Challenging Convictions:Indigenous and Black Race-Radical Feminists Theorizing the Carceral State and Abolitionist Praxis in the United States and Canada
This essay, with accompanying lesson plan, explores how race-radical women of color feminist activists—in particular, Black and Indigenous feminists—identify, conceptualize, theorize, and resist the carceral state violence of white settler societies in both Canada and the United States. This critical ethnic studies intervention focuses on the theoretical interventions driven by Indigenous and Black race-radical feminists and how this has placed these activists at the forefront of anti-violence movement-building. Such an intervention specifically upholds the tensions within and refuses to collapse the radical and revolutionary political traditions and approaches of Indigenous movements for sovereignty and Black race-radical liberatory traditions. This transnational, comparative focus helps us to not only identify and understand but to create multiple strategies that dismantle the carceral state and the racialized gendered violence that it mobilizes and sustains. This essay asks the following questions which move beyond introspection or interrogation of texts about violence into compelling conversations that highlight the interlocking nature of interpersonal, sexual, and carceral state violence: How have Indigenous and race-radical feminists identified and theorized the legitimized violence of the carceral state? What questions have those diverse identifications and theoretical understandings led activist scholars currently theorizing the carceral state to ask? And what insights have those critiques generated in the activist scholarship on social movements dedicated to anti-racist, feminist anti-violence, Indigenous [End Page 137] decolonial, and anti-prison abolitionist praxis? Proceeding from the argument that both prison abolitionist praxis and race-radical feminist praxis are inherently and primarily pedagogical, the accompanying lesson plan attempts to explore the multiple ways Indigenous and race-radical women of color feminists learn, teach, and organize about carceral logics and prison abolition inside and outside the classroom in a manner that teaches against the grain of carceral common sense.
My formal introduction to the feminism of Indigenous and Black race-radical women of color was violent due to my own life experience as a survivor of sexual and state violence and my social location as a queer Chicana from an urban working-class/working-poor background, and to the wider political conjuncture that was taking place when I was introduced to this activist tradition. Like many poor and working-class youth of color growing up in the “shadow of the prison” in the ’80s and ’90s in “Golden Gulag” (Gilmore 2007) California, feminism—or what I thought at the time was feminism—didn’t speak to me or to anyone else in my ’hood. It didn’t help me to understand why and how California became comprised overnight of more than nine hundred miles of concrete prisons overflowing with the caged bodies of the “surplus population” of young men and women of color victimized by “The War on Drugs” and by other horrors that start with the letter “D”: devolution, downsizing, deindustrialization, and dehumanization. What I would later understand to be “whitestream” hegemonic feminism just didn’t do it for me like queer Black and Chicana feminisms and “This Bridge Called My Back” (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1983) feminist praxis would. While “a principled sense of mortal urgency” (Gilmore 2007, 251) has continued to propel me to act, the feminist thought of race-radical women of color has continued to teach me to act strategically and tactically; to possess a healthy distrust of easy, instantaneous solutions; and—as Audre Lorde reminded us in her 1995 poem “A Litany for Survival”—“to speak, remembering, we were never meant to survive.” [End Page 138]
This essay, with accompanying lesson plan, explores how race-radical women of color feminist activists—in particular, Black and Indigenous feminists—identify, conceptualize, theorize, and resist the carceral state violence of white settler societies in both Canada and the United States (Palacios 2014). When I refer to “Indigenous and race-radical feminists,” I do so to reference both girls and women of color and Indigenous girls and women who experience gender-based state violence and who identify as women, queer, Two-Spirit, lesbian, bisexual, gender queer, or gender non-conforming, whose interventions are generally marginalized by both “whitestream feminist” (Grande 2004, 148) anti-violence movements as well as more radical (male-dominant, nationalist) movements resisting both interpersonal and state violence. My analysis of state violence enables an exploration of the ways that girls and women of color are assaulted, manipulated, unprotected, and hyper-criminalized by the institutions and the individuals who speak/act on their behalf, and of the development of corresponding Indigenous and race-radical feminist praxis. As I argue throughout my research and teaching, it is long past time that feminist anti-sexual violence activism, anti-prison abolitionism, and anti-police brutality movements integrate and address the particular experiences of girls and women of color—not just as mothers, partners, and children of men of color targeted by systemic state violence and the criminal legal and punishment systems, but as both targets of state violence and agents of resistance and theoreticians in our own right. Lastly, we need to interrogate our own complicity in policing and silencing other women of color and Indigenous women, especially their particular enactments of resistance against gendered, sexualized, and carceral state violence.
This essay focuses on the theoretical interventions driven by Indigenous and Black race-radical feminists and how this has placed these activists at the forefront of anti-violence movement-building in Canada and the United States. Such a critical ethnic studies intervention “is not a melting pot for diverse racialized identity-based groups; it is a coalitional intellectual project that seeks to assess the intersecting logics of white supremacy, settler colonialism, and capitalism” (Simpson and Smith 2014, 13). [End Page 139] Such an intervention specifically upholds the tensions within and refuses to collapse the radical and revolutionary political traditions and approaches of Indigenous movements for sovereignty and Black race-radical liberatory traditions. This transnational, comparative focus helps us to not only identify and understand but to create multiple strategies that dismantle the carceral state and the racialized gendered violence that it mobilizes and sustains. Importantly, the politics of prison abolition are fundamentally shaped by each group’s particular relationship to racial slavery and settler colonialism. While this essay does not focus on the particulars of Latina migrants, for example, who are increasingly targeted for captivity (see Escobar 2009), it does provide a context to understand the phenomenon, since the various forms of containment to which they are subjected (for example, reproductive control strategies) are integrally related to the history of captivity experienced by Black and Indigenous women in North America (see Roberts 1997; Smith 2005).
