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‘I can see a world without police’: a Q&A with Jason Sole, founder of the Institute of Aspiring Abolitionists

Sole — former head of the Minneapolis NAACP; co-founder of Humanize My Hoodie and a professor of criminal justice at Hamline University — is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to launch the institute. 

Jason Sole: My first thought was “F--- tha police” and my second was “Abolish the police.”
Jason Sole: My first thought was “F--- tha police” and my second was “Abolish the police.”

“The ‘defund the police’ movement got its start in Minneapolis. It might meet its end there in November,” goes the opening paragraph of the Sept. 22 Politico story “‘The world is looking at us’: Minneapolis puts ‘defund the police’ to a vote.” 

But no matter what happens in Minneapolis on Nov. 2, for Jason Sole and his newly launched Institute of Aspiring Abolitionists, every day is a new beginning.

“For me, I’m using abolition as a way to also fight anti-Blackness,” said Sole, 43, who has crisscrossed the country over the last few years to holding events about restorative justice, which seeks to repair the damage done by crime by facilitating meetings with victims, offenders and community members. “I’m coming at the police, I’m coming at the courts, I’m coming at the prison system and saying, ‘We’ve got to abolish y’all if we’re going to stand a chance after I’m long gone.’ I don’t want my children to have to deal with anti-Blackness, and fighting as an abolitionist gives me hope that that will be possible.” 

According to most history, the abolitionist movement in America coincided with colonialism and slavery and ended with the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of the slaves. But at the moment there’s a more relevant definition of the word and a new movement centered around abolitionism, led by people like Sole, former head of the Minneapolis NAACP; co-founder of Humanize My Hoodie; professor of criminal justice at Hamline University; and, as the bio on the back of his 2014 memoir has it: “a former drug dealer, member of a notorious street gang and a three-time convicted felon. … As a result of his criminal activity, Sole has been incarcerated in numerous correctional facilities. Yet despite the height of the odds stacked against him, he turned his life around by earning both his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Science degrees in Criminal Justice.”

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At the moment, a national reckoning on police violence is at hand, from community policing initiatives to calls for defunding the police, and this era’s definition of abolition includes the umbrella of police reform, which is where Derecka Purnell’s “Becoming Abolitionists” book and Sole’s Institute of Aspiring Abolitionists come in. 

Sole is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to launch the institute as a way to “educate over 15,000 people in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and the Dakotas,” and he took time out from his teaching and fundraising duties to speak with MinnPost about the effort. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

MinnPost: With Humanize My Hoodie and your work at Hamline, I’m wondering how they dovetail with the Institute of Aspiring Abolitionists. What’s the idea behind the institute? 

Jason Sole: The conversation about abolition is coming up a whole lot. You know, even with Humanize My Hoodie, that was an abolitionist framework. What we already had in mind was, “We’re not gonna sell out to no companies, we’re not going to work with nobody that don’t allow us to speak our mind. Any partnership we have, we let them know: “Hey, we might say, ‘F— the police,’ and you’ve just got to be able to be comfortable with that.” 

Also, the approach that I had, even when I was NAACP president, is that the NAACP is an abolitionist framework. Ida B. Wells [and the original NAACP founders], they were trying to get Black folks to have autonomy from police to make their own decisions and do what they want to do. Even me, seeking to become a professor: You know, I didn’t know any three-times convicted felons teaching criminal justice, and about the system. 

So the Institute plays right into it because, with me teaching at Freedom Schools, that was an abolitionist framework where people got together to actually talk about how to create liberation for Black folks. So inside of all of them was all of my other work, but now I can bring professors, social workers, youth, Muslims, Christians, Atheists; I can bring the different crowds together to have the conversation in a deeper way. From Chicago to Fargo, people don’t get to talk about what actually keeps us safe versus what we think or feel is keeping us safe.

MP: The idea and meaning of the word abolitionist has changed. Abolitionists were once an anti-slavery movement; let’s talk about the modern version of abolitionism and how that word has gained new significance. 

JS: Just going back timeline-wise, we’ve already built abolitionist frameworks. You think about MPD 150; you think about other groups that were actually really working to say which police officers are causing us the most harm, which ones get the most excessive force complaints. We were doing some of that work, first with Jamar [Clark]. Then when Philando Castile got killed, that brought more people into the fight. Jamar, it was a lot of people showing up at the 4th Precinct. But when Philando got killed, I saw a lot of white folks coming to the table. So, fast-forward to when George Floyd got lynched, and for me, the only true call that was necessary was for abolition. 

My first thought was “F— the police” and my second was “Abolish the police,” and I haven’t moved from that because I’ve trained police officers. I’ve trained the Las Vegas Police Department, the Scottsdale, Ariz. police department; I’ve sat on all these panels with cops. I taught a class with [Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner] Paul Schnell, who was a cop in St. Paul. I’ve done more reform work than most of the people I know. So when [George Floyd] came … all I could hear was Harriet Tubman, all I could hear was Sojourner Truth. I couldn’t hear any more of that Martin Luther King and, “We can make it work,” I just can’t. I can’t hold that space. 

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Reform is necessary, people need to be working on it, trying to hold people accountable. But my thing is I need to show people more about what restorative justice and transformative justice looks like. So for me in my life, “abolition” is very clean. I can see a world without police because I’ve never been able to rely on them anyway. 

When I got shot by them dudes in St. Paul, we were shooting back and forth, it was a lot of violence, it was bodies dropping, it was a lot. For us to be good, for us to have no issues with each other, to be able to eat at a restaurant and have them sit right across or behind us knowing that nobody is going to do any violence — it allows me to see beyond the current police state. Cops, courts, and corrections: they don’t make us safer as a society, no matter how much we think they do. 

