An Unbroken Tempo: The Modern-Day Abolitionists Fighting to End the Exception (Part 1)
Happy Juneteenth everyone! Before we get into this month’s blog post, we would like to take a moment to acknowledge the complex and emotional history behind Juneteenth.
As one of the interviewees Kamau Allen explains, slavery has never been truly eradicated- it is a rhythm that has beat steadily on since 1865 in the form of an exception in the 13th amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, EXCEPT AS A PUNISHMENT FOR A CRIME WHEREOF THE PARTY SHALL HAVE BEEN DULY CONVICTED, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Juneteenth is a time to celebrate the freedom of the Black community from chattel slavery; but it also a time of mourning, healing, and reflection. Slavery continues to exist in the United States today through mass incarceration and other discriminatory systems. Systemic racism is a foundation of our government, and it has yet to be fully eradicated. The white supremacist patriarchy is a poison that continues to infect every corner of this nation.
That is why we feel that June’s blog post is so important, and represents a vital part of the conversation on systemic racism and white supremacy. This month, we spoke with two leaders of one of our fiscal projects, Abolish Slavery National Network (ASNN). Learn more about ASNN by visiting their website AbolishSlavery.us.
Nathan Woodliff-Stanley is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and former director of the ACLU of Colorado for eight years. He lived in Colorado for most of 20 years, during which time he fought to pass Amendment T to remove the Exception Clause allowing slavery and involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime from of the state Constitution in Colorado. When Amendment T was defeated in 2016, he later worked with Kamau Allen to pass Amendment A, which had the same goal. Amendment A passed in 2018, making Colorado the first state to fully abolish slavery and involuntary servitude from its constitution. He currently lives in South Carolina and is the director of finance for ASNN.
Kamau Allen, originally born Clarence Allen III in Denver, CO, comes from “a long line of folks who both fought and fled, resisted and endured a lot.” His family fled Louisiana for Los Angeles to escape the horrors of chattel slavery, sharecropping, and racial terror lynchings. Despite this move, his family continues to face racially-motivated hardships, including mass incarceration, the “new iteration of slavery that we’re fighting today.” Out of respect for and in honor of his ancestors and elders before him, he joined the abolitionist movement in 2018 and worked as a community organizer for Together Colorado. Together with Nathan Woodliff-Stanley and other activists, he worked to abolish slavery from the Colorado State Constitution through the ballot measure initiative Amendment A. He is currently the lead organizer of ASNN in Colorado.
This interview took place on May 18, 2022. Kamau and Nathan would like to acknowledge Max Parthas, Savannah Eldridge, Jamilia Land, Dennis Febo, Sarah Chase, Bianca Tylek, and all of the other organizers that make ASNN’s work possible.
Emma Buchman (Digital Content Director, MO Foundation):
Well, I’m honored to get to speak to you. The main reason why Esther [Pang] and I wanted to do an interview with you guys is to investigate more of what it means to be a modern abolitionist, because those terms are thrown around a lot [in] media and on social media. Of course we understand it in the historical context, but it has its own meaning in the present context. So we wanted to speak to actual modern abolitionists and ask, what does it mean to you to be a modern abolitionist?
Kamau Allen (Lead Organizer, Colorado, ASNN):
That’s a real powerful question; Nathan, I don’t know if you wanna jump in first, or…?
Nathan Woodliff-Stanley (Finance Director, South Carolina, ASNN):
I’ll say a couple things. One is, people do use that term to mean some different things. There are people who talk about modern day slavery in terms of human trafficking and labor practices and things like that. Those are serious concerns, but there’s a very specific piece of it that is our focus, and that is slavery and involuntary servitude allowed by the constitution. The Constitution did not actually completely abolish slavery and involuntary servitude. It is allowed as a punishment for crime, and that Exception Clause, that loophole, has been exploited over many years and it continues to be exploited today. You know, most people don’t even realize that that exception is even there. And so, when we’re talking about being modern day abolitionists in this context, in what we’re doing at ASNN, it’s trying to do what abolitionists were trying to do 150 years ago, and actually change the Constitution to no longer allow slavery and involuntary servitude.
That’s still only a step in the process, there’s more that would have to happen to actually implement that, to make the changes on the ground, but it’s a necessary step in the process. And that’s the one that we’re working [on].
