On Trans and Queer Prison Abolition and Sustaining Movements: An Interview with Eric A. Stanley

eric stanley bio

Eric A. Stanley is an assistant professor in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Along with Chris Vargas, they directed the films Homotopia (2006) and Criminal Queers (2015). A co-editor of the anthology Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, Eric organizes with the direct action collective, Gay Shame.

I sat down with Eric to talk prison abolition, deconstructing binaries, and building alternative futures.

Cherise Morris (CM): For all the people out there who don’t know: How do you define prison abolition?

Eric Stanley (ES): Prison abolition is both a response to the enormous violence that constitutes the prison-industrial complex, but also a commitment to dreaming collectively beyond and against the pragmatism of the political as such. Or perhaps put another way, prison abolition is a pre-figurative as it illustrates how that the prison system is not “broken” as many argue, but it is working exactly as designed; as a set of interlocking practices, laws and fantasies that liquidate entire life-worlds, particularly Black, Native, gender non-conforming, disabled, undocumented and more. This massive violence, which we might call the United States, is ironically enacted under the banner of safety and justice.

CM: And that gets at my next question: In my personal view, there are multiple components to it and one is actually ending the prisons, the jails, the detention centers and the juvenile youth facilities. The second part is reimagining a society, our standards, our values, our systems of community, our institutions that define our safety. What are some ways that people can start living abolition right now in their daily lives, because it is such a long process?

ES: That’s a really important and also enormous question. The ways that we treat each other are always already interpellated by the logic of the prison-industrial complex. For example, we’re constantly locked in punitive relationships with each other.  I think it’s really important to imagine what a an abolitionist interpersonal and community relationship would actually look like. And just like there’s not a one-size-fits-all definition of what abolition is, in the same way the question of what a non-punitive interpersonal or community relationship might be. Following Reina Gossett provocation, we must ask what it would mean to build worlds that weren’t based on exile and exclusion? And how can we create communities that address the very real systems of violence that we live through, so that hopefully they won’t be perpetuated by the same people in other places.

CM: In Captive Genders, you parse out the difference between a framework that operates from the reformist perspective and a framework that operates from the abolitionist perspective. This is something that I’m personally always asking myself. How/can reformism and abolition work together?

ES: Something that we’ve been talking about for a long time in prison abolitionist organizing are non-reformist reforms. If under systems of racialized global capitalism usually all we have are bad and worse choices then the question of maneuver is central.  If I’m thinking about a particular political strategy its important to ask if: whatever we’re fighting for now, are we going to have to be fighting against it in five years? As an example, there’s this really intense push right now to create trans-specific housing or gender-specific housing [in prisons]. And for me, as an abolitionist, while we have to attend to the immediate needs of people inside, I know whenever we add more beds it’s always a bad choice—because prisons work through systems of necessary overcrowding. If we were to build a gender-responsive prison—which is the kind of language that people started using about 10 years ago—or a trans-specific pod which might add 200 more beds, then all of a sudden there’ll be 600 more people locked up.

In terms of non-reformist reform it’s important to look at the case-by-case basis. If someone inside is saying, “I might be a bit safer in another pod versus the one I’m in,” then fighting in solidarity for them to be moved is vital. This attention to specific situations is what many people inside have been arguing for. However, there is a push for people, mostly by those that are not currently or formerly incarcerated, to develop a blanket policy that will house trans women in women’s prisons. And most trans women I know that are inside currently or have been argue that for some of them that might be safer—but for others that might be more dangerous because they have relationship in that specific pod that allows them some measure of safety that they might not get somewhere else. This is a point that CeCe McDonald has and continues to make.

For me it’s important to hold firm to an abolitionist politic, because as many of us have argued, prison actually expands and grows through reform. The history of the prison itself is a history of attempts to reform it.

Like I was saying before, abolition is a dream of the future, but also a practice of the present.  We live abolition every day. The making of abolition lives in our interactions with each other, the political struggles that we engage in, whose voices we choose to center, whose voice we choose to pull back—all those are in the materiality of making an abolitionist world.

CM: And you talked about the PIC working from reform and expanding itself. I’m thinking about the creation of laws for “non-violent” offenders and “violent” offenders, and facilities for “men” and facilities for “women,” etc. Could you talk about how the PIC works to produce and reproduce these binaries that are surrounding us?

