What does prison abolition mean to the mother whose son has been decapitated?
On February 17, 2005, New York City transit workers stumbled across two suspicious garbage bags beside the train tracks at the Nostrand Avenue stop in Brooklyn. The bags were filled with the remains of a dismembered 19-year-old queer Black man, Rashawn Brazell, who was supposed to meet with his mother for lunch that Valentine’s Day but never showed up.
“No one deserves to end up being thrown away, like they’re just trash,” his mother, Desire Brazell, said in an interview years later. Other parts of her son’s body had since been found in different parts of the city. His head was never recovered.
Almost exactly 12 years to the day Brazell’s body was found, 38-year-old Kwauhuru Govan was finally charged with the murder. Govan had been previously arrested in November on murder and kidnapping charges in the 2004 killing of 17-year-old Sharabia Thomas upon newly uncovered DNA evidence in that case. Evidence linking Govan to Brazell has yet to be released.
Brazell’s story was a rallying cry for Black queer people everywhere. Brooklyn-based writer Robert Jones Jr. regularly reminded his social media community, Son of Baldwin, to keep Brazell’s story alive long after the case seemed to go cold. The poet Phillip B. Williams included a moving series of pieces inspired by the unsolved murder in his award-winning book of poetry, Thief in the Interior. Brazell’s death became one illuminating moment out of far too many reminding Black queer folks just how delicate our safety is in this place, if we are lucky enough to ever even grasp it at all.
Often, this precarious safety seems to be established by policing and prison systems. If Govan is truly the monster behind these vicious slayings, justice is supposed to look like his arrest and state-sanctioned death or imprisonment, and his removal from the streets is supposed to lend itself toward our protection. Black queer folks and Black women still reeling from the all-too-common deaths of their own are supposed to rest a little easier knowing someone who has preyed upon them beneath the shadows is no longer hiding behind them to continue doing so.
For prison and police abolitionists like myself, moments like these present perhaps the greatest dissonance we ever encounter in our politics. Cisgender heterosexual Black men especially remain a substantial threat to their queer, trans, femme, and female counterparts, and prison/the police sometimes seem to be the only answers available when there is such a lack of accountability amongst the people who commit violence against us.
When Alton Sterling was murdered by the police and it later came out that he had been charged and registered as a sex offender for his relationship with a juvenile, the person who sexually assaulted me as a child had just passed. My harm-doer’s death seemed suspiciously like the result of anti-Black hate crime. I felt for the women who would not shed a tear for Sterling; I could not find the capacity protest my own harm-doer’s death. When it comes to the anti-Black killings of Black men, I can never ignore the fact that it was a Black man who sexually violated me nor that Black men are the main ones who sexually violate the 60% of Black women who are assaulted before they are 18.
But the reality is my harm-doer’s death was not an attack on a sexual offender, and police and prisons are not meant to protect us from people like him and Sterling. Officers did not run a background check on Sterling and then decide to murder him after the fact. They killed him because he was Black. In the same way, prison is filled with Black and Brown bodies systematically, and though it might sometimes do so collaterally, its purpose has never been to alleviate any of our suffering.
Prison is an attack on Blackness. On Black families. On all of us.
In “All prisoners are political prisoners: the #VaughnUprising and how ignoring hostage strategy forgoes our freedom,” Jess Krug argues, “If you are offended by the notion of fighting for freedom beside a rapist, a murderer, and an armed assailant – by this argument being put to you by someone whose earliest memories are of assault, sexual and otherwise – then what are you calling freedom, and what are its limits?” She makes the case that, ultimately, abolition demands we push ourselves farther than ever could be comfortable—literally aligning with murderers and rapists—and into the scary space of realizing that a world without anti-Blackness must also mean a world without human cages.
But what happens when the person being pushed is Desire Brazell?
Prison abolition is not a metaphor. It is a very real possibility, and I unquestionably believe that completely ending the caging and enslavement of people is vitally necessary for liberation. But it also requires very real sacrifices which we cannot only ask of those who are least able to make them. Without legitimate and functional alternatives, a world without prisons and police is exactly the world abolition objectors make it out to be: One within which the worst social violators roam free and unabated.
How can we answer the call to free Black men like Govan, who have proven themselves to be continually violent? How do we defend them from the rightly noted anti-Black violence of hyperpolicing and imprisonment when they ensure there is another murder like Rashawn Brazell’s or Sharabia Thomas’s every other day?
I emphasize that abolition is not a metaphor not just so that those who aren’t sincere will stop claiming to be abolitionists. If abolition is real, those of us who have centered it in our work should also be willing to put our bodies and positions on the line to achieve it if we are to ask others to do the same.
It is not enough to write about abolition from places of relative safety without committing to outlining and practicing the ways it might be manifested on the ground. Abolition means following real alternatives to policing within our personal lives, and committing to expanding upon the alternatives that work in our larger communities in the face of certain push-back of the state. It means refusing to demonize a thing only because it is deemed criminal—when Blackness is deemed criminal preemptively. It might mean risking whatever distance from criminality one has to ensure the survival of someone who has no distance to risk.
It is always the responsibility of those with something to lose to lend our bodies and labor to those without it to create and facilitate accountability practices that do not leave those without things to lose bearing the burden alone.
Still, it is queer, trans, gender nonconforming, disabled, femme and female prisoners who are already always the ones who bear the brunt of anti-Blackness. The same queerantagonistic violence that dismembered Rashawn Brazell is that which engendered cages around Cece McDonald. All of the violence we experience outside of the most carceral institutions is already always perfected and unrestrained inside of them. Obscuring this fact is how the fight against prison and the police is able to become uncoupled from the fight against the violence rained upon the most vulnerable to their own detriment.
Prison abolition is not a call to discard all social accountability. It is to say that the kind of accountability forced onto us by an anti-Black state will never free us. It is to say that we have to work diligently to develop other accountability practices, and master them ourselves first, with self-reflexivity being the center-point of all our work.
Prison abolition should not be asking folks who have been harmed to cry for or idolize their harm-doers. It should be a reminder that anti-Blackness manifested in the structural violence of prisons is why we all remain unfree. It is keeping the goal of alternatives always in sight, even as we may not yet be at a place where we can embrace them. It is to always be working toward a future where that embrace is a reality, and not waiting for someone else to take those steps for you, least of all those who have little room to move forward.
When a mother’s son was decapitated, she reminded the world that “No one deserves to end up being thrown away, like they’re just trash.” She meant her son, the beautiful Black queer boy who never was able to bring her the Valentine’s Day rose she was promised. But perhaps her statement was a universal truth. Perhaps all Black people who have ever been thrown away in the centuries since we were dragged and enslaved here, on the plantation and in prison, deserve something better than the violent solutions given to us.
The task at hand is to do our own part everyday to define what better could be.
Photo via Brazell Family