Making Abolition Geography in California’s Central Valley



This conversation with Ruth Wilson Gilmore was recorded on November 30, 2018. Starting from the concept of abolition geography, we later examine its application through the experience she and five comrades had organizing against the construction of a new megaprison in Delano, California in the early 2000s.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: I would like to talk with you about the experience you had almost 20 years ago, organizing against the construction of yet another embodiment of racial capitalism: a new state prison in California’s central valley; making what you call “an abolition geography.” Can we start with this concept of abolition geography?

RUTH WILSON GILMORE: I would like to say three things as a preamble. First: abolition requires that we change one thing, which is everything. Contemporary prison abolitionists have made this argument for more than two decades. Abolition is not absence, it is presence. What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, experiments and possibilities. So those who feel in their gut deep anxiety that abolition means knock it all down, scorch the earth and start something new, let that go. Abolition is building the future from the present, in all of the ways we can.

Second: racial capitalism is all capitalism. There was not one minute in the entire story of capitalism that it was not racial. Cedric Robinson teaches us that if, indeed, the capitalism we experience today had its origins and early development in rural England, then the relationship between and among the people in that rising system, all of whose descendants might have become white, was already racial.

Third: the state is a contradictory object and subject of struggle. We should be wary of fetishizing the state. Fascists fetishize the state for a whole set of purposes; and anti-fascists tend to fetishize the state as well. The state does not think and do. People in various configurations of power (including from below) enliven states to think and do.

Map of Delano, California and its three carceral facilities in relation to the city. / Drawing by Nadia El Hakim for The Funambulist

About a decade ago, in its regular weekly report to the New York Police Department (NYPD), the city’s terrorism intelligence unit highlighted an array of threats. Topics included Muslim student organizations at the City University of New York — where I teach — camping and praying. The report noted that Jordan Flaherty, a fantastic journalist and activist in New Orleans, was to visit New York. It also warned that the impending verdict against police accused of police killing Black youth Sean Bell would likely spark protests, as people were organizing in advance of the announcement. And they expected that there would be oppositional actions and protests.

The one leaked report offers an insight: people who enliven the agencies, policies, and institutions that we call the “surveillance state,” are thinking about all of us all the time together. And yet in many cases we think of ourselves separately, in isolated struggles that at best join together as alliances rather than unified movement.

I often use a photo called “Invisible” by artist geographer Trevor Paglen. He set out years ago to figure out how to use the tools of geography, the tools of surveillance, and the tools of surveying to “see” U.S. military black sites around the planet and photograph them — to show us what we otherwise could not see. For me this picture has also a strong metaphorical value in that I imagine it to be actively and antagonistically the contradiction of what it represents. Therefore, it is a picture of us coming to meet ourselves in the
abolitionist future.

LL: Moving on to this specific organizing work in South California. Could you describe how this abolition geography took form?

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Police helicopter above the Oakland police station and jail. / Courtesy of Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

RWG: In 1999, a group of people set out to stop the state of California from building its 24th mega prison the Central Valley town of Delano. We didn’t know exactly how we would do it but we had a lot of indicators — derived from my research, and the kind of learning that I and others had done in a variety of campaigns in California and beyond. This showed us that what we did would require assembling people already organized to fight on against of vulnerabilities deriving from with environmental degradation, uncertain legal status, agricultural production methods, urban abandonment, and so forth. Our job was to bring them all together because there were basically six people trying to do a huge thing!

