Yesterday I wrote about the Quakers for Abolition Network I am a member of. We will be meeting this afternoon, so I’m thinking of what I hope our network might do. There is so much that needs to be done.
My friend Jake Grobe, from Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI) was at our Des Moines Mutual Aid food distribution this morning. He doesn’t get to attend too often because of his organizing work. He told me about an upcoming action at MidAmerican Energy to demand that they shut down all their coal plants. Here is the story about a previous action.
They also want MidAmerican to invest in retrofitting homes for energy efficiency with a focus on families of color and low-income individuals.
Jake Grobe stood on a ledge wearing a bucket hat and a blue T-shirt with “REVOLUTION NOW” printed in all capital letters. He held a megaphone to his mouth, which was covered by a black and white bandana. (All the protesters wore masks.) Grobe asked the crowd who is most hurt by the effects of climate change.
“It’s Black, Indigenous, it’s poor working families that are unable to recover from flash floods, from droughts from wildfires. Climate crisis increases all inequalities,” he answered himself.
One of the things I love about Mutual Aid is how we network about each other’s work. I hadn’t known about the MidAmerican actions, but now I hope to attend the next one. He said it would be good if I could take photos there. This networking lets us know who has skills, like photography, which can help each other’s work.
Speaking of photos prompted me to share about a recent action at Chase Bank in support of the Wet’suwet’en peoples fighting against the Coastal GasLink pipeline. He hadn’t been aware of that.
Support for Wet’suwet’en at Chase bank
That also reminded me of going to SUMMIT headquarters in Ames, Iowa, recently. SUMMIT is one of the companies proposing to build carbon pipelines in the Midwest. My friends Sikowis Nobiss and Mahmud Fitil know of my photography and asked me to attend the gathering there.
Jake and ICCI are also working to stop CO2 pipelines.
We talked about how bad the Iowa legislature is. He said we need our own socialist party. I told him about the Central Iowa Democratic Socialists of America’s prison letter writing project.
He asked what I had been doing. I described the Quakers for Abolition Network, which interested him. He had been arrested three times last year at direct actions and said you don’t really know how bad prison is until you experience it yourself.
The call for the abolishment of police, policing and the police state is not a new call. For centuries, Black and Indigenous people have called for the end of violence enacted on their bodies and communities by police. They have been calling for other possibilities that move us from the appearance of safety to truly safe and whole communities. In the wake of continued high profile police shootings across the United States, many people in the church pushed for an Anabaptist-oriented response and resources that helped us to move as a church into solidarity with the pain and brutality being felt and witnessed on Black, brown and Indigenous people. This curriculum is our response and invitation that we allow the Spirit to awaken our imagination to build a world where we can all be safe(r) and flourish without threats of violence.
The tragic news of the recent killings of police officers ratchets up calls for more policing. Demonizing those of us who call for defunding the police. New York City’s mayor refers to defunding the police as a bumper sticker.
President Joe Biden’s meeting with New York City Mayor Eric Adams on February 3, 2022, comes as cities across the U.S. face a rise in violent crimes and represents a politically awkward shift in how the Democratic Party is approaching policing and criminal justice.
As a Senator in the 1990’s, Biden was known to be tough on crime, and Adams, a former NYPD captain, has been vocal about his support for police and the criminal justice system. They both find their long-held positions on policing and crime back in the Democratic mainstream, as some mayors and elected officials have shifted their stance on crime and the “defund the police” movement over the past several months.
During his meeting with Adams, Biden expressed his opposition to defunding the police as he said, “the answer is not the defund the police, it’s to give you the tools, the training, the funding, to be partners [and] to be protectors.”
As an abolitionist, it feels like menace is in the air. I’m reminded of my teen days when I resisted the draft while the Vietnam war was raging. It was great to be living in the Scattergood Friends School community then.
Most people think about abolition in terms of what it is against. Against the institution of slavery, against police and prisons. I like to think about what abolition is for.
I am a member of the Quakers for Abolition Network. Mackenzie Barton-Rowledge and Jed Walsh have been organizing this effort. Following are two articles published in Western Friend. To join the Quakers for Abolition Network, email Jed Walsh (jedwalsh9 [at] gmail.com) or Mackenzie Barton-Rowledge (mbartonrowledge [at] gmail.com).
Mackenzie: Let’s start with: What does being a police and prison abolitionist mean to you?
Jed: The way I think about abolition is first, rejecting the idea that anyone belongs in prison and that police make us safe. The second, and larger, part of abolition is the process of figuring out how to build a society that doesn’t require police or prisons.
M: Yes! The next layer of complexity, in my opinion, is looking at systems of control and oppression. Who ends up in jail and prison? Under what circumstances do the police use violence?
