A few weeks ago, a crowd of literary types gathered in the basement bar at New York’s Ace Hotel for the launch of Christopher Soto’s debut poetry collection, Diaries of a Terrorist. It kicked off with readings from Soto and his friends — novelist Ryan Lee Wong and poet Ocean Vuong — followed by an intimate discussion that ranged from the intersection of Buddhism and abolition to the power of interracial solidarity in the abolitionist movement to the voice-memo texts between Soto and Vuong. This was my introduction to Christopher Soto, an educator, a researcher, a survivor of domestic violence, and above all a queer abolitionist activist who co-founded the Undocupoets Campaign and the Writers for Migrant Justice Campaign, and organized with UCLA’s Cops Off Campus movement: expressions of love and activism via poetry and conversation.
In Diaries of a Terrorist, Soto tackles policing at every level, questioning who gets called “terrorist” and what gets called “public safety.” It’s a visceral reading experience that explores Soto’s own traumas as well as the societal trauma of carceral systems. Which may sound overwhelming and sometimes is — but his poetry brings tender vulnerability and crass humor in equal measure, and his book opens up new possibilities for a better world we can all work to create together.
Recently I’ve seen a lot of conversation about how everyone has a role to play in collective liberation; the social-ecosystem map is one example. Can you talk about what you see as the poet’s role in abolitionist spaces?
First, poets are the daydreamers, the wanderers; we pose questions, and we don’t have answers. Some people may ask, “How do we accomplish abolition legislatively?” The poet’s power isn’t bound to legislation. The poet gets to create alternative worlds beyond our furthest imagination. Our role in the movement is to dream up the world as we wish it would be. The second thing that the poet can do in an abolitionist movement is to be meticulous about language. When I see the police, I think what they’re doing on our streets is kidnapping, and that’s a more accurate word than “arrest.” The attention to language that poets have allows us to name state violence where it otherwise goes unnamed.
At Pride, there’s always debate about police presence. What do you think?
Pride gets spoken about as if police violence against queer communities is something that has passed — as if queer people are not currently being killed and detained by police. Two of the most high-profile recent cases are those of CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman who was incarcerated for defending herself, and Chelsea Manning, who was incarcerated for whistleblowing about civilians killed in U.S. military operations in the Middle East. It’s important to understand that police violence continues to impact queer and trans communities, and that positioning Stonewall as a distant history erases the experiences and resistance of currently incarcerated queer and trans people.
I’ve heard you speak about experiences of being booed at Pride for talking about abolition. Can you talk more about that experience?
This was 2017, the year that Jessie Hernandez was killed by the police in Denver. They were on my mind that year, and I was at Pride, watching the parade go by. The parade had stopped, and that portion was a huge contingent of NYPD. I started to yell and say that Stonewall was a riot against police brutality. I started to ask, “Who killed Jessie Hernandez?” Slowly, there started to be some pushback. In the crowd, no one was joining me, but some people started to joke under their breath and say things like, “Oh, well, at least he knows his history.” The police started saying to me, “We just want to have fun. We’re just here to have fun.” There was no rebuttal to my arguments or acknowledgment of their harm. Several older white gay men throughout the crowd — not just next to me, but also across the street — started booing me. I remember thinking that I couldn’t just leave, and so they were booing me as I was trying to remind the crowd that Pride started as a response to police brutality in our queer communities.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I was watching videos of Sylvia Rivera, and I came across this video of her at Pride in 1973. Sylvia was in Washington Square Park, which is maybe two or three blocks from where I was being booed. She was being booed while speaking about the sexual violence being experienced by incarcerated queer people. I identify as nonbinary; Sylvia Rivera was a trans woman, we’re both Puerto Rican — I’m half Puerto Rican, half Salvadorian. When I saw that video, it was extremely moving and troubling to me. 1973 to 2017 — that’s over four decades after the matter, you had the same community, trans Puerto Ricans in New York City, in almost the exact same geographical location, yelling about the same issues and continuing to be booed by gay men. That was horrifying, and also made me very proud to be standing in that lineage.
Are there other queer abolitionist thinkers that have inspired you?
From Mia Mingus to Angela Davis to Jackie Wang, queers are at the heart of abolitionist conversations in every space that I’ve seen. Part of me wants to say that queerness makes an abolitionist imagination possible. In queer and trans communities, we’ve already had to go through a process of unlearning everything we’ve been socialized into. And we’ve already committed to creating worlds that are better than what we were given at birth. My queerness is central to an abolitionist life, to know in my body that everything that I’ve been told is true is not always true. To know that a better way of living is possible. I want to keep moving toward that.
Your poetry often contains historical references. Are there other moments of queer history speaking against police violence you could talk about?
Prior to the Stonewall riots, there were two other big historical moments in California where the queer community was pushing against police violence. In 1966, there was the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco, where queer and trans communities had risen up against police brutality. And then in 1967, a year later, at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles, the police had beaten people unconscious and arrested folks. A protest was organized by this group called PRIDE — Personal Rights In Defense of Education — which was a far left queer organizing coalition. Both these incidents of queers rising up against police brutality in California happened before the Stonewall riots in 1969, and yet they’re often erased or forgotten from our history. Californian resistance paved the way, in a sense, for Stonewall.
A lot of the time I’ll encounter these histories by word of mouth. So my friends were like, “Let’s meet up at Black Cat Tavern. It’s such a shame that it’s straight now,” and I responded, “When was it queer?” I didn’t know this history until they told me, and then I followed up with my own research.
Your book is organized into four chapters — the home, the region you come from, global struggles against policing, and a more philosophical space of abolitionist thought around violence. How does the form relate to abolitionist activism?
The scope starts small and it goes larger. I wanted the reader to have an on-ramp, so the book slowly gets bigger to think about the scope of policing and surveillance systems as widely as possible. I can’t think of any aspect of my life not touched by policing.
What are people getting wrong about the abolitionist movement, especially as it edges into the mainstream?
When I first started identifying as an abolitionist, sometimes it would lead to confrontations. Police were spoken about as if they were synonymous with safety. So if you were saying, “I want to abolish the police,” how the other person would often receive it is “You want to take away what keeps me safe.” But policing doesn’t protect survivors. Abolition is tender because we’re saying that the needs of survivors are being unattended to by our system, that we need to focus on what safety and healing looks like for survivors, if we are interested in appropriately responding to violence. According to RAINN, only 2.5 percent of sexual assaults lead to incarceration. When I think about policing’s failure to prevent violence or rehabilitate individuals, it’s obvious that policing is not an appropriate response.
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