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What is Abolition?

Everything you need to know about the global liberation project of abolition, how it goes beyond police and prisons, and how you can join the movement

Illustration by @luc.ipina

Abolition, a global liberation project!

We have witnessed our world become controlled and governed by imperialist forces; we have witnessed our world become unbearable to the people, to the land, to the soil and to the sea whilst becoming bearable for the political elite. 

It is clear we are experiencing ecological catastrophe, wealth inequality, increased poverty, forced migration, and police repression designed to protect and serve capital. We are experiencing grief after grief for our martyrs in West Papua, Tigray, Hati, Congo, Palestine, Western Sahara, Sudan, Palestine and globally. We grieve for the revolutionaries still held captive in prisons, from the Black Panthers to the Palestinian political prisoners, for all political prisoners. 

I cannot separate our struggles, and I refuse to separate you from me. I refuse to lose hope and be in despair; our world doesn’t have to be rooted in corruption and oppression, a world controlled and owned by a few political elites, a world riddled with individual greed. We can cultivate a world where we all live dignified lives, and our material conditions are met, a world where we are free from oppression, a free and liberated world. 

What is Abolition? 

Abolition is an act of refusal, what Tina Campt coined as ‘a rejection of the status quo as liveable.‘ 

Abolition is rooted in rejecting and ending police, prisons and systems of oppression that render us sub-human, constructing unlivable conditions that are designed to penalise, criminalise and profit off racialised poor communities. Abolition invites us to use our imagination, which has been robbed from us. Abolition invites us to reimagine a better world for all and to address harm without causing more harm in our communities. 

In Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s words, ‘abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.’ Abolition is cultivating a world that centres collective safety and accountability, refusing to depend on oppressive systems rooted in keeping us in chains whilst basking in the fruits of our oppression. 

In the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer named Derek Chauvin, a widespread global political awakening occurred. People who had never engaged in abolitionist thinking began to use the word ‘abolition’ when protesting against police brutality, now beginning to call themselves abolitionists. 

I kept asking myself if they knew the weight of their words: the commitment and recommitment of being an abolitionist. I began to ask myself why I called myself an abolitionist and what had politicised me to denounce policing and prisons altogether and carceral practices, which include exclusions in schools. 

Many of us were abolitionists without using the term; I recall the first-day attending secondary school, being 11 years old, leaving the building ready to go home, and then being met with many police officers stationed outside the school. I knew instantly the police were not there to protect us but to intimidate us. 

I kept asking myself why would the police be stationed outside our school to learn later that for the next five years we would have police even enter our school, searched by teachers regularly, those teachers already creating our futures before we could even begin to dream of new possibilities, people within our communities became caged even before entering prison – my teacher’s voice still ringing in my head where she told my friends with certainty that they would end up in prison next to our school, years later I learnt they did end up in that very prison. I kept asking myself, what if they were given a chance?

How does global abolition go beyond the removal of police + prisons?

Policing and prisons are an extension of the white supremacist capitalist global project; we cannot separate it as a single issue. In the words of Audre Lorde ‘there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.’ 

In England and Wales, Black people make up only 3% of the population but 12% of the prison population; since 1990, there have been 1893 deaths in police custody and not a single police officer was charged. In 2022, Brazil, 68.2 percent of the total prison population were Afro-Brazilians and in the same year 65 out of every 100 people killed by the police in were Afro-Brazilians. Policing and prisons are intrinsic to anti-Blackness – to racial capitalism, a system refusing to address the social problems created by social conditions by the political elite. America incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, weaponising survivance, policing and mass incarceration to oppress, control, and profit off racialised communities. Black people are incarcerated at about 5.1 times the rate of white people

Prisons in the US context are connected to chattel slavery; the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution gave the stamp for the continuation of enslavement. Prisons in the UK context are connected to the British colonial empire – where policing and prisons were used to attempt to disrupt and destabilise national liberation movements. Prisons and Policing have been created in the interest of the ruling class to maintain global imperialist power. Abolitionist refers to prisons as the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), and I will use Critical Resistance as an abolitionist organisation definition, “PIC is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” The PIC is an extension of capitalism, a means to profit from the most vulnerable, a means to create cheap labour so the ruling class becomes richer as we all collectively suffer. 

