Surviving Abolition - Believer Magazine
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Surviving Abolition

by Kim Tran
Illustration by Kristen Radtke

Surviving Abolition

Kim Tran
73 Snaps

I learned about prison abolition from my rapist. I met him in graduate school. We had shared interests and values: race, theory, justice. These principles brought us to an institution with a reputation as the most liberal public school in the country. At UC Berkeley, politically-engaged students gave birth to the free speech movement; my doctoral program in Ethnic Studies formed after some of the longest and most consequential student strikes in American history, strikes that demanded changes to curricula, and the hiring and admission of Black, Indigenous, Asian American and Chicano faculty and students. I was drawn to the afterlife of the protests, the fervor, the radicality. 

I was drawn to him. He studied prisons. He was ahead of me by a year, pursuing an advanced degree, and had a seemingly limitless knowledge of political economy. On our first date, carceral geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s seminal book Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California sat on a stout wooden bookshelf in his bedroom. New to graduate school, I hadn’t read it, and I knew nothing of men who used theory as a gateway to courtship. I traced my index finger across the creased spine of a paperback copy as he told me about post-Keynesian militarism and the prison industry, a string of words I pretended to understand. I found his explanation of Gilmore enchanting. From his Ivy League bona fides to his easy recitation of Census statistics, he had the knowledge and experiences I associated with academic success. I wanted to know the books he’d read. I wanted to know the things he knew. I wanted to know him. By the end of our time together, I had digested Karl Marx, David Harvey, and Gilmore, who compellingly applied the formers’ theories in her exploration of California’s prisons.

Many abolitionist texts can be assigned to one of two categories: academic study or personal treatise. Gilmore’s work bridges this binary. Golden Gulag begins and ends on a bus. The opening scene follows a group of incarcerated people’s loved ones traveling through the constellation of California’s prisons to the state capital, where they intend to protest the caging of their children, siblings, and spouses. The analogy of transit applies both to the geographic organization of incarcerated bodies and to the experience of reading the book itself. Golden Gulag is not a polemic. It is a map. Gilmore never defines abolition outright; instead, she lays prisons bare as a complex web of policies meant to alleviate white supremacist anxieties. Gilmore’s map compels us to close our prisons and put an end to the racist structures that enable them, but she refrains from prescriptions. By the final page, I had arrived at my destination, driven by a moral imperative, convinced that California’s prisons are a spatial resolution to repeated crises of capital. 

I came to treat Gilmore’s work like a meta-text. It was imprinted on my organizing, teaching, and activism on behalf of incarcerated members of my community. I memorized its statistics for anticipated arguments and to scaffold conversations with fellow organizers. It helped me stand with certainty in my abolitionist convictions as I advocated for a world without jails. Focusing a scholarly eye on the first two-thirds of this precisely written text, I deliberately neglected the implied and unwritten truths embedded in its conclusion.

Abolition, Gilmore insists, is both a political and a personal reckoning. Abolition seeks to upend the violence that both produces and is reproduced by prisons. It asks us to mitigate the causes and effects of systemic vulnerabilities. But no one tells you that abolition is a lonely fight against not only powerful institutions but your own carceral impulses as well. It asks you to free those who have violated the most tender parts of your existence.

Our relationship lasted two years. It was a rapid-fire succession of flirting, dating, and too-fast commitment that led to a shared apartment. In the midst of the whirlwind there was a pause. Months into our relationship I felt his hand. A tight grasp on a foreign object inserted inside my inebriated body. Without my knowledge. Without my say. Without my consent. For years, without our acknowledgment of what had occurred.

After our romance dissolved, a friend and I were discussing how femininity functions as the mirror and the balm for masculine anxiety. Without forethought or meditation, I told her about that night. My words spilled onto the sidewalk in front of us, dark against the bright sunlight. The violation was a mix of celebration, intoxication, misplaced trust, and a tear in the fabric of consent that went unacknowledged until our separation finally brought it forth. We sat in my new truth and the questions it asked of me.

Survivors of trauma are often survivors many times over. I am no exception to this rule. The contours of my grief fold tightly over themselves. I—the daughter of refugees—carry pain with the ease endemic to the children of American conflicts abroad, but this moment of recognition stood apart from the challenge of poverty and even of paternal violence. I could attribute both of those to the legacies of imperial design. This rupture was unique. It rendered me small, fallible, and was therefore more deserving of a punishment that my principles could not and would not allow me to dole out. My status as a victim of intimate violation placed me firmly in the paradox of abolition: fighting for the freedom of someone who had trapped me with a singular, heinous act. 

Much has changed in the fourteen years since Golden Gulag was first published. Gilmore’s framing of incarceration has gone from radically subversive to liberal-mainstream. Where there was once a small chorus shouting vocal criticisms at the state, there is now a growing acceptance that policing and prisons are tools of racial control. Major newspapers reported on widespread calls by protesters to defund the police and close prisons, following the death of George Floyd and another wave of the Black Lives Matter movement. Attempting to disentangle the intricate knot of poverty and racism, politicians in New York, New Jersey, Alaska, and California either ended cash bail or voted on measures to eliminate it. Meanwhile, rhetoric around racial injustice has become a regular feature of our national political conversation. We are bearing witness to the beginning of an end. The sun is setting on prisons, policing, and the subjugation they enforce.

Yet.

