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“Everything I Believe In Is Rooted in Love”: Women and Non-binary Activists of Color Fighting for the Practice and Promise of Abolition

Published onMay 24, 2022
“Everything I Believe In Is Rooted in Love”: Women and Non-binary Activists of Color Fighting for the Practice and Promise of Abolition


The police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the first half of 2020 sparked a powerful movement against police violence, white supremacy, and the carceral state with millions taking to the streets in the U.S. and globally. The movement coalesced around calls for police accountability, and to defund and abolish the prison industrial complex. While these calls for abolition were certainly not new, they reached national dialogues in a way not previously experienced. Although there are significant projects exploring abolition as a theory, there is not much scholarship on the specific area of the social movement that advocates for the abolition of police and prisons in practice. In this paper, I use an intersectional framework to explore participation in movement spaces, critiques of the criminal legal system, and visions for alternatives to the system among Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and multi-racial women and non-binary activists and organizers who engaged in the uprising of 2020. The findings reveal important insights into how white supremacy and patriarchy interplay with activism and the carceral state, as well as impact the possibilities for the transformation of the criminal legal system. Ultimately, experiences with intersectional oppression and state violence were central to this group’s commitment to the practice and promise of abolition rooted in the ethos of Black radical feminism.


But love is really more of an interactive process. It’s about what we do not just what we feel. —bell hooks

The police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the first half of 2020 sparked a powerful movement against police violence, white supremacy, and the carceral state. Millions took to the streets in the U.S. and globally to speak boldly against the continued violence enacted on Black and brown communities in the U.S. by law enforcement who rarely face consequences for their brutality. National spotlights were focused on cities where highly publicized police murders had occurred, including Louisville, Kentucky where Breonna Taylor was murdered on March 13, 2020 and Minneapolis, Minnesota where George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020. The movements in these cities, as well as those that showed up in solidarity with Minneapolis and Louisville while protesting their own city’s law enforcement, were led predominantly by Black women, trans, non-binary, and queer folks and coalesced around calls for police accountability, and to defund and abolish the prison industrial complex. For many, participation in the uprising represented their love ethic, grounded in a Black feminist ethos, which requires us to act on behalf of others, to engage with love as an “interactive process” centered on “what we do not just what we feel” (hooks, 2000b).

While the calls to defund and abolish were certainly not new, they reached national dialogues in a way not previously experienced, even after many other highly publicized police murders (Douglas et al., 2021). Some cities, including Los Angeles, Portland, Newark, and Salt Lake City responded to activists calling for defunding police by reducing their public safety/law enforcement budgets, and reallocating funding to community-oriented programming and resources (Levin, 2021). San Francisco reduced their budget by 17% and Austin, Texas by more than 30% (Green, 2021; Venkataramanan, 2020). However, most cities reversed these reductions after just one year; in some cities, the police departments even ended up with an increase from their 2020 budgets (Goodman, 2021).

As the country continues to grapple with calls for abolition at the local, state, and national levels, examining the experiences and perspectives of activists and organizers who support abolition is central to the discourse on the criminal legal system, and the carceral state more broadly. In this paper, I use an intersectional framework to explore participation in movement spaces, critiques of the criminal legal system, and visions for alternatives to the system among Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and multi-racial women and non-binary activists and organizers who engaged in the uprising of 2020. The findings reveal important insights into how white supremacy and patriarchy interplay with activism and the carceral state, as well as impact the possibilities for the transformation of the criminal legal system. Ultimately, experiences with intersectional oppression and state violence were central to this group’s commitment to the practice and promise of abolition.

Abolition, intersectionality, and activism

As both a theory and practice, the contemporary movement for abolition builds on longstanding activist traditions working to dismantle oppressive systems beginning with the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Davies et al., 2021). The contemporary abolitionist movement took hold in the 1970s as Black radical activists pushed back against the expansion of the carceral state through mass incarceration, including the incarceration of Black radical political prisoners (Davis & Rodriguez, 2000). Now, the movement challenges the notion that the criminal legal system is “broken,” instead highlighting that it is working exactly as it was designed to work, therefore needing to be completely abandoned to make room for a reimagined future free of police and prisons (Kaba, 2021). Since the summer of 2020 (and before), grassroots organizations throughout the country have remained actively working toward police accountability, an end to state violence, and the dismantling of the carceral state. Organizations such as Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), Critical Resistance, MPD150, Project NIA, Reclaim the Block, and Southerners on New Ground (SONG) have organized countless campaigns, provided wide-ranging educational resources, and continued actively strategizing around a future free of the prison industrial complex.

Black scholars, particularly those within the Black feminist and womanist traditions, have long been making the case for abolition in academic spaces (Davis, 2003; Du Bois, 1935; Gilmore, 2007; James, 2005; Richie, 2005), alongside practitioners and organizers outside academia doing the same. Now abolition is gaining more momentum in crossing from movement spaces to academia. Some scholars have explored how an abolitionist approach might be pursued to transform and dismantle the criminal legal system contemporarily (Beardall, 2020; Bell, 2021; Clair & Woog, 2021; Vitale, 2018), as well as exploring abolition’s place within traditional academic disciplines and feminisms (Brown & Schept, 2017; Whalley & Hackett, 2017). Other more recent academic and academic-adjacent abolitionist work includes research foregrounding an abolitionist analysis like Savannah Shange’s (2019) conceptualization of an “abolitionist anthropology;” an academic journal, Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics, focused on “research, publishing, and study that encourage us to make the impossible possible, to seek transformation well beyond policy changes and toward revolutionary abolitionism;” and Abolition for the People, a 30-part series produced by Colin Kaepernick and LEVEL (a subsidiary of Recently published texts are also instructive for the practice of abolition in diverse sites, including in education (Love, 2019), care work (Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2018), mutual aid (Spade, 2020), and transformative justice (Dixon & Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2020; Kaba, 2021).

As a possibility for a new paradigm of reform, “an abolitionist perspective allows for the possibility of thinking about alternative conceptions of responsibility, reintegration, justice, and who should be defining these terms and taking the lead on proposing and enacting solutions” (Bell, 2021, p. 3). Importantly, such a framework would “attend expressly to who is present in our genealogies as subject/objects, as authors, and as critics. Put differently: it matters who is, and who is not, in the room” (Dilts, 2017, p. 60). Ultimately, pursuing an abolitionist framework in social science requires us to move beyond testable solutions to allow our imagination to play a more central role in rethinking the existence of the criminal legal system (Bell, 2021; Kaba, 2021), as well as pursue only those reforms that do not reinforce the current structure, but rather move toward a fundamental transformation and dismantling of it (Gilmore, 2007; Schenwar & Law, 2020).

