Benjamin Weber: Summoning the Imagination Needed for Lasting Structural Change

Thank you for inviting me into dialogue with alumni, families, and friends in the SF Waldorf School community. It has been a whirlwind of a homecoming back to Northern California, punctuated by toddler shenanigans bringing moments of levity to this time of crisis and possibility. The death-dealing catastrophes of racist state violence, the global pandemic, and ongoing environmental degradation—crowded in by the hazy red skies of the latest wildfires—have made things feel apocalyptic for sure. 

Yet, as I joined students and new colleagues in the Community Circles held by the Hart Hall Ethnic Studies Departments at UC Davis, I could feel how we might all summon the breadth of imagination needed for lasting structural change. Change is the perfect theme for this fall newsletter, and for Waldorf’s mission for the next 100 years. Instilling a caring, unruly, creative imagination has been the greatest gift from my Waldorf education. And I believe it is what we all need now more than ever.  

One of the courses I’ll be teaching at UC Davis this year, “Policing, Prison, and Protest”, is both similar and different from earlier iterations I taught at Brown University last year and at the University of New Orleans back in 2016. In this course, students will study the roots of the current uprising in Black, feminist, and youth-led organizing. They will learn how pressure has been mounting to release longtime political prisoners, elderly people in prison, and to #FreeThemAll, as more and more people begin to completely rethink the role of policing and prisons. This kind of reimagining continues decades of anti-carceral movement-building for Black lives through prison organizing, direct action, creative cultural work, transnational campaigns, and revolutionary struggle. 



As new future-making practices take shape, students will have the chance to learn about forms of collective care and frameworks for justice and liberation from the Black freedom tradition of antiracist organizing. They will study primary sources from collections like the Black Radical Tradition Reader and the Freedom Archives alongside secondary works about Black prison organizing, the feminist fight to end violence, and the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). 

M4BL demanded that schools, colleges, and universities cut ties with police in order to imagine a better, safer world. This is a youth-led movement and has been for a long time. Building on fifty years of struggle to get police out of schools in Oakland, for instance, the Black Organizing Project is right now celebrating the disbanding of the Oakland School Police (MotherJones). They have set the example in public secondary education, and now the UC system has the opportunity to set the example for public higher education.

Over the summer, UC Davis faculty members—as with the other UC campuses—called on the administration to disband the police (California Aggie). The UCLA Divest/Invest Faculty Collective, together with students and alumni, demanded that UCLA stop collaborating with LAPD after they used Jackie Robinson Stadium to detain protesters last June (Daily Bruin). The UC-wide collective organizing to get “Cops off Campus” by September 2021 has launched a year-long campaign to carry forward the hard work of anti-carceral movement-building and to imagine what a police-free campus could and should be.   

There is a growing demand for accessible materials to think, dream, and mobilize as more and more people begin to imagine what a world without policing and prisons might look like. The longtime abolitionist organization Critical Resistance continues to meet the call by putting out guides and toolkits. The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) has provided open syllabi, like the #PrisonAbolitionSyllabus, and there are many great online reading lists. Among the readings my students will be digging into this year is the Abolition for the People series produced by Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL. 

Crises produce ruptures in established ways of doing things. They open possibilities for transformation. The local and worldwide rebellions against entrenched and ruthlessly inequitable systems of anti-Black criminalization, policing, prisons, and punishment are rooted in long histories of anti-carceral movement building. It is amazing to witness how quickly and widely people are awakening to the urgent need to care for one another in completely new ways as we summon the courage to dream big. As renowned abolitionist scholar-activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore—who just might change your mind about the necessity of prisons — puts it in her forthcoming book, the exciting imperative before us is nothing less than to “Change Everything.” ~

Benjamin D. Weber is an Assistant Professor of African American & African Studies at the University of California, Davis. He is at work on his first book, American Purgatory: Race, Empire, and the Carceral State, under contract with The New Press.

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