Reflections on Abolition in Choral Contexts
Michael Genese, TCC Leadership Group
To be a student of abolition is to be in the constant practice of imagining a better world that does not currently exist. Abolition, as both an organizing tool and a long-term goal, can help us reimagine the systems through which we operate in any and all contexts, especially choral ensemble and broader music education contexts.
Abolition primarily addresses our systems of imprisonment, policing, and the Prison Industrial Complex, but when we ponder how these systems, frameworks, and harm-causing entities have manifested themselves in spaces outside of the prison, we are called to address the harm that manifests from punitive punishment in our music classrooms, the exclusionary practices and hierarchical frameworks within our ensembles, and the purpose of heavy police presence in our schools.
In a broader sense, abolition works to combat white supremacy and its manifestations. When we think critically about our music curriculum, our repertoire, what is seen as “beautiful,” “conventional,” “quality,” and in turn what is not seen as those things, we have to ask: what has been intentionally erased from the historical picture of choral music? Furthermore, how must we, as music practitioners of the 21st Century, critically affect our professions? The answer is found within abolitionist frameworks.
“Prison abolition is not simply an end goal but also an everyday practice. Being an abolitionist is about changing the ways we interact with others on an ongoing basis and changing harmful patterns in our daily lives. Abolitionist practice means questioning punitive impulses in our intimate relationships, rethinking the ways we deal with personal conflicts, and reducing harms that occur in our homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools. In this way, “living abolition” is part of the daily practice of creating a world without cages.”
- Sarah Lamble, Transforming Carceral Logics
Glossary of Keywords:
(Definitions and Supplement from Critical Resource Workgroup, 2004)
1. Abolition: Abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating systems that cause harm such as prisons, policing, and surveillance, and at the same time, creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment. [...] Abolition is both a practical organizing tool, and a long-term goal.
“I do not claim that everyone in prison here is innocent, but I do claim that the law, as it operates, is guilty, and that the prisoners, therefore, are all unjustly imprisoned.”
- James Baldwin
2. The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC): A term used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry, that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems.
Examples of how the PIC has caused harm:
-Creating of mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color (POC), people in poverty, queer people, immigrants, and youth populations as criminal, delinquent, or deviant.
-Earning huge profits for private companies that deal with prisons and police forces [see: Prison Labor, 13th Amendment], helping earn political gains for “tough on crime” politicians, increasing the influence of prison guard and police unions, and eliminating social and political dissent by people of color, [people in poverty], immigrants, and others who make demands of self-determination and reorganization of power.
"Simple statistics about who goes to prison, who stays there longer, and whose communities get policed most heavily, show that the PIC targets people of color, and feeds white supremacy."
- Critical Resource
3. Restorative Justice: A set of ideas and practices that defines crime as harm, that is done both at the individual and community level.
Restorative justice takes focus away from punitive punishment, and onto discussions of indebted accountability, addressing any and all harm caused, and authentically meeting the needs of those who have been harmed.
“If restorative justice were a building, it would have four cornerposts: 1) inclusion of all parties, 2) encountering the other side, 3) making amends for the harm, and 4) reintegration of the parties into their communities.”
- Center for Justice and Reconciliation
Key Questions For Us All:
-What has been intentionally erased from the historical picture of choral music?
-Who is intentionally neglected and discredited in the choral music space? How do we address the harm caused there?
-How can we abolish our learned punitive thinking and frameworks as educators, conductors, and artists in all settings?
-How must we, as music practitioners of the 21st Century, critically affect our professions?
“An abolitionist approach that seeks to answer questions such as these would require us to imagine a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions, with the ultimate aim of removing the prison from the social and ideological landscapes of our society. In other words, we would not be looking for prison like substitutes for the prison, such as house arrest, safeguarded by electronic surveillance bracelets. Rather, positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment— demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.”
- Angela Davis
“Abolition is not primarily a negative strategy. It’s not primarily about dismantling, getting rid of — but it’s about re-envisioning, building anew.”
- Angela Davis
"The prison industry must come down. We can demand a moratorium on prison construction today. We can demand the defunding of police today. We can begin to decarcerate today."
- Marc Lamont Hill
"Nothing that we do that is worthwhile is done alone."
- Mariame Kaba