Nationwide uprisings against anti-Black racism and policing have forced the concept of abolition into the mainstream. This ideal is rooted in the principle that prisons and policing are punitive systems that dole out harm and worsen social injustices. We need to dismantle these systems and replace them with social goods like healthcare, education and after-school programs that can address the root causes of social problems.
While public awareness of abolition may be new, abolitionist organizing is not. Assata’s Daughters, which describes itself as a “Black woman-led, young person-directed organization rooted in the Black Radical Tradition,” has long been doing abolitionist organizing in Chicago, and its young leaders have something to teach people across the country who are grappling with the concept.
The following is a conversation between the Assata’s Daughters Revolutionary Support team: youth leader Selah Amoaku, a 19-year-old community organizer of five years and a resident of South Shore; youth leader Destiny Bell, a 17-year-old 2020 Chicago Public Schools graduate and resident of South Chicago; and adult ally Theo Cunningham, a 26-year-old licensed professional counselor and resident of Washington Park.They discuss their hopes for abolitionist movements in 2020 and beyond, their analyses of the complex dynamics of the uprisings, and their own respect and appreciation for each other. The following interview has been lightly edited for length.
Theo: We are here this evening discussing abolition as a concept, abolition in our work, and particularly abolition in where we see the movement going as we keep pushing forward into the future. First and foremost, how would you describe abolition in your own words?
Selah: The removal of something, basically.
Theo: That’s real, because oftentimes I’ll ask people when I’m doing education on the topic, “What is your initial association with the topic and that term?” And so often people talk about the abolition of slavery, right? And a lot of the time I like to say, “Spoiler alert. It’s not that different.”
How does abolition show up in our work or your work with Assata’s Daughters and the mutual aid team Revolutionary Support?
Destiny: The ultimate goal is to abolish the police. It hasn’t been working out for the past 100-and-something years. It’s time for y’all to kick rocks.
Selah: I think in our programs, I would say we practice abolition by not using the systems that are used in society. Like, we don’t just kick people out. If there’s a problem, there’s a conversation, there’s a circle, there’s healing that has to be done. We don’t just kick people out, and I think that’s one way we use it in Assata’s Daughters’ program.
Destiny: And then calling the police — we don’t do that. We try to deal with problems as much as we can ourselves.
Theo: Obviously, overall, Assata’s Daughters is an abolitionist organization, and a lot of what we do is supporting campaigns to tear this shit down. But the question so often to that is then, “Okay, well if we don’t have police anymore, what do we do when x, y, z happens?” Because oftentimes the thing is like, “Oh, you think it’s a utopia. We get rid of police and everybody’s just going to be chill, right?” Obviously we’re human beings and it doesn’t work that way. Harm happens. As we are tearing down, what are we growing? And that’s where mutual aid, revolutionary support and transformative justice are just as much a part of the project, and it’s been been really, really fun and really special to me to be able to grow that with y’all. The stuff in the streets doesn’t quite work unless we’re building what we actually want to see with each other.
Selah: I agree. I feel like abolition won’t work if the people don’t have what they need to practice — things like transformative justice or have circles. I think also what Assata’s does is try to help people have what they need so they can fight for freedom.
Theo: I think it’s fair to say 2020 has been a time, particularly of the past month, since the uprisings that have come, since George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade and far too many others. There’s something of a moment that we’re in right now. Because y’all have been really active in doing a lot of work, what are you seeing that gives you hope?
Destiny: What really got me was seeing how many states partook in the protests. There’s some hope there. We got damn-near the whole United States out here rioting and protesting.
Selah: Also seeing how it’s all over the world, like not even just in the continent. Like everywhere. Everywhere. It just feels good to have my anger shared, for people to be understanding what’s going on. And I know sometimes it’s difficult to have new organizers doing things, because they don’t know what they’re doing sometimes, but it’s made me very happy to see people want to organize and that they want to help. Also, the school board votes, that made me happy. It’s been a dream to have cops out of schools.
Theo: Can you give a little background as to what you’re talking about?
Destiny: Basically, there was a school board meeting happening while we were outside the house of the President of the Chicago Board of Education. We were just out there like yelling in the cop’s face. I was yelling shit, and I loved it because we were so close. I think we were one person away.
Selah: Also, just watching the school board meeting and hearing Chicago Board of Education member Elizabeth Todd-Breland say everything that we’ve been saying but in a position of power just made me happy. It made me hopeful. Just everybody coming together, and people who don’t usually organize organizing. People getting mad. People seeing how their neighborhoods are acting. Also, a lot of people are giving a lot of information just because of the internet. Sharing information, sharing what’s happening, and that’s very nice to see people, even if they can’t come out, helping out.