ES: I think—and this is something that a number of us that have been engaged in a specifically trans and queer prison abolition politics have really tried to argue—that prisons, themselves, are gendering apparatuses, in the same way that every kind of institution is a gendering apparatus. At its most basic, it’s not that there are these categories of people, men and women, but the bifurcation of the prison itself, into only those two discrete categories reproduces the illusion that there are only two genders. It’s an old argument, but I think remembering that is important because it helps us hold tight to an abolitionist politic. If we’re actually invested in trans liberation, then we have to necessarily be also invested in prison abolition.

CM: And so my next question is, I guess, how did you come into your abolitionist consciousness?

ES: It’s both through personal biography, and through family members experiences with different iterations of the PIC, and then also being politicized through other social movements. One of the first places I became radicalized was through ACT UP’s work in the early ‘90s. Much of that work was organizing around people with HIV in prisons. I certainly didn’t have any of the language that I have now, but I was like “wow this shit is fucked up.” Around that time I also started working in solidarity to free political prisoners like Marylyn Buck and Laura Whitehorn. Now, hopefully, we’re inhabiting a somewhat different political terrain that understands the ways in which trans and queer and gender nonconforming people, specifically trans women  of color, are targeted.  Building on, and not sublimating that analysis, our movements still have a lot of work to do to understand the ways in which other identities intersect with the PIC. For example the connections between ableism and incarceration.

For me, as for so many of us,  Angela Davis has been and continues to be a major figure in my political education. [Are Prisons Obsolete] is a really great introduction. I use it a lot when I teach because I think it slowly walks people through the intricacies of the PIC and abolition and by the end of it you’re like, “Oh yeah.” However, US society is built through such a culture of fear that even allowing people to imagine what a world might look like without prisons terrifies most of us. Even though we know that right now the people that produce the largest amount of violence in the United States are running the government, are running the banks, the military, are the police department itself. And yet still we’re afraid of these these 2.5 million faceless people that are held captive away from our communities. A lot of our work has to de-naturalize the production of fear, which is always racialized, that constitutes the social.

CM: Something that always comes up with me is the conflation of abolition with utopianism. “How do you expect to reimagine a world where like bad things just don’t happen–or the things that we label as bad don’t happen.” How do you respond to the “this is unthinkable,” “this is so imaginative and impractical” question?

ES: I think what is impractical and unthinkable is the fact that we are living in a country that has 2.5 million people held captive under unlivable circumstances 24 hours a day. And an unquantifiable number of people that are living in jails in Indian country, psychiatric facilities, ICE facilities and on and on—so the number’s actually a lot larger than 2.5 million. In a way trying to reposition the question so that we can be fearful of our contemporary reality in terms of the massive amounts of violence that are already happening as opposed to the kind of mythological violence that might happen. And this is something, whenever I give a talk about prison abolition, someone will always be like, “What about the axe murderer?”

By way of an answer, its important to remember that what we have now, prisons, are not sites of accountability, they’re mechanisms for the disavowal of accountability. So what would actual healing and accountability look and feel like? And because the PIC doesn’t allow us to ask that question it’s hard for us to both collectively and even individually pose it. If somebody does something catastrophically violent to you, it’s hard to even imagine what redress might look like. And I think that’s part of the massive violence of the PIC, along with the corporal violence, is its affective harm in that it won’t allow us to dream otherwise

CM: And on the same wavelength as the unthinkable, Reina Gossett, who you know, came to Brown about two months ago, and during her visit, she talked a lot about the role of magic and imaginative thinking, the role that those things can play within prison abolition and a total reimagining of society. What role, if any, do you see magic and alternative, creative, generative, imaginative exercises playing in the movement?

ES: I think, and this is a point that Andy Smith makes really well, in a lot of ways, the religious right is way ahead of us in this question. They have a good time. They always have food at their meetings, they dance. And we go to our meetings, and we think if we’re the most tortured somehow we’re gonna win. And that’s a kind of after life of the New Left and its masculinist austerity that we really need to let go of. Joy, imagination, creativity, are all not after thoughts to our movements but actually should be at the center of them. We need to model what kinds of worlds in which we want to inhabit–in the same way that abolition is a living politic and not some sort of deferred future-oriented politic. And Reina, of course, is really great at modeling this. Chris Vargas and I made this film called “Criminal Queers” that uses a kind of camp humor as an abolitionist tool, and that’s really important to us. People assume that it’s a talking head documentary, and then they see it and they’re like “woah.” It’s a loosely-narrative based film that uses humor directed against the state, as way to open up conversations around trans and queer people and the PIC. We need to grow our fabulous humor, passion, joyful expression, and pleasure at the same time that we’re tearing down the current institutions. If we model the worlds that we want and need, then we are actively tearing down the brutality of our contemporary moment.

