In a White man’s prisons: Walter Rodney, decolonization, and abolition
Walter Rodney was keen to the plight of Black people all across the world, both on the continent of Africa and throughout every inch of our diaspora. Whether in the streets of Jamaica, the University of Dar Es Salaam, in Atlanta at the Institute of the Black World, or in his home country of Guyana, in a true Pan-African and internationalist sense, no Black struggle fell outside of his consciousness.
Because of this, I feel it’s only right to use my short time speaking tonight to uplift the movement which is taking place around the globe, that’s fighting the same state sanctioned and imperialist violence and terror that Walter Rodney faced and indeed fought against. I also want to honor Rayshard Brooks, who was murdered by the Atlanta police department just this week.
When we think of or think with Walter Rodney, it is not unusual to instantly think of underdevelopment; the ways that the imperialist, capitalist class has sought to structure the world in a way that economically, culturally, and politically robs African peoples and Indigenous peoples everywhere to build Western institutions. This is the main argument of his most famous book How Europe Developed Africa, in which he shows that not only did the underdevelopment of Africa build the wealth and development of the colonial world but this underdevelopment was actually necessary for such development of Europe.
But in this global moment of fighting against police terror, we must also heed the lessons Rodney and others gave us about the violent nature of Western development, colonial society, especially their armed forces, and their African accomplices that are present in every aspect of the neo-colonial system. We cannot look at his writings on economic development divorced from his explanations of exactly how such underdevelopment was able to take place; the forces of the state which aided in such development.
Right now in the streets of Minneapolis, DC, Atlanta, Oakland, Toronto, Harlem, and a multitude of other cities around the world, calls to “defund” and abolish the police have turned into a symphony for abolition. And while the notion of prison or police abolition may sound unfamiliar or idyllic to some, this call is just another advancement in the struggle towards Black liberation, decolonization, and the abolishment of slavery.
In 1971, Walter Rodney wrote a moving tribute to Black revolutionary and political prisoner George Jackson, whom many would call a forefather of the modern abolitionist movement. In this writing, Rodney accurately connects prisons in the US to the long and racist legacy of prisons throughout the colonized world.
He states that George Jackson was a “Black revolutionary in a white man’s prisons,” and that “ever since the days of slavery the U.S.A. is nothing but a vast prison as far as African descendants are concerned. Within this prison,” Rodney states, “black life is cheap.”
He goes on to praise George Jackson’s efforts to organize incarcerated people into a revolutionary class, discussing the many ways the US prisons system is sustained by racism the legacies of slavery. He states:
“The thirty-odd million black people in the U.S.A. are not misfits. They are the most oppressed and the most threatened as far as survival is concerned. The greatness of George Jackson is that he served as a dynamic spokesman for the most wretched among the oppressed, and he was in the vanguard of the most dangerous front of struggle. Jail is hardly an arena in which one would imagine that guerrilla warfare would take place. Yet, it is on this most disadvantaged of terrains that blacks have displayed the guts to wage a war for dignity and freedom.”
And still, we can go even deeper to understand that Rodney’s notion of Jackson being a “Black revolutionary in a white man’s prison” holds a certain decolonial truth inside it.
Across the world, wherever European colonialism reared its head, we can observe the expansion of torturous prison systems. In Rodney’s home country of Guyana, most of the prison system exists as a relic to the violence of colonization; as professor Clare Anderson notes, the British built over a dozen jails all over its colony of British Guyana and the two oldest prisons in the country were built during the Dutch occupation. This expansive carceral system is inextricably linked to slavery, forced labor, and punishment, as they were largely the result of the need to punish and torture enslaved Africans. Following the end of chattel slavery, the colonial state simply assumed the role of slavemaster/plantation owner and enforced petty crime laws in order to keep the carceral system operating for their benefit.
The same could be said of many major prisons in the US, such as the now infamous Parchman Prison in Mississippi. Parchman prison is home to some of the worst human rights abuses on earth, and its creation was the result of “progressive” reforms to the convict-leasing system by so-called “progressive” white supremacists, namely James Vardaman. Because the private sector and plantation owning class gained massive profits from the convict-leasing system, allowing them to compete in power with the political officials and amass vast personal wealth, local officials saw the creation of the state prison system as a necessary step in securing profits for the state and forced labor from the local Black masses. In this sense, Parchman Prison (known originally as the “Parchman Farm”) itself is a result of ‘reforms’ to the criminal justice system in its earliest conception.
The same colonial, racist origin stories of slave empires can be found in old prisons from Louisiana, Jamaica, Senegal, Virginia, and many, many other places. Historians have observed that carceral technologies of surveillance, detainment, captivity, and punishment were generally conceived and/or expanded through the process of colonization, the establishment of settler and penal colonies, and have only been consistently exacerbated through the neo-colonial era. These carceral technologies necessitate the colonial and capitalist state, as Rodney points out, because the ills of colonialism and capitalism necessitate modes of forced labor, exploited labor, criminalization, labor surplus, land theft and resource hoarding, class stratification, and racialized labor inequities, all of which must use the jail cell, prison walls, or violent policing methods to maintain.
If we can understand this colonial nature in the essence of the majority of the colonized world’s current prisons and our dominant forms of policing, then we can begin to look at abolition not as some new age framework of activism, but rather a necessity in our move towards decolonization. Understanding the theory and praxis of abolition in this light is keenly important, namely because Pan-Africanism, Black Marxism, iterations of Black Nationalism, and other radical ideological tendencies within the Black Radical Tradition may be able to more strongly adapt abolitionist frameworks and modes of engagement into their own theories of change.
If large and violent prison structures are a key component to slavery and colonialism, then their destruction must also be a key component in undoing the world of slavery and colonialism. Walter Rodney reminded us that there are African “sell-outs” in the imperialist system, who are given meaningless power from the imperialists to control policing, local administrations, and institutions that maintain domination over their own people. In fact, Rodney says that this group of violent sell-outs is actually necessary for underdevelopment.
The prisons and the police, as occupying forces of the Black masses, are no different.
As myself and thousands more across the US this month have swallowed tear gas and pepper spray, taken rubber bullets and batons, been arrested by the hundreds, and saw firsthand the brutality of capitalist fascism, people are still attempting to say that abolition is an unreasonable request. The capitalists are trembling, because they know the idea of “reform” has long passed its usefulness, and the word abolition has now gone viral in a way they cannot stop. Walter Rodney knew this as well, as he stated that “liberal America has been disturbed. The liberals never like to be told that white capitalist society is too rotten to be reformed.”
If we are to take Walter Rodney’s words to heart, and honor the legacy of the Black Radical Tradition and this great African revolutionary who was assassinated for his dedication to decolonization, then we have to support the masses in the streets calling for abolition now. Because abolition is decolonial in nature, and it has to be for the sake of the future of our movements.
[This speech was edited into article format]
Devyn Springer is a cultural worker who studies the African Diaspora, history, and culture. Their work typically focuses on race, class, organizing, prisons, and art. Devyn’s main forms are essays, photography, poetry and audio in the form of podcasts. You can see their public writing at devynspringer.journoportfolio.com, or check out Dev’s artwork at halfatlanta.com.