To Build a Future Without Police and Prisons, We Have to Imagine It First

A strain of science fiction called visionary fiction empowers activists, artists, and organizers to seed a better future

Science fiction is still regarded as the province of space opera and high technologies run amok — but at its best, it shines a light on the problems and possibilities of our world as it is. Visionary fiction, a practice developed by Walidah Imarisha, author and editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, goes a step further, and actively asks practitioners to build better futures from the ground up. (We’re also publishing Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild, a prime example and inspiration for the form, in its entirety.) Given the rise of the police abolition movement and the fraught state of American democracy, it’s an opportune time to examine the importance — and techniques — of conceiving, constructing, and organizing better futures. At OneZero, we’re always interested in probing how such deep thinking about the future helps engender tangible change. This story by Imarisha explains why we need visionary thinking now more than ever.

I have been a prison abolitionist for almost 20 years. I have held firm to the belief that prisons, policing, and all parts of the carceral system have made us less safe, less free, and less human. That we can create community-based institutions to address harm and hold people accountable that focus on healing, transformation, and wholeness, rather than punishment and control. This is also why, for 10 years, I have created, nurtured, and taught a practice called visionary fiction — a means of imagining better, more just futures and then doing the work of building them into reality — and why I hope we will embrace it today.

A lifelong nerd, I began to see that not only could science and speculative fiction co-exist with social change, but they were intricately connected. I recognized the need for spaces, both real-world and digital, that allow us to imagine beyond the limits of what we are told is possible if we are to build liberated futures. I used the term “visionary fiction” for the first time in a 2010 issue of Left Turn magazine, where I guest-edited a section called “Other Worlds Are Possible.” Visionary fiction is fundamentally concerned with how we reshape this world: It’s an all-encompassing term for any fantastical art (speculative fiction, horror, magical realism, fantasy, etc.) that might aid in creating social change, and as a way to differentiate between more mainstream science fiction that most often reproduces reactionary or dominant society politics.

Visionary fiction is not utopian. It does not imagine perfect societies, because, while utopias can be useful as thought experiments, we know there are no true utopias, or for that matter, dystopias, in reality. As visionary fiction writer Octavia E. Butler once said, “I find utopias ridiculous. We’re not going to have a perfect society until we get a few perfect humans, and that seems unlikely.” Conversely, as long as even one person can imagine something different, there are no true dystopias, because the possibility for change is ever-present. Instead, visionary fiction is any fantastical art that helps us to understand existing power structures, and supports us in imagining ways to build more just futures.

To do that, visionary fiction demands us to be unrealistic in our visions of the future because all real substantive social change has been considered to be unrealistic at the time people fought for it — until those people changed the world to make it happen. With visionary fiction, we start with the question, What is the world we want? rather than What is a win that is possible and realistic?

We can’t build what we can’t imagine, so it is imperative for us to create spaces that allow us to infinitely stretch our understanding of what’s possible. Famed sci-fi/fantasy writer and thinker Ursula K. Le Guin said in her 2014 National Book Award acceptance speech, “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.” This is why visionary fiction and other imaginative spaces are key to true liberatory change — because we must be able to imagine something different before we can build it, and we have lived all of our lives within systems that tell us radical change is an impossibility.

Visionary fiction pairs perfectly with the abolition movement, as we have all grown up in a society that has told us society would collapse without police and prisons. The idea that a prison and police-free society might not only be possible, but flourish has been mostly absent from mainstream discourse — even as it has been held and nurtured and explored by so many, especially Black women and trans folks of color. It was considered a fantastical idea that belonged in the realm of science fiction, not in reality.

And then everything changed.

In 2020, we saw a new wave of Black Lives Matter protests rise up across the nation, this time centered in the framework of “Defund the police.” The question of what that meant, exactly, quickly arose, along with a host of responses that ranged from surface reform to radical transformation of abolition. City councils across the country voted to reduce, in some cases by millions of dollars, police budgets and redirect those resources to communities of color. And yet protests continue in the streets, folks organized online, demanding more. Protesters and organizers challenged the foundations of the institution of policing itself, and said that abolition, and reinvesting those funds into marginalized and oppressed communities, is the real justice we are demanding for those murdered by police.

