Yet these spaces also reawaken a parallel – and sadly all too often forgotten history of Black Americans establishing new communities born out of both necessity and a shared aspiration for liberation. CHOP, in this respect, harkens back to traditions of sanctuary “maroons” and radical guerrilla community building. From the very start of their enslavement in North America, Blacks escaped into the “wilderness” and braved harsh often seemingly unliveable conditions for a free existence. This includes the famous “Great Dismal Swamp”4See Nevius, M. P. (2020). City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1763-1856. University of Georgia Press. Also Maris-Wolf, T. (2013). Hidden in plain sight: Maroon life and labor in Virginia’s Dismal Swamp. Slavery & Abolition, 34(3), 446-464 and LeMenager, S. (2005). Marginal Landscapes: Revolutionary Abolitionists and Environmental Imagination. Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, 7(1), 49-56. maroons in Virginia which was continuously inhabited by Africans and Black Americans from 1680 up to the Civil War. However, it was also evident in lesser known examples, such as the community created by British trained Black soldiers immediately after the Revolutionary War on the Savannah River which was both a thriving settlement as well as a base for community members to launch attacks on Georgia plantations and troops.5See Gerrity, S. (2014). Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons.
More formally, it speaks to a US history of Black Americans searching for genuine emancipation through migration and community building. This is witnessed as early as the “exodusters” movement of 1879 where Southern Blacks sought refuge in “Free Kansas” from the daily repression they faced in post-Reconstruction South and given aid in their journey by the bourgeoning Black American community in Saint Louis.6See Jack, B. M. (2007). The St. Louis African American Community and the Exodusters. University of Missouri Press. More formally, this tradition was reflected in the establishment of the Black owned settlement “Nicodemus” in “Free Kansas”7Hinger, C. (2016). Nicodemus: Post-Reconstruction Politics and Racial Justice in Western Kansas (Vol. 11). University of Oklahoma Press. Also Heiman, N. A. (2007). The spirit of Nicodemus (Doctoral dissertation, Wichita State University). at this time to the later success of the so-called “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa,8Messer, C. M., Shriver, T. E., & Adams, A. E. (2018). The Destruction of Black Wall Street: Tulsa’s 1921 Riot and the Eradication of Accumulated Wealth. American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 77(3-4), 789-819. Also Brophy, A. L. (2003). Reconstructing the dreamland: The Tulsa riot of 1921: Race, reparations, and reconciliation. Oxford University Press. Oklahoma where Blacks had created against all odds a prosperous business district uniting principles of entrepreneurial innovation and mutual aid before it was destroyed by the notorious Tulsa race riots in 1921.
Hence, the ethos of abolitionism is one rooted simultaneously in radical destruction and creative reconstruction. In this respect, it serves as an ongoing challenge to not only the universalist applicability in practice of liberal freedoms but the narrowness in which it conceives “human life” and its social possibilities. The present struggles against mass incarceration and police brutality are at their roots a blow against what the French thinker Michel Foucault described as the “biopolitical” realities of modernity. Instead of manifesting abstract Enlightenment principles of “liberty and freedom for all”, they have evolved into an exploitative and disciplining world focused on profitably “managing” our lives. The growth of mass imprisonment and the need to give voice to prisoners and those who are daily brutally repressed by public and private policing, inform an abolitionist ethos of what Foucault terms “active intolerance” to systems of oppressions and their devaluation of our existence as bodies to be simply socially and economically processed.9See Zurn, P., & Dilts, A. (Eds.). (2016). Active intolerance: Michel Foucault, the prisons information group, and the future of abolition. Springer.
