billy woods: Red Dust

Existing alongside and within punitive structures appears to have left an indelible mark on (among other things) our moral thought. As antagonistic as they may be, both the status quo of carcerality and our desire to change it are products of this world. If we believe in abolition not as the telos of a utopian thought exercise, but as an attainable point we might reach in our lifetimes, what is to be done with these indelible marks within us: gestures towards baseness, cruelty, and revenge? Assuming that the improvement of a world without cops and prisons cannot purify us of these capacities, what will become of them in abolitionist futures?

At the end of Abolitionist Alternatives, Angela Davis gives an example of a successful reconciliation achieved within the system: the story of a family who came to forgive their daughter’s killers, had them pardoned, and eventually met and declared love for them.[10] In an unjust, carceral world, this reconciliation is surely a good thing. But this single example doesn’t speak for itself as Davis might intend it to. Philosophically, to overextend this example as some grand telos of abolitionism: evidence of a final terminus that can be achieved as part of every healing process, a glimpse of the improved moral climate inherent to abolition, feels like an oversimplification.

Whether initiated by revolution or reform, a system founded upon forgiveness instead of punishment is not really a morally radical alternative to the status quo, but is merely a reconfiguration of it, something still rooted in the old system’s foundational logic of Christian morality. As the father in Davis’s example says, “we tried to explain that sometimes it pays to shut up and listen to what other people have to say, to ask: ‘Why do these terrible things happen?’ instead of simply reacting.” [11] This approach makes sense in his case of forgiveness following a wanton killing. But might there be a place for reactiveness?

On the second verse of Red Dust, billy woods clearly chooses violence, professing:

you on the list
planet ain’t big enough, we can’t coexist

From the beginning, reconciliation is not an option—one of us has to go. His preoccupation with revenge is deep, taking on libidinal forms of prayer, sex, writing, memory:

say my prayers e’ry night, you be in the mix
I can’t wait, dream about it like sex
etch you off the writ
help you remember what you’re trying to forget

woods further fleshes out what he hopes to achieve from this act of violence, which is less about the sadism of torture, and more about corresponding with the other in a way that can only happen alongside their destruction. Maybe woods’ showing the sea of hate inside himself through this violence functions as catharsis, a mimetic release of trauma from the violence he’s experienced (from “the worst people” and from the police) ending in the obliteration of the unknown subject:

I want us to be alone in your home
I want to suck the marrow out your bones
I want to show you what I learned from the worst people I ever known
I want to follow you like the Jakes
I want to swallow you
show the hate inside, it’s a lake
so cold, so deep
I see you, you never saw me
transferred to the sea
so close I can see a nick from shavin’
your neck so exposed, your throat would open like a hose
eyes wide open I would watch you go

woods expresses his priority to killing this person, even if he goes to hell for it, even if it’s the last thing he does:

seein’ you in hell all I think about when they say woods
that’s all she wrote
I know the list long
I put you at the fuckin’ top though!

woods’ verse is delivered with a resonating intensity, poetically stated but not overdone. Simply, it makes me wonder: free from our carceral reality which is founded upon logics of revenge—is no revenge justified? What would it look like to seriously incorporate such a sober commitment to revenge into a politics of abolition? If obsession with revenge is an intoxication, how is an obsession with forgiveness any less so? Maybe woods’ act invokes Benjamin’s divine violence, transcending moral assessment in its destructive fury. Maybe not. Either way, the current legal system’s regime of stamping all cases of violence into reactive tragedies through manufactured abstractions—(carceral) guilt, (carceral) retribution, (carceral) justice, all while continuing its own practices of violence, is entirely toxic to our moral senses. Under a system that leaves people to die in cages, forgiveness between citizens becomes something profane. Abolition is the only option forward, not only because it is the only path toward forgiveness, but because it legitimizes the potential for revenge and forgiveness alike, making it the only path leading out of the rut of routine state violences.

Pat LeGates

[10]     Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press, 2011), 114-5.
[11]     Davis, 115.


Johnny Cash: Folsom Prison Blues

On a Saturday in January 1968, famous country-musician Johnny Cash entered the Folsom State Prison. A high-security prison on the West coast of the United States, about 30 miles East of Sacramento. Cash did not enter to serve a sentence, but to perform his music live for hundreds of prisoners. On a temporary stage built up in the prison’s cafeteria, Cash gave an hour-long concert which has been recorded and later released as a live album (1968). Many of the songs written and performed by Cash are written from the point of view of a criminal, most notably the “Folsom Prison Blues” in which he sings from the perspective of a prisoner who fantasizes about the freedom of travelling by train. This concert was one of many prison concerts Cash would give as a way of fighting against the violence of the American prison system because he believes that “Nothing good ever came out of prison” (Kenneth and Hamm 2009, 279). In this text, I will explore to what extent Cash’s album truly contributes to his fights against the prison.

