Guest post Sumona Gupta. Sumona is an Alabama-based organizer studying immigration detention and workers’ rights in the Southeastern U.S.
New Allegations and ICE Abolition
On September 14, 2020, a complaint was filed to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on behalf of former Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) employee Dawn Wooten and several people incarcerated in the facility. Among many disturbing allegations of medical neglect (e.g. shredding of medical requests made by detained immigrants, refusal to test those who requested COVID-19 tests, and withholding of information when said tests were done), the most disturbing was that an unusually large number of women were made to undergo hysterectomies at ICDC.
Days after the complaint was reported on the legal blog Law & Crime, national media caught wind of the story. “Abolish ICE” protests began in New York City. On September 16, some forced their way into U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) New York offices. On September 18, a small demonstration in Lower Manhattan was quickly stopped by over 100 police officers. On September 20, 85 protestors were arrested for blocking roads in the city’s famed Times Square. Protests were also organized at ICE offices elsewhere in the country.
Meanwhile, 173 members of the U.S. House of Representatives called for an immediate investigation into Wooten’s allegations. Their statement focused almost entirely on looking into the doctor responsible, Mahendra Amin, who was called “the uterus collector” by Wooten.
However, as investigations into Amin gain media coverage, there exists the risk that the systemic issues brought up in the complaint are ignored. COVID-19 sweeps through detention centers across the country while detained people are denied bail. Inside, there is almost no way to ensure social distancing measures are followed and those detained are sprayed with harmful disinfectant spray many times per day. While the hysterectomy allegations are particularly horrifying, some advocates have been asking why national outrage has only been sparked now. They worry that the “big picture” of complete abolition of immigrant detention centers will be lost.
With the initial outcry, Dr. Amin was ousted, but there has been little national coverage of the story. Aside from a few more outspoken abolition-minded lawmakers, most have called to simply end contracts with private detention centers like ICDC. Meanwhile, ICE has still conducted sweeps, arresting thousands and funneling them into detention centers – public and private – during the ongoing pandemic.
This year has been marked by a dizzying amount of ever-more alarming news stories. However, this alone cannot be blamed for the fizzling out of outrage and substantive action. Immigration reporter Felipe De La Hoz wrote that this is not a new phenomenon – he drew connections to the 2018 outrage over the Trump administration’s family separation policies. As they have now, the general public became fixated on a particularly disturbing policy, and once it was officially ended, became placated. This was despite the fact that the Trump administration’s solution was to expand family detention, yet another form of carceral injustice, and has continued to attack the right to seek asylum.
De La Hoz wrote that this is an extension of the line of thought that views the injustices of immigration detention as clearly wrong, but still views the system as a whole as untouchable, a “sad inevitability.”
Abolitionist thinkers in the immigration and criminal justice realms continually critique this mindset as reformism, a drive to correct and improve systems, which from their outset were discriminatory, ineffective, and inhumane. In the preface to “Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms,” Michelle Alexander writes that reforms of the criminal justice system tend to be piecemeal and generally do not work to “end the history and cycle of creating caste-like systems in America.” This ethos applies not only to mass incarceration, but also to policing and immigration. Rather than attacking the roots of these issues, which produce and reproduce permanent underclasses, many reformists tend to target the most visible injustices.
Reformist Trends in The Black Lives Matter Protests
Protests against discriminatory policing and systemic racism have been taking place around the country and the world during the summer of 2020, usually under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement. Earlier in the summer, following George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police, police abolition was suddenly catapulted into the national conversation. Formerly seen as outlandish, the protests began making some strides in at least making city councils question their expenditures on police over public services and the 1033 program’s militarization of police. However, more recently, it seems the events have taken a less substantive trajectory, tending toward reformism or even no structural change at all.
In two epicenters of the summer 2020 protests, Minneapolis, Minnesota and Kenosha, Wisconsin (where Jacob Blake was almost killed by police months after Floyd’s death), there has been delayed action by local authorities, despite consistent demands from protests and activists.
In June, the Minneapolis City Council proposed disbanding its police department entirely, replacing it with a “Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention.” However, in recent weeks, the Council decided to delay putting this on the ballot for a public vote in November, meaning it is tabled for the time being. City councilors have now said their pledge to “end policing as we know it” was only meant “in spirit,” and was not actually a call to refigure policing.
Kenosha’s protestors have called for many changes, not only with regards to police, but also for issues like systemic poverty and lack of social services in the region. The town’s mayor has organized “listening sessions,” which have thus far been sparsely attended, in response.
The widely followed non-profit organization Black Lives Matter (not to be confused with the broader movement which has taken the same name), has focused its attention on promoting voting in the upcoming presidential election over coalition building and local organizing efforts. Its “#WhatMatters2020” campaign is prominently featured on the front page of its website.
This strategy would not favor radical, systemic change – presidential candidate Joe Biden has not made any indication he would pursue major police, criminal justice, or immigration system reforms. Instead of defunding or demilitarization, he has called for a further $300 million to be spent on community policing initiatives and for “minimum standards of decency.” Similarly, he has said ICE should be “reformed” instead of abolished outright or defunded. His campaign platform advocates for an end to private immigration detention and promotes alternatives to detention for children and families. It does not say much in the way of ending detention as a whole, despite the fact that many detained in state-run jails and prisons face the same unsanitary, unsafe conditions as those in private facilities. Though this is less harmful than incumbent President Trump’s numerous attacks on immigrants’ rights and movements for racial justice, Biden would not likely advocate for significant changes.
Overall, this shift from demanding radical, transformative change to small concessions will likely be followed in the coming weeks as ICE Abolition once again comes to the fore. Some activists have suggested cementing its ties with the Black Lives Matter movement, given ICE’s well-documented history of racial profiling and ties to mass incarceration. Additionally, the recent protests have shown just how much power lies in local government and local politics. Instead of relying solely on the political establishment and electoral politics, smaller groups have targeted their efforts locally, which could also help prevent ICE transfer requests through sanctuary city ordinances and hinder local jails’ contracts with ICE.
Though the decentralization of movements like Black Lives Matter is effective in spreading messages widely, it has also made them difficult for strong lists of demands to form. There is no singular answer to the question of where to go from here, but activists and scholars alike have advocated for a unification of abolitionist and reformist demands across the spectrum of racial and social justice movements. Reforms in and of themselves are not at issue, but refusing to look further than them can be. As the protests show no signs of stopping for the time being, allowing for strategic reforms while retaining an overall abolitionist mindset and messaging could be key in true material change.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Gupta, S. (2020). Abolition, Reformism, and Summer 2020. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/11/abolition [date]