Importantly, Indigenous and race-radical feminisms advocate for a justice outside the normative neoliberal politics of justice and the mechanisms of the state. This justice aligns more with a politics of refusal: on the one hand, a race-based refusal that understands—consistent with an Afro-pessimist approach or intellectual disposition (Hartman 1997; Sexton 2011; Wilderson 2010)—how social death and Blackness are fungible and how the struggle for “abolition of slavery unsettles both colonial and decolonial forms of sovereign determination” (Sexton 2014, 1); and on the other, with an Indigenous politics of refusal that rejects statist relations of sovereignty in favor of self-determination informed by Indigenous knowledges. While the aims of Indigenous sovereignty movements are to bring about the repatriation of Indigenous lands and resurgence of Indigenous life, the politics of abolition (of racial slavery) that “consists in the affirmation of the unsovereign slave” rejects the restoration of sovereignty and refuses “a politics of resurgence, recovery, or recuperation” (Sexton 2014, 11). I say all this not to rank oppressions—as “to be anti-black is also to be fundamentally anti-Indigenous” (Jackson 2014) and vice versa—but to trace some of the different positions and approaches that are available from which to critique and potentially dismantle necropolitical logics (Mbembe 2003). [End Page 140]
To this end, I pose the following set of questions throughout this essay and in the accompanying lesson plan: How have Indigenous and race-radical feminists identified and theorized the legitimized violence of the carceral state? What questions have those diverse identifications and theoretical understandings led activist scholars currently theorizing the carceral state to ask? And what insights have those critiques generated in the activist scholarship on social movements dedicated to anti-racist, feminist anti-violence, Indigenous decolonial, and anti-prison abolitionist praxis? These questions move beyond introspection or interrogation of texts about violence into compelling conversations that highlight the interlocking nature of interpersonal, sexual, and carceral state violence.
Indigenous and Race-Radical Women of Color Feminisms
Black feminism performs a double refusal: the refusal to disappear and the refusal to comply.–Denise Ferreira da Silva (Barnard Center for Research on Women 2015)
I reference Indigenous and race-radical women of color feminism as an analytic to clearly demarcate a radical and revolutionary tradition and standpoint that is separate from, and oppositional to, one that embraces hegemonic feminism and a liberal politics of recognition. The radicalizing potential of Indigenous and race-radical feminism is based on integrative analyses and incisive critiques of heteropatriarchy and racialized and gendered violence within structures of settler colonialism and white supremacy; autonomy from mainstream bourgeois feminism; independence from heteropatriarchal anti-racism; activism that connects with grassroots and non-elite objectives and leadership; movement-building based upon Indigenous politics of decolonization, sovereignty, and nationhood that rejects the given-ness of the nation-state system or state-like forms of governance; and a marked distaste for overreliance on corporate philanthropy and liberal rights- and reform-based politics in lieu of confronting corporate power, state authority, and policing.
Like race-radical Black feminists, Indigenous feminism centers anti-racist and anticolonial praxis within its anti-violence organizing and [End Page 141] challenges the heteronormative and patriarchal nation-state. Currently, numerous Indigenous feminist organizations led by Indigenous girls and women have been challenging calls for a Canadian-based national inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women. Instead of conveniently sidestepping outlaw logics and discourses that resist state intervention and litigation out of respect for the family members of murdered women who wish to engage the state, radical Indigenous community organizers foster a politics of Indigenous resurgence to respond to both racialized gendered and carceral state violence. Indigenous renaissance and resurgence is about reclaiming Indigenous contexts (e.g., knowledge, interpretations, values, ethics, processes) for their own political cultures and refocusing Indigenous-led organizing work “from trying to transform the colonial outside into a flourishment of the Indigenous inside” (Simpson 2011, 17; emphasis in the original). As Indigenous feminist Leanne Simpson further elaborates,
We need to rebuild our culturally inherent philosophical contexts for governance, education, health care, and economy. We need to be able to articulate in a clear manner our visions for the future, for living as Indigenous Peoples in contemporary times. To do so, we need to engage in Indigenous processes, since according to our traditions, the processes of engagement highly influence the outcome of the engagement itself. We need to do this on our own terms, without the sanction, permission, or engagement of the state, western theory, or the opinions of Canadians.(2011, 17; emphasis in the original)
Indigenous feminists embrace this politics of resurgence and are interested in nurturing self-determined and community-led responses to racialized gendered violence targeting Indigenous girls and women rather than relying on colonial nation-states by further engaging with and appealing to state institutions and government bodies.
