The following is an excerpt from Practicing New Worlds: Abolition and Emergent Strategies by Andrea J. Ritchie (AK Press 2023). An invitation to people newly organized to abolitionist politics to think beyond mass mobilizations and solutions that center law and policy.

The 2020 Uprisings: Emergence in Action?

Many longtime abolitionists will tell you that we never—in our wildest dreams—believed that abolitionist ideas and demands would enter the mainstream the way they did following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and hundreds more in the days, months, and years since May 25, 2020. The presence of over twenty-six million people in the streets of cities, suburbs, and small towns across Turtle Island—many united around an abolitionist demand to defund the police—was not the product of a planned, top-down approach. I, along with many of the people I spoke with while writing this book, was one of a group of more than sixty abolitionist organizers who gathered in Miami in January 2020 to assess, plan, and discuss how to strengthen movements to divest from and abolish police. At the end of two days together, we concluded that there was a long way to go to build a mass movement to that end—only to find ourselves in the midst of a massive uprising taking up those very demands less than six months later.That said, it’s important to note that the 2020 Uprisings did not spontaneously pop up out of nowhere. Decades of abolitionist theorizing and organizing, the networks of abolitionist formations that took shape over that time, and the relationships among abolitionist organizers and groups we mapped during the gathering were all critical to its emergence.

Arguably, the 2020 Uprisings reflected key principles of emergent strategies at work. They were not coordinated by a central organizing body, nor were they focused on a single policy or piece of legislation. They were the product of highly decentralized organizing efforts, guided by a simple set of principles: the violence of policing cannot be reformed; to end it, we must divest from institutions that fail to prevent and instead perpetuate violence against our communities, and we must invest in the things individuals and communities need to survive and thrive.

Organizers adapted those demands to their local contexts, iterating as conditions shifted and as they learned from their efforts and those of others. They are building critical connections by engaging community members in conversations about what safety looks like, feels like, and requires. They are engaged in visionary organizing, prefiguring the world they wanted through mutual aid and by building responses to crisis beyond policing and punishment. They are practicing new forms of governance through participatory budgeting and people’s movement assemblies. They are shifting conversations and conditions, continuing to build and share lessons and strategies through national networks, and opening portals into new pos- sibilities in ways that could not have been predicted. While the backlash is fierce and furious—a testament to the power of the demand and the crisis of legitimacy it produced for police— these efforts are producing seismic shifts in possibilities for abolitionist struggles.

In #DefundPolice #FundthePeople #DefendBlackLives: The Struggle Continues, Interrupting Criminalization gathers important insights from abolitionist organizers about lessons learned in the process, some of which point to emergent strategies. The first is that mass mobilization represented a critical flashpoint, but ongoing, deep place- and relationship-based organizing is necessary to sustain and grow the flame. The second is that as conditions change, strategies and tactics must adapt. The third is that, throughout the Uprisings and beyond, abolitionist networks and communities of practice remain essential to continuing to build our collective capacity to shift systems—whether it’s the Community Resource Hub Invest/Divest Learning Communities, which met weekly throughout 2020 and 2021 and continue to gather monthly to collectively strategize, share skills, create resources, brainstorm around challenges and celebrate successes; or the Building Coordinated Crisis Response practice space and the Creating Ecosystems of Collective Care Cohort hosted by Interrupting Criminalization.

Exploring how emergent strategies might guide us in bringing about the changes we want to see at this particular moment—under political, social, and economic conditions in which white supremacy and fascism are flourishing, multiple pandemics rage out of control, racial capitalism is collapsing on itself, and climate catastrophe is upon us—feels simultaneously essential and risky. When adrienne and AK Press invited me to write this book in 2019, based on a talk I gave at the American Studies Association conference that year, I went back and forth about whether I should. Then 2020 happened, and many, many, many more people became engaged in conversation and action around abolition, including policymakers, organizers, philanthropists, the mainstream media, and everyday community members. Many reached for the tools they have always used—legislation, policies, top-down, mass mobilization—to advance a politic they had not studied or practiced in any great detail before that point. As a result, many have fallen prey to the inevitable pitfalls of attempting to enact a revolutionary politic through the policymaking machine of a carceral state.

And many seem to be grappling with issues I and many other abolitionists have struggled with over the past two decades: How do we get to abolition? How do we completely reshape society to eliminate policing and punishment—along with the systems they manufacture and uphold—and to create safer, thriving communities? How do we avoid chasing red herrings and simplified policy “solutions” that lead us to dead ends, or worse yet, to making demands that expand rather than shrink the footprint of surveillance, policing, and punishment

Emergent strategies, and the organizing practices they invite, helped me to better understand: there is no ten-step program to abolition. There is no single policy agenda and no simple set of solutions to the multitude of issues for which society has been offered a single response: police. In a video she released in 2021 offering guidance to new abolitionists, Critical Resistance cofounder and former director Rachel Herzing emphasized that any tool can be used toward abolitionist ends provided we are guided by an abolitionist politic. As time went on, it felt more and more like this book might be a useful contribution to explore in greater depth how emergent strategies are and can be tools for abolitionist organizing.