In the negative space of Golden Gulag’s fifth chapter lies an unanticipated challenge seeded by the promise of abolition. Abolition is not just a policy, quick campaign win, or tweet. It is embracing a conviction, one that can be an agonizing, lifelong decision. Abolition is a fragile trust vested in the world by survivors who want, need, and demand that harm be met with community care rather than punishment. Abolition is a lot of things, but easy is not one of them.

The penultimate chapter of Golden Gulag introduces us to Mothers Reclaiming Our Children, a group formed to dismantle and structurally undermine the carceral state. MROC is a multiracial community organizing group composed mainly of parents whose children have been or remain incarcerated in one of California’s prisons. Here we finally meet people who embody the impact of the carceral geography that Gilmore so painstakingly lays out. Women with names like Barbara, Pearl, Leticia, and Francie arrive in the book at long last to provide an explanation for exactly who is ending imprisonment and why. But I am fixated by the point Gilmore makes at the beginning of this chapter about mothers, wives, and sisters: “The political problem centers on what to do with the energy that fears and traumas produce.”

Abolition is a political and personal reckoning. Abolition asks vulnerable people to render themselves vulnerable once more. 

I receive an email from a listserv. I learn that my rapist has won a prestigious racial justice fellowship from an elite university. He is coming back to the campus where I am finishing my dissertation, in order to participate in a series of events. I have been insulated from him by the span of an entire continent. Now, through the fog of my singular focus on my degree, I consider a series of daunting scenarios. What will I do if he comes to my town? How will I respond if I see him? Can I protect myself and my current relationship? How strong is my commitment to abolition, really? In the three seconds after I read this email, I learn there is a lifetime that exists between championing an end to police violence and deciding whether you can live in a world where your rapist walks free. Sexual violence so quickly transforms the ordinary into terror.

I draw a Venn diagram to determine the overlap of my geographic footprint and his potential itinerary. Grocery stores, cafés, sidewalks where I walk my dog. Will he suddenly appear in one of these settings? In a place personal, intimate, and common to me?

What does it mean to believe in abolition?

Abolition is not a forgone conclusion. My instinct is strong to dismiss, to disappear—indeed, to cage—the person who caused me unfathomable harm. I have an equal impulse to expose him and his reputation to ruin. Neither feels like justice. The word justice appears 103 times in Golden Gulag. It is defined—tentatively—twice. Gilmore tells us that justice is predicated on the “general freedom for all from a system in which punishment has become as industrialized as making cars, clothes, or missiles, or growing cotton.” For all. Justice is absolute. It is everyone or no one. It is he and I in this singular moment in which I now must imagine something outside of formal restitution, or it will never be done. 

I make quick decisions. I draft a letter to the person in charge of his fellowship program with a simple request: don’t let him come to the city where he took the ultimate liberty with my body. Phone in hand, bare feet firmly on the cool kitchen floor, I echo the same sentiment to a community organizer apprised of the situation. There will be no accountability process or mediated conversation, just the maintenance of a country’s worth of distance between that night and my current reality.

My phone rings every day. It feels like every hour. Sometimes the caller is someone from the university that has given him tens of thousands of dollars. Against my explicit wishes, they open an investigation. And call regularly with updates. A cold voice speaks of “university policy.” Other times, it is someone from my cadre of advocates. They are a collection of organizers committed to housing the unsheltered, halting police brutality, upending colorism, and protecting survivors like me. All are people of color and many are queer or trans. Together they form a chorus line that attempts to hold him accountable using a common refrain: honor the wish for distance. 

 Still, I disappear.

My transmasculine partner and I refer to this phase of our relationship as my ghost period. Along the way, they do the lion’s share of our emotional and physical labor. They interface with the lawyers, the advocates, and the myriad community organizers supporting me. They hold me, feed me, and wait. They lose patience when, though I am in therapy and the object of their affection, I am a shadow of myself. 

A recitation of fact.

He never comes back to my city.

My request is ultimately fulfilled.

I complete the first doctorate in my family amid relative peace.

Yet. 

It takes countless hours to achieve this feat.

Nearly fifteen people are involved.

I am unprepared to pay the personal cost.

It was not enough to simply pick up the pieces of my fractured self. I had to show others where I was broken and how to mend me. There is no compass that points to a survivor’s safety. Nothing dictates the perfect alchemy of phrases, actions, and time that will result in healing. I alone determined how to be made whole again. In a world given its shape by gender-based violence, the indomitable question of defining justice between two people and their community is the responsibility of someone already exhausted by justice’s failure.

Gilmore describes prisons as “a set of relationships that undermine rather than stabilize everyday lives everywhere.” It is up to us, then, to build a different set of relationships, to both ourselves and one another. It is up to us to decide what questions will accomplish this feat, which answers. For me, abolition was an impossible request—and a request worth making. Abolition was fifteen committed people deciding it could and would be fulfilled. 

In my mind’s eye I can see the fuzzy edges of a world without prison bars, one where families of color don’t carry the burden of incarceration. I am not alone. Sixty percent of bisexual women have survived sexual assault, physical violence, stalking by an intimate partner, or some combination of the three. Many of us believe that the people who hurt us deserve to heal. In the face of an inescapable cycle of state-sponsored violence, we choose mediation, our communities, and a different path from the one available. But in eking out a political future of care instead of cages, we must be prepared to fill the empty space left by cells and walls. Recently, Gilmore said, “Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack.” Abolition will demand that we believe in safety when it’s been taken. It will ask us to build bridges out of our own isolation. Most of all, abolition will require that we have faith and trust that something—anything—lives on the other side of pain. 

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