Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

Provocations on Abolition, Democratic Politics, and Digital Technologies

This is a short excerpt from the monograph-in-progress Movement Media: Racial Solidarities Across Platforms adapted for online publication.


By Rachel Kuo
Assistant Professor of Media and Cinema Studies, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

At what point does racism become a crisis to the state? Our present-day reckonings with white supremacist violence cannot take up the same tools and tactics that have historically criminalized and policed communities of color. Nor can we continue to ignore that our present-day democracy is historically built on foundations that necessitate the death, disposability, displacement, and exclusion of racialized communities.

On January 6, 2021, white nationalists and supporters of Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol. Notably, the siege of the Capitol becomes a moment that defines national crisis around white supremacy, making it matter as a state issue of political consequence. The incidents of the Capitol insurrection have much to bear on the future of U.S. democracy. However, much of the national discourse, largely framed by the Department of Homeland Security and extended into public debate, has framed these events as a “domestic terrorist attack” on the Capitol. One year later, in January 2022, the Justice Department announced the creation of a new domestic terrorism unit to counter threats by “violent extremists”, particularly to address the dangers of racially-motivated extremism. The unit was created due to the concern that the government has over-allocated attention and resources on foreign terrorism rather than “homegrown threats” and the perception that there aren’t enough law enforcement resources for the rapidly growing number of investigations on incidents of domestic extremism. More budget was allocated to increase police presence at the Capitol. The January 6 commission, in addition to investigating the attacks, also has the prescriptive goal of identifying ways to detect, prevent and prepare against future acts of targeted violence and “domestic terrorism” to improve the Capitol’s security.

This is particularly concerning given the legacies of framing racial justice movements as domestic threats, including COINTELPRO surveillance in the 60s; the PATRIOT Act after 9/11; and the FBI’s creation of the “Black Identity Extremist (BIE)” category. The legitimization of carceral violence through national securitization models, including the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (which tethers together militarized anti-immigration and anti-terrorism initiatives), occurs as a means to “defend” and protect the U.S. as nation and ideals of so-called American democracy.

Additionally, in recent years, online platforms have poured millions of dollars into research, development, and innovation towards countering “online violence, extremism, and hate”—yet without an explicit critique and politics against carceral systems as existing forms of structural violence, these initiatives continue to collude with and expand police and military practices. For example, in 2021, a platform for community management against online abuse launched by Sentropy essentially replicates community policing models like Neighborhood Watch (and is funded by Next Door). Jigsaw, formerly Google Ideas, partners with Moonshot CVE, and applies the same profiling logic for catching “jihadhi terrorists” to catching white supremacists.

Many of these initiatives emerged in the wake of the summer 2020 uprisings against police violence and mass incarceration where technology companies, state actors, and institutions made public statements and promises to superficially re-commit to racial justice, and more specifically to the safety and welfare of Black communities. While these protests re-catalyzed widespread public interest in challenging and dismantling policing and carceral technologies, these forms of innovation continue to legitimize law enforcement and military solutions in the name of ‘security’.

National security culture is the means in which the state defends and secures itself in the name of social order through a “mass proliferation of insecurity. Additionally, in the U.S., these mechanisms also defend and secure white nationhood, where white national culture and citizenship is protected and reinforced through state logics of exclusion and elimination, as well as inclusion.

Thus, national security culture is also what Chandan Reddy (2011) terms as “freedom with violence”, secured with the high cost of racialized violence through policing and militarism. Such violences become rationalized and legitimated through production of imagined internal and external threats. U.S. exceptionalism also produces an image of “American culture” as a “democratic terrain” where everyone has equal access and representation. However, as Lisa Lowe (1996) writes, this “simultaneously mask[s] the existence of exclusions by recuperating dissent, conflict, and otherness through the promise of inclusion”. In other words, violences are obfuscated via state developmental narratives of inclusion.                                         

The notion that our democracy has somehow lost its way after the 2016 election of Donald Trump or due to technologically induced political polarization, mis- and disinformation, and algorithmic bias is misguided.

While conservative ideologies and white supremacy are mainstreamed and spread by right-wing forces and media ecosystems, they also take flight under the guise of presumably progressive politics. For example, preventing white supremacy through domestic terrorism initiatives; supposedly “stopping Asian hate” through hate crimes legislation; proposing so-called “gender responsive” or feminist jails; making police practices more “accountable”, “fair”, and  “transparent”; or addressing human rights abuses through military intervention—these offer up the rationale that somehow there exists a socially just motivation to expand systems of policing and punishment.

These initiatives have emerged from nonprofits, academic research centers, civil society groups, philanthropic foundations, and other entities that supposedly advocate for progressive agendas and promote democratic values and racial justice. Such a contradiction arises from lacking political alignment around freedom from violence versus freedom through violence.

We cannot limit our political imaginations on progress to “defending” democracy and equity through carceral means. There are no quick state-based and technological solutions to fix and reform racism and white supremacy. The creation of new categories of criminalization and the uses of police practices to solve social problems is one deeply entrenched in racist ideologies. The bipartisan appeal of carceral solutions and shared investment in the carceral state by political elites and institutions is precisely because they reify existing formations of power.

These carceral tools and systems will not give us safety, and we must be willing to let go of the systems and institutions that do not work for us.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines crisisas instability that can be fixed only through radical measures, which includes developing new relationships and new or renovated institutions of what already exists.” In other words, crisis is change determined through struggle.

Perhaps, we can think about how we rebuild progressive left movements in atmospheres of instability. Organizing is about changing relationships between people and their relationships with systems.

What new forms of collective resistance can emerge to address challenges to our democracy in the face of state violence? How might we think about sites of collective political work where people strengthen relationships, develop mutual trust, and negotiate political principles and values? What other democratic processes can we look to that instead provide the connective tissue for building solidarities and navigate racial politics across differences?

Read related work

Technological and computational means for monitoring abuse and hate online expand the state’s capacity for violence and legitimize law enforcement strategies in responding to harm––or, carceral content moderation. On the history of transposition between police practice and platform governance and alternative approaches to online safety, read Sarah T. Hamid and Rachel Kuo (2022) “Towards Collective Safety: Transformative Methodologies.” First Monday: Special Issue on Online Harm and Abuse, Pre-print September 7.

Violence permeates laterally across collaborative formations who are trying to dismantle oppressive systems. How do we form networks at the scale of relationships that also allow for the possibilities of failure, dissolution, and rupture? On designing for democratic movements and anticipating endings and exits read Rachel Kuo, Mon Mohapatra, and Rigoberto Guzmán (2021) “Lateral Violences: Speculating Exit Strategies Within Movements (A Concept Note).” ACM Interactions 28, November-December.

Processes of digital organizing offer a means to articulate Asian America as a political formation through navigating uneven social differences. On the tensions, communal processes, and narrative frameworks behind producing collective racial politics across differences through a case of feminist digital media-making in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, read Rachel Kuo, Amy Zhang, Vivian Shaw, and Cynthia Wang (2021) “#FeministAntibodies: Asian American Media in the Time of Coronavirus.” Social Media + Society.