The Daily Practice of Abolition

Surviving the future means questioning the very institutions that betray us.

by Scott Branson, Raven Hudson, Bry Reed
The Progressive

The pieces of this book meet at the intersection of many seemingly endless cycles, some that have been repeating for years, some that promise to continue into a never-ending future: a pandemic, mishandled to deadly results and irrevocably changing our lives; the boom and bust of capitalist markets, alternatively showing their fragility and their resilience; the biggest militant street movement the United States has seen, echoing the various global uprisings of the 2010s, followed by the election spectacle that utterly demoralized the grassroots as usual (the beautiful moment of burning the police precinct in Minneapolis got lost in the old story of pointless liberal protests and legible demands); the continual normalization and rise of fascist street violence and infiltration into local power structures; the more and more incontrovertible evidence of the nearness of environmental collapse.

We had hoped at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that the contradictions of a world that demands we pay to live yet forces us out of work would lead more people to take matters into their own hands. When the collective refusal finally happened, it was a magnified echo of Ferguson, in response to the state violence delivered to George Floyd, one among several police killings of Black people in that week alone. The George Floyd uprising brought the terms of abolition to a wider public, just as it became a focal point of Black queer/trans militant organizing. If it introduced new radicals to street movements, it also gave them firsthand experience of the violent hand of the state, as, in city after city, people in the street were hailed with rubber bullets, tear gas, and other forms of police assault. For some queer and trans people, this experience only solidified a commitment to abolition—of police, of prisons, of capital, of the settler state and all its institutions.

However, in the aftermath of the uprisings, we saw once again that radical militancy is always vulnerable to recuperation by the systems in place, and abolition is a slippery term. Just as “decolonize” has become an abused metaphor that no longer threatens the colonial power structures, we have witnessed calls for abolition either turn into a watered-down version of “Defund the Police” or simply be emptied of any material meaning. So how do militant queers attach ourselves to an ongoing abolition movement that can be traced back to the self-liberation of Black African people who were enslaved and the armed resistance of Indigenous people to the theft of land and genocide? What does abolition mean, and how does it apply to queer and trans lives in a paradoxical moment of increased assimilation and increased violence?

In fact, on both a theoretical and material level, we have to recognize the violence of the police and the prison-industrial complex as two areas where the ongoing processes of gendering and racialization that began with colonialism, capitalist extraction, and the development of the state are concentrated. A queer/trans abolitionist strategy, thus, names the institutions that continue to create our positions as marginalized identities and is ever committed to their destruction, all while building a world here and now for our survival, even for our thriving. In the spirit of the Combahee River Collective, we have to organize from the point of the “interlocking forms of oppression”—race, gender, class, ability, citizenship status, and more—in order to envision collective liberation.

As they said in the 1970s, liberation won’t come without the abolition of capitalism—and we can add to that the litany of state-built institutions and state-sponsored identities. On the one hand, abolition means destruction, in particular of the future the system posits as a reproduction of its business as usual, while, on the other hand, abolition is a building of another world of survival in mutual aid, love, and care—work that queer/trans people have been doing all along.

Surviving the future is a tall order when we are surrounded by regimes of violence. The future itself is a form of violence. This book is written within the settler context of the United States and Canada, where the very fact of the state is a perpetuation of violence: in its continual occupation of lands, its profiting off the extraction of labor and resources of racialized, enslaved labor, and the daily disciplining of bodies along the identity lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. We know well the now-old tune of Lee Edelman’s No Future, an institutionalized version of a deeper queer nihilism that insists on now as an ever-vanishing queer moment to disrupt the regimes of futurity that recreate past forms of oppression.