Angela Davis, an American academic, is also fighting against the prison system. In fact, she argues for the abolishment of the prison institution (Davis 2003). However, she emphasizes that it has become hard to imagine a life without prisons since they have become so naturalized (Davis 2003, 10). This naturalization is partially caused by the high consummation of media images of prisons through movies and tv, making the prison “a key ingredient of our common sense” (Davis 2003, 18). Following this argumentation, Cash’s recordings might not contribute to prison abolitionism, but rather reinforce the fact that prison is taken for granted. At the same time, Davis argues that “there is reluctance to face the realities hidden within them [prisons], a fear of thinking about what happens inside” (Davis 2003, 15). Prison is merely seen as an abstract place where the undesirables are deposited (Davis 2003, page). Thus, despite the public being overthrown with images of the prison, the criminal themself has become an abstract non-human whose fate is abandoned.

Although Davis merely seems to criticize media images of the prison, I believe that exactly this media coverage of the prison and its criminals might be the first step to prison abolitionism. Cash’s recordings make the prison real and make the public think about what happens inside them. Most importantly, his album portrays these criminals as human beings. Throughout the recording, you hear the usual cheering and applauding audible on live albums, while at the same time you hear prison guards making personal announcements by calling out inmate numbers. This makes the public aware of the insides of prison while listening to the album. Through his lyrics, Cash sings from the perspective of the criminal and sympathizes with their struggles. This emphasizes how Cash does not see himself as radically different from these criminals, but emphasizes that it could have been him facing this misfortune. The final song of the album, Greystone Chapel, was even composed by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley, who later, with the support of Cash, became a musician himself.

His performance also gained political attention and success, including a meeting with President Nixon in 1972 and his contribution to a political panel to eliminate unequal sentencing. Nevertheless, I find it important to emphasize that Cash himself was a white and rich American man, who despite being arrested 7 times, never actually served a sentence. His skin colour and background ensured that he has not been historically constituted as a criminal and most likely contributed to the political opportunities he received. For marginalized people, it simply is not as easy as it was for Johnny Cash. Despite these notable benefits, Cash still managed to make the criminal visible and human through his performance. Therefore, I believe that Johnny Cash’s album At Folsom Prison does not re-establish the naturalization of the prison, but rather benefits the fight for prison abolitionism.

Vera de Wit

Reference List

Cash, Johnny. At Folsom Prison. Album. 1968. Columbia Records.  
Davis, Angela. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.  


Lunatic: La Lettre

This song is a landmark in old school french rap. The duo of rappers write this piece like an exchange of letters between Booba who is in prison and Ali who is outside. While filled with classic ego trip punchline about money and sex this song also criticises the prison system and raises questions as to what the alternative could be.

The first verse is Ali’s letter to Booba from outside which opens with the dates at which he received his last letter compared to when it was sent to show how difficult communication is from jail. He then proceeds to tell how life is going outside and criticises the system that is separating the two friends in a couple of lines: “Mislead by the judges, who have never understood anything of our lives. Mislead by the jail and its walls that took years from you”. This highlights the feeling of injustice due to the difference of lifestyle between judges and youths of the suburbs. How can a judge fairly consider the actions of people whose lives are so remote from their own. Prison is here personified as a trickster which shows the defiance of the artist for the institution.

The second verse is Booba’s answer letter to Ali from within jail. It opens with the date “18th of August 1998” which is the actual date at which the rapper went to jail for a taxi hold-up. He goes on to speak about life inside the prison as well as what he dreams of when he gets out: drugs, guns, sex and money. This, although rooted in the ego trip culture of rap,  demonstrates how little imprisonment actually changes the mind of criminals.

