Interview with Joshua Allen: Bending Towards Freedom: Queer Abolitionist Histories & Black Femmehood

Listen to the interview here or here.

A very special thank you to Joshua Allen, Rheem Brooks, Stefania Gomez, Sofia Robledo Rower, and Cherise Morris for bringing this conversation to life.

You’re listening to audio content from bluestockings magazine. bluestockings is an intersectional, anti-oppressive publication that commits to centering voices of people from marginalized and historically resilient communities, across multiple axes of identity. I’m Cherise Morris, and last week submissions editor and my homegirl Rheem Brooks and I sat down to talk with Joshua Allen.

“Love is not like a liberal politic, even though liberals want to steal it. Love is an abolitionist politic and that’s so important.”

Joshua Allen is a black trans-feminine organizer and abolitionist whose work revolves around issues of race, gender and policing. Their work of coordinating direct actions, movement building and analyzing the intersections of race and gender have been featured in major news outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, BBC & ABC. Joshua has been invited to workshop, keynote and organize at universities, conferences and within movements in countries across the world.

Rheem Brooks (RB): So I think the best way is to start is to ask how you got involved with the organizing and the abolition work that you do.

Joshua Allen (JA): So I come from a family that has two branches—one in the south and one in the north—and so I grew up in New York City, in east New York, in Brooklyn. My grandmother, my grandfather and a lot of my great aunts lived in between North Carolina and Virginia and they were members of the Black Panther Party. So three of my great aunts were members of the Black Panther Party, so I grew up around them. Learning from them, learning my organizing skills from them, learn just general life lessons. And I got raised into the work that way. So I can’t really point out one particular moment in which I was brought to prison abolition as a practice, as something that I really care about. I just grew up around it.

Cherise Morris (CM): And so, jumping off of that, if you want to speak to what abolition means to you, and how it plays out in your everyday, and also in the organizing work that you’re engaged in.

JA: So, for me, prison abolition, quite simply is just addressing societal, structural, or systemic issues outside the use of prisons and policing. It’s very simple. And how it shows up every day in my organizing work—well, what I try to say is that abolition, for me is a twofold process. It’s one of deconstructing oppressive systems, and then the second part of that process is rebuilding a world without those oppressive systems. That shows up in a multitude of ways. So, one of the biggest aspects of it for me is just transformative justice. So thinking about ways that I can interact with problems, issues, inequalities that I may face, like, interpersonally or also just within myself, outside of carceral logics. Also, a part of my organizing practice that I’m really trying to step into in 2016 is that if I ever encounter imperialism, I want to challenge it. So if I see a US flag raised anywhere around me, I’m gonna take it down. If I see police violence anywhere around me, I’m going to confront it head-on. That’s just one of the tactics that I’m looking to employ this year, to really push myself into thinking about how I can, one, dismantle oppressive systems, and, two, work to rebuild a world anew outside of that.

RB: I think that’s an important point. You talked about deconstructing and rebuilding. And you mention in this other podcast recording thing that you did “On Abolition: Birthing A New World and Melodies of Resistance”—how sometimes people equate prison abolition to simply destruction, and you tried to push back on that, and I wonder why it’s important for you to make that distinction between, like, prison abolition and being exclusively about destruction. And how the balance between destruction and recreation or rebuilding or building something new plays into your abolition work.

JA: Yeah, yeah. It’s just unfortunate. I’m trying not to push back on it as much as I am trying to illuminate the rest of what the product of abolition is. Like it’s just white supremacist propaganda that abolition is all about destruction. And the whole point is so the US nation-state, so the Israeli nation-state can say abolition is bad. Because this idea of disruption makes people very uncomfortable. So just even imagine in the Jim Crow South, the abolition of Jim Crow laws, and apartheid that’s going on in the southern part of the US. It’s such an intimidating project because it brings imbalance and disruption to so many people. And those people are, particularly, people who benefit from power structures. And so what I’m really doing is, not even really trying to push back on that, but really try to think about all the different things that abolition means that people don’t get a chance to hear. We would be sitting around a table and everyone would be saying they were a prison abolitionist if people understood that it literally just meant creating a world that’s better for all of us. And that’s why I try to bring that up as often as I can.

