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How I became a PIC abolitionist
And what does that even mean??? Let me explain.
The other day a friend asked me for some recommendations on abolition because of friend of theirs had asked them (and I love when people ask questions like this! instead of pretending they know!) “sorry this is dumb, but abolition of what”?
There are so many reasons that someone would not know what someone might mean when they say Abolition in the context of the United States in 2023. None of them are that the person is dumb, or particularly uninformed, even. A person has to read and interact with a lot of people and ideas that in the United States are considered to be pretty far left and/or outright deranged, delusional, and impractical to understand that abolitionism was not simply an anti-slavery movement in the 19th century but that it exists today, and has good reason to exist.
First, there are still enslaved people in the world today, and so there are still plenty of people and organizations that, when they say Abolitionist mean “let’s get rid of the slavery that is going on still.” These organizations mainly focus on human trafficking. This is important, of course, but the abolition I mean when I say “I”m an abolitionist” is larger than that.
You might hear it called PIC abolition, where PIC means Prison-Industrial Complex. You saw it in hashtags in 2020 such as #defundThePolice and #8ToAbolition and #AbolishThePolice. “Yes we mean literally abolish the police” wrote Mariame Kaba in the pages of the New York Times. We also mean abolish prisons, abolish the surveillance state, abolish incarceration of all types. Abolish everything that upholds our carceral systems.
That’s a lot of abolishing, so it should come as no surprise that you maybe haven’t heard too much about it. Not talking too much about PIC abolition and when you do talk about it painting it as utterly bananapants serves a lot of established interests: the police, those with property and privilege to protect, the prison industry, the capitalist companies that rely on prison labor to produce cheap goods, white people, etc.
But understanding and taking abolition seriously benefits us all, because carceral systems (which abolitionists seek to dismantle entirely) harm us all.
Whether or not we think too much about it, many of us have heard, for example, that the United States has the highest rate of per-capita (629 per 100,000 people in 2023) incarceration of ANY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD. We surpass Russia. We surpass China. We surpass Rwanda and Turkmenistan. We also have the most people incarcerated, period (more than 2 million people in 2023), again surpassing, well, everyone. EVERY OTHER COUNTRY.
Maybe this makes you uneasy but you’re pretty sure that police and prisons and involuntary commitment and jails and things like that are, even though they kinda need to be reformed and it’s not like you personally would like to be arrested, are, well, kinda necessary? Like, what’s the alternative? What do people mean, even, get rid of prisons?
Reform, sure. But abolish? Defund? Tear down? That’s crazy talk.
Well, I’m crazy, and here I am to offer some real talk about Abolition, some real ways you can learn more about PIC Abolitionism, and a real question for you to sit with before you decide whether or not you might want to prioritize educating yourself a little bit more about the topic.
Here’s the question for you:
I’ve just told you that in 2023 the US has 2 million people incarcerated and that this is more people than anywhere else in the world. These people are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, lovers, children; they’re PEOPLE.
They had, like we all do, rich inner lives before they were incarcerated, and they have rich inner lives now, but they are locked up.
Do you want to, are you willing to learn just a little bit more about what are the forces that make our country lead the world in locking people up? Are you a little concerned that “we have more evil people than everywhere else in the world” might not be the right answer?
The Prison Industrial Complex, (PIC) is the system responsible for locking all those people up. As I said above, PIC abolitionists want to abolish this system. We believe that not only should so many people NOT be locked up, but that we can and should build a world where we do not lock ANYONE up. We don’t believe policing protects us, we don’t believe police and prisons can be reformed, and we don’t believe we’re naive idiots for believing that we can build something else instead.
I’m still pretty new to abolition myself. I came to it, like many folks, in 2020, because in 2020 like many folks I was exposed to the ideas of abolition through the massive media coverage around George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protest movement.
For a brief moment #DefundThePolice truly trended, but then a massive backlash of propaganda was unleashed, and the slogan was derided as many media outlets uncritically published propaganda about how defunding (which broadly didn’t actually get to happen) had demoralized the police and led to more crime. Many folks in abolition refer to this as Copaganda, and a good resource for understanding why they call it that and how it works iswho writes a whole newsletter about this in addition to being a founding member of the Civil Rights Corps.
One reason I think I went on to learn more about abolition even as many other people who could kinda look away again, did, is because I have myself, unlike many other well-off white women, been locked up against my will.