We asked ourselves “Why would people organizing about problems that have nothing to do with prisons connect or knot their project to ours?” They’re not going to drop what they’re doing. So we set out to persuade people that their already-existing projects — for example about environmental quality in the region — whether bad air due to pesticides and diesel, or water quality due to pesticides — why an environmental project, a project to stop a prison, could and should be one thing. So we invited ourselves to people’s meetings, learned about their campaigns and concerns, and presented our own. For example, a network of rural California grassroots environmental justice activists held a conference. We asked if we could make a presentation. We got 20 minutes during lunch [laughs] — we had to do it in two languages: in English and Spanish. So I spoke for two and a half minutes and our comrade — a young person who was maybe 17 or 18 at that time — spoke for two and a half minutes in Spanish, and then we showed a 15 minutes video — there were English and Spanish subtitles — called “Prison in the Fields: False Progress in California Central Valley” that artist Ashley Hunt made for our campaign. At the end of 20 minutes, everyone in the room said “We get it! We understand the connection of your struggle with our many fights. We see it in a variety of ways including the issue of criminalisation. We see it in the issue of economic disinvestment. We see how the prison they want to build will be another city here in the valley, and therefore have the heavy environmental footprint that any city has. We see it in terms of water quality and quantity. We see it all.” It took no time. That was the quickest convincing we ever did. It’s much harder to get paid intellectuals in urban places to take us seriously, and academics today are busily penning articles they think are innovative about things we put into motion 20 years ago [laughs]. So the next step in that particular struggle was to become part of the environmental justice network, and help solidify that network into a force in the valley. Not a force against prisons in the valley, a force in the valley against organized abandonment.

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Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Center #2, Groom Lake, NV, Distance ~26 Miles by Trevor Paglen (2008). / Courtesy of the artist.

We helped build the Central California Environmental Justice Network, and held annual conferences to help people throughout that region and beyond join forces. In conjunction with other environmental justice groups, we worked with people from throughout the Southwest, including Mexico, fighting urban and rural injustice. And we made it part of common sense that people could think this word “abolition” without necessarily being able to follow it all the way through — and that was fine. The abolition geography rose and consolidated whatever people called it. Abolition became part of the everyday way of being in the world.

That fight also involved joining forces with labor unions. For example, the United Farm Workers has historically been one of the most militant agricultural worker organizations in the history of the United States. The union had its origin in Filipino/Filipino-American agricultural worker organizing. Eventually the group became more made up of Chicano/Mexican American workers — the most famous names being Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. So in addition to the environmental justice network, we worked with the United Farm Workers and became better and better at thinking about the issues associated with organized labor that was becoming disorganized because of the reconfiguration of relations between capital and workers. So, if you’ve ever read my book [Golden Gulag, 2007] you know that the big agricultural employers in that region laid off their workers and then hired them back on precarious contracts through labor contractors. The United Farm Workers was fighting against that form of organized abandonment. In taking our outreach to organized labor a bit further, it became clear to us that we should try to organize with the people who work for the State of California in all kinds of capacities including the people who work in the prison, but were not prison guards. So we started to work with them, to organize labor against the expansion of prisons, because that expansion had absorbed resources that would go to the kinds of jobs that most public-sector employees have: health, teaching, mechanics, janitors, you name it, all jobs that can and should be done in the free world not in cages.

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Entrance to the United Farmer Workers headquarters on Cesar Chavez Road. / Photo by Chris English (2012).

We also realized that because a prison is, as I’ve said, effectively a city plopped down into a rural region, the demands the prison-city would make on water were enormous. People had been fighting over water (quantity and quality) for years. The quality issue has been profound: arsenic used in agriculture has poisoned wells, and people cannot drink or bathe in the water from their faucets. In addition, quantity is a problem: California has been through a series of droughts over the last 50 years which had compromised the water table. That meant the regional water commission whose job it is to provide water to residents and businesses area could see their concerns addressed in our objection to the prison, no matter what their position on locking people up might be.

Public or private entities that want to build any kind of major new facility must produce an Environmental Impact Report detailing, in a very neoclassical economic framework, the costs and benefits of the project. The report includes threats to non-human life (flora and fauna). We made common cause with the Center for Biological Diversity to campaign on behalf of a small, not-charismatic mammal called “Tipton Kangaroo Rat” that would disappear if the prison were built, and pursued a legal approach on that front.

So we put all of these and many other activities together, and each round what we tried to do is understand the struggle of the already-organized people so that the project went with their struggle and didn’t interrupt it — that’s what abolition geography is made of. And through this work we made the human-environmental impact of the prison in the context of racial capitalism crystal clear as a continuum, rather than as some strange thing that happens in a few towns. In each struggle we could show how the prison was bad for everybody and everything, and that the purported benefits of prison (jobs, lower crime) were not the case either. This is a longer discussion and I’m happy to say the new edition of Golden Gulag is almost done, and people can read about all of this in a new chapter dedicated to the greatest organizer of all, the late great Rose Braz (1961-2017).

