Where are they now? Deepening Abolitionist Praxis

Jan 23, 2023 | Fellows, Transformations (Issue 8), Where are they now?

Deepening Abolitionist Praxis

Abolitionist praxis is complicated, layered across multiple scales, geographies, systems, communities, perspectives, and forms of engagement. Over the past five years, I have been growing my understanding of the fullness of abolitionist visioning as I have moved a focus in the early decades of my career on interrogating and critiquing militarism and militarization on a global scale, to a focus in the middle years of my career on deconstructing the presumption of a world of territorially bounded nation-states with exclusive forms of membership, to a critique of the security state and the carceral apparatuses on which it depends.

In October 2022, I joined the IAS Politics of Credibility Project led by Dr Elisabeth Kirtsoglou (Anthropology) and Dr Olga Demetriou (SGIA) as an International Fellow to explore the theoretical and methodological regimes of legitimacy and evidence that underpin asylum determination regimes in the UK and Europe (Greece, Cyprus and Germany). Given my recent work on abolitionist praxis, I was looking forward to exploring knowledge, evidence, interpretations which determined our understanding of credibility procedures. The Fall 2022 fellowship at the IAS afforded me an unconstrained period in which to make sense of how these strands of research inform my current abolitionist praxis: how militarization warps political formations and social relations; how nation-states confounded by migrant mobility respond with racist violence; and how narratives that shape public awareness and opinion on these urgent issues take root.

The past five years have brought me into close working relationships with abolitionists, incarcerated folks, those who maintain the carceral apparatus of prisons, and those who seek to reform but not dismantle the prison industrial complex. This work has been rooted in broad abolitionist theory and hyperlocal practice: my current work is profoundly collaborative, based in the experiences of justice-impacted people, and committed to working toward decarceration and the abolition of prisons in my home state of Maine. Stepping away from the firehose of abolitionist work and into a space of deep interdisciplinary conversation and sustained reading and reflection in Durham allowed me to chart out the next several years of my research agenda. What a gift.

One of the many beauties of my time in Durham was the opportunity to move between the vigorous debates happening in my abolitionist community at home and vigorous debates within my new interdisciplinary community in Durham. Some abolitionists call for total revolution: the need to completely dismantle our current legal and capitalist system in order to bring into being new political formations that are based in community decision-making, mutual aid, restorative justice, equity, forgiveness and collective accountability. I am very sympathetic to this vision, but my desire to explore what this might look like came under severe fire from IAS fellow and political scientist Jackie Stevens. For ten weeks we argued about whether the revolution already happened, making the task before us one of actually bringing into being its promise and potential, or whether the American revolution was so embedded in the interests of enslavement and the genocide of indigenous communities as to be only and forever a font of white supremacy.

My mind was constantly ablaze. Another dimension of abolitionist visioning is making right relations with the earth, which humans are currently destroying through rapacious consumption and the burning of fossil fuels. IAS fellow Christiaan De Beukelaer just finished a book on the potential of decarbonization through wind-powered transport and how those nations most in peril due to rising seas are trying to use multilateral institutions to force changes in the shipping industry. His work led us into debates about how power works on a global scale, and specifically about the ways in which a collective interest in saving the world from destruction gets worked through the private interests of individual political actors. These debates reverberated through my thinking about who benefits from carcerality in the face of its enormous social, economic, and environmental costs, and how to reconcile the interests of the beneficiaries with the absolute destruction their industry is causing.

Finally, abolitionist visioning draws on the practice of restorative, transitional, and transformative justice to create alternative ways to respond to, and ameliorate, harm. Broadly and generally speaking, restorative justice seeks to name the harm, assign accountability, work toward forgiveness and repair, and build community safety. Transitional justice seeks to address the roots of harm – civil war or systemic intergenerational harm, for example – in order to build a post-violence social order that address the legacy of that harm through mechanisms for truth-telling, justice, and reconciliation. Transformative justice seeks to ensure that the harm does not happen again through changing the context that made the harmful action possible in the first place. The vocabulary of forgiveness, repair, justice, and reconciliation is foundational in these perspectives. Professor of Anthropology Nayanika Mookherjee’s recent work On Irreconciliation, challenges presumptions about the redemptive work of reconciliation initiatives that prioritize forgiveness in the name of reconciliation over justice for those harmed and that thus fail to ensure meaningful, material accountability for those who cause the harm.  Her work thus challenges not only carcerality (how do prisons actually enact accountability and repair?) but presumptions that forgiveness should lead to reconciliation. Her invitation to think about the relationship between abolition and irreconciliation opened an entirely new arena of thought for me to consider.

I left Durham full, intellectually, socially, psychically, and spiritually, renewed by the collaborative power of rigorous interdisciplinarity, combined with the inspiring passion my interlocutors hold for their theoretical commitments and engaged forms of praxis.  Our intensive time together was just the beginning of ongoing conversations that will continue to inform my thinking and my work.

Professor Catherine Bestemen, Colby College


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