Vanessa E. Thompson

Waves of Abolition

Black global uprisings in 2020 shook the world in the midst of a global pandemic, and also brought political life back on the streets after a halt of political breath in the first phase of the pandemic. A historic anti-racist mass movement spread through the corners of many parts of the world, carried by mainly black poor masses, shouting and singing the names of people who lost their lives at the hands of police like a sound and wave of abolition. Starting in Minneapolis as a response not only to the lynching of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others, these rebellions are also part of the material genealogies of struggles for new worlds, worlds otherwise. For this, people took to the streets in various countries in Europe, and beyond, in, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and so many other places on the planet. Protesters not only stood in solidarity with the damnés, black criminalized and working poor in the belly of the carceral beast, but drew the connections to their respective contexts, too. They exposed carcerality as a global phenomenon inherently tied to racial gendered capitalism and its racial modalities of class war. The names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were shouted in calls and responses alongside the names of Christy Schwundeck, Rita Awour Ojunge, Oury Jalloh, Sean Rigg, Mamadou Maréga, Adama Traoré, Lamine Dieng, Tina Ezekwe, Kolade Johnson, Marielle Franco, João Pedro Mattos Pinto, and so many, many others. Shouting these names as a way of staying in relation with the dead in so many contexts created a global sound underground network, like the Haitian drums of revolution once did.


I can’t breathe, not as a slogan, but as a condition of the racialized poor, became the grammar of these uprisings. The ‘I’ is replaceable but of course not the person whose life got snatched away by state or extra-legal violence. Un-breathing is a collective condition, and it is pierced into the lives of the (formerly) colonized and super-exploitable, in the internal as well as external colonial geographies. The anti-colonial theorist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon famously stated that people do not revolt because of a specific culture, but because it becomes impossible for them to breathe ‘in more than one sense of the word’ (Fanon 1967:21). Fanon interrogates modes of colonial violence, occupation, and dispossession urges to understand the deep connection between (internal) police and (external) military occupation (or, in the case of the colony, militarized policing and police-trained militarization) (you can’t have one without the other) and dismantles the liberal myth of police as a core concept of colonial bourgeois society, long before the current movements for breath shaped the geographies of struggle. Policing as the historical and constant condition of un-breathing is the stuff out of which modern security and liberal subjectivity is made of. Fanon turns to breathing as a physical as well as socio-political and ecological relation:

There is no occupation of territory, on the one hand, and independence of persons on the other… Under these conditions, the individual’s breathing is an observed, and occupied breathing. It is a combat breathing.’ (Fanon 1965:50).

Breathing is a form of being in relation in and with the world, it is exchange, relationality. It is the precondition for sociality and for being in contact with the human and non-human world. Breathing in ‘more than one sense of the word’ refers to this physical, social and ecological process of exchange and relationality without accumulation. Breathing is life in rehearsal, to borrow from Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2020).

Combat breathing is embodied in and through the pant for breath, the gasp of air, the compression of air supply, the chokehold, the panic attack.

Police stop and search in its everyday-ness also speaks to forms of combat breathing, being stopped, rushing to breathe during a check, getting out of breath when running away from the police, like Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré in France in 2005. Policing, as a method of racial gendered capitalism, targets fugitive lives, those rendered surplus disposable.

The reference to George Floyd’s last words is striking. But also those of Eric Garner, who died in a police chokehold on July 7, 2014, in New York. Think of the killing by police of Samuel Dolphyne in Finland on November 18 in 2018, and of his friend who stated: ‘He was shouting and calling my name; ‘Ofori, Ofori they are killing me. I can’t breathe’.’ Think of Adama Traoré, who died in police custody on 19 July 2016, and his last words were ‘I can’t breathe’. Asphyxiation, and oxygen deprivation also runs through the murder of Sean Rigg, who died on August 21 in 2008, after several police officers had restrained him and put their bodily weight on him for eight minutes.

William Tonou Mbobda was brutally held on the ground and violated by security personnel on the morning of April 21, 2019, in front of the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf, Germany, the chokehold pressed him into unconsciousness and he died five days later.

Policing as un-breathing is not an individual expression; it targets the racialized working and working poor masses, especially folks rendered migrants and refugees, in all parts of the world. And it is not always explicitly expressed in these ways. Un-breathing ‘in more than one sense of the word’. I am thinking of the breath of fear of Christy Schwundeck, who was shot in a job center in Frankfurt am Main on May 19 in 2011, and N’deye Mariame Sarr, who was killed on July 14 in 2000, in the house of her ex-partner. She wanted to pick up their child. The black refugee activist Sista Mimi, who was engaged in the refugee protests at the squatted Gerhart-Hauptmann School in Berlin, died on December 11 2014 because of severe illness; she often suffered from lung infections. She described repression by police as absorbing her breath.