In sum, abolition geography is work based in noticing and recognition. People come to recognize each other — not by first name but by how the effort to interrupt capitalism saving capitalism from capitalism requires us put into action the persistent effort from which abolition geographies emerge, consolidate, reproduce, and are carefully maintained. The struggle against arsenic in water is also a struggle over the well-being of a little rat. The struggle over adequate jobs for public sector employees is also the struggle over employment stability for farm workers. The struggle over having a decent place to live in which you can use the water and breathe the air is related to the fact that young people in the region were all being pushed out of school so they would have no choice but to work in the fields or be criminalized; they told us their principal three environmental hazards were police, prisons, and pesticides. Making abolition geography involved intergenerational struggle, urban-rural struggle, inter-ethnic struggle, all kinds of fights that lasted more than five years. We eventually lost that particular battle, which is to say the State built the prison. But instead of building it in 18 months — which was the usual schedule, followed year after year for decades — they began in 1999 and didn’t manage to open until 2005. And when they opened it the official declared “We can’t do this anymore.” The right-wing Supreme Court of the United States agreed, but that’s another story which people can read about in “Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence” in Futures of Black Radicalism (2017).

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United Farm Workers headquarters. / Photo by Richard Thorntorn (2014).

I hope it’s obvious we didn’t always get people to work with us by giving 20 minute oral/film presentations during lunch. We interacted in many ways. For example, one of the most effective ways was to stage ad-hoc dramatizations — what we call “role play.” We would give participants a character that had a few features: new city council member or an unemployed farmworker. I would usually play the chronic malcontent, of course [laughs]. And then we would improvise a scene for the city council or for the union central committee or for the people in town who came to a meeting in the school or park. We always had volunteers; people would first be very self-conscious and reluctant and then they would get into it — especially since I and other “experts” could be laughed at too. That alienation of expertise let us talk more profoundly — it was Boal/Brecht on the road. People would try to express things they’d thought but never quite said because they assumed they were wrong. They would, in other words, challenge their own common sense, which is what we were there to do. To challenge common sense, and reconstruct it into provisional good sense for the purpose of fighting for the wellbeing of the community. While in this interview I’ve only given a few examples of types of organizations, there were actually so many: churches, faith groups, regional social justice organizations, regional legal defense organizations, local chapters of national anti-racist organizations, and so on. We fought alongside and in solidarity with everybody who would give us the time of the day.

So that’s why I say we managed to create an abolition geography in this place, even if many people wouldn’t say that it was what they were doing: they participated in making it by making their lives better in a way that was not at the expense of other vulnerable people, places, or things.

LL: You told us about how you cultivated an understanding among all these politically-involved groups that their specific struggle could take part in a larger one; but I also remember you talking about how during this process, you also sensitized people on criminalization and incarceration as well. Could you tell us more about this?

RWG: Everywhere I’ve ever worked to make abolition geography, in the U.S. and abroad, I have known people locked up and people who work in the lockups — as art teachers or janitors or secretaries or gardeners or supervising chefs, anything. And what had been happening a lot throughout rural California was that people accepted the proposition that if the State of California or if the United States federal government (which was also building prisons in California) built something new that came with 500 or 1,000 jobs for modestly educated people, then the economic benefit in the form of wages would stick locally. Intuition tells you that’s true. So, as with the role play we’ve already talked about, we tried in all kinds of ways to challenge that intuitive acceptance — or common sense. And we helped people, including even skeptical local élites, recognize that the money wasn’t going to stick, that development wasn’t going to flower from the concrete and steel monstrosity that’s both a form and symbol of organized abandonment. We could get working class people to see the lie of the land, and then ask themselves what they wanted and how to go about getting it. We held charettes for example, with mostly undocumented participants.

LL: Did this work involve any organizing alongside Indigenous communities?

