“Our histories never unfold in isolation,” Angela Davis wrote in Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement. “We cannot truly tell what we consider to be our own histories without knowing the other stories. And often we discover that those other stories are actually our own stories.”
With these words, Davis urges abolitionists to construct movements for freedom across borders. For decades, she has argued for a global fight against prisons, police, and the tyranny of capital, modelling this movement through her own support of struggles across the world, from Palestine to Brazil.
Following in her footsteps and that of many other Black radicals, contemporary abolitionist movements are building community internationally, finding ways to communicate despite language barriers, and energizing their local movements through a global view of abolition. Within a very long tradition of internationalist movements against oppression, the internet allows abolitionist organizers to exchange information at a larger and faster scale than before.
Shadowproof spoke with organizers from around the world about their political strategies and exchanges across borders. They emphasized the importance of not replicating neocolonial paradigms and that prisons and policing may not be the central issues around which they’re organizing. In some locations, abolitionist struggles might be focused on the self-determination of indigenous people, fighting against oppressive regimes or organizing against extractive land practices.
At their core, abolitionist organizers spoke about foregrounding radical societal transformation and rejecting reform. They also discussed obstacles to international solidarity, including selective anti-imperialism.
The Global Prison Abolitionist Coalition, founded in May 2020, is a global prison abolitionist coalition that counts well-known abolitionists such as Dr. Romarilyn Ralston and Dr. Joy James among its ranks.
Speaking to Shadowproof as a collective, the Global Prison Abolitionist Coalition explained that they work to resist oppressive governments across the world.
“The coalition is composed of organizations and individuals from different regions, including the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, South America, Africa, and the U.S., who work on criminalization of the political opposition and human rights abuses undertaken by oppressive governments,” they said.
“A brief look at our website can provide a glimpse into the interconnectedness of oppression and the need for building connections between these struggles.”
“From the construction of the new prisons in Egypt, to the isolation of the long imprisoned leader of the Kurdish Workers Party, Abdullan Ōcalan, the situation of political prisoners in India, the imprisoned and disappeared women in Syria, the missing people in Balochistan, and state violence in Venezuela, and many more, our coalition provides a platform for collective discussions and organization.”
The Global Prison Abolitionist Coalition pursues global abolitionism through online teach-ins; efforts to compile global lists of prisoners to be freed; and an international list of demands that advocates for prisoners, refugees, migrants, and workers alike.
“We have compiled a list of women prisoners from various regions and countries as examples of state oppression, racism, male dominance, femicide, and transphobia that women are subjected to globally,” they said. “With this initiative, we tried to bring attention to the ubiquity of female imprisonment and make visible the often nameless and faceless cases of women in prisons and under persecution.”
The list was published on International Women’s Day of this year.
The coalition is careful to emphasize that prisons might not always be the primary tools of oppression in other contexts nor the main target of popular struggles that identify as abolitionist.
“This is the case with those who struggle for self-determination against colonial and imperial powers as in the case in Balochistan occupied by Pakistan, or revolutions in the MENA region against the oppressive and exploitative regimes, or indigenous people’s struggles against extractive practices of transnationals and neoliberal states,” they explained.
“Yet, we also recognize the value of the broader abolitionist framework in linking different forms of oppression and foregrounding radical transformation versus reform, which in turn allows us to link different struggles around the world through the understanding of the global nature of racial and carceral capitalism.”
Such a framework goes beyond abolishing prisons and police to radically transforming how we live now, everywhere. This framework questions the very conditions that have produced the societies we live in, seeking to abolish structures of class, race, gender, and other divisions that produce harm, violence, and poverty. As such, the abolitionist framework is relatively adaptable to different locations and struggles.
World-Travelling For Abolition
When activist and journalist Gizele Martins visited Palestine in 2017, she was struck by similarities between the Israeli army’s treatment of Palestinians and how Black people are treated by the military police back in her community in Brazil.
Though authorities often justify repression and state violence perpetrated in Complexo da Maré through the excuse of waging the war on drugs, international organizations have repeatedly warned that police violence in Brazil is a human rights crisis.
Martins has dedicated her life to exposing the effects of militarization in her community through reporting and research, and through organizing events and protests against police violence in Rio.
“When I compare Palestine to Maré, the favelas of Rio, I explain that here in Brazil and Rio de Janeiro our politicians who create more and more ties with this Israeli terrorist state, have the same idea of controlling people’s lives,” Martins said. “Only [in Brazil] it is us, the Black population in the favelas who are their targets.”
Author of the book Militarization And Censorship: The Struggle For Freedom Of Expression In Favela da Maré, Martins is invested in an internationalist approach to the abolition of the police and the prison industrial complex. Her visit to Palestine, at the invitation of the BDS movement, was part of a bigger picture of her development around political organizing.
“When I went to Palestine, I learned a lot through workshops and classes they put me in,” she said. “And there were other people there from other parts of the world, so I thought, it’s impossible to come back home truly alone.”
“I took photos of how the police behaves in Maré and they said, ‘It’s the same here!’ And I said, ‘Yes, it’s the same! Now what?’ Palestine only exists today because of the global struggle. And when I came back, I said: ‘I learned that we need to globalize our fight.’”