Nathan, I couldn’t have said that part any better myself. I feel that being an abolitionist today requires a certain mindfulness about history, and about how things got to where they are today.
At ASNN, and among other slavery abolitionists today, we see this loophole, this constitutional exception as the undergirding of multiple different systems that different activists and organizers are trying to abolish today. To Nathan’s point, you’ve heard a lot about, you know, police abolition, and prison abolition, and the abolition of bail, and all these other things. And we are in full support of those extensions of [the] abolition movement.
But at the core of it is this thing that has gone unbroken since our country’s founding. It’s like a steady drum beat that hasn’t ever broken its tempo. Slavery was never abolished, it was simply reformed, especially through convict leasing, especially through the expansion of share cropping, all the way into our modern era: war on drugs, mass incarceration. So we believe that, in a sense, abolishing the plantation is not enough. Slavery is an institution. It is as much as a real institution as it is an American ideology: the belief that you deserve to be put into bondage, you deserve to be flogged. If you decide not to work, you deserve to have your earned time taken away. You deserve to not get paid but, maybe, pennies on the hour.
It is a hierarchy that in some ways exceeds its own costs; like, to actually pick cotton by hand in the state of Texas, for example, doesn’t always make sense economically when you can do that through machines and through modern methods… But through this system of slavery, there’s the annihilation of a person’s spirit, too. The cruelty is the point. The hierarchy is the point. In a lot of ways, the expenses are the point.
So abolishing prisons is not enough, abolishing the police is not enough, when that unbroken, ongoing institution is still able to exist. So we believe that removing this constitutional loophole will open up the doors for so many possibilities.
Thank you so much for those answers. That really helped me to understand that fully. I just wanna ask, have you guys heard of the book, The Duke of York? It was written by an author local to Maryland, who was basically saying exactly what you just said, Kamau, which is that slavery was created to be a white supremist [system]. And in fact, it was designed to be cruel in order to perpetuate that system. Just another book to throw out there, I’m sure that you have shelves of books that you need to read!
Yeah. I’m still gonna put it on my list.
But the whole connectedness that you were expressing, I think that’s a goal of a lot of grassroots organizations now, especially anti-racist ones. As you were mentioning the historical aspects of it, I wanted to touch on that a little bit more. I did wanna dig a little bit deeper into what you would say are the major similarities and differences between today’s abolitionist movement and the abolitionist movement of the 19th century.
You know, I honestly believe that it’s not just similar, but it is the same movement, though 150 years apart.
And the reason why I say that is because this side of that abolition movement is taking care of unfinished business that was never rectified. You know, it’s interesting, I have kind of a similar take on the Civil Rights Movement of 50 years ago and the Civil Rights Movement of today being, really, the same movement.
Now, there are some remarkable differences, of course. What the abolitionists 150 years ago really did achieve really solidly was the abolition of chattel slavery which, in my opinion, was one of the most horrible forms of enslavement that was ever created. Every form of enslavement is horrible, but chattel slavery had a way of reducing a human being, not just to a level of privately owned property, but also, you know…
Anyway, I would say that there are some remarkable similarities, though. Every iteration of this abolitionist movement has been a cross-racial movement, cross-racial solidarity. We saw that back then: it was not just my ancestors fighting on the plantation, fighting by running away; but what you also saw was a lot of white allies that were equally dedicated in their conviction, their belief that slavery was an immoral stain on our society.
Other similarities: especially now, we’re beginning to see more cross-institutional organizing. So, just as the Underground Railroad had coordinated with, for example, Harriet Tubman and actually getting on the ground in the plantation, getting people out, you’re beginning to see, for example, organizers from the outside working with organizers who are currently incarcerated, actually doing that cross-institutional organizing. You especially saw that with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, when they coordinated what was the largest prison boycott, actually [at] the same time as Amendment A, 2018. It was the largest inside-prison boycott from coast to coast in 2018… So cross-institutional organizing is definitely a really big piece of this.
