“Patrisse Cullors and the Journey of Abolition “– Jayda Walsh

“A Night with Patrisse Cullors” presented by Torero Program Board (TPB) and Black Student Union (BSU) at the University of San Diego was a discussion and open “Question and Answer” (Q and A) forum. This session was led by Patrisse Cullors who is an author, activist, and founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement. After attending and participating in an inspirational discussion centered around advocacy towards activism, we learned what the difficult life experiences Patrisse Cullors were like and how her story can inspire others to be activists. In 2013, Pattrisse Cullors founded the Black Lives Matter Movement, which had an incredibly large impact throughout a large number of communities over the course of the last several years. As she spoke to us, she opened the session with an informative introductory speech, and this was followed by a Q and A, in which we discussed mental health, school activism, imposter syndrome and an overall story of how she got where she is today. While all of these themes are very important, her work currently focuses on abolition. She opened the talk by asking people to raise their hands if they first, considered themselves an abolitionist, second were on the fence about abolition or lastly did not support abolition. I sat there with my hand down, because honestly I didn’t know what abolition was in the context that she was sharing. So she shared that abolition is the act of challenging and changing a system. In this case it is the prison system and the police system. After this was brought up, she had us ask ourselves, “what actually makes people safe?” She expanded on the idea by mentioning that the prison system and police system truly do not make us safe, but healthy food, access to good housing and access to good health care is what makes us safe. Her emphasis for us as college students was how there is no longer time to wait around for change but that we are the change by saying, “we are who we’ve been waiting for.” She is touching on a long history of fighting for equality and true justice that all can be a part of. To me and I imagine many, the idea of completely defunding the police and wiping out prison systems seems almost impossible. I have learned it is not only possible but is necessary, especially for Black communities. The fight for abolition of prison systems and police is significant to the history of African Americans because acts of racism and hate performed by major institutions and the government that have occurred throughout history are the reason that there is immense value in abolishing these systems that have failed African Americans. 

In order to understand why abolition is necessary, we have to look at history to show us the events that have led to mass incarceration and why billions of dollars are poured into the prison system and the police force. In Pattrice Cullors’, 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World: An Abolitionist Handbook, she states, “Abolition calls on us to not only destabilize, deconstruct, and demolish oppressive systems, institutions, and practices but also to repair histories of harm across the board,” (Cullors 11).  To truly understand this we have to look at a pivotal moment in history that we know as the War on Drugs.   The emergence of the Comprehensive Control Act of 1984 gave the law enforcement power and resources equal to that of the military. As Freedom on My Mind states, “Reagan’s Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1988 imposed a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for anyone convicted of first time possession of one-fifth of an ounce of crack cocaine” (White and Bay and Martin 962). Not only were African Americans being put in jail at very high rates because of this but their sentences were becoming longer over time. In some cases these African Americans were receiving sentences longer than many murderers.

As Michelle Alexander explains it in the episode, “A More Perfect Union,”  of the series titled The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, the War on Drugs actually had little to do with the concern of drug abuse and addiction. Instead the War on Drugs had much more to do with politics, greed, and control. The main driving force behind the War on Drugs was racial politics.  During this period, media and advertising created this ideology that drug abuse was the root of all  problems for poor, Black communities. The media, as well as the unproportional representation of incarceration in the Black communities, began to paint a picture that Black people were the cause of the addiction, drug abuse and gangs in poor communities. Not only was this not actually the case, but the laws set in place and the power that was given to the law enforcement is the reason so many Black people are in jail.  As Freedom on My Mind explains, “By the mid-1990s, the disproportionate number of imprisoned African Americans made it apparent that the police treated blacks and whites differently and that punitive policing in place of jobs, job training, good schools, and adequate housing was a failed policy” (White and Bay and Martin 986). This shows that if money was placed into a different battle, the outcome would be a lot different. Pattrise Cullors writes about this concept in her book, 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World: An Abolitionist Handbook, by saying “We can’t equate a drug dealer with a Klansman and we can’t use punishment as a way to deal with poverty,” (Cullors 209). The War on Drugs was unjustly dealing with poverty, joblessness and issues within poor Black communities by punishing them rather than helping them. As Freedom on My Mind states, “Since the official beginning of the War on Drugs in the 1980s, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses in the United States skyrocketed from 40,900 in 1980 to 452,964 in 2017,” (White and Bay and Martin 1033). Many of these individuals are still incarcerated today, in a prison system that continues to neglect them. 

The incarceration system, is a system built on racial discrimination due to events like the War on Drugs. Through the continuation of history, it is clear that the funding of jails and prisons take away from the funding of communities who are desperately in need of our support. The past helps us see the impact that events like these have on the outcomes of our prison system, and have shaped it to be the negative, non-beneficial system that it is today. The War on Drugs is a major part of the reason that this system is a billion dollar business that the government continues to push money into. 

In Patrisse’s talk, she emphasized on the fact that there is no true mental health institution available to the public in America, and there is great privilege in receiving mental health support. Abolition includes replacing prisons with mental health institutes that are equally beneficial and accessible to all. The billions of dollars that are being pumped into the incarceration system can be put towards institutions that can truly fix the problem, instead of  hiding the problem behind bars. This government money can be used  to combat poverty within Black communities, support underdeveloped and underrepresented school systems, and provide community jobs and resources for Black teenagers. Pattrise Cullors further explains in her book this idea of non-reformist reform by saying, “To make it simple, non-reformist reform is the idea that we’re not fighting to improve an existing, failed system. We are fighting for what we actually need within a brand-new system,” (Cullors 201). The goals and ideas of Abolition are completely taking down a system to build a new one, so now it is time to discuss how we might accomplish this goal. 

In this discussion with Cullors, questions were brought up about how these goals can be accomplished. Some of the questions included,  “How do we become abolitionists? How can we help?” It is questions like these of the reason that she wrote a book called 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World: An Abolitionist Handbook. The purpose of this book is to guide you through the steps that it takes to truly make a change and impact on the underserved communities in our nation. While reading the book, one thing that stood out to me was the art that was shared; including: music, poems, speeches, protest, literature and photographs. It is important to look at the past to see how important art has been in the Black Power movements. One example is shared in Freedom on My Mind, as it explains, “Rap music allowed for the expression and release of frustrations, and as an industry, it also functioned as an avenue to escape the poverty that produced it,” (White and Bay and Martin 988). This music that is listened to every day is the very art that emerged from a time of change. Today, this artwork continues to promote ideals of equality and abolition. Pattrice herself explains, “Music is absolutely the way we push back against racism, capitalism and patriarchy,” (Cullors 248). During her discussion Patrisse told us about a protest she organized in Downtown Los Angeles, where they placed 100 jail beds in the streets as a form of artwork to create an image and moment that would not be forgotten. At this same protest, they used the artwork in different forms as well, including speeches and key words, in order to catalyze action within communities to enact abolitionist change. 

Through art, education, and proper distribution of funds to valuable programs, abolition is not impossible. Pattrisse’s fight for the abolition of prison systems and police force is driven by the history of African Americans, a history filled with racism, hurt. Because of this Pattrisse has not given up on a continued fight for complete justice. Abolition is a necessity now and can be implemented in everyone’s lives. As Pattrise explains, “… the people most in need of change are completely capable of changing these systems themselves,” (Cullors 207).  There is no more time left to wait to see if change will come, but we must be the change we are waiting for and that the Black communities deserve. 


Works Cited 

Cullors, Patrisse, et al. An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World. St. Martin’s Press, 2021. 

“A More Perfect Union” The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. Written and presented by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

White, Deborah G., Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin Jr. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans, with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2021. 

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