Listen to the interview here

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 

SR: We are so excited to have with us three leaders from the Dream Defenders: Kierten Nivol, Zaina Alsous, and Danni Adams. The Dream Defenders, if you don't know, is a multi-racial group of young people organizing to build power in communities across Florida to advance a new vision. That vision is outlined in the Freedom Papers. We'll get to that in a minute. First, I want to get started by asking just what has brought you each to this fight for abolition.

ZA: Peace, y'all. Thank you so much for having me. I feel really grateful to be in struggle with everyone here and be in community with all of you. So, I am the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Muslim immigrants. I did see many people in my community attacked and under surveillance and dealing with a lot of issues around policing. And then, as I got older, living in Durham, a historically Black city in North Carolina, seeing the level of brutality and persecution that Black community members, particularly underpaid workers in the community, experienced, really politicized me. And the last experience that felt really essential, in terms of what informs how I show up to this work, was working alongside fast food workers who were organizing for $15 an hour and a union. So the Fight for $15 Campaign. And to see some of our most inspiring and courageous worker leaders be harassed and targeted by police really underscored to me how our fights, even if we're saying it's around police, are certainly all linked. And so, really, when I'm talking about abolition or defunding the police, it's always thinking about our broader struggle and what it would require for us to live in a society where workers have what they need to thrive. That's really what informs my entrance into the struggle.

SR: Thank, Zaina. How about you, Danni?

DA: I've been in Dream Defenders for a very long time. I started with Dream Defenders back when I was attending Florida State University. My first ever action was Kendrick Johnson in Valdosta, Georgia, the young boy who was found wrapped up in a mat. And his family never, even to this day — here we are seven, eight years later — his family has not seen justice. I think it’s situations like that, that remind me of why this work is so important because I see my little cousins in Kendrick Johnson. 

I was born in Sanford, Florida, and currently live in Sanford, Florida. A lot of my generation and other folks became politicized by Trayvon Martin, who was murdered here in Sanford. A 17-year-old kid. I just remember watching the news a lot and being like, wow, you know, these are the folks we are told to believe in to protect us and they’re helping cover up a murder and corruption. And just seeing how that never worked for my family, seeing how they were in and out of the system and not given opportunities, such as jobs. I live in Sanford, where a lot of people are poor and don't have access to resources, and I think abolition for me just means that people are going to be able to live thriving lives if we defund the police who have not protected us since the beginning. We will have access to healthcare, clinics, transportation. I used to work in child welfare, and I just saw so many young people being funneled into the criminal justice system, yet the foster care agencies are underfunded. I care a lot about young people. If it wasn't for my Boys and Girls Club, I don't know where I would be. I really believe in community programs and just can't wait to see the day that we actually give the money back to the people.

SR: Thanks, Danni. That was powerful. How about you Kierten?

KN: I joined Dream Defenders about two years ago, I was a high school student. I joined around the March for Our Lives movement. I felt like my voice wasn't being heard through March for Our Lives, as I was part of the campaign. Stillman Douglas is not that far from where I grew up and live because I'm from Pompano Beach, Florida. And I just felt like these were issues that my community was facing for ages and no one ever cared to ask us or give us a platform or get these issues fixed when it came to gun violence. And some of the demands that were being brought up, such as every school being required to have a resource officer, a cop or sheriff. And me thinking about it, like, a sheriff? We already have one and now you guys want to add more — and the sheriff does not make me feel safe on campus, especially once our governor added the law of having rifle guns. The first day that I walked into campus, I'm like, I don't feel safe around this. I've seen police go in my neighborhood to drive my neighbors out. My neighbors being in and out for things that they have no control over because we live in a lower-income community. I guess my life was just always politicized so I had no other option but to join the movement. I found out about Dream Defenders, and they reached out to me. I did not join as an abolitionist, but as I read more into it, I'm like, wow, these issues are connected, this issue connects to my life. 

