Arriving at Abolition in the State of “Wisconsin”

This article contains numerous references to instances of police violence, sexual violence, and suicide. Efforts have been made to avoid excessive or graphic details.

It has come to my understanding that I have done a disservice to my community by not sharing the experiences I have had in the recesses of this country’s carceral system. My story is not unique, nor does it involve much in the way of personal contact. Nonetheless, I have been led not by choice, but by experience to the rational conclusion that there is absolutely no hope for reform of this violent and medieval system. Among my motivations for bringing myself to write on this issue is that my own biological brother is one of its many willing foot-soldiers, leading me to a most pronounced discomfort and dismay, as well as a sense of personal responsibility for dismantling this system. 

My study and organizing have provided me with the clarity to understand that all things must be observed scientifically. My arriving at an abolitionist position was not one of impulse or of blind acceptance, but an empirical conclusion derived from my study and two years working with an organization providing services and advocating for survivors of state violence. This is a tale of corruption.

In the summer of 2020, in the wake of the uprisings following the state-sanctioned lynching of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others, I was, for the first time in my life, mobilized into coherent political action.

For the 25 years prior, I had done little of consequence. As an African living within the borders of the so-called united states, I was unavoidably aware of the realities of the white supremacist power structure. I had myself been harassed by police only a few years earlier when I had unknowingly wandered onto the “property” of some white business owner. When the man attempted to sic his dog on me (importantly: after calling the police) even it could tell I was a harmless trespasser. One of the three officers who responded in that small town of Northfield, Minnesota eagerly told me that I should have been shot. To quote Andreé Blouin, still I did nothing.

I never watched the 9-minute public execution of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. By then, I had at least reached the political consciousness to know that these events of horrific and intentional police violence were pervasive, and I had seen enough of them to be mobilized to the streets. I had spent the previous two years studying journalism and mass communication in the city of Madison, Wisconsin where a measure of class-privilege and my increasingly hermitic disposition had allowed me to avoid any further contact with the carceral system. Nonetheless, I was intensely curious about the nature of police violence and mass incarceration as well as the role of the media in maintaining the public’s faith in the world’s largest carceral system.

It was here that I began to study the writings of abolitionists like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba who proposed nothing less than the wholesale removal of prisons and police from society. I was, at first, skeptical. But as a student of social psychology, I was unable to ignore this apparent continuity with one of the field’s fundamental lessons: that punishment is a wholly ineffective deterrent for undesirable or harmful actions. This coupled with the lessons of historical materialism, the Black radical tradition, and media effects research allowed me to begin the gradual process of undoing my own miseducation.

Brimming with the energy of the recently politicized and armed with a rudimentary knowledge of this oppressive system, I sought action within the acceptable bounds of a non-profit institution. The folly of my hope of making radical political change through a body funded by wealthy “progressive” donors and foundations would not be apparent to me for another two years (and only after studying the INCITE! anthology on the non-profit industrial complex). The organization’s stated mission of ending interpersonal and state violence in Black and Southeast Asian communities was (for me) confirmed in its veracity by the abolitionist politic they espoused and the popular support they seemed to have in the community. That they also were clear in their commitments to gender justice and queer and trans liberation (as someone who was busily interrogating their own patriarchal, homophobic, transphobic tendencies – thanks in large part to the teachings of the eternally patient Dr. Keisha Lindsay) solidified my commitment, and led me to begin volunteering for them in their campaign to remove police from the local public schools.

It was here that I eventually found full-time work crafting communiques and political messaging advocating for survivors of state violence and countering police narratives that always conveniently protected their image, and painted these (usually) African femmes as deserving of whatever they got. It was here that I witnessed first-hand a brief chapter in what comrade Ahjamu Umi described the other day as “the holocaust story that has never been told”.

Early one morning in the fall of 2021, one of our advocates received a phone call from a community member who was distraught because her daughter, who was on a return road-trip from somewhere out west, had not returned home on the night she was due, and was unresponsive to her mother’s calls. This woman’s daughter had been driving alone through South Dakota late at night when she was pulled over for “driving too slow”, doing 65 in a 75 MPH speed limit. The mother had received a text 30 minutes to midnight containing only a brief description of her situation and a photo of a mile marker illuminated in the pitch of night by headlights.

“Mama,” the text read, “I think he bought to try to do something to me mama I’m by mile marker [#]”.

This text was forwarded to myself and a few of the other staff present as we attempted to locate this woman’s daughter, who had now been missing for over 8 hours. We had nothing to go on but a start and end location for her journey, the speed limit of the road she was on, and the photograph of the mile marker she had sent. Using a combination of Open Street Map, street view, and other information we could find online, we searched. Being that she had been on such a long journey, there were countless options. One by one we eliminated the possibilities. 

Our efforts yielded little, but hours later her mother received a phone call that ended our search. It was from a hospital somewhere north of the highway her daughter should have been on saying that she was with them, badly beaten, possibly raped, and left for dead somewhere along the road. But she was alive: a survivor. At the time the mother called to inform us of the situation, her daughter was so badly traumatized that she had completely blocked out the memory of what had transpired. This was the last I heard of her.