Despite these important projects approaching abolition as a theory, there is not much scholarship on the specific area of the sustained social movement that advocates for the abolition of police and prisons in practice (Davies et al., 2021). One study examined the sanctuary city as a non-reformist reform that can result in improved conditions for undocumented status immigrants while still working toward abolition (Jeffries & Ridgley, 2020). Another project drew on archival data to explore how grassroots efforts around neighborhood safety and security point to abolitionist possibilities for alternative models of safety “grounded in feminized and queer relationships of care and concern” (Okechukwu, 2021, p. 2). The relative lack of studies of contemporary abolitionist movement spaces presents an important site for more exploration as Robin D. G. Kelley (2002) questions, “What are today’s young activists dreaming about? We know what they are fighting against, but what are they fighting for?” (p. 8). Similarly, Elizabeth Jordie Davies, Jenn M. Jackson, and Shea Streeter (2021) put forth critical questions of how to respond to carceral logics in social science research including, “How can social scientists engage with activists’ and organizers’ calls to end entrenched institutions of carceral punishment and surveillance” (p. 1). Importantly, as Davies, Jackson, and Streeter (2021) point out, foregrounding the perspectives of those engaged in the praxis of abolition on-the-ground might “advance the construction of alternative systems of safety” (p. 2).

The concept of intersectionality provides an analytical framework for examining how multiple social positions situated in systems of oppression correspond to power (Crenshaw, 1991; Collins, 2019; Collins & Bilge, 2016). The ideas undergirding the concept of intersectionality have been present in movement spaces for generations, including in the activist work of Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Frances Beal, and the Combahee River Collective (Collins & Bilge, 2016). Collins and Bilge (2016) highlight that contemporary uses of intersectionality often neglect its genesis in radical social movements. Concepts such as triple oppression theorized by Communist activist Claudia Jones and double jeopardy developed by Black feminist activist Frances Beal were used to explain the oppression facing poor Black and brown women well before the introduction of the concept of intersectionality (Lynn, 2014; Nash, 2019). Scholars went on to build on these concepts, including Deborah King (1988) with multiple jeopardy and Patricia Hill Collins (2000) with the matrix of domination. Any contemporary use of intersectionality as an analytical framework must then center its justice-oriented political origins to avoid perpetuating a common erasure and co-optation for neoliberal aims (Bilge, 2014). In foregrounding the radical roots of the concepts foundational to intersectionality, it can then be used as an appropriate tool for exploring contemporary social movements.

Race, gender, sexuality, ability, nationality, and other hierarchies of oppression impact activists’ experiences in movement spaces (Boyles, 2019; Cobbina, 2019; Destine, 2020; Terriquez, 2015). Young Black women and queer folks influenced by Black radical feminist traditions remain at the helm of contemporary liberation movements in the U.S. (Carruthers, 2018; Ransby, 2018) despite being largely erased from mainstream media coverage of police and state violence (Taylor, 2016). Scholars have examined how intersectionality and collective identities interplay in movement spaces (Brown et al., 2017; Terriquez, 2015). Terriquez (2015) found that movement spaces have the capacity for mobilization by cultivating identity formation processes within that support individuals from already marginalized populations in engaging in high levels of activism and commitment. Brown and colleagues (2017) found that the #SayHerName social media campaign represented a space for the building of a collective identity among the users of the hashtag that included both activists and others not directly involved in movement spaces, importantly providing visibility to violence against Black trans women. These findings demonstrate the importance of examining intersections of oppression within movement spaces.

The use of intersectionality as a framework for examining the experiences of women and non-binary activists of color draws on Black radical feminist theory and ethos requiring that the marginalized be moved to the center (hooks, 2014). The Black queer feminist (BQF) lens is defined by Charlene Carruthers (2018) as a “political praxis (practice and theory) based in Black feminist and LGBTQ traditions and knowledge, through which people and groups seek to bring their full selves into the process of dismantling all systems of oppression” (p. 10). The BQF lens then provides an important framing for the perspectives and experiences recounted by marginalized women and non-binary folks in organizing spaces. Using the BQF lens aids “in creating alternatives of self-governance and self-determination, and by using it we can more effectively prioritize problems and methods that center historically marginalized people in our communities (Carruthers, 2018, p. 10). This project uses intersectionality and the Black queer feminist lens to explore how Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, and multi-racial women and non-binary organizers and activists make sense of their experiences in movement spaces and their visions for an abolitionist future.

A framework grounded in radical uses of intersectionality, Black queer feminisms, and abolition is also useful for an analysis of the expansion of the carceral state. Such a framing focuses on how carcerality is racialized, gendered, and classed through all dimensions of the carceral state’s “formal institutions and operations and economies of the criminal justice system proper, [and the] logics, ideologies, practices, and structures that invest in tangible and sometimes intangible ways in punitive orientations to difference, to poverty, to struggles to social justice and to the crossers of constructed borders of all kinds” (Tapia, 2018). The framing then helps examine how the institution of the criminal legal system grossly disenfranchises, commits violence against, and oppresses particular groups, including Black and brown folks, women, queer folks, low-income people, non-citizens, and disabled folks.

In four decades, the incarcerated population has grown exponentially, increasing by 500% (The Sentencing Project, 2018). This immense growth, and the accompanying expansion of the criminal legal system more broadly, are undergirded by “carceral logics” that center retributive punishment (Kaba & Meiners, 2014). Carcerality has expanded such that a “shadow carceral state” exists that envelopes sites not typically considered part of the criminal legal system (Beckett & Murakawa, 2012). Scholars have studied the diverse dimensions of the ever-growing “carceral archipelago” (Ben-Moshe et al., 2014), including schools (Morris, 2016), the welfare system (Gustafson, 2011), and psychiatric hospitals and residential institutions (Ben-Moshe, 2020). The expansive nature of the carceral state and its “shadow” means that it is virtually impossible to exist in the U.S. without being impacted by its logics or implications (Alexander, 2010; Schenwar & Law, 2020).

