Conferences as a Vehicle for Abolitionist Organizing

By Casey Goonan

In a December 2018 webinar hosted by Critical Resistance, several co-founding members reflected on their participation in and experience with organizing national conferences at the turn of the 21st century. Speakers in the webinar included Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Craig Gilmore, Dylan Rodríguez, Melissa Burch, and Rachel Herzing. The conversation was facilitated by CR national member Jess Heaney, and a Q&A closed the session out. This short essay reflects some initial takeaway points from the discussion and asks further questions with regard to the need for conferences in the present and future. It’s a somewhat disorganized essay and is certainly not an exhaustive survey of the history under consideration.

For those who are unaware, the history of Critical Resistance—both as an organization and framework for empowering community struggles against the PIC—is commonly told through a story of four landmark national conferences. The first conference in 1998 marks the most widely commemorated and studied of these four gatherings, “Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex,” held in Oakland, California. This convening established a jumping-off-point for the organization to grow its broader networks and allowed for the concepts informing CR’s practice to return home with groups all over the United States, even internationally to some extent. Two major gatherings were to be organized shortly after: a 2001 convening at Columbia University dubbed “CR East” (in New York City); followed quickly by the 2003 assembly “CR South,” hosted in New Orleans. More recent was the 2008 gathering for “CR10,” held in Oakland—a tremendous 10th anniversary conference that brought thousands of abolitionists together to pause and reflect on the first decade of CR’s work and its role within the broader movement to abolish the prison industrial complex.

Since the early 19th century, conferences have served as an important vehicle for building large-scale movements against racist state terror and violence for oppressed and resisting peoples all over the world. Many forget that in the most turbulent decades of the U.S. anti-slavery movement, Black abolitionists held several historic mass convenings. At the National Negro Conventions of the 1830s and 1840s, for instance, decisive shifts were galvanized in the era’s public debates regarding anti-slavery strategy and tactics, creating ripple effects in the popular mood toward more militant styles of practicing abolitionism.

Moving into the 20th century, we see a long record of conferences providing the grounds for international organizing against imperialism and the transmission of revolutionary teachings between a range of oppressed nations demanding liberation from European and Euro-American rule. Every iteration of the Communist International was punctuated by some sort of mass organizational convening. The emergence of Pan-Africanism can in many ways be traced along the nodal points of the movement’s central world gatherings. The Bandung Conference brought revolutionaries from vastly disparate sectors of the mass struggle together in 1955, formulating a sense of “Third World” identity and coherence as a movement in the process. In the mid 20th century United States, the Black Panther Party spearheaded numerous different convenings, including neighborhood-specific “Community Survival Conferences” as well as a nationwide “United Conference Against Fascism.” The list can endlessly go on.

Echoing a sentiment expressed by Ruth Wilson Gilmore in the webinar’s intro, the conference setting provides what might be called a “zone of intentional convergence”—a manufactured realm in which collectives of individuals and groups of like-mind and political affinity can effectively congregate to reframe their collective vision and goals, to realize a clearer sense of identity and purpose, and to cultivate new intimacies in the course of struggle that were prior unbeknownst. The basic importance of the conference as a tool for building mass movements is in its capacity to breakdown the sense of isolation that characterizes the historical struggles of the deprived, exploited, and oppressed. Conferences are envisaged by many as sites where potential bonds between co-strugglers can be cultivated, nourished, and provides an intentional context for such bonds to be tended to. Moreover, a renewal of organizing commitments and an energizing boost in morale is often injected into a reeling movement as its participants thoughtfully and reflexively pause to assemble.

Organizing through a recurring conference model has, according to Marge Frantz and Cassandra Shaylor (2000), impactful “programmatic implications.” The momentary occasion for pause that defines the conference setting serves as a tangible anchoring tool for movements with long-term perspectives on social transformation, as conferences lead often to more permanent forms of organization, and follow-up conferences stem from the contacts established and subsequently acted on in its aftermath. With this in mind, publications produced as the outcome of a conference are a factor to duly consider, as the lessons learned in these zones of convergence are subsequently trafficked out into the public discourse and inform our worlds in variable new ways. This shows us that the conference does not stop once the event itself is over, as ideas that were formulated in the room do ultimately flood into the popular ideological terrain.

