Ruth Wilson Gilmore Says Freedom Is a Physical Place—But Can We Find It?

Everything seems awful right now. But the author of Abolition Geography insists that "without optimism," there’s "no point in bothering."

Ruth Wilson Gilmore Says Freedom Is a Physical Place—But Can We Find It?
Photo:Verso Books

The year before support for prison and police abolition exploded into the mainstream in the summer of 2020, the New York Times Magazine ran a profile of scholar-activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore titled: “Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind.” That is to say, Gilmore has been at the helm of the movement for abolition—and an authoritative critic of racial capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchal oppression—since long before the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor spurred a global reckoning.

Gilmore, a professor and director of City University of New York’s Center for Place, Culture, and Politics, learned about organizing and struggle from her parents as a child. It was those early lessons, as well as her education and formal training as a geographer, that have informed her activism, teaching, and the numerous books she’s authored or contributed to on building a world beyond prisons, policing, and neoliberal exploitation. Her latest offering? Abolition Geography, a scathing exploration of global systems of oppression through a lens of geography, in which she asserts that freedom and liberation are a physical, tangible place—they’re material conditions, not platitudes and niceties from ultra-rich politicians. The age-old question, of course, is how we get to that physical place.

“‘Freedom is a place’ means we combine resources, ingenuity, and commitment to produce the conditions in which life is precious for all,” Gilmore told Jezebel over Zoom. “So, no matter the struggle, freedom is happening somewhere. Through different forces and relations to power, the people are constantly figuring out how to shift, how to build, how to consolidate the capacity for people to flourish, to mobilize our communities, and stay in motion until satisfied.”

In a conversation with Jezebel about her new book, Gilmore maps out what a path forward rooted in abolition looks like, and how to get to that physical place of freedom. In the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, shooting and the police failure that enabled it; ahead of a Supreme Court decision expected to reverse Roe v. Wade; and following the chilling backlash against sexual assault survivors we witnessed in the recent Amber Heard-Johnny Depp defamation trial, Gilmore also explains how each of these devastating political moments could be addressed by abolitionist principles—the “place of liberation” we collectively build must be safe and nurturing for all.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ahead of the Supreme Court’s looming abortion rights decision, how is the decimation of reproductive rights conjoined with the movement for abolition?

So, let’s stop and think for a second about physical reality, that in our embodiment as living beings, we are space and time—I am, you are, whoever is reading this interview is space and time. That’s a given—we are not an abstract theory. This dreadful example about Roe is grounded in what that fact consists of socially, spiritually, politically, and viscerally all of those ways. So as Dr. Angela Yvonne Davis teaches us, freedom is a constant struggle, and abolition in that struggle is reproductive justice. These aren’t separable movements. The capacity to flourish inter-generationally—whether that means to bear children, or not to have children, makes no difference—reproductive justice is abolition.

You write about the systematic ways that oppressive systems and institutions are shortening people’s life spans, killing them across lines of race, class, and identity. What can we take away about whose lives are and aren’t valued in this country? How would abolition address this?

I think the principal takeaway we have right now is that in the U.S., the forces of organized violence, principally the police, are better organized to seize any moment. Police can count on people expecting them to be the solution, and to always be able to demand more resources to fulfill that expectation. And this is the problem. The defund [the police] movement seeks to address this as part of the greater abolition movement, and more broadly, we know about group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.

What we see is that for certain powerful forces in society, some lives don’t matter. But most people are not those powerful forces, and their lives matter to themselves and each other, as a starting point.

Whenever it seems like we’re moving toward liberation on issues of sexual violence, backlash like the Heard and Depp defamation trial throws us back to what feels like square one. Survivors are often used as a counter-argument against abolition. How does abolition build toward a safe place for survivors of sexual violence?

Abolition is a practical program of transitional goals, putting those goals into motion. For example, a storytelling organizing project that Mimi Kim and her comrades developed over the years learned from people around the world how we can interrupt interpersonal violence, especially in intimate relations, without dialing up the police. Another resource similar to that is the work that Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie have been putting together, for their project Interrupting Criminalization. So abolition not only says [criminalization] isn’t helping us, but what abolition does is also take seriously transitional goals and being present, to find examples of what ordinary people do on their own behalf, to see if more ordinary people can copy those things in their own lives.