RWG: Most of the Indigenous communities in the South San Joaquin Valley were destroyed by settler colonialism, destroyed with scant remnants of first-nation political relative autonomy. And yet of course there are the children or descendants of Indigenous communities from California and beyond. For example, we connected with Mixtec (in present-day México) long-distance migrants who work in agriculture and live in colonias. I’ve mentioned a bit the transnational stretch to our work. For example for our February 2001 conference “Joining Forces,” we asked the people who registered what language they needed for translation in addition to Spanish, and received three requests: Hmong, Mixtec and Japanese. We might have been asked for Urdu or Tagalog or Vietnamese.

LL: We have not talked so much about the specificity of the context in which you were organizing. Can you tell us about it, both at the municipal scale of Delano and the regional scale of the Central Valley?

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“They Died for La Causa” Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Memorial in San Fernando, California. / Photo by Chris English (2014).

RWG: Delano, California is a small town and it already had one mega-prison, as well as a small prison which is to say 500 people — that’s a small prison!. Delano 2 — the one that we were fighting — was going to be the next mega prison in this tiny town, designed to incarcerate 5,160 people. Delano is also the historical home of 40 Acres, the United Farm Workers headquarters. The name refers to General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Field Order 15, issued January 16, 1865, in Georgia toward the end of the US civil war, promising 40 acres and a mule to freedmen. Of course we must challenge whether the general could promise Indigenous lands to anybody, and we should ponder the gendered assumptions concerning that reparative move. However, those problems do not erase the historical resonance, spatial stretch, and intended solidarity the name invokes. It came from a time when the United Farm Workers, mostly not Black people, wanted to connect rather than differentiate the as it were Brown struggle in the agricultural West with the Black struggle in the post-slavery South. The prisons that I’m telling you about surround 40 Acres on three sides. That’s where the environmental justice network met every month, in the shadow of the prisons, where we plotted abolition geography.

It might interest you that Fresno is the capital city of California’s central valley. It’s a city of several hundred thousand residents, but has a not-urban sense of itself. It used to boom: the term “agribusiness” was coined there in the 1940s. Many of the contradictions we think of as rural or urban actually condense in Fresno. The overlapping and interlocking crises of racial capitalism crackle on the surface as the forces of organized abandonment and organized violence (police, criminalization) suffocate its multiply partitioned urban ecology — people who are interested can see my 2014 Bob Fitch lecture for more on this topic. As is the case with so many urban center-cities in the age of suburban shopping centers and online retail, Fresno’s downtown has been an empty shell for decades, with corrupt rentiers using political influence to extract public funds for “redevelopment” that never amounts to anything. Here’s the starkest example: a new prison complex for youth. Although completely separate from the Delano 2 Campaign, we fought this one also, using lessons we’d learned as well as being aware that what we learn our opponents also learn. As was our habit, we got the plans for this project. And our hearts stopped, for a moment, when we fully understood the plan. Scheduled as a 30 year roll-out, the city and county of Fresno had planned a prison for children whose parents had not yet been born. This emblematizes the contradictions concentrated in Fresno. It also shows the multiple spatialities and temporalities of the struggles, across lives and life itself. Abolition now. ■

Resources /// 

  • Ahrens, Lois, ed. 2008. The Real Cost of Prisons Comix. San Francisco: PM Press
  • Braz, Rose and Craig Gilmore. 2006. Joining Forces. Radical History Review 96: 95-111.
  • Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2007. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California.  University of California Press
  • Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2014. Urban Ecology and Abolition Geography. Second Annual Bob Fitch Memorial Lecture. LaGuardia Community College, 6 May 2014.  
  • Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2017. Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence. in Johnson and Lubin, eds., Futures of Black Radicalism. New York: Verso. Extended version of this paper were presented at Confronting Racial Capitalism November 2014 Graduate Center, CUNY and at the Women’s Gaol, Johannesburg, July 2016.
  • Gilmore, Ruth Wilson and Crig Gilmore. 2004. The Other California. in Solnit, ed., Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World. City Lights Books, 381-396.