Everyday Abolition/Abolition Every Day

Interview with Syrus Marcus Ware

syrus marcus ware, Pay It No Mind/Resister Sister: a Portrait of Marsha p Johnson, 2007, graphite and acrylic on wood

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Everyday Abolition | Abolition Everyday Interview with Syrus Marcus Ware

1. How did you come to abolitionist work/being a Prison Industrial Complex abolitionist?

 My older sister was in and out of prison for my whole life. She was in juvenile prisons in the US all through my entire childhood. There was one 6 month period where she came to live with us and then went back inside. So as young as grade 1, my understanding of prison was that it was not a nice place and it took away people you loved.

 In the late 90’s I got really involved in organizing around Mumia and the MOVE 9. I joined a group called Friends of MOVE Toronto. We did programming all through the year in Toronto.  We had a huge archive of prison/abolition related material, a lending library and 3 times/year we went to Philly during key moments in organizing around Mumia/MOVE and would get involved in organizing there.  We worked with Ramona Africa, Tiffany, Beeyobee (and other folks there.)

In 2001, I started working at PASAN, specifically doing youth HIV programming in youth jails. Around that time Friends of MOVE was imploding. Lots of internal strife and really dealing with the ways that we treated each other while working together. While at PASAN, I got involved with organizing the annual Prisoners Justice Day vigil. After doing that for a few years, some of us started talking about how to keep programming throughout the year, and in particular, to develop programming that talked about the ways that racialization and colonialism were built into the PIC. We decided to form the Prisoners’ Justice Action Committee (PJAC). We ended up working together for 6 years or so, creating the 81 Reasons campaign, the Prisoners’ Justice Film Fest, organizing the PJD vigil and some years expanding it to a full PJ week, and stuff like that. A lot has happened since then but that was the beginning.

2.why does everyday abolition matter to you? Why are you committed to it?

It matters to me because I really spend a significant amount of my mental and creative energy trying to imagine a different world we could live in… and I think we’re close to making those big changes. And part of that different world/society includes dealing with conflict and harm in a really different way. I’m kind of obsessed with this idea of a post-capitalist moment and in some cases, a post-apocalyptic moment where we are forced to re-imagine what our society could look like. Maybe it will come to that, dramatic change that makes us stop what we are doing and create something new. Maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing. For me Everyday Abolition is part of planting seeds that could help to build stronger communities that really do make people feel safe and secure that aren’t about sending people away or relying on systems of colonialism, systemic racism and violence and many other things tied up to the Prison Industrial Complex.

 Especially now that I’ve had a child, I really really don’t want to live the way that we’re living. It’s not working, it’s not helping people, its not respecting the planet in any way. Working toward abolition is part of working toward recreating the kinds of communities we want to live in.

3. What does everyday Prison Industrial Complex abolition mean to you?

I think it means everything from the way that we interact with other human beings closely in our lives, deal with conflict in our lives (the microcosm) the ways we choose to connect with other human beings all the way through to the macrocosm:  like not calling the police when you have a bad breakup and reporting your partners HIV status, finding ways to deal with bullying without reinforcing the idea of crime and punishment, and addressing the way that our society fosters a rape-culture.

Also, its how we teach our kids about how to deal with conflict and problems as they arise in society.  For example, there is a kids show on TV where these animals investigate problems/mysteries, and in one episode, they find out that one animal stole all the community’s food and that it’s because he was really hungry, and in fact quite lonely. The animals decide that they can find ways to be “win win” and “make bad things good” by introducing the animal who took the food to the children who didn’t get to eat because he took the food. In the end the kids and him get on famously, and that animal gets to become the cook at the orphanage. Shows like that, and our roles as parents help to teach kids that the reason why things happen is because society has a profound sense of loneliness and disconnection and so the solution to the symptoms is not more violence and isolation. It’s finding more ways to re-connect people and help them find a sense of belonging. And in fact, maybe that’s not teaching, but re-learning from kids. Kids know nothing about punishment and the false notion of ‘crime’ until we instill it in them. So we are actually not teaching them anything they don’t already know, but rather interrupting what society is trying to teach them about crime and punishment.

Also, everyday PIC abolition means alternatives to policing, conflict resolution in daycare settings and all the way through school, really addressing the very pressing issues around Indigenous sovereignty and working in solidarity with indigenous resistance. If we were to deal with how our society is so oppressive to marginalized groups it could make a significant change to the Prison Industrial Complex.

It means from the one-on-one choices we make about how we interact with others to the way that society functions. Everyday abolition is everything—which means that it’s also easy to do. For a lot of people abolishing the Prison Industrial Complex seems gigantic, terrifying and impossible but in fact abolition looks like individual choices throughout your day. So then it’s actually very manageable and very do-able.

