COVID Crossroads For Prison Abolitionists

The intersection of a pandemic and a public uprising to address police brutality has created a unique moment in history—and a distinct moment for prison abolitionists.

Two arguments now entering the mainstream—that incarceration is an urgent public health crisis and that policing takes needed resources from communities—have long been argued by abolitionist organizers.

“Abolition is about fighting the prison industrial complex as a whole, because these violent systems are interlocking and feed off each other,” explained Mohamed Shehk, national media and communications director for the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance.



Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, is not merely an activist — she’s a modern-day abolitionist. And as protests over racism, inequality and police brutality have exploded worldwide, Cullors says the answer does not lie in holding police accountable with better training and body cameras.

Instead, she demands defunding law enforcement so that black and brown people can be free from what she calls a well-funded army that occupies them.

“For hundreds of years, black communities have lived under state terror — be it police or vigilante violence,” says Cullors. “An abolitionist believes in a world where police and prisons are no longer weaponized as a tool for public safety.”

“Our vision is for a world rooted in the care and love and humanity for every human being. A world that relies on an economy of care versus one with an economy of punishment. An abolitionist believes in freedom.”



During the 19th-century emancipation movement, some of the most important voices were those of Black abolitionists. “This was especially true of those who had experienced slavery,” Roy E. Finkenbine told NPR.

When they told their stories it “disabused listeners and readers of the notion that slaves were contented or well-treated,” Finkenbine said, and even “unlettered fugitive slaves … who were pressed into getting up in front of an audience and telling their halting and unvarnished tales could be equally effective in mobilizing audiences against slavery.”

Those who have directly experienced the prison system are likewise championing the prison abolition movement.