Abolition and conflict resolution on the left

Abolition, the theory of abolishing police and prisons, has risen dramatically into public consciousness in recent years, mostly thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement. The leftist critique of police as racist, colonial enforcers of state violence and property is simple enough—but how do we put abolition into practice within left-wing organisations?

As progressives, we know that incarceration and policing does not offer justice to victims or rehabilitation to offenders. Sexual assault survivors consistently report their re-traumatising experience from police, prosecutors and the courts, and statistics continue to reflect that Indigenous people, people with cognitive disability and people with a history of sexual or domestic violence make up large majorities of the prison population. The Stop Black Deaths In Custody campaign proves that police and prisons continue to take the lives of far too many First Nations people.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, incarcerated people and advocacy groups have protested against the cessation of family visits, denial of soap, hand sanitiser, PPE and vaccines. And as recently as July, protests erupted at Parklea prison in Sydney over racism through a rooftop action for Black Lives Matter.

In theory, abolition has simple demands: defund and abolish the police, release and rehabilitate incarcerated people, and resolve harm through community accountability. However, turning these theories into viable and convincing alternatives to the criminal legal system, not only through propaganda but also through practice, is something the left still struggles with.

Activists and social justice organisations are as susceptible to conflict as any other group of people. Debbie Kilroy, the CEO of Australia’s leading abolitionist organisation Sisters Inside, told me that

conflict is not only inevitable, but also essential, because it is an expression of big fault lines and the seed of big changes in activist spaces. At Sisters Inside we believe that conflict must be managed without violence so that it can become a transformative engine of positive change.

Resolving conflict without falling victim to carceral logic and relying on tactics of social violence is easier said than done. In 1976, Jo Freeman wrote of her experience of ‘trashing’ in the US Feminist Movement after leaving the Chicago Women’s Centre:

Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape. It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive. It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict … But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.

Freeman’s words, written almost fifty years ago, still resonate today. Instead of genuine frameworks that address healthy conflict, many activists will have witnessed this self-destructive culture of trashing, particularly online.

‘Cancelling’ has its roots in survivors of abuse outing abusers and holding them publicly accountable. This is still an extremely important and powerful tactic, particularly in workplaces or industries where public perception can provide consequences for the harm done. Within smaller communities, removing people from certain spaces or asking them to relinquish roles of power can be an effective strategy to equalise power dynamics.

In The Revolution Starts At Home, Vanessa Huang describes community accountability through these principles,

Recognizing the humanity of everyone involved; prioritize the self-determination of the survivor; identify a simultaneous plan for safety and support for the survivor and community members; carefully consider the potential consequences of the strategy; organize collectively … prepare to be engaged in the process for the long haul.

Community accountability processes aim to provide just consequences for harmful behaviour, space for genuine apology, and the transformation of harm into healing. Kilroy describes the practice used at Sisters Inside as

a process whereby we have created a set of shared values … These values resist abuse and oppression, and instead foster safety, support and accountability.

However, these kinds of shared values and principles are not often reflected when concepts like cancelling are used as weapons to attack and bully, as described by Anselma Dell’Olio’s 1970 speech to the Congress To Unite Women, Divisiveness and Self-Destruction in the Women’s Movement.

The most common and pervasive is character assassination: the attempt to undermine and destroy belief in the integrity of the individual under attack. Another form is the ‘purge.’ The ultimate tactic is to isolate her …

Trashing, purging and cancelling within progressive communities can be dangerous. Marginalised and oppressed people engaged in activist communities often have no other avenues of support. Being trashed or purged is the utmost betrayal, a violation of their trust in the social justice movement that claimed to care about them. It also discourages engagement with activism generally. New people stay away because they fear being lambasted by one faction or the other, victims of oppression will not trust us with their stories, opportunities for solidarity and collaboration between communities are lost, and seasoned organisers leave movements deflated and betrayed.