Black race-radical, Indigenous, and revolutionary women of color feminisms all explicitly challenge liberalism as expressed by dominant liberal feminism and official liberal multiculturalism, which have explained (away) the racialized and gendered violence inherent in carceral states. Despite ideological fluidity and border crossings between and within liberal, radical, and revolutionary women of color feminisms, one can [End Page 142] make some valid and useful generalizations. For example, liberal women of color feminisms accept the legitimacy of corporate state institutional and police power, but posit the need for humanistic legal reform, whereas race-radical feminisms view oppression as stemming from capitalism, white supremacy, colonialism, heteropatriarchy, and the neoliberal corporate and carceral state that reinforces all forms of subjection (James 2000; Melamed 2011). Those race-radical and revolutionary feminisms explicitly challenge the carceral settler state itself, not just by protesting its violent excesses—solitary confinement, prison exploitation, and torture—but by connecting grounded political theory for radical transformation with political action to abolish capitalism and the nation-state. As Joy James argues, “radical black feminists’ liberation theories address their nemesis: political violence, in both its private and public manifestations; counter-revolutionary state police repression, and a liberal anti-revolutionary discourse that seeks to contain Black feminism by portraying it as an idealistic maverick” (2000, 249). Race-radical and revolutionary Black feminist formations arose from an intersectional analysis of interlocking systems of oppression, including the relations between gender and sex regulation and global capital’s new regimes of racial exploitation, of which mass incarceration is but one iteration.
Mass incarceration is bluntly reconstituting and revivifying North American productions of gendered racial citizenship and white supremacy, as well as targeting a large and permanent group of Indigenous women and women of color for legal elimination and social death. These women are, as Lisa Cacho argues, “ineligible for personhood—as populations subjected to laws but refused the legal means to contest those laws, as well as denied both the political legitimacy and moral credibility necessary to question them” (2012, 6; emphasis in the original). The “metastasizing carceral state” has helped to legitimize a new mode of “governing through crime” that has spread well beyond the criminal justice system to other core institutions (Gottschalk 2008, 237). In North America, the ascendance of the carceral state has coincided with neoliberal cuts in welfare, public health provision, and social services, alongside increased state policing and surveillance of Indigenous communities and communities of color, which simultaneously struggle with heightened economic insecurity and vulnerability. [End Page 143]
The reach of the carceral state extends far beyond the more than one million women currently under the supervision of the criminal justice system—including those women on probation or parole—in the United States (The Sentencing Project 2007). While the U.S. and Canadian prison systems do not operate in the same ways, in Canada, the number of adult female admissions to provincial/territorial custody and federal custody has increased by 55 percent between 1999/2000 and 2008/2009 (Mahony 2011, 33). In addition, women of color are significantly overrepresented in the U.S. criminal justice system. Case in point: Black women represent 30 percent of all incarcerated women in the United States, although they represent only 13 percent of the female population generally (American Civil Liberties Union 2016). Running parallel to mass incarceration of Black girls and women in the United States, Canada is an avid incarcerator of Indigenous women, sharing a pattern of phenomenal growth mirrored in other white settler societies (Balfour and Comack 2014). According to the Correctional Investigator of Canada, more than 36 percent of women in federal prison are of Aboriginal descent, and 2011 statistics show a jump to 41 percent when examining women in provincial custody. Aboriginal people make up just over 4 percent of the overall Canadian population (Sapers 2015, 2). As further lessons will explore, the intrusive reach of punitive carceral controls into the everyday lives and onto the marked bodies of perpetually criminalized Indigenous women and Black women are transcarceral—forming beyond the walls of prisons—and therefore constitute what I and other race-radical feminist activist-scholars call a transcarceral continuum. The transcarceral continuum manifests itself primarily in the guise of localized mental health agencies, welfare and child protective services, and professionalized social services, as well as in individualizing, pathologizing, and self-responsibilizing educational and therapeutic projects. This continuum blurs the boundary between the prison’s “outside” and “inside,” extending its control through stigmatization and the embodied markers of imprisonment of criminalized girls and women who have spent the majority of their lives under some form of state control.
The interlocking interpersonal, sexual, and carceral state violence targeting Indigenous and Black girls and women in white settler societies [End Page 144] is an issue that has rarely been analyzed in dominant, hegemonic feminist explorations of women and violence or heteropatriarchal explorations of prisons and policing. Indigenous feminists and race-radical Black feminists, however, have engaged in a sustained critique of such framings that evacuate carceral state violence from any critical analysis of or activist engagement with gendered, sexualized, and racialized violence. The historical legacies and activist genealogies of Indigenous and race-radical women feminists continue to guide feminist anti-violence activists in strengthening contemporary movements capable of dismantling both race-based and gender-based violence sustained and perpetuated by the carceral state.
Theorizing the Carceral State and Abolitionist Praxis
We cannot live without our lives.—Banner held by Combahee River Collective members protesting the sexual assault and murder of twelve Black women in the Boston area in the first six months of 1979 (Combahee River Collective 1979)
As Angela Davis and Gina Dent (2001) argue in their seminal essay “Prison as Border,” the political economy of North American prisons, policing, and the punishment industry in the Global North brings the intersections of gender, race, colonialism, and capitalism into sharp focus. The Prison-Industrial Complex (PIC) is defined by Critical Resistance as a “complicated system situated at the intersection of governmental and private interests that uses prisons and policing as a failed ‘solution’ to social, political and economic crisis” (Critical Resistance 2012). The PIC depends upon the oppressive systems of racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia operating within white settler societies such as the United States—the world’s largest purveyor of state violence, both militarily and in the scale of its prison system. As Davis and Dent argue, “find[ing] that the prison is itself a border … is an important interpretation that undoes the illusions of powerful nation-states on the one hand and the seeming disorganization and chaos of capital’s travels on the other” (2001, 1236–7). Similar to how the factories and workplaces of local and transnational corporations [End Page 145] discipline the labor of immigrant women of color, the prisons of white settler societies disproportionately incarcerate large numbers of Indigenous people and people of color.