The reach of the carceral state is especially salient for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people. In the U.S., Black folks are 5.9 times as likely as their white counterparts to be incarcerated, and Latinx folks 3.1 times as likely (The Sentencing Project, 2018). And despite serious issues with data reporting making underestimation likely, Indigenous folks are incarcerated at twice the rates of white people (Daniel, 2020). Women are currently the fastest growing incarcerated population, with a 775% increase in incarceration since 1980 (The Sentencing Project, 2021). Rates are especially high for Black and Latinx women, with 1 in 18 Black women incarcerated and 1 in 45 Latinx women, compared to 1 in 111 of their white counterparts (Bonczar, 2003). Black trans women are also significantly more likely to face incarceration, with 21% being incarcerated at least one time during their life (Burns, 2020).

Living in proximity to and witnessing disproportionate contact with the criminal legal system has significant consequences for marginalized communities, including serious risks to physical and mental health (Alang et al., 2017). Moreover, marginalized communities are not just exposed to disproportionate contact with the police, courts, and jails/prisons/detention centers, they are also more likely to experience violence in these encounters. Police and prisons are significant perpetrators of physical and sexual violence against Black women, trans folks, and gender nonbinary people (Crenshaw et al., 2015; Ritchie, 2017), despite often being left out of criminal legal system conversations of public safety and security. Transgender people of color experience police violence at 6 times the rates of their white cisgender counterparts (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 2014), and face myriad other forms of abuse, including being profiled as sex workers and being placed in opposite-gender cells exposing them to physical and sexual violence (Amnesty International, 2006). The experience of direct and vicarious exposure to persistent and widespread state violence has been and remains to be the catalyst for social movements against the carceral state.

The 2020 uprising in response to the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd brought a renewed energy and heightened attention on activism for racial justice and police accountability; however, organizers and activists across the country have long been working on these projects (Taylor, 2016). In particular, longstanding calls for defunding and abolishing the police and prisons have been more prominently situated as part of the national discourse on “criminal justice reform.” By June 18, 2020, just over three weeks after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, there had been demonstrations in at least 1,700 locations across all 50 states (Haseman et al., 2020). Also by that date, the National Guard had been deployed in more than half of U.S. states (Haseman et al., 2020). As the summer progressed, direct actions continued across the U.S., and expanded globally. Data from May and June show more than 7,300 documented actions, involving millions of participants (Chenoweth & Pressman, 2020). Despite right-wing media and politicians categorizing these actions as violent, that was overwhelmingly not true, with 96.3% involving no property damage or injuries to law enforcement, and 97.7% involving no injuries to participants, bystanders, or police (Chenoweth & Pressman, 2020). In instances where violence or arrests did occur, reports indicate that police were often the instigators or escalators of the violence (Chenoweth & Pressman, 2020). The trend to categorize movement spaces primarily consisting of Black people as a “threat” and weaponizing police against protesters is a long tradition in the U.S. related to other disproportionate state sanctioned surveillance and violence, known as “protesting while Black” (Davenport et al., 2011).

The nation also saw waves of uprisings after the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida; the 2014 murder of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri; and the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray by police in Baltimore, Maryland. These movements inspired several studies to analyze their organization and impact (Boyles, 2019; Cobbina, 2019; Mislán & Dache-Gerbino, 2018; Potter, 2017). Barbara Ransby (2018) describes Martin’s 2012 murder as the spark that ignited the fire that erupted after Brown’s murder two years later. Findings from these important projects reveal that in both Ferguson and Baltimore, Black residents were more likely to have experienced negative interactions with the police (Cobbina, 2019). Protesters also described experiencing police violence during protests (Boyles, 2019; Cobbina, 2019). Personally experiencing these encounters, or witnessing the encounters of others, including the murders of Brown and Gray, were described by protestors in both Ferguson and Baltimore as driving forces for their participation in protests against police brutality, spurring their motivations as a sense of “moral responsibility” to contribute to the “potential for change” (Cobbina, 2019, p. 75).

Solidarity among Black residents and protesters was a central element of movement spaces during earlier uprisings, both during in-person movement spaces as well as in online spaces (Boyles, 2019; Brown et al., 2017). Black communities engaged in “protect and serve” actions (not self-policing, but rather “looking out for one another”) and organized campaigns to address violence and other neighborhood issues (Boyles, 2019). This solidarity and collective identity along with shared consciousness have been demonstrated to be important dimensions of social movements (Gamson, 1992), with collective identities coalescing in instances of both support for the movement and opposition to it (Ray et al., 2017). Situating this paper’s analysis in previous scholarship on social movements against state violence and for Black people’s liberation, as well as employing a Black queer feminist lens in an intersectional and abolitionist analysis allows for a nuanced examination of the ways that women and non-binary folks of color experience the carceral state, actively fight against it, and (re)imagine a world beyond its violence.

Data and methods

The data for this paper are drawn from a pilot interview project examining the experiences and perspectives of activists and organizers who participated in the summer 2020 uprising. Data collection began in October 2020 and is ongoing with 55 interviews conducted to date. Interview participants are located throughout the United States and were recruited via social media advertisements and word-of-mouth. Interested individuals contacted us via an email account created for the project and were provided with a link to an electronic consent form and scheduling platform to select their interview appointment time. All interviews were conducted via Zoom by either myself or my collaborator, transcribed using that platform’s automated transcription function, and then checked for correctness by research assistants. The median interview length was just under 1.5 hours ranging from 30 minutes to 1 hour and 55 minutes. Participants received $25 via Venmo, CashApp, or PayPal as compensation for their time (and many participants indicated they would be donating their compensation to grassroots causes). The subsample of 26 interviews analyzed for this pilot project include all the non-white and non-men participants from the complete sample. The subsample consists of 12 Black women, 2 Black non-binary people, 3 Latina women, 1 Indigenous woman, 1 Asian American woman, 5 multi-racial women, and 2 multi-racial non-binary people. Participants ranged in age from their early 20s to early 50s (ages are listed for all participants who provided it), with most in their 20s and lived in cities across the country. I use pseudonyms for most participants to protect their identity except for those who requested that their real names be used. Individuals using their real names are marked with an asterisk. As a praxis of “reclaiming our stories” as the title of this special issue calls for, I share the insights of a variety of participants as it was important that as many voices were centered as possible. The inclusion of non-Black women and non-binary folks in the sample was intentional in emphasizing the possibilities of exploring multi-racial sites, especially within social movements, using a Black feminist framework. Importantly, many of the non-Black people in this study explicitly and implicitly drew from this ethos and practice demonstrating its range in orienting and grounding multi-racial activist spaces. Moreover, the perspectives and experiences of the non-Black participants highlight tangible ways that this demographic acts in solidarity for Black liberation, an important element of the study of this social movement.