Booba also complains about forced work: “I need to work for this b*tch to give me conditional”. The slur refers to the judge and conditional is when someone can get out of jail early under certain conditions. The forced work provided by inmates is criticised notably by Angela Davis who argues that mass incarceration does not create safer communities but simply causes more incarceration which with corporate involvement profiting from the free labour give rise to the “prison-industrial complex”. (Davis, 2003)

The most interesting lines in the song come latter: “Jail puts us under pressure, it feeds our Revolutionary instincts, so f*ck her mom reintegration (meaning social rehabilitation)” this last bit becoming an iconic quote in French rap culture. In Booba’s experience, jail feeds Revolutionary instinct which links with Benjamin’s idea of overthrowing mythical forms of violence. This also can be seen as a reference to abolitionist ideas that a deeper change in society is needed for prisons to become obsolete. For example McLeod claims that: “Justice […] aims to change the world as it is so that those affected have greater resources to heal and so that harm is less likely to befall others in the future”. (McLeod, 2019) In this very vein the slur against the mother of reintegration is both a mark of exasperation and a finger pointed at the ineffectiveness of current rehabilitative measures.

For abolitionists, rather than finding a grand scheme to end prison as a whole in a day, the solution lies in concrete ground work. Working everyday to better the living standard of the community, its education and health care system, creating opportunities so people do not have to turn to crime to survive. This is a direct opposition to the industrial prison complex which consumes social value for profit and only generates more incarceration. (Davis, 2003)

The song ends with a sample from the movie Escape from Alcatraz in which a prison guard tells an inmate that he found him a job for 25c an hour, to which the inmate answers ironically:”I always knew crime would pay”. More than adding to the preceding critic of forced labour this sample adds to the visualisation that comes with the song. Each verse begins with what sounds like paper being unfolded, to illustrate the letter reading and the song ends with the sound of a big metal door closing, signifying both the closing of the song and the closing of the cell. All those effects put the listener in the place of the inmate, it pushes us to think about the hardship of prison and the alternatives to this system.

Julien Djenidi


Davis, Angela, Yvonne. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.
McLeod, Allegra, M. 2019. “Envisioning Abolition Democracy.” Harvard Law Review 132: 1613-1649.


Sex Pistols: Anarchy in the UK

The song “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols gives us some alternative accounts of a couple of the main arguments that are made in Allegra McLeod’s article “Envisioning Abolition Democracy”. On the one hand, parts of the song’s lyrics are in line with certain arguments of the article, but on the other hand it also formulates some reservations about how McLeod envisions an abolitionist democracy.

McLeod defines the concept of abolition as abolishing the kind of society that could have institutions or practices such as prisons, police, or slavery. Abolition does not mean to eliminate anything, but to create a new kind of society. Justice in the context of abolition means taking effort to prevent violence, to intervene in violence, to achieve reparations, and to reconstruct the conditions that people live in. To achieve this, we need to expose the illegitimacy of many acts that have been criminalised and identify meaningful forms of accountability and prevention with which we can respond to violence and wrongdoing. While doing so, we can work to the abolishment of the current punitive institutions. The reconstruction of living conditions can be done by addressing the economic practices that perpetrate violent theft on a daily basis. We can prevent the unequal distribution of recourses and chances in life by democratising political and economic institutions. The abolitionist view of justice is, all in all, holistic: it involves an exhaustive alteration of our social, economic, and political lives. Achieving an abolitionist democracy means to dismantle current institutions of justice and working towards new ways of relating to each other and living together.[15]  

What the McLeod describes as ‘abolitionist democracy’ could also be seen as a form of anarchy, because in an abolitionist democracy there will be less of a central governing or government body that decides on the fate of ‘wrongdoers’. What the advocate of an abolitionist democracy essentially seems to want is an equitable and just society, and the way they want to achieve this is through what some will see as a form of anarchy. This corresponds with what seems to be an important message of the Sex Pistols’ song, for example in the lines, “How many ways to get what you want […]; I use anarchy”.[16]

What we can learn from the song is that sometimes it makes no sense to explain someone’s behaviour from their past, their upbringing or their context and place in society. The line at the end of the song, “I get pissed, destroy” tells us that people will still get drunk or have bad days, even in an equitable society and abolitionist democracy.[17] Not everyone will always be ready to deal in a constructive way with potentially violent situations, and this cannot always be explained from societal structures that individuals are situated in. Social behaviour cannot always be explained from the ‘habitus’, or from structuralist and situationist approaches. This is also probably why, as McLeod admits, not all interpersonal harm can be prevented in a system of abolitionist democracy, just like it cannot be prevented in the punitive systems we now live in.[18] As the song goes “Your future dream is a shopping scheme”, it reminds us of the possibility that some objectives in the holistic theory of abolitionist democrats may be unavailable.[19]

The song all in all seems to agree with abolitionist democracy as described by McLeod in the way that it suggests a change in the systems that we live in. The song also teaches us that not all social behaviour is necessarily subject to societal structures, and thus that some ambitions of abolitionist democracy might be unfeasible, at least for now.