I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. But, if I look at my history of my family lineage, my parents are Haitian. My dad was born and raised in Haiti, had to flee Haiti, because of the coup the United States did in Haiti back in the ‘80s. So they had to flee because my grandfather was a political person. Then fled to the Dominican Republic, Dominican Republic again — another coup later on. My family had to flee Dominican Republic and we came here. So my entire life has been surrounded by open militarization, coups, and just being politicized. I have no other option but to join the movement because I want to see freedom for my people and for everyone because all our freedoms are bonded together.

JG: Thanks y’all, thanks so much for joining us. That was a really powerful story. Members of the Dream Defenders squads described themselves as feminists, socialists, internationalists. You all have said over and over again, defined yourselves as abolitionists. Can you describe what it means to be an abolitionist? 

DA: To me, being an abolitionist is what we've already stated. Most of us have heard of reform, right? Changing the system and trying to find our way and maneuver through it. But an abolitionist means that we invest the money that we as taxpayers have already made back into our communities. I like to tell people that the communities that the people in power deem the safest, they don't have police in them. They have the resources. And so when we take resources, we need to invest in the community. I live in Sanford, where we have one place for unhoused people to go — and that's for an entire county — but we're expanding the jails here. We're incarcerating more and more people and we only have one place in our entire city that kids can go to — which is the Boys and Girls Club — for free. All the other programs, people have to pay. Being an abolitionist, we put our communities first. We actually find a new way to deal with folks. We don't make money off of putting people in jails. That's what abolitionist means to me: people over profit, because this whole system of incarceration is about making more and more people rich. 

KN: To me, being an abolitionist is just thinking that there's a better world out there because we've been dealing with the prison system, the police, for ages and, as we can see, it's not working. Studies show that prisons do not work, police do not work. So I don't see the reason why we're still on this. We're still working through the system and trying to do a bunch of reforms, reforms, reforms, reforms. When prisons were built first [they] were just slavery patrols. That's what police were. That's where slaves that ran away were put into, what you would call prisons nowadays. Why would we try to find safety where it was never meant to be? The base of prisons and police was never made for safety for all. So why [would] reforms work? 

We've been doing reforms since the 2000s, trying to reform the prison and police system and [it] has not worked. And just seeing, as a high school student, seeing budget cuts every other year or every year, every couple months. Our music program. I was part of band, our music program was gone within my second year of high school. Our theater program was gone. All those programs can keep leaving and leaving and leaving. And then when you take a look at the city budget, you see that, as much [as] things are getting cut, the police keep going up. Safety and security, for some reason, there's always money there to militarize them or give them a higher raise or give them different things. And we're just like, so what about the community? Why would we try to find safety and, as much as we add money, it's still not there? We still don't feel safe in this community. So the issue is definitely the police and prisons.

JG: Zaina, I wonder if you could weigh in in a particular way. Kierten mentioned the slave patrols and the deep history of how policing and incarceration goes way back to enslaved people in this continent. And then Danni just mentioned about how there's this prison industrial complex that really makes money. We've been talking with some of the other folks that we've been interviewing for this series about how racial capitalism is really built on a system that oppresses people of color — Black people, brown people, immigrants — so that the wealthy can make money. I wonder if you could tie in how abolition would really break down those systems of racial capitalism.

ZA: That's such a powerful and beautifully worded question. I think from deep listening to a lot of dear peers and comrades who have been studying the abolition movement in this country. And certainly it's so important, as Kierten and Danni did, to invoke emancipation from chattel slavery. I don't think we talk about it enough in terms of a movement victory. It was an organizing victory. It didn't happen naturally. It didn't happen overnight. And I think something that's incredibly significant about how that sets the horizon of possibility is that it was a total restructuring of the capitalist system within the U.S. and we haven't seen anything like it since. 

The enormous and difficult challenge that poses to organizers is: How can we be audacious in this moment of unprecedented rebellion? How can we be courageous and grounded in our history and also bring along with us folks who've never been introduced to racial capitalism, maybe don't understand the police as an arm of protecting private property? I think something I've noticed about this moment is, it is such an important moment for deep study and for helping our folks just name the connections that people are seeing naturally.

When you see the way that police are protecting businesses and you see the way the National Guard is being activated in response to these demonstrators versus how they were responding to this pandemic and people in such severe need — that is deep anti-blackness and economic brutality as well.