4. How have your abolitionist politics informed how you handle conflict and/or harm? Can you give an example/tell a short story of a specific time where you have responded to something and realized that it was really informed by your politics of abolition?

One example would be how we’re trying to love and nurture this little human. We’re in a stage where she’s a toddler and there’s a lot of really challenging things about being a toddler. You’re big enough to make a lot of choices but there are also limits on what you can and can’t do on your own. And so we have a lot of day-to-day things that come up in our house around hitting and biting, touching other peoples bodies without permission etc. Day to day things.  So we are figuring out with our kid how to communicate with her; letting her know what we need to make ourselves feel safer, to respect our individuality. Like guidelines we can all agree on.  And also working with her to understand that we will deal with it together when we don’t follow those guidelines. That it isn’t about punishment and isolation but is about explaining, talking, reconnecting. That’s absolutely informed by my abolition politics. When a little one is raining blows on you it can be challenging to talk about it! But those are moments when I can draw on the strength of what we’re trying to do. Parenting from an abolitionist perspective is the one thing I would put my energy into. In my family of origin, my sister was in prison; most of my dad’s brothers (almost all) were in prison, the older ones in segregated prisons (My dad’s family is based in the Tennessee). So because of all of that, my father was very adamant that in our family there would be no physical discipline. His grandmother did a lot of his rearing and she was alive or born close to the emancipation proclamation. She had been on slave labour camps and had experienced a lot of violence in her life and enacted a lot of violence on her family as a result. My dad and his siblings were terrified of her. Her violence came directly out of systemic racism and colonialism because she had been brutalized. Because of that intergenerational trauma, my dad was adamant about not using physical violence in our home.

Unfortunately one of the things he didn’t consider is the many ways violence can look outside of physical violence. Now as a parent I’m very conscious of ways that words and actions can clearly suggest that there is such a thing as an objective “right” and “wrong” and that the consequences for not getting it right are some sort of punishment whether its emotional violence, isolation etc. I’m very aware of how traumatic that can be for a person and therefore a whole community. So abolitionist parenting sees children as whole people who are in fact equals of our family community and that together we get to create a space that is free from those kinds of violence’s and allow us to have the right to self determination within our family.

In 1970 the Black Panther part organized this conference to re-write the US constitution. It was called the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention (RPCC), They brought all of these different communities together for this weekend long conference. This new constitution for the US had all of these guidelines for self determination for all these different communities. For example, this new constitution declared the right to be gay any time, any place, and the right to sex change on demand.  In 1970! (We are still fighting for these things today!) And there was a whole section written by and for children about the rights for children to self determination, to make choices about how they spend their time, live free from violence, to have autonomy and to get rid of this artificial hierarchy based on this perception that the longer you’ve been alive means the better informed you are. It is amazing, and amazing guiding principle! That’s abolitionist parenting right there; trying to incorporate those concepts from that document into the everyday.

And the other example I would say is that I recently got involved with community accountability process about a sexual assault. Even my willingness to participate in the process is informed by my politics: the ways that racialized bodies experience the Prison Industrial Complex, the ways that we live within a rape culture that supports and encourages sexual violence toward women and trans people in particular. Those are part of my understanding of abolition and the systemic oppression that we face every day. This accountability  process attempts to interrupt all of those things.

One of the things that’s been great about the process is that there’s been a real commitment to take time with it. Agreeing together to take time to move the process slowly or quickly, as it needs to happen- this is essential. I think that has been very useful. There are understandably a lot of feelings and what needs time to happen is to be able to talk about ‘what’s going on right now’. When we don’t reflect on what we’re doing there is this replication of community policing which is not what we’re trying to do. So we need time to reflect, and be in the moment.

5. How have your abolitionist politics informed how you build relationships?

Absolutely. See above! Also, in my love relationships my partner Nik and I really make an effort to bring that into our relationship as well the ideas of self determination, autonomy, and at the same time connectedness. Plus, one of the ways that we have connected over the years is our shared commitment to abolition and to fighting the PIC. Yes that can be a sexy prospect! We are on the same page when it comes to the system and wanting to live in a different kind of society–even if we don’t always agree on how to get there. So an understanding of abolition hasn’t only shaped  how we relate to each other, but also what kinds of things we talk about when together.

6. Who or what inspires you to resist punitive and punishment-based responses/prevention to harm and violence?

For sure my family inspires me. They went through all that and came through on the other side as awesome survivors of state violence; survivors, making families, supporting community, resisting, loving each other. Giselle Dias, who I first met at PASAN, how she lives, and the passion she brings to her work, her organizing. I met her when I first started working at PASAN in 2001/2 and honestly she’s totally expanded and changed my understanding of what a prisoner’s justice community could look like. She’s brilliant.

