In Conversation with jackie sumell


Abolition in Practice?

Volume 9, Issue 03
December 1, 2023

jackie sumell is an abolitionist, artist, educator, steward of Solitary Gardens, and Creative Director of the John Thompson Legacy Center. Page Comeaux is an abolitionist, architect, and organizer with NOLA to Angola.

The following interview was conducted on October 31, 2023. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Page Comeaux: Let’s begin by rooting this discussion in the earth. Our most generative conversations have taken place with our hands in the soil at Solitary Gardens, which you steward. What is it about tactile methods of engagement that make connections to our work and to our communities potentially so fruitful?

jackie sumell: Yeah, while garbling [destemming] this tulsi. I think it is incredible medicine to be in relationship to plants while having a repetitive action to engage with in these sometimes-sticky conversations. Having a place to put your hands that isn’t confrontational or fearful allows the part of your brain that falls into defensive habits to be filled in by that action, and opens a whole new space for listening.

PC: Having the gardens mediate my introduction to abolition was transformative. It feels communal too, when you’re both doing it.

js: Well, right now, I’m the only one doing it.

PC: May I?

js: Yeah, grab some! This is dried tulsi, which some call holy basil.. It’s for a tea blend with motherwort, lemon balm, and rose to support young people whose hearts are broken by what they’re seeing happen to Gaza. There’s something about the garden’s relationship to possibility that I find to be spiritual. The first time I seeded Easter egg radishes—one of the easiest things to grow—I had this exalted feeling when the cotyledons pushed out of the soil. Being in relationship to miracles is part of what we need to engage with the human-built disappointments and crises of the world.

PC: I remember planting sunflowers with our dear friend, Isaiah, and returning many weeks after his passing to see this striking transformation. It was startling to see stems five feet higher than we left them, but they also telegraphed just how much time had gone by since we had shared the space prior to that tragedy. It teaches us something about patience that the “constructed” world is not necessarily equipped to do. How then does the natural world endorse abolition and help us bring our thoughts from theory into practice?

js: The natural world does not rely on punishment to solve its conflicts. If we think of abolition as a recipe, some of the ingredients are patience, transformation, acceptance, accountability, possibility, curiosity, and wonder. There’s a Viktor Frankl quote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” I think the natural world creates more space between the stimulus and the response. That kind of patience that you mentioned is a
practice. I often use “practice” as a framework for abolition. Sometimes we nail it and it’s beautiful, and sometimes we fumble through it. But how can we become quicker with our responses to harm such that they are rooted in the goals of abolition?

PC: Is the goal as important as the process?

js: The goal is the process.

PC: You’re not an architect in a professional sense.

js: Fuck no!

PC: But you are making space for abolition and community. Do you perceive yourself as an architect in that way? As a builder?

js: I’m a movement builder. I’m an organizer. If the built environment is human relationships, then yes, you can call me an architect. But I don’t know how to use Rhino!

PC: Has your engagement with abolition shifted your perception of architecture? Where do you experience confinement?

js: I’d flip that and ask: Where do you experience freedom? Because I’ve spent more time in prisons than I have in museums. There’s a visual vocabulary of oppression. Herman [Wallace] used to say, “You can’t be steeped in shit and not come out stinkin’.” We’re so inured to it—living with window bars, and alarms, and fuckin’ cameras—the experience of punishment and confinement is so normalized that we have to train ourselves to experience and see expansiveness and liberation.

PC: Yeah. Where don’t you experience it?

js: The obvious answer is the natural world. But I’ve experienced vast amounts of liberation in carceral spaces, like Angola Prison. There are ways that the people I visit there love and care for each other through the ways that they express joy and play.The architecture of oppression is part of the built environment, but it’s energetic too—a relational architecture.

PC: We’re in the John Thompson Legacy Center, which is the subject of the studio you’re teaching at Tulane. This space seems to defy carceral and capitalist logics—it would never be on the cover of a magazine, yet it embodies the ambitions of what architects claim they want to achieve vis-à-vis spaces for community. Why do you think that is?

js: There’s legacy—the ethos of John Thompson (JT) being one of caring for each other at all costs—and there’s geography; we are in an active part of the city for violence and poverty. My nine-year-old was killed four blocks from here, and I chose to stay. I think that those closest to the problems are closest to the solutions. When Butta, who used to drop his kid at the garden, was killed, people that were in proximity to the shooting ran in, and we ran out. Those inside were offered calming tinctures from the Abolitionist’s Apothecary. We sat and processed. That wouldn’t happen if we were on St. Charles Avenue—you know what I mean? Everyone just locks their doors, and gets further and further away from the problem. That doesn’t solve anything. This is the Seventh Ward—historically the murder capital. In the spirit of abolition, everything changes, but it’s a slow fuckin’ change. I think it’s one of the reasons JT chose this building.

PC: As for abolition, your friend Angela [Davis] has spoken to the fallacy of reform, in that it can often strengthen repression. With Angola, is advocating for a resource like air conditioning antithetical to abolition? If retrofitting the prison extends the lives of the people inside, but also extends the life of the institution, how do we balance our short-term goals of investing in their care with our long-term goals of abolishing their confines?

js: For me, making basic improvements to the building does not assume that we are extending the life of the institution. Having your basic needs met is a principle value system for how we can dismantle prisons from the inside and the outside. On the days where my basic needs are met, I am way less prone to cause harm. So this idea that we would create spaces that fester, and encourage harm and pain is absurd if the goal is to cause less.
This is where I think imagination is critical. How are we thinking about these spaces in a transitional period? Herman would even say, “Not everyone in [Angola] should be on the street. Not as they are.” While we’re thinking about bringing people home, we’re also thinking about how to do so safely.

PC: Let’s close with Herman’s House. How can the dream home of a political prisoner who spent 40 years in a cell inspire us to create life-affirming spaces of care and compassion for our communities?

js: Herman designed that home with himself last, thinking about the needs of others in each and every room. The first thing that he asked for were gardens for guests to smile and walk through year round. He wanted four guestrooms and a giant wrap-around porch for folks to gather. He talked about the house being made of wood so it breathes life. Concrete and steel stifle it. Not to mention that it could also be set on fire, should there be a raid by the government, allowing him to escape through an underground tunnel! The common thread between my understanding of authentic spiritual traditions and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is that liberation is only made possible through service to others. That’s what I know to be the embodiment of Herman’s House. It’s built for the people.

PC: The feedback from prison architects in the documentary about the house was stunning.

js: Yeah there’s something about their lack of imagination, right? They’re so comfortable designing spaces of torture. If we are going to have spaces to catch the mistakes of our criminal injustice system, they should at least be designed by formerly incarcerated folks. Herman, Albert, and [Robert] King were able to heal other people inside. In those conditions. How can you design these spaces if you have no relationship to people who have been incarcerated?