As Dylan Rodríguez explains, the first CR conference in 1998 was imperative for several reasons. Some worth mentioning include how the space of the convening produced a consensus around the idea that the PIC was indeed operating as intended rather than a system that is broken. This corrective to mainstream reformist perspective is common knowledge for millions today, yet at the time it was a notion that hardly circulated outside of particular activist communities. The conference then held a key function in terms of political education, “circulating and popularizing a critical and accessible rhetoric of the PIC” that is speakable regardless of educational training or literacy background. The 1998 conference was equally special in revitalizing and calibrating an “abolitionist” conception of struggle and transformation, resituating prison abolition in a perspective that was principally anti-racist, feminist, anti-capitalist, and international in perspective.

Above all, Rodríguez notes in the webinar how a sense of intimacy between attendees may have been the most vital result of the conference space—a mass feeling of intimacy cultivated between movement “elders,” “survivors of systemic, state and interpersonal violence,” “burned out activists,” “faith communities,” “educators,” and others, which was then trafficked outside of the convergence space. The cross-generational cadre of feminist and queer leadership of color that organized the conference alone was an historic occasion, cutting against the grain of common misconceptions that the prison struggle is solely a fight of and for men or the “masculine.”

Following the 1998 convening, Craig Gilmore describes the situation of the organization in the aftermath of the conference as momentarily paused; noting how there were two immediate problems the organization faced. First, what was necessary for CR was not only that it hosted a conference but that the networks established in the initial convergence continued to work together in the form of an abolitionist campaign. Second, it was quickly realized that the amount of labor, time, and resources that it would take for the development of such a campaign was likely to match what was expended by the organization in the planning of its 1998 conference. Questions emerged surrounding whether or not the same peoples and group infrastructure that mobilized for the conference planning should be the same people involved in CR’s organizing campaigns.  

After the 1998 conference, Gilmore notes, Rose Braz became the first campaign director for CR and the organization eventually gained its first major victory halting the building of a second prison in Delano, California. This would not have been possible without a small conference convened at Fresno State University, called “Joining Forces: Environmental Justice and the fight against prison expansion,” in February 2001. That same year, and in fact the very next month, the second major national gathering of CR took place, this time with a strategic emphasis on region-specific approaches to growing abolition. Rachel Herzing appears to acknowledge how the concept of “regional conferences” came to the fore, as a means to put forward the ideas and charges that were raised in the ‘98 conference. From this came “Critical Resistance East,” the geographic reach of its participants and organizers ranged from Maine to Pennsylvania all the way down to Maryland.

The idea behind the CR East convening was to strengthen the ways grassroots communities of struggle thought about the PIC, “thinking about applications of CR’s framework regionally” which attendees then could incorporate into their work, in ways they saw most useful or fit. Herzing notes how the conference had somewhere around 2000 participants and was organized by a small group of people. About seven people with a broad array of volunteers. Modeled largely on the ’98 meeting, the advances during this second conference are necessary to note. Herzing explains how one of the most innovative features of the CR conferences was the level of “inside-outside” participation, achieved to the extent that the existing technology made available.

While the 1998 conference featured readings of letters and the sharing of statements by incarcerated people, and its program featured the writings of political prisoners and prisoners of war (giving their own takes on the potential of a conference and reflections on their experiences as revolutionaries doing movement work behind bars), CR East, pushed the bounds of inside participation further utilizing new technology to enable the video participation of imprisoned speakers. Herzing also notes how policing and surveillance became centerpieces of the analysis in this second convening. The prison industrial complex was unpacked as the broader system of violence we all (albeit differently) inhabit, and policing and surveillance were interrogated as the key technologies that facilitate the capture of Black, Indigenous, and other criminalized populations.

The utility of the recurring conference model is thus in its time-tested capacity to sustain the internal cohesion of a movement and provide the occasion for necessary changes and shared ideological shifts among (potential) co-strugglers who are separated by circumstance and geography. CR East brought together a far-reaching range of people who prior may have never imagined they would be participating in a movement for PIC abolition for a face-to-face discussion on growing PIC abolition. This is a process that Herzing describes as CR’s “seeding” of abolitionist work throughout the region: the planting of seeds of knowledge, resources, tools, skills, and lessons that then could, with the adequate follow through and nourishing, could grow a movement to abolish the prison industrial complex throughout these regions.