I was involuntarily committed in July of 2011. Take note that this is the standard phrasing for this sort of event, and like much of the standard phrasing for events where state power has been deployed against an individual, it’s passive voice, it suggests that this is simply something that occurred or that I did to myself, even. (You see this in “officer-involved shooting” also.)
Let me rephrase. In July of 2011 a psychiatry resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center chose to detain me in the ER against my will and then have me transported by ambulance against my will to a ‘behavioral health center’ called Bournewood, where I was strip-searched, had all my personal effects taken from me, and was held against my will for three days.
I do not know the name of the woman who chose to lock me up for three days against my will.
Sometimes I think about trying to find her name and sending her a letter explaining how traumatic that experience was. Because, like so many people who act as instruments of state power, she did not have to hear about or see the consequences of that decision. I don’t want to sue her or anything, I’m not trying to ruin her career. I don’t want her punished. But I would like her to know that she caused me harm, and I would like her to take responsibility for it. I would like her to join me in changing the world such that what happened to me doesn’t happen to people anymore. When people ask well what instead of prisons, this is one answer: growth, accountability, working toward a better future together.
Here’s what happened:
In July 2011 I went to the ER at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston concerned that I might be experiencing lithium toxicity. I had just started lithium. The effective dose of lithium is a hair’s width away from a toxic dose, lithium toxicity can be fatal, and correct dosing can only be determined by lithium levels in the blood. It was a hot day and I had just started the lithium, which is cleared by the kidneys, which can’t clear it as fast if you’re sweating and dehydrated. I was walking around in my neighborhood when suddenly I keeled over and vomited on the sidewalk.
This worried me. I think I was right to be worried, although, to be sure, I’m a worrier.
My husband took me to the ER, where I waited for around 9 hours. No one told me anything about what my lithium blood level was. No one gave me any information at all about the reason I went to the ER, but round about midnight the psychiatry resident on-call came to talk to me. I had been getting increasingly agitated from the long wait. After a brief conversation, this resident, who had never met me before, told me she thought I should be admitted to a psych ward for possible mania.
She did not call my psychiatrist. She didn’t ask my husband, WHO WAS RIGHT THERE WITH ME, anything about how I’d been at home or if he thought I’d be safe there.
I did not want to be admitted. I wanted to take a Klonopin, go home with my husband, get some rest, and talk to my doctor in the morning.
I said this to her. “I’ll just go home now, “ I said.
“No,” she said. “You won’t.”
A security guard, a man with a gun, came to stand by my little gurney in the ER then.
Because I wasn’t allowed to go. I was being detained.
Was I possibly a little manic? In retrospect, sure. I now recognize late June and July as bad times for me. I enter an agitated mixed state brought on by the extended days around the solstice. I go to the forest in Vermont in July every year now precisely because of this tendency to experience this agitated mixed state. It is unpleasant for me, and for others around me, and if I didn’t know how to manage it, might be kinda dangerous, as mixed states are.
Just on Saturday I had a minor meltdown at the Apple Store and then another minor meltdown at the optometrist. I didn’t yell at anyone. I was just obviously a little bit unhinged. I apologized profusely to everyone I had to interact with and explained that it was my problem, not theirs. Then I went home and took some Klonopin. I’ve been hiding since then and I am hiding now but I still managed to have a meltdown on the phone with the dentist’s office and I have to go back to the optometrist and try not to have a meltdown and later I have to go pick up a prescription and also not have a meltdown, so it’s gonna be a long damn day.
I just have to get through the next few days, after which I’ll be retreating to the forest in Vermont. And the forest will work its forest magic on me and I will feel calmer.
You know what doesn’t make me feel calmer in July? Being involuntarily committed.
Psych wards vary a lot in how jail-like they are. A nice teaching hospital psych ward, like, BIDMC’s, will feel a little less carceral and a little more therapeutic. When I was locked up at BIDMC, in 2012, Berklee students came with guitars to sign Beatles songs with us. At Mclean, also in 2012, I got to keep my phone and I could order in food. Nevertheless, last time I visited a friend in a ‘nice’ psych ward there was an emergency involving a woman screaming to be let out and being rapidly wheeled past us while restrained and many alarms blaring — “sorry for the disturbance” said a nurse, when she came to tell my visiting time was up. So, even nice psych wards aren’t exactly nice. There are people in them who don’t want to be. Those people are, pretty reasonably, pretty upset about that fact.