As the current conjuncture deepens, it is becoming increasingly evident that we are in a battle among vastly different visions of the future—a future in which access to diminishing resources and livable spaces is increasingly violently policed or one in which we meet the current and coming collapse of existing systems and climates with collective care, recognizing a deep interdependence that extends beyond borders. Grace Lee Boggs teaches that “every crisis, actual or impending, needs to be viewed as an opportunity to bring about profound changes in our society.” Indeed, Kelly Hayes, organizer, coauthor of Let This Radicalize You, and host of Truthout’s Movement Memos podcast, describes us as “builders in a time of collapse.” The question is how we can advance our abolitionist visions of the future, how we can pivot from what is to what can be, how we can, as Lorraine Hansberry invites us to do, “impose beauty on our future,” and what strategies will enable us to most effectively do so.

Who Is This Book For?

This book is an invitation to people who have been drawn to the book Emergent Strategy over the past five years to gain greater clarity and to enter into deeper engagement with the abolitionist politics and organizing that informed it. As part of the Emergent Strategy Series, it engages the ideas contained in that book, along with others in the series, but also goes beyond them.

It is also an invitation to people newly organized to abolitionist politics to think beyond mass mobilizations and solutions that center law and policy. Importantly, it is not a primer on abolition—many more expansive books on the subject have already been written, including Abolition Geographies: Abolition. Feminism. Now.; No More Police: A Case for Abolition; and Abolition Feminisms volumes 1 and 2, to name just a few published in 2022 alone. It is an effort to engage people who catapulted into an embrace of abolitionist politics in the context of the 2020 Uprisings through policy and budget-based demands to #DefundPolice in an exploration of how emergent strategies might move us under current conditions toward abolitionist futures. And it offers an opportunity for those of us who are already committed to abolitionist politics and practice to explore how emergent strategies are already at play in abolitionist organizing and to reflect on how we might deploy them most effectively to bring us closer to the abolitionist horizon.

Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, this is a book about organizing: the process of bringing new people into organizations and movements for change, with the goal of shifting collective consciousness and building power to make the change we want to see. As Black feminist icon Barbara Smith emphasized in her 2023 lecture “What I Believe,” organizing requires us “to make material change, that means change on Earth, in this galaxy.” Organizing is an ongoing process that extends beyond protests and mass mobilization, that is rooted in building relationships, sharing knowledge, analysis, and skills, and strengthening communities. It requires us to build organizations that can serve as spaces for political education, skills building, mutual aid, as well as what emergent strategists refer to as communities of practice and network nodes. I firmly believe that organizing is necessary to build the world we want.

That said, shifting the process of how we organize within an existing political framework and set of values can open new possibilities for achieving different results. As Leanne Betasamosake Simpson teaches, “It became clear to me that how we live, how we organize, how we engage the world—the process— not only frames the outcome, it is the transformation. How molds and then gives birth to the present. The how changes us. How is the theoretical intervention.”

I have come to understand over the past three decades, in part through learning more about emergent strategies, that the how of struggling for the futures we want through top-down organizing strategies that rely on and replicate existing structures is impeding rather than furthering our ability to enact those futures. Emergent strategies, their lineage, and the practices they point to, invite us to exercise rigor, curiosity, and commitment to shared values in everyday actions and relationships. Emergent strategies teach that a proliferation of connections, networks, and communities of practice can create conditions that will allow us to dream and shift systems toward the worlds we want. In other words, emergent strategies articulate ways of being that can help us engage in the prefigurative organizing Grace called for by practicing “forms of social relations, decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate goal.”

Emergent strategies have helped me extend beyond my own limits of linear thinking and training in traditional approaches to change toward understanding how we might collectively meet this moment to bring liberatory futures into being. They have expanded my vision beyond top-down strategies and tactics focused on a distant set of end goals, to the exclusion of the everyday practices that help us get there. Rather than narrowing options to one “perfect” path forward and a single-minded pursuit of that goal, emergent strategies create an abundance of possibilities. Emergent strategies have also helped me better understand that the work I now spend most of my time doing—nourishing connections, cross-pollinating between organizations and movements, building networks, supporting communities of practice—is an important part of how we impact larger systems. In many ways, this book could be called “A Capricorn’s guide to better understanding how emergent strategies can help us move toward abolitionist futures.”

More than anything, this book is an offering to those who are struggling to let go of the old to play a part in making way for the new in the cauldron of the present.

Check out to find out more about the book, learn about upcoming events, and grab some gorgeous swag featuring cover-inspired art by Amir Khadar.


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