Carving the Terrain of Freedom: The Multidimensionality of Youth-Focused Abolition Geography.

AuthorSelman, Kaitlyn J.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes abolition as "a plot against racial capitalism, which is all capitalism, not just some of it." Inspired by such an articulation, this article draws on the ideas and efforts of abolitionist youth organizations across the US to "plot" the dimensions, narratives, and geographies of abolitionist work. Here I focus on the horizontality, verticality, and depth of the abolitionist project: abolition is horizontal as it requires and facilitates solidarity across people and communities, vertical as it deftly navigates multiple scales, and it is deep as it seeks to transcend the temporal limitations of linear progress. In exploring these dimensions, I demonstrate how abolition embodies the complexity required for the creation of new worlds.


On July 10, 2020, former President Donald Trump was forced to respond to the year's defining call: defund the police. He said, "So, just a terrible thing, but I assume this is going to be a fad. We'll call it a fad" (Oprysko 2020). The choice to describe this movement as a fad is an important one. While the etymology of the word fad is slightly unclear, two routes lead us here: 1) it comes from the French word fadaise, meaning trifle or nonsense, and ultimately emerged from Latin fatuus or stupid, or 2) it comes from the term fashion craze, a "trivial fancy adopted and pursued for a time with irrational zeal." (1) Both roots have resonance here, as Trump invoked the supposedly nonsensical, trivial, and of course temporary nature of the call to defund the police. It is, to be sure, a call made with zeal, but trivial? No, never. Contrary to the claims of current and past presidents, the abolitionist call to defund the police is part of a deeply rooted and ever-spreading consciousness oriented toward the destruction of the racial capitalist regime. As a dialectical form of being, thinking, and relating, abolition involves theorizing the violent structural conditions that people are subjected to, have been subjected to, and may become subjected to, using such insights to develop strategies for dissolving those conditions, and putting those strategies into action, all while simultaneously responding to the new and evolving conditions that may develop as racial capitalism attempts to resolve its contradictions (Gordon 2017).

Abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2017a) articulates this most beautifully when she describes abolition as "a plot against racial capitalism, which is all capitalism, not just some of it." It requires the end of an order always already built on colonized Indigenous lands and reproduced through the dehumanization of workers and the extraction of life from Black bodies (Johnson & Lubin 2017). It is also "a plot in a narrative sense" (Gilmore 2017a), in that our collective story is shaped by freedom dreams (Kelley 2002) in which "the arc of change is always going resolutely toward freedom" (Gilmore 2017a). And finally, "it is a plot in a geographic sense ... in which we aim to make all space, not just some space, free" (Gilmore 2017a).The liberation of space comes in refusing the alienation, domination, and partitioning of space so characteristic of racial capitalism--essentially, all space must be free for all to exist within and travel through: "there is no boundary or border that would keep somebody in or keep somebody out" (Gilmore 2017a).

Inspired by this work, the following article utilizes a qualitative content analysis of the efforts of abolitionist youth organizations across the United States to further plot the dimensions, narratives, and geographies of abolitionist work. Here I focus on the horizontality, verticality, and depth of the abolitionist project: abolition is horizontal as it requires and facilitates solidarity across peoples and communities, vertical as it deftly navigates multiple scales, and deep as it transcends the temporal limitations of linear progress. In doing so, I offer a contestation of the claims we so often hear about abolition--that it is too focused on certain communities, too narrow in scope, too future oriented--and thus impossible to achieve.

But this text is also a message of hope and affirmation to those who believe in abolition, offering evidence of both its potential and the unlimited ways in which we can contribute to such a project. (2) Stated differently, it is an attempt at simultaneously resisting hegemonic narratives about abolition and contributing to the tradition of alternative world-building by amplifying the work in which those who believe in it engage. Essentially, this article proposes abolition geography as a frame through which to analyze and understand possibility: in bringing attention to the varied ways in which we have, over and across time, combined peoples, spaces, and resources with our "social capacity to organize ourselves"(Gilmore 2017b, 227), it demonstrates the capaciousness and radical potential of the abolitionist project. In a way, then, this article is a retort to those who think that abolition constitutes a fad. But really, it is for those who know that it is not.

