From borders to prisons: the politics of abolition

An abolitionist politics seeks to end the violence of the state in systems like prison and immigration detention, and build towards a world without them, write Ru Kaur and Ali Tamlit

December 30, 2018 · 11 min read
Illustration: Edd Baldry

The facts of the Stansted 15 case are well-documented, including by the protestors themselves. On Monday 10th December, 15 peaceful protestors were convicted under a law first introduced in response to the Lockerbie bombing, to prevent terror acts in airports. The conviction carries a maximum sentence of life in prison and, for some of the defendants, including one of the authors of this article, the judge stated that ‘all possibilities are open’ for sentencing. The opposition to this disproportionate and unique conviction, when others have usually faced aggravated trespass charges for similar protests, has been powerful and heartening. But the interest in this case also gives us a timely opportunity to interrogate state violence and ways to frame our opposition to it, through the politics of abolition.

Violent by design

The Stansted action, along with statements from defendants throughout the trial, put focus on the violence of borders and the immigration system to show that the system is not failing, but violent by design. Testimonies from Detained Voices were read out in court, explaining the violence that individuals on the flight had endured and faced further risk of, if their deportations went ahead. Those on the flight had claimed asylum in the UK as survivors of trafficking, domestic violence and persecution. They included a lesbian woman from Nigeria, whose abusive ex-husband awaited her return and was prepared to kill her. She was also at risk of a 14-year prison sentence in Nigeria, for being openly gay. Like others on the flight, she was still in the process of claiming asylum and faced being deported before this was concluded. The Stansted defendants sought to protect the lives of those on the flight when the state put them in danger.

State violence maintains inequality in society. This can be explicit, such as 1,683 people dying in police custody since 1990 (when official records began), as well as more subtle – like the disproportionate impact of austerity on working class women of colour and people with disabilities. Both are routinely hidden from public gaze. Police violence often takes place in homes, in police vans and inside police stations. Elsewhere, the effects of austerity policies enacted through welfare benefit review interviews, increased use of food banks and by defunding services relied upon by those most in need, have caused the deaths of 120,000 people. Direct action helps unmask this violence against the most vulnerable, forcing people to bear witness.

This is what the Stansted action did, by entering a space where violence takes place with impunity. The system of secretive deportation flights, detention, enforced destitution and complex Home Office processes is one of intentional harm. Resistance to the violence of this system is often led by those most affected, such as inmates of Harmondsworth and Yarlswood detention centres hunger striking to protest their conditions. But for those of us not at the sharp end of this violence, we must support their plight in active solidarity, wherever possible.

Deportation flights are an often brutal element of this system, taking place through secretive charter flights, or alongside regular passengers on commercial flights. Jimmy Mubenga died as G4S guards restrained him on a commercial flight, while members of the public could hear him screaming that he could not breathe. Abuse on charter flights is widespread, including deportees being physically bound and left unable to move during the flight. These practices are excessive to the point that even government-appointed officials have raised concerns. And yet, there has been no sense of urgency in changing these practices.

Since the Stansted action helped to bring this practice into public consciousness, the Home Office has turned to using private sites to carry out charter deportation flights, such as RAF Brize Norton. We would be naive not to expect state actors to immediately regroup and attempt new tactics to enforce their violence, after they are exposed. This provides a lesson for us in recognising that our resistance, too, should be dynamic.

We should not be surprised that those protesting violence and abuse are criminalised when the perpetrator is the state. Nor should we be surprised at the hypocrisy of political leaders celebrating political change, such as women gaining the right to vote, while rarely acknowledging that protest – sometimes violent – helps to achieve these changes. The Stansted protestors have been at pains to remind us that their sacrifice, while significant, should not overshadow the violence faced by those trapped in border violence.

A system of injustice

Much of the recent outcry at the conviction of Stansted protestors has highlighted that members of the group face the risk of lengthy custodial sentences. At the time of writing, there are almost 60,000 signatures on a petition protesting the potential imprisonment of the Stansted 15 and calling for their convictions to be overturned, as well as demanding an end to the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies against migrants. As we protest the deep injustice of these 15 facing prison for expressing solidarity with those trapped in border violence, we must also challenge an entire system that targets and criminalises mostly working class communities of colour.

Decades of anti-racism activism, as well as government-supported inquiries, highlight institutional racism in the UK. Rather than fixating on current notions of ‘unconscious bias’, we must recognise how state systems operate in conflict with the needs of working class communities of colour. The criminal justice system provides one example of a state system that targets communities of colour for punishment. Black people account for 12% of the prison population, yet only make up 3% of the UK population. Police stop and search is 8 times more likely to target black people than white counterparts, and black people are disproportionately victims of deadly police force; the loved ones left behind often struggle for years against a system that puts all its resources into ensuring that it is never found culpable of the violence it commits.

It isn’t enough for us to call for the Stansted 15 to stay out of prison. We need to call for an end to incarceration and the racist border regime for everyone

Much of the power of the state’s violence lies in the way that the logic justifying its actions appears natural, apolitical and ‘common sense’: the people on the deportation flight were here ‘illegally’ and thus deserved to be removed from their lives and loved ones; the protestors broke a law and should be punished. An abolitionist politics is one in which we, through all possible means, seek to end the violence of the state – in systems like prison, immigration detention and mental health institutions – while building towards a world where we no longer rely on these systems at all. Through this framework, we can challenge such systems and the logic they reproduce. When we recognise how they target the most marginalised because of their race, gender, disability or class, it is imperative to protest them however possible.

It isn’t enough for us to call for the Stansted 15 to stay out of prison. We need to call for an end to incarceration and the racist border regime for everyone. We must be clear about making demands that don’t further entrench the power of state agencies by giving them more resources, such as detention centre ‘reforms’, or body-worn cameras for police to manipulate a narrative of their violence. We must aim to chip away at the system, so that each of our victories is a step towards the world we want. While abolition could be seen as an end to state violence, it is also the beginning of a new and just society.

No more cages

Building towards something new must be shaped by principles of transformative justice – where we acknowledge harm but challenge the ‘common sense’ way in which punitive punishment is presented as the only option for justice. Through this transformative justice, meaningful accountability is prioritised. A common refrain from those who doubt transformative justice is to ask where we will put perpetrators of extreme violence, or murder, if not in prison. These are challenging questions that we must face, but we know that the current system already fails survivors of violence. A politics of abolition demands changing everything about our present and doing so in ways that protect the needs of the most vulnerable. This will help us move closer to something that truly represents justice – rather than the current system, which kills and harms the most vulnerable.

As a result of the Stansted action, 11 of the intended deportees are still in the country with ongoing claims for asylum, three people have received leave to remain and four have been referred into support they needed as victims of trafficking. Without this intervention, they would have faced being removed from their lives and loved ones and denied justice. For us to build meaningfully from here, we must work collectively to continually expose and challenge the violence of the state.

Going forwards, we ask that you continue supporting the Stansted 15 in their struggle for justice and wider campaign against deportations. Collectively, we can all be learning about the principles of abolition and how to practice them in our communities here and now. Please look to organisations that support prisoners and those campaigning against all forms of state and police violence. This New Year’s Eve, join us in solidarity demonstrations outside prisons, here in the UK and across the world, to remind those inside that we stand with them and commit ourselves to fighting for a world where no one is caged.

Join a solidarity demonstration: In London, noise demonstrations are planned for Brixton and Pentonville, with other demonstrations planned for prisons around the country.

Ru Kaur organises against state violence in the form of immigration enforcement, police violence and other issues of race and gender. Ali Tamlit is a member of End Deportations and a facilitator with Resist and Renew.

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