Mercy for your enemy too

do the Capitol rioters deserve abolition – a conversation with Glenn Martin

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

In the wake of the Capitol violence on Jan. 6, a mass of civilian sleuths and law enforcement descended on the rioters to arrest and charge them with everything from murder to violent entry or disorderly conduct of the Capitol. Three people died from the riot, a protester was shot by Capitol police, another protester was trampled and a Capitol police officer injured by rioters died. People combed the internet and @FBI whenever they found a possible tip. The violence of that day shocked the nation, even those who saw it coming, but how do abolitionists who believe in building a new system of justice think about what comes next?

Even with the blatant hypocrisy of how a predominantly white mob supporting a white president was met with a fraction of the law enforcement response to the Black Lives Matter summer protests, some abolitionists voiced that they not only did not wish the brunt of the justice system to descend on the rioters but that a wave of law and order and possible domestic terrorist laws to target the rioters would still have a bigger impact on nonwhite people in the long-run.


So we called Glenn Martin, a formerly incarcerated advocate and entrepreneur who founded the Campaign to Close Rikers. He calls himself a “pragmatic abolitionist” about the Capitol storming and what happens after. 

In an interview last week, Glenn said that no one could accuse him of being an incrementalist as someone who pushed for the closing of one of the biggest jails in the country, but he’s “pragmatic” enough to know it took a million cuts to get there. So as an abolitionist, “the vision on the hill is abolition. At the same time if rhetoric surmounts progress, then I don’t want to be involved. I need movement, I need change,” he said. 

"I need movement, I need change"

What is abolition

Abolition seeks a solution to a criminal justice system that Glenn says, “has become a repository for these other failed systems.” Where a lot of the progressive left is focused on reform which believes that the American justice system will be fixed by eliminating racial bias and through sentencing reform, Glenn describes abolition as replacing the rotary phone with an I-phone. “People who are reformers see themselves as taking the clay that we already have, and shaping it into something just slightly different than what we currently have,” Glenn said. In contrast, abolitionists say “‘No,’ there’s a vision to how something can look radically different. And we need to figure out what is the best way to get us there. And every step we take, needs to be moving us toward that collective vision,” he said. But it goes beyond building a new system to questioning our inner beliefs of justice and accountability.

“The easy answer [to the problem abolition solves] is I want to see a different criminal justice system. But the more intellectually honest answer is, we need to figure out why we as Americans believe that punishment is the answer to things that we don’t like and people that we don’t like,” Glenn said. Which brings us to the sticky and complicated question of how abolitionists are thinking about last Wednesday. 

Rage and a pause

Glenn said within minutes of seeing what was happening in D.C. his brain began to analyze his own emotions and reactions. He felt rage but found a way to work through it. 

“My first reaction is like most people, you want to meet violence with violence, but that lasted a relatively short amount of time. And I gave myself, I think, 24 hours to really think it through.” Even liking responses to his tweets on Twitter that said “lock them up,” felt hypocritical to Glenn. So as he processed his first reaction he began to ask questions like why white people who he argues have “tremendous privilege” felt the need to do what they were doing. 

He said he knew that posting his tweets arguing that abolition needed to apply to the Capitol rioters would rile people, especially people of color, but he did it anyway. 

“People talk about building a different criminal justice system, but they often say something like, ‘I want to build a criminal justice system, that I can feel safe and comfortable with my child going through if he or she commits a crime.’  And to me, that’s not far enough. You have to build a criminal justice system that you feel safe and good about a person going through who actually is the one who killed your child,” he said. 

“I’m the sort of advocate [that] if someone murdered my child who everyone knows how much I love and care for, I would be the first one standing up saying prison is not going to change this person for the better, prison is not going to ensure that there’ll never be another [son] killed.”

Glenn said if he advocates for abolition at the extreme, he could not be comfortable with “suspending that belief long enough to say, [the rioters] are worthless. They should be written off. They should be put in prison forever.” 


He “knew that, particularly people of color, were going to say, ‘oh, you’re just carrying water for white supremacy, by posting something like that. if we suffer, they should suffer.’”

“Except all you do when you do that is validate the system, right?” Glenn said. He argues that saying ‘I hate prisons unless it’s someone I don’t like’ is the same argument people use to lock up Black and brown people in America. 

“So I just can’t see myself wielding a system that causes so much harm because on one given day, I find that I’m so angry at a group of people that that’s how I’m going to try to harm them and destroy them and get retribution, and then stand up a week later and be like, ‘our prisons don’t work’,” he said.

“People get pissed at me for saying this. But I think it’s absolutely true: we live in a country where if we spend more time comparing our oppression then we stay divided. And the most powerful people stay in place, which is what they want, which is what they love. But if we spend a minute trying to figure out what is the parallel between the lives of poor white people in Appalachia and poor Black people in Brooklyn, East New York, I think we actually make more progress,” Glenn said. 

He thinks talking with people that we view on the opposing side of us actually can lead to the realization of more common ground than differences. “That is what In my opinion, leads to progress. That’s what leads to change,” he said. 

“Or we can do what we’ve been doing forever which is just demonizing people. Everyone wants to have a demon in their narrative, right now, the people who raised the Capitol are the demons, but let’s be honest, those people don’t wield power.” 

“In some ways, those people were actually doing the most powerful thing they’ve ever done in their lives that day. These are not the Trumps of the world. These are not the McConnells of the world. These are people who don’t typically have anyone speaking to them, who finally found a leader and were led to engage in these activities. Does that mean they shouldn’t be held accountable? No, that’s not what I’m saying. But I am saying that there is a lot of energy spent on trying to harm these people who ultimately are not the ones who created that scenario that day.”

“And that kind of thoughtful thinking, I’m not naïve enough to believe that people are willing to have that kind of nuanced thinking about what happened in the moment, some people even weeks, or a month later, but it is how I like to live. It is how I like to do the work, how I like to think about life, how I like to think about the world I want to see. And some group of people I think need to be spending time drawing that nuance.”


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Founder of The Des and freelance criminal justice reporter based in Washington, D.C.