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Edna Bonhomme Interviews Shanice Octavia McBean

Silver Press editor Edna Bonhomme spoke with Shanice Octavia McBean about Black feminism, abolition and what she’s reading.

Shanice Octavia McBean is a Black writer and activist and co-author of Abolition Revolution. She grew up in Handsworth, Birmingham, before moving to Tottenham. Describing herself as a revolutionary and Afro-Marxist, she has also organised in Sisters Uncut, anti-racist groups and trade unions. The interview was edited and condensed.

Edna Bonhomme: Who are the people you consider the pioneers of Black British feminism? And what do you think the state of Black feminism is in the UK today?

Shanice Octavia McBean: I think, for me, the trajectory of Black feminism is often rooted in the United States, so I think it's great to answer this question for the British context. And the first person indeed that comes to mind is Claudia Jones. She's a person that is relatively easy to skew in terms of her political history, positions and ideology because she organised some time ago. Within Black Feminism, tensions, political divergences and people push and pull in different directions. And I think there has been a tendency to move away from Claudia Jones, more socialists, more communists, more Marxist groundings. Claudia Jones is a significant place to start because she articulated intersectionality before the term emerged. Intersectionality has been problematised over the past few years, but the term is often seen as the genealogy of Black feminist thought. Claudia Jones worked on this concept of super-exploitation and the very particular experience of working-class women of colour by drawing on her organising with socialist, communist and Marxist groups. Super-exploitation, more explicitly, states that Black women rarely see the fruits of their labour even when they contribute to the capitalist system. Not only do Black women have to face the harrowing experience of everyday interpersonal racism when they are at work, but their labour is also exploited further. Within this context, Black women are often considered a cheap reserve source of labour. And Claudia Jones was able to draw this out from a theoretical and political framework. Another Black feminist who is essential to name is Olive Morris. She worked on the grassroots, housing campaigns and police brutality. And I think the common thread here is the rooting of a Black feminist tradition in the communities that are, I believe, most exploited, most depressed, not just based on race and racism but also class. But perhaps to be a bit controversial, although he didn't work and perhaps isn't explicitly identified as a Black feminist, cultural theorist Stuart Hall's contribution to modern-day Black Feminist thought is quite significant. He is problematising the idea of race and, therefore, we can also apply gender as these immutable, unmoving, unchanging characteristics. And I know there are a lot of black feminists today who look to Stuart Hall as a significant theoretical influence.

Edna Bonhomme: You are a Black writer and activist with Sisters Uncut. Can you describe the significance of integrating labour, anti-racism and feminism into your activism?

Shanice Octavia McBean: I can illustrate that story through the trajectory of Sisters Uncut. And I think one of the beautiful things about intersectionality is this notion of interconnectedness. The idea of interconnectedness isn't new, but indeed, if you look at some traditions within socialist, communist Marxist spaces, actually that interconnectedness is subsumed within this concept of the working class. The recognition of the fact that not only are our identities on the individual level complex and interconnected but how those identities spring from a system with various forms of oppression. But looking specifically at Sisters Uncuts' work and how that illustrates its importance, the group started as a group focused on cuts to domestic violence services and searching for funding for domestic violence services. And that is still vital. But I think we quickly realised as a group that we were looking at gendered violence from the perspective of interpersonal violence. An essential thing to look at is the private sphere, what happens in the home, relations between men and women, patriarchy, et cetera. But we quickly realised that it wasn't just men who were perpetrators of gendered violence. The state played a fundamental role in producing violence against women directly and indirectly. At that indirect level, removing social services and housing benefits made it harder for women to leave violent situations, making them more vulnerable to intimate violence. But then you've also got that very public gendered violence that we saw most starkly, such as the murder of Sarah Everard and the beating and arresting of women that went to protest at the Clapham Common Vigil in March 2021. Gender-based violence also emerges in detention centres, caging vulnerable women. And one of the stories that stood out for us and shifted Sisters Uncut to an organisation that wasn't just feminist, but was also anti-racist, abolitionist and anti-capitalist, was the story of Sarah Reed. There were so many points throughout Sarah Reed's life, ending in her death in Holloway Prison, that demonstrate the racialised form of gendered violence. She ended up in Holloway Prison because she defended herself against her perpetrator. While in prison, she was neglected by staff in Holloway Prison, not given her mental health medication and not supported. She couldn't see her lawyers, family or support network the week before she died. There was interpersonal violence against women. And I think the last thing I'd say is that, and I believe this is something that I think is in the space of identity-based politics that we have at the moment where in at least in the past decade or so, there's been a tendency towards separation and competition and splintering as opposed to connection and solidarity and coming together. We have to fight these battles on multiple fronts because there must be many more of us fighting this battle than them. And that's our only route to victory. And as complicated and messy and as hard as mass movements and mass action are, that's what's needed globally to achieve the world we want to live in.