I have labored over the responsibility of my telling this story. To my knowledge, neither the daughter nor the mother have sought to make the story public or seek justice within the confines of “the law”. As is their right: survivors should have the freedom to remain anonymous in such a pervasive system of violence, and to make their own determinations about whether to put faith in a system that has already repeatedly failed them. As such, I have made every effort to respect their anonymity.

Surely too there are those who would question the veracity of such an “unconfirmed” story, but ultimately whether or not you believe this one story does not matter. In my two years at the non-profit between 2020-2022, such horrific injustices were to be a weekly occurrence. As one of the people tasked with drafting our public statements in response to such incidents, I could not help but become intimately familiar with the details of such happenings.

In September 2020, a 24-year old African by the name of Elliot Johnson, whom was alleged to have been driving recklessly, was pursued by police in a high-speed chase in the Madison area, in violation of the department’s own “police vehicle pursuit policy”, which required that the driver be suspected of having committed a felony. When he eventually crashed, rather than submit himself to the terrors of the carceral system to which he was certain to be condemned, this young African took a pistol from his glove compartment and killed himself.

In 2022, the department’s pursuit policy was actually revised to be more lenient to when such a pursuit is justified. Fatefully, the same department claimed another three lives just a few days prior to my writing this story as a result of another high-speed chase.

In October 2018, a queer African woman named Kenyairra Gadson was jailed for a period of two years for defending herself from a man from whom she had suffered long-term harassment. While Kenyairra was attempting to remove herself from an escalating situation in a parking garage in downtown Madison, this man (who had formerly fired a gun at her) and a group of his friends who were harassing her, began physically assaulting her friend. In fear for her life and that of her comrade, Kenyairra drew a gun from her car and killed her abuser. Organizers with the #Justice4Kenyairra campaign took to her defense, and the Free the 350 Bail Fund was eventually able to secure her release. 

However, the jaws of the carceral system would not relinquish their grasp so easily. After a scurrilous witch hunt waged by the reprehensible district attorney Ismael Ozanne, Kenyairra Gadson was sentenced to 13 years in the united states dungeons by the similarly despicable judge Chris Taylor. Even in the face of her own impending incarceration, when asked of her experience, she gave strength to the other survivors of patriarchal and state violence watching her case:

“Basically through it all is to stay strong. Keep your head up, keep your feet down and never give up. Always keep your faith and you’ll get to where you want to go, and God will show you where he needs you to be… The truth will set you free.”

In the midst of her case, on October 10, 2021, a 19-year old African youth named Katoine Richardson was on his way home from work when he was chased and violently arrested by multiple officers in the middle of a busy street for the “crime” of “breaking curfew.” In the ensuing struggle, one of the officers drew his gun and, in all of his incredible incompetence, shot one of his fellow officers in the arm and the leg. Katoine, who had been carrying a firearm because he himself was a survivor and felt unsafe on the streets of Madison, was subsequently railroaded by the carceral system, in the press, and by the notorious gangsters Satya Rhodes-Conway (the “progressive” mayor of Madison, who issued a statement, later retracted, framing Katoine as the one responsible) and Ozanne, who framed Katoine as an attempted cop-killer in order to condemn him to the dungeons. 

As his hearing would later reveal, there was materially no evidence that Katoine had shot the officer. The state’s ransom was set at a staggering $50,000 nonetheless. This was later reduced to $16,000 as a result of sustained and scientific community organizing and direct action, and was eventually paid by Free the 350. At the time of his arrest, Katoine’s public defender said of his mental condition: “Quite frankly he wanted to die. He just felt like things are just going so badly for him, he’s got these cases and he feels that some of them are not merit-worthy and as a result of that he wanted to give up.” I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Katoine on the day of his release. At the time, his spirits seemed to have been significantly raised by the rallying of the community to the cause of his freedom.*

The police of course, had to have their vengeance. After the publicity nightmare that was Kenyairra’s case and this subsequent public humiliation of Madison’s ruling class, on May 6, one of the organizers (an African mother to a 1-year old child at the time) was arbitrarily jailed for “making verbal threats” to the district attorney. This was transparently retaliatory and a shameful abuse of power, so much so that even the Wisconsin ACLU described this arrest as “undoubtedly an unconstitutional violation.” No charges were filed against her and she was later released.

In June 2021, an African woman named Cassandra Smith and her partner were pulled over on the highway just outside city limits and held at gunpoint by the notoriously racist wisconsin state patrol and dane county sheriffs. The company car she was legally driving, they said, was stolen. After much delay and confusion, it turned out that this was patently untrue and that the incident was in fact the result of lazy and incompetent police record keeping practices. In the video we received by way of a FOIA request, the officers refused to tell her why she was being arrested, repeatedly misgendered her as a man, and one even accused her of mocking his accent. Cassandra was also referred to as an “animal” by one of the officers. She was fired from her job for the incident and was out of work when we interviewed her a week later. Cassandra was one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I have had the privilege of meeting. When we asked how her perspective had changed since the incident, she said:

“My perspective on policing has drastically changed. I know for a fact that there’s two sides to every story. Prior to this situation, I would always have benefit of the doubt for our law enforcement as they are here to protect and serve… After this, I know for a fact that that is not the case. Who really are they protecting and serving?”