The Contours of Racial Capitalism and Geographies of Resistance

Achille Mbembe (2017, 136-37) describes racial capitalism, a term introduced by Cedric Robinson (1983), as "the equivalent of a giant necropolis." Engorged on the subjugation of people pushed to the margins through processes of differentiation, racial capitalism "rests on the traffic of the dead and human bones" (Mbembe 2017, 136-37). While such imagery initially conjures the more overt features of capitalist terrain developed through racialism--slavery, imperialism, genocide, and mass incarceration--these bodies are also picked up and dragged along outwardly post-racial and progressive routes (Melamed 2015). In charting these paths, the inherently carceral condition of racial capitalism is revealed: the tendency of institutions and ideologies to work, both overtly and covertly, through exclusion and dispossession to produce a steady stream of socially dead bodies that often shifts betwixt and beyond our Une of sight. Carceral geographers have made the excavation of carcerality's multidimensionality possible. As Dominique Moran et al. (2018,679) explain, "carceral spatiality is apparent in the spatial phenomena that literally enclose," in "those which restrict diverse mobilities," and in "the ways in which detriment and intention have a spatial after-life.'" In this vein, scholars have mapped the ways that technologies of exclusion and confinement have spilled over prison walls and into spaces like schools (Selman 2017), slaughterhouses, and animal testing labs (Morin 2016), and how those technologies are diffused into ideologies and practices shaping juvenile justice (Brown 2014), immigration (Flynn 2014), and community corrections (Kilgore 2015).Thus, when mapped, the topography constructed by the carceral conditions of racial capitalism becomes ever more variegated. Carceral geography, then, facilitates the illustration of "the topographies of carceral systems that connect seemingly disparate sites through common processes of [racial capitalist] accumulation and erasure"(Gill et al. 2018, 185).

Racial capitalism as an analytic demands the recognition that capitalism is always already racial (and consequently classed), while its well-charted carceral circuits suggest that its structure is expansive and frighteningly adaptable. As forms of power are spatially contingent (Mollett & Faria 2013), we see, too, that racial capitalism's geography is defined by particular spatial relations--most notably alienation, deprivation, and temporal linearity--that work to differentiate members of certain populations. Importantly, this means that racialism (and racism) cannot be abolished through the reformation and regulation of capitalism and its exploitative mechanisms. What is required, then, is nothing less than capitalism's complete and total destruction (Gilmore 2017a), because despite its facade of irrevocable strength, racial capitalism is anarchistic: built on "forgeries of memory and meaning" (Robinson 2007), it is laced with, and propelled by, paradoxes that it continuously struggles to resolve. Much like the way water shifts and erodes ostensibly impenetrable mountains, abolition geography identifies and exploits those contradictions: in the face of alienation, deprivation, and the fixity of linear time, it offers instead community, abundance, and the inhibition of Black radical time. It is within these fissures that abolition geographies, "the antagonistic contradiction of carceral geographies" (Gilmore 2017b, 227), take root and grow, forming an interlocking pattern that spans across, beneath, and beyond the terrain of racial capitalism. Sometimes physical, yet always also ideological, these are spaces of freedom that people make within conditions of unfreedom. Constitutive of W.E.B Du Bois's (1935/2017) concept of abolition democracy, abolition geographies stretch across social, spatial, and temporal planes, as people "make where they [are] into places they wish ... to be" (Gilmore 2017b, 231). As Gilmore (2017b, 232) urges, "signs and traces" of abolition geographies abound, "even in their fragility." And because young people are so often the conduit for carceral forces (see Meiners 2010), it should be no surprise that they are also, in many ways, the vanguard of abolition geography.

On Method

Gilmore (2017b, 226) argues that "racial capitalism's extensive and intensive animating force ... is people in the prime of life or younger, people who make, move, grow, and care for things and other people." Todays youth are attempting to navigate especially devastating times: they have suffered through multiple forms of economic collapse, the gutting of an already deteriorating education system, the exponential growth of the carceral state, and the quickening burn of the earth--all of which has been accelerated by...

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