Fifteen minutes after the scheduled start of the “Abolition. Feminism. Now.” speaker event, the line still runs all the way through Quarry Plaza. Some have brought their own copies of the book, and others have already taken out their wallets to buy a copy.
On the other side of the stage, Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiner, and Beth E. Richie huddle together with event organizers in anticipation for what is about to happen. It’s the first time all four writers have been physically present in the same place together since the book’s release.
Everyone is excited.
“As the book goes along, it’s a long time coming,” said Dr. Rachel Nelson, the Director of the Institute of Arts and Sciences (IAS) and the co-developer of the Visualizing Abolition program. “It really unpacks the importance of the movement and its histories.”
Over 800 people filled the Quarry Amphitheater on May 21 for an hour and a half-long conversation about abolitionist history, everyday politics, and important learnings with the four co-authors of “Abolition. Feminism. Now.”, a book released in January. The authors and moderator Savannah Shange spoke on what they referred to as the genealogy of abolition and the importance of it.
Shange, an associate anthropology professor at UC Santa Cruz and one of the core faculty of the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies department, began by asking a question about the co-authorship of the book. Having all been involved in abolitionist organizing for many years, the authors are no strangers to collaborative practice.
“It was a process not of us owning anything about “Abolition. Feminism. Now.”, but learning from others about abolition feminism, and including each other,” said Richie, who is also the Director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois Chicago. “We have a model of a feminist praxis of abolition, not in just what we say, but how we do our work. And I hope that comes across in the text.”
Abolition, as it exists now, emerged roughly around the 1980s in the face of Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs and the rise in mass incarceration in California. During the 1980s and 1990s, 20 of California’s 35 existing prisons were built.
Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore co-founded Oakland-based organization Critical Resistance in 1997 with the purpose of “building a movement to eliminate the prison industrial complex,” according to the organization’s website.
Two and a half decades later, abolition is becoming much more widely talked about.
The topic of abolition most recently entered the cultural zeitgeist in the summer of 2020, closely following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
“We decided to write this book before the mass mobilizations of the summer of 2020,” said Davis. “And, of course, when that happened, it became obvious that it was even more important to try to understand the genealogy of this movement.”
Even here at UCSC, abolition has been a topic of conversation well before 2020, though the catalytic moment of summer 2020 has certainly cemented its importance.
For the past two academic years, Nelson and Dent have been hosting online events through Visualizing Abolition, featuring artists, activists, and scholars committed to the project of imagining a world without prisons. Just like the book, Saturday’s event builds on top of work that has already been done.
“I will say it was heartening, if nothing else, to hear them speak and look at how they understand history,” said third-year politics major Afolabi Thomas, who attended the event.
Imagining Landscapes Without Prisons
In the last half hour, Shange asked Dent about the relationship between visual culture, art, and the practice of abolition.
“I was always really concerned that for a lot of people in the movement that visual culture didn’t matter — that it was a false thing that we were paying attention to,” said Dent. “But I’ve always been interested in the way that the context of visuality forms. Its implicit set of understandings went into our practical discussions, with and also into our academic work.”
The orange, purple, and pink hues on the book’s cover, too, are an intentional nod towards shifting visual culture. In this mix of colors, one may see a sunset or a sunrise, perhaps both or perhaps neither.
Regardless, it is meant to be a promise of a new future on the horizon, or what Dent referred to as the dawn of a new day.