Britain was the first country in Europe to introduce private prisons; currently, 14 prisons are privately owned, and one of the corporations that owns these prisons is G4S, the world’s biggest private security services contractor; this corporation provides security for imperialist forces. G4S provided security systems to Israeli prisons where Palestinians, from the old to the young, are kidnapped and tortured. Prisons and policing were never designed to solve harm and create accountability – how can we be held accountable by the very imperialist countries that are bombing countries in the Global South in order to steal and control these countries? 

At present, Israel, a settler colonial Zionist project, is continuing to use colonial practices created by the British Empire via the Prison Industrial Complex against Palestinians; between 1919 and 1948 Babylon Britain assembled legal frameworks to prevent anti-colonial resistance. The British jailed and tortured Palestinians resistance fighters who organised against the oppression of their people. 

Today, Gaza is an open-air prison where Israel blockades 2.2 million people. Thousands of Palestinians are under ‘administrative detention’ without charge or trial; the arrest duration is indefinite. Israel strategically creates and weaponises laws to further criminalise and repress any dissent and uprising against the settler colonial ‘state.’ Using detentions, mass incarceration, torturing and murder to oppress Palestinians as a method to attempt to destabilise and destroy national liberation movements; I say attempt because the power of the people can never be destroyed, Palestinian resistance has always centred the release of political prisoners and called for the release of all political prisoners. The resistance cannot be destroyed. 

Once again, the Israeli Occupation forces (IOF) targets the Palestinian people using military surveillance weaponry, the Prison Industrial Complex funded and supported by imperialist nations, e.g. the U.K. and U.S., whilst Israel has designed training programs to export its violent military occupation globally, teaching and sharing policing tactics to the West. 

How does abolition reject reformism?

Abolition must be understood as a global liberation project: an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist international movement rooted in dismantling oppressive institutions. 

Abolition isn’t a reformist movement because why would we want to limit our liberation and freedom, accepting scraps of freedom from our oppressors? We deserve more, political prisoners deserve more, and our martyrs deserve more. Prisons and policing do not keep us safe; they were created to serve and protect the ruling class and maintain and sustain racial capitalism. In the words of Angela Davis: 

“Prisons do not disappear social problems; they disappear human beings. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the only human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.” 

Reform ultimately indicates that the prison, policing and other oppressive systems are broken; the system cannot be broken when the ruling class created it to perpetuate systematic inequality not just in prisons but in schools, mental health institutions, the media and the workplace. We are taught to surveil our community and no longer trust our neighbours but rely on a system that is riddled with violence in our communities and globally. 

Why would we want to reform such an institution? Abolition follows the radical tradition of demanding liberation for all, relearning how to be together as a community, and addressing harm without causing more harm, known as transformative justice. Mia Mingus, an organiser and trainer for transformative justice and disability justice, says;

“Transformative Justice is an abolitionist framework that understands systems such as prisons, police and I.C.E. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). as sites where enormous amounts of violence take place and as systems that were created to be inherently violent in order to maintain social control. Transformative Justice. works to build alternatives to our current systems, which often position themselves as protectors while simultaneously enacting the very forms of violence they claim to condemn.”

You cannot reform an inherently violent system; you cannot reform prisons, policing, or racial capitalism, and in the same way, we cannot reform Israel, a settler colonial apartheid project. A global system whose sole function is to protect the ruling class’s interests cannot be reformed and should be reformed. The steadfastness and discipline of our ancestors should inspire us not to accept scraps of freedom and believe the oppressor will guarantee our liberation. We demand abolition because we deserve full freedom and liberation. 