And a lot of people donating money at this time, a lot of people giving money to help. That’s capitalism, but right now people need money to live, and it just makes me so happy that a lot of people are getting the money they need, because people are donating, crowdfunding, providing mutual aid. I think people are starting to care about each other.
Theo: You just said something right there: People are starting to care about each other. That’s deep, dude.
Destiny: Yes, you went there Selah. Period!
Theo: Because when you think about oppressive systems in general, they really, really thrive and depend on us not giving a shit about each other. They do well when we don’t stop and check in with each other’s humanity. In so many ways, prisons, policing and the way it manifests in schools and social services and all these things — it just keeps us separated from each other.
And I think, answering the question for myself, as well, I find hope in a lot of the conversations I’ve had with people in my life that, honestly, I never in my life thought that I would have. My mom is from Greece originally and so her brother lives in Greece, and he called me today and is talking about how his version of heaven has no police and no military. And I was like, “What is happening right now? Uncle George, come through!” And through that I was able to have a little bit of a conversation with him that never in my life did I ever think I would be able to do. And that’s just a little bit of a seed, but we’ll see.
Destiny: Plant that seed, Theo. Plant that motherfucking seed.
Theo: On the flip side of things, there are so many things that give us hope, but also, for y’all being folks that have been in this work for a minute, I think it’s really valuable to ask you too, particularly as young, Black organizers, what you wish the movement would do a little bit differently.
Selah: I wish there was more communication. I know it’s hard because of Covid, and there’s a pandemic, and we are supposed to be quarantining and the internet is so unsafe to be on. Because the feds are watching. The police. Everybody’s watching, and they want to take down people who are leading. And it makes it harder to plan things, and so a lot of people are doing a lot of different things, which is good, but we should still talk about it. We should all be connected.
And also, I don’t know if I have to say this, but white people need to stop taking up so much space. They come to Black Lives Matter protests, but then they’re not acting like Black lives matter. They’re not treating the people at the protests with the same respect that they’re shouting for. They’re not. And that really just bugs me. I wish that was better. I wish white people understood what to do and I didn’t have to tell them at protests. I wish they would listen when I do tell them.
And the picture taking — people mainly coming to protests for photo shoots, and then not really doing anything. Also, people coming to a protest to lead when they didn’t organize the protest, especially cis men. People who are just loud or maybe have a megaphone just take over protests a lot. When they didn’t know the plan, they’re really often separating people, which deviates from the route, and they are talking to the cops. But they weren’t assigned that. So I feel like everybody needs to find their own role. Everybody doesn’t have to be a leader.
Destiny: I was gonna say that. Like the presence of white people. I remember when we were at the protest, and this white lady gonna ask us why we’re not at the front line. Why weren’t you at the front line, sweetheart? You and your boyfriend are standing out here chanting, “Black lives matter! No justice, no peace!” — but you wanna ask us why we’re not at the front line?
Theo: I think that’s kind of along the lines of what I was thinking. Just in general, if this is new to you — welcome. You are so welcome, and we are so excited to have you here. The first thing, the second thing, the third thing probably that you can do is read. [laughs] You know, not necessarily just reading, right? But learn. Watch the videos, engage the people. There are lists everywhere on the internet at this point. But like, the first thing that you can do is really to learn up on what we’re talking about because there have been folks out here talking about this for a very long time.
And also that gives us the opportunity, right? Because there is a lot of urgency in this moment— the pressure of, “Everything has to happen in the next 36 hours or we won’t get free.” [laughs] And that’s simply not how this works. This has been a long, long fight, and we’re in a particular moment of that fight, but for the folks who are just coming in, just go ahead and go over there and get to the books. [laughs] It gives us time to really build the campaigns we want to build without feeling like if we don’t engage you right now, you’re gonna go away. Cuz there’s a little bit of fear that if we don’t have something in the street every day, white people are going to forget.
Selah: I’m also upset about how many people just take pictures of people without asking. And that really puts people in danger of being killed, of being arrested, of getting hate. It’s very dangerous to take pictures without permission. And everybody’s doing it, and everybody’s putting everything on the internet where everybody can see. And I just think if you’re going to take pictures, blur the faces, or don’t show their faces. If you care about Black lives, really care about them after the protests. It just makes me upset.
And also, how we’re not really talking about disabled Black people or differently abled Black people in the movement? It’s always like, “Stand up, do this,” but some people can’t, you know? Like, you have to talk about the Black folks who are getting killed who are differently abled.