MP: Realistically, what might the modern abolitionist mission be?

JS: As an abolitionist, I’m committed to a strategy that will allow us to love and protect ourselves. I don’t know if this will happen in my lifetime, but I’m committed to figuring it out. So as abolitionists, we’re just saying, “We don’t know if there are going to be enough people to believe that we can protect ourselves, but we want to try.” 

If you look at Frederick Douglass’ speech, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July,” even though all that stuff he said about the government, his last sentence let you know he was optimistic. So even though I say what I say about the system, about cops, about how bail works, how reentry is a sham, of how the system is making money for all these corporations, I still feel hopeful about tomorrow. That’s what abolitionists means. It’s like, man, we’re gonna co-struggle, and work in the Institute of Aspiring Abolitionists until we really get there.

MP: What about history, and elders, and the standing-on-the-shoulders of giants part of it all?

JS: History is important when it comes to the Institute of Aspiring Abolitionists. It’s like the foundation of it all. We follow in the tradition of the abolitionists before us, like Mary Ann Shad Cary in Canada. She was an abolitionist, she was a lawyer, she was a journalist, she created a paper. 

That’s how abolition moves, so creating this institute falls in line with Humanize My Hoodie, with me being a professor at Hamline University, which is Minnesota’s first university. I was probably the first formerly incarcerated person to lead the NAACP; I know I’m the first in Minneapolis, but I’m probably the first in the country. 

For me, I’m walking with my ancestors in a long line of firsts, is what I’m trying to say. Now I want us to take a further plus, like Harriet Tubman, anybody that came on to my leadership, they never got weary; they got where they felt astray. So now is why we’ve got to lift that up a little bit more, and I love what Colin Kaepernick is doing. I love what Ava DuVernay is doing. 

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There’s a lot of abolitionists out there, I think people just try to forget that, you know, that’s their mission. Like with Ava DuVernay … and [“The New Jim Crow” author] Michelle Alexander, people don’t really look at her as an abolitionist, people don’t even look at Angela Davis as an abolitionist. But they are.

It’s multifaceted and it’s very new for people. It was just, like, seven, eight years ago when we first started saying ‘Black lives matter,’ and people couldn’t really wrap their mind around that. Eight years later, it’s not as radical. It’s the same with “abolitionism.” It just takes people a little bit more time.

MP: Why did the term fall out of usage?

JS: Government, man. The history has been buried so that the government can do exactly the things that the government is doing. You didn’t really hear about it because they felt like the victory was with the Emancipation Proclamation. That’s where the verbiage got lost, because it was slavery abolition, and “Naw, man, we abolished slavery.” 

Harriet Tubman created an underground railroad that led to Buxton, Ontario as well as Chatham, Ontario, and my uncle [Dr. Jonathan William Walton] did a lot of that research before he passed away. His PH.D. dissertation in 1979 researched how fugitive and freed slaves were able to go to Canada and live. They had a framework that was underground. They used telegrams to share the messages, and it was always run by people who organized around the idea and believed that people should not be enslaved. … After the Emancipation Proclamation, a lot of people didn’t know that the black folks were coming, so they couldn’t say “abolition” anymore, because they had already quote-unquote abolished slavery.

The abolition movement looks different. William Lloyd Garrison, he did it with a pen. Him and Frederick Douglass didn’t get along, you know; they really didn’t like each other and they used to fight in public, but Frederick Douglass was the one who was saying, “Look, I’m actually a fugitive right now and I’m coming to [your town].” He was in Milwaukee at Turner Hall giving a speech, and I’ve been in that place and his energy is all in there. Some are abolitionists, some are all about the law, some give great speeches, but I think it got buried so that the government can remain in control. 

A lot of people say “abolition?” like it’s [ancient] history. I even said it to my wife and she was like, “Man, that sounds like some old stuff.” Because people have really tried to tear down everybody who was abolitionists. I came home from prison in 2002 and was able to volunteer for Angela Davis in 2004 in Minneapolis, and just meeting her and talking to her, she sent me on a course: “Hey, you got the power, you got the juice, people really like you, you could do your own organizing to keep people safe. And you can study the system, so you can better understand.” 

She grounded my whole [path] in 2004 in Minneapolis, so I’ve got to be able to speak about abolitionists framework, because the ancestors and the elders gave me so much to work with. They blessed me with a lot of this. So the institute is for people who just want to learn more. You don’t have to be an abolitionist at the end of it, but when we create this underground network from Chicago to Fargo, people are going to enjoy talking about what they’re doing to actually bring people home from prison, to prevent people from going, how they’re doing cop watch, how they’re doing court watch, and it’s just gonna be a good vibe for when people are traveling, they can go, “Oh man, I’m going to Iowa City, I want to tap into my abolitionist group there.” And that’s going to be very possible. We’re going to be powerful scholars, the formerly incarcerated, survivors, Christians, Muslims, everybody welcome to talk about what they do to actually help us be safer.

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MP: Back to that Frederick Douglass speech in Milwaukee; I’m pretty sure it was the week before or after that, when he was on a speaking tour, he was refused rooms in two St. Paul hotels. 

JS: Yeah, crazy. That probably has something to do with me leaving the St. Paul mayor’s office. Thinking about that, you know, I left that job because money was given to the police. Abolitionists, we’re willing to sacrifice. That’s one thing about us. Colin Kaepernick didn’t have to do what he did, but he sacrificed so people would get it later. But that’s the thing with abolition. It’s gonna be hot. Like in the next two, three years, talk about abolition and public safety is gonna pick up, and four years from now it won’t seem as radical to you. With Frederick Douglass traveling all the way to Milwaukee, traveling through this country, and he had no Facebook, he couldn’t DM people, he couldn’t text people… I feel very good today in terms of abolition, I really do.