Furthering this analysis which identifies borders and prisons as shaping this moment of global crisis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues that prison expansion and mass incarceration of populations deemed surplus or redundant to racial capitalism is the newest iteration of white supremacism and heteropatriarchal regimes and racism. She defines racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death, in distinct yet densely interconnected political geographies” (Gilmore 2002, 261). Gilmore’s definition of racism relates closely to postcolonial scholar Achille Mbembe’s conceptualization of necropolitics as politics defined as a “work of death” in that it identifies “who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not” based upon race and the logic of racism and colonial domination (2003, 12 and 27). Mbembe argues that the meanings of death in necropolitics emerge through interpretations of embodiment: of corpses, of who kills, and of who is targeted for death. As will be further explored throughout my curriculum, in North America, necropower is most visible in the hyper-criminalization, mass incarceration, deportation, and extermination of Indigenous nations and Black communities.
Employing a critical intersectional analysis, race-radical Black feminists like Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Joy James, Cathy Cohen, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Beth Richie, and Julia Sudbury (Oparah) have both embraced and critically departed from Michel Foucault’s seminal analysis in Discipline and Punish of the “birth of the prison” in order to discuss how the particular formation of the North American carceral state emerges, functions, and reproduces itself. Foucault’s term “carceral” refers to a network of regimentation and discipline, a prison without walls in turn made up of social networks of surveillance. Since it is, according to Dylan Rodríguez, “the prison regime that possesses and constitutes the state,” (2006, 43) and not the other way around, the analysis of state violence presented by race-radical women of color theorists necessarily centers a race-radical women of color feminist standpoint from which to challenge the expanding, transnational, and transcarceral prison [End Page 146] regime. The idea of the PIC as a regime underscores how the cultural and institutional site of prison is no longer “some building ‘over there’ but a set of relationships that undermine rather than stabilize everyday lives everywhere” (Gilmore 2007).
The metanarrative of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish has been uniformly contested by Indigenous and race-radical women of color feminists who have critiqued Foucault for universalizing the white, propertied, male body and erasing the spectacle of state-sanctioned racialized and gendered violence targeting Black and Indigenous bodies throughout Africa and the Americas. If the “art of punishing, in the regime of disciplinary power” is designed not to expiate or repress but to “normalize” (1977, 182–3), as Foucault argues, then one must recognize, as Joy James in turn argues, “that some bodies cannot be normalized no matter how they are disciplined, unless the prevailing social and state structures that figuratively and literally rank bodies disintegrate” (1996, 27). Race-radical feminists have departed from “Foucauldian erasures,” which, by arguing that nothing exists outside the carceral, fail to explore the reality of resistance to white supremacist, carceral state violence.
I now turn to examine briefly those Black and Indigenous anti-prison abolitionist communities who view political life outside and beyond the carceral in an effort to analyze and dismantle racialized state violence and the carceral state.
Poignantly stressing the devastating economic and affective effects that incarceration has on the children and communities that incarcerated people leave behind, Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains that prisons, “wear out places by wearing out people, irrespective of whether they have done time” (2007, 17). In response to the intensity with which the carceral state was locking their children, of all ages, into the criminal punishment system, working-class Black and Indigenous women have been establishing important grassroots abolitionist collectives and statewide campaigns to challenge the carceral state on a number of fronts, from mandatory minimum three-strikes laws to the siting of new prisons. Gilmore traces how the organization Mothers Reclaiming Our Children (ROC), founded in California in the early 1990s, evolved from being a cooperative self-help group that formed in response to racist police murders of young Black men in deindustrializing South [End Page 147] Central Los Angeles into a social movement built to challenge what she calls “domestic militarism” (Gilmore 2007, 239). Mothers ROC (whose members are known as “ROCers”) open up the possibility of identification by “critically deploy[ing] the ideological power of motherhood” to challenge the legitimacy of the changing carceral state and by emphasizing that all prisoners are somebody’s children, and children are not alienable (Gilmore 1999, 27). Neither a non-profit service agency nor a liberal reformist organization, Mothers ROC rejected a liberal politics of recognition, visibility, and inclusion. This cadre of mothers of color, who first encountered one another in the interstices of the carceral state, has focused on making power through organizational capacity building, political education, coalition building, and direct action driven by “a principled sense of mortal urgency” (Gilmore 2007, 251).