Martins is referring to visible similarities between the two territories — police treatment of the local population and oppressive military checkpoints — but there are also less-visible or hidden parallels drawn out through international organizing.
Understanding the different but interconnected ways the war on drugs manifests depending on location is essential for building a holistic movement.
Martins also organizes the event Julho Negro with other local activists in Rio de Janeiro.
“Julho Negro hosts events and discussions on the theme of militarization, and we all share what we are experiencing in other Brazilian states and other countries,” explains Martins. “Because we understand that racism is international, that militarization is an international apartheid project. There are different ways this plays out, and the laboratory where tactics are tested is Palestine.”
Julho Negro has hosted activists from Haiti, Kenya, India, Palestine and South Africa, and the event takes place every year in July. According to Martins, it is an important opportunity to share experiences and to identify military repression tactics that have been exported and globalized.
“The first caveirões that came to Brazil were used during the apartheid in South Africa,” Martins said, referring to military tanks used in working class communities in Rio.
“It is, of course, a sad experience but it was so important because we heard a thousand voices from victims of militarization from across Latin America and other countries in the Global South. And we saw ourselves in each other, and we found we have similar struggles, that we suffer similar violations.”
During the first week of May 2021, after the Israeli army raided the Aqsa Mosque in Gaza and a deadly police raid in the community of Jacarézinho left 28 people dead, Martins took part in an online event with a Palestinian youth group to draw on the similarities between the the two instances of fatal militarized violence.
“We need to internationalize our struggle and understand we are all the same in the Global South, us marginalized people, so we can better strategize and fight against these military companies and fight for our territories, and for healthcare, education and our right to live,” she said in an interview with Shadowproof.
“If they globalize militarization, racism, and apartheid, it is our duty to go against that globally.”
Dr. Steven Osuna is an assistant professor at California State University, who has written about the war on drugs as a tactic by elites to maintain capitalism in the context of Mexican and American cross-border relations. He says this work is fundamental in challenging and transforming the current terms of order.
“Nation-state borders should not deter us from organizing against the global ruling classes,” he said. “Anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist abolitionists know that this struggle is global, not just local. We can’t abolish the police and the prison without abolishing the military industrial complex.”
“More so, none of this could be abolished if we don’t abolish the wage system, if we don’t abolish capitalism.”
Exchanging Strategies And Warnings
When abolitionists exchange information about experiences and organizing across borders, these encounters can clarify paths for action locally.
The abolitionist organization Right to Memory and Racial Justice Initiative (Iniciativa Direito à Memória e Justiça Racial, IDMJR for short) based in the Baixada Fluminense area of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, has connections with abolitionists in the U.S. The initiative is dedicated to honoring the memory of victims of state violence through fighting racism and demanding justice. IDMJR also helps organize and participates in the yearly Julho Negro events.
Baixada Fluminense is an area that is often violently repressed by the local police, and where Jacarézinho—the community that suffered the deadliest police raid in the history of Rio this year—is located.
On March 18, IDMJR hosted an online cross-borders panel to discuss police abolition, featuring Priscila Ferreira from the University of Texas, Nnennaya Amuchie from the 8toAbolition campaign, executive director of IDMRJ Fransérgio Goulart, and Dr. Acácio Augusto from the Federal University of São Paulo. Their intention was to exchange information about activist tactics and experiences to reach the goal of abolishing the police.
“What we noticed is that social movements and collectives that we’ve been in contact with from the U.S. — the debates about abolition are different there,” said Giselle Florentino, who shares the executive director position of IDMJR with Goulart. “But they have a completely different context than we have here.”
Goulart noted that there are major differences between the U.S. and Brazil, particularly when it comes to those countries’ Black populations. “[Black Americans] have been through processes of politicization that have been more radical. So it’s not really possible to take the experiences from outside of Brazil and fit them into our context, and truly, that would be a big mistake.”
“I think here in Brazil we are talking about representation and how representation matters,” Goulart said. “And indeed, most of our organization is Black, and if the majority of the population is Black, the majority of the representation has to be Black.”
“But this political project is something that was already experimented with in the USA, the idea that institutional politics will solve things and what the problems around that have been. So it’s been important to keep that dialogue going with the North American movements so we can know about their experiences.”
Goulart also emphasizes that global markers of the struggle against the police are also essential for energizing the fight locally.
“We were already talking about abolishing the police here, but the death of George Floyd in the U.S. really marked a global uprising against racism,” Goulart said. “I think that was an important marker for us, but that doesn’t mean we will copy and paste American tactics.”
Dr. Osuna says the long tradition of internationalism can teach the current abolitionist movement many lessons.
“Through this history, we can learn not to replicate neo-colonialist approaches to grassroots organizing,” he said. “If our organizing is about bringing into fruition a new society where we prioritize the needs of the masses over the rights of capital and private property, our social relations must be collective, principled, and open to working through the contradictions that emerge.”
