Ty K. and Soleil Smith of Knox College YDSA argue that socialists must center visions of racial justice and abolition in their activism. They also provide concrete objectives organizers can pursue to work toward these ends.
What can we see within each morbid symptom of neoliberalism’s slow decay? Our nation’s tradition of hatred for its most vulnerable. Immigrants and people of color throughout the country have disproportionately suffered from COVID-19. Everywhere, sickness and death in black, Asian, Latinx, and indigeneous communities has been laid bare for the world to see. In April, the Los Angeles Times reported that in California, from the age range of 18 to 49, black residents were “dying nearly two and a half times as often as their share of the state’s population.” The Navajo Nation recently eclipsed New York as the area with the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the United States. Rather than an accident, this is the direct and intended result of the racial capitalist structures which define our lives. Now more than ever, the age-old rule holds true: to be black or brown in America is to be expendable, and oppression and murder remain the essential work of the state. Perhaps the most blatant evidence of this truth lies in the prison-industrial complex and at the crossroads between COVID-19 and the recent protests against police brutality that have gripped the nation.
Native American men are incarcerated at four times the rate of white men, and Native American women at a whopping six times the rate of white women. A University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study revealed in 2013 that Wisconsin, which had the highest black male incarceration rate of any state, imprisoned 1 in 8 of its black men of working age. Now more than ever, this gross and intentional inequity is producing fatal results, as these prisons and detention centers have become hotspots of COVID-19 nationwide. Chicago’s Cook County Jail had become the national center of the virus by late April, and as of May 19th, over 1,000 migrants in ICE custody have tested positive for COVID-19. Those incarcerated face abysmal sanitation, inadequate medical care, and the restriction of their rights due to prison lockdowns. Families remain separated, and pretrial detainees continue to be held despite the delay of trial dates due to their inability to pay bond — all while white-collar criminals like Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort walk free. Attorney General William Barr’s prisoner release plan, one of the few “attempts” made to soften the blow of COVID-19 in prisons, determines eligibility for release using an algorithm that deems only 7% of black men in federal prisons “low-risk,” compared to 30% of white men. As Angela Davis writes in her landmark Are Prisons Obsolete?, prison “relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.” Prisons, jails, and detention centers are living proof that racism and capitalism are intertwined as one governing system. Again and again, this established order—which Cedric Robinson termed “racial capitalism” — rears its ugly head, showing us in no unclear terms that the lives of black and brown people are meaningless to the state.
And as this pandemic has raged on, and as yet another black man’s life has been taken from him by a homicidal police state, law enforcement — the lapdogs of property and the soldiers in the army of racial capitalism — have continued their reign of terror. The violent crackdowns of nationwide demonstrations following the police lynching of George Floyd has seen Brooklyn cops ramming through crowds of demonstrators with their vehicles. An innocent couple in Atlanta had their windows shattered and were dragged out of their car and tazed. In Chicago, the city announced a curfew with little to no warning and promptly raised the bridges out of downtown, trapping demonstrators within the Loop, where they were left at the utter mercy of police roundups. A police supervisor ordered on the radio, “Gas ’em all”; over 1,000 people were arrested in the course of days. Everywhere, journalists have been indiscriminately targeted and arrested, with more than 120 police attacks on journalists recorded between May 28th and June 1st. A photojournalist has been blinded permanently in one eye after being shot with a less-lethal round by Minneapolis police. A Seattle police officer maced a child. An NYPD officer threw a woman to the ground, where she launched into a seizure and had to go to the emergency room. Footage has captured protesters being beaten, shot, maced, maimed, and gassed in city after city, all over the country. And this is only what’s been documented — imagine what hasn’t been. American law enforcement has finally abandoned the last vestiges of its humanity. Its true nature has been revealed for the world to see. The leaders and demonstrators of the Justice For George movement, who are predominantly black and brown youth, are likely to carry the trauma of their brutalization throughout the rest of their lives. Ours is a generation which has now been radically transformed, and permanently marked by, state-sanctioned violence.
So where does that leave us in the collective freefall into a potential “Cool Zone?” With the need to demand and center a robust understanding of the racial capitalist system, and to oppose state-sanctioned violence in its two most sinister forms: police and prisons. If we are to say that our mission as DSA and YDSA is to liberate America from capitalism, then we must recognize that America is not capitalist and racist, but capitalist because it is racist and racist because it is capitalist. Racism and capitalism exert their control over our lives together, as two parts of one whole. Ignoring one only remakes the other. Therefore, it is only together, as one whole, that we can hope to destroy them. We must recognize that the system of racial capitalism maintains its control primarily through the so-called law enforcement and criminal justice institutions. Then, we must do all that is in our power to tear these institutions down and replace them with a novel approach to justice that is restorative, transformative, and community-oriented. We must not stop until we have achieved our ultimate goal: the complete decarceration of the United States. We must not rest until, as Emma Goldman wrote, “the conditions that breed both the prisoner and the jailer will be forever abolished.”