While some interviews in the full sample were conducted by my collaborator who is a white woman, I (a Black woman) conducted all interviews with non-white people. This decision was intentional given the discussions around identity, racialized and gendered experiences, and whiteness to ensure the greatest comfortability for participants possible. In addition, as a population with significant confidentiality concerns as protesters are regularly criminalized and more legislation is cropping up around the country to broaden these attempts at criminalization, it was important that both my collaborator and I are involved in our local activist community as the founders of a grassroots organization. This dimension of our identities was substantial for our ability to be trusted by the activists and organizers who volunteered for participation and shared their stories with us. Many of those interviewed indicated that they trusted the call for participants because of their own awareness or the awareness of someone in their close networks of our work in our local community. This emic perspective allowed for more trust and rapport, as well as required heightened accountability for us to those with whom we are directly in community. Nevertheless, it is important to also point to the “paradox” that faces academics who are engaged in activism or organizing efforts (Ray, 2018). It is beyond the scope of this paper, but I acknowledge that challenges also certainly exist in navigating our positions in two worlds—movement spaces and academic institutions—that are often hostile to each other.

We used an inductive process to identify themes and subthemes in the interview transcripts through a close reading and line-by-line color coding in Microsoft Word (Saldaña, 2016). An initial reading allowed for free coding to see what themes emerged. From that first reading, the following themes were used to code transcripts on a second reading: organizing/activist experiences, motivation for participation, other relevant life experiences, value/role of empathy/love, race/racism, gender/sexism, relationships, abolition, safety/justice, critiques of/perspectives on movement spaces, and critiques of the criminal legal system. Each transcript was coded by at least two people, either both of the principal investigators or a principal investigator and research assistant.


Participants in this project provided significant insight into the perspectives of contemporary activists and organizers. In all instances, the intersectional oppression of their racialized and gendered identities was central to how they showed up to movement spaces, as well as how they viewed the criminal legal system and the possibility for its transformation. Their activist perspectives were largely grounded in the Black radical feminist ethos, which provides an important framing for exploring the practice and promise of abolition more broadly.

Experiences in activism

The women and non-binary folks in this study discussed several motivations for their participation in movement spaces, particularly in the 2020 uprising. Despite the variety of responses, the themes for their motivations were intimately connected to the intersections of their racial and gender identities in particular. Nebiyah, a Black woman in her 30s, described the importance of Black womanhood to the movement, saying, “[Black women] understand the trauma. You can only understand the direct impact if you’ve been impacted. … The trauma is nothing new to us.” Similarly, Vanessa, a 31-year-old bi-racial non-binary person of Asian and white descent, said,

The white judge does not understand what the fuck trauma looks like. So, first of all, you don’t understand the word trauma. Second of all, your maleness, not understanding what trauma looks like for young women. And your whiteness, not understanding what power structures look like in terms of job or race.

Nebiyah and Vanessa are highlighting the centrality of the intersectional oppression of women and Black people/people of color. They underscore that shared lived experiences as a result of the collective experience of trauma was significant for connecting to movement spaces and pushing back against the criminal legal system.

The role of trauma experienced by Black people, and Black women and non-binary folks specifically, was in many ways a foundation for the responses that other participants gave regarding their motivations for engaging in movement spaces. Several participants described their own or their loved ones’ encounters with the carceral state as a basis for their “radicalization” or entry into activism. Ivy, a 34-year-old Black woman, recounted an encounter she had with police during a mental health crisis during which she described being “in a heightened state of distress” that was exacerbated by the police presence. The actions of the police “retraumatized” Ivy and she says, “And even when I look back on it now, it just still makes me really upset.” She recounted her fears as being directly connected to the police violence that she witnessed Black women regularly encountering, describing “nightmares kind of like in response to the shooting of unarmed Black women [by police].” As a result, she was moved to engaging with racial justice issues, saying, “But because I had those experiences, I felt like I really had to be present at these types of meetings and rallies and conversations around race and policing, because I had direct connections to it.”

Leo, a 24-year-old Black non-binary person, described a police raid on their house in search of their older brother that they experienced as a child. Leo described the police raid as “a very radicalizing moment.” Leo recounted the incident:

[The police] literally broke our door off the hinges and pointed assault rifles at me and my sister who were six and five at the time. And they wouldn't let my mom, who was like in the shower, and they wouldn't let her put any clothes on. And they pointed guns at her. They handcuffed my dad. And basically, after realizing that my brother wasn't even in the house, they unhandcuff my father. And after having pointed guns at us for about an hour, literally me and my sister had to get dressed at gunpoint, under the covers of our bed, because they were scared that a six-year-old and a five-year-old were going to pull a gun on them because we were Black. And that night, until a carpenter could get there or like somebody could get there to put our door back or get us a new door, my dad stood watch outside of my house because there was literally no door on our house. [I’ve] had to live with that memory my entire life and live with the knowledge that they would have killed me.

In both Ivy and Leo’s encounters, their race, and for Ivy her gender also, were extremely central to the ways they understood what they went through and why, directly connecting intersectional systems of oppression experienced through their multiple identities to their interactions with the carceral state. Their experiences are examples of the ways that the carceral state enacts racialized and gendered violence in direct ways (personal experiences with state violence) and indirect ways (fear as a result of vicarious experiences with state violence). These acts (re)produce the structures of police violence underpinned by racism and sexism, which then further uphold white supremacy and patriarchy. In this way, the law and its enforcement by agents of the state shape race and gender, while race and gender also shape the law and its enforcement, in a co-constitutive process (Gómez, 2010).

Other participants explored how their multiple identities were also connected to their motivations for participation in movement spaces. Ella, a 53-year-old Black woman, described feeling unseen and as though the trauma she had lived through did not matter before participating in the 2020 uprising. Choking up with tears and needing to pause several times, she said, “And I finally realized I had this power that I never knew I had. … This summer gave me, it helped me stop being the invisible woman. It allowed me to become a part of something that would not only make my life seem worth of all the trauma.” Ella goes on to articulate the dynamics of Black women interacting with individuals who did not share her marginalization, saying,

I’ve heard many white men trying to silence my voice. … I know what it is to be feared by white males, because I speak strongly, you know, and that’s what we do. That’s part of being a Black woman, right? And so, we create awe and fear. That’s what we create. You're either in awe of us, or you're really afraid that we're coming to the party.

