For a very long time, in “snatches of thought,” Rinaldo Walcott has thought about abolition.
The University of Toronto professor remembers, as a child in Barbados, reading history about the first abolition movement to end slavery. And he thinks of the Rastafarians whose “irreverence for individual property” fascinated him.
It was from them, and their seemingly eccentric ways of living, that he came to understand more fully how property and abolition related to the lives of Black people around the world, but particularly in the Americas — an understanding that’s stayed with him until today.
And so after the very public and brutal murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, and as protests and the movement to “defund the police” swelled across the world, he wondered what it meant for a Black man to lose his breath and life in such a violent way over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill.
That moment, in and of itself, “encapsulates this fetish that we have with property,” he told The Tyee.
Walcott was later asked by journalist Matt Galloway on CBC’s The Current what he wanted to see come out of this movement.
His answer was clear. “Eventually, we’re going to have to tackle with the abolishing of private property, and property itself,” he said.
When Walcott was offered the opportunity to write what would become his new long-essay-cum-pamphlet, On Property, he said yes. One of the things he read about abolitionists growing up was the importance of pamphlets in spreading their argument.
“You’re not going to write a book, but the pamphlet, the short, persuasive argument, printing and publishing a style that you can put in your pocket,” he said.
“The nature of it is to persuade you, or to at least pull you into the conversation, give you some real facts about the issue at hand,” he said. “But also persuade you that that the issue is worth your attention, and worth you coming on board to support it and make it come into fruition.”
Published as part of Biblioasis’ “Field Notes” pamphlet series, the book is a helpful guide for anyone trying to understand the modern abolitionist movement.
With the present-day outcomes and violence faced by Black people at the centre of his argument, and threading the work of abolitionist history with insightful contemporary scholarship, Walcott makes the case for the abolition of the police and incarceration. He notes their roots in plantation slavery, and argues the defund the police movement is a natural evolution of the movement to abolish slavery. And he extends that argument to the abolition of property, too.
In his work, Walcott beckons us to reimagine what life would look like if we embraced collective care and “living better, together.” He argues the world we currently inhabit was built by people, and we can build different ones if we want to, if we try.
The Tyee reached Walcott at his home in Toronto to talk about his new book, abolition politics and his insistence on the purity of the idea of “defund the police.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Tyee: Could you paint a picture of the moment you decided to write this book?
Rinaldo Walcott: I wrote this book in the context of watching the outpouring of protests, demonstrations and the outright uprising in the moment of the very public murder of George Floyd, while many of us sat in our houses in partial isolation, in the midst of a global pandemic. And one of the things that really struck me about that moment was to sit back and notice that the language, that “defund the police,” had become a part of the everyday protest movement. And so the book, the long essay, is really written in that context.
Did you ever expect that the events over the summer would spark an entire movement that uses “defund the police” as a calling card?
I didn’t expect to see it as soon as it had happened. For those of us who tend to write about these issues, and who are kind of partially sometimes involved in activism, but have a great admiration for the organizers and activists who actually go into communities and work with people and bring them out, to see what was ignited was, in some ways, a kind of thrilling satisfaction.
At the same time, it was really interesting to see also how quickly these ideas can be reversed into liberal reformist moments, as we’re seeing in the City of Toronto right now. But yeah, it was thrilling to see the ideas that organizers and activists had been working in and seeding in communities for a long time break out as a common call in that moment.
Could you say more about how this energy for real change, like the abolition of police, was co-opted into liberal reforms?
One of the things that happened in Minnesota, in Minneapolis in particular, was that its city council, about a week or two into the rebellion there, voted to defund their police, and then had to step back from that in a range of ways.
In cities like Toronto, activists who’ve been long organizing against police violence and for a reduction in the resources that are spent on the police, they called for a 50-per-cent cut in the police budget. We went from “defund the police” to attempt to push for a 50-per-cent cut, to then councillors calling for a 10-per-cent cut, to no cut and we’re going to work with the police to use some of their resources for mental health.
