This is a first in a series of articles by Abolitionist Law Center’s Executive Director Robert Saleem Holbrook on the day to day practices of Abolition and the influences of the Black Radical Tradition on Abolitionist practices within the Pennsylvania prison system.
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” — Audre Lorde
I was struck by Audre Lorde’s quote a couple days ago during a conversation around decarceration and abolition. I came to abolition by necessity, not by choice. When I was 16-years-old, was arrested and subsequently sentenced to life without parole. A death by incarceration sentence. My options were limited, and at the time seemed confined to overturning my sentence on appeal or commutation by the governor. Both options had odds of around 1% at the time. I buried myself in the law library, teaching myself how to navigate court opinions, statutes and rules of procedure. From behind razor wire and gun towers I experienced firsthand the impact of the 1993 Crime Bill that birthed mass incarceration on steroids. I became frustrated at realizing how the state weaponized the law against Black and Brown communities — specifically Black and Latinx youth. Laws were never used to make our communities safer.
It was during this time that I found law can be used as conduit for resistance, and how oppressed peoples have historically used the law as a tool to aid in their liberation.
This brings me to Audre Lorde’s statement and how, to sound blasphemous, as an abolitionist I don’t completely agree with it. I came to this observation in the most unlikely places, the state’s Special Management Unit: a “hole” within the “hole” in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. This was a twenty-three hour a day lockdown, where I remained for close to three years. In an environment designed to lay dormant the human soul is where the seeds of abolition were planted. It is there that I found the historical tracts on rebellion and abolition like American Negro Slave Revolts, David Walker’s Appeal, and The Black Jacobins. It is there I discovered the fighting history of the Maroons who carved enclaves of free and abolitionist societies out of the slave regimes in the Americas. It was there that I discovered the story of the Amistad. It is where to my delight, as a born native of Philadelphia, that our city was a key station on the Abolitionist underground railroad and produced abolitionists like William Still and Octavious Catto.
It was also there that I learned of the heroic anti-colonial struggles of the colonized and oppressed peoples around the world. Particularly in Africa and Asia. I discovered how colonized peoples waged wars of national liberation on the battlefield of their homelands and within the halls of the United Nations and its International Human Rights Charter, a world body that was established by the Colonial Powers. To read how African and Asian liberation movements used a body of law promulgated by colonial powers to liberate themselves from colonial oppression resonated with me. What resonated more was how despite using it, they did not, for one minute, believe in the body of laws created by the colonial powers. To them, it was just another tool in their war chest.
It was in the abolitionist programs of the Black Radical Tradition, that I found that the master’s tools in fact have been used to dismantle the master’s house. Slave rebellions have always held special places in the consciousness of Black political prisoners and politicized prisoners. George Jackson, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, and Safiya Buhkari all speak to the inspiration slave revolts had on their thinking and politics. But abolition in the cage is different than the envisioning of abolition out here in the free world.
It wasn’t long ago that the seminal books I named above on slave revolts were banned by the Department of Corrections. Prison bureaucrats realized that the system they operated had too many similarities with the plantation system and books on slave rebellions were banned as “subversive and/or disruptive to the orderly operation of the institution”. Those words are seared in my memory today, even though I’ve been home for three years. As a prisoner agitator and abolitionist, I fought the censorship regime and prevailed by using the “master’s law” to dismantle the DOC’s Mail policies that allowed censorship. Me and other comrades viewed our campaign on prison censorship as a plantation rebellion. We filed grievance after grievance on every denial, had people on the outside challenge the censorship and organize direct actions against it. As organizers and abolitionists we weren’t trying to make our imprisonment more comfortable. For us, it was a matter of survival and an organizing strategy. Books on slave rebellions were political education for us, and the ability to hold political education multiplied our numbers.
When it comes to the law, the same applies, it can be an organizing strategy. We certainly didn’t believe in the law and all of us at one time or another during our imprisonment spent time in the hole for attempted escape or suspicion of escape. We didn’t pin our hopes of freedom in the law, our motto was we’d either get out the “white way” or the “right way”, the white way being the law and the right way meaning going over or under the wall. For us it was using the tools or weapons at our disposal to gain our freedom.
The inspiration for this again, was found in the courage, audacity and tools of our ancestors.
The machete. Our ancestors throughout the Western Hemisphere worked the fields with this tool, night and day, young and old, all genders. Calloused hands whipped it from sunup to sundown, the blade cutting through stem and root. This tool built the wealth of Europe and the Western Hemisphere at the expense of the African people wielding it. Yet, this same tool, during times of rebellion was wielded with a fury that laid waste to entire plantations and in the case of Haiti, liberated and created a nation. The same blade that ripped through sugar cane crops to enrich slave owners was just as quickly used to rip through their bodies to enrich the ground with their blood. Thinking about the uprisings of our ancestors, uprisings for freedom and dignity, the words of Fidel Castro echoed in our minds, “We were taught that liberty is not begged for but won with the blade of a machete”. This is U.S. history for us — and our founding mentors were: Nat Turner, Denmark Vessey, David Walker, Dessalines, Granny Nanny, and Harriet Tubman.
Abolition in the cage is different from the envisioning of abolition out here in the free world. Inside it is the machete. With the capacity to cut through the repression, trauma and harm of a system that since its inception, has pulverized Black, Brown and poor communities beneath its weight. The law is a tool that, along with other tools, we will use to dismantle the master’s house. The law that is used to oppress us, we will use to defend ourselves. It is part of the theory of change that I bring to the outside at the Abolitionist Law Center, and we will use its full disposal. We also recognize that the law is not the solution, it is just one tool in our Abolitionist Toolbox.
As I look out at the abolitionist landscape today, I am not sure if I can recognize or can even relate to many of the spaces dedicated to “envisioning” and “envisioning practices”. Abolition on the inside is a brick and mortar abolition, a thrashing abolition. Despite my reservations, I feel comfortable in it, as comfortable as a new pair of slippers. But that’s my problem, because the other side is comfortable in boots; and so am I. I can’t envision abolition as a garden, flourishing and growing. I can only envision abolition as brick and mortar, as something that is built with calloused hands. Yet, I have seen the calloused hands of gardeners and realize that there is a place for both, the garden needs water, flowers and pollinators as much as it needs a machete. As some are working the garden planting seeds of change, others will be in the field cutting and harvesting the crop and uprooting the weeds. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding one’s place in the world we are building.