Generational lineages were also important among the participants’ explanations for their engagement in movement spaces. Several of the participants described going to protests with their family members, including mothers and grandmothers, who showed them the ropes of participating in direct actions. For many, the generational passing-down of activism was a crucial part of their identities and family narratives. Montaya, a 26-year old Black woman, articulated the significance of her family’s lineage in her participation, saying,

My mom’s an activist and my homie and I hate prisons together. … I’m a very spiritual woman and I believe very deeply in the power of our ancestors. And the women that I come from are activists. My grandmother. My great-grandmother was a midwife. … What I’m made up of is meant to be back here on earth to fight again. I’m just a channel and I’m happy to do that. So, for me, yeah absolutely [my mom is important], but all of the “hers” that I come from [are also important].

Quinta, a 31-year-old Latina woman, similarly expressed how her family’s background was central to her participation in movement spaces. She said,

I identify as the daughter of immigrants, as well as immigrants who were farm workers in specifically the Southeastern part of the United States. So that’s been pretty central to my development. I think as an abolitionist, but also, I think, as someone who participates in social justice issues, specifically because my dad is undocumented. And that has been central to at least my understanding of how immigration enforcement is part of the carceral state, and why I think for a long time in my family, we didn’t necessarily think about calling the police, or at least, sort of emphasizing that partially because of my dad’s immigration status.

Quinta’s identity as the daughter of immigrant farm workers with an undocumented father propelled her into a central role in social justice work around immigration. For both Montaya and Quinta, the intersectionality of oppression experienced by their families were important for their involvement in movement spaces.

Nuanced dynamics in the role of identity for motivating participation in movement spaces was prevalent among bi- and multi-racial participants, particularly for those with one white parent and one parent of color. Aryanna, a Black/white bi-racial woman in her 20s, said,

I sort of like, completely shifted [and] didn’t want to associate with [the white] side of my family at all, because they’re super conservative and what not. So, then we get to this summer, and you know, this shit has been building up in America for so long. I was just so sick of it, and sick of not seeing my family do anything about it. So, I was like, “I have to get out and like participate, like now’s the time to make a difference.”

Almost all the bi- and multi-racial participants spoke about their challenges engaging with the non-Black or non-people of color side of their family to whom they felt they could not relate. In many instances these challenging relationships motivated or strengthened their commitments to social justice. Their positioning as “outsiders within” (Collins, 1986) in their own families highlighted even more the ways that the marginalization of their multiple identities interplayed with their movement involvement.

Many participants described their multiple identities as pulls to activism that left them without actually making a choice to participate, mirroring the sentiments of a “moral responsibility” articulated by activists in Ferguson and Baltimore (Cobbina, 2019). Olamina, a Black woman in her early 20s, said, “As a Black woman, like I have something to contribute to my community. Like, I don’t feel like I just can just sit there and watch other people do things. … I know some people even like lost their lives. So, I feel like it's the least I can do.” Some participants described their involvement in movement spaces as being “chosen” for them or “divine.” Nebiyah said, “And so, reflecting back on everything that was poured into me, it was just, yes, I chose it. But at the same time, it was chosen. And I feel like that's just where I am. I feel like I was chosen for this work.” Similarly, Ella said,

And who better to fix something than a Black woman? We been fixing things, making a way out of no way, making something out of nothing from the moment we were brought into existence. It is our divine heritage to be leaders. That's what Black women do. We have a baby on our back, and we keep walking. That's what we do. This work was meant for us. It was meant for us. Social justice was meant for us because we've cared for the world forever.

Like the descriptions of the role of trauma and encounters with the carceral state resulting from racism and sexism, participants also directly recounted how their unique situatedness as Black women directly brought them into movement spaces. Not only did intersectional oppression impact how participants came to and remained involved in the movement, it also undergirded their critiques of the carceral state. While the participants framed their understandings of their divine callings into activism as care for others, it might also be understood as an additional potential site of racialized and gendered state sanctioned trauma in requiring more labor from those already experiencing the most oppression in combatting the violence facing themselves and their communities.

Critiques of the carceral state

The non-binary and women activists and organizers in this study had extensive critiques of the carceral state that were directly and indirectly linked to their motivations for and experiences in movement spaces. Exploring these critiques is crucial for understanding the underpinnings of contemporary activists’ visions for the future, especially as there continues to be a great deal of misunderstanding of the positions and platforms of activists in the 2020 uprising. Popular media pieces such as abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba’s (2020) New York Times op-ed, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” point to the widespread innocuous misinterpretations as well as more malicious intentional misrepresentations of calls for defunding and abolishing the prison industrial complex. Octavia, a 21-year-old Black woman, described this trend, saying:

There’s so many people trying to change, like, what they say is abolition. Like [they’ll say], “No, they don't mean like defunding everything, they just want to take a little bit. Like they don't mean all the prisons, just the ones that are for profit.” Like, no. Y'all know what we mean. Please don't try to speak for us. If you're not in this doing this work, like what are you talking about? … It is definitely being co-opted.

The women and non-binary folks in this study also spoke explicitly in response to many of the common refrains regarding criminal legal system reform. Nearly all participants commented on the system being without value and needing a complete transformation. Crystal, a 22-year-old Black woman, stated explicitly, “The system is beyond repair.” Ella’s comments build on this statement, as she noted, “You have to understand that you cannot reform something that is built out of oppression, you know? I often say a recipe is a recipe. If I bake a cake and forget the eggs, I cannot unbake that cake and add the eggs to make that cake right. I gotta start all over. That's the way I feel [about the criminal legal system].”

The belief that the system was “beyond repair” was undergirded by a myriad of specific, well-informed, and nuanced critiques of the dimensions of the carceral state, including policing and incarceration. Participants also critiqued the persistent calls for protests in response to state violence to remain peaceful. Like many other participants, Nebiyah described law enforcement’s lack of training as especially problematic. She said,

The [law enforcement] training here in North Carolina, it's less hours than it takes to become a barber. … The hours that it took you to get your certification to be a plumber, to work on a construction site, to actually be a licensed therapist, guess what this is, these are the hours compared to that for police officers who are trained to intervene on behalf of very life or death precarious situations [gesturing with her hands to demonstrate a large disparity with less hours for police training]. Now, do you feel comfortable with someone who isn't trained, that isn't required to have insurance, coming in and taking care of what might be your last day on earth? ... We'll do Yelp reviews for plumbers, Yelp reviews for electricians, but we're not gonna do a Yelp review for a police officer. You begin to hear the lunacy of it. It's really preposterous.

