BCRW @ 50

Abolition Feminism

Critical Resistance defines abolition as “a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.” It is a movement that requires creativity, imagination, hope, and aspiration for a better and more liberatory future—as Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, abolition is a presence, not an absence. Deeply rooted in Black feminism, abolition feminism calls for an end to the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC)—“the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” 

In the summer of 2020, we saw an uptick in public engagement with the idea of abolition. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery sparked protests across the country, and, combined with mutual aid projects formed and strengthened during the pandemic, thousands of people joined conversations about defunding the police and dismantling the PIC. While abolition was new to many people in 2020, it is not a new idea, and has an extensive history in Black feminist spaces. BCRW has been dedicated to uplifting the work of those fighting for the abolition of the PIC for the past two decades, but prisons and police violence have been a site of conversation at Barnard for much longer than that.

Barnard students and organizations like the Barnard Center for Research on Women have had a long history organizing around and speaking on the violences of prisons. Rather than following a linear progressive path, these conversations have stagnated and reignited over the course of the last fifty years, including periods of popular reinvestment in the carceral system. Organizing work often remained at the student level.  Although not at first explicitly abolitionist, the conversations surrounding the violences of the prison, organizing efforts that created relationships between students and incarcerated women, and events and panels hosted by students and the Women’s Center all contributed to and laid the groundwork for the fight for prison abolition on Barnard’s campus.

It is important to note the limitation of this history, as it was almost entirely pieced together from the digitized Barnard archives. Activism, publications, and other works by minority students—specifically, Black students—remain largely absent from the archives, and so this history is not meant to act as a comprehensive history, but as a limited overview which deserves more attention and revision.

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