Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a prison abolitionist and scholar, delivered the keynote for the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy’s inaugural event coordinated with “Sanctuary Spaces: Reworlding Humanism,” a Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar on October 9, 2020.
Here, Gilmore grappled with the contradictions of “abolition on stolen land” by mapping out the ways in which carceral geographies inform racial and economic inequalities along with environmental degradations. For the uninitiated, carceral geographies refers to the complex interplay between geography/land, environment, natural resources, policies, control of people via jails and other forms of detention, and the collective impact on human lives, the environment, and the economy. Gilmore traced the origins of modern policing as emerging from a mode of “organized violence” meant to uphold the outright exploitation and thievery from “plantation slavery, mineral extraction,” commodification from “stolen land, and industrial manufacture.” These historical instances exemplify capitalistic exploits of human and environmental violence. Gilmore places well-known examples of US police brutality such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade in this history of organized violence.
While expanding abolition’s scope, Gilmore interweaves three narratives of violent and systematic carceral geography that demonstrate the interconnectedness between capitalism, racism, and environmental abuse that enable a cycle of human suffering. For instance, in her vignette about Michael Zimzun, the Black Panther Party member for self-defense, Gilmore recounts that Zimzun’s fight extended beyond police brutality. Having won a lawsuit against the Pasadena police officers who blinded him in one eye, Zimzun used the money from the payout to study the premature deaths from asthma in black, brown, and poor communities. His work revealed that developing asthma was enabled by the unhygienic environments made possible through organized abandonment policies where housing authorities and private landlords left the inhabitants to fend for themselves in rodent and rat feces infested houses. The cycle of combatting poor living conditions with noxious pesticides adversely affected children’s developing lungs and contributed to asthma development. Thus, Gilmore’s emphasis on environmental wellbeing underlines her politics of a green abolition.
Since carceral geography concerns itself with the economic impact on human life, Gilmore’s next example examines the hurdles in making a livelihood in the US given that the paradoxical cycle of access to health care, unemployment benefits and pensions is dependent on having a job. Added to this mix are the structural barriers to employment such as lack of qualifying documents that permit work or discriminatory factors such as a history of arrest or conviction. Financial precarity is not merely an individual’s or a single community’s problem but one that produces systematic pressure on everyone’s income. Even for the highly skilled profession like nursing and health care, Gilmore argues that the essential workers face economic precarity in the absence of unionized representations. Her call for abolition asks for change via collective action using social wage, the income that gets “skimmed in one way or another” from state and local treasury. She further explains that a green revolution also has to be a red revolution since both the environment and the market, as colonial exploitation has demonstrated well enough, are irrevocably interlocked. Juxtaposing Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, the “planet’s lungs” alongside the Goliath business, Amazon, Gilmore argues that the company “defines the geographer’s task, by combining people, place, and things.” The firm’s vast profits are a result of propagating environmental and human precarity. For example, the company’s namesake is destroyed via clearing stolen land and eroding biodiversity to produce ethanol that fuels machines that in turn help circulate Amazon products.
Meanwhile, the “essential worker” in Amazon’s human workforce depends on food stamps and other means of income support to make ends meet. Thus, the excess of material capitalism is nourished through laying waste to land and people’s lives. Lest one find comfort in Jeff Bezos and his contemporary’s philanthropic largesse, Gilmore offers a stern reminder that philanthropy is not charity but rather a “private allocation of stolen social wage” on stolen land. Lastly, Gilmore’s emphasis on the intersecting forces that control and dictate the quality of human life calls to mind gender theorist Judith Butler’s work on precarity where the latter explains that all human life is precarious given that all are dependent on each other, the environment, and systems to some extent or the other. Of course, the degree of precarity varies. In recognition of the unequally shared precarity, Gilmore offers an ambitious and hopeful intervention through an abolition which is green and red but also international and reparative.
Watch the event and Gilmore’s speech below.