Cherry, a 23-year-old Black woman, was also critical of the police. She said, “You guys [police] are the bad guys period. You are a bad guy when we're talking about good guys and bad guys. … You don't know about any mediation efforts. Nothing. No de-escalation efforts. Nothing.” Cherry’s critiques of police were influenced by the police violence she witnessed at protests. She recounted, “I think we came up on [the site of the protest] and there was tanks. And I'd never seen this. I was like, ‘Nah, there’s kids out here.’ And I was like, ‘I don't think they realize that this isn't right.’” She continued,

I remember calling my friend and like just being in awe because they had literally set up a functioning military base in [the] park. … They have zip ties like they're prepared for something. And as I'm pulling up, I'm [thinking] like, “I have military family and I don't know why they have long guns1 out in the park.” That was my first reaction. … I was scared and sad because people were like I said intending to show up to peacefully protest, not even anticipating that they would be met with this violence. [That’s] what that is; it's complete violence when the state occupies a park to ensure that Black children and families can’t speak and walk which is really all the people were doing. It was insane to me.

Cherry invoked the militarization of law enforcement during protests, including the deployment of the National Guard, as a way to illustrate the violence of the carceral state specifically facing Black folks despite them remaining peaceful. Charlene, a Black/white bi-racial woman, also directly pointed to the militarization of the police, highlighting the spending associated with such moves. She said,

Militarizing your police department is a problem. … We put our taxpayer money, about almost $20 million a year, in allowing the police officers to receive training in Israel to throw tear gas and to wear riot gear. Um, but the average CNA [Certified Nurse’s Assistant] uniform is 13 bucks. However, just for one uniform for riot gear is almost $600 per police officer. Then we're not going to talk about the vehicles, because the vehicles is over 600 some thousand [dollars]. So why are we, why are we giving our police departments the ability to make war on our homes in our cities? Because that's a war zone. You can say it's not, but it is a war zone. It is a war zone any time you have police set up in riot gear and you are a peaceful protest. Any time you have the police throw tear gas when you are doing a peaceful protest. Any time you have them throw tear gas that has expired, it’s still a war zone. … Why do we let America become a war zone? That's the question.

Ultimately, given these critiques of policing, all but one participant expressed their support for the abolition of police. Olamina summed up this position, saying, “I feel like the institution of police can't be saved anymore by defunding, because it literally came from slave patrols. And the majority of police officers are stationed in Black communities and they're not really helping. So, I don't think there's anything we can do at this point to like turn it around. It just has to be like completely remade.”

Participants were equally critical of incarceration. Many described the criminal legal system as using incarcerated people’s labor as exploitive. Charlene said,

Jails are used only for slave labor. … People's labor is being capitalized for this country. So, it's slave labor. And we can go in here and we can talk about, “Oh yeah, you know all these countries have slave labor. They have human trafficking.” But guess what, America is doing it too. Right here in this jail. We are doing slave labor.

The denigration of incarcerated individuals through their exploitation as “slave labor” that Charlene and others highlight was also emphasized by participants who talked about what incarcerated populations deserve as humans. Cherry said, “People deserve dignity. And they deserve an education. And they deserve a shot at life, regardless of their crime, unless they're out here slaughtering people or presenting mass threat or dangers which a lot of these people have not.” Charlene and Cherry, as well as the other participants who spoke about the inhumanity of the prison system, were acutely aware of the disproportionate use of incarceration as punishment and retribution for oppressed Black and brown communities. In this way, their sentiments again connect to their multiple identities and also reflect Black radical feminist calls for dismantling the structures of mass incarceration as a force of white supremacist violence.

Non-binary folks and women in this study were explicit in drawing out the contradictions in the calls for protests to be “peaceful” given the state violence they witnessed both inside movement spaces and elsewhere in their lives and the lives of their loved ones, describing the calls as “offensive” (Aryanna) and “Eurocentric” (Nebiyah). Cherry described the contradictions existing in descriptions of white protests as compared to Black ones, saying,

I feel like attaching peaceful to the practice of protesting is used to disarm Black people. … I don't know if it's because when white people protest it's never inherently [considered] violent, but when Black people protest it's [considered] inherently violent because it's an act of going against the white system. So, you have to call it peaceful otherwise it's inherently violent, which we know is not the case. But I would say that I don't even know that what we're doing is protesting because it's really a cry. It's a cry. … In America, when we're talking about peaceful protests in particular we're talking about Black people crying out that our lives matter which is ridiculous. It's ridiculous. Like we're literally just asking them to be viewed as humans and we have to call it peaceful. I mean it's like a never-ending gaslight. … I like to compare it to the relationship between an abuser and their victim.

Cherry is highlighting a phenomenon known as “protesting while Black,” a function of systemic racism and white supremacy manifesting “when minority racial groups (in our case, African Americans) are mobilized in political claims-making, they are perceived as threatening to the dominant group (in our case, whites)” (Davenport et al., 2011, p. 153). Many other participants shared Cherry’s sentiments. None expressed criticisms of non-peaceful protests, and many expressed support of using “by any means necessary” approaches to fight for freedom. These sentiments were connected to the intimate awareness that the identities of the protesters, their own very identities, were being denigrated in two ways: 1) assuming that Black protesters were too inherently violent to remain peaceful during direct actions, and 2) more importantly, that Black protesters should remain peaceful while desperately crying out for liberation.

The participants overall found the criminal legal system to be a site of violence and brutality that must be dismantled to make way for their visions of a future of safety and justice grounded in a Black feminist ethos of love (hooks, 2000a).

Visions for the future

The non-binary folks and women in this study spoke extensively about their visions for a future free of the violence and oppression that they found to be foundational to the criminal legal system. Their visions implicitly rested on the notion of “freedom dreams” that generate the most holistic and inclusive frameworks for justice and liberation, building on ancestral commitments (Kelley, 2002; Neal & Dunn, 2020). They explored their ideals for safety and their understandings of justice, as well as articulated what abolition meant to them, thinking through how we might pursue and achieve the promise of abolition. These visions are a direct response to Kelley’s (2002) query of what young radicals are fighting in service of and a recognition of the articulation by Davies, Jackson, and Streeter (2021) that activists and organizers can and should be at the forefront as we imagine alternative systems of safety.

