MUMI: Making and Unmaking of Mass Incarceration
Activists discuss the future of prison abolition at conference in Oxford, Mississippi
I was afforded the opportunity to travel to Oxford, Mississippi for the MUMI conference (Making and Unmaking of Mass Incarceration and the Future of Prison Abolition) this past December. The conference included two big names I know from the social justice world: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Mariame Kaba who I got to brush shoulders with. I also met Emily Thuma while waiting in line at a nearby coffee shop. The lead organizer for the conference, Garrett Felber, made it a priority to give travel scholarship away to all who wanted to attend but were unable to finance it themselves. To do this, all of the keynote speakers gave up their honorariums, which was very powerful and showed commitment to the movement. There were lots of ideas, I’ll try to break them up into bite sized pieces.
“Abolition means we don’t want anybody in any cage anywhere,” Ruth Wilson Gilmore stated during a panel discussion. Gilmore is one of the cofounders of Critical Resistance with Angela Davis. Gilmore also explained that ½ of US citizens are either undocumented and not able to legally work or documented and not able to work because they are locked up. The first group is smaller, the second group makes up most of people unable to legally work. With this scenario under a capitalistic society Gilmore emphasizes that “needing a job doesn’t mean you need capitalism.” Gilmore also noted that as abolitionists, we only have to change one thing, which is everything. “Abolition is red (anticapitalist), green (environmentalist) and international,” Gilmore stated.
Racial capitalism was a term that was tossed around quite a bit at the convention. The idea behind it meaning that the US as a country was founded on the sins of exploitation based on “othering” people (i.e. genocide toward Native peoples and kidnapping Africans and bringing them to the US to work as slaves). The idea of racial capitalism is that this was not merely the beginning of the US, but has been consistent with US policy and attitudes for all of its capitalistic history, including right now.
As Felber, the lead organizer for the event, stated, “Abolition is inherently anti-capitalist”. He noted that private prisons are only “parasites” of the prison industrial complex as they feed off of it, but they only hold 8% of imprisoned people in the US. He also brought up that “prison organizes the way we think about our social relationships, and it is not a single issue system”. Bringing up the racialized surveillance state, he quoted a Black Panther who stated he grew up in minimum security prison being a black man in the U.S., and went to maximum security when he was incarcerated. Felber stressed that prison abolitionists must focus more on the people inside prisons, not just the buildings themselves when we are discussing issues around incarceration. “If we just focus on getting rid of the physical buildings of prisons, we will recreate prisons again in another form” (just as slavery was recreated in another form, i.e. the prison system).
Scholar Walter Johnson spoke about the history of St. Louis and how it was the “juncture of anti-blackness”. During the Native American wars with the US, St. Louis was the nerve center. He also spoke about the idea that Missouri was a barrier for entry and kept people of color from moving out West. He drew on Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s work about the economy based on production and no surplus which includes prisons but also extraction payday loans, fines, fees, etc.
The idea was brought up that other capitalist countries had slavery as well, and 95% of the slave trade went to Central and South America. Why has racial capitalism been so extreme in the US? Panelists explained that the US is what the legacy of racial capitalism look like in the most wealthy country in the world. The connections between the military industrial complex and imperialism and power and control are what define capitalism, capitalism based on racial exploitation.
“I’m not interested in being ‘humanized’, I’m interested in showing society how you dehumanize me [as a formerly incarcerated person]. Murderers get to be humans too,” the poet and activist Reginald Dwayne Betts stated during a session. “When you say ‘We lock people up in cages’ I feel triggered, because I got people doing life [in prison]. They don’t call me and say, ‘Man, I gotta go back in my cage’. We don’t say cages for the people in prison, we say cages for us [on the outside]. …I just want you to know you actually harming me when you say that, and you doing it for rhetorical effect. You haven’t beat on the bars, you haven’t earned the right to talk about it in that way. And you need to earn the right to talk in that way if you say I should accept your rhetoric… there is something demeaning in having to prove you’re more than the car jacking you committed. Why you got to prove you’re more? ”
Another woman on the panel pushed back and said she uses the term ‘cages’ and has also been incarcerated.
Reforms v. Abolition
Miriame Kaba referenced a great chart which breaks down reformist versus abolitionist approaches, which you can view here.
The poet and activist Betts pushed back on the idea of demanding big changes and not settling for small changes, “[People in prison are] traumatized and left because people are saying fuck these small changes. But these small changes are important to people who are actually in prison. And no prison speakers actually speak in prisons. Why?”
The New Suffrage Movement
Activist Amani Sawari spoke about how slavery was a model for the current prison industrial complex (PIC). She notes that slavery depended on severed family ties, limited education, exploited labor and restricted voting rights- all of which are ingredients in the current US prison system.
The racialized surveillance state was a big topic for the convention as big data was discussed. Scholars and activists seemed split on the issue. Technology such as smart phones have made it easier for injustice to go viral and be protested against, however the same technology is used to surveil black and brown communities in the US and perpetuate incarceration. For example, Kaba very much disagreed with the current trend toward police body cameras as they are “expanding legitimacy for cops and providing more money for them to spend. What else are we going to do? A million other things. We don’t want reforms that divide people into deserving and undeserving.”
This can all be tied into the nonprofit industrial complex, to make things murkier. Nonprofits collect lots of data to show progress and encourage funders to continue to fund their projects, yet is all of this data collection truly needed or is it putting vulnerable populations under even more surveillance and risk?
Questions Moving Forward
Scholar Max Mishler focused on questions within the movement when it was his turn to speak, and I thought there was a lot of thought provoking material in his words. He addressed the concept of freedom within US citizens’ imaginations. He also addressed the idea that the first example of US prisons were the forts built to hold Native American prisoners. He is currently working on a project to weave together the stories of Native American incarceration and Black incarceration in the US. He also brought up the topic of guilt and innocence, and how we must do away with this labeling to truly accomplish abolition. For example, if we view all enslaved people as “innocent,” we take away the history that they were labeled as criminals when they ran away, and risk missing the connection to the current carceral state prisoners.
“Accept the mess within when we can’t get on the same page,” someone said in passing. It was my message for the weekend. I didn’t internalize it until I left Mississippi.