Driven by a similar urgency, grassroots, volunteer-led local and transnational groups like Families of Sisters in Spirit (FSIS), No More Silence (NMS), and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) embrace a politics of Indigenous resurgence and are interested in nurturing self-determined and community-led responses to racialized gendered violence targeting Indigenous girls and women rather than relying on the Canadian nation-state by further engaging with and appealing to state institutions and government bodies for justice. In their joint statement, “It Starts With Us,” which lays the groundwork to support the resurgence of community-based responses to violence, these three Indigenous-led organizations name specific forms of state violence and identify the harms of going through “the proper channels” of state-led interventions, ranging from providing testimonies to British Columbia’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry to making recommendations to the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (Families of Sisters in Spirit, No More Silence, and Native Youth Sexual Health Network 2014). Heightened calls for a national inquiry into the phenomenon of missing and murdered Indigenous women have been made in the wake of the disappearance and murder of Loretta Saunders, a pregnant young Inuk graduate student who was writing her thesis on the murders of three Nova Scotia Indigenous women (CBC News 2014; Leroux 2014); to these organizations, however, such calls are a waste of time. [End Page 148]
Moreover, beyond being a waste of time, Robyn Bourgeois argues, an inquiry “allows the Canadian state to appear that it is doing something about violence against women without ever having to actually do anything” (2012; emphasis in the original). Establishing an inquiry or special committee to examine an issue that has successfully been defined in mainstream media and civic fora as a social problem has historically been a common strategy by the state to silence the voices of opposition. After warning other Indigenous women who are advocating for the inquiry about how the “colonial government can, and will, define, dictate, and decide the purpose, mandate, process, and outcome of that inquiry,” Andrea Landry deploys an outlaw discourse that delegitimizes an inquiry “established by a structure meant to murder, rape, and annihilate the Indigenous self” (2014). Landry writes, “Iif the colonial government were to put the dollars in to ‘fix’ an issue that they continuously create and justify, and if we were to agree to work together, we would be shaking hands with and embodying the oppressor” (Landry 2014). Landry powerfully equates Indigenous women’s falling prey to the “assimilative lure of the statist politics of recognition” (Coulthard 2007, 456) in the form of a national inquiry to that of the visceral pain induced by internalized oppression and violent victimization at the hands of the white -settler state. While nothing can be gained from engaging in a liberal politics of recognition, inclusion, and visibility, for Indigenous women, in particular, everything can be lost. Instead of engaging with carceral and settler states, these radical Indigenous feminists are “call[ing] attention back to ourselves; we have the answers and solutions … we always have” (Families of Sisters in Spirit, No More Silence, and Native Youth Sexual Health Network 2014). The solutions in which communities are already actively engaged range from Indigenous resurgence, teach-ins and critical education, media-arts justice, community accountability and transformative justice, supporting Indigenous people in the sex trades and street economies, centering Indigenous youth leadership and intergenerational organizing, and Annual February 14th Memorial Marches for Missing and Murdered Women (Native Youth Sexual Health Network 2013a; 2013b; 2014), to the “countless acts of hidden resistance and kitchen table resistance aimed [End Page 149] at ensuring their children and grandchildren could live as Indigenous Peoples” (Ladner and Simpson 2010, 8; emphasis in the original).
The new abolitionism of anti-prison movements, such as that advanced by Mothers (ROC), and of resurgent, decolonial Indigenous movements like those advanced by the Indigenous feminists of FSIS, NMS, and NYSHN put into practice a pragmatic intersectional analysis in affinity with the work of Indigenous and race-radical women of feminism in that abolitionist activists examine how processes of race, class, gender, and sexuality and transnational economic forces aggregate and interlock to create the everyday lived conditions of the carceral state. Indigenous and race-radical women of color in white settler societies have created a number of prison abolitionist tools: First, they developed the analytic ability to understand how seemingly disconnected institutions of carceral state violence—citizenship, incapacitation, and punishment, for example—work together to produce and police social difference and to legally consign entire groups of people to precarious futures and premature deaths. Second, their organizing points to the centrality of gender politics within anti-racist, anticolonial abolitionist struggles and therefore rejects heteropatriarchal racial nationalism espoused within their own communities. Relatedly, and as will be discussed in further detail in later lessons in the proposed course, Indigenous and race-radical women of color feminists who are both prison abolitionists and antidomestic and -sexual violence activists have built a strong critique of how the mainstream U.S. feminist and anti-violence movements have been complicit in building up the carceral state (see Bumiller 2008; Collective 2008a; Gottschalk 2006; Richie 2012; Smith 2005a). Lastly, because prison abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal, Indigenous and race-radical women of color feminists have also crafted and honed inclusive organizing strategies and tactics capable of challenging both racialized gendered violence and systemic carceral state violence waged against Indigenous girls and women, communities of color, and trans people of color.
Because the PIC in white settler societies is not an isolated system, abolition is a necessarily expansive and broad decolonial project—a project that is in line with the “holistic anti-violence agendas” engendered most centrally by Indigenous and race-radical women of color feminists (Sudbury 2003). [End Page 150] As Angela Davis (2003) demonstrates, a prison abolitionist project is a positive rather than a negative or reactive project; the way out is not to simply keep pushing back against carceral state policies of social control and criminalization that contribute to violence, but rather to proactively build grassroots antiviolence mobilizations. Working with this analysis, the Critical Resistance “CR10 Publications Collective” argues, prison abolition is “not simply about tearing down prison walls, but … about building alternative formations that actually protect people from violence, that crowd out the criminalization regime” (CR10 Publications Collective 2008a, 5). Relatedly, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney offer the following musings on prison abolition:
What is, so to speak, the object of abolition? Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.(2004, 114)
In summary, prison abolitionist praxis is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance—and the ideological structures of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy that shape institutional violence—and creating lasting alternatives to the nationstate, citizenship, militarized policing, mass incarceration, and border fortification. The next section will argue that prison abolitionist praxis engages not only political commitments but also pedagogical ones. In other words, race-radical feminist praxis is inherently and primarily pedagogical.