The visions for the future described by the participants frequently included commentary on the necessity of an ethic of empathy and love. For example, Zora, a 23-year-old Black woman, described her practice of a love ethic, saying, “Everything that I believe in is rooted in love, like loving the people, loving ourselves, loving the power that we're building. … I think people deserve to be seen and loved and cared for no matter what. … People need love to sustain so that's where I come from.” Faith, a Black woman in her early 20s, described empathy as

almost like essential in this kind of work for anybody who really wants to advocate for any other community … especially [for] people who are not people of color identifying issues and being able to understand like, “I may not be able to wholeheartedly feel what you feel [or] know what you're going through, but I do see it, I'm aware of it.”

For Zora and Faith, and others who shared their value for love and empathy in movement spaces and beyond, this practice was a mechanism of solidarity and community-building that was crucial to movement spaces and reflected Black feminist traditions (Combahee River Collective, 1977; hooks, 2000a). Importantly, a love ethic is central to the practice and pursuit of abolition as Kelley (2018) suggests, “[I]f we are committed to genuine freedom, we have no choice but to love all. To love all is to fight relentlessly to end exploitation and oppression everywhere, even on behalf of those who think they hate us” (164). Derecka Purnell (2021) builds on this idea, saying, “[Abolition] was a politic, a paradigm to organize, navigate, and re-create the world. Love offered me more agency than resistance or trauma could, and my growing desire to learn and take risks with others became a source of inspiration for my freedom. For our freedom” (110).

Participants also shared generative conceptualizations of safety and justice. These ideas are significant for discourse on criminal legal system reform as safety and justice are often used as the basis of arguments in support of the current system being the only way to ensure public safety and maintain the public’s expectations of pursuing justice. The women and non-binary folks in this study had visions for safety and justice beyond the constraints of the criminal legal system or academic institutions that were included in their hopes for what could be possible should the abolition of the prison industrial complex become a reality. Understanding these visions should be a central dimension of creating new ways of engaging with safety (Davies et al., 2021). Octavia expressed that their sense of safety was benefitted by the practice of abolition, saying, “I feel much safer in the world just knowing that there are abolitionists out there doing this. Like, it's not no free for all. There are people that are trying to protect us, that are protecting us, that are fighting for us actively.” Octavia’s sentiments about protection coming from being aware of abolitionists’ efforts was juxtaposed with feeling unsafe around police and whiteness. They said, “But I don't feel safe with police around for one. I would say I feel safe with Black and brown neighbors around me. Like having proximity to whiteness makes me feel even more unsafe.”

Many others included in the study articulated similar feelings that safety was found among communities of shared identities and the care and resources that community would cultivate, reflecting the Combahee River Collective’s (1977) instructive that humans are deserving of care and safety. Zora grounded her vision of safety in collectivity, saying, “I think safety is also just like abundant love and care. And safety also is tied to hope for me. So, you can't be hopeful without feeling safe.” Amber, a multi-racial woman of South Asian and white descent in her 20s, mentioned community education as an important dimension of safety, and Aryanna discussed access to resources. Ella’s sentiments are also representative of the belief that mutualism and collective care are the core of safety. She said,

I know how important it is for self-care. I know that if we're gonna do this and do it right, we've got to take care of each other. We gotta take care of ourselves, you know? Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe. I think about that all the time. … [I]t occurred to me how important that concept is, [and] that together we find and produce safety. And so each one of us is responsible for the other. That right there is my vision of a world gone right—where we all feel responsible for each other.

Ella’s use of the popular protest chant, “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe,” mirrors the practice of Black communities doing their own work of protecting and serving examined by Boyles (2019) and highlights the possibilities of looking to the community rather than the state for safety.

The women and non-binary folks in this study also defined justice very differently than the people embedded within the criminal legal system. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice defines its mission for justice: “To enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.” Conversely, Quinta offered accountability as a central dimension of justice putting it in the context of her organizing work with immigrant rights coalitions. She said, “I think justice, with some of the sort of events that happened last summer with some of our immigrant rights groups, justice, for me really is like folks owning up to their mistakes. And offering some kind of like, ‘This is how we're going to move forward.’ Right. Or some kind of resolution that is also about accountability.” Aryanna and Leilani, a multi-racial woman of Filipino and white descent, included reparations in their definitions of justice. Leilani said, “I think that justice looks like reparations for people of color.” Aryanna commented similarly, “For me, I think it's long overdue for the Black community to receive reparations, especially given that Native Americans were able to receive reparations and um, Asian communities that were all placed into one box during World War II and what not. So, yeah, I think reparations is the first biggest or big step for justice.” Reminiscent of hooks’ (2000a) discussion of love as justice, Leo described justice: “I think that to me justice looks like love. It looks like community. It looks like strength and togetherness, healing, redress.”

Juxtaposed to and perhaps in response to commonly held conceptualizations of justice like the DOJ’s definition above, some pushed back against any connection to the concept at all. Octavia said, “I feel like I don't want a relationship to the word justice. I want security. I want people to acknowledge the harm that they do. … Nobody has the right to really decide what justice is, besides the person that needs it.” Other participants struggled to explain what justice meant. Zora described justice as being “hard to define” and Quinta said despite teaching about justice as an educator, she was not sure that she had “fully thought through it.” The distance from the idea of justice that some participants desired and the difficulty in defining it experienced by others introduces nuance into the perceived pursuit of justice in organizing spaces. While discussions of “racial justice” are common and “justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor” were regularly chanted during the uprising, these activists express an inability or lack of desire to connect with the concept. Some participants maintained that justice could not and did not exist. Cherry said,

I definitely think if we're talking about justice, we have to be talking about freedom and what that means. And so far, we are discussing crime and punishment, because I think that those words have been used to further the divide between Black people and our freedom. They don't really serve any other purpose outside of that. … Justice doesn't exist in this land. I don't know where it does ‘cause I've never lived anywhere else. But through this framework, it doesn't exist [here].