The belief in the conviction of slavery abolition is obviously front and center, but I would say that those are two of the biggest similarities I’ve noticed. Nathan, I don’t know what you’ve noticed in terms of these movements, but…
Well, it’s certainly all connected, I mean, there’s a long historical connection. I think the biggest difference is that everyone knew that slavery existed when, in the original abolition movement, no one was denying that there was slavery. I think that the thing that we’re up against now is a large number of people don’t think there’s a problem. Well, there were people then who didn’t think it was a problem [too], but they didn’t deny that slavery existed. And today, if you tell people that the Constitution still allows slavery and involuntary servitude, most people say, “…what?” They don’t even get it.
So, we’re having to clarify what the problem even is for people to work against. It’s less visible. It’s more invisible to a lot of the population, at least a lot of the white population, today than it was originally.
Yeah, that makes sense, because the white population has the privilege of not having to think about it. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I knew about the exception in the 13th Amendment, right? I was like, “Are you kidding me? Like, it’s just right there. You can see it so clearly…”
Yeah, just gloss right over it as if it weren’t there.
How did you get involved in the modern abolitionist movement?
It’s a long process. For me it goes back to the 90s – a friend of ours, good friends of ours in Mississippi whose son was shot and killed by police, and there was no justice for it. And… it was something that… it shook us, you know, to realize, personally, how much that happens. In Denver, in addition to some other friends of ours who have a son who is incarcerated and heard things about the system from that, we both got involved after Michael Brown and Ferguson, which was, you know, the wave before George Floyd, the wave of activism around that. It was really through involvement with Black Lives Matter 5280 in Denver… Another friend of ours, Jumoke Emory, made the suggestion in a Black Lives Matter meeting that we should take out the Exception Clause in the Colorado Constitution. And I think a lot of us thought, “Oh, that’s not gonna happen.” But that led to the effort in 2016 [with] Amendment T to try to do that.
You experience things and it changes how you look at things. The first time I was ever followed by the police was driving home from a Black Lives Matter meeting. And I realized, “Oh, you know, this is what my Black friends, they experience [this] all the time, and I don’t. And this is something to learn from.”
We had that whole effort in 2016. I think the biggest problem with that one was the way it was labeled. I actually think there’s people in the legislature who ended up undermining it by the title that it was given, which was, “End Exception to Involuntary Servitude Prohibition.” That was the title on the ballot. You have to think about it, like it’s a triple negative. What are you voting for or against? And when people are confused, they don’t vote on things. It was a very, very close vote. It was just a fraction of a percent difference, but it didn’t pass.
But instead of giving up, Kamau and the Together Colorado organizers came back two years later [and] got it, with bipartisan support, back on the ballot again. And that time, it won by a 2 to 1 margin. The name of it was “Abolish Slavery in All Circumstances.” Isn’t that a lot more clear? So language matters. That’s one of the things that we learned: how you talk about it does matter.
At the time that I started at the ACLU, that’s when I read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, and you learn and then you actually experience what’s going on in prisons, from the work that we were doing, and all of the systems that disenfranchise and oppress, especially people of color. It’s not skyrocketing in the same way it was at one time, but we still incarcerate more people than any other country in the world. And, why? I don’t think it’s because we have the most criminal people in the world. I think there has to be something else at work, and that something else is racism rooted in this long history.
Man, the story of how we get involved in this work is a part of that story of evolution. In some ways, in some form or fashion, we’re all touched by this system. Whether you lose a loved one to police violence the way that Nathan and his friend had, or you lose a loved one to incarceration, or you’re incarcerated yourself, or you just… Our stories are not detached from each other. That’s how big this is.
I almost kind of see it like a tree, you know? Even though one branch is all over here and another branch is all the way over here, our stories are still connected through this tragedy. I didn’t get involved in abolition work until after I was able to pull some of these pieces together myself.
I remember in 2013, I went back to Los Angeles for a funeral, my auntie’s funeral. And I met a man who was extremely short, just really, really short. I didn’t know people in my family could be that short, actually! He kind of looked like my mom in the face; but when he talked, he sounded like Louisiana. So I knew he was a Louisiana family member, but I just didn’t know who he was. Just, dressed sharp as a tack. Eventually my mom walked over and introduced him and said, “Hey, this is your great-Uncle Joe.”
