The myth of a just future for the US
The vision of a “just future for the US” is an oxymoron — a contradiction onto itself. Many have willingly laid down their lives for this seemingly noble cause. It sounds appealing, ringing of freedom and the other purported values of the US empire, and evoking a sentiment of peace and prosperity. It is also, ultimately, erroneous.
Before I explain why, I want to delineate what justice is and isn’t. Justice necessitates the liberation of all people and lands. A piecemeal liberation, where some are free while others are left destitute and oppressed, is not true liberation nor justice. Likewise, a future where the power roles are reversed, where the formerly oppressed invoke generations of systematic violence on their former oppressors, is not true liberation nor justice. Justice requires far more than righting the wrongs of the past when possible, with the shortcoming that the lives and the histories destroyed cannot be replaced — justice requires the dissolution of the systems and institutions that have perpetuated and would continue to perpetuate violence against peoples and lands. Justice, simply, cannot allow systematic violence to continue in any form or against any target.
The inherent barriers for justice in the US
Countless scholars, community organizers, and everyday people throughout histories and geographies have articulated the inherent injustice that is the continuation of the US. Rather than focusing on detailing the vast swath of justifications for the abolition of the US, I focus on the abolition of institutions of violence and the return of stolen lands, and how achieving justice in these realms will require the abolition of the US as a necessary step.
Abolishing institutions of violence
Within the US, there are numerous institutions which, from conception, have been instruments of violence and injustice. This includes police, jails & prison, the military, and other similar arms of the US government such as the CIA, FBI, and DHS: The persisting history of policing in the US is a continuation of slave patrols, premised on protecting the interests of the white ruling class and crushing any dissidence. Jails and prisons have proliferated in order to contain populations deemed a threat or inferior — less than human or undeserving of care — and in doing so profit off their encaging. The US military uses the guise of freedom to hide its function as a consistent tool of US imperialism, decimating entire lands, crushing any foreign opposition, and stealing resources abroad. The FBI and CIA, from their births in 1908 and 1947, respectively, have functioned to undermine communities who dissent to or otherwise threaten the continuation of the violences of the US empire, particularly through coups and the establishment of puppet governments. The DHS functions to uphold what Harsha Walia terms “border imperialism” — the restriction of migration for the sake of both shifting focus away from the violences wrought by the US and other countries that has forced such migration while fostering the exploitation of those forced into such precarity and vulnerability. Additionally, the US heavily funds and supports similar institutions abroad to further carry out these missions, such as with the settler-colony of Israel and the US’s unwavering support of their apartheid against and dispossession of Palestinians.
Although there is overwhelming evidence that these institutions are the embodiment of injustice from their history to their continued functions, the common response is to reform these institutions to make them less cruel and violent. However, Mariame Kaba gives us a sobering reminder in relation to prison reform that rings true for the reform of the other aforementioned institutions as well — “While some offer calls for reform, such calls ignore the reality that an institution grounded in the commodification of human beings, through torture and the deprivation of their liberty, cannot be made good.”
Knowing that reform will never make these institutions just, as they are unjust to their very root, then abolition is the only path forward towards achieving a just society. Their abolition is necessary for justice, as their function and mere existence is an act of violence and terror. However, the very functioning of the US and its socioeconomic fabric is upheld by these institutions. These institutions are routinely used to enact violence against any liberation efforts domestically — as seen in summer 2020, summer 2016, and many seasons past, with police forces being deployed to enact terror on those protesting police violence, particularly police violence against Black people. These institutions are weaponized abroad to challenge and crush any oppositional government or movement, as well as secure routes of resource extraction — a prime example is through rampant and ongoing military activity in the Middle East to secure oil for the US.
These violent institutions are necessary for the continuation of the US empire as a political project, and, as such, the US will meet any efforts towards the abolition of these institutions with increasing violence to ensure their preservation. A manifestation of this can be seen through the response of recent police abolition efforts — rather than centering community concerns over the violence they face, many sects of the government, particularly at the federal level, opted to instead increase police funding to further entrench the institution and ideology into the social fabric. The US empire requires these institutions to continue as is — the prospering of the ruling class here has only been possible through the proliferation of these unjust institutions — so as long as the US exists as a political project, it will defend the continuation of these institutions until its last breath at the expense of the masses and the land. Therefore, if we are to abolish these unjust institutions, then it is likewise necessary to abolish the US as a political project as well, as these institutions and the nation are one and the same, each requiring the other to function.
Return of lands and governance
With the increasing call for #LandBack, the topic of the return of stolen lands is becoming increasingly common in US politics. Such a politic is relatively easy for many Americans to digest in relation to returning sovereignty to US territories and colonies. Whether Guåhan and the Northern Mariana Islands in Micronesia, American-occupied Sāmoa in Polynesia, or the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, the US has an extensive history of claiming foreign lands for their own, often to secure military bases and activity. Especially considering that most of these territories were concessions of war — nations traded without the consent of the people — calls for their independence from the US are growing in popularity. Similarly, since before the illegal overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani, Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) have remained steadfast in their opposition to American rule and have continually (re)asserted their right to independence. As with the United States’ territories & colonies, the clear charge, in the pursuit of justice, is for the US to grant complete legal & governing independence to Hawaiʻi and return all stolen lands to Kānaka Maoli.