RB: So this question is definitely coming from the perspective of someone who has been involved in conversations about organizing at Brown—I’ll just leave it at that—but a lot of times identity politics end up being the loudest subject when we talk about prison abolition or anti-police terror campaigns and things like that. So this one question is trying to get at how we build together with the people who don’t consider themselves prison abolitionists but who need to be centered in our movements because they are the recipients of white supremacist hatred, for instance.

JA: Yeah, absolutely. So, identity politics is not only pervasive in college organizing spaces, I’d venture to say that every organizing space that I’ve experienced right now, at least in the last four or five years is centered on identity politics. Especially when it comes to issues of prison abolition, etcetera, or any conversation about racial justice, gender justice, and the like. And so, how do we combat that and/or address societal injustices with people who don’t use that same language or have different identities. It’s quite simple. I feel like if your abolitionist politic is coming from a framework of identity politics, it’s not really real. Your practice is not going to be large enough to save anyone or hold massive injustices or interpersonal violence if all you’re thinking about is who you are and what your one identity is, or how it could relate to other identities. And so Identity politics can just be so boring, because it really presumes that we can put ourselves into categories that somewhat mimics what’s been given to us originally. And that’s just not effective. The reality is that everyone has a different identity. And so the fact that we’re trying to coalesce politics around what shared identities we assume that we may have, isn’t really gonna get us that far. And so, what I try to do is also just think about the connections that I have with people that do not have a name. So what ways do I relate to you that has nothing to with, like, the color of our skin, because I know that you and I—the color of our skin will change based on what border we shift, what time zone we cross, right? And so I’m really interested in thinking about the ways we can all connect with each other past differences that have words, past differences that may be given a name or category, right? The real and authentic ways, beyond the constructions, that we relate to each other. That’s, I think, where an abolitionist politics should be centered from. Not identity politics.

RB: It’s like the Audre Lorde quote, the famous one about celebrating our differences, as opposed to dividing along them. Part of that, too, is making the language of prison abolition—you mentioned this— accessible to people who don’t necessarily identify that way or use that language. How would you say that you’ve made the language of prison abolition and what you really feel it means accessible to people who don’t, like, necessarily come to it.

JA: Yeah. I think that we so often get caught up in, like—oh, some people don’t have this language. How can we make it more accessible? But the reality is so much knowledge and understanding about practices of abolition are housed in these communities—the majority of it, actually, is produced and housed in these communities of people who don’t have the same language. So I would actually even venture to say that people who have the language and words of prison abolition, and transformative justice, and deconstruction X, Y, Z, actually are more removed from an abolitionist politics than those who actually don’t have those words.

The places where people don’t have that academic language, don’t have the fancy language, don’t have these, like, super in-depth analyses around these different things, those are the people who are most impacted and who are leading the work. And so, for me, I’m not interested in trying to figure out how to make language more accessible, I’m trying to figure out how to decolonize my own damn mind, and to understand what other people are doing.

CM: Ruthie Gilmore talks a lot about the state’s exploitation of fear in producing the prison industrial complex. So, I guess I’m just wondering […] if you could speak to how people can respond to their fears in ways that aren’t carceral—recognizing that people have fears, and they experience them, and it’s legitimate.

JA: Yeah, yeah. That’s like, the million dollar question, right? So if any of y’all can figure that out we’re all set, like we can go home, we can all give up, it’s over. So, what answers do I have? I try to imagine that every day, though, really. I’m doing a couple things right now, and these answers, of course, are no way gonna be sufficient and show that I have much more work to do as an abolitionist as well. I’m, like, someone who needs to understand something to be content with it. So, if I don’t know why something’s happen, I’m gonna feel very unsettled. So one of the number one things that I try to do with understanding interpersonal violence, even understanding, like, small tiffs between friends is saying, ok—how much of this has to do with you, and how much of this has to do with the other person, how much of this has to do with all the systems that are around you? And so, like, 99% of the time, actually all conflict has nothing to do with like who you are or who the other person is, but rather the world that surrounds you. And that helps lessen the blow because I think what happens is that we view interpersonal violence, we view skirmishes between people as, like issues that I must take up with your humanity and you must take up with mine. And that’s what perpetuates carceral logics.