Also Peter Collins who’s in Bath Institution/Prison in Ontario.  He has used his political art for movements on the outside for decades even in the face of extreme violence from the Prison Industrial Complex because of his art-based activism. He’s still in prison on a sentence that should have been up a few years ago in part because of the activism he’s done for us on the outside. People should check out buried alive illustrations–his website for his art. Also write to him if you can!

I am very inspired by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P.Johnson because not only did they resist arrest on June 28 1969 at the Stonewall Inn when the police came to attack and pick people up people who are most at the margins (drug users, sex workers, trans people). The cops were coming because of homophobic and transphobic violence but they were arresting anyone they could get away with arresting-i.e people in ‘the wrong clothes’ or however the law read at the time, people who had drugs on them etc. Not only did they resist arrest and start the riot but also they kept the protest going outside of the bar for a week- in rain! They weren’t  only there for the sexy times, the riots, the active moments-  but they were involved in the boring shitty times, too- standing with placards in the rain. They did so to say: “NO! This police violence has to end!” Similarly, the trans women who were at the Compton Cafeteria riot the SF tenderloin in 1966- they put their lives on the line and said no to police brutality and targeting of marginalized people.

Lastly, my twin sister inspires me. She’s not super active in prison organizing at all, she’s a scientist and works at a university. Yet when one of her students was about to serve a long sentence, she worked to get him set up with course work to do by correspondence, and tried to get him connected to supports on the inside and out, and tried to help plan with him how he could continue his schooling when he got out.

7. What kind of supports have you set up to make it possible for you to resist the state and the Prison Industrial Complex in your life? e.g. informal street networks, care collectives, living with people you know.

Being part of a prisoner abolition community based in racialized and queer communities has been everything. Because we can bounce ideas off each other, ask for help, share resources and that is everything. For example, my partner recently was cc’d on an email promoting a corrections job. So my partner is one of the most brilliant people/activist that I know and his immediate reaction was to connect to our informal network and we quickly pulled together resources to send back to the email group about why corrections were not great and why we were against the PIC and the prison job market. We could do this quickly because we all have access to this our shared information. Also being able to work and support other activist movements that are intimately connected to prison organizing:  like the Toronto Drug Users Union and Idle No More and other kinds of prison activism outside of jails and institutions has been great. That’s rejuvenating work because by making these connections it is starting to build that new kind of network/society that will take us into the future

8. Are there any ways that you survive without relying on traditional ways of making money? Or avoid participating in the mainstream economy? e.g. economies inside, sharing and trading resources in non-traditional ways.

As much a possible I try to do bartering and trading. I think that money actually is quite evil. So I think that being able to barter and trade means I know that I have a variety of resources I can share: I can make posters, flyers, bake cookies and have skills that are useful in supporting other groups. For example.  I recently created a poster for a yogathon raising money to start a yoga program for women in prison. As a trade I’m receiving some sessions of community acupuncture! It’s a great exchange.

 As an artist there are lot of interesting possibilities for alternative ways of making money–but I must say, it’s very tricky being a parent and worrying about ‘having enough’. An anxiety gets fostered in us that we have to have enough to keep this little one alive and growing. Will we have enough money for milk and food? And so on. That anxiety doesn’t make me want to make more money—it makes me want to move the country and grow my own food. Being a maker and creator of things does make it possible to have something you can offer someone else in exchange, which I’m very thankful for.

Rinaldo Walcott is always saying we’re at the end/nearing the end of the capitalist moment- the period of “late-capital” I think he calls it- and I absolutely hope that’s true!

Syrus Marcus Ware is a black, disabled and queer visual artist, community activist, researcher, youth-advocate and educator. He is a prison abolitionist. Syrus worked for a few years at PASAN, and while there helped to write Responding to the Epidemic Recommendations for a Canadian Hepatitis C Strategy. He is a former member of Friends of MOVE Toronto, and is one of the organizers of Toronto’s Prisoners’ Justice Day events. Syrus is a member of the Gay/ Bi Trans Men’s HIV Prevention Working Group for the Ontario AIDS Bureau and one of the creators of “Primed: A Back Pocket Guide for Trans Guys and the Guys Who Dig ‘Em”, the first sexual health resource for trans MSMs in North America. Syrus’ chapter in Who’s Your Daddy?: And Other Writings on Queer Parenting (Sumach Press, 2008) entitled, “Going Boldly Where Few Men Have Gone Before: One Trans Man’s Experience of Fertility Clinics” and his co-authored chapter, “How Disability Studies Stays White and What Kind of White it Stays” are part of curricula at several colleges and universities. He is currently co-editing a book chapter (with Zack Marshall) about disability, Deaf culture and trans identities in the forthcoming Trans Bodies, Trans Selves (2013).

Image credit: syrus marcus ware, Pay It No Mind/Resister Sister: a Portrait of Marsha p Johnson, 2007, graphite and acrylic on wood.

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