“Healing Justice Over Hanging Justice”: Reflections from Freedom Day

“I am because we are.”

~The Philosophy of Ubuntu

Prison Abolition necessitates thinking of how to address the root causes of inequality and harm in a way that prisons do not and cannot. We can begin by examining and restructuring our relationships with other people in our communities. The Freedom Day event was an open invitation to think about what is necessary for people to live freely and happily. Addressing harm and holding each other accountable is at the center of any conversation about reducing reliance on prisons, policing, and surveillance of people.  

On Saturday December 1st, 2018 STAR (Students for Transformative Justice, Abolition, and Reform) held Swarthmore’s first annual Freedom Day event. Freedom Day served as a space to interrogate current state of mass incarceration in the United States. Inspired by Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?, the Graterford Think Tank, Ubuntu,  and Right2Redemption, we encouraged people to conceive of a collective vision of a world without prisons, and our campus community to further interrogate our complacency in perpetuating carceral logic and practices.

How Do We Handle Harm?

Since the founding of STAR last spring, and throughout this semester, we have tasked ourselves with inviting people to unlearn common misconceptions and violent teachings about crime, punishment, and prisons. During Freedom Day, we took the time to ask ourselves:    

Why do we have prisons? Have prisons always been here? How did we get here? How can we heal? How do we hold each other accountable in a holistic and productive way? How do we prevent violence and harm in our communities?

In order to answer the above questions, we must first reflect on the ways in which we, as a society and a campus community, typically respond to harm. At the root of the current state of mass incarceration and state-sanctioned violence are ideologies and practices of racism, white supremacy, capitalism, cultures of violence, and more. For many, introductions to prison abolition often raise concerns about the potential chaos that may ensue without a place to lock away “violent offenders” and “dangerous people.” We cannot do justice to the reality of interpersonal harm and the pain felt by those who have lost loved ones to acts of violence with a “justice system”  that focuses solely on punishment and removing individuals from their communities. This system fails to provide space for the possibility of community healing and actual violence prevention. When does victim-perpetrator reconciliation come in? When does moving forward come in? Within our current system, the answer is never.

But what if we had a system where these aspects were encompassed and prioritized? A system where, after harm has been caused, we give individuals a chance to reflect on their actions and move forward with their communities in unison? What would it look like to stop disappearing people and labeling them as worthy of being thrown away? What if we recognized the humanity in one another and learned to forgive? How would our communities look if the government stopped imprisoning influential Black and Brown community leaders?  One of the most impactful activities of Freedom Day was called Pod-mapping. Pod-mapping is a practice in building intentional communities created by the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, in which one fills in circles with the names of people they would feel comfortable going to if they wanted to work towards healing from harm done to them, or work towards taking accountability for harm they have caused. A person’s “pod” is the cluster of people they feel “have their back.” The exercise and the organization themselves are steeped in the Black Feminist Tradition. Collectives consistently organize from a Black Feminist lens in order to oppose the carceral state. The main goal of pod-mapping is to think about ways to address harm outside of punitive measures, and to define community.

Students posing together with the mural they created.

Students posing together with the mural they created.

A world without prisons is a world that knows how to heal, prevent violence, and move forward. A world without prisons is a world working towards equality, care, and community. Through the creation of a mural, Freedom Day provided our campus community with an artistic representation of perceptions of a world without prisons.

Coming Together in Community

During Freedom Day, we were joined by organizers Kempis Songster, “Ghani,” and Robert “Saleem” Holbrook. Despite being 15 and 16, respectively, at the time of their offenses, both men were tried as adults and sentenced to mandatory life sentences without parole, or what is increasingly known today as death by incarceration. Ghani and Saleem both worked to launch Philadelphia’s Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI). Both are also part of the staff of the Amistad Law Project, a grassroots abolitionist law collective working for the release of others community members and fighting to end the sentencing of human beings to life without parole/death by incarceration. It is from Ghani that we derive the title of this reflection: “Healing Justice over Hanging Justice”. Healing justice over hanging justice means placing an emphasis on harm being addressed in a way that does not reproduce violence.  We should embrace this way of thinking as we move forward in our calls for prison abolition.

“I am tired of telling my story.” ~Saleem

As an institution and a community that promotes our dedication to values of Quakerism, it is our duty to fully embrace calls for “healing justice over hanging justice.” While these are important parts of the process, our dedication to anti-carceral justice and activism must expand beyond Inside Out classes and attending panels. We cannot limit our action to just listening to the narratives and stories of those impacted by incarceration. As Swarthmore students, we often bring speakers to campus and engage in intellectual conversations in class as a means of dealing with issues of justice. However, engaging in conversations that influence only one person to change their mind, while important and necessary, does not solve or work to end the carceral state and our complacency within it. Yes, it is important to “get people in the room,” but it’s what you do once you are there that matters. It is our job as members of this community to interrogate our positionality within and complacency with the Prison Industrial Complex and violence against Black and Brown communities.

Envision a “Freedom Campus”

One way we are challenging the community to act is through the creation of a working group to study Swarthmore’s role in the Prison Industrial Complex. We are launching a campaign to create a Freedom Campus here at Swarthmore. What would it mean to invest in our communities instead of the punitiveness and violence of the state? Swarthmore identifies itself as a Sanctuary campus, but what would it mean for Swarthmore to be a Freedom Campus? The Freedom Campus movement is one derived from the larger “Freedom Cities” movement. It is a movement that demands that communities have the resources that they need to thrive, and this means divesting from state violence and reinvesting in communities. The movement overall seeks to create “safe, healthy, and thriving communities”. It is necessary for any person, collective, or institution dedicated to positive social change to engage in proactive self-reflection on their role within the systems they seek to change. Swarthmore is not exempt of this obligation.

Often times colleges and universities are invested in the Prison Industrial Complex via endowments and pension funds. That is why we are calling on our campus community to study the role of Swarthmore in the Prison Industrial Complex. The working group that we will convene will not only interrogate our complicity in the Prison Industrial Complex, but it will also seek to envision what it would look like to invest in students and communities most impacted by criminalization and the Prison Industrial Complex. We are calling on people to join us in convening a working group that will spend next semester investigating Swarthmore’s investments in private prisons and its role in the Prison Industrial Complex. In addition to this, we are calling on people to seriously interrogate how we relate to each other as people on this campus. In addition to examining financial investments in the Prison Industrial Complex, we should interrogate our cultural investments punitiveness and carceral logic. Do we call Public Safety on someone if their music is too loud, or do we go talk to them and build a real relationship? How can we move away from reproducing the punitiveness that we see in the rest of the world? We must create space for envisioning other ways of being. If you are interested in joining this working group or collectively envisioning a community of care, please email us at transformwithstar@gmail.com.