Critical Resistance and Abolition in Practice: A Conversation with Premal Dharia
Blog by: Valencia Scott and Annalena Wolcke
Podcast Description: In this instalment of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Criminology Podcast, Master’s (MSc) student Valencia Scott meets with Premal Dharia to discuss her public defender work and commitment to abolition. What does it mean to practice abolition? What does it mean to apply an abolitionist framework to both your work and daily life? Check out this episode and listen to Premal share her views on the role public defenders play in the struggle for abolition and the relationship between abolition, honesty, and care in everyday life and work.
Click here to view a full transcript of the podcast recording.
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Premal Dharia is an abolitionist, public defender, and outspoken advocate against the many social and racial injustices of the criminal legal system. For this instalment of the Centre for Criminology’s new podcast series, Master’s student Valencia Scott had the privilege of speaking with Premal about how abolition has influenced her legal practice, political values, and personal identity as a woman of color.
Premal brings a depth of practical expertise to any conversation about the criminal legal system, especially when it comes to the injustices of the prison industrial complex. When speaking with Premal, it is clear that her work is equally as personal and political as it is legal. She is driven by a passion for change, re-imagination, growth, and radical honesty: all of which she identifies as core to her values as an abolitionist. Her extensive career in public defense has taken her from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland, all the way to Palestine and Guantanamo Bay. After years of working on the ground, she began to engage with systemic work as the Director of Litigation for the Civil Rights Corps and the founder of the Defender Impact Initiative. Now, as the Executive Director of Harvard Law School’s Institute to End Mass Incarceration, she continues to bring a unique and inspiring intersection of radical politics and creative vision. Her work aims to re-imagine the role of public defense as a step toward abolishing prisons and mitigating the harms of mass incarceration.
At the start of her career, when abolition and political analysis were foreign concepts in legal education, Premal credits her background in African American studies with helping her craft the political home she needed as a lawyer. There is a decades-long tradition of Black intellectual contributions to abolition, which shaped Premal’s approach to public defense as a political act. Premal references her early engagement with legacies of Black political rebellion and postcolonial resistance as key to helping her carve out a more radicalized and politicized space in the practice of law. She notes, “[...] as I started to read and understand more of these approaches [...] that don’t presume the existence of a system of harm or of its various parts—that really helped me understand my role, how I could maximize my role in challenging harm, and in making good change, real change.”
But what, exactly, is abolition?
Renowned scholar and carceral geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls abolition “[...] a movement to end systemic violence, including the interpersonal vulnerabilities and displacements that keep the system going.” Activists like Angela Davis identify the problem of “[...] how difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and their families [...] [because] [t]he prison is considered so natural and so normal that it is extremely hard to imagine life without them.” For legal scholars like James Forman Jr., abolition is an active practice of imagining a world without prisons, and working to build that world. For Premal, whose work is similarly guided by the politics of such scholars and activists, she believes abolition is also an active practice in radical honesty. There are many ways to live out the frameworks underpinning abolitionist values, but they all require being honest and real about the deep-seated harms perpetuated by the criminal legal system. Ultimately, it is about ‘looking under the hood’: “Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”
In working with a politicized understanding of the tensions living within the law, Premal has come to see the beauty of abolitionist thinking as always providing space for growth and re-imagination. Central to her analysis of abolition in public defense work is an understanding of legal rights and due process as reformist reforms. She identifies how rights and due process reforms often “provide political cover for the maintenance of a status quo grounded in the social forces that further inequity, while simultaneously offering an avenue for public defenders to represent individuals and mitigate systemic harms. Premal wrestles with these tensions daily, attributing this analysis as the work of critical resistance. In so doing, she acknowledges the importance of “[...] the work of so many organizers that have done this thinking and work for so long, that we can now—as lawyers, or as people working in all different fields—sort of take and learn from and apply to our own small pieces of this much bigger puzzle of work.”
In a field where women of color comprise just 9% of the legal profession, Premal reflects on her experiences in spaces that are not occupied or run by women or people of color. At the intersection of both her radical politics and identity as a woman of color, Premal has certainly faced her own set of challenges. She deeply understands what it means to navigate the dynamics of an under-representative legal field, attesting to the skills and insights that women of color have had to develop to survive. She also believes these insights are special:
“If you are not the most powerful person in the room, structurally, because of your race or your gender, you understand very well—for the most part—the power dynamics in the room. [...] I think people of color and women should be running things [...] and I think we should not take for granted that we have moved past any of those challenges culturally or as a society. And I think that we should be looking at the particular insights and skills that people who understand power potentially the most are bringing to the table.”
Like many women of color who are surviving and advocating in public defense roles, these insights are undoubtedly what have made Premal’s work so impactful over the course of her career. She continues to navigate her positionality at Harvard Law, exuding a sense of thoughtfulness, honesty, and compassion that is both refreshing and special to witness. Premal is committed to abolition as a daily interpersonal practice and hopes to carve out space for public defenders of the future to do the same.
So, what does abolition in practice mean?
For Premal, abolition in practice is an ongoing negotiation of her identity, politics, and practical work. Since stepping back from the courtroom to focus on advocating for systemic change, she has spent time reflecting on how to impact lawyers moving forward. She is finding ways to push for public defender practices that consider politicized and radicalized analyses, but she also reflects on abolition as a personal commitment to introspection and self-compassion: “I will be better for the world if I can show up for myself.”
Premal’s experiences supporting communities through life-altering and often unjust adjudicative processes have only solidified her commitment to influencing a future generation of abolitionist lawyers. “Once you see what we’re doing to families, what we’re doing to people, and when you see that even more transparently as part of a broader conflation of political and social forces as opposed to some sort of slogan about public safety, or façade about accountability, once you actually see what’s going on and why, it’s all completely unpalatable,” she comments.
According to Premal, it all comes down to questioning your role in the system, with challenging power dynamics, and with a continuous, honest commitment to learning. The question is simple: “How are you going to deploy-that clear-eyed vision, that sort of under-the-hood transparency that you’ve seen?” Whether it’s being a public defender, parent, or friend, Premal believes the root of abolition is about how you choose to deploy that vision in your everyday life and relationships with others.
For more information about Premal Dharia, you can visit her bio page on the Harvard Law School Website: https://hls.harvard.edu/faculty/directory/12100/Dharia
For more information about Harvard Law School’s Institute to End Mass Incarceration, you can visit institute’s webpage: https://endmassincarceration.org
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):V. Scott and A. Wolcke. (2022) Critical Resistance and Abolition in Practice: A Conversation with Premal Dharia. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/centre-criminology-blog/blog-post/2022/09/critical-resistance-and-abolition-practice-conversation. Accessed on: 02/03/2024