And that’s when it all clicked for me. I was like, “Oh, I’ve heard stories about Uncle Joe. I’ve heard stories about Uncle Joe when the family moved from Shreveport to Los Angeles, how he helped to run the family business, how he was really the last surviving member of the family that can remember my mom when she was a little girl.” And Uncle Joe was just released from prison a few months before that. And the only reason why he was released was because the California Supreme Court, I think just the year before that, had deemed [that] the overcrowding in prisons was unconstitutional and inhumane. And so they started to release all the “undesirable” prisoners who couldn’t work anymore, who were too sick or too old or unable to maintain the physical labor that their bodies were demanded to do.
And so my great-Uncle Joe, at 72 years old, was released. And that’s when I started to learn more about the system that kept him. I’ve had family members that went to prison and when they come back, you don’t always hear stories about what happened while they were inside, you’re just happy that they’re back.
But he was really open about sharing what happened to him- about how he was put in solitary confinement for refusing to do hard labor, or how he was oftentimes beaten for doing the same. And when he did choose to work, and they offer it as a “choice,” but when you’re in bondage, there is no choice, he was only given a couple of cents an hour, depending on the job.
And as he was talking, I just, in my mind, I kept thinking to myself, “This sounds like slavery, this sounds like slavery,” but as a Black person growing up in this country, you could only say that behind closed doors, otherwise you sound crazy in your workplace to say, “Oh, a prison is a slave system.” You sound like you’re out of your mind, or you sound like you’re exaggerating, or you’re just being hyperbolic or, you know, whatever, it’s all in your mind.
That’s the other thing about being Black in this country is it’s a gaslighting process. But I felt it in my heart, you know, that this is slavery, this is slavery. It just sounds like it. And I got involved in deeper organizing work that wasn’t immediately about abolition. I went to Ferguson, I went to Baltimore, started doing police accountability work. But then, while I was living in D.C., I heard about this Amendment T thing that went down. I thought, “Okay, we’re abolishing slavery. Surely two things are gonna happen in this election. Surely we’re gonna beat Donald Trump. And then surely we’re going to abolish slavery.” ‘Cause who wouldn’t wanna do that?
But after the election, we woke up to two very sore realities. We woke up to the fact that my home state, our home state, voted, essentially, to keep slavery in the Constitution. Though… to Nathan’s point, it was because of the way that it was worded and the way it was messaged had a really big impact. But that was heartbreaking. That was a moment of grief, you know, that swept the country with Donald Trump’s election. And then that added grief that, well, where are we in this country if slavery is still, first of all, in the Constitution, and then voters voted to keep it?
Anyway, I joined Together Colorado as a community organizer that following year in 2017, after I graduated from Howard [University], came back to Denver. And through my involvement in Together Colorado, I was the staff person who was put on that campaign following other staff members who had come before me. So Nathan mentioned Jumoke Emory, who brought this issue up with Black Lives Matter 5280. He brought it up partially because he was falsely arrested at gunpoint. He was put in jail for three days? Or two days?
I think it may have just been one full day, but… he didn’t need to be there.
And he was arrested right outside of the Together Colorado office, like right there on, I think it was right on Montview [Boulevard]. He could tell his story far better than either Nathan or I can, but he felt that… That tree that I talked about? He felt his place on that tree. And he wanted to do something about it.
And there are other staff members, Rashaan Bliss who was also with Together Colorado, when he transitioned out, I was able to step in about midway through the Amendment A campaign. And so it was a passing of the baton and that’s how we got involved. And then after the victory of Amendment A, we started getting a lot of different phone calls, a lot of different press.
What [our predecessors] found out through Amendment T, what we found out through Amendment A, was that no other state had done this before; that Colorado was the first state to abolish both slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. So not only has this loophole been going on for so long, but it’s been going on unchallenged for that long too. And other organizers from different states wanted to know, “How did you message this? What resources did you use? What challenges did you face? What opponents did you have or allies did you have?”
And about a year and a half had passed before we decided to get everybody on the call at the same time, from California to New Jersey, South Carolina, Utah, Nebraska. Abolish Slavery National Network started as an experiment: let’s see what happens if we get all these people on the call at the same time.
And then something magical happened: we became a team. We became a group dedicated to doing something that, to our knowledge, no other organization was doing in this way, bringing together all these different campaigns. And that’s where we are now.
I love that! ‘Cause you’d never expect that to happen… Activists, I think, have so many one-off meetings, looking for places that’ll stick and when it does, it’s just like you said, magical.