At the heart of abolition is the idea of abundance for all.
Many people hear the word abolition and think of “endings” of things. What I know of abolition is it is about “beginnings” — how ideas of abundance can shift us away from systems of harm to systems of care. That investment in our beginnings and throughout our lives can bring wellness that is simply unimaginable in a world where slavery in any form is allowed to thrive.
When folks ask me about being an abolitionist, they often ask about what it means to believe in an end to prisons and policing. I always respond that abolition is not about endings, but rather about building alternatives to prisons and policing.
I am proud to say I’m an abolitionist, because I follow the lead of hundreds of thousands who have been in abolition work for over 400 years now — people who believe a future without slavery is not only possible, but necessary. The abolitionist movement has always been a movement of collectivism and working together to create new laws, new systems, new ways of being. It has always been a movement of solidarity between Black people and white people, poor people and rich people.
But why do we need abolition in 2021? We talk about the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 as an end to slavery in the United States, but this was not the case. We simply gave it a new forum and way of being: specifically, our incarceration systems, and therefore the policing systems that intersect with and regulate that system.
Many are still learning that the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place of their jurisdiction.” This is a loophole that still allows legal slavery in our country. And if you haven’t seen the documentary film “13th” by Ava DuVernay, I highly recommend it for deeper understanding.
At any given time, we have about 35,000 people incarcerated in Washington. Most people don’t associate Washington State with the gravest versions of slavery via the 13th Amendment loophole — the three strikes rule — yet such practices originated here in a law passed by the legislature in 1993. We were the first state to say that you could be incarcerated for a lifetime for causing harm three times. The legacy of that law, and copycat laws around the country, led to an explosion of incarceration rates and costs over the last 25 years and greatly expanded the harms caused by incarceration.
When I say incarceration is slavery in action, I mean this literally. Until a decade ago in Washington state, if you were incarcerated and pregnant, you were shackled — handcuffed by your hands and/or feet — to a bed while you gave birth. This is a legacy of slavery in action. In Washington prisons, just like in all prisons, there are rations and rudimentary sleeping quarters shared with others, while other basic needs, such as menstrual products, are paid for by those who are incarcerated. We still allow incarcerated people to be paid well below minimum wage for prison work and to be contracted out for unprotected labor for private industry. We also have incarcerated people doing highly dangerous jobs, like putting out forest fires, with little pay, protections or ability to advance in the field once released.
We have work to do to make this right.
As an abolitionist, I believe in second chances. I know this is a moment when Washington and our country can make amends for what we have done and continue to do. And we took some important steps this last legislative session to imagine new ways our state can invest in care. The war on drugs has far too many neighbors arrested and incarcerated. Last session, we made one of the largest investments we have ever made as a state in treatment for substance use disorder and mental health services. We also passed 12 policing accountability laws this year, with a focus on the practices that need to change so everyone in our communities feels safer and we have more transparency. When care is centered around individuals and families, crime goes down and communities don’t have to worry about harm happening, because everyone has what they need to be whole. This is a completely new way of thinking about governance as care instead of harm reduction. It is the promise of what abolition can deliver if we see mistakes as opportunities to identify people’s needs and how we can all work together to serve those needs.
As a Black woman, a mom, an abolitionist and a neighbor who works from love, I will continue striving with my colleagues to bring more and more abolitionist heart to our laws.
Kirsten Harris-Talley serves in the Washington House of Representatives for the 37th Legislative District, spanning from Seattle’s Beacon Hill to Skyway to Renton.
Read more of the Oct. 6-12, 2021 issue.