Edna Bonhomme: You recently co-authored Abolition Revolution with Aviah Sarah Day, and it is meant to be a practical guide to revolutionary abolitionist politics in Britain. In the text, you trace policing in Britain and explore programs such as Prevent and the drug laws that target Black communities and communities of colour more broadly in the UK. I enjoyed the parts where you invite the readers to work towards expanding their imagination which is part of the foundation of abolition. Yet abolition and, more specifically, prison abolition has been popularised within the US context. Most, most notably from Black feminists such as Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis and many others. To what extent do you see your book working alongside or offering a different perspective than the ones that emerge in US abolitionist frameworks?

Shanice Octavia McBean: Although our inspiration and influence are rooted in people like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, I don't cite any of them once in the book. And that's not to say that they don't influence it. And that's not to say that the spirit of their work isn't, because it is. But we don't make any direct references really to that body of work. And that's because we have quite a rich tradition of abolitionism here in the UK. We wanted to get that UK context and demonstrate to people how abolition is relevant here. So, we see our book contributing to the global conversation around abolition. We are trying to spotlight and situate abolition within the UK context. Because it is different, defunding the police has much controversy as  a slogan in the UK context. And it's relevant in some cases. Because one of the things that we've seen, for example, in the domestic violence sector, is money from domestic violence services, charities and organisations being siphoned into the criminal justice system into policing and the police being used to respond to domestic violence. There’s a real sense in which we can defund the police and fund social services. But one of the particular and peculiar things about our context is that, in reality, the police have been defunded. And although, more recently, they've had some of that funding restored, it is essential to say that we need not just less and more funding over here, but fundamental transformation. Because of austerity, police funding was significantly reduced. Still, it didn't lead to a measurable, noticeable change in the violence of policing or the incarceration of our communities or, in the violence of the state. And so, you know, from a pure abolitionist perspective, yeah, let's defund the police, let's get that funding away from here and put it into the grassroots into communities. But we wanted to situate the book in the UK context because that's not enough for us. And also, in the US, that wouldn't be enough either. And I think the second thing is that we also really wanted to draw on our histories and draw on our own and interrogate our traditions, both in terms of anti-colonialism and those struggles and what those have taught us about policing, but also the more direct tradition that we have here of anti-racist work. We were the Petri dish for that kind of violence that has then spread like a virus across the world. I think it's important to interrogate that history, to learn the lessons from it, to bring it into the spotlight, to bring it to the front, the front line and to make that argument for abolition here because it's very relevant, especially in the cost of living crisis. 

Edna Bonhomme: Relatedly, carceral feminism is a significant part of your writing. Can you explain what the concept is and what significance it has for grounding your political vision? 

Shanice Octavia McBean: Historically, this is the tradition that Sisters Uncut would situate itself with him, that is, a grassroots feminist tradition. And one of the spotlight moments we talk about in the book is the feminist movement's response to domestic violence in the sixties, seventies and eighties response. It wasn't necessary to seek state-based criminal justice-based solutions, but feminists on the grassroots working class feminists, feminists who didn't want to turn to the police all the time because they knew the police were violent. And that's how the refuge movement got started in the UK. It was from the grassroots organising; it wasn't with the involvement of the state and the police. And as the capacity for that kind of grassroots response ebbed and waned, what we saw was a more charity driven, more corporate response. With charity organisations comes charity regulation, and with charity regulation comes politics. And with politics comes the need to be tied to the state and the criminal justice system in a particular way. Most of the survivors we have now stipulate how they can and can't work with the police and do much joint work with the police. But what we've seen is minimal benefit to actual survivors. And, the more contact very vulnerable marginalised survivors have with the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to be harmed. For example, Black women aren't often believed when they report domestic violence and are sometimes even more likely to be seen as a perpetrator because of stereotypes around angry Black women. This increased contact with the criminal justice system is leading to survivors being criminalised. And so, our concept of carceral feminism is an inherent critique. It is identifying a version of feminism that rests and relies on the state for responses to violence against women. And these responses ultimately have proven and shown themselves to be a failure. We are arguing for a complete alternative, really re-empowering  grassroots movements.

Edna Bonhomme: What was the last feminist book you read, and how did the book feed your soul?

Shanice Octavia McBean: This is a tricky question because I hadn't read that much since writing Abolition Revolution because it's the first book I've ever written, and I found it quite overwhelming. The last feminist book I read is the latest Selma James book, Our Time is Now. Aviah Sarah Day and I had the privilege of speaking to Selma James directly about that text and that book before we wrote the Abolition Revolution because it grounded us. Selma James has been around for quite a long time, and she has seen the trajectory of the feminist movement and been able to learn from and hear that history but also root it in the present day. What we tried to do in the book is look back on many of the questions we asked, how we can learn from these previous traditions, and what relevance they have today. Reading that text, written in a completely different context, and getting to speak to her and apply it to where we are now was great for our book-writing process.

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