And also, why are white people telling us to get in the front? That happened at a protest I went to. It was just Black people in the front, and we literally had to yell “white people to the front.” Cuz if y’all care about Black lives, why are y’all trying to get us — you wanna see us get beat up by police in person? Like, it doesn’t make any sense.
Theo: None of us are free until all of us are free, right? Sliding right along, who do we want to be involved in abolition?
Destiny: I definitely wanna see more people, not old people, but like older people. Because I do see young people, but we need to try to change some of these old people’s minds because they are still stuck in their ways. And my grandmothers, they’re in their ways for sure. Like, they call police for everything. Any little situation, they’ll call the police. And then every time I try to talk to them, they’re like, “It’s been like this forever, we’ve done this forever.” So if we need to host some type of teach-in and invite people older, I feel like we could do that.
Selah: I would like to see older people because, yes, I agree, they feel like they’re stuck in their ways and that’s okay. But it’s also okay to change, and I want them to realize that. And it’s okay to learn from people younger than you. We are smart too. I want them to realize that. And I want them to join us, because y’all in danger too. They wanna kill all Black people.
Theo: I feel like a really integral part of Assata’s is that we don’t mess with adultism at all. We don’t do that. And that’s exactly what y’all are describing: of not being able to learn from young people, assuming that young people know less or can’t be authorities on a topic. And we don’t do that at all because that’s not the truth.
Selah: Also, young people, because during this time I’ve been having a problem of, like, my little brother, who just sees the looting as “they’re animals,” and he just thinks no police is crazy. I feel like the internet is very harmful to younger people, especially because when I was young, my mind was so moldable. I’d believe anything, and I would agree with anything I saw first. And I feel like a lot of people are saying. if you care about stuff, you’re lame and you’re sensitive. But that’s not true.
And I want to be able to teach and bring them in too, because it’s their future we’re providing for. They don’t have to protest, but I want y’all to know what’s going on, you know? I want everyone to be able to gain knowledge so that we can come into this movement together and we can teach each other whatever we know. Some people know things others don’t, and I think we should share all the knowledge and bring every generation into fighting for freedom until we’re free. That’s all.
Theo: Mic drop right there, that’s it. There’s a level of intergenerational-ness that has to come of this, right? And I think kind of what we were talking about a little bit ago: This moment is providing the opportunity to have conversations that you couldn’t even dream of, and so there’s hopefully a lot of potential there to build and to grow.
We’re coming up on the end of our time, but the last question that we got here: Why do we do what we do? What do we do it for?
Selah: I do it for my people. I do it because nobody should be discriminated against because of the color of their skin. That’s just fucked up. And the fact that we’re dying out here — I got radicalized when Mike Brown died. That’s when I was on Twitter and I was seeing the real news. Because when Trayvon Martin died, I wasn’t really on social media, and I just saw the news, like what they gave to us. So I was angry, but I wasn’t as angry. I didn’t see the picture of his body laying in the ground, like I saw Mike Brown’s.
I was just like, dang, my people die for doing nothing, for being who they are. And there’s no reason why they should die. Even if you did steal something, even if you did write a bogus check, that’s not a reason for you to die. And the fact that the police are the judge, jury and executioner, also, that makes me very angry. I have so much anger against the system that puts us down.
And I do this because we deserve better, and I do this because my ancestors have been fighting for so long. It can’t keep going on. I can’t have my nieces and nephews and little kids I don’t know living like this. It doesn’t matter if I know you or not. If you’re Black, you don’t deserve this. Nobody deserves to be treated like this.
Destiny: I’ve always been just fascinated with the movement. I guess it’s just because I was raised by my grandmother, and she was from the South, and her mother was up here too, and she kinda raised me and she was from the South too. So I was hearing their stories and what they went through and what happened when they were out here. And then I was just always fascinated with how a person gave their life, organized a whole movement for rights. Like, the Black Panthers. I love the Black Panthers. I love everything about what they do. They did shit for their community, and I always wanted to do that, give back to my community in some type of way, shape or form.
When I found out about Assata’s, I just got really happy. I love doing this. Even if I wasn’t gonna get paid for hours, I’ll still do the shit. That’s how much I love it. So that’s why I do this. I do this for my people. I do this for my ancestors. I do this for the future. I do this for everybody that is Black and of color.
Theo: Yeah, I do this for each and every one of y’all. I do it for Takiya. I do it for Mike. I do it for MerrMacc. All of those are folks in our community that we’ve lost — I do it for them. I do it because I close my eyes, and I can really see it. At the end of this, we win. I close my eyes, and I feel it in my gut. And it’s that feeling every day that has me get up and get back on the computer and back to another spreadsheet. I think as we all figure out what our deep calling is and connect to that and play that part, we win.