The Lesson Plan for Indigenous and Race-Radical Feminist Prison Studies
Arguing that the “massive carceral-cultural form of the prison has naturalized a systemic disorientation of the teaching act,” Dylan Rodriguez suggests that our primary task as radical teachers is to ask, “whether and how the act of teaching can effectively and radically displace the normalized misery, everyday suffering, and mundane state violence that are reproduced and/or passively condoned by both hegemonic and critical/counter-hegemonic [End Page 151] pedagogies” (Rodriguez 2010, 8; emphasis in the original). The following lesson plan asks: What would happen to the “disoriented teaching act” if it were reoriented to challenge students—particularly those learners who have a firsthand experience of the criminal legal and injustice system—to question their assumptions about the necessity of prisons and the blithe acceptance of societies that use prisons and policing as “a failed ‘solution’ to social, political and economic crisis” (Critical Resistance 2012)? In other words, how do we learn, teach, and organize about carceral logics and prison abolition in the classroom in a manner that teaches against the grain of carceral common sense?
The attached lesson plan continues to build from the literature to underscore how Indigenous and race-radical women of color feminist epistemology lays the necessary theoretical and activist groundwork to make possible a rejection of a liberal politics of recognition and fosters an unwavering commitment to the abolition of the carceral state. The felt theory and activist-scholarship of Indigenous feminist and race-radical women of color feminist formations have offered us a roadmap of how to: 1) denaturalize white settler colonialism, carceral feminisms, and their genealogies; 2) challenge our complicity in upholding carceral logics; and 3) model an affective economy in stark opposition to that proffered by the carceral state.
Future lessons will explore the prescient work undertaken by race-radical Black and Indigenous feminist scholar-activists that have advanced important insights into the relationship between systematic racialized, gendered, and sexualized violence and white settler colonialism. The project of the state in perpetuating violence in Indigenous, Black, and Chicana/Latina communities through genocide, slavery, prisons, and border patrols is well documented by race-radical feminist scholars (Bhattacharjee and Silliman 2002; Davis 1983; Díaz-Cotto 2006; Ross 1998; Smith 2005). These race-radical women of color feminists have served as “radical bridge-builders” between a multiplicity of social movements, such as the antiwar, prison abolitionist, political prisoner, police brutality, racial profiling, and domestic violence and sexual assault movements (Sudbury 2003, 135). Their activist praxis points to the manner in which the work to dismantle the carceral state will advance the feminist anti-violence agenda in fundamental and critical ways. [End Page 153]
Lesson Plan: Are the Cops in Our Heads and the Prison in Our Hearts?: Starting at the Place Where You Stand
“[T]he prison is not some building ‘over there’ but a set of relationships that undermine rather than stabilize everyday lives everywhere.”
Echoing Gilmore’s acknowledgement that our bodies and political imaginations have been captured by the carceral state and white settler imaginaries, Paula X. Rojas asks: “Are the Cops in Our Head and Hearts?” Rojas (2007) is one of the collective members and co-founders of the Sista II Sista Collective—a group of young women of color in Brooklyn, New York, working to end intimate and state violence against women and girls of color. In her article, Rojas explores how in their transformative justice work, grassroots, volunteer-based collectives and social movements “develop short-term strategies for protecting and supporting survivors of racialized gendered and carceral state violence as they organize to end the societal structures that enable violence to happen in the first place” (Rojas 2007, 200). When these collectives and movements focus on organizing as part of everyday life—making power instead of taking power (as though the entire political setup were only a matter of “it” (structure) versus “us” (agency)—the process becomes as important as the final product. Thus, communities of Indigenous and race-radical women of color feminists seek not merely to intervene after violence happens, but also to create a world in [End Page 154] which violence becomes unimaginable. Learning, teaching, and organizing about carceral logics and prison abolition both inside and outside of the classroom in a manner that goes against the grain of carceral common sense means putting on the table transformative examples of communities and movements that are actively working to confront racialized, gendered, and sexualized violence without automatically turning to or over-relying on the prison industrial complex (PIC) (INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence 2005) and the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC) (Gilmore 2007b). I bring these radical and revolutionary alternatives into college classrooms and community-based teaching/learning spaces by centering non-state resources, organizations, and examples that practice radical harm reduction and transformative justice (see list of resources below). The targeted audience is other activist-scholars who are working with and alongside these nascent organizations and movements and teacher-learners who understand themselves and their communities to be directly impacted by the PIC.
In order to begin to imagine the unimaginable, activist-scholars and teacher-learners must strive to mutually build community so as to explore how we have all been socialized within, touched/targeted/punished by, resistant to, and/or complicit with maintaining the carceral state. Acknowledging that “the cops” have burrowed their way into our minds and our hearts, we must engage with—and most importantly, produce our own—activist-scholarship pushing back against a purist politics that mistakenly believes that there is a clearly demarcated and pure “outside” to the current system. As Indigenous feminist Dian Million reminds us, “we dance in a politically electrified field most of our lives” (2011, 316). Indigenous feminist conceptualizations of sovereignty and decolonization, as well as Black race-radical feminist political claims to what Black feminist Saidiya Hartman would call statelessness, homelessness, and motherless-ness (Hartman 2007) have, however, furnished new ways for breaking the stranglehold of carceral state necropower, as well as provided answers to the questions that have weighed most heavily throughout this course: To whom (and to where) do we run for cover from the carceral state? What do these political formations and autonomous spaces that do not rely on the nation-state look and feel like? Can we actually achieve a freedom from interpersonal, sexual, and carceral state violence? [End Page 155]
The goal here is not to craft and share ready-made, clear-cut strategies for teaching and learning abolition “the right way.” Rather, in excavating the emotional and affective charges connected to the carceral state and its attendant logics, I have some directions and questions that are worth experimenting with. As Jessi Lee Jackson and Erica R. Meiners argue in their aptly titled article “Feeling Like a Failure,” teaching/learning abolition necessitates that we not only critically examine our investments in viewing people as either innocent or guilty, good or bad, but that we examine experiences of shame and fear, “especially the fear of ‘going too far’ with prison abolition, a feeling we identify as linked to how experiences of trauma and social rejection can limit how much we are willing to ask for” (Jackson and Meiners 2010, 21). Incorporating and building first-person narratives of trauma and social rejection can provide oppositional and alternative models of confronting the trauma of living in the “shadow of the prison” and providing care to others. Inspired by these words, the point is not to fixate on our failures (as there will be many) or to strive for resolution (as there will be none) but to heighten the conflicts and embrace the contradictions that emerge when we begin to honestly assess our complicities with maintaining and commitments to abolishing the carceral state.