And so if I see something bad happens, and my response is, I’m gonna do something to you, and you’re gonna do something to me, as opposed to we’re gonna do something to all the shit that surrounds us that made this happen. That’s when we start incarcerating each other. That’s when we say, ok, you’re disposable and I’m not.

That’s when we say, you should be punished and I shouldn’t. And so I really just try to think about the ways that we can address things systemically as opposed to interpersonally. I don’t think that interpersonal violence is a thing that’s real. I don’t think that one-on-one conflicts can actually exist because we live in a world with so much other stuff that can influence what’s going on between people. And so that’s what I try to think about. And that’s just one of them. Social reproduction is a big thing, like a really big thing for all of us. So if you were to just, like, look through your own family lines, like, literally we all go through the same issues all the time. So whatever life issues that I may be experiencing right now, my mom did, my sister did, my brother did, my great grandfather did. All of us could have had the same issues. Structurally, we all just follow along the same lines, (10:14) and that’s just how the US works. And so I try to think a lot about ways to challenge and disrupt that, ways to understand that actually the experiences that I have are that unique to me, but that I live in a country, in a world right now where some of us are meant to be funneled down the exact same path. And we see that almost at every turn we take. And so I try to think more about those structural inequalities—that social reproduction that would render me upset, that would render me hurt, that would render me frustrated and fearful enough to want to be carceral. And instead of focusing that energy on another person, I focus it on the systemic issue instead.

RB: That’s an important way to think about how interpersonal violence is really an expression of the larger systems—of the state violence. And I love, love—so admire— Reina Gossett. And she does, in her conversations with Dean Spade, [like] to talk about interpersonal violence and the ways that we can acknowledge the ways the system lives within us.

But to sort of veer away from that—I think a lot about Octavia Butler, who I think was the first person to make me think that you can build a future where I am present and centered, as an incredible Black woman science fiction writer. So I think about Octavia’s Brood, though, the anthology that was made in her memory and there is a line in the introduction that I love so much—it like struck me, it was so powerful—and it is about the editors who are writing that they imagine that their enslaved ancestors pictured that one day their children’s children’s children would be free, and then they bent reality to make that happen. And that’s something that I think about, that our stories are so connected to the people that came before us, and we wouldn’t exist without their struggle. [You] mention that you were raised in sort of these types of ideologies through Black Panther Party organizing in your family, but I wonder who else you turn to for inspiration? Someone you turn to when you’re in a moment of crisis?

JA: That’s such a powerful and important quote, especially for this moment. What are abolitionists doing if not bending the future towards freedom? And that’s super important so thank you for sharing that. I look to a lot of people. There’s inspiration everywhere. My friends. My friends are some of the most powerful organizers and abolitionists, I think, in the world. People like Reina Gossett. I love Reina to death. Reina’s a good friend of mine and the work they do is absolutely inspiring and pushes me. And I’m so grateful that Reina exists, because I’m someone who gets to follow down the path that she’s carved out. I’m super grateful for the work that Reina does. I really love Mia Mingus, and the work that Mia Mingus does around transformative justice is so powerful. And I only hope to walk down that path with being able to transform over hurt as Mia Mingus is really laying out for all of us so beautifully right now. And Angela Davis is feel is just like my abolitionist mother—who has laid out these ideas and really just sparked a national discourse about abolition in a way that really I feel like no one else has. So Angela Davis is of course like the ultimate, ultimate abolitionist. Harriet Tubman, right? I just think about what it means to be so fucking badass and to have bent the future towards freedom so much to say “you know what, I’m gonna be free and everybody the fuck around me is gonna be free too.” (14:05) And that’s the kind of energy I want to take with my organizing practice. I wanna say I see injustice I’m gonna challenge it. And everyone around me, I want to be free. Just like I want to be free myself. And those are the people who I really look up to. Those are the people who inspire me, who keep me going every day and who make me remember that all of us should be bending the future toward freedom together.

