For those of us who want to see positive social change in our lifetimes, it is an incredibly dispiriting time. Whether we are trying to uproot white supremacy, combat climate change, fight for housing as a human right, improve public education or make progress on any other number of issues that we may care about, it can seem more realistic to be hopeless than hopeful and to feel discouraged than encouraged.
This may particularly be the case for activists and organizers who are focused on transforming the criminal legal system. Three years ago, the George Floyd Uprising felt like a period of inspiring possibilities. Now, we’re in the middle of a vociferous return to “law and order” as the “right” way to cultivate safety and respond to harm. For those of us still working toward a world without police and prisons, what new conceptual interventions and strategies can offer us ways to keep moving forward?
This daunting question is what Andrea Ritchie addresses in her provocative and challenging new book “Practicing New Worlds: Abolition and Emergent Strategies.” Ritchie is a Black attorney whose work is deeply influential within the field of police and prison abolition. She has authored or co-authored three books on the subject; she is also a co-founder of Interrupting Criminalization, a resource hub for abolitionists, as well as of the In Our Names Network, a national network working to end police violence against Black women, girls, trans and gender nonconforming people.
In “Practicing New Worlds,” Ritchie looks at how to apply the concept of “emergent strategy,” as developed by Black feminist organizer adrienne maree brown, to movements for police and prison abolition. The book is not an introduction to the basics of police and prison abolition. Rather, the book uses Ritchie’s long experience inside abolitionist movements as a jumping-off point for exploring new ways we might attempt to make social change.
So, what are “emergent strategies?” I’d define them as ways of working toward social change that draw on examples from nature and focus on the microlevel, like interpersonal interactions and everyday choices. Emergent strategies embrace experimentation, uncertainty and growth as powerful and necessary ingredients for making a better world.
Ritchie contrasts emergent strategies with mass uprisings. In the emergent strategy framework, smaller, close-knit groups have advantages over larger, more anonymous groups when working toward social justice. Emergent strategies are also contrasted with top-down, goal-based, linear strategies and campaigns, as emergent strategies intentionally leave room for things to take unexpected directions and evolve in unpredictable ways. Ritchie’s development of emergent strategies draws a lot on metaphors, creativity and imagination; you can expect to read about how mushrooms, scuba diving, sailing, hot air ballooning and more relate to police and prison abolition.
Ritchie admits repeatedly throughout the book that emergent strategies are not what she is most familiar with nor what she has gravitated toward during most of her organizing work over many decades. For many years, she focused exclusively on “10-point plans,” legislative agendas and legal strategies in her work as a lawyer. After years of relying on these more traditional strategies to prevent state violence against Black women and girls and against queer and trans people, Ritchie had to face an uncomfortable realization: Even when her litigation efforts were successful, the victories in the courtroom “did not transform systems, communities or conditions enough to prevent the harm from continuing in the same or new forms.” “Practicing New Worlds” is a record of Ritchie’s search for a different way to do her work, one that could result in more meaningful victories for her communities.
The book balances essays — with titles like “Abolition is Fractal,” “Abolition is Decentralized and Rooted in Interdependence” and “Abolition is Cooperative and Focused on Collective Sustainability” — with analyses called “Visionary Practices” that explore concrete examples of abolitionist projects around the U.S., like Relationships Evolving Possibilities in Minnesota and Harm Free Zones in New York and Durham, North Carolina. The book also includes an essay on visionary fiction by Walidah Imarisha, two pieces of visionary fiction by Lisa Bates and Shawn Taylor and a piece of liberatory fiction about mermaids by Ritchie.
Excerpts are also featured from interviews Ritchie conducted with comrades across the country. There is a wealth of insights from visionaries from Duwamish territory, including Angélica Cházaro of Seattle Solidarity Budget, nikkita oliver of Creative Justice, Shannon Perez-Darby formerly of the NW Network, Kalaya Pestaño of API Chaya and Dean Spade, author of “Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next).” The conversations serve as a welcome reminder that abolitionist work is being dreamed, created and practiced on Duwamish territory right now.
My favorite part of the book was probably the chapter entitled “Abolition is Fractal,” which opens with the suggestion that “Abolition starts with how you talk to yourself.” In the chapter, Ritchie beautifully explores the intersections between the ways we treat ourselves and the worlds we are trying to build. She suggests that our relationships are in need of a significant investment of “grace, kindness and care” if we are ever going to unlearn and uproot the violence and punitiveness we have internalized from white supremacist capitalism.
“Practicing New Worlds” by Andrea Ritchie is a compelling, engaging read. It has a lot to offer if you are a long-time abolitionist organizer, new to the concept, skeptical or even opposed to abolition. I hope that many people in our city will read it and consider possible ways we might apply lessons from the book to our movements for change.
Read more of the Nov. 8-14, 2023 issue.