Doortje Kok

[15] Allegra McLeod, “Envisioning Abolition Democracy”, Harvard Law Review 132 (2019), pp. 1613-1649, pp. 1615-1619.
[16] Sex Pistols, “Anarchy In The UK”, album: Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols (1977).
[17] Sex Pistols, “Anarchy In The UK”.
[18] McLeod, “Envisioning Abolition Democracy”, p. 1630.
[19] Sex Pistols, “Anarchy In The UK”.


Sufjan Stevens, Angelo De Augustine: Murder and Crime

It is difficult to think of a society without prisons. As Angela Davis (2003) has argued, prisons are wholly ingrained in our culture and social lives, thereby obtaining the status of indispensable to human existence (9). Consequently, abolitionist theories are often immediately rejected and “dismissed as utopians and idealists” (Ibid., 9-10). In this paper, I wish to reflect on the matter of abolitionism in more detail. In doing so, I will first argue, using Sufjan Stevens’ and Angelo De Augustine’s Murder And Crime, that the intensification of law leads to a paradox of lawlessness. Second, I want to elaborate on possible solutions to this paradox by borrowing from abolitionist theory. Lastly, I return to Murder And Crime and the despair that accompanies the project of abolitionism.

“Evidence known so long. Oh God, I’m lost in my wrongs. Everything froze like stone. Saw you heart couldn’t take much more”, Angelo De Augustine commences the song (Stevens and De Augustine, 2021). It is this human fallibility and the despair it causes that Murder And Crime laments on. As De Augustine continues: “My boy, I don’t know why this life is so cruel and unkind but it weighs on my heart” (Ibid.). In addition to this, however, not only is life cruel and unkind, this reality is sustained through its embeddedness in legal systems. As expressed in the next line: “All joys were taken from your eyes as the law would abide in murder and crime” (Ibid.). It is here that a much more profound idea is expressed. Defined by its institutionalised racism, legal violence, and overall injustice, De Augustine and Stevens argue that contemporary society is akin to a state of lawlessness. As the two harmonise: “If anything goes, then everything’s flawed. Oh, my love, what the violence has caused” (Ibid.). Ultimately, this points to a paradox: a legal system that sanctions violence, produces a lawless condition.

To find a way out of this paradox, it is useful to turn to abolitionist theory. Prison abolitionists have similarly argued that the strategy to be harder on crime – exemplified by Reagan and Bush – has only led to a situation in which legal violence can flourish and inequalities are exacerbated. Consequently, it has led to “the proliferation of prisons and the rise of the prison industrial complex” (Davis 2003, 17). Exploring possible alternatives, abolitionists first and foremost argue that it is “not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons” that is at stake (Moten and Harney 2004, 114). Ultimately, a society characterised by the paradox of lawlessness can only be repudiated through the foundation of a new society, one characterised by equal distributions of wealth and wellbeing (Davis 2003, 105, 107). Such efforts include but are not limited to: equal and universal access to education and health care, the cultivation of a justice system built around reparation and reconciliation, and the decriminalisation of minor crimes (Ibid., 107-108; McLeod 2019, 1642, 1646-1647). In such a society prisons would become superfluous. In a word, less aggressive law enforcement and the establishment of better laws would help us escape the paradox of lawlessness, the abolitionist argument goes.

While abolitionist alternatives are undeniably attractive, I wish to express some doubts. As Davis herself concedes, it is difficult to imagine a prison-less society. How can we establish a new, abolitionist society while the current legal order, with all its injustice, is ingrained in our sociality? This doubt is shared by Stevens and De Augustine. Expressing a despair that can only be articulated in music, Murder And Crime tells us the story of a world that is reaching its inevitable end. “Oh god, I’m lost in the antiphon”, De Augustine laments. Reinforcing this profound sense of desperation, he asks us: “Where does everything go when everything’s gone? For my heart cannot break much more” (Stevens and De Augustine, 2021).

Ultimately, the question that remains is whether the paradox of lawlessness can be escaped. Are abolitionist alternatives viable, or is humanity slowly reaching an end-stage? In this paper I have aimed to reflect on abolitionist alternatives to the status quo. Through an exploration of Sufjan Stevens’ and Angelo De Augustine’s Murder And Crime, I have illustrated the paradoxical nature of contemporary legal systems. Abolitionists such as Angela Davis, expressing similar concerns, have offered alternatives to counter this paradox. Primarily, this entails reforming society in such a way that wealth, wellbeing, and justice are distributed equally. Returning to Murder And Crime, I question the viability of such alternatives. Can this paradox be escaped? Are we not, ultimately, walking towards an inevitable dead end?