Combat breathing also refers to the inhalation of water as in drowning (through letting die or active pushbacks) as a result of the policing of the Black Mediterranean, the carceral geography shaped by the longue durée of colonial enslavement and violence, and the world's most dangerous and deadly migration route. ‘The Black Mediterranean represents a demand to acknowledge the connection between the present and the past—including the history of colonialism, emigration, and intranational migration,’ (Smythe 2018:7-8). Un-breathing  ‘in more than one sense of the word’. Drowning is defined as respiratory impairment, a specific form of Asphyxia, as a result of being in or under a liquid. The neo-imperial and neo-colonial border complex, a racialized regime of violence and abandonment, ties the lives of people rendered refugees to un-breathing.

Un-breathing also speaks to the lack of fresh air in prisons and camps, the carceration of breathing as a relational process of movement, through one’s body, with the world. At the outer borders, the inner cities, the surplus landscapes, and the detention centers as part of the deals and processes of the neo-imperial exterritorialization of borders.

Hundreds of black migrants protesting against detention, murderous border control and for evacuation and safe passage, holding signs with ‘Black Lives Matter’ like the initiative ‘Refugees in Libya’ in Tripoli is related to un-breathing, as are the many hunger strikes of captives held behind bars during the pandemic, before and after, or the 2015 protest of black refugees in Ellwangen, Germany, against deportations. As well as the transnational resistance actions against deportations in Agadez, Sokodé, Kindia, Bamako and various European cities, led by self-organized refugees and their supporters. ii

The motif of un-breathing, or ‘combat breathing’ sticks to poor black and racialized groups; rendered surplus, it travels from the transcontinental, transnational to the trans-local, from the prison cell and the lager (camp) to the urban or domestic space, from the land to the shores and the sea.

‘Policing where we go, or better, stopping our movement, containment, even before the pandemic, fear of policing in the night because of deportation, policing our bodies regarding reproductive rights, our children who often are denied birth certificates, no support in cases of violence but more violence, and, the policing of our resistance. This is how I would describe my relation to policing as a black refugee woman in Europe,’ says Bessy S., who I spoke to in December 2020. 

Fanon also links the (direct or indirect) occupation of territory, or the legacy of colonial occupation and enslavement, to un-breathing. Un-breathing  ‘in more than one sense of the word.’ This can be in the realm of the body, or, related to a whole country. ‘Let Haiti breathe!’ was the powerful slogan of Haitians in the diaspora mobilizing against the neo-imperialist CORE group as well as against the Haitian elite and its paramilitary war against popular democratic movements. The un-breathing of Haiti unfolds as the neo-imperial punishment for the most radical revolution in the world waged in the plantation colony (and traveled) - a major site of (re-)production - abolishing enslavement as the foundation, not just ‘primitive’ accumulation, for racial gendered capitalism. Policing of the revolution.

The pandemic has rendered un-breathing, combat-breathing, a global condition. Like policing, borders, and militarism, it hits racialized workers and dependent countries in the Global South, as well as those under the embargo of Empire, hardest. Not only are ‘essential’ workers most often gendered, racialized, and migrant workers working in supermarkets, public transport, care workers of any kind, in agricultural camps and the food industries ‘essential’ for the social reproduction of society. They are also disproportionately exposed to the virus and to premature death. Essential disposability towards un-breathing. Whereas some of us can work from home, albeit often under difficult and especially gendered conditions, others, mostly the poor, working-class, houseless, illegalized, racialized other, are either contained to a form of essentiality (but without matter and thus disposable) and at the same time are rendered materials for the production of value, or detained and rendered surplus in camps, prisons or jails. Sometimes both. On a global scale, the politics of vaccination, global pharma, and property rights, risk to further mobilize health as a vector of a sanitary global color line, to borrow from W.E.B. Du Bois. A line that cuts through working classes and neo-colonial geographies. And while countries in the Global South like South Africa are calling the international ‘community’ to let them breathe and to waive intellectual property rules for Covid vaccines, breathing itself seems to bea commodity.

There is a third notion of un-breathing, deeply related to the first two (carcerality and the racial gendered capitalist politics of the pandemic), which is the breathing of the environment, the earth, ‘in more than one sense of the word.’ Pollution, fossil fuels, and carbon make the earth wretched (producing more ‘wretched of the earth’) and its climate, creating not only imbalance but destroying the relationality between elements, ecologies, and human and non-human interaction. The oceans and the forests have absorbed so much carbon dioxide that they are about to suffocate. Un-breathing ‘in more than one sense of the word’. As it gets hotter, people in many parts of the world struggle to breathe; droughts, fires, and severe heat are also effects of a world in combat-breathing.

