TV: What would building abolitionist alternatives under our existing conditions even look like?

RWG: Over the course of more than 20 years of fighting — I was there for part of this, but certainly not all of it — we succeeded in stopping the county of Los Angeles from building not one but two brand-new multibillion dollar jails. There are fewer people locked in jail in that county than when we started that fight. [And] it’s not like what we did was sacrifice people’s well-being by stopping the construction of something new, an accusation abolitionists get all the time: “You don’t really care about people.”

In the early 2000s, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, he assembled a Blue Ribbon commission to study the prisons in California and make recommendations. A bunch of us tried to get me onto the commission: Dr. Gilmore, PhD, professor. We could tell that we would fax my CV to them and they would put it straight into the shredder without even an acknowledgement. So we go, “Can’t get on your commission? We’re gonna start our own.”

We just invited people to come and talk to us about whatever they wanted to talk to us about. Those rooms would fill up, all over the state of California. When we were fighting one of the many rounds of jail expansion in Los Angeles — which was conjoined, of course, with “and hire more cops” — we had a hearing on a really rainy night in October, a week before the election in South Central L.A. It was pouring out, man. But people came. It was packed.

My partner had this brilliant idea: We made Post-its more or less the size of dollar bills. Let’s say they were $50 million each, and we gave everybody $10 bills, $500 million, as they checked in. We invited them to approach a wall where we put all kinds of spending categories, including policing and jails, and said, “Spend your money. If you could spend your money on anything, what would you spend it on?” A few people put some of it in jails, but most people put it with everything else. That was the icebreaker, with nobody being compelled to say anything out loud. Then we gathered and started listening to people come and testify to the commission. And we won. There was an election [in Los Angeles] to pass a tax increase to fund the jail and the new cops, and we beat it.

TV: Let’s talk about another form of organizing — unions. This conversation comes shortly after the union win at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse. How are you feeling? 

RWG: Oh, I’m really optimistic. The fact that this kind of organizing is happening against one of the biggest firms on the planet matters enormously.

I work with some people who run a very small, independent research outfit in Los Angeles called the Economic Roundtable, which does work to try to make the conditions of life better as soon as possible for as many people as possible, for wherever they study. The big political idea at the edge of [their] research [on Amazon] is this: Amazon should be a public utility. Right? It just should be. Making these arguments isn’t going to magically transform it into a public utility, but it opens up all kinds of ways for people to think about the relationships in which it’s possible for one human to be [one of the] richest on the planet and all of these other humans to be suffering and suffocated — and so many of us in between, dependent on that firm for the wherewithal of life, especially in the pandemic.

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