RB: I mean, it’s important to think about, when we practice abolition every day, that we also need to have inspiration for it every day.

CM: Yeah, and also yesterday in the workshop you opened by having us say our names collectively in this call and response way and then also say the names of an ancestor who, like, allowed our existence, and I’m wondering if you want to speak more to ancestry. Specifically, a lot of the people that you just mentioned were Black women, even if they didn’t label as Black feminist but were in a tradition of Black women organizing for Black women and thus for the betterment of everyone else. And how [your work is] rooted in Black women, and Black femme traditions of self-empowerment?

JA: Yeah Black womanhood, Black femmehood, Black girlhood is prison abolition. I say all the time that we live in a world that’s built on the back and the decimation of Black femmes and Black women and Black girls. And so what is abolition if not a project about getting the world off of your back. And so that’s why I try to center Black femmes. That’s why I try to center Black women. That’s why try to center Black girls in the work that I do., because we’re where the revolution is going to be born out of. That’s just the truth. It’s where its always happened. And even if they don’t identify as Black feminists, or Black queer feminists or whatever else, that these people we just named did the work to pave the way before there was language to do that. So kind of like this inverse understanding of what abolition is. People who don’t have the language for it but who are leading the cutting edge of it. And those are the people who I think are so important and so necessary. And also just speaks to why we’re in the predicament that we’re in now. Because these Black femmes have never really had a chance to lead. And so I just wonder what the world would be like if Elaine Brown, if Kathleen Cleaver, if Assata Shakur were the people who were really leading abolitionist movements from the beginning. And not that they weren’t, not that our bodies weren’t always in those spaces of leadership, but those who were recognized and allowed to flourish as such—I wonder what would be happening instead. You know I wonder like if these people who be victims of rape, if these people would have been incarcerated. I wonder if these people would be exiled to different countries. And that’s the kind of work that I want to do. (16:32) I really want to bring these people squarely center in our liberation movements. I believe that is when we will really get a little bit closer to the abolitionist world and free world we want to live in.

CM: So often I’ve felt frustrated in some abolitionist spaces […] because there is not the acknowledgement that prison abolition is Black women’s work. Like that is where it started and in those experiences of Black femmehood.

JA: Yeah absolutely. I’m looking to destroy that shit. I’m willing to work as hard as I can until I pass out and die because I am in disbelief. I’m in actual disbelief that I’m in the most radical, racial justice movement spaces all the time and I’m like, where are the girls at? Where are the people that just don’t fit any lines? Where are the faggots? Where are the transgressions? Like where are these people who are clearly leading the cutting edge of the work that are never seen or exposed as such. Who are oftentimes being raped, killed, and incarcerated by the same people who should be in these movements. I’m in disbelief. I’m always in a state of disbelief. If we think about the people we have named today, all of these different people who are leading products of abolition have been disenfranchised by the movement in varying degrees. And how ridiculous is that? What would the movement be without us. And that is the narrative I am looking to disrupt. That’s the shit that I’m willing to pull out a gun and shoot for.

RB: [In] the workshop this came up at least in my mind, because we talked about Black femmes, Black women, and Black girls, all the people who need to be centered in the movement. How do we center folks like that, without necessarily ghettoizing into certain identity politics? [How] do we uplift these people without also reinforcing the state’s identification of them?

JA: I’m also extremely frustrated with the movements I’m a part of for not understanding people outside of the categories of man and woman. Whatever language we use that can be accessible to communicate with each other, like when I say I’m looking for the misfits, the disruptions, the faggots, who I am looking for are people who don’t have identities that we can actually hold. And so when I say faggot that can mean literally three million different genders, and three million different presentations, three million different things. The people we don’t have names for, those are the ones I am most interested in. And so maybe we are using a framework of women, femmes, and girls to talk about things—I hope you understand that when I’m saying women, femmes, and girls, I mean a world full of people whose bodies and identities aren’t held by these different words. And mine isn’t either. My identity is not held by any of this shit. Gender nonconforming, non binary, trans, none of this shit actually works for me. So when I say that I hope that people are understanding that there is a world of people who were flattened under these different categories and identities. So for me it is really an effort to think about how we can disrupt categories and descriptions so much so it is to free ourselves not only from the categories but also the systems that created them.