Giovanni Prins


Davis, Angela, Yvonne. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.
McLeod, Allegra, M. 2019. “Envisioning Abolition Democracy.” Harvard Law Review 132: 1613-1649.
Moten, Fred, and Stefano Harney. 2004. “The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses.” Social Text 22, no. 2: 101-115.


Johnny Cash: Folsom Prison Blues

In January of 1968, Johnny Cash performed a live show for the prisoners at the Folsom State Prison. The recordings from the session would be published in May of the same year, as the album known as At Folsom Prison. The album not only helped Cash turn around his waning career, but also shed light on the condition of prison inmates.

One song in particular, out of the track list, stands out as a masterful analysis of the existential condition of the prisoner: Folsom Prison Blues. The song opens on these evocative lines:

I hear the train a-comin’, it’s rolling ‘round the bend
And I aint’ seen the sunshine since I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a-rollin’ on down to San Antone

These four lines already manage to introduce us to the life of the narrator. He is a prisoner, and as such, his life is almost completely devoid of external stimuli. To him, even the sound of a nearby-passing train becomes a noteworthy event. Furthermore, the “train that keeps on rolling”, is a constant reminder of his lost freedom, and thus has a negative impact on his mental well-being (this will be a recurrent theme in the lyrics).

While the song follows a standard blues structure, through the use of a skillfully accented shuffle rhythm, it manages to sound as if it’s following the distinctive beat of a steam locomotive, making the listening experience quite immersive. Another factor to take into account is that the song, just like the rest of the album, is a live recording in front of an audience. Throughout the track there are numerous instances of inmates cheering for Cash and his band, making the listening experience much grittier and intimate.

These are the lyrics for the second and third verse:

When I was just a baby, my mama told me, “Son
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns”
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that wistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry
I bet there’s rich folks eatin’ in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars
Well, I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a-movin’, and that’s what tortures me

On one hand, we can see in the last lines of both verses how hearing the train’s whistle and thinking about the people riding it fills the narrator with anguish; knowing how close that freedom is becomes, quite literally, a torture to him. On the other hand, these two verses reveal a very interesting detail about the narrator. He seems to have fully accepted his punishment, and admits to being guilty. He has killed a man on a whim (that line in the recording, as a sidenote, is followed by the inmates’ cheers), and he knows he can’t be free. As Angela Davis said, <<The prison is considered so “natural”, that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it>>. This is important to note because even though Cash – who isn’t just pretending to relate to inmates, as he had his fair share of trouble with the law due to his drug addiction – is trying to shed light on the existential condition of prisoners, he still remains within the horizon of prison reform rather than abolition.

We get confirmation of this in the fourth and last verse:
Well, if they freed me from this prison, if that railroad train was mine
I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line
Far from Folsom prison, that’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away

The narrator suggests that if he were free he would try to get the train to pass farther from the prison, presumably to alleviate the anguish that it causes to the other inmates. However, as much as he would like for prison to be a more pleasant experience, he doesn’t really think about the possibility of a prison-free world. Mc Leod, in her essay about abolition democracy, speaks about the possibility of an entirely new “abolitionist society”, where law, police and prisons don’t really exist (at least in the way they do now). But the problem seems to be that it is a strenuous task to picture such a world, even for some of the people who would benefit the most from this new society – prisoners, that is.

Edoardo Chen


Davis, Angela. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.
Mc Leod, Allegra. 2019. Envisioning Abolition Democracy. Harvard Law Review.


Black Flag: Police Story

‘This fucking city is run by pigs,’ cries a raspy voice into the listener’s ears. For whom it’s not immediately clear who are meant by ‘pigs’, the song’s title is helpful: ‘Police Story’ (Black Flag 1981). In this 1981 song, punk band Black Flag powerfully expresses its immense aversion from law enforcement in just 1 minute and 33 seconds. This is expressed through striking phrases like ‘We hate them’, ‘I flip them off’, and ‘I tell them to go get fucked’.