So what can we do as members and leaders of YDSA in order to bring about this process? To start, here is a list of objectives we can immediately pursue:
- Establish the abolition of police and prisons as a core goal in each chapter’s constitution and bylaws.
- Pressure our colleges and universities to formally endorse police defunding and demilitarization, if not outright abolition.
- Demand that our colleges and universities cut ties with local police departments, following the lead of actions taken by the University of Minnesota following the murder of George Floyd.
- Take a chapter-wide pledge of non-collaboration with law enforcement, seeing this pledge as a necessary step toward making each chapter a safe space.
- Form police and prison abolition committees, working groups, and reading groups within each chapter (using, for example, resources provided by NYC DSA’s Abolition Action project).
- Host political education events on campus exposing the past and present abuses of police and ICE, with a special focus on the innumerable acts of brutality committed against journalists, civilians, and peaceful protesters during violent crackdowns of demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd
- Advocate on- and off-campus for the immediate release of imprisoned activists and journalists such as Mumia Abu-Jamal and Joshua Williams.
- Organize on-campus prisoner letter-writing campaigns, commissary drives, and other actions in support of the incarcerated.
- Fundraise for pre-existing community bail and bond funds; organize with community members to create bail and bond funds in communities where there are none.
- Ensure that the currently and formerly incarcerated, as well as their families, are included in the outreach and assistance provided by each chapter’s mutual aid infrastructure.
- Model each chapter’s internal justice system off of non-violent alternatives to traditional disciplinary action that are transformative and restorative in nature, such as the Creative Interventions Toolkit.
- Stress the abolition of police and prisons as a natural extension of the ongoing Abolish ICE campaign.
- Utilize our position and privilege as students in pressuring our schools to implement higher education in prison programs; see this objective as a natural extension of the ongoing College For All campaign.
- Prioritize and promote the leadership of individuals of color in each chapter, as well as on the regional and national level; commend and reinforce the work already being done by activists of color in DSA, such as in the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus.
Equally as important as our pursuit of these objectives is the manner in which we pursue them. We must always remember that we are acting in the context of the greater abolitionist movement whose existence predates our own. Our mission is not to become the new leaders of the movement, but to support, reinforce, amplify, and listen to those organizations currently leading it, such as the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. In action and in thought, we must recognize that the leaders of this movement — and those who have sacrificed the most in its name — have always been black, brown, and indigeneous.
This is not limited to the abolitionist movement. DSA, YDSA, socialism, liberation: access to these institutions is not limited to white cisgendered men, nor are they their sole builders. Historically, BIPOC have been, in large part, the greatest authors and stalwart defenders of social change. If the democratic socialist movement intends to live, it must acknowledge this fact. It must center the voices, literature, and lived experience of these people over white voices, white literature, and white experiences. What does this look like in practice? It looks like the implementation of equitable and inclusive procedures in our chapter meetings, such as the progressive stack, whereby marginalized people are prioritized over privileged people in speaking order. It also looks like telling our members to read critically and intersectionally. We must recommend them Lorde, Shakur, and Fanon just as often — if not more — as we do Marx, Kropotkin, and Gramsci, for the literary diet of any revolutionary is nutritionally deficient if it contains Capital but not Assata, or The Conquest of Bread but not The Wretched of the Earth. And this is only a start. Study of the black liberation struggle, of historical black revolts in specific, should form the nucleus of political education in an abolitionist YDSA.
Finally, we must heed the words of organizers of color such as Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin, who warned in The Progressive Plantation that white supremacy has taken root and flourished even in the radical Left. We must remain constantly vigilant of the permeation of white supremacy into our social and organizing spaces, as well as internalized white supremacy within ourselves and our comrades. We must purge it wherever we see it. Ervin’s text, and others like it which equip us with the skills we need to defeat white supremacy, should be required reading in every YDSA and DSA chapter.
The racial capitalist system is the serpent that binds our lives. Police and prisons are its fangs. If we wish to free ourselves from racial capitalism’s grip, then we must first defang it. Only through tireless organizational work can we meet this end — and only if we stand behind the black, brown, and indigenous forces that have always led the charge of radical social change. Only united, in the name of abolition, will we win.