CM: And like obliterating language, because the language we are given to express ourselves in, and understand ourselves through, is a language of violence, and colonization. I think this leads into the next question which is, how do we start living abolition in our daily lives? One example would be reconsidering language.

JA: There are so many ways, and I feel like the most interesting ones to me are just the ones that are simple. So I think about all the time. I live in Bedstuy, and I have internalized shit to deal with. I feel like anyone who is presuming violence has internalized shit to work through. And so there are many times where I’m walking through the world, and I’m like shit I’m scared because I might get hurt for X Y and Z so I think about what are the different ways that I will work around that. So I’m never going to call the police, I’ve never called the police before, clearly I’m never gonna do that. But what am I going to do otherwise if I’m in a situation of violence. Of course I can call a friend, but who is to say my friends are going to be within the important time radius to get to me in a situation of violence. So one, being nice to people seems like a very underrated abolitionist strategy. (20:50) Walking through my neighborhood going to my house I am going to pass by the MTA worker at the train station I am leaving, I’m going to pass the guy that works at the deli, the guy who is standing outside the deli. I’m going to pass by two neighbors standing on the corner who I know I will always see. So what does it mean to have a part of your safety strategy be not calling the police, not necessarily carrying a weapon, not being carceral. But thinking about ways you can use your community and relations you build to keep you safe and protected and looked out for. Another one is mental health, an issue that is killing us, killing so so many of us. And it has all to do with isolation and the different parameters created by the state to keep us separated from each other to want to hurt ourselves. Or to allow different parts of us to hurt ourselves. And so I think so much about what it means to reach out to people, what it means to call people. Like I am embarrassed I don’t talk to my mother as much as I want to, or talk to my sister, or niece over the phone as much as I want to. And I think about what it would mean for us to be connected. Not in a hyperconnected state surveillance kind of way but in a way that allows for us to share love and affection and care for each other. Another one is just honesty. Honesty, honesty, honesty. I’m trying to do this thing where anytime I’m hurt I say it. If I’m offended I say it. If I feel powerful I say it. If I feel weak I say it. If I feel stressed I say it. It is so so important that abolitionist strategy is to be honest with yourself, with your feelings and the world around you. When we have the honesty from each other and from within ourselves, we can allow ourselves to heal easier, to transform easier. And allow ourselves to lend our bodies and our labor and our energy to the healing and transformation of other people. And that is such an important strategy for me.

RB: What does liberation look like/feel like to you? (22:33)

JA: Of course it could be a host of things. But for me, personally, it looks like freedom from the simple shit. I think about, so often, the climate that I live in, here, in New York, if I spend most of my time on the north east is so disgusting and so not natural to my body. My Black body should not be living in the north eastern climate of the North American continent. That actually makes no sense, and that is one of the biggest forms of injustices—that my body never feels right, that my hair never feels nourished. Those are some of the biggest injustices that I feel like can ever happen to one person. For me, I’m really dreaming of and looking to bend toward a future that allows us to rectify those injustices, to allow our bodies, our minds, our souls and our spirits to inhabit spaces and ideas and ideologies and worlds around us that feel comfortable. That feel safe. That feel welcoming. That feel affirming. Without categories, without binaries, without the politics of identity—that’s the kind of shit I’m looking towards. I’m looking to build a world where interpersonal and structural or systemic violence doesn’t exist. And I believe that it can, as radical as it sounds. It sounds radical to say that chattel slavery in the US would be abolished, but it fucking happened. I really do believe that we can create a world where we can be honest enough, where we can be truthful enough, where we can be transformative enough so people do not have to live in physical fear for their bodies. And that’s the world that I’m looking to hopefully bend and shape towards. I can’t imagine a project that I would be more invested in than the ones that feel too big and too large. I’m looking for a world without prisons, without police, without hate, without violence, without hurt. A place where we can be exactly who we are in the most unique but also simple ways. That’s the world that I’m looking to bend towards.

