Office of Inclusive Excellence

Sanctuary and Abolition

November 10, 2021

By Chrissy A.Z. Hernandez, Assistant Professor of Service Learning

When I worked in a continuation high school in the San Francisco Bay Area (also called “alternative schools” outside of California), my coworker told me a story about one of our former students. This student, who I’ll call D, was one of those students you remember—funny, outspoken, excited when met with new ideas, with an infectious smile. He hugged like a warm tidal wave. D would often exclaim, “Why has no one told us this before??” when listening to a lesson about everything from racism to how to read statistics. At an exhibit featuring the art of Kehinde Wiley, D wrote in the guestbook, “follow me on insta” with his handle and a note about how he is Wiley’s next project.  And like approximately half of the students at this school, he is Black.

Two years later, after his graduation, he quietly entered my colleague’s classroom and sat at one of the back tables as she introduced an activity to her students. She said at first she thought he was just coming to visit, as students did from time to time, but he looked worried and so she asked him why he was there. He told her that the police who patrol the neighboring projects started to chase him, so he ran. D said he didn’t know where else to go so he came to his former school, to this classroom.

School as sanctuary. These are not the kinds of stories that we hear very often and with reason. The dominant approach to engaging young people in schools, especially Queer Trans Black Indigenous Youth of Color (QTBIPOC) and youth with disabilities, mirrors policing more broadly, whether literal police in schools or a punitive orientation of control. And continuation high schools are usually characterized by an intensification of some of the worst aspects of public schooling. Often when I think about the imperative of prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition, I think about this story. I think certainly of the well documented threat of police, especially to people of color, and the brutality and horror that he was running from. But when I think about this story, I mostly think about my colleague sitting with him, and I think about the students in the classroom with them, overhearing that he ran to this school. I think about all the educators there who he knew would not cooperate with the police. I think about the guard at the door who must have greeted him with smiles and a fist bump that melts into a hug, as he greeted all the students. A guard whose role wasn’t catching students but bringing them in. Despite the normalization of punitive policies and practices, the people of this school actively worked together to enact different ways of being. The school I describe is not a utopia; the people that make it up are people. But this story illustrates something important. 

I sometimes hear abolition referred to as a negative and destructive project, that abolitionists want to “burn everything down.” It’s an easy way to dismiss asking hard questions about what truly makes us safe, what safety looks like, feels like, and what our collective responsibility is to building that world, right now. It’s easy to say safety is the police . It’s much harder to analyze how we personally perpetuate the policing of our neighbors and our students. It’s easier to feel that we are somehow absolved of responsibility for collective safety or to decide that these are issues that happen elsewhere. D’s story illustrates that what we build together, how we learn to be accountable, when we lean into the dream side of our minds, we are able to take on the urgent and practical work of creating sanctuary. We are able to offer a new vision to cycles of neglect, punishment, and control. PIC abolition is an affirmative project that requires us to work together and commit to a long haul vision with implications across institutions and whose time has come.