JG: That was beautiful. I love that, that slavery abolition was an organizing victory. You're absolutely right, we lose track of that in our history, and it's often because the tellers of the history aren't us. You guys talked about abolition, but what would a world without police and prisons look like? Fast forward the tape and talk about what would that be.

DA: I used to go to the Boys and Girls Club in the middle of the inner city — like the back of it was the housing projects. And nothing ever happened. I went there from when I was six years old until I was 18. After that, I got a job there during the summers when I was home from college. And there was never any violence, and the police were never called. And when things happen there, Mr. Brick, who was someone that the community trusted, was the person who defused all the situations. And I think that oftentimes we believe that the police is the one that is keeping the peace, but we've seen that that's not really realistic. Our communities is the one that keeps us safe. To me, a world without police and prisons just simply means a community that trusts each other and a stronger community. It’s that simple to me. I just really want to get there.

SR: I really like this idea of reframing what safety means and who are the arbiters of safety. And it's really our communities. I want to pivot: The Dream Defenders have developed the Freedom Papers. The Freedom Papers outline the vision for the Dream Defenders. It contains a list of demands and a set of freedoms that include environmental issues, democracy, ending policing and prisons. Freedom from poverty is also one of those core freedoms. Why focus on an economic issue like poverty? I'm curious about what role you see ending poverty play in the Dream Defenders’ abolitionist vision.

KN: Capitalism. It's literally a crime to be poor in today's society. If you're poor, you have to work hours longer, you have to go the extra mile. Plus, it's a crime. For example, if you have a broken taillight or something like that. If police stop you, you're given a ticket. Now, not only do you have to afford to pay for your taillight; you also have to pay for this ticket that you have. So it's basically a crime. And, if you don't pay it, and you get more tickets or you get stopped another time, you're sent to jail. Now you have to worry about bail, a ticket, and the taillight that’s still broken. And that's how we see economics within abolition. Because it's literally a crime to be poor.

SR: From your perspectives, what are the strategies that will make the Freedom Papers a reality? Kierten, you just told the story of a simple taillight escalating for people. What are the actions, the strategies, the policies that will reverse that story, from your perspectives?

ZA: What I've been trying to talk to members in Miami [about] is something that I've seen some other movement leaders raise in times of massive upheaval: Anger is not enough. And, unfortunately, even mobilization is not enough. You do have to find a way to forge people's yearning to dream to exercise collective will towards politics. It's only through an explicit politics and strategy that we're actually able to exercise and execute and achieve the visions and demands that we're articulating. So, for me, that's what I think is really important, is that we're developing the demands together all the time. And then we're also bringing people in organization to exercise the will to achieve it.

JG: We know that people who are incarcerated in jails and prisons are most vulnerable to contracting COVID and then also to actually die in jail because of the health care that's provided within the walls of the prisons. And we've been hearing that there's a lot of great work happening with the Dream Defenders in getting people out of jail and out of prison so that they can be in a safer and healthier place than behind bars. I wonder if you could talk about the work that each of you is doing to get those people taken out of jail and get them into a healthy and safe environment in this pandemic moment. But also, are there lessons from that work that we can apply post-COVID, when things are back to “normal”? Talk to us about what that work looks like to get folks out of prison and then what lessons you've learned that we could apply to future work.

DA: I think what's been happening is just very beautiful. Not just across our state but across our nation. We're having a deeper conversation about decarceration and defunding police. And I think what COVID did, it made the conversation about folks not belonging in jail bigger, right? And I think it helped our work. Because Dream Defenders has been doing this for a while. And some of our bail funds increased double, triple, I’m mean, just to the 10th power, during this moment of Black Lives Matter. Getting folks out of jail, you know, sometimes the conversation it just stops there. But we have to do so much more past that. Making sure folks’ families are taken care of. These people have been incarcerated, probably lost their jobs. And when someone goes to jail, an entire family is impacted. That means that the children that live in the home where they're going back to, do they have lunch money? Because they probably lost income in the home. Do we need to help them get a job? Are we going to go in, follow up, and go to court with them? There's so many things that have to happen, so many moving parts, and bail out funds are not just used to get people out of jail. It’s to help them sustain their lives.