So you see how quickly these ideas, once they reach a much wider public sphere, can be cannibalized and turned into liberal reformist politics. So the activists and organizers and the people like myself who have to try to write and think about these things, have to continually insist, for lack of a better word, on the purity of the idea.
As Mariame Kaba, an activist who lives in New York but does a lot of work in Chicago, wrote in the New York Times, we’re actually not calling for reform, we actually mean defund the police, we actually mean abolish the police.
Some are trying to make the “defund the police” movement “appealing” to a wider mainstream audience by saying that’s not the actual goal. But what you and Kaba and others are trying to say is, “No, no, we’re being absolutely clear, this is exactly what we mean.”
Exactly. Everybody from Barack Obama to leading figures in the Democratic party to similar folks in the Canadian context, or the mayor in Toronto, have all attempted to say, “Well, the people who are calling for defending the police and abolishing the police, they don’t really understand. And they don’t understand how complicated this is,” and they have kind of talked down to people, if you will.
One of the things I tried to do in the book is to show the contemporary ideas of abolition didn’t just fly upon us, but that actually contemporary ideas of abolition take their history from the first abolition movement, which was the movement to end slavery in the Americas. And when you understand that contemporary abolition is founded in that history, and with that kind of logic, then you realize that we are studious, and that more than abolishing the prison-industrial complex and the police, that we also, in many ways, mean to abolish property and to redistribute the Earth’s resources in a more equitable way and fashion.
According to you, abolition doesn’t just mean abolishing the police; it also refers to this entire system of institutions and norms that are all tied to property and have their origins in protecting property and capital. Could you elaborate?
Once you realize that the conditions that we live under, this thing that we’ve come to call property, which is built out of Indigenous lands and the enslavement of African bodies, the logical conclusion, or the logical move for an abolitionist project, is to right that historic wrong. And, of course, the only way that we can begin to right that historic wrong is to begin to think seriously about what it means to redistribute the world’s wealth.
In places like Canada and the U.S., Black and Indigenous people are the bottom of every measure of what it means to live a good life, and abolitionist politics and abolitionist philosophy is about redistributing the resources so that everyone can live a “good life.”
In Toronto, it’s estimated somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 people are on the streets. An abolitionist philosophy says that we need to redistribute resources so that everyone has adequate housing, so that everyone is housed. You need livable wages, so that people who are working are not poor and precarious. It means everyone being able to have access to great, thorough health care.
And we believe that when all of those things are put in place, that people will live fundamentally different kinds of life, and that we’ll be building the foundation and more towards the abolition of police and abolition of the prison culture that we have, and beginning the process of moving towards seriously redressing and redistributing the Earth’s wealth and bounty, as opposed to what we have now.
The reason that we can have 10,000 people living on the streets of Toronto is because wealth in Toronto is concentrated in the hands of a few. An abolitionist politics really has to think seriously and concretely of how we can live better, together, differently.
There’s a certain perspective against abolition of property and police, dismissing it as idealistic, unrealistic. How do you contend with that on a day-to-day basis as a modern abolitionist?
That’s a great question. One of the things I say to people all the time is that the life that we live right now, in 2021, didn’t happen overnight. Various people imagined it; they built institutions to make it happen and become possible. It’s been sedimented into earth. We are literally taught in a range of different ways, through violence, through coercion, through seduction — all kinds of means are marshalled to make this life that we live appear to be legitimate right now in 2021.
And yet, if we look around, we see that there’s so many people who are incapable of living the life that they tell us that we should all be able to live under late capitalism and a representative democracy.
And so, my response to people who say abolition and abolition of property is a fantasy is that abolitionists, philosophers, thinkers, activists and organizers, we’re not dumb. We know that it takes time for change to manifest itself and to help people actually live. We know that it’s a long-term project. It’s been 500 years to get us to where we’re at now, it’s going to take a while.
But we know that if we make certain gains, that we’ll be putting into place new ways of thinking about what life is, and when those things begin to happen, we’ll begin to build the kind of institutions that can foster understanding of what it means to be human, and sharing and living collectively.
And then we can click to examples, some of which I go through in the book, of societies right now, like Norway, where prison populations are continually decreasing. It means that they’re doing something around what we generally call “crime” that could happen elsewhere.