Struggles for Breathing as Struggles for Life Worlds

Global uprisings of 2020 and their aftermaths stand in relation to abolitionist and anticolonial struggles globally. The expansion of carcerality in neoliberal racial gendered capitalism has made policing, prisons, detention centers, and borders key sites of abolitionist struggles. It is not only about abolishing prisons, borders, and police; it is about re-constructing the world. Black reconstruction, as W.E.B. Du Bois reminds us, was also the struggle for socialism of the dark proletariat, the general strike, as was and is the quilombo, the maroon communities. Not so much because of their resistance, but because they worked towards the reorganization of labor, social relations, and land collectively. Abolition, as the radical transformation of modes of production, institutions, and systems that brought about the destruction of the earth and the wretched in the first place, is a life-flourishing possibility as Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us. Abolition breathes life into the world, the earth, humans, and non-humans. Black political struggles as struggles for life are part of a broader abolitionist project and geography.

The anti-police protests struggles against borders, the largest strike in history in India, women’s strikes and protests for reproductive justice, feminist mobilizations for feminist Covid-19 economic recovery plans, Indigenous water protectors and land defenders in Turtle Island, as well as on the African continent and in the Caribbean: all these struggles are struggles for breath ‘in more than one sense of the word’. And they are brought to being through the tireless, often invisibilized labor by women, trans and non-binary folks. Care work is the basis of each abolitionist and anti-colonial campaign, rebellion, and revolution. Care work provides the reproductive ground on which resistance is made possible.

The collective Women in Exile, a self-organised feminist refugee group in Germany that struggles for the abolition of lagers and against intra-community violence in the larger system,  explains that abolitionist work is only possible through staying in relation, through caring for each other in the everyday. ‘We also work on relationships in our struggles’. A foundational aspect of abolition is realized not only through making this labor more visible but through re-distributing this labor and moving beyond the romanticization of feminized and too often devalued labor. Let’s not romanticize it but collectivize it.

When talking about abolitionist practices, members of Women in Exile, as well as other self-ogranized refugee groups, explained that their work draws on the feminist practices and alternatives that are lived in many contexts of the African continent, such as the collectivization of funds and resources on the basis of ‘Tontines’, as well as community accountability when harm is committed. During another conversation on transnational feminism, an African feminist participant shared with me that a robbery just happened in the village where she lives close to the Gambia river. The community not only mobilized to support the affected family, but furthermore engaged with the group towards accountability, and held collective meetings to further struggle for structural transformation with regard to mobilizations against poverty. Variations of community accountability and transformative justice are not limited to the US or parts of Europe, they are linked through the routes of abolition.

Cedric Robinson reminds us that transatlantic enslavement not only contained ‘cargoes of laborers’, but especially African cultures, concepts, practices, archives, and languages that shaped revolutions and resistances. Abolitionist practices and futures, that are red, green, and international, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues, continue to shape the routes from enslavement to colonialism to migration and border regimes, despite their different forms of production of surplus, in the current conjunctures of racial gendered capitalism. They also flow through the practices of caring for and with the world, as seen in grassroots groups such as the Wretched of the Earth in the UK, We are the Solution Campaign run by African women farmers and agricultural workers in Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, and Senegal, to the black youth climate activists in the black diaspora. They show that breathing is so much more than ventilation. It is the relational process that makes life possible, in many senses of the word.

Themes: Wounds of Ruptures, Spatial Claims

Methods: Counter-Cartography, Bordering


Fanon F. (1965) A Dying Colonialism. New York: Grove Press.

Fanon, F. (1967) Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

Gilmore, R.W. (2020) Contribution at Abolition on Stolen Land, UCLA Luskin, (last accessed 25.4.2022).

Robinson, C.J. (2000) Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill, N.C: The University of North Carolina Press.

Smythe, SA (2018) ‘The Black Mediterranean and the Politics of Imagination’, Middle Eastern Report, 3-9.

[i] For another piece on revolution, uprising and political protest, see: A FRAGMENTARY PROPOSAL TO TOPPLE THE STATUE OF NELSON MANDELA by Moad Musbahi

[ii] For another piece on bordering and violence, see: DEAD ON ARRIVAL by Sabine Mohamed

Vanessa E. Thompson is an Assistant Professor in Black Studies in the Department of Gender Studies at Queen’s University, Canada. Her research and teaching interests include black studies, critical racism and migration studies, anti-colonial thought, state violence (carceral geographies, especially policing), global abolition, transnational feminism and feminist activist ethnographies. She has published on blackness and black movements in France and Europe more broadly, Fanonian thought, and black abolitionist struggles and world-making. She coedited a special issue on 'Black Feminisms' in Femina Politica (2021), a special issue on 'Abolitionist Futures. Prefigurations beyond Violence' in Behemoth. A Journal on Civilisation (2021) and a coedited reader on abolition is forthcoming (2022). Vanessa is a member of the International Independent Commission on the Death of Oury Jalloh and organizes with abolitionist feminist collectives in Europe and globally.

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