By the end of this lesson, you will have:
• Explored how you have been socialized within, touched/targeted/punished by, resistant to, and/or complicit with maintaining the prison regime;
• Thought about what it means—for yourself, your family, and your community—to be simultaneously privileged by, oppressed by, and complicit with carceral systems of domination, control, and violence; and,
• Created meaningful connections between race-radical, Indigenous, and transnational feminist prison studies and your own social location in order to begin crafting your own auto-ethnographic narrative. [End Page 156]
Before you start this lesson, you will have previously:
• Practiced reading and interrogating primary texts closely to develop a nuanced understanding of the central concepts and issues, as well as historical and contemporary debates within the still-burgeoning field of transnational, race-radical feminist prison studies;
• Analyzed how transnational, race-radical feminist prison studies has evolved from its roots in Indigenous, race-radical, and critical race feminist scholarly engagements with feminist anti-violence and anti-prison praxis in white settler societies;
• Contributed your own emergent, yet rigorous, feminist analysis of racialized and gendered violence in white settler societies, trans-carceral state violence, and global prison regimes to the field of transnational feminist prison studies scholarship;
• Assessed multiple forms of anti-racist feminist activism and activist-scholarship in terms of their argument, assumptions, implications, benefits, and limitations; and,
• Created meaningful connections between race-radical, transnational feminist prison studies and methodologies and your own field or area of interest/discipline/practice.
This lesson plan outline can be adapted for an upper-division undergraduate course or community-based course, as there are many systemic and structural barriers that would prevent this lesson from being offered in a K-12 school system. It can be condensed into a single three-hour lesson (shown here) or extended over two or three lessons.
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Twice throughout the lesson, I engage with deep breathing and shadowboxing exercises that can be done either sitting or standing. When shadowboxing, boxers spar with an imaginary opponent as a form of training. I encourage this form of grounding exercise not only to relieve stress and promote presence but to confront traumatic material in ways that mirror how Indigenous and race-radical Black feminists [End Page 158] work with and through the trauma brought on by experiencing racialized, gendered, and sexualized violence. An Indigenous race-radical woman of color feminist standpoint is constituted in and through the politics of continuous interplay between activism and violent repression—what Joy James alludes to as revolutionary Black women’s learned capacity to navigate daily life as if “shadowboxing” (James 2002)—an apt metaphor for the “outsider within” struggle to both “fight the authoritative body casting one off, while simultaneously struggling with internal conflict and contradictions” (James 2000, 255). Militant antiracist feminists, in particular, have had to negotiate the “internal” opposition of antiradicalism among liberal feminists and anti-racists as well as the counter-feminism evident among radicals—all while fighting carceral state power.
On Collective Models of Learning and Accountability
I strongly believe that class should be structured in such a way that all learners can have ample opportunities to talk back and can feel free to articulate opinions or political perspectives that they think I and others will disagree with. When learners can make their voice public, it is possible for me and for other students to converse with these views. It is only through open, honest, substantive, and respectful dialogue that we can change our minds, and that cannot happen if learners do not feel free to share what they really think and feel. I only ask that students be at least be open to hearing new ideas, even if they are not immediately convinced by them. So that all learners have a voice in shaping the classroom experience itself, at the beginning of the course—usually during the second week of class—we will collaboratively discuss in-class and online dynamics and come up with some agreements about how we hold each other accountable (how we can “call each other in” instead of merely “calling each other out”) and collectively deal with discomfort, conflict, triggers, trauma, unequal participation (e.g., when someone is dominating discussions), “devil’s advocate” positions, “speaking for” and “speaking over,” racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, Islamophobia, classism/elitism, etc. [End Page 159]
This class is intended for us to learn; we have both the collective right and responsibility to change the classroom culture if it does meet our individual and collective needs. I will conduct periodic oral and written evaluations of classroom dynamics. In addition, I will build in other periodic exercises that draw attention to the operation of power in the classroom, especially the ways that conflicts are voiced and resolved and knowledges are constructed and validated. When a concern is brought to the table, I will ask all students what they think would be a good way to handle the issue rather than just address it directly myself. I hope that all learners will feel free to make suggestions as the class goes on and that they assume individual and collective responsibility for making appropriate changes to ensure, if not a “safe space,” then a “safer space.” In these ways, the classroom can become a dynamic space where students refuse shame, fear, and social death and claim their education.
