“We decided we would build our own table.” Notes from Saleem’s Freedom Anniversary
Four years since ALC Executive Director Robert Saleem Holbrook walked out of prison and into ‘the free world’, he shares the origins of his pledge to dismantle the carceral state and build together.
When I stop and reflect, and look back at the past four years since I’ve been home, it’s hard to believe it’s only been four years. I am reminded of how fast times move in the midst of upheavals and struggles. When I walked out of SCI-Greene on February 20th, 2018 after 27 years of incarceration, I emerged with a mission: to work every waking hour towards dismantling the carceral state, to weaken and abolish the powers of the police state. To free my comrades I left behind.
Looking back now, I can say with confidence that I have lived up to that pledge.
However, that pledge did not start on February 20th, 2018 – it started over two decades earlier when I, alongside other prisoners in solitary confinement, made a promise to ourselves that we would build a movement that reflected our visions, values and voices. We promised that we would never put ourselves or our families’ interests in the hands of any politician or social justice movement.
What we have been building in Pennsylvania through the Abolitionist Law Center and our greater movement family (Human Rights Coalition, Amistad Law Project, Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, Decarcerate PA, Free The Ballot and Straight Ahead) is the product of that vision.
I can recall being 18-years-old, reading a worn out copy of the autobiography of Malcolm X in a dimly lit cell in solitary confinement. I was struck at how Malcolm wrote about how pathetic it was to see politicians that claimed to represent our communities being satisfied, eating the crumbs that dropped from the oppressor’s table.
Fast forward nearly 30 years later to a conversation in 2018. My comrades and I were discussing the fight for formerly incarcerated people and families of prisoners to have a seat at the table of power; we decided we would build our own table. We are building to lead the fight for decarceration and abolition.
We like to say, “It’s not the prettiest table, but it’s a sturdy table”, and it would not be possible without the relationships and community we’ve built over the past 20 years fighting for human rights, dignity, and total abolition.
And because of that community, I can celebrate four years of freedom.
– Robert Saleem Holbrook, 03/07/2022
We’re headed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
In July 2020, ALC joined the Center for Constitutional Rights and Amistad Law Project in filing Scott v. PA Board of Probation and Parole. The lawsuit is the first of its kind in the United States. The case argues that mandatory life without parole – aka death by incarceration (DBI) – for those who did not kill or intend to kill, does not serve any legitimate governmental interest and is unconstitutional. The complaint, filed on behalf of six individuals serving DBI sentences, seeks to end the lifetime prohibition of parole under Pennsylvania’s ‘felony murder rule’.
‘Felony murder’ exists in 44 states. The rule holds individuals responsible for murder if they participated in a felony that lead to a death – even if the individual played no direct role in the death or did not not intend or anticipate it. More than 1,100 people in Pennsylvania are currently serving DBI sentences for felony murder – 70% of these community members are Black. Individuals found guilty of felony murder in PA are automatically sentenced to DBI and prohibited from parole eligibility. Our lawsuit seeks to end this practice.
In May 2021, the Commonwealth Court of PA ruled that our clients are not allowed to challenge the lifetime prohibition on parole and dismissed the suit; we appealed to this decision to Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Almost a year later, the PA Supreme Court has agreed to hear our argument to overturn the lower court’s decision so our clients – and the human rights movement against death by incarceration – can proceed with the historic lawsuit.
Follow us on social media for the latest updates on our PA Supreme Court oral argument slated for April 13th, 2022.
Beyond “Reformist Reforms”
Creating Space for Abolition Whenever, Wherever
Since the historic George Floyd Rebellion of 2020, many elected officials across the country who initially supported calls for defunding the police state and investing in basic human rights and life-affirming services (like housing, education and healthcare) have since backtracked on their promises. Many have embraced reactionary cop apologia and pro-carceral logics amidst media-hyped “crime wave” mythologies, advancing increased police budgets, proposals for new jails, and generalizing animosity to radical Black organizers and anti-fascist protesters in the news.
Despite all this, there are still signs of decarceral life taking shape, embodied in the unexpected potential of ‘reforms’.
As abolitionists, we often ask ourselves, “What are the limitations of reforms and electoral politics? Do incrementalist reforms that advance the liberation of some, but not others (or all), ultimately hurt our movements in the long run? Are there opportunities to pollinate abolitionist thinking and dialectics in city council meetings and state legislative sessions, in the form of local ballot measures and congressional bills?”
Oakland-based Critical Resistance (co-founded in the late 1990’s by abolitionists including Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Ruth Braz) recently updated their online abolitionist toolkit to include dynamic new charts that help activist-scholars and organizers delineate between “reformist reforms” and “abolitionist reforms.” The difference? In short, reformist reforms strengthen policing and imprisonment under the guise of “progress,” whereas abolitionist reforms reduce reliance on the carceral state, and create improved material conditions for individuals and their communities.
Creating delineations between abolition and reformism have always been salient in ALC’s work, particularly in the ongoing struggle to end solitary confinement. While some organizations perceive the state as a neutral, benevolent force, ALC recognizes the state as the opponent; any organizing and litigation against solitary that is not grounded within an abolitionist framework ultimately run the risk of creating a “constitutional prison”. This is a prison that provides the bare constitutional protections, born of a circular reformist fight that misses the larger political movement and underlying purpose of solitary confinement: to repress prisoner resistance to racist mass incarceration.
You can check out the highlights from our summer 2021 staff retreat on solitary confinement & abolition here.