As you start exploring these questions, it becomes painfully clear that police and prisons exist to maintain the white supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist status quo. The racial dynamics of police violence are being highlighted by the recent uprisings and the Black Lives Matter movement.
We are in the same place, with a call to imagine a culture radically different than the one in which we live. Abolishing police and prisons, like abolishing slavery, would change the structure of our society: dramatically decreasing violence and undoing one set of power relationships that create domination and marginalization. And in place of this violence, we could, instead, have care.
Perspectives from the Quakers for Abolition Network
In late 2020, the two of us wrote an article for this magazine, called “Abolish the Police.” Through writing the piece, we realized we wanted to convene a larger space where Friends with an interest in police and prison abolition could have conversations with one another. Quaker abolitionists today face major pushback from our Meetings; we hoped that drawing Friends together would support and strengthen our work.
In this context, the Quakers for Abolition Network is being born. We are a collection of Friends from at least five Yearly Meetings; we range in age from high school to our 80s; we are disproportionately queer and trans. While AFSC and FCNL staff are participating, this is a grassroots project without any formal connections to existing organizations. We are in the process of defining our mission statement, structure, and our methods for addressing white supremacy when it shows up in our work, while building relationships with each other as we go. Below, four Friends write about their approaches to abolition, their lessons, and their visions for where Quakers might be headed.
Jeff Kisling: Mutual Aid and Abolition
I grew up in rural Iowa, where there was very little racial diversity and interactions with police and the court system were rare. About ten years ago, I was blessed to become involved with the Kheprw Institute, a Black youth mentoring and empowerment community. I’ll never forget how shocked I was when a Black mother broke down in tears, explaining how terrified she was every minute her children were away from home. It was obvious that every other person of color in the discussion knew exactly what she was saying.
After retiring, I was led to connect with Des Moines Mutual Aid, a multiracial organization founded to support houseless people. For over a year, I’ve helped my friends fill and distribute boxes of donated food, while continuing to learn about the framework of mutual aid.
To me, mutual aid is about taking back control of our communities. Besides the food giveaway, we support houseless people and maintain a bail fund to support those arrested agitating for change. We also work for the abolition of police and prisons.
To join the Quakers for Abolition Network, email Jed Walsh (jedwalsh9 [at] gmail.com) or Mackenzie Barton-Rowledge (mbartonrowledge [at] gmail.com).
Mackenzie Barton-Rowledge and Jed Walsh: Introducing the Quakers for Abolition Network, Western Friend, Sept 2021
The greatest driver to build mutual aid groups is we will soon have no choice. It is increasingly clear our political system has failed us. Capitalism has failed us. Our healthcare industry is failing despite the valiant efforts of front-line health workers. And most of all, environmental chaos will rapidly worsen.
It has seemed our faith bodies are failing us, too. Where is the church in helping us through these increasingly trying times?
For example, I’ve worked my entire adult life to convince Quakers to stop owning personal automobiles. And failed to do so. I’m aware this could be related to mistakes I’ve made in communicating.
I’ve been discouraged, but not surprised, at the lack of response I’ve been getting when trying to convince people of the evils and failure of capitalism. (See Evils of Capitalism). But I know it will require spiritual guidance to help us through the coming times. I still have faith the Inner Light will show us the way.
I am intrigued by the idea of Religious Socialism that my friend Fran Quigley told me about. Fran is director of the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University McKinney School of Law and has published the book Religious Socialism: Faith in Action for a Better World.
In the following Lucy Duncan writes “What would it mean to reckon with our past complicity with harm and fully dedicate ourselves to the creation of a liberating Quaker faith that commits to build the revolutionary and healing faith we long to see come to fruition? What would it look like to finally and fully abolish slavery?”
Ty Kiatathikom writes about Religious Socialism. And there is information about an eight-week course, “Re-Envisioning Community Safety. Exploring Policing and Alternatives”.
Early Friends understood the Inner Light not only as a beacon shining from each person’s soul but also as a searchlight exposing the knots and blocked or wounded places in ourselves, the spaces requiring reckoning and real repair. I would argue that these stories of White Quaker complicity (which do not in any way diminish the stories of individual and collective Quaker courage) implicate us in the harms of slavery and incarceration in deep ways. They implicate us as perpetrators but also as wounded ourselves.
As Wendell Berry so eloquently put it, we carry the mirror image of the harm we’ve caused in our souls. This “hidden wound” is ever present and disrupts our ability to be fully intact, fully grounded, and human. We render ourselves in some ways obscure to our own history and to a full knowing of who we are.