And the last thing I always say to people around this is that in places like Canada, we’ve become very familiar with the language that Indigenous peoples use about stewardship of the land, stewardship of the sea, and so on. And it’s those kinds of ideas that we now need to extend into the lives of all of us, and this is particularly urgent, because of the impending possibility of climate catastrophe.
So the question of how to live better collectively is not at all an abstract question, as much as people who might be terrified of hearing someone who writes and talks about abolishing property might feel. This is actually a real question. We know, for instance, we can’t stop or interrupt or impede the coming climate catastrophe if we continue to live in a system that has such a massive, unequal distribution of the Earth’s resources concentrated in the hands of such a small number of people.
The world we currently live in was built by certain means, and we can build a different one, if we try.
Yeah. If we try, if we want to. There’s a pressing demand that we really rethink what human life is and what it means. And that we begin to see that human beings, this particular life form that we have, is just one among others on this Earth. And in fact, we are going to have to reconcile that and start to reconcile it pretty soon. In some ways it’s not so surprising that people took the rallying cry of “defund the police,” because people could see how policing just doesn’t work.
Did you find anything unexpected as you engaged deeper with this idea over the last year?
Not really. What has happened to me, as I wrote this, and as I watched what we’ve been living through, with COVID, with the ongoing police violence that keeps erupting even when, unfortunately, there’s no cellphone cameras nearby to take pictures of it, is that this crisis that we are living, this crisis of contemporary human life, is actually deepening.
Those of us who are housed, we’re able to sit in partial isolation and watch billionaires increase their wealth by multiples of billions, to the point where the numbers themselves seem to no longer make any sense whatsoever. And so it is really striking, the need to have more broad-based conversations about gross inequality and gross distribution of the world’s resources.
And, of course, On Property, this long essay, joins others who’ve been making this argument, so I’m not telling you anything new. But I think what really has struck me over the last year is the amount of violence that has to happen to hold this thing together. That Indigenous, Black and other non-white people are dying in large numbers in places like Canada, the U.K., the U.S. to hold this massive gross, unequal distribution of the Earth’s resources in place. And that’s what shook me in a way, because of the convergence of these two things — the violence and the pandemic.
I sometimes wonder if the events of the summer would have happened if we didn’t have both a historic economic recession and the fact that many of us were at home because of a pandemic. Would people have noticed how stark things were in this system, if not for the confluence of capitalism and disease?
Yeah, I suspect not. I think that the pandemic allowed some people to see that confluence of violence is necessary to hold late modern capitalism in place. And I think that, as various cities “reopened” as they called it, and attempted to move back to normal, that’s when we also saw the attempt to turn what we actually mean by abolish the police, yet again, into reformist politics, and to produce a narrative that those who are calling for the abolition of the police as the first step towards a much more egalitarian world somehow don’t understand what they’re demanding.
It sounds like our society and our system is really good at recalibrating, and we’ve gotten really good at averting our gaze from the violence that has to happen to keep it going. What’s something that people can live every day to bring this idea home in a more individual way?
In Canada, our prime minister was in the media every day, especially in the first moments after March 16, on our TVs and radios talking about what he had to, quote unquote, “shut the country down.” Every day when he was giving a report, he was saying, “We’re going to build back better, we’re going to build back better.” And I think it beholds all of us individually, that in the best way we can to really, really push that idea of “build back better.”
At the level of our cities, at the level of our provinces, and then nationally, anything that we can do to challenge city councillors and MLAs and MPs to bring in the kinds of policies that can become the foundation for building a much more possible future for people is absolutely necessary. That means we need to be politically engaged. We can’t simply, in what might be the post-pandemic era, return to how we were living before.
In cities like Toronto, over a 30-year period, we have seen increases in homelessness, and people living on the streets with mental health issues, in food insecurity. All of these are the kinds of things that we should be holding politicians accountable for, and holding their feet to the fire around “build back better.”
Rinaldo Walcott will be in conversation with Idil Abdillahi and Beverly Bain at the virtual launch of 'On Property' on Feb. 25 at 7 p.m.