A Luta Continua – Reflections from Robert Saleem Holbrook, ALC Executive Director

Saleem and his mother
Kerry Shakaboona Marshall (left), Patricia Vickers (center), Saleem (right)

As I reflect upon my two-year anniversary as the Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center, I am compelled to think about what has changed and the work we have left to do – as an abolitionist organization and as a decarceral movement.

Today, we bear – in real time – collective witness to the state-sponsored retrenchment of basic human rights amid a literal coup on democracy. At the same time, in Philadelphia and cities across the country, we watch as the response to gun violence parrots the racist dog whistling of the 1990s that has promoted a return to law and order – obscuring the profound impact COVID-19 and its attendant economic crises have had on our communities. In some ways, particularly in public discourse, the world feels not unlike 1990 when I was sent to prison on a life sentence without parole as a sixteen-year-old child offender. Yet, in other critical ways, I am emboldened with a sense of possibility, if not for any other reason but because ALC exists and exists in a movement that takes its lead from those of us who survived through “life is life,” through years in solitary confinement, and through numerous iterations of state-sponsored violence that attempted to break our quest for liberation.

In 1990, my mother was one of the many mothers whose children were stolen as a part of the rise of the carceral state. My mom was my first advocate. She spent hours upon hours calling the Pennsylvania Prison Society, the ACLU, and other organizations trying to find anyone who would help her fight against my life sentence. Inevitably, we had to help ourselves.

Saleem with HRC Co-Founder, Andre Shabaka Gay (center) and Ricky Olds (right)

There were seven of us who founded the Human Rights Coalition in 2001 from behind the walls of a prison, an organization of incarcerated peoples and their families. At the time, none of us thought we would ever see freedom. By 2013, when I was first introduced to ALC, we had built solidarity in prisons and communities throughout the state and ALC would represent many of us. Now, only two of our cohort remain inside. Our fight will continue until we all see the other side of prison bars. And then our work will continue anew. One critical difference, however, is now, mothers need not look any further than ALC. We exist so that no mother is alone in this struggle to release our sons and daughters from a system designed to oppress Black, brown, and poor people. I understand why so many of us in this moment want to spend our time imagining a future- because the present is filled with brutality. And yet, for ALC, the work must remain focused on the fight ahead. Ours is a protracted struggle for liberation as we dismantle the carceral state and state-sponsored repression that keeps our people tethered to shackles – be it prison or poverty. In the words of our ancestors, “A luta continua” –  the struggle continues.

Robert Saleem Holbrook, Executive Director • August 5, 2022