Minneapolis was the epicenter of this iteration of the BLM movement. Why Minneapolis? Because of all the police reforms of the past that changed nothing. Folks realized the issue is systemic, not surface. Minneapolis and other cities had done everything possible under reform, and the issue had not fundamentally changed.

So it was time to do the “impossible.”

I watched in amazement as activists successfully called for the defunding and redistribution of the entire Minneapolis PD budget, seeing the stuff of futuristic science fiction quickly become our lived reality and part of our political landscape. The fact that it was happening in the midst of a global pandemic blended the horror with the visionary. And while Minneapolis’ City Council is now backtracking on their original commitment, it does not take away from the abolitionist organizing and protests that continue unabated till today.

While it may feel like we warped into the future, this moment and this movement did not arise out of nowhere. It came from decades of folks who have been imagining, dreaming, writing, and organizing for something they were told again and again was impossible. Until suddenly it was not only possible — it felt almost inevitable.

This is why we must dream beyond what we are told is possible or realistic. Because we have the power collectively to change what is possible, to lay strong foundations so that when a moment like this arises, we are ready to take advantage of it. Folks like Angela Davis and Ruthie Gilmore and INCITE organization and Mariame Kaba and the Black Panther Party and countless others held this work for decades until we as a whole were ready for it.

Police abolition has been held for generations and centuries for and by Black people especially. From enslaved Black folks being told freedom, and an end to chattel slavery, was an impossibility, down to the civil rights era and the Black liberation era, the Black freedom struggle has always understood that true liberation for us would always be framed as science fiction by the mainstream.

Even the phrase “Black lives matter” is visionary fiction, and a gift to us from the three Black women/femmes, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, who coined it, and the countless others who have breathed and continue to breathe life into it. A few years ago BLM put out a call to answer the prompt, “in a world where Black lives matter, I imagine…” an immense gift to make concrete our imaginings, so they are not just vague ether but tangible things we can see and embody and fight for. That prompt made explicit that all of it was visionary fiction in action.

This is the challenge of true liberatory movements — we critique and fight against what exists, but we take on the responsibility of stretching beyond the now, beyond what we have seen and felt and heard, to root in a shared vision of true liberation. And then we do the work of building that into existence.

In 2015, I co-edited Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, along with adrienne maree brown. It is a collection named in honor of sci-fi writer Octavia E. Butler, and it contains visionary fiction short stories written by organizers, activists, and changemakers. adrienne and I reached out to folks — many of whom had not written fiction, let alone science fiction — who were holding the visions of the future we longed for.

We knew they would create compelling and rich worlds that would help us build better futures because the premise for Octavia’s Brood is that all organizing is science fiction. Every time we imagine a world without prisons, without police, without borders, without oppressions, that’s sci-fi—because we’ve never seen it in our reality. But we can’t build what we can’t imagine, so we absolutely need imaginative spaces like sci-fi that allow us to dream.

During the pandemic, we have continued holding visionary events and workshops virtually, adapting the in-person interactions for our current remote age. One example is a presentation and conversation I called Better Futures: Visioning in a Time of Crisis, which left space for those attending, around 500 people, to collectively vision a poem about what a liberated world will be like.

This is the time to be unrealistic in our demands for change. We are told repeatedly we need to be realistic, but that is just another method of social control. We are told true liberation is an impossible dream by the powers that be, over and over again, because us believing that it is an impossible dream is the only thing between here and the new, just futures we want.

The more scared we are, the more in crisis, the more we are told to pull back. But this is the time when anything and everything can change. Let our imaginations grow as large as galaxies.

And then we have to do the work of building those freedom ideations into existence. It is not enough to just dream and envision, we have to roll up our sleeves and dig in. My co-editor adrienne’s work on emergent strategy, for example, is a vision for organizing that focuses on adaptation and creativity and imagination, is connected to the concept of visionary fiction — you could say the ideas grew up together. One of the principles she discusses is being generative, creating more possibilities and entry points.

