prison-industrial complex or both, contemporary abolition campaigns are frequently aimed at eradicating existing systems of prisons and policing. Such campaigns view prisons and policing as iterations of a larger system of white supremacy enacted via state and institutional power, which shapes acceptable and accepted forms of subjectivity, safety, and social formation. Therefore, contemporary abolitionist organizations and practices go beyond simply removing, reforming, or reducing these systems, instead calling for a transformative politics, one that centers the agency of Black communities and the struggles caused by the history of legal slavery, and its aftermath. The philosophy at the core of the abolitionist movement holds that a more democratic system can exist only when institutions that advance the dominance of one group over another are torn down and rebuilt. Thus, even as the word “abolish” means to eradicate, contemporary abolition movements are also grounded in presence, creativity, and re-creation, as the sociopolitical system is reimagined and reinvented around new forms of safety, community, justice, relationality, care, and liberatory forms of education.

However, as the word proliferates throughout popular and public discourses, so too do questions about the realities of moving from theory to practice. What might defunding, eliminating, and recreating systems of state power and policing actually look like? Notably, many of the questions we encounter about abolition frame issues like absence of the police in terms of lack and loss:Who will escort me to my car at the end of a long day on campus? Will no one come when I call 911? Before providing concrete responses about policing alternatives, we first invite a shift in how these problems are framed, asking participants to consider what safety looks and feels like to them, as well as how this may differ from others’ notions of safety. Through a reconsideration of collective ideas of safety, question-framing can shift away from lack/loss toward the possibilities that the absence of policing can create for more equitable models of safety—those based in relationality and care.

More than a thought experiment, this exercise invites reflection, which creates space for solutions to be collectively imagined and eventually realized. For instance, in response to campus safety concerns, many universities have implemented escort programs, in which students are on call to accompany other university community members on their end-of-day walk. Additionally, community-based alternatives to dialing 911 for everyday problems already exist in several places, as well as new alternatives to respond constructively and healthfully to problems together.

At the core of the AOS project, then, are demands for an exploratory, experimental, and invitational model of education that can create new modes of thinking and being. We believe that on the heels of massive uprisings and rebellions against anti-Black police terror and in the midst of a global pandemic that continues to lay bare the inequities wrought by racial capitalism it is crucial to live up to the mandate of public higher education in the State of California: solving social problems. Although grounded in university networks, AOS fosters more expansive learning, sharing, and knowledge-building practices that are consciously unmoored from the infrastructure of the contemporary university system, attempting to connect with a broader audience.

As much of this work is first grounded in rethinking communication, AOS has played with form and function to not only convey information about contemporary abolition, but also to represent the abolitionist principles that it seeks to convey to others. For instance, although online events began as webinars affiliated with specific universities, which alleviated the threat of abusive Zoom-bombing but limited audience interaction, these events have transitioned to meeting-style events held on platforms not operated by educational institutions, championing open education, audience interaction, and coparticipation. Loosely structured and conversational, audiences engage in real time via verbal conversations and written exchanges. As invited speakers are researchers, educators, students, activists, and practitioners, all scholars are asked to consider their positionality, to note that while they may be experts in particular fields they are not the arbiters of what approaches toward a more just future might look like. As such, AOS disrupts the hierarchies that continue to persist in academia. The events themselves enact what they name as everyone is active in setting topics, sharing knowledge, asking questions, and solving problems. AOS is a model that invites us all to dream, question, embody, and enact social change through collaboration and solidarity. As such, AOS draws inspiration from and is in line with other abolitionist experiments in education that seek to elevate relationship building and presence, and equal co-authorship and co-teaching, to build an abolitionist learning community within and around the confines of university classrooms and systems.

While anthropological work that explicitly promotes abolitionism is rare, many anthropologists work within abolitionist organizations like AOS. Anthropologists are well equipped to join forces with these abolitionist struggles as debates that have been at the center of anthropological theory and practice for at least three decades clearly overlap with abolitionist histories and principles: critiques of capitalism, colonization, the state, and of sociopolitical, artistic, economic, educational, scientific, and disciplinary systems. Perhaps most critically, action and education around abolition are imperative given anthropology’s contemporary focus on diversity and human rights juxtaposed with its historical ties to colonial and racist projects.

What will your thoughts be when you hear the word “abolition” in the future?

Contemporary abolition movements challenge us to collectively re-create everyday ways of thinking and being. They pose ambitious and critical challenges, which go beyond reform movements (e.g. more limited calls to end police brutality), as these rarely manage to dismantle the power systems that shape individuals and institutions, and normalize abusive asymmetries. Projects like AOS stand ready to grapple with some of the obstacles around popular misunderstandings of the term, to work through the difficult questions that the movement poses, and to provide space for practicing abolitionist principles. For anthropologists to join with and adhere to abolitionist ideals, we need to be reflective in our scholarship and our teaching, and willing to build coalitions within communities, in academia and beyond.


Erin Debenport is an associate professor in Anthropology and the Associate Director of the American Indian Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Debenport’s community work focuses on the collaborative creation of pedagogical and documentary language materials for speakers and learners of Tanoan languages. Her scholarly work concerns secrecy, literacies, and the politics of public and private spheres. She is a co-organizer of the Abolition Open School.

Melissa Maceyko is a faculty member at California State University, Long Beach in the Departments of Anthropology, Linguistics, and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies. Maceyko teaches and writes on gender, democracy, politics, language, and the United States. She is a co-organizer of the Abolition Open School and a contributing editor for APLA Section News. You can follow her on Twitter at @maceykom.

Maywa Montenegro works as assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She studies knowledge politics in food and seed sovereignty movements, agroecology, and new biotechnologies. With scholar-activists across borders, she organizes the Agroecology Research-Action Collective, #CopsOffCampus, and #People’sKnowledge as well as the Abolition Open School. You can follow heron Twitter at @MaywaMontenegro.

SA Smythe works as an assistant professor in Gender Studies and African American Studies at UCLA. Smythe also engages black trans poetics as critic and practitioner politically invested in otherwise black belonging and other nonbinary practices. Smythe organizes #CopsOffCampus and other abolitionist/anti-carceral groups across Turtle Island and in Europe. Smythe is also a co-organizer of the Abolition Open School. You can follow them onTwitter at @essaysmythe.

Alejandro Villalpando is an assistant professor in the Department of Pan African Studies and the Latin American Studies program at California State University, Los Angeles. Villalpando’s work lies at the intersections of Black and Indigenous and Central American studies. He is a co-organizer of the Abolition Open School.

Melissa Maceyko and Gwen Burnyeat are section contributing editors for the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology.

Cite as: Debenport, Erin, Melissa Maceyko, Maywa Montenegro, SA Smythe, and Alejandro Villalpando. 2021. “What Do You Mean by Abolition?” Anthropology News website, April 15, 2021.

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