Critical Resistance (CR) was established in 1997 by an alliance of activists — including the famous Marxist revolutionary Angela Davis — who rejected “the idea that imprisonment and policing are a solution for social, political, and economic problems,” and that “caging and controlling people makes us safe.” One of these activists was prisoner-rights advocate Ellen Barry, who also helped create Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in 1978. When founding CR, Barry and her collaborators resolved to “build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex,” a term that CR employs to describe “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment” to perpetuate white privilege and racial injustice.
According to CR, the Prison Industrial Complex: (a) is dominated by “people who get their power through racial, economic and other privileges”; (b) earns “huge profits for private companies that deal with prisons and police forces”; (c) helps to “earn political gains for ‘tough-on-crime’ politicians”; (d) increases the influence of prison-guard and police unions; (e) ruthlessly “eliminat[es] social and political dissent” by members of “oppressed communities” who seek “self-determination and reorganization of power in the U.S.”; and (f) is responsible for the creation of “mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, and other oppressed communities as criminal, delinquent, or deviant.”
Reasoning from the premise that criminal activity is a natural outgrowth of the “inequality and powerlessness” inherent in capitalist economic systems, CR maintains that all forms of “imprisonment and punishment” would be entirely unnecessary if America’s federal and state governments could guarantee everyone a provision of “basic necessities such as food, shelter, and freedom,” which “are what really make our communities secure.”
Alleging that the Prison Industrial Complex works “to contain, control, and kill those people representing the greatest threats to state power,” CR’s goal is “not to improve the system even further, but to shrink the system into non-existence” by building “healthy, self-determined communities” that embrace socialist egalitarian ideals. “In all our work,” says CR, “we organize to build power and to stop the devastation that the reliance on imprisonment and policing has brought to ourselves, our families, and our communities.”
CR held its first organizational conference in September 1998 in Berkeley, California. Featuring nearly 200 separate panels and workshops, the three-day event was attended by more than 3,500 people from every U.S. state and a few foreign countries. These participants included academics, labor leaders, religious leftists, feminists, LGBT activists, policy makers, and current as well as former prisoners.
After establishing regional branches in the Eastern and Northeastern United States over the ensuing three years, CR leaders from California, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Ohio came together in May 2001 to develop a plan to make their organization a national entity structured through local chapters. CR currently has chapters in Oakland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City, and Portland (Oregon). Though connected under a shared mission, they operate autonomously for the most part.
In 2012, CR launched an Abolitionist Educators Support Campaign to solicit support for its organizational agendas from teachers and scholars at every level of education—i.e., K-12 as well as colleges and universities. One of the Campaign’s highest priorities is to cut off taxpayer funding for “imprisonment and policing,” and to redirect those dollars to public education instead.
Additional CR priorities include:
To help disseminate its anti-prison, anti-police message as widely as possible, CR publishes a quarterly bilingual newspaper called The Abolitionist, which is written mostly by community advocates and people who have been incarcerated.