Patrisse Cullors’s Abolitionist’s Handbook Puts Change in Its Readers’ Hands

Patrisse Cullors photographed by Danielle Degrasse-Alston for W magazine's 2020 Originals Portfolio. Makeup by Latoya De’Shaun.

In 2019, the activist, artist, and author Patrisse Cullors wrote an article for the Harvard Law Review that fused abolitionist history and theory with her own abolition practice. As a cofounder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation with years of experience working alongside at-risk youth, fighting for prison reform, and participating in social movements around the world, Cullors had plenty to say on the subject. But it was the first time the 39-year-old put on paper a step-by-step breakdown outlining the way she integrated abolition into her daily life. “I thought about what I would have wanted to see as a young abolitionist,” Cullors tells me on a recent phone call from her native Los Angeles. “I would’ve wanted to read someone say, These are the things that make abolition possible. So I said, Let me tell you how I do it.”

That article was the bones for what became Cullors’s latest book, An Abolitionist's Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World. Out January 25, the handbook is just that: a text that can be revisited as reference material for how to inject abolitionist theories into your life. Although An Abolitionist's Handbook contains instructions on how to enact Black liberation and the liberation of underserved communities; how to fight imperialism, white supremacy, and colonialism, and details on dismantling the prison industrial system and other harmful structures, it’s also imbued with stories from Cullors’s upbringing as a young Black woman in the United States, her experiences in the Black Lives Matter movement, and the lessons she’s learned along the way. Additionally, Cullors ends each chapter of the book by spotlighting other activists and associates who have inspired the way she approaches abolition today.

The keystone of the book is what we, as individuals, can do to create what Cullors calls “an economy of care.” It is peppered with quite personal, human-centered tips: encouraging people interested in abolition to take breaks; engage in honest, open, and thoughtful communication with their friends, family, and communities; and to prioritize care for themselves, however that looks for each individual. “If we create the economy of care, that means we individually, and in our interpersonal relationships, are caring for each other—but also it means our institutions are built to care for each other,” Cullors says. “What I’m trying to do with this book is, hopefully, be a part of a legacy of interventionists that could help move us in a different direction.”

Who did you envision as your reader while writing this book? Were you writing for anyone in particular?

I was writing for a generation of abolitionists who have been listening to elder abolitionists for a long time, and thinking about how the practice of abolition has, in some ways, been through an academic lens. We’ve not really had a sustenant conversation about how abolition can be lived, like how we live our lives now. I wanted to offer this next generation of abolitionists—many who I see online, many who I’ve talked to myself—something that they can use. While I obviously have an audience in mind, this is for the broader public. How do we recognize that abolition is, in my humble opinion, the way out of this big mess that we’re in.

Were you keeping anything top of mind while writing?

I think a lot about what an abolitionist world would look like, or what this pandemic would look like if we lived in the abolitionist world. The unfortunate reality is that we live in an economy of punishment. If you’re poor, you’re punished. If you’re Black, you’re punished. If you’re brown, you’re punished, you’re a woman, you’re trans, you’re disabled, you’re punished. So I thought about, if we live in an economy of punishment, what do we need? What’s the antidote to that? I believe it’s an economy of care. And if we create the economy of care, that means that we individually, and in our interpersonal relationships, we are caring for each other, but also it means that our institutions are built to care for each other.

How did you whittle down the 12 steps and decide specifically which details would go into the book?

I thought about some of my own lived experience and how I would advance that through these steps. I also thought about the people who inspire me to do the work I do every day. Our movement is made up of some of the most amazing, brilliant human beings. The many people that I highlighted in the book, from Mamie Till to Phillip Agnew, to Prentis Hemphill to Adrienne Maree Brown to Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha—these are people who I am in community with on a daily basis. Our generation is going to be the one to practice healing justice in real life in person and witnessing it is what inspired so much of my own actions, in Los Angeles and across the country.

At the beginning of the book, you made very clear that An Abolitionist’s Handbook is not a memoir, but it still contained recounts of your own personal anecdotes and memories. Was it difficult for you to include yourself in this project? Did it feel necessary?

It was difficult for sure. As Black people, we grow up, like, don’t talk about our business in public. But I try to talk to Angela Davis, who is a big mentor of mine, often—both to check up on her as an elder, but also to lean on her. She has some stories that she hasn’t shared publicly, and I get why: there’s this narrative in our movement where you don’t air things out, because then we’re vulnerable. That means there are a lot of stories that we just don’t know about, especially about internal tensions that end up getting narrated by our opposition. I went to Angela over the years, and she’d be like, Yeah, that kind of thing happened to us, too. I felt like, let me do that in here, but in a way that feels constructive, not as gossip or chisme. It was more like, there’s a whole framework we can use to relate to each other differently and to show up for each other differently. And that’s called abolition.

In my opinion, one of the most radical ideas in the handbook is replacing the United States police force with a council of community-based elders. How did you come up with this idea?

It’s not my concept. It’s a concept that comes from our ancestors, from our traditions. I got to visit Australia when I received, alongside the Black Lives Matter Global Network, the Sydney Peace Prize. I got to meet with a bunch of indigenous Australians, and they talked about the way the U.S. was trying to export the criminal legal system to their country, and how it was ruining their societies. To push back against it, they brought in their ancestral knowledge. That looked like transformative justice in real time. It looked like an elder council. It looked like checking up on the children and being close to them versus seeing them as the enemy of the people. That was so transformative and powerful for me.

I do feel that, recently, the discourse around abolishing the police has changed for some. People are realizing police officers might not be equipped to handle situations that require deep understanding of a community and empathy. Why would you call a police officer, who isn’t familiar with the nuances of a dispute, to handle it? Why wouldn’t you call someone who is more connected to the community to intervene and to mediate?

Why would you call a stranger when there’s something really intimate happening? How do you get people to trust a stranger? My brother, who has severe mental illness, was recently going through an episode. I was coordinating with a facility to get an ambulance to pick him up, to go to the hospital. Because of Covid—and more importantly, because we lack an infrastructure of care—it took 48 hours to get an ambulance. But do you know who was called and showed up within 20 minutes? The police. They apprehended him, and I was like, Can they take him to the hospital? And the police were like, No, he didn’t commit a crime. This is what we’re talking about.

Many of the tools used in cognitive behavioral therapy theory pop up in An Abolitionist’s Handbook. How much did your own personal journey in therapy influence some of the techniques that you included in the book?

It was 100 percent influenced by my experiences inside talk therapy, but I would say more importantly, my experience inside somatic therapy. I’ve been practicing generative somatics for my own healing, and my own relationship to how I lead as well. In 2012, I did my first somatic yearlong training based in healing from trauma—and it changed my life. A couple months later, I started Dignity and Power Now, my local grassroots organization that focuses on supporting incarcerated families. A year later, alongside Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, I started Black Lives Matter.

That continued practice calls you to dig into your longings—what do you desire most, not just for yourself, but for your community and for your family. I think in this next iteration of my life, it’s this deep work around abolition, and how abolition can be a practice—not just for me, but for all of us.