“If you actually believe in abolition, do something about it. Go visit people in prisons. Write them a letter; support bail funds. There are a lot of other things we could be doing with our time that will get people out of prison and get people out of pipelines to prison.” – Aanya Wood
The following roundtable took place on October 10, 2019, as part of a prisoners’ justice course co-taught by Jin Haritaworn and Syrus Marcus Ware at the Faculty of Environmental studies (now renamed Environmental and Urban Change) at York University. Three grad students on the course – Charlie Costello, Bridget Liang and Julia Robertson – collaborated with their professors as well as with Rio Rodriguez who, along with Syrus and Jin, is a founding member of the Marvellous Grounds collective, in organizing this public event. It was free and open to the community.
The roundtable translated principles of activist scholarship that had been the subject of the course, including reciprocity and accountability and producing work that is desire based, intelligible to non-academics, and in the service of communities 1. It brought together Aanya Wood, Rosina Kazi and Swathi Sekhar, three queer of colour artists and activists involved in abolitionist organizing to dismantle the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) in Toronto.
Bridget Liang: What does abolition mean to you and why did you first become an abolitionist?
Aanya Wood: Abolition to me means unlearning, abolition to me is a process. There are buzzwords that go around with abolition, like decolonization. But I’m more of a pragmatist than an academic, so to me it means learning that incarceration doesn’t just look like resisting prison systems, but also involves unlearning things we have been taught our whole lives, from junior kindergarten up until your PhD or your legal degree. To me it’s important to unlearn the gender binary, the idea of class, the idea of racializing and classifying people and putting them in certain places and telling them you belong there. Whether that process is about gender, race, class or criminality, to me abolition is about unlearning what we’ve been taught by the academy and by a Western government. I think a lot of abolition has to do with love. A lot of it is building bridges where there aren’t supposed to be bridges, whether that be between communities, between institutions, or between individuals.
Swathi Sekhar: Why did you get into this work?
Aanya Wood: For me it’s out of necessity. I grew up in a post-industrial rust-belt community that was extremely gentrified, in Buffalo, New York. There was a lot of heroin, crack, meth, and poverty that was attributed to white flight. My family and I have been drug users, so I’ve seen a lot of people come in and out of correctional institutions. Growing up in post 9-11 America in the early 2000s, a lot of my classmates and their parents were being deported, and my close friends were serving sentences. Abolition to me is still a learning process, learning traditions that people have carried for millennia, and understanding my place as a non-Black settler.
Rosina Kazi: I grew up in a very different context. I grew up in suburban Brampton. But as young folks of colour at that time, a lot of us were queer, trans, but not knowing we were. The Peel Police were always, and still are, quite brutal. Having those experiences as a young person, and then coming to Toronto, getting involved with Mumia Abu-Jamal, while more people, artists (musicians in particular), came into my circle. We instinctively knew that something was wrong when someone was incarcerated. Coming from Bengal and seeing family deal with immigration, and feeling the pain of this land, and particularly when you look at who’s being incarcerated, that is what got me into this work. I’m still formulating what abolition means to me after being involved after 25 years as an artist. I’m not one of those people who works with words, even though I write lyrics. I go by instinct, so it’s very difficult for me to claim something because it’s based on a feeling.
Swathi Sekhar: When I heard about prisons when I was a kid, I was shocked that they existed. And as a young queer growing up in a mostly immigrant community, seeing especially Black people, and all the Somali people in my neighbourhood, getting targeted in ways that I wasn’t, it didn’t make any sense to me. The more I read, I was inspired by amazing people resisting the PIC. I also became really close friends with people who I love, and who are in prison.
I think about abolition a lot, but I often don’t put words to it. It’s so much more than just dismantling a prison system. To me, abolition is also about so many small things that you do in your immediate circle. It can feel so large, and how do you fix a world where both the Military Industrial Complex and Prison Industrial Complex have to be dismantled?
What has felt powerful for abolition work for me has been really small actions that we can do within our communities, including challenging any injustice when we see it, or being the only one in a room full of academics, or standing up for what you believe, and challenging systems in a context that is hostile. The most transformative experiences related to abolition were situations where you could see that folks who were incarcerated, and who were survivors in the system, were actually empowered to challenge the system so that power was redistributed. That could look like someone dancing in their cells, or hunger striking while there are drums playing outside the prison. Maybe that didn’t result in something concrete like a policy change, but that is abolition work because it enables people to survive when they’re going through these systems.
When I’m grounded in that, it helps me step away from more abstract conversations about tensions between reform and abolition. Someone may say that working to improve the prison systems, while we’re working inside the system, is counter to prison abolition. The counterpoint I’m making may be that there are folks that are incarcerated thinking: I don’t really give a shit about taking down the prison, I want to have a blanket tonight. That is still abolition to me. If you’re able to provide resources to folks who are mired within these oppressive systems for no reason other than racism, that’s still abolition for me.
Bridget Liang: One thing we noticed while looking through all of your work was that art was at the heart of your activism. What role have the arts played in mobilizing your resistance to the Prison Industrial Complex?
Rosina Kazi: I’ve been doing stuff since the 90s. We’d be throwing concerts, and trying to get information out about people who were incarcerated. Art and music are such powerful tools around healing, and exposing—not the only tool, but such a powerful tool. It was a way to bring people together to talk about really hard issues, and serious issues, particularly for those of us who may not understand what abolition is, and for those of us who when we’re told what it is, still don’t get it. Art is a way to have an initial discussion so that’s always been a starting point for me. It’s not the only thing though, and I think as artists we get stuck on this idea that art will save everything. It’s just a starting point.
We run a community art space called Unit 2, and I help at an event called Bricks and Glitter, which is an alternative pride festival based in abolitionist frameworks. We try to create space for artists and community to create space to share and to dialogue, to learn and unlearn from a place of compassion and love. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to challenge each other, but it’s really important for me that we shift a lot of these ideas around prisons, or police, or academia, and power in general. For me art has always been the safest place to express myself. I can go on stage, and yell at the police, and yell about whatever.
Aanya Wood: I’m someone who really believes in storytelling, as a tradition that has been around for thousands of years, that is part of human nature. It is such a powerful way of building more autonomous communities. It has to do with spirituality and kinda has to do with power, like Rose was saying. Music, song, and dance have been central to so many liberation struggles. That could be people dancing in their cells, people drumming, painting, and making prisoner art. It has to do with giving people a place to tell their story, and how platforms provide power for people to express themselves. Capitalism has really gone deep to silence people.
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- Oparah, Julia Chinyere (fka Sudbury, Julia) and Okazawa-Rey, Margo (2007), ‘Introduction. Activist Scholarship and the Neoliberal University after 9/11’, in J. Sudbury and M. Okazawa-Rey (eds.), Activist Scholarship: Antiracism, Feminism, and Social Change, Boulder: Paradigm; Pulido, Laura (2008), ‘FAQs: Frequently (Un)Asked Questions About Being a Scholar Activist’, in C. Hale (ed.), Engaging contradictions: Theory, politics, and methods of activist scholarship, Berkeley: University of California Press (also see other chapters in this book); Tuck, Eve (2009), “Suspending damage: A letter to communities,” Harvard Educational Review 79(3). ↩