Patrisse Cullors speaks on abolition, art, ‘creating new worlds’ at Pomona event

Patrisse Cullors talks with Professor Cherene Sherrard-Johnson on stage.
Prison abolitionist and Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation founder Patrisse Cullors spoke at an event hosted by Pomona College’s Humanities’ Studio on Tuesday. (Nanako Noda • The Student Life)

Last Thursday, prison abolitionist and Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation founder Patrisse Cullors inspired 5C students through an interactive and personal conversation on fostering abolitionist culture.

Hosted by Pomona College’s Humanities’ Studio and moderated through a conversation with Cherene Sherrard Johnson, Chair of Pomona’s English department, the event centered around discussing Cullors’ upcoming book, “An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World.”

Cullors’ perception of how societal structures negatively affect the people’s interactions inspired her to write the handbook.

“We live in a carceral culture,” she said. “Although the prisons and the jails and the surveillance and courts are these institutions that are outside of us, they have informed how we treat each other.” 

For Cullors, it’s important people focus on transforming themselves in order to then transform the world, which is why her book focuses on ways individuals can practice abolition within themselves.

“We are supposed to be at the vanguard of changing systems in the world, (but) we often interact with one another through the carceral lens,” Cullors said. “… I wanted to remind everyone, including myself, that there’s a different way to be. … We can get rid of every single system, and then we are still here. And those systems live inside of us.” 

One way to help individuals practice abolition is through collective care and prioritizing the wellbeing of people in their communities, she proposed.

“How do we build an economy that is based on care?” —Patrisse Cullors

“I think we send the wrong message to young folks and our new generation of leaders, that they have to burn themselves out,” Cullors said. “So the challenge is, how do we build an economy that is based on care?”

Building this economy of care involves realigning how people relate to one another through important conversations, such as asking neighbors not to call the police on other community members.

“Those small moments where we intervene on what we know may happen, actually create more room for love and care and dignity,” Cullors said. “Which is truly what abolitionist culture is about.” 

Cullors also remarked on the importance of advocating for abolition in the ways with which people felt the most comfortable. Specifically, she highlighted the role of artists in fostering the culture of abolition, something Cullors has personal experiences with as an artist.

“I think that artists are often left out of the movement conversation, or sort of invisible in the movement conversation,” Cullors said. “… And I think that’s unfortunate because artists, in my opinion, are going to be able to usher in abolition, because we are the dreamers, the visionaries, and we’re creating new worlds.” 

Cullors then broadened the scope of her abolitionist conversation with Sherrard Johnson, looking at principles of restorative justice such as how to hold governments and institutions accountable for the harm they induce.

“Every community has to have its own answer.” Cullors said. “Through an abolitionist lens, it’s not relying on police and prisons and courts and surveillance. “

Additionally, she underlined the challenges of collectivizing people and of succession plans in social movements. 

“I always think … that you should be planning for the next generation,” Cullors said. “… Because the next generation is going to see things that you didn’t see, know things that you don’t know. And they’re going to evolve [the movement].”

After Cullors’ and Sherrard-Johnson’s conversation, the conference moved on to a 40-minute Q&A, where 7C students — some of them members of the Claremont Colleges’ Prison Abolition Collective — asked Cullors questions about her work, the abolitionist movement and ways to find joy and motivation in activism. 

Cullors answered participants’ questions with personal and thorough advice, relating them to her own experiences in her 20 years fighting for abolition. Her responses inspired students to share personal anecdotes about activism in their own communities.

She particularly encouraged students to be involved in movements in the ways that felt best to them based on their current situations.

“I don’t think you hang onto a movement,” Cullors told a student. “I think you stay in it. And you find your ways to be inside of it that make the most sense for the time, place and condition [you are in].”

She also reassured many students who talked about their struggles with maintaining a sense of direction in the movement or feeling as if they sometimes have to resort to a more passive approach.

“As abolitionists, we’re not going to snap our fingers, and then the whole thing comes crumbling down,” Cullors said. “But there are ways where you chip away at it. For example, body cameras and police training does not chip away at it … But defunding, reallocating resources, putting them into community needs and social services [do] … We didn’t get rid of it all the way. But we’re getting close.”

Moreover, Cullors emphasized the importance of preserving a movement’s integrity while working under oppressive structures — and of staying in a movement’s work even when it was not trending in order to be prepared when the movement returned to the mainstream.

Movements never die … but the perception of them changes based on who’s leading that megaphone,” Cullors said. “But we are always here.”

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