The fact is that folks have always been working on surviving the violence of the future. With the pandemic, environmental collapse, and insurgent anti-authoritarian movements, state forces have used the opportunity to intensify both their explicit violence and their blatant disregard for most lives, under the guise of safety. Abolition became defund became increase the police budgets. In answer, queer and trans militants have (as usual) helped lead efforts at mutual aid, tenant organizing and eviction defense, and service worker organizing. Black queer and trans people helped spearhead a nationwide rebellion after the murder of George Floyd that brought more people into the streets than any other U.S. movement and faced nightly onslaughts by the police as well as violent white supremacists. Despite relief from Donald Trump, the grim picture of the future has been re-established by another Democrat centrist who will perpetuate the continual wasting away of the earth, the hoarding of resources, and the dwindling of the quality of our lives, and queers are still fighting for survival against all odds. Fighting must be a way of life, an outgrowth of our reckoning with the continual process of transformation.

“Queer-friendly” institutions are not our allies. They are avenues for assimilation and the defanging of our radical queer liberation movements.

Queers, better than anyone, know how to do it with joy, with the pleasure of perversion, and with the deviancy of the criminal. “Queer-friendly” institutions are not our allies. They are avenues for assimilation and the defanging of our radical queer liberation movements. They put in place the divides that keep some people perennially out of the picture while rewarding a lucky few with means for survival, however temporary. We may do some good within them, but we must always keep in mind the limits of that good, as they exist within the gates of professionalization, the legacies of exclusion, and the hierarchies of knowledge and privilege. Incidentally, this book came into existence with the support of people within institutions who used their access to promote radical content—not only in this instance but consistently—content that often went against the interests of the institutions that funded them. From a queer anarchist point of view, we are wary of institutions, because they are semipermanent structures in which power inheres. Instead, we favor bottom-up, temporary forms of infrastructure, semiformal networks of delivery, preparation, and action that can be spread within and among communities.

Abolition is a means for surviving the future. As Black queer abolitionist and poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs has envisioned, abolition isn’t a future event, a goal we aim for, but “something that grows.” Her beautiful impossibility includes an abolition that “sprouts out of the wet places in our eyes, the broken places in our skin, the waiting places in our palms, the tremble holding in my mouth when I turn to you.” We are constantly surviving countless futures, countless presents, countless pasts. Not only because many queer people are survivors of trauma, abuse, and violence, but also because our oppositional communities are continuously developing that temporary infrastructure, the momentary collectives, to deal with the shit that comes up.

As the essays in this volume attest, the idea of queerness right now exists in a strategically contradictory place. On the one side, the signs of queerness—and their radical sheen—are trendy. The wages of inclusion are enticing, especially when any wage at all is less and less likely. Institutions—from universities through nonprofits to businesses—that want to seem progressive will tout their LGBTQ+ allyship, and they might take advantage of young queers to help prove it. On the other side, a radical lineage of queerness continues and, arguably, has further reach through social media, not only providing young queers with formerly impossible access to community and models of queer (deviant) living but also disseminating the radical analysis of abolition, anticapitalism, and collective liberation.

These sides—the institutional and the communal—can intersect, especially as queer traitors enter institutions under the guise of tokenism to help spread resources, in an echo of the mutual aid (and forms of reparations) that we see spearheaded by queer/trans anarchists and others in communities across the United States and the world. We’ve known, going back to Cathy J. Cohen’s seminal call for a radical queer commitment, Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens, that queerness alone doesn’t promise good politics. This is why abolition has to be a daily practice, a continual question of where we stand in our relationship to each other and the world, with the ultimate horizon being liberation.

The essays in this book, inspired by the [UNC Asheville/Davidson College queer conferences], give a wide range of strategies to question our inclusion in the institutions that always betray us, asking us to enter them at our peril. It demands that we, in turn, betray these institutions, betray racial and class hierarchies, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, transmisogynoir, and even, eventually, queerness itself, since it is not immune to the processes of co-optation.

Editor’s Note: The above selection was excerpted from Surviving the Future: Abolitionist Queer Strategies, edited by Scott Branson, Raven Hudson, and Bry Reed. Copyright © 2023. Published by and available from PM Press. Used with permission.