I tell the stories of early White Quaker relationships to slavery because slavery was never really abolished. If we can reckon with the full truth of our connection to slavery and its afterlives, perhaps we can begin the healing necessary to fulfill the promise of the Religious Society of Friends of Truth.
We as White Quakers like to think of ourselves as ahead or better than dominant culture, but we have been complicit in a system and mindset that are ubiquitous. Claiming the full truth of our history and committing to repair the harms done are deeply spiritual acts of healing our own wounds of disconnection. I would argue it is the pathway upon which we can, perhaps for the first time, discover and invigorate our faith with its full promise.
What would it mean for us to take seriously and collectively as a Religious Society a call to finish the work of abolition, hand in hand and side by side with those affected and their loved ones? What would it mean for us to stand fully with the calls to abolish the police and fully fund community needs instead? What would it mean to reckon with our past complicity with harm and fully dedicate ourselves to the creation of a liberating Quaker faith that commits to build the revolutionary and healing faith we long to see come to fruition? What would it look like to finally and fully abolish slavery?
Where do religious socialists fit into that struggle?
Every religion teaches the power of redemption. In every faith, there are stories about human beings redeeming and being redeemed. Siddhartha Gautama renounces his status as a prince to live and die as an ascetic, and in doing so, escapes from the cycle of life and death entirely. The Abrahamic religions call on their adherents to answer for their misdeeds by doing virtuous acts and asking forgiveness from God. Universally, our faiths extol the importance of understanding that our actions in this life define us and carry us on over to the next, and that no person is ever beyond redemption for their vilest act.
We can take advantage of skills that we cultivate within our faith spaces—such as mindfulness, active listening and servant leadership—to build multi-faith, multi-tendency, and multi-generational coalitions for systemic change. Relationship-building is a foundational step in birthing a revolutionary culture, and abolitionist culture is no different. As religious socialists, we have the potential—and therefore the responsibility—to nourish the culture that connects us within and without prison walls.
One example of religiously informed abolitionist organizing is Abolition Apostles, a national jail and prison ministry based in New Orleans. Serving thousands of incarcerated people across the country, Abolition Apostles connects them with pen pals, material support, and advocacy for their parole and re-entry.
We cannot claim to live in a moral society until we have achieved the permanent abolition of the prison-industrial complex. The words echo in religious and socialist texts: Hebrews 13.3: Remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them; the Dhammapada: Whoever, being pure, forbears with punishment, bondage, and abuse, having the strength of endurance, having an army of strengths, that one I say is a brahmin; Eugene Debs: While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
From October through December 2021, I led a course for Friends from Multnomah Friends Meeting and West Hills Friends Church (both in Portland, OR) based on the Mennonite Church, USA curriculum about police abolition. https://www.mennoniteusa.org/abolition-curriculum-intro/ This Portland Quaker gathering was sponsored by Multnomah’s Peace and Social Concerns Committee and Friends for Racial Justice.
After spending nine weeks exploring these issues and obtaining feedback from course participants, I feel led to widen the discussion to a broader community. I am hoping that additional Friends will join me for an exploration of this topic – and that Friends will forward this opportunity to friends who are not Quakers who may be interested.
Below is the course announcement. Unfortunately, the timing of the course (6:30 – 8:30 pm PST) only works for West Coast, or possibly Mountain Time people.
Please get in touch if you have questions, suggestions, or are interested in participating.
I first heard about Religious Socialism at the end of 2020, when my friend Fran Quigley wrote in response to the blog post I had written, The Evil of Capitalism. Fran is the director of the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University McKinney School of Law and a religioussocialism.org editorial team member. He wrote “This post of yours struck me close to home. I too have become fully convinced of the evils of capitalism. Moreover, I have come to the conclusion that my faith dictates that I work to replace it.”
He told me about his involvement with the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) Religion and Socialism Committee. I was interested in what I learned, but was involved in other things at the time, primarily Mutual Aid.
I’ve had trouble getting Quakers interested in being involved in Mutual Aid. And I haven’t often raised religion when with my Mutual Aid friends, some of whom are Indigenous. The horrors of the institutions of forced assimilation, which some Quakers were involved in, are receiving much needed attention now.
I have also been involved in the Quakers for Abolition Network. So, when I saw the Central Iowa DSA event related to their prison letter writing project, I became involved. Not surprisingly several of my Mutual Aid friends were involved as well. I joined the Democratic Socialists of America.
A few days ago, our prison letter writing group met via Zoom to discuss additional things we could do related to incarceration. I mentioned Fran and the DSA’s Religious Socialism group and suggested that might be a way to get faith communities involved.
I’ve begun reading Fran’s book, Religious Socialism: Faith in Action for a Better World.