RB: Thank you so much.

CM: That was beautiful.

RB: I think that that’s a beautiful transition out into the rest of our eating. (laughs)

CM: We also like to ask if there’s anything that’s up next for you that you want to mention. Or if you got some homies doing some cool stuff that you want to give airtime to.

[Shout out time]

JA: First I’ll say that I’m really excited about the work that I’m doing this year. One of my best friends and comrades, Cece McDonald and I just earlier this week kicked off the Black Excellence Tour which we’re so excited to be embarking on.  And it’s really our attempt at changing discourses of trans liberalism, which has really just lent itself to carceral logics and to perpetuate racism. And we’re very frustrated, very unhappy, and very negatively impacted by this. And this tour is really our attempt to change discourse around the country, and I’m really excited about that. In two days, I’m going to the Dominican Republic and Aruba to do some organizing out in the Caribbean, which I’m super excited about. And I’m really trying to push some of my organizing work this year to building and cementing the connections between the organizing work that’s happening in different parts of the world, because there’s so many different lessons that we can learn from each other—that we just don’t. So I’m looking to personally deploy myself and my energy to do that. And then of course, oh my god, there are so many brilliant comrades who are doing work all across the country that I’m proud of. That should cover everyone–no. (laughter) Jamal Lewis, one of my best friends is working on a documentary called No Fats, No Femmes which should be out in 2017. It’s going into production soon, which I’m super excited about.  It’s challenging the ways we understand ourselves, our bodies, desirability and how that’s informed by structures and systems all around us. I’m super excited about the work of my best friend, Kiki Williams, who just released a song called #MagicalBlackBitches, which is so amazing, that we’re going to shoot the video for between Oakland, New York, and New Jersey. And who also has a performance piece coming out that is so important. It talks about mental health, Black femmehood, ancestral legacies of resistance, called “Growing Pains” which I’m really excited to be a part of. Who else is doing really good work right now that I’m super inspired by? Of course, the Trans Collective at the University of Capetown. I think they are some of, if not the best organizers I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. I mean, Thato Pule, Nigel Patel, Wandile, so many people who really do work that inspires me and pushes me to think about what it means to be a trans body in the movement for racial justice. The UTC Trans Collective, Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must Fall, and the various different struggle for justice  going on in Cape Town that have been some of the biggest influences on my political work and I’m so appreciative for the work they’re doing.

RB: I’m going to now list a laundry list—so if anyone missed those people, after listening to this conversation check out Reina Gossett if you haven’t, Mia Mingus, Angela Davis. Harriet Tubman—you should already know, but look up again. Keep looking up Harriet Tubman, always return to Harriet Tubman. Black Excellence Tour, UCT, University of Cape Town Trans Collective, Jamal Lewis–and those are just a few the names of people that we’ve mentioned today. Elaine Brown, Assata Shakur.

JA: Kathleen Cleaver.

RB:  Hopefully they can teach someone else today. And then another, I think, powerful note from the conversation is be nice to people—and those people can be yourself.

JA: Not in liberal way either. It’s so easy to be like “love each other.” Let’s love ourselves out of systemic oppression. No. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is love yourself enough to be transformed, love others enough to believe in their ability to be transformed. Love is not like a liberal politic, even though liberals want to steal it. Love is an abolitionist politic and that’s so important. I tell myself this every night before I go to sleep. The world can be scary, that times can be very difficult, that we live in a world with so much violence that can produce so much fear. But really what I would offer to people is that we’re also in a moment of so much potential, of so much political upswing. And, so, what I remind people is to just believe in the transformation of yourself, believe in the transformation of all people, and to believe in the power of transformation of the world around us, and that will carry us on to freedom.

Produced by Stefania Gomez

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