Yet the proclaimed “future of abolition” cannot and should not be confined to such a radical refusal of the existent order. Rather it must a parallel affirmation of what could be possible if we were to eliminate these harsh and ultimately dehumanising present realities. For this purpose, it is instructive to return to the roots of radical abolitionism. The warranted and welcomed present day celebration of Frederick Douglas, for instance, risks eliding the full scope of his radical politics – ones which should continue to resonate with and compel the struggles for freedom of today. His narrative does not stop at the full scale rejection of the chattle slavery for which he was borne into and escaped. It is also a condemnation of the restricted liberation of the North which he found refuge within, a world where he found himself a “part of no part”. His writings and activism, represent according to Donald Pease “a people not allowed to speak for themselves in the name of a political collectively—a democratic people to come—that as yet has no recognizable part in the United States biopolitical order… while simultaneously setting the stage for the emergence of an alternative to the existing order.”10Pease, D. E. (2016). From the Camp to the Commons: Biopolitical Alter-Geographies in Douglass and Melville. Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory, 72(3), p.11.
This bold call to at once eliminate and create is manifest in the work and activism of contemporary abolitionist. In particular, Black feminism, as Stephen Dillon notes “understands race, gender, and sexuality not as static categories of identification but as processes that produce value and disposability for individuals, populations, and forms of knowledge.”11Dillon, S. (2016). “Can They Ever Escape?” Foucault, Black Feminism, and the Intimacy of Abolition. In Active Intolerance (pp. 259-276). Palgrave Macmillan, New York., p. 259. It thus acts as a direct challenge to the biopolitical production of modern lives generally. Struggles against the biopolitical coercion of inmates – such as the forced sterilisation of mostly non-white prisoners in California between 2006 and 201012Whatcott, J. (2018). No Selves to Consent: Women’s Prisons, Sterilization, and the Biopolitics of Informed Consent. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 44(1), 131-153. – illustrate the discrete and dangerous ways that primarily Black and Brown bodies are deemed “disposable” and therefore do not fundamentally “matter”. Further, they point to deeper threat and abiding allure of white privilege, as it shows how easily and professionally authorities can deem your body and life unworthy if it serves their interests.
Such concerns extend far beyond the repression of non-whites who are incarcerated. There is a broader danger of disciplining these anti-racist movements and insurrections to reinforce prevailing capitalist and reformist hegemonies. The serious issues raised by these struggles are incorporated into corporate friendly official narratives of Liberal progress. As such abolitionist ideas are “re-represented” as part of an illusionary “post-racial” vision of the US that is on the surface more inclusive but no less exploitative.13Banks, C. (2018). Disciplining Black activism: post-racial rhetoric, public memory and decorum in news media framing of the Black Lives Matter movement. Continuum, 32(6), 709-720. The repressive realities faced by non-whites and their genuine demands for transformative change are once more made managed and made invisible by sanitised “racial grammars” that do little to dismantle the root causes of white priviledge and racial capitalism.
It is imperative then to ensure that this insurrectionary moment is able to disrupt these elitist discourses of cosmetic change for a political vision that at once directly addresses the historic oppression of non-whites while universally expanding the possibilities for everyone. The brilliant contemporary political theorist Melvin Lee Rogers draws on the work of Du Bois, to show how rhetoric and emotional appeals can strategically combine to “enlarge America’s political and ethical imagination regarding the status of African-Americans.”14Rogers, M. L. (2012). The People, Rhetoric, and Affect: On the Political Force of Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. American Political Science Review, 106(1), 188-203. The broadening of our political and ethical horizons though requires us to be beyond resistance in order to ideologically and concretely articulate what a “post-abolitionist” society could and should look like. Nevertheless, as one of the foremost current abolitionist thinkers Robin D.G. Kelley observes in their book Freedom Dreams, the making of such “spaces of freedom” are inspiring but all to rare and fleeting. Indeed, quoting him at length, in this respect, he notes that
In the poetics of struggle and lived experience, in the utterances of ordinary folk, in the cultural products of social movements, in the reflections of activists, we discover the many different cognitive maps of the future, of the world not yet born. Recovering the poetry of social movements, however, particularly the poetry that dreams of a new world, is not such an easy task. For obvious reasons, what we are against tends to take precedence over what we are for, which is always a more complicated and ambiguous matter. It is a testament to the legacies of oppression that opposition is so frequently contained, or that efforts to find “free spaces” for articulating or even realizing our dreams are so rare or marginalized.15Kelley, R. D. (2002). Freedom dreams: The black radical imagination. Beacon Press, 11.