Required Readings and Recommended Resources
Today we read the following activist-scholarship of Julia Sudbury (Oparah), Joy James, Stormy Ogden, Lisa Cacho, and Lena Palacios; in particular, their auto-ethnographic essays “grounded” in race-radical/critical race feminist activist scholarship:
• Julia Sudbury’s (Oparah’s) essay “Challenging Penal Democracy: Activist Scholars and the Anti-Prison Movement” (Sudbury 2009)
• Joy James’ introductory chapter “Warrior Tropes” in her book Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics (James 1999)
• Lisa Cacho’s “‘You Just Don’t Know How Much He Meant’: Deviancy, Death, and Devaluation” (Cacho 2007) [End Page 160]
To find out more about prison abolition; transformative justice; and community accountability goals, principles, and application, students will be encouraged to consult these movement-based resources:
Chen, Ching-In, Jai Dulani, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, eds. 2011. The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities. Brooklyn: South End Press.
Community Accountability: Emerging Movements to Transform Violence, a special issue of Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict & World Order 37, no. 4 (2011–2012).
Palacios, Lena. 2016. “‘Ain’t No Justice…It’s Just Us’: Girls Organizing against Interpersonal and Institutional Violence.” In Girlhood Studies and the Politics of Place: Contemporary Paradigms for Research, edited by Claudia Mitchell and Carrie A. Rentschler, 279–95. Oxford, New York: Berghahn Books.
Creative Interventions Toolkit (A Practical Guide to Stop Interpersonal Violence) http://www.creative-interventions.org/tools/toolkit/
Hereth, Jane, and Chez Rumpf. 2014. “Community Accountability for Survivors of Sexual Violence Toolkit.” https://carceralfeminism.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/cassv-reading-group-toolkit_shifting-from-carceral-to-tj-feminisms_final.pdf
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, and Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA). 2005. “Community Accountability within the People of Color Progressive Movement: Report from the INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence Ad-Hoc Community Accountability Working Group Meeting.” http://incite-national.org/sites/default/files/incite_files/resource_docs/2406_cmty-acc-poc.pdf
INCITE! and Critical Resistance: Statement on Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex. http://www.incite-national.org/page/incite-critical-resistance-statement
Russo, Ann, and Melissa Spatz. 2007. “Communities Engaged in Resisting Violence.” Communities Engaged in Resisting Violence | IssueLab. Chicago, Ill: Women and Girls Collective Action Network. http://www.transformativejustice.eu/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/communities_engaged.pdf [End Page 161]
Collectives and Organizations on the Web
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This assignment is inspired by the activist-scholarship of Julia Sudbury (Oparah), Joy James, Stormy Ogden, and Lena Palacios: in particular, their auto-ethnographic essays “grounded” in race-radical/critical race feminist activist-scholarship. For good models, please refer to the required readings for today’s lesson (see above).
You will produce a 5–7-minute video essay or digital story (accompanied by a five-page essay) that creatively and critically analyzes a memory, artifact, or lived experience that speaks to how you have been socialized within, touched/targeted/punished by, resistant to, and/or complicit with maintaining the prison regime. I encourage you to think through what it means—for yourself, your family, and your community—to be simultaneously privileged by, oppressed by, and complicit with systems of domination, control, and violence.
The initial step of this digital storytelling assignment is to free-write. In auto-ethnographic work, that means writing the “story” of a memory, artifact, or lived experience in simple terms, with no analysis. In essence, your “story” or narrative becomes the data from which your analysis can grow or be grounded. The second step is for you to produce the more polished, worked-through, edited, and analyzed paper: the one that has worked with the data, reflected upon it, and pulled in and grounded theoretical materials to help bolster your reading of it. Finally, you will produce a digital story in which you produce new and/or select pre-existing images, voice-overs, video clips, animation, music, etc. that effectively represent your auto-ethnographic memory work. In the beginning of the course, you will participate in digital storytelling [End Page 163] workshops and iMovie and/or Adobe Premiere Pro media production software trainings.
When you reference academic works, use proper bibliographic citation and include a Works Cited at the end. Refer to at least two of the assigned readings and at least two additional resources from the list of resources and bibliography located at the end of the lesson plan. Ensure that this is a scholarly investigation and not just a nostalgic one: use readings, images, and found artifacts critically and reference accordingly.
Your essay should not exceed five typed, double-spaced pages.
In the following weeks, we will turn to another discussion of mortal urgency in which we analyze how Indigenous and race-radical women of color feminists have underscored how racialized, gendered, and sexualized violence intersect to build and sustain the carceral state. Indigenous and race-radical women of color feminists and PIC abolitionists have been at the forefront of analyzing how white supremacist settler state violence depends on heterosexism and heteronormativity and of the deep imbrication of race, gender, class, and sexuality within the capitalist, colonial world order.
We will also continue our debate exploring whether or not the institutionalization of race-radical, transnational feminist prison studies in universities, prisons, or other institutions would extend, perpetuate, maintain or challenge the carceral state.
Lena Palacios is an assistant professor in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. Lena’s research and teaching focuses on critical prison studies, Black, Indigenous, Chicana/Latina queer and trans feminisms, girls’ and girlhood studies, transformative justice, media justice, and research justice. Lena is writing a book titled “Weaponizing Safety: Indigenous and Race-radical Feminist Transformative Justice Praxis” focusing on transformative justice movements in Canada and the U.S., particularly around sexual and carceral state violence.