CM: The system thrives from activist burnout- that’s what it wants you to do.

ES: And that’s something that Reina and I talk a lot about. We met through our organizing around Critical Resistance’s 10 year anniversary, and we thought a lot about questions of burnout. What we actually need is sustained movements where people can live presently in their body, whatever that means for them, for a long time.

What is actually missing? Why can people not stick around? Why can people not be present? These are questions without answers, and so they must be asked anew. It’s kind of a deconstructive politic that leaves that question open.

CM: There’s a section in Captive Genders that’s like a shout out to all the folks and organizations doing stuff to support the movement. Who are the homies who are doing this work who deserves props? And what’s next for you?

ES: A group that I work in solidarity with that I always have to give props is TGIJP, which is Transgender Gender-Variant and Intersex Justice Project. One of the things that I really love about them is that they are officially a nonprofit. But they use the non-profit shell as a way to give direct resources to people. They’re an organization run by and for formerly incarcerated trans women of color, which because of the transmisogyny and anti-Blackness of the funding world, means they have little support. But right now, for example, they’re working on a reentry program. They can have people that literally come right out of prison and give them a paid internship—supporting the voice and the leadership of their people.

Another organization is Breakout! New Orleans. They’re a youth-focused organization, but they really center the voices of people that are most impacted in a way that is building leadership and not just using “youth” as a category to get some grant. And there’s a lot of the usual suspects that I support but, for me, the less heard of, the less centered in our movement organizations are the ones that we need to be constantly supporting. Especially things like Breakout!, people that are not working in the big cities. People are in prison everywhere in the United States, and places that are even less resourced need to be held up.

And what’s next? Well, we are finishing up the second expanded and revised edition of Captive Genders, which will come out in October and has a bunch of exciting new pieces. There’s a new forward by CeCe McDonald; a piece by Chelsea Manning; and a great piece by Jonetta Johnson who works at TGIJP, and Toshio Meronek, about reentry as an abolitionist politic. We fight so hard to get someone from going into jail, but then after people come out of jail or prisons there’s almost no support. And so reentry, which isn’t very glamorous or sexy or something that people want to raise money for—but it’s actually probably the most important time of abolition. We know the ways in which people get caught up in the system forever for all the obvious and unobvious ways… And Criminal Queers, as I said, hopefully will be done soon.

CM: Premiering in the bay area?

ES: Yeah, in June. We’ve been working on it for eight years, so we show it in many different stages. Criminal Queers is fun because a lot of times we’ll get booked at a university by their LGBT group because they think it’s some kind of like “gay movie” and then they watch what we made… This often leads to conversations around abolition with people who usually wouldn’t come into contact with it. People also will come see a movie that won’t come to a book talk or panel.

CM: Being a student at a liberal arts school, there are a lot of white folks who want to have good intentions but they don’t understand full solidarity yet. As a white passing person in a movement that centers the voices of trans and queer people of color, how do you balance that identity in your work and in this movement?

ES:  In anti-PIC work we often use the term “people most impacted.” This can be useful because it allows for a shifting terrain of struggle, while, hopefully at least, always understanding how anti-blackness and settler colonialism as written through gender normativity constitute the PIC. To this end, I’m really interested in material redistribution of resources. Or, how can those of us with access to resources in a specific context (for example, in a university) extract and redistribute those resources. This is one version of what Fred Moten’s “undercommons” might look like. This can and should take many forms, from copy editing something, making flyers, or trying to hook someone up with a speaking gig at a school so that they can survive, to painting banners. We need to actually utilize resources as a way to dismantle certain systems. Indeed, the master’s tools might not dismantle the master’s house, but if we configure some of those tools, perhaps we can burn it down.

Our most radical movements have always done this out of need, we have a long genealogy from which we can model. Yet, with the professionalization of activism, many of these practices have stopped or have been forgotten. We must radically reimagine redistribution of resources as ways to keep people in movements, because people need to eat and have housing while struggling.

CM: And you need to survive within the system as you’re breaking it down.

ES: Yeah, like we were talking about before, there’s no outside of capitalism. And having resources is very real. At the same time, we all hold multiple divergent and conflicting positions at all times, and that’s OK because that’s actually how we inhabit the world. Abolition isn’t a politics of purity. It’s not about: ‘you do this or you’re a bad person.’ and I think that sometimes, people like to confuse those things. Because we live in nothing other than contradiction, so it’s not about being the “best” abolitionist. It’s about trying to figure out what kind of world we can make together.

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