Neo-colonialist approaches to aiding countries outside the U.S.—for example, Peace Corps or UN aid or mission trips—mimic the dynamics of colonialism and limit the agency of local populations. Often, these approaches impose Westernized ways of living onto other cultures, creating new problems rather than solving the old ones.
Locally, IDMJR is developing abolitionist narratives and debates grounded in their immediate territory.
“A recent survey we circulated revealed that people don’t trust police,” Florentino said. “People have noticed that the institution is totally discredited. We can work with that, and that’s our strategy. We want to show that we produce daily life-sustaining relationships without police.”
Identifying Common Enemies
In Kansas City, MO, abolitionist organizer Matthew Tran works with Black Rainbow, an organization centered around building community safety and justice without police or prisons.
Tran was eager to talk about his organizing work across borders, especially because of his background as someone raised in community with immigrants and refugees.
“The most important way I’ve built abolitionist solidarity across borders is through making relationships,” he said. “The internet has made it very easy to connect with people in different cities and countries doing similar work, and we’ve been able to have exchanges through calls and writing.”
“Me and other organizers here have built community with individuals and organizations in Asia and Europe who draw from abolitionist thinking, which has been really powerful and enlightening. We can argue all day for what we think should exist, but there really is no substitute for doing—reaching out and broadening connections with others in our movement work.”
Tran says these conversations are important to understand how the systems of oppression in localized struggles are interconnected and inseparable.
“Incarceration, policing, and repression are industries that multinational corporations around the world profit from,” Tran said. “Combined Systems Inc., based in Jamestown Pennsylvania, manufactures ‘made in USA’-stamped teargas that is used against Palestinian people and protestors in countless countries. This same teargas was deployed in 2014 against Black Lives Matter protestors in my home state of Missouri. It was also used in the last year against protestors in Hong Kong, whose police force was trained by the U.S. state department.”
“We live in different conditions, but have to work against violence that protects similar forms of racism and profit-making across our borders.”
However, Tran warns that there will be variations in assessing the material conditions in different locations and how U.S. abolitionist frameworks might apply.
“I’d say that one difficulty is finding meaning from the tradition of transformative justice organizing when looking at very different material conditions and circumstances outside of the U.S.,” Tran said.
Tran has also written an article arguing for a global abolitionist politic, where people do local organizing work and model international solidarity that energizes that work, thus imagining a world without prisons, police, or apartheid.
“Across continents, the Hong Kong Police Force and the U.S. police share a common lineage as state formations that not only introduced and developed, but enforced the boundaries of modern racial capitalism,” Tran wrote for the Lausan collective.
“Connecting these strands across borders—to make power rather than take power—is the countercultural work we need to do in order to create a movement that those in power can never concede to us from a simple list of demands. […] In other words, our task now is to build power and presence out of the very absence of what we need: abolition is the future we cultivate together. ”
Barriers To Building Across Borders
An internationalist approach to combat the forces of imperialism and capitalism will always come with challenges. Guarding against reproducing neo-colonialist dynamics in building a global abolitionist movement is key, but other barriers to organizing are more practical, like speaking different languages.
An example of international abolitionist organizing that overcame language barriers was the effort to translate the demands of the 8toabolition campaign. In addition to rewriting the essentials of the campaign into Russian, Vietnamese, Spanish, Korean and Tamil, organizers also adapted the demands to their local contexts.
The Global Prison Abolitionist Coalition emphasizes that “selective anti-imperialism” can be detrimental and even fatal to an internationalist approach to abolition.
“Some fellow leftists adopt a selective approach to fighting imperialism, which serves as apologia for states that are rivals to the West and renders the struggles of people in these states invisible,” they explained.
“While purporting to oppose Western imperialism, such individuals and groups have aligned themselves with authoritarian governments of Syria, China, and Russia, arguing that those states stand up to Western imperialism and thus have to be defended no matter what.”
This selective anti-imperialism dismisses localized leftist struggles against governments as “mere puppets of Western intervention,” ignoring the agency of these resistance movements.
“Choosing to align themselves with the oppressor states, these leftists preclude any possibility of solidarity with the oppressed communities,” the Coalition explained.
“In a most recent example, there have been attempts to frame the protests in Myanmar against the coup as ‘another color revolution,’ ignoring or even justifying the brutal military violence against the protestors. As an internationalist organization fighting all forms of state violence—prisons and beyond—we work in solidarity with and have members who are active in opposing the prison and torture regime of Assad and the imprisonment and surveillance of Uyghurs in ‘Xinjiang,’ and we support popular struggles against repressive regimes elsewhere.”
For Dr. Osuna, it is essential that abolition is articulated as an anti-capitalist struggle.
“Abolition is about building new institutions that meet the needs of the masses,” he said. “To do this, I believe abolition must be in conversation with socialism and communism. We must struggle for a socialist society that will lead us to communism. We might not see it in our lifetime, but we can all contribute with our own grain of sand.”
Each grain of sand contributed today, locally and across borders, will help build a freer world without prisons and police. The use of technologies to connect abolitionists across borders, despite the obstacles movements might face, makes clear that nobody is alone in this struggle and that building a better world is a collective, international battle.