At Scripps conference on abolition, Kaba and Ritchie re-envision ‘a liberatory state’

A person sits down next to a television portraying a zoom call while another woman signs the lecture in sign language.
Andrea Ritchie has been teaching a course at Scripps College this spring, as the college’s distinguished O’Brien lecturer. (Jenna McMurtry • The Student Life)

Updated April 16 at 3:53 p.m.

Calling for a reimagination of the carceral state, scholar-activists and abolitionists Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie convened over the weekend as part of Scripps College’s “Abolition is Feminism, Feminism is Abolition” conference. 

The three-day conference was held in partnership between the 5Cs’ Intercollegiate Feminist Center, Interrupting Criminalization and the Women’s Foundation California, hosting a series of events on the history of Black feminism and how it informs abolition advocacy today. 

Both Ritchie and Kaba have written extensively on the abolition movement in recent decades, centering their advocacy and books around the intersectionality of prison abolition and inserting a Black feminist approach to its fight against state violence. 

Ritchie, who is a visiting professor at Scripps this semester as the college’s distinguished O’Brien lecturer, is also the commencement speaker for the college’s class of 2022. Rooted in her experiences as a Black lesbian immigrant and a survivor, her work focuses around ending state violence, in particular against Black women. 

Kaba, who participated in the event via Zoom, has founded multiple organizations aimed at ending mass-incarceration while centering her efforts on issues surrounding racial justice and gender-based violence.

While promoting their forthcoming co-authored book “No More Police: A Case for Abolition,” slated to come out Aug. 30, Kaba and Ritchie touched on the long legacy of abolitionist texts written by organizers that came before them. 

For Kaba, much of the work she does today draws inspiration from when she read Barbara Smith’s seminal pamphlet, a resource bank to support Black women against state violence through an abolitionist feminist lens, following a series of murders in Boston in 1979. She acknowledged her connection to Smith’s work because it’s not often that organizers “include [themselves] in the lineages of the histories that came before [them].”

Ritchie commented that Smith’s initial pamphlet is “very central to illustrating the ways in which Black feminism informs this moment and shapes the movements that we’re seeing right now.”

“It isn’t that history provides us with a template for the present,” Kaba said, “but knowing our history does help us to ask different and better questions that will help us create the visions in our current moment, that will lead potentially to a better and more liberatory future.” 

Described by Kaba as a love letter to organizers, “No More Police” seeks to provide readers with the necessary tools to turn abolitionist theory into action, as part of a contemporary take on the work Smith began.  

The two abolitionists said they focused on emphasizing organizers’ experiences rather than writing from the “ivory tower” of academia, while working on the book. 

According to Ritchie, the book aims to reflect the collective effort of feminist abolition while “thinking alongside and as organizers … because it’s all of us grappling together,” when it comes to challenging the current state of the prison system. 

In addition to writing books and speaking about her experiences, Kaba is also studying for a doctorate in archival studies and library science largely due to the ways she has found publishing to be “complementary to organizing.” 

Much of Kaba and Ritchie’s work centers on the misgivings of the current state system and during the talk they called for an “abolition of safety” that differs from the current state model, which  they said emphasizes security through incarceration and lofty police budgets. 

Instead, an abolitionist approach advocates for a non-carceral response to conflict that would better support Black, queer and trans individuals, according to both activists. 

For Kaba, a feminist abolition approach means bringing “a liberatory vision of a world free from all forms of violence, including those produced by the carceral system of surveillance [to displace] colonialism and global militarism.” 

She added that creating a more equitable world isn’t possible without an abolition feminist perspective: “Once you get over that and stop whacking a mole, and you start focusing on the totality of these forms of violence, [you realize they] are often co-constitutive of each other.”

For Kaba, the current state of policing doesn’t cut it. As the current policing methods and border-enforcement stand today, she said, the “state [becomes] an organizer of violence and the purveyor of colonialism and racial capitalism.”

“I don’t want the security service version of safety that the state’s offering,” Kaba said. “In fact, when I hear that I freak the hell out because I know what that means for people who look like me … We can’t [accept state security] as Black feminists who actually want abolitionist safety rather than carceral security.”  

“I don’t want the security service version of safety that the state’s offering…We can’t [accept state security] as Black feminists who actually want abolitionist safety rather than carceral security.”

Mariame Kaba

To counter the negative aspects of the current system, Ritchie called for an overhaul to the police system with a mass-defunding movement.

Despite receiving a $10 million sum for participatory budgeting in Seattle, where residents have a say in public spending, Ritchie said the financial support is “chump change” compared to the 15 to 20 times larger budgets police departments have procured when asking for increases. 

The current call to defund police departments, however, isn’t new, Ritchie said. 

“2020 wasn’t the first time people engaged in budget fights,” Ritchie said, citing a movement 20 to 30 years ago in California that stopped a budget increase for one thousand additional police officers.

But since 2020, Ritchie credits abolitionist work in serving as a check on the proposed budget increases that some police departments have sought. 

“Cops used to just be able to show up and say, we need X bazillion and get a blank check, and then they could come back six months later and be like, actually we need X bazillion more and get a blank check” Ritchie said. 

When police departments receive the budget increases they propose, Ritchie explained that the “defunding of libraries, childcare centers, hospitals and education” often follows.

“Even though police budgets have ultimately gone back to increasing, we’ve made folks have to justify it [through our activism].” Ritchie said. 

