A photograph of a placard reading, 'In a world without prisons, there would be jobs and education and healthcare and housing

Imaging Abolition/Abolitionist Visions

I invited Gunditjmara woman and abolition activist Tabitha Lean to speak to my class The Racial State. I am happy to share the video of her talk with you.

The text of my introduction to Tabitha’s talk:

It is an honour for me to welcome our guest lecturer, Tabitha Lean to Western Sydney University School of Humanities and Communication Arts and to our class ‘The Racial State’. The Racial State is a semester long unit that critically examines race, racism and white supremacy within the context of ongoing colonisation. It is an explicitly antiracist class where we don’t treat racism as a matter of opinion but as a sociological fact.

I am joining you from the unceded lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I would like to pay my respects to their elders, past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here. I remind myself and all of us that – whatever country we are on – these always were and always will be Aboriginal lands. 

Universities are built on sovereign Aboriginal lands. Western Sydney University operates on the lands of the Darug, Tharawal, Eora and Wiradjuri nations. The theme of today’s lecture is ‘Abolitionist Visions’. It builds on our discussion last week of the police and the carceral system in Australia as racialised institutions that in many ways have been designed to surveil and punish Indigenous peoples and other negatively racialised and poor peoples.

we acknowledge that we are learning on sovereign darug country

As students and educators, it is worth remembering that the University is not neutral in all of this. Universities have been and continue to be complicit with the state’s repressive institutions. So, when we discuss these issues it is important to think about the role of each of us in upholding the status quo and think about what we can do to bring change. I try to incorporate a critical reflection on my own role as a migrant-settler on Gadigal lands, the benefits that accrue to me as a result, and how I can use spaces like this virtual classroom to question why things are the way they are.

There is no better person to help us answer these questions than Tabitha Lean. Tabitha Lean is a Gunditjmara woman, born and raised on Kaurna yerta. She is a story teller, poet, artist and abolition activist. Her work, based on her own experience of the prison, helps us to imagine a world where, in the words of US-American abolition activist, Mariame Kaba, we can ‘address harm without relying on the violent systems that increase it’, like police and prisons. We can imagine a world, as Tabitha has written, where we all have safety which, by definition, must be a world in which everyone has freedom and justice.

A few years ago, when teaching on police and prisons, it was almost impossible to raise questions like what if we abolish the police? What if there were no more prisons? Students couldn’t get their heads around the idea. Today, thanks to activists like Tabitha and many others – such as Debbie Kilroy of the organisation Sisters Inside or Latoya Aroha Rule who just successfully campaigned to have spithoods banned in South Australia – it is much easier to have that discussion, openly and honestly. 

We can now begin to ask how to free ourselves from the internalised belief that society cannot be safe without institutions that detain those we have been taught to believe are ‘bad’. We could begin to think collectively for alternatives, based on care rather than fear.

I want to thank Tabitha very much for agreeing to come to our class today and I now give her the floor to share her wisdom with us. 

Readings used for class:

Abolition is a Verb Andrew Brooks, Astrid Lorange, Debbie Kilroy and Tabitha Lean

Why I am an Abolitionist by Tabitha Lean

We Do This Till We Free Us Mariama Kaba

Download the accompanying Teaching activity


Leave a comment (Your IP address will be logged)