We must follow in the footsteps of the people of Haiti, Algeria, and Vietnam, learning from Thomas Sankara, Fatima Bernawi, Kwame Nkrumah, Leila Khaled, Ho Chi Minh, Assata Shakur; the foundations have been laid, and I believe our liberation is guaranteed. The question arises: do you want to reform a system designed to surveil, repress and incarcerate oppressed communities, or do you want to be involved in cultivating a liberated world? 

A brief (ongoing) history of community-led resistance and organising

Communities are becoming politicised, radicalised and organised from Palestine to Burkina Faso. We are witnessing a time when the people are resisting imperialist forces by any means necessary. Ibrahim Traoré, the President of Burkina Faso said in the Second Russia-Africa Summit ‘we are here together because we are here to talk about the future of our peoples, about what is going to happen tomorrow, about this free world to which we aspire.’ The win we are experiencing is people in the Global South are uprising and building coalitions resisting western imperialist domination, teaching the world how to resist and remain disciplined in the resistance. 

In the UK, we have grassroots movements forming coalitions to reimagine and organise for a free world; international global movements are forming and rising; as a youth worker, I’ve witnessed over the last couple of months the consciousness of the youth rise, young people politicising other young people about the state of the world, young people in schools staging workouts standing against the injustice happening against the Palestinian people. Movements are organising direct actions targeting armed companies and people organising arrestee support before you can even finish your sentence. The Palestinian resistance has globalised the intifada.

Our communities have been organising for the abolishment of police and prisons, finding alternative ways to address harm in our communities without relying on state carceral practices and tyrant politicians who profit off the punishment. Our communities have organised prisoner support where people incarcerated are not left behind through phone calls, letter writing and providing material resources. Our communities have organised mutual aid where people’s material conditions are met through money, clothes, food and emotional support. 

Our elders have organised, and we have organised and will continue to organise intergenerationally and internationally until a free and liberated world. We are developing and redeveloping our strategies and tactics to defeat the beast by any means necessary and abolish oppressive institutions. We must learn how to live alongside each other collectively. 

The world is on fire, set by the ruling class. Either we continue to allow the world we inhabit to burn or reclaim our world, cultivating a better way of living and being. Remember, abolition is an act of refusal and an act of imagining and building a better world for all. Abolition is not just a theoretical concept: it is rooted in an everyday practice, learning who is in your community and becoming involved in community based organising.

I refuse to allow the terms of our world to be set by imperialist forces determined to control us. None of us is safe under racial capitalism, only the elite, and it’s either you become complacent (still complicit) in our destruction, or you destroy the oppressive systems causing our destruction, building a transformative world for all. 

“I believe in living, I believe in birth, I believe in the sweat of love and in the fire of truth and I believe that a lost ship, steered by tired, sea sick sailors, can still be guided home to port.”

— Assata Shakur

What can you do?

Our knowledge is a weapon against imperialist forces, once we learn how these violent systems operate we can organise accordingly – organise accordingly and understand how the beast moves. Down below I’ve listed some readings, podcast and articles that has politicised me:

Book recommendations:

Podcast:

Articles and websites:

Referencing: 

Terminology explanations:

Racial Capitalism defined by Peter Hudson 

  • “Racial capitalism suggests both the simultaneous historical emergence of racism and capitalism in the modern world and their mutual dependence.” 

Imperialism through the lens of Vladimir Lenin

  • “(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.”
Illustration by @luc.ipina who says: “I was thinking about people being interconnected and weaved some of my favourite quotes from the article in with the illustrations”
TopSoil: gardening as radical queer resistance Stammering in the intersections Beyond the pole: cultivating community and destigmatising sex work What is Abolition? What is Settler Colonialism? The Revolution is in 808 What is Green Colonialism? The Black women in my life who bring me joy Exploring mixed musical heritage in collective healing and solidarity What occupying a University building taught me about life