And that's why abolition — just want to circle back around — is so important because we're not just talking about, police are our problem. We're talking about, communities are suffering because we value police more than us. I think the lessons for me, we don't know them yet. We're just really in a different time. I mean, defunding the police is on the news right now. Dream Defenders has been doing this work... It was not on the news. And all these other organizations. I've been seeing YouTubers talking about it, Amanda Seales talking about it. I just think the conversation is so big right now that we don't even know the lessons because I believe, or hope, that we're going to continue to make this snowball effect — it’s going to get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, and our prisons [are] going to get smaller and smaller and smaller. That's my dream. Because I think we're just really in a different place. And it's just a blessing to be able to be doing this work right now to help folks get out of jail because it only makes our community stronger.

JG: Thanks, and for our listeners, it's important to note that this interview, unlike some of the other interviews we’ve heard, happened after the murder of George Floyd and the uprisings that took place across the country after that murder. Zaina, Kierten, do you have anything you'd add around this moment and getting people out of prison in response to a health crisis like COVID? 

KN: I'd like to add that, in this moment, a lot of folks are realizing that prisons are not a safe space in general. I was watching Trevor Noah a couple nights ago, and he spoke about this social contract that we as a society have, that if you do something wrong or this individual does something wrong, then the authority comes in and deals with it and tries to handle the problem and dilute the issue — and try to be the mediator between whoever was attacked and the person that caused the problem. But now we're realizing that the people that are supposed to be the authority are breaking the contract by causing the problems, by hurting the folks that they’re supposed to keep safe. 

So with prison, seeing that we're in a crisis, a pandemic, and the only solutions that they're giving is that, well it's safe inside of the prisons. Somehow, out of nowhere, out of thin air, they're saying, oh, it's safe for prisoners to be in there. Or, they're gonna be able to social distance, they're gonna be able to do all this — and we're just like, wait, it's always been an issue that there's mass incarceration, too many folks in one prison, in one cell. So how out of thin air would it be doable? Like CDC guidelines, six feet away, how would you be able to do that within a prison? When just a week or months ago, we were just talking about, oh, there's too many folks in the prison, y’all want to build more jails because y'all can't handle the amount of folks. But out or nowhere, now it's safe? 

I think a lot of folks are realizing that they're just playing us and they're trying to make as much money as they can, especially with private prisons and the industrial complex that's growing and [the private prison real estate investment trust] GEO Group just getting more jails and more contracts with the government. It’s all about the money to them. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has reached its peak because people were this close to being like, excuse my language, fuck prisons and fuck police — and once George Floyd happened, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, on top of all the other folks that we've lost in the hands of police, people just reached their cap. They're like, okay, this is not it, we just need to defund them because obviously it's not working. Obviously, they're not protecting us all. 

And with our bailouts and what we've been doing for the past two months, now folks are seeing that, yeah, money bail is also an issue. If you're poor and you can’t afford bail, then what are you going to do? You're just going to stay in jail? What about your family? You were probably the only provider, like Danni mentioned. I've reached several folks where that person was the only provider of that family in that household and now they're in prison and they're unable to get out and sometimes it takes longer because bailing folks out is not only posting bail. A lot of times it's hard to find a person's booking because, for some reason, the police department just doesn't want to book them on time, plays games around with them. We're seeing that mostly with protesters. When they get arrested, we wouldn't see them until probably the next day or ten hours later because either the police department is just running circles and doesn't want to book them because they know there's money bail and a lot of folks out there are donating money to get people bailed out as they get arrested. So they're doing this on purpose or they try to add extra charges that are not allowed to be [bailed] out.

I think things are going mainstream. For example, our Freedom Block campaign, which is to end money bail pre-trial detention, these issues are mainstream now, not only within our organization or within the grassroots organizing community. Now, regular folks are seeing this and talking about these things on a daily [basis]. Bails don't work. If you can't afford it, you can't leave, which goes back to freedom of poverty, like it's a crime to be poor.