However, the line on the pigs already makes clear that it’s not just profound disgust that’s being expressed, but also substantive criticism. The illegitimate excessive amount of authority of the police addressed in this opening sentence is complemented further on in the song by examples of the huge imbalance of power, and the aggressive abuse thereof: the off-flipping is met with a hit with a billy club, the recommendation to go get fucked results in incarceration. This unequal and unjust situation is additionally depicted as one without an end. The audience is told to ‘Understand we’re fighting a war we can’t win’, which is reaffirmed with ‘We can’t win, no way’, and that ‘Nothing I do, nothing I say’ can help.

The inevitable frustration and anger caused by this hopeless situation is strongly conveyed through the lyrics, but is even more powerfully brought to the fore through the more properly musical elements of the song. Singer Rollins’ voice is a point in case. The way his hoarse voice screams the rebellious words, at times deforming into a wordless shriek, intensively expresses frustration. The accompanying instruments significantly augment this. Drummer Robo hits his drums like a madman, while guitarists Cadena and Ginn make their guitars cry loudly and erratically. Thus, the song is able to not only describe an unjust and hopeless situation, but also to effectively convey the affective consequences of that unjustness and hopelessness.

It is precisely this last point that forms the main contribution of this frantic song to another strand of criticism of the police and the penal system. Excellent representatives of the informative texts constituting this strand are ‘Are Prisons Obsolete’ and ‘Envisioning Abolition Democracy’ by respectively Angela Davis (2003) and Allegra McLeod (2019). Eventhough these authors do express their frustration with the current system without mincing their words, the reader isn’t as affectively touched as by ‘Police Story’. It seems reasonable to suspect that the musical medium is extraordinarily well suited to convey emotions in general. In this case, frustration seems to be more akin to the erratic sounds of guitars, the energetic beating of drums, and the staccato exclamations of a raspy voice, than to well-thought-out sentences on paper.

This does not mean that such sentences are inferior, or even wholly superfluous. On the contrary, Davis and McLeod prove that the two forms of criticism are complementary to each other. One of the advantages offered by their textual medium is that it offers more room for a thorough critique. Although ‘Police Story’ does indeed point to the problem of illegitimate and unbridled authority, its message nevertheless consists mainly of the aversion and frustration that results from this. In contrast, Davis and McLeod focus extensively on the fundamental underlying problems. For instance, Davis (2003, 11-15) describes how a complex network has been constructed in which economic and political interests are intertwined with the penal system. The resulting so-called ‘prison industrial complex’, she claims, leads to an incentive to build ever more prisons and imprison ever more people. McLeod (2019, 1628-1630) adds, among other things, that the police are allowed to exercise their power in too many domains, such as issues related to mental-health, drugs, and poverty.

These texts also differ from the song in another way. The fatalism of ‘Prison Story’ is substituted by determination, as Davis and McLeod see opportunities for a brighter future. No one said this would be easy, though. The complexity of the problem also means it’s impossible to simply do away with the police and prisons. So ‘rather than try to imagine one single alternative to the existing system of incarceration, we might envision an array of alternatives that will require radical transformations of many aspects of our society’ (Davis 2003, 108). This means for instance the decriminalization of activities like drug use (Davis 2003, 108-109), decriminalization of people like black persons (McLeod 2019, 1622), a more economically just society (McLeod 2019, 1616), and a different approach to conflict resolution (Davis 2003, 114-115). That this is not just utopian wishful thinking is made plausible by successful experiments such as those in Chicago (McLeod 2019, 1620-1623).

So, the forms of criticism by Davis and McLeod on the one hand and Black Flag on the other are best seen as complementary. Through the textual medium, the former’s strength lies in substantive criticism, while Black Flag’s musical medium is more suitable to address the affective aspects. Considering the proposed response, however, the punk band’s fatalism contrasts sharply with the abolitionists’ ambitious but hopeful alternatives. The decades following ‘Police Story’ have shown a growing influence of prison abolitionism (Davis 2003, 19-20). Let’s try to stay hopeful and keep this influence growing, which only becomes more likely with the help of art’s affective capabilities. We shouldn’t let the pigs run the fucking city. We can win the war.

Mees Wolffs


Black Flag. 1981. “Police Story.” On Damaged. SST Records.
Davis, Angela. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.
McLeod, Allegra. 2019. “Envisioning Abolition Democracy.” Harvard Law Review 132:1613-1649.



Violence and Nonviolence

The Carters: Black Effect

Black Effect starts off with a philosophical exploration of love by L’Antoinette Stines. As a first intro- duction to the effect of blackness (i.e. the black effect), it sheds a light on the thoughtful, articulate and romantic facets of this black effect. The song transitions to an upbeat rap, with Jay-Z announcing he’s “good on any MLK boulevard”, indicating an awareness of the historical injustice suffered by black people, while also contrasting this with the status quo, i.e. the time when MLK is commemorated with a boulevard.