This practice of regional seeding would also continue in the years to come, with 2003 marking the year of CR’s third convening. Melissa Burch notes in her report back from the convening how this Southern regional conference hosted approximately 3000 people across twelve states, held in New Orleans. Its purpose was, Burch notes “to build the movement to abolish the PIC in the South”, whilst “continuing to build CR as a national organization.” There was a sense that much of the national organization, its vision and process internal to CR on a national scale and beyond “didn’t quite capture the particular issues and politics specific to the South, as a region.”

The idea behind CR South was thus to bring visibility to the particularity of Southern regional struggles against the PIC, and the organizing for the conference as Burch notes was “years in the making.” These are the most profound points of emphasis: that organizers quietly took their time. Organizers of the conference practiced a more calculated, methodological, and intimate approach to building the unity of peoples that was to congregate in 2003. Burch mentions how organizers called people on the phone regularly. They did not use email as the central medium of communication between organizers. Instead, organizers traveled to meet potential attending local collectives in person, hosting workshops and teach-ins, discussion sessions, speaking tours, and more.

The goal was essentially to visit people in their own spaces and generate a shared analysis of the PIC in the region through the process. More time was dedicated toward nurturing an abolitionist sensibility amongst participants by focusing on the relationships that preceded the planned convergence. These are all things that both Herzing and Burch explain in their recounting of CR South’s backstory: “A lot of effort was put into recruiting people to come and making sure they felt connected and invested before they got there and making it possible for folks to come,” and logistically, the conference organizers “worked really hard to figure out peoples accommodations,” including considerations of planning carpools, housing, and food.

To paraphrase George Jackson, “Where the conditions for revolution do not exist, they must be manufactured.” And by the year 2003, the approach to movement-building that Critical Resistance was experimenting with can be described as manufacturing an abolitionist culture of resistance along three general lines of tactical significance. On one hand, the organization mobilized through grassroots organizing campaigns carried out by local chapters scattered mostly in the United States, with international analogs. These campaigns intend to strengthen the work of community groups and activists who were already at work on the issues of state violence specific to their home regions. Some members describe this supporting function as a type of infrastructure for bolstering community organizing at the local level, a framework that might guide and inform but never override the activism already going on in these different geographies. Beyond an organization, Critical Resistance was thus also consolidating as a “concept”—adaptable, applicable to a far-range of possible struggles in different geographical contexts.

On the other hand, CR understood early the imperatives of abolitionist “consciousness raising” through public education projects, injecting an abolitionist analysis of the PIC into the public discourse at multiple institutional sites and on numerous social scales. Truly multi-sited activism, CR chapters began hosting radio programs, making CDs and video productions, held film festivals, spoke in classrooms, on TV news, in churches and “virtually anywhere people are interested in learning” about the PIC. In tandem with these two processes integral to promulgating a mass abolitionist movement, Critical Resistance emphasized their conference model of organizing.

Over the span of ten years, the organization used these large national and regional gatherings to “connect people and organizations, to birth local CR chapters, to build powerful lasting coalitions, to gather information on local and regional needs and efforts and most significantly, to build the movement by both initiating and supporting existing grassroots organizing efforts against the PIC across the country.” Yet what has yet to be properly accounted for is the broader terrain of conference-based abolitionist organizing that was taking shape and making place during this very same period. Accompanying and always in some sort of relation to CR’s landmark conferences came an outpouring of convergences responding to the prison crisis, from major international convenings like The International Conferences on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) to continental gatherings of the North American Anarchist Black Cross Network (ABCN), the Anarchist Black Cross Federation (ABCF), and other political prisoner/POW solidarity groups.

One case in point is the Jericho ‘98 March, an attempt to galvanize and bring together activists from throughout the United States whose work was centrally the fight for “Amnesty and Freedom for All Political Prisoners.” The ’98 March was more of a convergence than a traditional march, which eventuated in a public gathering that allowed for new connections between prison activists to be made. The initial call for proposals reads: “With Jericho `98 we are pushing for the admission on the part of the United States’ government that our political prisoners and prisoners of war do exist inside the prisons of the United States. We are pushing for recognition in the international arena and therefore changing how the world views our liberation struggles inside the belly of the beast.”  Hundreds of people met and spent the day in the streets of New York city to march, share resources and information, and listen powerful speakers, including Dennis Banks, Chokwe Lumumba, numerous members of PP/POW defense committee’s, and CR-cofounder Angela Y. Davis among many others.

