“The Goal Is to Abolish the Police”: A Conversation with Assata’s Daughters

Young organizers on ‘planting the seeds’ of a better world.

Selah Amoaku, Destiny Bell and Theo CunninghamJuly 29, 2020

Two Assata's Daughters members enjoying the annual youth camping trip. (Photo: Page May)

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.

"We got damn-near the whole United States out here rioting and protesting."

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.

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