These are but a handful of the pervasive abuses of state power that have been leveled against African people in the Wisconsin area following the 2020 uprisings. I have excluded a number of higher-profile cases, which are of equal importance, but have been written about at length elsewhere. Notably, the attempted lynching by kenosha police of Jacob Blake Jr. (during which he was shot seven times in the back, while in the car with his three children, leaving him paralyzed). Jacob’s family was well-known for their political activism, and at the time of this unwarranted attack, he himself was engaged in the violence prevention work that the carceral system has routinely demonstrated itself to be incapable of accomplishing in any capacity.

Also, Chrystul Kizer, a 17-year old human trafficking survivor from Milwaukee who shot and killed her abuser in 2018 (a 33-year old white man who was a well known sexual predator, previously arrested on multiple charges of child sexual assault). Chrystul was only released from jail in 2020 after organizers raised $400,000 to pay her ransom. Even now, over five years after the incident, her case is still in the midst of a protracted court battle.

Similarly, the contemptible acts of kyle rittenhouse, a member of a white supremacist militia group who traveled across state lines while in “illegal” possession of an assault rifle, shot 3 protesters, killing two at an action in support of Jacob Blake and other victims of police violence. Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum were publicly executed for their demonstration of support for the railroading of Africans in this country and were subsequently slandered as necessary casualties by the “department of homeland security” (DHS) for the maintenance of “law and order”.

While limited in scope to the events of a single state between only a couple of years, these injustices reflect the reality of the systematic and ongoing genocide of Africans in the united states. It should be emphasized: this is not a phenomenon unique to the state of wisconsin. As an organization, we had close ties with people doing similar work across the country, and the stories we heard from around the country were often worse than anything we had witnessed. Amongst these, were the underreported string of 5 African and Latine people found hanging from trees, immediately and conveniently labeled suicides by police in spite of some of the families suspecting otherwise. The article linked above refers to a report that found 79 unsolved hangings across the country between 2000-2016.

There continue to be countless people, named and nameless, slaughtered by “the law” as we come to the close of the 9th consecutive “most deadly year for police shootings” in the history of the country. For all the talk of “reform” of this horrific system (including the sinisterly named “George Floyd Act” and the facile “8 can’t wait”), the institutional enactment of mass death as a strategy for the maintenance of law and order grows more menacing each year, not less.

We Africans are not the only ones who are maimed, killed, and caged by this violent system, but we are certainly disproportionately affected. There are presently around 1.7 million people caged in this country’s prisons and jails, 1-in-7 of whom are sentenced to life in prison (or “death by incarceration”, as it is more aptly known). At the peak of mass incarceration in 2008, an estimated 2.3 million were held in these dungeons, whose conditions are unfit for any living being. It seems that few people in this country appreciate the horrific scale of these numbers—this catastrophe. There is, in fact, no other country in the world that has a prison population this size and only five that incarcerate their people at a higher rate.

The case for abolition of the genocidal institutions of policing and prisons has been articulated extensively elsewhere, so I will not bother articulating it at length here. But it bears repeating: this pattern of violence is an intentional part of a system of control built upon the capitalist extraction of wealth from the working class, the low-to-no income, and the prisoner, whose enslavement and forced labor form the basis of the modern economy. That African femmes, queer and trans people, and the disabled are amongst the most directly harmed by this system should come as no surprise. As the cases of Chrystul Kizer, Kenyairra Gadson, Roxanne Moore, and the swaths of working class African femmes who have been subjected to patriarchal and state violence illustrate, the law does not exist to protect them either. As the Santa Cruz Women Against Rape observed in 1977:

“The criminal justice system has shown itself to be unresponsive and insensitive to the needs of women. The ordeal of reporting a rape and seeing it through trial is made painful and degrading. Even if the individuals involved try to be pleasant and helpful, the process and structure of the entire system remain hostile and unsupportive to rape victims. This is largely because the women involved have no power in the process…”

It should be understood too that the building of an abolitionist future should not be framed as a demand for the state. This would be an act of folly: the state will never disarm itself or liberate the masses of surplus laborers in the midst of its massive class exploitation and imperialist domination. Instead, let us remember the humanity of past and present survivors of this system, and keep in mind the lessons of their stories so that, when the people do eventually prevail over capitalism, we do not reproduce the same harmful institutions that have ravaged our communities for centuries.

The state has continued to criminalize Katoine, who is clearly in need of support, and he has recently been sentenced to prison. He is not due to be released until he will be in his 30s.