But the psych hospital I ended up in in July 2011 was not a nice psych ward. There were no Berklee students or phone privileges. It was much more obviously like a jail. For one thing, as I said, I was strip-searched on my way in (which is not a thing that was done to me at any other psych hospital I’ve been at), and for another, I spent most of my time there, like almost everyone else, waiting for the 15 minutes every few hours we were allowed outside in a giant caged area in order to smoke, and for a third, I asked Max to bring me extra cigarettes and I handed them out at smoking time, so I would be popular, and for fourth, I kept a journal of my time there and wrote down all the slang for cigarettes I heard while standing around smoking with the other inmates of this particular holding pen, and later I realized that slang was prison slang, not special psych ward slang.
It was prison slang, because the people you find in such a mental hospital have a lot of overlap with the people you find in jails and prisons, because jails and prisons in our country serve among other purposes as places to stash people with mental illness.
There’s nothing quite like that door closing behind you and all your possessions, and your shoelaces, and your makeup mirror and your phone being slid into a manila envelope with your name on it.
I was there 3 or 4 days. I spoke to a psychiatrist for perhaps 10 minutes during that time. A girl who was also there spent much of her time lying on the floor wailing, coming off of something, painfully. There probably was a drug they could have given her to ease her pain, but the staff ignored her. I continued to vomit (which, you might remember, is why I went to the ER in the first place). There was shit smeared on the bathroom wall. My first morning there two women got into an argument and one of them threw hot coffee in the other’s face. Mostly I read a book of psalms and wrote in my little notebook and smoked and tried to be compliant so I would be let out.
They did let me out. I think they may even have told me they didn’t know why I’d ended up there in the first place, but I don’t think that made me special. The truth is a lot of us were there by mistake, or by the casual disrespect of some official they’d crossed paths with, the way I had — your liberty doesn’t matter very much to me, such people say, with their actions if not also with their words.
When I got home I took a scalding shower and I threw out the clothes I’d worn inside that place.
Then I called a woman I knew, a pastor, and she came and prayed over me. I’m not Christian, but I didn’t know a Rabbi to call at that time, and I knew I needed something pretty strong to help heal me from that place, from the feeling of being discarded.
I remember a poster my 6th grade teacher had on her wall, of a little kid with a dirty face. “I ain’t trash” the kid says, “cuz god don’t make no trash.” A white kid though. (We did have a lot of poor white folk in my hometown in rural Florida.) God didn’t make white trash, the poster meant. I’m not sure what that teacher thought about Black kids, because I had never been told it was something I ought to notice. This is why Ron DeSantis doesn’t want Black history taught, of course. So that white children in Florida continue not to learn that they ought to notice such things.
I had a supportive partner, I had a doctor, and I had appropriate medication. I could have been safely sent home that night after being reassured that I was not about to die of lithium toxicity. Not everyone has that support, of course, but everyone should.
Involuntary commitment, like jail, like prison, like police, is a failure of community care. We have organized our world so that we don’t know what to do with people in extreme mental distress besides lock them up. We don’t like them wandering around on our subway systems or sleeping on our streets and instead of giving them housing and peer support we murder them, we destroy their property to drive them out of view, and we lock them up.
I say no to all of that, and it is one reason that I am now an abolitionist.
Now, my tiny little story of how I got committed that one time is only a tiny story, and lots of people in the world would laugh a little bit at it, because being detained for one reason or another is just a thing that happens all the time — to them, or to people they know, in the course of existing. I respect that.
I live a life of privilege for a crazy person, that this has only happened to me once, that even when I’m stumbling around on the street looking dazed or sitting on the curb crying no one calls the cops on me, they just ask me “M’aam, are you alright? M’aam?” That’s my white lady privilege and it is not my intent to obscure or minimize it because this one terrible time it didn’t save me.
It did, however, plant that little seed in me, this is what it feels like to fear the authorities, this is what it feels like to be locked up, this is what it feels like to be treated as less than human, as diseased, as disposable. And I am grateful for that, as I’m grateful for every experience that teaches me something I didn’t already know about the world.
