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Rinaldo Walcott, "On Property: Policing, Prisons, and the Call for Abolition" (Windsor: Biblioasis, 2021), 96 pp.:


Rinaldo Walcott, On Property: Policing, Prisons, and the Call for Abolition (Windsor: Biblioasis, 2021), 96 pp.

On Property: Policing, Prisons, and the Call for Abolition could not be timelier in thinking about the longstanding entanglements between property and the policing of Black bodies. Part of the Biblioasis Field Notes series, this book takes as its point of departure the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020, during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic. Walcott writes: “That a Black man could be openly killed in the streets by state-sanctioned authority for passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill was not surprising to me. [...] We had seen it before, but in a pandemic in which the possibility of death was heightened for all of us, it seemed to ring differently” (12). On Property is divided into three compelling chapters and it uses the literary form of the pamphlet—a form that was essential to the movement to abolish the transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery in the second half of the eighteenth and through the nineteenth century. Each chapter begins with a first-person account, which situates this piece not only within the author’s personal story but also historically within the wider discursive and philosophical arena of abolitionist politics: Blackness and the violent space of the New World slave plantation (ch. 1); revolution and the Black body (ch. 2); and the carceral state and Black politics of care (ch. 3). It is this deep connection between personal account and the histories of Black resistance and revolution which allows the author to argue for the importance of the politics of abolition and its various practices, and to ask, “What does abolition mean in our time?” (13).

In the first chapter entitled “Property is a Problem,” Walcott takes the reader back to the New World plantation and its mechanics of managing, regulating, and “governing all aspects of a slave’s life, especially with regard to movement” (20). At the center of such management and regulatory powers was the plantation’s logics of Black abjection and propertization. The chapter shows that the first special forces of what was to become the police in North America would be established in conjunction with these logics in seventeenth-century British colonies in the Caribbean (Barbados) and the North American mainland (e. g., Virginia) to monitor the movement of the enslaved. Walcott goes on to suggest that contemporary practices of policing such as street checks or carding are historically rooted in technologies of surveillance established on the plantation such as the slave pass. In this way, the plantation persists “as a largely unseen superstructure shaping modern, everyday life and many of its practices, attitudes, and assumptions, even if some of these have been, over time, transformed” (21).

The second chapter—“Black Resistance and Conceptions of Property”—shifts its focus to Black practices of revolution and resistance against the plantation’s logic of possession. As the text suggests, these practices are fueled by Black people’s “special relationship to property, having once been property ourselves” (43). Describing his experience of witnessing the Rodney King beating, trial, and 1992 “riots,” Walcott remembers: “I was in Toronto watching US news reports and identifying with the defiance of those taking to the streets in a way I could feel in my body” (43). The chapter examines the functions of revolt and revolution in the context of Black people’s “abolition journey” (48) and posits that the abolition of slavery was just the first step towards Black freedom. Walcott uses the term “riot” here not simply in a conventional sense to describe a “violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd” (OED) but also to delineate an impressive history of Black refusal and resistance against abjection, subjugation, and subjection across at least the Caribbean and North American mainland. Paradigmatic examples of this history mentioned in the text are the Haitian Revolution and Nat Turner’s rebellion. For Walcott, the modern Black riot has a basis within Black histories of insurgence during slavery at the same time that it constitutes “a refusal of entrenched policing practices that has boiled over” in the present moment (50).

With this reconceptualization of the riot as a Black revolutionary practice, which constantly exposes the entanglements between property, Blackness, and policing, On Property moves towards its third and final chapter: “Abolition Now: From Prisons to Property.” The chapter both engages with and expands on previously discussed definitions of abolition as revolutionary struggle to defund, disarm, and deinstitutionalize the police and the prison system (see Loick and Thompson) to also encompass “an engaged and creative approach to social organization meant to fully transform how we live together” (66). At the center of this extended approach to abolitionist politics are new ways to respond to or deal with social conflict and harm instead of perpetuating “a larger ecosystem [and economy] of punishment” (70). This not only also includes “[r]ethinking what constitutes crime” (82), particularly regarding Blackness and Black people and the prison-industrial complex, but also and essentially a reconfiguration of property. On the one hand, this kind of reconceptualization gestures towards social orders based on collective instead of private property. Walcott suggests that the abolition of property is part of “a philosophy that takes the idea of the commons […] seriously again” and this endeavor should be driven by a “Black understanding and reworking of what communism is and means” (87). On the other, such focus on collective ownership calls for a new politics of collective care, both natural and social. Walcott addresses care in at least three ways: First, by thinking care along eco-critical lines, linking care to possession and advocating for “collective ownership [and management] of the earth’s resources” (87). Second, care here operates on a global scale, for the purpose of abolitionist care is “to do more than save Black people; it is also to save the species from its self-destructive self” (97). In this way, the pamphlet follows in the steps of generations of Black feminist thinkers’ intellectual labors, who continue to dismantle our current genre of the human as universal “Man” (see Wynter). Third, and perhaps this is particularly important for those positioned as White, the notion of care critically supplements most declarations of empathy or solidarity in that it fundamentally “demands a different relationship to property” (87). In my opinion, it crucially enters into conversation with Saidiya Hartman’s concerns about “the difficulty and slipperiness of empathy” (18). Examining the nineteenth-century abolitionist writings of John Rankin, in which he imagines himself to be in the position of the slave to draw attention to the slave’s suffering, Hartman suggests that this kind of emphatic identification precisely is enabled by the fungibility of the slave (17-22). In this context, Walcott’s conceptualization of care can but call for a different kind of ethical relation to property—a stance that needs to be “owned” and practiced by all.

Compelling for both scholars and activists, On Property and the overall abolitionist politics outlined in this pamphlet radically strive to “create a different world, a different set of governing relations. [Contemporary abolition] is a transformation of our society as we know it” (Walcott 18).

Samira Spatzek (Freie Universität Berlin)

Works Cited

1 

Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

2 

Loick, Daniel, and Vanessa E. Thompson, eds. Abolitionsmus: Ein Reader. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2022. Print.

3 

“riot, n.” OED Online. Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 1 Mar. 2022. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/166168?rskey=ZNfxcO&result=1#eid. 2022.

4 

Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being / Truth / Power / Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3.3 (2003): 237-337. Print.

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