Every successful movement for social change has used a diversity of tactics and strategies. One of the ways movements are made to fail is that they are pressed into fighting each other over what is the “right” way to struggle and to create change. We cannot allow the very people we are fighting to decide what is a “good” protester or a “bad” protester, what the acceptable avenues for change are, how we reshape the world. When we are rooted in a shared vision and shared principles and values, there is space for all our imaginings. We live in a quantum multiverse, where everything that can happen does/has/will, where time is not linear and exists layered upon itself. So how do we engage in quantum organizing that roots in the abundance of futures and presents?

There is an absolute necessity in looking historically, presently, and futuristically for rebellion, for radical struggle, and most of all for unity.

If we embrace all of this, we can change the world. We know this because we have already done it. To everyone who has been in the streets, who has struggled on every level, you have already changed the world. Every generation born after this one will see abolition of police and carceral systems as a real, viable option. It may be maligned and degraded, but it will be debated as a real possibility, not as the stuff of fantasy.

That is a huge cultural shift, and a win. We must remember that as we continue to struggle for institutional and systemic change because all of those struggles are connected and important. In the moment, when our focus is explicitly on abolishing the police, we may lose sight of this. Even if we don’t win everything we want now, we are still winning. Cultural critic and author Jeff Chang has said we often focus on political change, on events when discussing change, but that cultural shifts are key to real systemic transformational change, and that culture is the purview of artists: “Cultural change always precedes political change.”

It is not an either/or. Again, part of visionary fiction and visionary organizing is embracing a quantum framework and recognizing the multiplicities of our movements. There is room for us to celebrate movement forward even as we work harder to create the futures of our dreams.

I was lucky enough to be part of a new Black multimedia abolitionist sci-fi anthology called Memories of Abolition Day, put out by Wakanda Dream Lab and PolicyLink. This radical worldbuilding project embodies that notion of Black liberation and quantum organizing both in content and process. In June, a group of Black creators assembled remotely during a global pandemic and collectively imagined an abolitionist world. Then we each wrote a story within that world. We ended up with a timeline that spans 500 years of abolition, moving from when the last prison closes (Abolition Day) to accountability processes, to transformative justice through contact with aliens. The communities in our stories are constantly reimagining abolition because abolition is not just the absence or end of police and prisons, it is the creation of a truly just society. Abolition and liberation are processes, not destinations, and there is room for all of our imaginings and creativity.

The stories in Memories of Abolition Day are laid out in a nonlinear order, which allows the reader to see change as fluid and in motion. It also highlights the fallacy of constant linear time. But after six months of lockdown, most of us already know that time can stretch out infinitely, that days can repeat, that the future and the past can exist simultaneously with the present.

We need that understanding when we talk about building better tomorrows because often social change is framed as something that is too far away for us to touch, something we will never experience in our lifetime. But the liberated futures we want don’t exist as untouchable distant points out of our reach. When we focus on collective action, mutual aid, self-determination, and centering the leadership of the marginalized, we live the change we want and we defy linear time. We pull those liberated futures into the present.

That is what this Black-led, Black-dreamed movement is during right now. Even in the midst of brutal anti-Blackness and continuing Black death, Black people are breathing liberated futures, breathing visionary fiction, out with each exhale. This is a hard time, full of grief and pain and anxiety, but oppressed people have always alchemized grief into action, loss into light, trauma into triumph. So let’s keep pulling liberated futures into the present over and over again until we reach the day when that’s all there is.

A visionary fiction prompt for 2020

As part of my work with Octavia’s Brood, I have worked with many wonderful folks, especially Octavia’s Brood writer Morrigan Phillips and my co-editor adrienne, to develop visionary fiction workshops and prompts. A large part of our goal with the anthology is to create spaces where others can engage in collective imagining and dreaming because the future is not the purview of the powerful but belongs to us all. And imagination is a practice, just as Mariame Kaba says that hope is a discipline.

We must practice, joyfully and even playfully, imagining what lies beyond the event horizon society has embedded in our minds.

So try this: Imagine it’s 50 years in the future, and social justice movements have continued winning and advancing liberation. What would your life be like? What would your everyday routine be? You could write out your daily schedule, you could write a journal entry from the year 2070. You could write a letter to a loved one talking about the changes that have occurred over your life.

Writer, public scholar, educator. Co-editor of Octavia’s Brood and author of Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison & Redemption.

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