I don’t go to ERs in July anymore. Sometimes I don’t go much of anywhere at all in July, except the forest or the bed. I don’t trust doctors I don’t know. I lie sometimes about my diagnosis, even, I'll say it’s just depression, because people get involuntarily committed for plain old depression less often than for bipolar, and I’m not eager to ever have that experience again. Our disjointed medical record system is good for something at least. (People in tech sometimes believe all our problems will be solved with data, whereas I believe that some problems are made worse by data, and discrimination and bias against the mentally ill by medical professionals is one of those things.)
(But what alternatives do we have, Amy? Don’t some people need to be locked up for their OWN protection? Of course, every person with mental illness has different preferences for their own care in times they’re in extreme distress, which is what you can use advance directives for, but I’m Team Don’t Ever Put Me In A Hospital Unless I Ask You To and you could read about the Peer Respite model if you’re curious about existing alternatives. Also please learn about alternative crisis response centers like Cambridge Heart.)
Okay what should I read then, Amy, if I’d like to know more about abolition, at least so I can make up my own mind about how crazy you are?
First, let’s look back at a couple mainstream media pieces that hit in June 2020 in the brief moment that any mainstream media gave any serious space at all to the idea of abolition. You can read this piece in Vogue or the op-ed by Mariame Kaba (one of today’s leading organizers for PIC abolition) in the NY Times that I cited above.
Those articles should give you an overview of some of the issues and arguments here. But, it’s only a taste. You’re not likely to be convinced by reading just two articles because since 2020 you’ve probably read 12 thousand things subtly or overtly telling you that all that 2020 defund the police stuff was crazy talk that was a bunch of radical wreckers who were bad for the Dems and therefore practically anti-democratic, and that they hurt the poor policemen’s feelings and now cities are so dangerous and it’s all because of abolitionists.
That’s a lot of propaganda to overcome, and so you might find you need to do some more reading here.
I’m old school so reading is what is on offer.
The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale is a short, readable introduction to the problem of policing specifically. And, the e-book is almost always on a deep discount. It was the first book I read about police abolition and I thought “oh, huh, this seems obvious now” but I’ve since gone on to read some other books more broadly about PIC abolition and The End of Policing now feels incomplete to me. Which is not a criticism of the book, because of course it is. It is, however, a criticism of my (our) general desire to be able to watch a youtube or a tiktok or read a twitter thread or EVEN A WHOLE DAMN BOOK and then check that thing off the list of things we “understand”.
So please don’t stop at Vitale. Mariame Kaba’s book We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice is a collection of her essays and interviews (including the NYTimes one) over the last several years. (It’s also pretty cheap to buy as an e-book directly from Haymarket Books).
While Vitale is offering a “Just the facts, M’aam” approach to the problem of policing, Kaba offers a primer on abolitionist organizing itself. As an abolitionist, what reforms might you support while working to abolish incarceration and policing entirely? What is the response when people ask “well what about the really bad guys then?” ( The worst of the bad guys all seem to be taking private jets these days, might be one answer. There are others). What does transformative justice look like? Why is community care so important? Kaba also offers many concrete stories of folks in prison and how they ended up there and various organizing efforts around getting them out.
Those are the two books I started with. I recently also read The Dawn of Everything, which is not specifically about abolitionism at all but IS about how it is we humans who make our political and social worlds, that what we have now is not inevitable, that we can make something different, which I find to be a profoundly hopeful message especially when confronted with trying to imagine and make a change as big as abolishing police and prisons. Next I’ve got queued up Abolition Geographies, by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a collection of three decades of essays during her time as an abolitionist organizer.
If you’re looking for even more to learn, Critical Resistance has a whole resource guide.
Oh, oh, this is important too, especially since I got drawn into abolition through my own experience of being incarcerated for mental illness. Eric Reinhart is a social justice psychiatrist focused on abolitionist public health, do read more.
Finally, here’s a resource called “Don’t call the police.” (This is a commitment many abolitionists make!) It offers suggestions about what to do instead.
Another note, not just about learning about PIC abolition, but about the other stuff I’m doing, this journey I’m on right now:
To understand the world around us, especially from the perspectives of those with less power and privilege — to put our own power and privilege and our own lack of both into perspective, to enrich our own understanding through discussion and collaboration across difference, to begin to imagine and to build worlds that solve human problems differently, value different things — there’s no checklist for this. It’s not a thing you can learn in a day. You don’t get it from a single article or a youtube channel and you can’t get it just from reading books either.
