Abolition Culture: Moving Beyond Disposability in the Movement

Janaya Khan
5 min readJun 2, 2017

The other day I was talking to a homie about something that felt deeply personal; the people I have real conflict with in my life are in the movement community in some way. I felt ashamed. The conflicts, though few, felt like a contradiction to my values. She sighed and said that that was true for her as well. Building intentionally with each other means that we will have issues with those in the communities we choose. Conflict is an inevitability, but I wish our movement culture knew how to deal with it better.

The models we currently have in place aren’t great when it comes to holding the multiple truths and tensions that exist in our values and praxis as a movement. Too often, we favour cliquing up, using binaries, and disposability to deal with conflicts between people in different kinds of relationships over approaching each situation in a more nuanced way; one that is abolitionist in nature.

I say this because I have been both harmful and harmed in our community, despite the idea that I can only be one at a time. Like many of us, being subjected to continual abuse informed abusive tendencies, and our system is a continuum of structural violence. Trauma is a part of our collective narrative. We are not separate from the system we are fighting against; to exist in this society and fight for justice is to live in almost perpetual contradiction.

Movements are born out of the need for change, for transformation.

Yet, at times, our treatment of each other in movement spaces feels more punitive than transformative.

Some folks named ‘call-out culture’ as an intervention to this, but the analysis is too narrow. ‘Call out’ as a concept is oversimplified. It is as often a trauma response as it is performative. There also isn’t consensus on the tensions between call-out, being critical, and critique. More importantly, because ‘call out’ is framed using a lateral discourse, it quickly devolved into anti-Black racist rhetoric; the signifiers for ‘call out’ are linked to the tones and body language largely associated with Black women and Black people.

Cultures are hard to pin down as the result of one or two things, but our practice around conflict is a great indicator of what kind of world we are creating.

Where I grew up, you got into fights with your homies but at the end of the day, if anyone tried to squad up, you knew who had your back. Loyalty was something everyone understood. I came into the movement community with that understanding. If a homie had beef with someone, so did I. But then it started to happen more and more, adding up with my own issues with people, and I realized that non-engagement was not sustainable. Every party or protest started to feel like being in a fishbowl with your own clique. It was fracturing our community, and in most cases, especially if you are queer and trans, there isn’t another community to go to; disposing of people is a particularly dangerous practice under these circumstances.

I am writing this feeling the full weight of not knowing what to do about the people I no longer speak to; some of whom I truly miss; others, it would suffice just to be able to acknowledge our collective humanity in a space. I cut people out because those were the only tools I had as a foster kid with trust issues. But I am not just that anymore. I learned other ways were possible.

Learning and investing in Abolition Culture, one that seeks to provide alternatives over answers, is about creating possibility.

Abolition, at the heart of it, is a non-punitive way of being, relating, and engaging with each other; it is ending something and creating something new. An Abolition Culture requires nuance, understanding, and time; time to learn, grow, correct, and transform.

Abolition Culture is invested in dealing with conflict that holds the plurality in people. Our movement culture, however, often relies on binaries to inform how we treat each other during contention. No one is a single story, but binaries significantly reduce the potential of engaging with multiple truths in a situation, and can fuel oppositional narratives.

An increasing trend in the movement community around conflict is the use of a victim/abuser binary. This is not to discount the idea that some people are victimized in relationships, but rather a call for expanding beyond the binary. Not only because it removes the possibility that someone can be both victim and abuser in relationships, but also because we don’t have a culture where someone can own abusive behaviours without being shunned.

Trauma, our experience of and relationship to it, has everything to do with our collective response to abuse. Trauma acts out of time. I learned that some of my trauma responses, like stone-walling, a tactic I learned to survive abuse, played a role as emotional abuse in a variety of my relationships. Learning what my conditioned tendencies were in a non-punitive way gave space for me to change and show up differently.

Recognizing and owning abusive behaviours without being thrown away is integral to building a world different than the one we live in. It also takes the onus off of those harmed to do the work, endure in silence or be gas lit. More creativity and investment is needed around holding people accountable.

We need a cultural shift on how we relate to abuse, and how that in turn informs our practice of disposability.

I’ve learned that being woke doesn’t mean you are a good friend or partner. It takes work. We cannot be more invested in articulating values over living them.

Abolition Culture goes beyond just prisons or police, it’s about how we treat each other. It’s about moving beyond binaries, cliques, and disposability and finding new ways to engage. Practice informs culture, and even with these challenges, there isn’t an assembly of people I believe in more to do this work. Changing how we treat each other is ‘the work.’

When I go back home this summer, there are some people I need to hit up. There are also some people who, I hope, will hit me up too.



Janaya Khan

I tell stories and create content. Habitual kombucha drinker. Sometimes I write. | janayakhan.com