One of the most notable of these turn of the century abolitionist convenings was “Break the Chains,” a multi-day conference organized in 2003 by the Anarchist Prisoner Legal Aid Network (APLAN), a number of ABC formations, and the Break the Chains crew. Conference speakers included experienced radical prison activists like Rita “Bo” Brown, Safiya Bakari, Chrystos, Ward Churchill, John “Splitting the Sky” Hill, Matt Hart, Paulette d/Auteuil, Ed Mead, Claude Marks, Stormy Ogden, Laura Whitehorn, Vikki Law, Anthony Rayson, Mary Martinez Wenzel, Brigette Sarabi, Peter Urban, Sailor Holladay, Tommy Escarcega, and Nora Callahan. The event’s program contained solidarity statements from Sara Jane Olson, Jeffrey Free Luers, Jalil Muntaqim, John Two-Names, and formations like the International Platform Against Isolation and the Barrio Defense Committee. A year before “Break the Chains,” we see further that the North American ABC Network hosts its first major conference gathering in Austin, Texas. Other convenings of the ABCN would emerge over the next decade, such as in Chicago in 2006.

In fact, it was in a reflection on his experiences at the first ABCN conference that former political prisoner and anarchist community organizers Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin made his famous call to form a United Prison Movement, the likes of which has not yet been fully realized or achieved: “Coming in, I made it clear that I was only interested in a broader based Anarchist Black Cross as a viable movement in the United States, and saw the ABCN as a large part of that. I pointed out that I still supported the entire international ABC movement, even tendencies like the ABC Federation, that the leadership of this ABCN group might be opposed to. In fact, I would like to see a United Prison Front of both ABCN, ABCF, Critical Resistance, and all of the contemporary groups supporting prisoners and fighting racism, as well as Black/POC, women, Queer and other liberation groups, but of course that has to be your decision.” Contemporary abolitionists might do well to return to a few of these historic calls for solidarity amongst all opponents of the carceral state and prison industrial complex.

That INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence held their first “Color of Violence” conference just two years after CR is no coincidence, inspired in large part by both positive aspects and elements lacking in the ‘98 convening. Two more Color of Violence conferences were to follow that decade: “Building A Movement” held in Chicago (2002) and “Stopping the War on Women of Color” in New Orleans (2005). (Recently, in 2015 a fourth “Beyond the State: Inciting Transformative Possibilities” was organized.) Each conference was framed by obstinately abolitionist anti-violence objectives, bringing more and more abolitionists into the fight against interpersonal violence and more and more anti-violence organizers into the movement to abolish the prison industrial complex. The stakes for these conferences were organized “primarily for a small group of impassioned women of color activists who were fed up with existing organizations that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) address violence faced by women of color. They wanted to understand and actively confront violence while placing women of color at the center.” Andrea Smith as early as 1999, in an interview following the ’98 CR convening, notes how a desire was invoked by numerous participants for a more intentional approach to addressing interpersonal power relations (specifically gender-based violence) if there were to be future meetings. The “Color of Violence” conferences were certainly in part a culmination of this urgent desire.

In between these conferences, in 2004, INCITE! also led an organizing effort to hold another landmark conference: “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond The Non-Profit Industrial Complex” at UC Santa Barbara. This conference brought activists together to discuss the effects of the Non-Profitization of the U.S. Left and progressive “global North” progressive movement more generally, producing an analysis how organizations since the 1970s have become increasingly entangled in the economic and legal machinery of capital, corporate governance, and private philanthropy. Looking back in the archives of this period one gets a sense of how thrilling it must have been as an attendee of these paradigm-shifting convergences. On that note, the 2006 conference “Transforming Justice” is another historic landmark that should be highlighted, most especially in terms of shaping the contemporary public discussion around the oppression of trans and gender-nonconforming people imprisoned by the United States government. Transforming Justice, as its lead-organizers note, was the “first-ever national gathering of LGBTIQQ former prisoners, activists, attorneys, and community members” to meet together and “develop national priorities towards ending the criminalization and imprisonment of transgender communities.” It is noted by conference organizers to be the first ever gathering of its kind in scale of participation, but also the first to do so in an explicitly abolitionist framework.