Similarly, Nebiyah said, “I don't think that I can accurately give what justice is because that payment is too grand for what America could pay. America could never pay justice, ever, and still be America. The only reason you're America is because of us [Black people]. … But again, I don't think justice can be quantified.” The nuance presented here in these activists’ dissociation from justice provides important insight into what they are fighting for, highlighting that it may not be justice, but something different entirely. As women of color, especially Black women, their relationships to the state and oppression interceded in their desire to pursue justice or even hold it as a respected value.

Regardless of the relationships to or detachment from justice, the women and non-binary folks in this study were committed to pursuing the practice and promise of abolition as their vision for a future free of police and prisons and full of care and community. Zora highlighted the need for imagination in building an abolitionist future. She said, “Abolition requires imagination because they're building things out of nothing. Like, you're building a new world. So, if you're not dreaming, all you're doing is tearing down and leaving people with like the ruins and the wake. And that's not how you love people.” Fatimah, a 35-year-old Lebanese and Mexican American woman, similarly pointed to the notion that abolition could not simply be about dismantling, but also must include presence building, citing Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s ideas. According to Fatimah, “Abolition isn't like the eradication of buildings, right. It's the presence of love. And I think about that, and that's what I use as my definition of love, right, or abolition, which is really just the existence of love, right? So, to abolish something means to create this environment where love prevails.” For several participants, abolition provided the opportunity to envision the meaning of freedom and liberation, and how they might be achieved. Vanessa said, “Abolition is changing the status of what freedom means.” Nebiyah had similar sentiments, saying, “Abolition is really realizing that no matter the terms, we are still fighting for our own liberation.” Given the perspectives shared by the participants regarding their visions for the future, it is clear they are fighting for liberation found in the practice and promise of abolition.


The non-binary folks and women in this study provide an intriguing answer to Kelley’s (2002) inquiry into what contemporary activists are fighting for and dreaming about: that is the practice and promise of abolition. The participants articulated transformative visions of safety and justice that centered historically and currently oppressed communities and broke free from the taken-for-granted definitions of these concepts on which the contemporary criminal legal system purports to rest. Importantly, as members of groups facing intersectional oppression that directly crosses into the carceral state, their expectations for safety and justice should be central to criminal legal system reform. In addition, the insights shared by the women and non-binary folks in this study implicitly push back against the propositions of carceral feminisms that suggest that the criminal legal system should be expanded as a protective measure for those facing disproportionate victimization due to their gender identity. The assumptions of carceral feminisms are problematic both in leaning on the carceral state as a solution for gendered violence and ignoring the carceral state as a major perpetrator of violence against women and non-binary folks, especially Black and brown folks, which was highlighted by the participants of this study (Kim, 2018). The participants here articulate that they do not find protection within the criminal legal system, but rather seek to build community in order to reduce harm. Future research might further explore the criminal legal system’s inability to provide safety and justice and engagement in gendered and racialized violence, which would contribute to the conceptualization of an abolitionist feminism (Davis et al., 2022).

Despite few examples of themselves drawing explicit connections, these activists and organizers nevertheless articulated positions that were undergirded by the ethos of Black radical feminism. Most centrally, their insights are largely centered around an ethic of love, reminiscent of those building and working within the Black radical feminist tradition, including the Combahee River Collective (1977) who reminded us, “Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.” The participants’ practices of activism were also connected to their relationships to the state, power, white supremacy, and patriarchy. These relationships were significant factors in their motivations for participation, as well as the experiences they had during participation. Using an intersectional framework allows for an understanding of the ways that their racialized and gendered identities interplayed with the carceral state. The oppression of these multiple identities impacted their relationship to trauma caused by state violence, their critiques of the criminal legal system, and how they approached reform.

Implications for policy and research

The contemporary criminal legal system is taken-for-granted as both a moral and practical necessity (Davis, 2003). As the reform on historical practices of corporal punishment and torture, this system originated with the proposed intention to offer rehabilitation for those who had offended the moral order by committing crimes. Nevertheless, the origins and implications of the system in white supremacist and racial capitalist ideals is widely documented (Davis, 2003; Gilmore, 2007). At the current moment, given the 2020 uprising and subsequent discourse on criminal legal system reform, both the activist and academic communities should continue pushing reimagined conceptualizations of safety and justice. Grassroots networks are in a prime position to make the most of the broader society’s (new) awareness of and interest in alternative possibilities to the criminal legal system.

In 1979, Audre Lorde (2017) wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” If we can acknowledge that the carceral state is grounded in what hooks (2004) calls the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and is thus wreaking havoc on historically and persistently oppressed communities, then we must look outside the “master’s house” to pursue transformation. Academics should reorient themselves to listen to those on the ground doing the grassroots work of developing imaginative responses to harm. Rather than assuming that we are the holders and creators of knowledge, scholars must deconstruct this false binary and work alongside activist communities in the pursuit of real transformation of not only the criminal legal system, but the material conditions that support the system (Battle & Serrano, 2022). This reorientation includes developing “a research praxis that interrogates the functions of policing and deploy[ing] academic methodologies and resources to advance the construction of alternative systems of safety” (Davies et al., 2021, p. 2). Grounding this work in Black feminist traditions within academic disciplines and in the communities in which our scholarship is grounded can be understood as a liberatory healing praxis of care and support (Hayes et al., 2021). Both quantitative and qualitative methodologies must draw on these traditions in making space for foregrounding the voices, experiences, and visions of those most impacted by the conditions under study, especially those struggling under and against the oppressive forces of the carceral state (Battle & Serrano, 2022).

The Combahee River Collective (1977) reminded us, “We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity. … If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.” The women and non-binary activists and organizers of color highlighted in this study demonstrate what the pursuit of the Combahee River Collective’s instructive looks like in practice. Ultimately, for this group, the practice and promise of abolition represents a true possibility for the liberation found within the destruction of all systems of oppression.


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Brittany Pearl Battle is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Wake Forest University. Her research interests include carceral logics, courts, social and family policy, and the theory and practice of abolition. She is also the co-founder of Triad Abolition Project, a local grassroots organization working on issues of justice and liberation.


I am extremely grateful for the activists and organizers who trusted me enough to share their stories and visions for building a new world. I am also thankful for my collaborator, Bailey Pittenger, sharing the journey of this project with me and for the research assistance provided by Bea Pearson, Chris Cates, and my Social Justice Research Lab students. I thank the reviewers and the special issue’s editors for their valuable feedback, as well as members of a WFU faculty workshop for encouragement and comments.

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