During last August’s Abolition: Can it be a Reality? panel hosted by Alliance for Police Accountability, ALC Staff Attorney Dolly Prabhu, author of ALC’s 2020 report, Apartheid Policing in Pittsburgh was asked, “What is a reform that is moving us towards abolition versus a reform that is reinstituting the state?” She replied, “If this requires giving more money to policing, prisons, or jails, it’s a reformist reform, no matter how good it sounds. Probation and cash bail were created as ‘reforms’ but are now some of the major drivers of mass incarceration. Just because something seems like an alternative to incarceration doesn’t mean it’s going to increase decarceration.”
Five months later, Prabhu has been integral in drawing attention to the deceptive fault lines of a new Pennsylvania senate bill: SB913. The bill is a shining example of a “reformist reform,” cited as “a fake progressive probation reform bill” that now lays before the General Assembly despite widespread opposition from over 50 major social justice orgs. Pointing out the harms of the bill that will keep people trapped in cycles of incarceration, Prabhu calls for meaningful decarceral initiative including “abolishing use of probation detainers and prohibiting incarceration due to technical violations, poverty or homelessness.”
Using abolitionist reforms as a framework and tactic in the protracted struggle to abolish police and prisons, we can seek out opportunities to weaken the carceral state however they present themselves. Since its inception in early 2021, our lobbying arm, Straight Ahead, has heralded the liberatory potentials of two Pennsylvania senate bills, SB135 and SB835. These bills can be conceptualized as “abolitionist reforms” since mass parole eligibility and decarceration of 1) community members sentenced to death by incarceration (over 5,000 people), along with 2) elders and those who are chronically ill, are the end goals of these two bills. With their passage into law, thousands of community members could be freed from state prisons.
At the local level in Allegheny County, ALC has pushed for abolitionist reforms: ones that reduce harm against incarcerated community members (such as ending solitary confinement at ACJ, abolishing cash bail, banning a racist paramilitary private prison contractor from the jail). And ones that decrease Black people’s proximity to police violence (such as curbing traffic stops and stop-and-frisks carried out by the Pittsburgh Police). While the recent proposed ordinance to limit Pittsburgh Police’s discretion in pursuing traffic stops does not outright abolish stop-and-frisks in their entirety, we continue to call on elected officials to go harder in defense of Black lives and pursue the absolute dissolution of the racist practice: ban ALL stop-and-frisks.
From the streets to the courtrooms, from city councils to Harrisburg, we’re creating space for abolition, whenever and wherever we can.
Growing Participatory Defense
An Interview with Walter Harris and Autumn Redcross
In December 2021, ALC and other community groups began quietly laying the groundwork for an organizing model that is situated within a larger nationwide movement: participatory defense. We sat down with our Movement Director, Autumn Redcross, and Walter Harris of the Pittsburgh Participatory Defense Hub to learn more about the origins of participatory defense and the goals of their new project.
Rooted in community care and transformative justice, participatory defense is a framework by which community members self-organize to support individuals navigating pretrial detention, court hearings, probation and the entire punishment system, with the ultimate goal of “time saved, as opposed to time served…the goal is to keep people out of jail,” said Harris.
The Pittsburgh Participatory Defense Hub is a decentralized network of local orgs, featuring members from JailBreak, Bukit Bail Fund, CADBI West, and ALC Court Watch, along with formerly incarcerated organizers, abolitionists, families, and individuals “who believe in being in service to their communities.” Harris noted, “You don’t need a degree – you just need to be a voice for change.” Working together, the hub has launched mutual aid support for bail & legal fees, provided commissary funds to loved ones on the inside, partnered with public defenders to support clients, packed courtrooms to support community members facing charges, and provided referrals for community members seeking legal advice.
When a community member is put in touch with the hub, “One of the first things that we say is, ‘We are a support group’,” Redcross explained. “We’re not offering legal advice, we’re looking to support people who are caught up in the system. We’re looking to work with their defense team, so the person in need can have the outcome that they are looking for.”
The Pittsburgh hub’s most recent work focused on demanding immediate pretrial freedom for a 15-year-old boy who’d been confined to Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) without bond for over two months (as of 02/24/22 there are 24 individuals trapped inside ACJ who are under age 18). Centering the needs and demands of the family, the hub crowdfunded, circulated media by Narrative Justice and Allegheny County JOB Watch, called for in-person court support, and phoned the local judge’s chambers when motions hearings were chronically postponed without a rescheduled date. “He’s out [of ACJ] now. We would’ve still been waiting here had people not made those calls,” said Harris.
When asked if there are issues unique to Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania’s political and carceral landscapes that the hub hopes to focus on, Harris said, “The judicial system that’s set up in Pennsylvania is ‘strategically biased’ to put it lightly. Whatever you receive on the front end, you receive on the back end – sometimes even greater,” referring to probation, which is commonly misconstrued as an alternative to incarceration in the liberal imagination, yet the practice has actually expanded surveillance and racist control of communities, keeping people cycling in and out of prison for decades.
“I know the brokenness of the system.” Harris was confined to more than 20 years in prison; he will be celebrating his one year freedom anniversary this month. “It’s important for people to see those of us with ‘colorful backgrounds’ out here supporting one another. We’re growing the hub, learning what participatory defense looks like and feels like as we go. It’s a community effort – it’s not about getting credit.”
Help ALC sustain the fight to free people from incarceration and other forms of racist state violence.
Join us in resisting the racist, classist systems of policing and mass incarceration by donating to the Abolitionist Law Center.
Your gift fuels our collective liberation struggle and powers the transformative change we’re fighting for in the courts, in the streets, behind bars, and on the outside.
We need your partnership to keep the pressure on, and we appreciate your contribution of any amount.
There’s so much more to do!
Contributions to the Abolitionist Law Center, a 501(c)(3) organization, are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law.