It requires real work. It’s scary work too, because it will almost certainly lead you to knowing things that are uncomfortable to know and then, well, it becomes more difficult to live as you might have been living before.
Our ignorance serves power, including whatever power we ourselves possess, because it allows us to believe, either with satisfaction or despair, that the way things are is just the way things are — inevitable.
The way things are is not inevitable.
I am trying to learn to be an activist now, and, well, I’m not very good at it yet. I am not yet an activist, I’m certainly not a community organizer, I’m trying to figure out how to live a whole different kind of life and while it’s clear that many of the skills I picked up through 24 years in the tech industry are still useful, it’s also clear that many of them are not. They are built on assumptions about power and how people get things done that are not immutable laws of human nature but are instead just how people operate in organizations that, whether they are for-profit or not, largely follow the rules of corporate management.
Much of what I learned as a tech manager or in the Harvard Business Reviewis just not relevant to the life I am trying to lead now.
Some people have told me that I should just jump right back into something in tech that is more mission-driven. Just find a values-aligned company, and keep doing the same kind of job you did for the last 24 years. I do not think this will work, because as I said, the kind of world I want to live in organizes work differently than businesses do, organizes relationships differently, organizes everything differently, and like Audre Lorde I believe that this is necessary, that the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house. I don’t yet know how to be the kind of change I want to see in the world, but I know how to learn.
Right now, in order to learn, one of the things I’m doing is reading Let This Radicalize You: Organizing and the Revolution of Reciprocal Care, by Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba. If you’re also looking to grow into an activist or organizer role, I can’t recommend this book enough. (Plus please reply and tell me so because I would love to do a study group!)
As I said above, though, of course reading books isn’t enough. It’s also important that I keep putting my body in places I haven’t been before, in connection with people whose lives are different from mine, and that I take concrete actions toward the world I dream about. Some days I’m better at this than others. Part of the future I want is a world in which I can allow myself my mental illness. So right now, that means allowing myself to do what’s best for my health and safety, which is staying home as much as I can. I know that this is temporary, though, and that even allowing myself this, making room for my own needs, is itself a concrete step toward the world I want to be part of making.
This is such a scary and exciting time for me. Sometimes I feel strong and sure and exhilarated, and other times I think about all that money and leverage I gave up when I walked away from my last job, and the title I’d worked so hard to get, think about the things I miss about existing inside that world, the feeling of being special and valued and expensive (I was not Labor, I was Talent, after all).
Sometimes I am scared that I won’t succeed at the kinds of radical changes in how I’m living my life that I think might be called for in order to live in accordance with my highest principles and values, to become the person I think I ought to be. Sometimes I feel like an imposter in activist spaces, sometimes I think I hardly do enough of anything to count as a real activist, or even an advocate, that all I am is a burnt-out tech industry refugee who will never be good for anything again.
Right now, hiding from the too-bright light of the solstice, hiding from everyone, wishing I could hide from myself even, an unsettled and rageful witch, it’s especially hard to see myself as contributing anything of value to the world. I watch the wind in the ivy against my bedroom windows. I take my meds. I pack for Vermont. I write. And I wait. Because this too shall pass, and because I think this passage is an important one, even though I hate it. (That, at any rate, is what I think the six of swords was trying to tell me today).
Then I remember that it is not for me to complete the task, but only to begin it. It is not for me to win, but to participate. It is not for me to become someone else, not even the imaginary better version of myself, but only to be me. For the soft animal of my body to love what it loves, you might say.
It’s not for me to choreograph this dance we’re all in, the dance of creation, but only to join in.
All we have to do, all we can do, is join the dance.
Till my next missive,
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Finally, if you’re a tech worker and you want career advice, I offer coaching. Your L&D budget might pay for it. I swear my coaching is actually tailored to what you need and isn’t just “fuck capitalism join the revolution”. I don’t expect most people to be able to or willing to do whatever it is I’m doing right now, and I truly enjoy coaching folks and helping them make their work lives better.
By the way Haymarket Books and many other radical publishers offer book club subscriptions which allow you to support their work while also receiving a monthly set of new books that will expand your understanding of the world and your place in it and help you clarify your own values and your own desires to be part of making a better world than the one we’ve got right now. In addition to Haymarket check out
which, yes, I used to read avidly, and by used to I mean up to and including this time last year