In the months following the recent 2018 National Prison Strike, there has been a noticeable upturn in the number of abolitionists demanding a greater convergence of peoples, forces, and resources within the movement to abolish the U.S. prison industrial complex. It may be because I’m the one posing the question, and certainly there is good reason not to have one. Conferences are thought of by many to be a drain on resources, energy, and time. The back story to each CR conference involved significant resources and travel, labor, and energy that took organizers across the country developing the foundations for a convergence to even be fathomable or tangible possibility. The 10th anniversary conference, Herzing notes, involved a group of core organizers of approx. 100 people and thousands of volunteers across the country. “The goals of the conference were explicitly about assessing” the landscape and terrain of abolitionist work. There were hundred and eighty-five sessions over two days, two plenaries, nine performances, 17 films art show installations, info tables, etc. 9000 free meals were served in the open air to anyone who wanted them including participants. Carpools were arranged, housing was subsidized, and travel for 250 people Herzing notes how the tenth anniversary gathering used “pre-conferences” or “pre-convenings” that ensured and held the space accountable to a holistic, radical political vision, with goals ranging from Indigenous liberation to linking fights against interpersonal violence and the PIC.

There is also no promise that the organizers of the conference, who likely have the capital to mobilize and provide services for mass numbers of participants, don’t turn out to be elitist or authoritarian snobs. In the case of any human gathering, there are issues of power dynamics that also must be considered; those issues that always seem to plague activist environments when a more privileged sector enters into a community of people whom they are not yet used to following the leadership of, or even co-struggling with. But still it’s exciting and meaningful to stress that people are interested in some sort of big convening (convenings?) as early as this Summer—even if only regionally, by neighborhood, block by block. Survived and Punished just recently held a national gathering in New York City, and Fight Toxic Prisons will be hosting something of the sort in Florida this Summer. The work is already in motion, now is the perfect time to plug in. There are so many great organizations who offer examples to follow, so now is the time to build upon this record of people’s revolt and learn from the lessons already embedded within the abolitionist organizing tradition.

While the stakes and needs that give rise to this demand for convergence clearly differ across persons, organizations, and regions, what is regularly indicated by most abolitionists is a delight in the intrigue or opportunity to convene the various networks, mass organizations, and smaller groups interested PIC abolitionist work face to face; to infuse the experiments of new and emerging organizers with the lessons of more the experienced and historically conscious; to meld together ideologically diverging tendencies into a vast and indestructible confluence of anti-carceral struggles for human liberation. The belief, it appears, is that movements struggling for revolutionary transformation are sustained, and their future trajectories given coherence and clarity, in the process of taking up space and seizing time in manufactured zones of convergence. The hosting of large public conference gatherings has, in recent memory, consistently been providing one of such zones.

It is also clear—at least in my mind—that conferences are not only a thing that “free-world” activists do, merely collecting statements or struggling to traffic a prisoner’s voice into a gathering of outside activists but can be self-organized by prisoners in every gulag around the country. How about a conference held in every space where collective discussion in the gulags is willed into existence and made possible by inside organizing throughout this wretched settler colony? How about a multiplification of convergences within the belly of the beast to convene and reframe the “Agreement to End All Hostilities” as a revolutionary gang truce? How about in tandem with outside gatherings there were also self-organized prisoner convenings? Could these not be amplified by imprisoned comrades who are smart with technology and social media? How about we organize a few big regional convergences right outside some prisons across the country, make a spectacle of this atrocity prison crisis since everything else in this god-awful fascist hell hole seems to be concealed under the blinders of white supremacist American reason.

References

Marge Frantz and Cassandra Shaylor, “American Radical Traditions in Conference Organizing” Social Justice Vol. 27, No. 3 (2000): 176-179.

Casey Goonan is a 28-year-old abolitionist currently living and working in Chicago. He can be reached directly by mail for feedback and comments at the following address: P.O. Box 408197 Chicago, IL 60640.