The successes of the various stories from these projects, from organizations like INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, is that there are solutions that everyday people can achieve without police if we make the determination to try. And the flip side of that is, the resolution that policing seems to present to people to dial one number, get one result, has not resulted in what it is people want, which is to be free from harm and violence—they make that call after the harm already happened, for people who perpetrated the harm or participated in it to be punished better. That doesn’t make us freer.

Abolition Geography offers powerful lines on the limits of representation: “[O]ne Black man in the White House and a million Black men in the Big House; two people of color serving life terms on the Supreme Court, and 100,000 serving life terms in federal and state prisons.” What do you see as the limits of representation of marginalized people in inherently harmful institutions of power—for example, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation to the Supreme Court? Can representation be part of a roadmap to liberation, or is it keeping us at a standstill?

For a short time in history, the Supreme Court was slightly open as an arena for realizing certain indisputable opportunities for liberation. In the 20th century, Brown and Roe are two of the major openings. But the Supreme Court, again, is closed to us for now. The success of cases like Brown may not be happening in the upper atmosphere that’s the Supreme Court right now, but all of that organizing and power-building is still happening on the ground. All of the organizing that made those particular decisions possible, if not inevitable, is still happening.

If we can study anything from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or the wages for housework campaign, or my mentor, [activist] Margaret Prescod, or the student movements more generally around the world—we see how people put themselves forward, their energy, and organizational persistence over time, to change everything. There are so many examples of real, on-the-ground change, rather than institutional change, that come to mind. And we live in a period now where people turning their attention to the real is absolutely essential.

The chapters in Abolition Geography that discuss academia, the managerial class, theory, and “walk vs. talk” in organizing are an important call-in for people with privilege. What does it look like for people with privilege to actively work toward building inclusive spaces, and tear down the institutional structures that have benefited them?

This is my advice for everybody I encounter in academia: I counsel people who work in academia to participate in committees that make decisions, not in committees that produce reports; to form unions, democratize the unions from within; check the conditions of admissions, employment costs, and debt—I could talk a hole in your head about how it took less than half a century for post-secondary education in the U.S. to be effectively free, even at expensive elite schools, to becoming the cause of the devastating student debt crisis.

This was a transition. Elite universities used to be practically free, because of laws and other rules governing the nature of scholarships and support that students with needs got. People don’t believe that, but it was once like that, and it can be again.

You’ve emphasized how hope is extremely valuable currency in the movement toward abolition, which exponentially grew in 2020, but, in the mainstream, has waned in the last two years. As a geographer and abolitionist, if you were charting out a map forward for this movement in the U.S. and around the world, what would it look like?

I certainly know that without optimism of the will, there’s no point in bothering—echoing the late great Antonio Gramsci. Just lately, of course, the mainstream media in the U.S. has characterized San Francisco prosecutor Chesa Boudin’s recall as a final blow to the defund movement. But, first of all, they leave out the dismally low voter turnout in San Francisco County, which is indicative of something that probably speaks more to the deepening inequalities of that county than anything else.

Meanwhile, go down south in Los Angeles County, and Eunisses Hernandez is, as of the latest vote count, beating three-term incumbent to City Council District 1 seat—the district in which she was born and raised. Eunisses is an abolitionist, who was a key person in a long, long fight to cancel a multi-billion dollar new jail in LA County, to persuade the LA County Board of Supervisors to set aside significant funds for social services, housing, community improvements. Meanwhile, in the middle of the state of California, in Kings County, which is burdened by two current prisons, the district attorney who had been on a rampage criminalizing women who were struggling with reproductive issues and other vulnerabilities, was run out of office. These things tell us that what we’re doing is a very long game, with ups and downs. Some of these fights started when Eunisses was in elementary school. It tells us that the spatial, the conditions of struggle, will change, and we must maintain our collective solidarity.

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