As author and social justice organiser adrienne maree brown writes on cancelling,

I’ve had tons of conversations with people who, in these moments of public flaying, avoid stepping up on the side of complexity or curiosity because in the back of our minds is the shared unspoken question: when will y’all come for me?

Public trashing also gives conservative political actors and the mainstream media ample opportunity to discredit activists and their progressive ideals. They are always ready and waiting to use our conflicts (and inability to resolve them) against us, as proof that we can’t create the safe, peaceful communities we say we can.

Resolving conflict in our own communities is abolition in practice. Our call for social justice rings hollow if our responses remain carceral: purge, punish, cancel, trash. Cultural safety for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, accessibility for those who have not completed formal education, been incarcerated, are survivors of abuse, are young—none of this can find purchase in our liberation movements if we theorise without empathy, see relationships as disposable, organise like we are all one misstep away from being purged.

As Kilroy explains

we are seeing so called left wing or ‘progressive’ organisations remaining reliant on carceral responses to almost everything, whether that be in their conflict resolution processes or their surveillance of women and girls or in their lobbying (see carceral feminists call for criminalising coercive control).  We are seeing white progressives who are unable and unwilling to acknowledge their own racism …

Resistance to conflict-resolution and admitting complicity in racism, sexism or harm, is damaging to our movements as a whole. Our task, should we have the courage, is to build processes of conflict-resolution that centre compassion, even when it is easier to avoid confrontation altogether.

Community accountability attempts to do just this, confronting both systemic and interpersonal manifestations of trauma, oppression and harm. Allowing abuse to rage unchecked through social justice spaces creates distrust and betrayal. Community accountability allows us to step in, and if the timing isn’t right for a survivor to be involved, to hold space in their stead. 

The most significant difference between trashing and community accountability is not whether the process is public or people are removed from spaces, or any individual strategy used. The key difference lies in connection: trashing revolves around disconnection while community accountability relies on group connection. When we isolate the problem, we fail to leverage our most valuable asset, what makes owning one’s mistakes worthwhile: our relationship to others.

Kilroy relates her own transformative justice process:

[My] friend Debbie Dick was stabbed to death beside me by another prisoner, Storm. When I established Sisters Inside to work with all women in prison, no exceptions, I knew that I would have to put my money where my mouth was and walk the talk. This meant I would have to make peace with the woman who had confessed to killing my friend. I had to recognise that trauma was trauma and that every single person who enacted harm was also a victim of that harm … The process of forgiving Storm was a transformative justice approach, a way of resolving conflict and harm without creating more harm, without involving agents of the carceral state.

Kilroy provides an inspiring and powerful example of how far abolition can go and what community accountability could look like in the wider community. Standing against the carceral criminal-legal system and the conservative rhetoric of law-and-order policing with practical evidence of our own alternatives.

Ultimately, abolition is the sole antidote to conflict that does not rely on violence. It proposes the creation of what Ruth Wilson-Gilmore calls life-affirming institutions, i.e. the institutions and processes of justice necessary to replace capitalism. For of course it is capitalism that creates the conditions for people in power to harm, abuse and exploit others without consequence. It is capitalism, expressing itself through racialised cyclical poverty, exploitative working conditions and homelessness, that criminalises First Nations people and the poor.

As Angela Davis describes in Abolition Democracy,

[c]apitalism—especially in its contemporary global form—continues to produce problems that neither it nor its prisons are prepared to solve. So prison abolition requires us to recognize the extent that our present social order—in which are embedded a complex array of social problems—will have to be radically transformed.

Without this transformative practice people will not be convinced of the abolition of police and prisons. The right will build power off our inability to immunise ourselves against their carceral logic, we will struggle against each other instead of our oppressors in the ruling class. Only in abolition and the work of transformative justice do we find answers: community care, empathy, compassion, artistic imagination, creativity, connection and growth, and with them the hope that we can build a truly life-affirming future for everyone.


Image by redcharlie

Bridget Harilaou

Bridget Harilaou is a freelance writer and community organiser.

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