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Asha Ransby-Sporn talks building on the anti-racism movement's legacy
by Angelique Smith
2020-08-05

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With anti-racism protests happening around the United States, in what some media outlets are saying is the largest movement in this country's history, demands to abolish the police have increasingly been a part of the rallying call.

Queer movement organizer Asha Ransby-Sporn—co-founder and previous national organizing co-chair for the Black Youth Project's activist organization, BYP 100—is no stranger to activism around abolition. She was instrumental in pressuring Columbia College to divest from private prisons and, in 2014, she addressed police brutality with the United Nations in Geneva as a part of the We Charge Genocide youth delegation. Currently working with the Black Abolitionist Network ( BAN ), we spoke with Ransby-Sporn about developing the framework to understand abolition and BAN's call to defund the Chicago Police Department.

Windy City Times: What do you think it was about the killing of George Floyd and this particular moment in time that brought about the current protests we're seeing?

Asha Ransby-Sporn: I think the conditions people are living under impact how we respond to events like this. We're a couple months into the pandemic, watching our government fail to take care of people in ways that would be in the best interest of the collective good. That laid the groundwork for people to then see that our economic system is literally letting people die in a pandemic in ways that are unnecessary. And yet, in the midst of all of this, the state still consistently kills Black people.

WCT: As part of a campaign to defund the Chicago Police Department ( CPD ), you recently held mass resistance trainings?

ARS: A group of us came together to form this Black Abolitionist Network and to seed the Defund CPD campaign. The decision for training started because all these people are still protesting in the streets, and we wanted to figure out how we can sustain this and support folks who are being introduced to, or finally stepping into, the idea of abolition. We trained about 500 people over the weekend and most of them committed to staying involved in the effort in some way.

WCT: What are BAN's demands?

ARS: The primary demand is that we want to defund the Chicago Police Department. They get 40 percent of our budget, [about] $1.8 billion dollars, at the same time as Chicago mayors, from Lightfoot to Emanuel, have been saying there's no money for schools in Black neighborhoods, for mental healthcare, for housing, no money for any of these things that actually keep communities well, whole and cared for. That's prioritizing this violent institution of policing over the lives and communities of Black, Brown and poor people in this city.

WCT: There seem to be a lot of mixed messages out there, particularly around defunding versus abolition. I've heard people say that no one literally means abolishment when it comes to police, without understanding that defunding is one method to eventually get to abolishment.

ARS: Transforming the way we see the world working is not an easy thing to do. Just to be clear, when we say abolish, we mean abolish. When we say defund, we mean defund. Folks have been working around these frameworks and organizing towards these things for a long time. It requires looking at the roots of the system. There's a direct line from runaway slave patrols to the police departments we have today. You can't look at that history and see any point where it transformed into anything other than a fundamentally anti-Black institution.

WCT: How does one make the shift in thinking toward abolition?

ARS: We like to point to the abolition movement of today as directly building on the legacy of abolishing slavery. And slavery is something abolitionists were told was too central of an institution to our economy, too central to how the social order works, and that it would be impossible to abolish. That's what people were told at that time and we're being told very similar things now when looking at the violent, anti-Black institutions of our current time—which are police and prisons.

WCT: That makes sense.

ARS: It is a powerful way to put things in historical perspective. Yes, it's hard to imagine uprooting something that is central to the way the world works, but if it's an oppressive thing, it's necessary that we do it and stretch ourselves to see what does make us feel safe, what does keep our communities well.

WCT: What does that look like?

ARS: The things that makes communities safe are having resourced education, community programs, healthcare, mental health services, all those things existing in a way that is affirming to the people in the communities that they serve.

WCT: In my own journey in learning about abolition, I often thought about how even neoliberal ideology tends to focus on individualism. Some might struggle with how we can accomplish this almost utopian society that would be needed for abolition to succeed. It would mean rethinking healthcare, guns, access to resources…

ARS: Yes, abolition is connected to, and requires, the transformation of society. Away from one that protects profit, greed and whiteness through violence, towards a society that centers care, humanity and the collective good. It requires us to not only radically rethink all the systems that we live under, but also how we relate to one another.

WCT: I look at where society is now and…

ARS: Yes, that is really scary and I have had moments of being overwhelmed by it. I think a part of the reason that people latch onto police as safety is because it absolves us of some responsibility of caring for one another. It creates a myth that there's someone who is going to swoop in when we know that isn't true for most people.

WCT: How can we better look at abolition through a queer lens? Is it as simple as: we are only as safe as our most marginalized?

ARS: Any analysis of abolition that doesn't specifically center Black feminism, but also queerness, is incomplete. Queer people of color experience police violence in intense ways, and trans people in particular experience extreme forms of this particular violence. Centering the people who get impacted is a part of painting it as a queer issue. Prisons and police exist to uphold this white, capitalist, heteronormative view of who is a deserving American citizen: straight, cis, middle- or upper-class white people with 2.5 kids and a white picket fence.

WCT: Right.

ARS: And to paint everybody who is further and further away from that as deviant, as criminal and as deserving of punishment… I understand my queerness as a liberation away from that. As a Black woman and as a queer person, I'm not striving to be towards this normative thing I know I'll never fully have access to. That's playing into the same logic of who is valuable and worthy.

WCT: What can people do to help?

ARS: Sign on to the Defund CPD list of demands at bit.ly/DemandDefundCPD. Contact your alderpeople and demand that they defund the Chicago Police Department, that they support getting cops out of schools and support passing the Civilian Police Accountability Council ( CPAC ). Donate to movement orgs and bail funds. It's super important that our movements are funded from the grassroots end. And I encourage anyone who sees themselves on the side of justice to create a regular practice of donating to particularly young, Black-led abolitionist organizations.

People can follow Asha Ransby-Sporn on Twitter at @ashapoesis. Get more information on the campaign to Defund CPD at bit.ly/DemandDefundCPD.

The Black Abolitionist Network ( BAN ) can be found on Instagram ( www.instagram.com/blackabolitionistnetwrk/ ) and Facebook ( www.facebook.com/blackabolitonistnetwork/ ) .


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