In a stylistically identical manner, the song proceeds:

Get your hands up high like a false arrest

Let me see ’em up high, this is not a test

Yes, put ’em up, this is not a test

Now hands where I can see them, fuck a false arrest

Interestingly, this is all sung at approximately the same pitch and following the same melodic structure, which blurs the differences between the different parts of these lines, but in doing so, in removing any musical differentiation between them, isolates and highlights the semantic differences between them: “get your hands up high”, suggesting a scene in which the artist is encouraging the listener to engage with the music, abruptly followed by “like a false arrest”, confronting the listener with an unexpected, horrifying resemblance. This, in its turn, is followed by “Let me see ’em up high, this is not a test. Yes, put ’em up, this is not a test.”. The resemblance with a false arrest is reified, the false arrest starts to take shape. “Now hands where I can see them” sets a completely different scene: the false arrest has materialised, the artist has been replaced by the police officer.

The discontinuity within the meaning of the call to put one’s hand up throughout the text, in no way foreclosed by changes in rhythm, melody, or pitch, takes the listener by surprise, instils them with fear and confusion — by dramatising the parallels between a false arrest and a concert, by oscillating in an almost continuous manner between an event of entertainment and one of police arrest, the listener is put in a bind: The entertainer and the police officer have become one, the scenes of crime and enjoyment have melted together, and the neutrality of one’s normal posture or gestures (e.g. putting with their hands in their pockets, fumbling) and the time one usually takes to process a command (like “put your hands up”) and respond to it become charged, loaded with the threat of being misperceived as indicative of hostility during an arrest, is brought into question. We cannot refrain ourselves from seeing the analogy with the countless other deadly false arrests, much like the arrest of Rodney King (Dorlin 2019). What persists, however, is the bind: how are we to deal with this facet of the black effect?

This verse is later reiterated by Beyoncé in a manner in which the musical dimension is radically altered. Her pitch is higher and the tone of her voice encouraging as she takes on the perspective of the artist (“get your hands up high (…) let me see them up high”), while her pitch becomes lower and the tone of her voice ominous and almost threatening when she takes on the perspective of the police officer (“like a false arrest, (…) this is not a test”).

This explicit splitting of the scene of the concert and the artist, and the scene of the false arrest and police officer, can be read as a response to and a resolution of the bind imposed by Jay-Z’s take on this verse. The juxtaposition of these now clearly separated situations — putting one’s hand up in a concert or during an arrest — denies any meaning to the bodily acts of black people that is always already there, and rather, shows the situational inscription of meaning occurring. In doing so, the real perpetrator is identified: it is the police officer who feels threatened by blackness, who misreads it as danger or hostility. This view ties into the works of Butler and Dorlin: for them, the black body is not in and of itself hostile or dangerous, but rather, the perception of the black body is informed by a “racialised schema” (Dorlin 2019, p.5-6), an “interpretive casing”, a lens through which the black body is “enfolded” (Butler 2020, p.10). What is responded to is therefore not merely the body, but, in fact, a “racialised phantasm”(Butler 2020, p.13) of the black body, loaded with presuppositions regarding its nature (as aggressive or dangerous), and hence, the actions of the body are instilled with these presuppositions by the perceiver.

Stephan Loor


Suicidal Tendencies: Institutionalized

For this week’s entry I present to you Institutionalized by Suicidal Tendencies. I chose this song as I would like to focus on one aspect often discussed in relation to prison abolition, the topic of the carceral approach to mental health treatment.

As per my first entry into the mix tape I would like to lead with an anecdote. (Content warning) One of my closest family members (a first cousin) was diagnosed with autism at a young age. Once he reached his 20’s he was evaluated to have developed a rather severe form of schizophrenia. For years he’s been completely depended on my aunt for all his needs being ostensibly unable to care for himself. As is the case for those suffering from a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, he frequently has violent manic episodes often directed at those closest to him. In one of the most dangerous episodes, he physically assaulted his brother and mother, grabbed several knifes throwing them, and threatening to kill himself. My aunt, having been reluctant to involve the police for fear of his safety, had no other option but to call them in this instance. When they arrived, the police proceeded to tase and mace him, throwing him to the ground, and fracturing his left arm in the process. What followed was an overnight stay in jail, costly hospital bills, and a permanent record. Left with no other options and seeking immediate treatment for my cousin, she found only one institution three states away that would accept someone with his condition that had exhibited prior violent tendencies. After a month of treatment costing $107,500 it was determined that they could no longer help him.