A table with multiple books sits in front of a classroom.
Attendees convened at Scripps Alumnae Field to hear scholar activists Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie discuss their approach to abolition. (Jenna McMurtry • The Student Life)

Both Ritchie and Kaba touched on their joint effort through Interrupting Criminalization, an initiative they co-founded that aims to uproot current systems enacted by federal and state policies that perpetuate violence against marginalized communities, whether it be through limited access to medical care or child welfare programs that punish parents. 

For Black women, queer and trans folks, criminalization through the carceral state expands beyond the prison walls, Ritchie said. 

“Going to the doctor is also a carceral space around reproductive control, forced sterilization and denial of care, including abortion care and reproductive care,” according to Ritchie.  

It would be remiss to think criminalization through policing is limited to the U.S. alone, Ritchie added. While some people looked to the summer of 2020 as “the biggest movement in history,” Ritchie said they haven’t looked beyond U.S. borders. 

“I’m not trying to minimize what happened summer [2020],” Ritchie added, “but it does make us realize that we are operating in a global context [with] Black feminism.”   

Without recognizing the international lens to feminist abolition, Ritchie said, “you have erased the anti-apartheid organizer [and] anti-colonial struggles.”

Ritchie touched on the importance of how her collective organizing stems from the Boycott Divest Sanctions in Palestine to the anti-apartheid struggle where she first saw the defund fight in action.  

She acknowledged that while “it’s nice to theorize about abolition feminism,” a central part of actualizing the change both activists hope to provoke is asking how it plays out in practice, which is a focal point of  their upcoming book. 

For prison abolition, Kaba said “the ‘how’ is always the question and always involves organizing,” which defines the way abolitionists “are going to get from where [they] are to where [they] want to go.”

Calling for caution in which reform policies should be accepted and which should be avoided, Kaba said organizers should be wary of those that could “put obstacles in our way, [ones] that we’re gonna have to come back to in three years to try to fight again.” 

Kaba prompted listeners at the conference to consider how some policy reforms aren’t “co-compromisable” and that accepting some as a “sign of pragmatism” could weaken the substance of the abolition movement. 

Kaba also called for listeners to “get on the community bail fund train in [their] community,” citing how it’s central to abolitionist feminism. 

“The people who are locked up and can’t get out the most are [often] trans people, gender nonconforming people and women,” she said. “And on the other side, the people who are paying these exorbited ransom are overwhelmingly Black women who are getting impoverished and poor, putting up their houses for bail to get family members out.”

Adding that “it’s possible to have a state that is not the central purveyor of violence, but the central redistributor of resources,” Ritchie called for direct action that stems from a non-carceral response to conflict with abolition-centered solutions at its core.

Ritchie added that activists are already implementing this kind of reimagined understanding of what community-forged safety can look like, citing mutual aid efforts, community-based crisis response teams or bail-out funds to free Black mothers.

Referencing a book by Ruth Gilmore, Ritchie acknowledged that abolition has recently reached a tipping point, where discourse concerning the prison system is in the midst of a “golden gulag” with California at the center of its conversation. As such, the moment to engage in abolition work is timelier than ever, according to Ritchie.

“We are in a dialectical struggle,” Kaba said about the current state of abolitionist efforts. “While good things, beautiful things, happen alongside these horrible things…you [have to keep] moving towards the goal. And what actions are you doing? How will you act?”

Comparing the ultimate destination of an abolitionist’s efforts to that of a receding horizon, where activists show up to meet the new objectives as they shift into frame, Kaba called for organizers to celebrate victories as they are achieved and adapt to face new obstacles as they arise. 

Kaba called on the audience to put their attention on the latest obstacle facing abolitionists: securing medical care for trans people, a fight which recent legislative battles have sought to upend. 

For Sophie Adler PZ ’23, hearing from speakers who drive meaningful change is an important complement to an education at the 5Cs.

“At the colleges we are often in a bubble,” Adler said. “I think a lot of the importance of going to things like this is interacting with people who are engaging in this work outside of just academia, intellectualism. The actual work on the ground is probably more important than anything we’re doing in the classroom.”

Becca Downes PO ’23 said her biggest takeaway from the conference “is that there’s so many different facets under which we should be thinking about Black feminism and abolition and one of the main ones that we’re not thinking about enough is surveillance and COVID-19.”

This conference isn’t the 5Cs’ first time hosting an event centered on feminist abolition, according to IFC Chair Susan Castagnetto. Some of the earliest discussions on the topic began when Castagnetto was first brought on in 2000.

While this year’s event elicited a successful turnout from 5C students and staff, Castagnetto told TSL via email that it was “a challenging undertaking,” especially due to it being hosted both remotely and in person. It was also an expensive event to host, so if it continues in future years it will have to be on a smaller scale, according to Castagnetto.

But, Kaba added that the value in conversations spurred by these conferences can expand beyond the classroom, leading to change that will last much longer than a student’s four years on campus. 

“We won’t be here to see [the changes that come after us],” Kaba said. “But the people who will be sitting in the Scripps area in a hundred years will look back at the things we did and either [say] ‘these people got this part right and these people got this wrong’…but that we will have done some things to advance those people’s imaginations for the future which will be different than the future we are currently imagining.” 

Mariana Duran and Elisa Membreno contributed reporting.

Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed the quote beginning, “It isn’t that history provides us with a template for the present,” to Andrea Ritchie. It was spoken by Mariama Kaba. TSL regrets the error.

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