amplifying our everyday resistance to the prison industrial complex
Everyday Abolition | Abolition Everyday Interview With Patrisse Marie Cullors
How did you come to abolitionist work/being a PIC abolitionist?
Harriet Tubman. I learned about Harriet Tubman when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I was really obsessed with anything slavery as a kid, or anything civil rights movement. I read a lot of children’s stories about the civil rights movement and I read a lot of Harriet Tubman kid’s books. Harriet Tubman’s story, in particular, resonated really deeply with me. The way they described her personality, they way they described her actual features just, like, she just felt really queer to me, as a kid. I was super moved by that and mesmerized her ability to free so many slaves, black folks.
So I learned about what abolition is at a young age and then I think that kind of stuck with me and I got older and just witnessed so many people in my community and my family being locked up in cages. By the time I was organized into a community organization out here in Los Angeles, I was organized with the Bus Riders Union, the first question I asked them, I was 17 ½ years old, was “do you do any work around prisons and police?” I knew I wanted to be challenging and pushing back against the police state. I wouldn’t have called myself an abolitionist at that point. Not until I became more politicized, meeting criminal justice reform groups and then finally meeting Critical Resistance. Their framework of abolition is what impacted me, I think I came out as an abolitionist when I met Critical Resistance, I was like 24 or 25.
I think remembering Harriet Tubman really solidified that. It was like, Harriet Tubman, all of my family members, a lot of my family members have been in prisons and jails, and then Critical Resistance and the abolitionist movement, and I was like, yeah that’s what I am. I don’t believe that anyone should be in a cage.
What does Everyday Abolition mean to you?
I love that! I forget who sent me the submission, but for me, everyday abolition is definitely a practice of not just looking at the ways in which physical cages, prisons, exist in our community but how they manifest in our present lives. How does the PIC end up in the ways in which the rest of the world practices. Whether that be how we deal with our intimate relationships or our friendships. When we get upset with someone, where do we turn to? Do we turn to isolating people, shaming people? Do we turn to blaming people? Or even how we build up our own organizations, unable to deal with people’s trauma and isolating folks and not really producing community spaces and environments that are about transforming people’s lives.
I think everyday abolition for me is a being and a practice to live a life that is about transforming myself and my community. Transforming the ways in which I relate to my own cages, and allowing myself to undo a lot of the borders that have been produced by this place, the US empire.
How do your PIC abolition politics inform your work in LA?
I’ve been thinking about that question for a while. For us in the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails, having an organization that is made up of folks that are both formerly incarcerated and also the family members of the folks who were formerly incarcerated is super significant. I say that because our aim is to build the leadership and capacity of folks who have been directly impacted by sheriff violence and that is oftentimes people who are convicted felons, folks who suffer from pretty serious PTSD. These are folks who in mainstream society are not actually being utilized, they are actually being thrown away and pushed out and pushed away. For us, we actually want to gather that team of people up to help us, because I’m a part of that team, grow our own leadership and capacity to tell our stories. To name our trauma and say, this is what happened to me. And that, how do we, even with all of the shame of what has happened to us, how do we we still speak from the place of – this is the story and this is the story of a lot of other people out there in the world who are impacted by the PIC.
In the work, we have seen this transform people’s lives. Being able to tell their stories and be honest about it. Either the family members who have people who have been directly affected by sheriff violence or the people themselves get up in the room and say, “I was brutalized by sheriff deputies” and have a group of people hold space for them and say, “your home is here now” versus being cast out.
How do your PIC abolitionist politics shape relationships in your life?
Being an abolitionist has been such a gift and has offered me the opportunity to live in a place of complete transparency. I’m not saying that all abolitionist do that, but that is the way in which I understand abolition, as an opportunity to live in complete transparency and integrate the parts of me that are oftentimes purposefully disintegrated. Being raised poor, being black, being a woman, being queer, practicing polyamory, and all those things, integrating them as parts of my person. And showing up in spaces as all those things. And not closeting or changing one of them for other people’s comfort.
I have my brother in my head right now. Both he and my father have been in and out of prison my whole life and I am very very close with my brother. Abolition, for me, has allowed me to continue my relationships with my family who have been outcasted by the PIC, and really produce a framework with my community.
My brother has been incarcerated multiple times. The last time he was incarcerated they tried to give him 125 years. It was really deep, he’s a second striker, and has schizo-effective disorder and he was off his medication and evaded the police. Basically they were trying to strike him out that was in 2006 and a group of us – this was pre-facebook before you could get a lot of folks at one time – but a group of us got together and raised $10,000 for him in 4 weeks to get him a private attorney. And that’s from my abolitionist politics because if I didn’t believe in his ability to transform, I don’t think I would have had the imagination to say I can raise $10,000 – I’ve never raised $10,000 in four weeks before – but I was like I’m going to, I will not allow this place to take him for the rest of his life – and the community round me believed I agreed to this – that he will not be taken.
He was incarcerated for 9 years, he had 80% time, they struck the strike, the attorney was able to do some stuff for us, but he still had to go to prison. But during the time when he as inside, the community was organized and was like, what’s the plan? What’s the plan while he was inside so he could feel really connected, and what’s the plan for when he comes out. And it’s been so powerful to witness my brother’s transformation because of that. He’s now a jewelry maker, and he mentors young people and he’s a sign language tutor. Really, like in a huge way, my abolitionist community has been such a huge pillar for him and his re-entry here back into this place.
That’s so powerful! Thank you for sharing, and congratulations – thats a huge victory for your brother and for your community. My last question for you is what structures do you have or have you setup in your life to allow you to move away from reliance on the PIC?
I love this question, too. Care collectives, for sure. I have been a part of an intentional community for the last 11 years and we use art and support eachother in all different types of ways. But mostly have utilized art to tell the stories of our family members, of ourselves around the PIC. This is a ride or die team. I mean, a lot of our folks have been on the inside. My friend’s brother was given multiple life sentences and it’s still so tragic. But we posse’d up and we knew what to do and we have amazing protocol – around if someone turns up or if we think one of our folks has been incarcerated. And we have a lot of folks have a history of mental health stuff and we have protocol for that – how we hold space for folks and their care around whether they want to be institutionalized or not – we have a deep commitment to keeping each other safe from the state and run aways and figuring out when is the time to utilize the state and when to know that the state is going to make matters worse.
And there is about 10 of us that have been building with each other since we were in high school – since we were 18 and older – it’s a pretty inter-generational collective because some of those folks were our teachers when we were in high school and after we graduated we asked them to come into our space. We meet monthly and we plan eachother’s birthday parties, we plan eachother’s victory parties, we show up to eachother’s graduations. This is our chosen family.
And many of us came out as queer when we were kids, so it’s chosen family that we ended up being with because of our own family’s pushing us out. This is kind of the family that stuck AND it’s through this team that a lot of us have been able to come back to our own families. My mother was really really hard when I came out and I just kind of kept up with her and my chosen family is really what kind of kept me being able to keep up with her and processing with her and holding space with her. When my brother was incarcerated in 06 and my team came together for my family, all that shit she had kind of dropped she was like, okay, this is it, I get this is the team. From 06 on she knows that’s family and they are invited to everything, they are now family.
So, we have a pretty neat dedication to one another and to our healing our highest selves and to integrating all the parts of us.
Last things you want to say about Everyday Abolition?
The last thing I would say is that abolition is more than just ending the physical caging of people. Abolition is the opportunity for us to live a life of freedom and really take Harriet Tubman’s whole strategy around utilizing intuition and magic and the witchery to tell our people’s stories and free our people.