Looking closer, though, to the places many of us call home, there is no land within what is recognized as the US wasn’t stolen in some form or fashion, whether through genocide, coerced and violated treaties, or other forms of state-sanctioned theft. If we understand decolonization to be the “repatriation of Indigenous land and life”, then there is no way justice can exist for Native communities whose lands were stolen without the return of these lands and the restoration of their governing powers over the lands. So, then, how can the US return those lands and governance of those lands when the entirety of the US is stolen lands? The simple answer is that, in order for Native lands to be fully returned, the US must cease to exist.
Where do we go from here?
Every time I bring up this topic with friends and people I’m in community with, almost without fail I get asked the big so then what? What do we actually do with this new understanding? As with discussing the inherent barriers for justice in the United States, it is not my desire nor within my ability to detail all of the ways that an understanding of the necessity of the abolition of the US inform and guide our political praxes. Instead, I focus here on how this understanding can help filter out political distractions and shape how we both dismantle and build.
The recognition of the need to abolish the US as a political project helps guide political visions beyond representation politics, electoral politics, diversity & inclusion initiatives, and other red herrings. These political strategies only serve as moving targets to keep us distracted, all while legitimizing, and often increasing funding for, the violent systems themselves and yielding no fruits towards their abolition. The understanding that the US must be abolished serves as a political guidepost, helping us discern what aids this transformation and what serves as a distraction, placating reforms, or false promises that only further entrench the US and its institutions — along with their violences — as legitimate powers.
Such a tactic of distraction was seen recently in Biden ordering ICE and CBP to change their language to be more “humane.” While dehumanizing language is certainly harmful, using “humane” language does not diminish the violence of the acts carried out by ICE and CBP. This reform functions to appease liberalist notions of reform under the guise of a more kind and humanizing border regime. But, in understanding the violences of US border imperialism, we understand that such language reform is often used as a tool to distract from the inherent terrorism of ICE, CBP, and other such institutions — a rebranding, a public relations stunt to legitimize these institutions under narratives of their increasingly “humane” nature, ultimately serving to further cement US border imperialism. Transforming our language is an important step for humanizing and valuing those who society dehumanizes and deems criminal or expendable, and is certainly worth fighting for, but when the change begins and ends with mere language reform it is woefully insufficient. In the end, the border will still stand, be reinforced, and be used to continue violence domestically and globally through border imperialism.
When presented with these glaring shortcomings, liberal reformist ideology often leads people to believe that what really matters then is fighting for better inclusion and representation within the US government, so that decisions can theoretically reflect our communities and their needs. But why fight for a seat at the proverbial table when the table should not exist in the first place? When the table has been built in someone else’s house against their wish? When the table has been formed of bone and lacquered in blood again and again?
Rather than fighting for seats at the table, the understanding that the US must be abolished for justice to thrive allows us to focus instead on what actionable steps can be taken to dismantle the table altogether — What can we do as individuals, communities, and coalitions to directly ensure the welfare of those around us, particularly those criminalized and subjected to the violences of the US empire? What can we do to oppose the expansion and prompt the elimination of the police, jails & prisons, the military, and other such institutions of violence, rather than seek their reform? How can we increase our personal capacities, as well as the capacities of our communities and coalitions, particularly Black & Indigenous communities and coalitions, such that we can become more autonomous and sovereign from the US empire?
On this last question, the vision of an end to the US is not a loss, but rather a call to build as we dismantle. The dismantling of the US empire will be a loss in the same way that one ‘loses’ their chains when they gain freedom — once gone, the possibilities are that much more abundant, the future that much brighter and liberated. The impossible simplicity of nations is that they are ultimately imagined — social constructions that are manifested such that they often feel inevitable and fixed. But, they are entirely mutable. A nation only exists if there are people who say it exists and uphold it as such. That means that a simple start towards justice is by internalizing that the US is an empire that has no place in a just future. By letting our imaginations divest from the US, its maintenance, and its ‘improvement,’ we begin letting ourselves imagine modes of governance and care unconcerned with US institutions — we become able to imagine decolonial landscapes where Indigenous governance over and relations with the land are restored, and where communal nurturance within and between communities is the ideological norm rather than the exception.
While liberatory, changing our imaginations is insufficient without also changing the material reality and dismantling the institutions of violence — but, for everything we tear down, there is an opportunity to reflect on what we can build. Ruth Wilson Gilmore teaches us that prison abolition is a project of imagination — dreaming up a world where prisons and policing are obsolete, and then taking action to build that world. So, too, is true of the abolition of the US — although we might not be able to discern every last feature of what a decolonial landscape could look like, freedom dreaming allows us to suss out necessary details or critical junctions and take steps to actualize them. This will look different for everyone. For me, I realize that food sovereignty is necessary for oppressed communities to become free from the dominant corporate food regime. To this end, I have spent the last several years working towards building capacity within communities to (re)gain autonomy over their food systems by volunteering at numerous local farms and farmers markets, researching biocultural restoration in Hawaiʻi and Puerto Rico, and giving lectures and developing curriculum around food sovereignty. Likewise, I understand that colonialist and capitalist ideologies have degraded many people’s relationships with the land, and that a decolonial future necessitates vibrant and reciprocal relationships with the land, so I find great pleasure in helping those around me (re)connect with and care for their lands, especially the seascape. Similarly, I research and advocate for the decarceration of environmental governance, a concrete step in undoing a culture of carcerality and making policing obsolete.
A just future is not only possible, it is necessary — particularly if we are to ensure the welfare of our communities and lands within the mounting climate apocalypse. However, the continuation of the US as a political project is inherently antithetical to cultivating just futures. The abolition of the US empire is an arduous, multi-generational task, but it is the challenge we must undertake if we are to build futures where, for all people and lands, liberation is unshakable and care is abundant.