The Historical Fight To Abolish Oppressive Structures

Statue of hands with shackles on wrist
William Anderson
October 31, 2020

The call to abolish the police and the prison industrial complex at large finds historical roots in the fight to abolish slavery. Abolitionists have had different approaches that fed into a larger movement. This history offers important lessons, because we’re still facing related issues.

Abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and others took the fight to end slavery directly into their own hands. They used their networks to break laws and physically fight the establishment to end the evil practice that led to a civil war. They were not alone.

Frederick Douglass emphasized political action, in contrast to those who took up arms like John Brown. Some like Sojourner Truth toured, giving passionate speeches and organizing anti-slavery groups. When emancipation happened, things weren’t so simple.

Enslavement didn’t simply end. The last known slave ship arrived in 1860, decades after the importation of enslaved people was outlawed! Slavery took new shape in sharecropping, convict leasing, and ultimately today’s prisons. This is a historical warning.

Incarceration, policing, and much of the violence prison industrial complex abolitionists are fighting now were once reforms. People thought they’d be better, but the truth is they’re terrorizing. 

Black abolition history shows white supremacy is NOT eradicated through reform!

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