JG: The progressive movement is huge. It's got environmental groups. It's got folks who focus on economic justice. It’s just really large. What can folks in other segments of the progressive movement do to support abolition? 

ZA: That's a great question. I think the number one thing that, across sectors, those who are abolitionists, who want others to be abolitionists, and those who want to support some of the values and the principles but hadn't previously considered themselves to be abolitionists, can do is to understand how their position within the framework of power and the economy in the U.S. is wrapped up and inextricable with abolition. Workers need abolition, teachers need abolition, students need abolition, all of us need abolition. Because it is, again, what we're contesting is the very basis of how we're able to live in our full dignity and have access to the fruits of our labor. That's really what we're contesting, and so there's certainly a role for all of us in that movement, in that fight, but, first, we have to do that work of analyzing why our unique position is interconnected with the fight for abolition.

SR: In our closing, I want to acknowledge that you all are doing tremendous work. And this is a difficult time across the country and across the nation. I want to know, at this moment, what is giving you life? What is giving you hope?

DA: You know, going to the protest and seeing people from all ages, all different types of backgrounds, just being out in the streets — it just gives me hope. I think with COVID, I don't know about you all, but my spirits were down a little bit. And even though this was like a tragedy that put us out in the streets, I just really believe in my community. And I think something about this moment just feels so different than any other time that I've been in the streets. I mean, I'm also a digital organizer and people from all different backgrounds are like, how do I attack brands in this moment as an influencer? And I’m getting influencers to attack brands. I'm like, wow! I've been talking about this for so long and doing this work and like, okay, wow. Yeah, I'll help you! And so this moment, it just seems like something beautiful is just about to birth and I'm just so happy to be a part of this change that's about to happen.

SR: Kierten, how about you. What's giving you life?

KN: Just like Danni, the people going out there and revolting and just expressing how angry they are with it. However it is — whether it's peaceful, whether it is rioting, looting. I believe in all those folks that are doing something and trying to get their stress or feelings [out] somehow. Also, Minneapolis is giving me a lot of life. They're reaching the goals that everyone within the movement has been fighting for and wants. Our ancestors and folks have been doing abolitionist works for ages. They're reaching the first step of defunding the police department, that has been giving me so much life, seeing how their city commissioners are going for it, like, okay, we're gonna disband, defund the police department. Just seeing that it is possible. 

Cause you don't know how many times I've heard that abolition is crazy, you will never reach that. Now, we're seeing it in the eye of the masses. The first step, defunding the police, is really happening in places. So that has been giving me a lot of life. And another thing, which is kind of chaotic, but when the precinct of the police department in Minneapolis was set on fire, that also gave me a lot of life. When I woke up that morning, I was like, wow. This is great. It was just a fuel in me [that] just made me do this work more and more, cause seeing [that] we're reaching that point where prisons and police are just not needed and are deemed literally useless.

SR: Zaina, turning to you. What's giving you hope? What's giving you life in these moments? 

ZA: We had a mass meeting call last Saturday. Dear friend and poet, brilliant, brilliant visionary Aja Monet was on the call and she did this “welcome to the movement” for the folks on the call. We had 400 people tune into this mass meeting call. Never organized a meeting with 400 people who showed up before, and I've been organizing for ten years. First time I've seen that. And, you know, she said, “Folks who are entering, we say welcome. For your whole lives, we have been preparing for this moment. You know, we've been preparing to welcome you, to say that we love you, that we support you, that we're ready to build with you.” And I think, for me, I don't know, there's really nothing that I've experienced in my life that matters more or feels more meaningful than being able to welcome young folks stepping into their power, to a political home. It's deeply transformative and humbling work. So that's what's giving me life.

SR: I want to thank you all. What's giving me life in this very, very exact moment is your clear articulation and your fight around abolition and its connection to deeply, dramatically changing our economy — and your vision about how this moment opens up our connectivity in the struggle. I greatly appreciate you and your time and your work and look forward to remaining connected and supporting you all. For more information about the Dream Defenders, you can visit DreamDefenders.org. Thanks so much for your time, Zaina, Danni and Kierten.

ZA: Thanks, y'all. Peace. 

 

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