I’m sharing this story because I believe it reflects the way police and prisons operate as the primary vector for engagement with mental illness as articulated by both Angela Davis and Allegra McLeod as well as by Suicidal Tendencies in Institutionalized. To quote the second verse:

They give you a white shirt with long sleeves

Tied around your back, you’re treated like thieves

Drug you up because they’re lazy

It’s too much work to help a crazy

With an absence of proactive community-oriented prevention, all that remains for those in distress are expensive private mental health facilities or the police and incarceration/institutionalization. McLeod echoes this stating:

“The Oakland Power Projects, organized by the Critical Resistance chapter in Oakland, California, offer another approach to addressing harm in which community street medics and healthcare workers train residents in de-escalation and other tactics. These other tactics are aimed at assisting neighbors confronted with a loved one facing a mental health crisis — a frequent reason for calls to police that result in violence and unnecessary jailing.”

The institutions of prisons and mental health care are inexorably tied, being ostensibly reflections of each other. Issues of mental health are direct precursors to or just blatantly causal factors of crime and criminality. America’s prisons inexorably become extensions of the mental health care system, housing millions of untreated peoples for whom mental illness has been manifested in criminality.

Daniel Lazcano

Racial Violence and Representation

Faya Ston no Bron mi so (Surinamese Folk song)

Faya Ston no Bron mi so is a traditional children’s song taught to and sung by virtually every child growing up in Suriname, often while playing a game called faya ston. Containing just two lines, this happily-sounding song does not seem very impressive at first glance. Unravelling its historical origins, however, reveals depths in it initially unseen.

As might have become clear already from the fact that the two sources referenced thus far were Youtube videos, there is very little written documentation of the experience of slavery in Suriname from the per- spective of slaves. Slaves were never taught to read and write, and, even after the abolition of slavery there, the colonial rulers did not allow any room for them to freely speak about (the traumas of) slavery. The knowledge that remains, therefore, consists of what has been preserved within the oral tradition of the descendants of slaves (C. McLeod 2019)

The meaning of the text, however, is more gruesome than one would initially expect. The first line literally translates to “fire stone do not burn me so [much].” What is referred to as a fire stone, however, is the stamp using which slaves were branded with the initials of their owner (C. McLeod 2019). The first line is thus to be understood as the cry by a slave, being branded as the property of his new master. The second line translates to “again master Jantje is killing someone’s child”. The killing here, is not to be understood literally, but has a twofold meaning: on the one hand, it can be read as expressing the loss of subjectivity, of freedom that is instated by the branding, the formal completion of the slave’s reduction to property. Secondly, it is used in a dramatic effort to express the excruciating pain of the victim, while also putting the pain at or even beyond the limits of rational and empathetic understanding — much like how one can never truly understand what it is like to be murdered, one can also never truly understand what it is like to be marked.

Having understood the meaning of the second line, another avenue within the first line opens up. The opposition between the third person in the second line (“someone’s child”) and the first person (“me”) that is suffering in the first line, expresses a reliving of the horror of having been marked, of that trauma, by slaves during the marking of another, a new slave.

The repetition of the two lines also produces meaning. The raw screams of the slaves, much like the screams of Aunt Hester (Douglass 2009), are reproduced through repetition of the first line: the emphasis placed on the assonance in “no bron mi so” frees up the o-sound from its mere linguistic function and turning it into a stage for expression. This can be read along the lines of Moten’s analysis of the “irre- ducibility of sound” (Moten 2003, p.1), joined together with Butler’s theory of performativity in saying that performance, in particular its phonic nature, provides a means of (re)producing ourselves (Moten 2003, p.4, 6–7). Similarly, the repetition of the second line expresses at the same time the mechanical nature of branding (again someone’s child is killed, again, again,…) as well as the abundance of death and violence in the lives of slaves.
The melodic, carefree form of the song contrasts greatly with its contents, because of the prohibition on explicit discussion of one’s suffering endured in slavery. The song, sung and resung by slaves and their descendants, allowed them to verbalise their suffering and traumata, to retell the story of slavery within the bounds set by the colonial rulers, precisely by sterilising the contents through the aestheticisation of the form. Siding with Moten, this is an exemplar of Black performance as black production, as a means of (re)producing one’s black identity over and against any prohibition to do so.

Stephan Loor