Joseph Capehart selling books at The Garden pop-up store located in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. (Courtesy of Joseph Capehart)

A common misconception about the abolition of the prison-industrial complex is that it’s all about the destruction of and divestment from prisons and policing. Abolitionists, however, are constantly educating the public about how their work is also about creating new systems of care and accountability and the construction of what writer Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes as “life-affirming institutions.” 

Serving as one of those life-affirming institutions is the mission behind The Garden, a pop-up bookstore in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Joseph Capehart, a middle school reading teacher, poet, and local organizer, worked with other members of the community to bring The Garden to life in 2021. The Garden now hosts pop-up events where visitors can purchase Black literature and abolitionist texts and attend biweekly reading circles, writing workshops, teach-ins, and poetry open mics. The Garden aims to kindle the imagination of community members and launch conversations about what systems and institutions they might co-create so that they can not just survive, but thrive. Capehart’s current goal is to raise enough money to purchase a brick-and-mortar space and open a full-time bookstore that will operate as a co-op, enabling residents to work, read, and learn together. 

Prism sat down with Capehart to discuss The Garden, how their community has responded to its thus far, the role of love in shaping one’s politics, and why sacrificing your ego and decentering yourself is the challenging but necessary task of anyone who wishes to create community-led projects that are undergirded by abolitionist principles. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Tamar Sarai Davis: I’d love to start by learning about what brought you to the work you’re doing now through The Garden. Was there a particular moment in your life or period of time that shaped your politics and commitment to abolition?

Joseph Capehart: I think there’s a lot of things in my life that have brought me here. My dad was incarcerated when I was in middle school. He was arrested but we didn’t have money for bail, so he had to just stay in prison for the entire time of the trial. Even though he was acquitted later and was found innocent, [my sisters and I] did have to move from Pittsburgh to Minnesota to live with my mom. So that was the first time that the prison-industrial complex just had a very clear impact on the course of my life. It had actually split up my family and set the landscape for a lot of stress and instability in our lives.

When it comes to organizing, I’d say it was probably in 2017. A friend was kidnapped by ICE and taken to a detention center after leaving the courthouse for some minor offense. He was grabbed and put into a van and taken away from his wife and kid who knew nothing about where he was. I had been very, very close to them and that was the first moment that I realized that what was going on was by design, that this wasn’t just like “ICE is doing crazy stuff and this is wild,” but more so that they are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do—none of this is an accident. 

We worked to raise awareness about that case and to raise money for his family. Eventually he was able to be released without getting deported and was returned to his family. I did quite a bit of mobilizing before that—I would post and share things or talk to people about different stuff—but that was the first time that I actually organized my community around saving one of our own from ICE. 

Davis: Can you share more about the work you are doing now and how the idea for The Garden emerged?

Capehart: A lot of the work that I’m doing now as a teacher is trying to help people in my neighborhood organize their lives around liberation. I’ve noticed that as a community, Black people are so damn good at navigating systems of oppression and figuring out how to make it work for us in the best ways that we can, but that still just means that those of us who are the most vulnerable take the brunt of that [oppression] while the rest of us are able to find pathways out. So the work that I see myself doing is, how can I remind people of our own brilliance? What are the ways that we can nurture the imagination of our neighborhood so that we don’t just have to navigate the system as it is, but we can actually create new systems entirely. How do we set up the conditions so that the worlds that we’re imagining and dreaming can actually become reality? 

The Garden was my attempt to [focus] all of that potential energy that I saw in my neighborhood [especially] in wake of so many uprisings in the past few years. I think that with quarantine, with the pandemic, with so many people being mobilized around saving and fighting for Black lives—for the first time, in some cases—and really seeing how detrimental the system of policing has been to our lives, all of that shook up so much in the world that it seemed like the the ground was loose and fertile. Now’s the time to take advantage of this moment where people are fed up [and feeling that] we’ve been navigating this for so long and it’s still not working out for us.

Social media became a huge part of that work for me at first. I posted a lot of videos trying to help people understand some different concepts that were entrenched in academic language and removed from the people who it was actually affecting. But it’s easy to just feel that [since] I posted this thing or I shared this infographic or I gave my hot take then I’ve done my job. And I realized that while that [social media] was doing a good job of mobilizing people, they would return to their mostly unchanged lives pretty soon after. So I decided to stop trying to save the world and instead decided to start connecting with my neighbors.

The Garden came about after thinking about my own strengths and the strengths of the people who are closest to me. We love to read, we have all this information, we love to gather together, we love to laugh, we love to create space. Let’s put all of those things to work for our people right here in Bed-Stuy and then see how that can inform Brooklyn, how that can inform New York, and maybe inform people beyond that. 

The Garden hosts biweekly reading circles and other in-person events that aim to “highlight how important meaningful conversation is versus just consuming information.” (Courtesy of Joseph Capehart)

Davis: In addition to your pop-ups where you sell books, The Garden also hosts a lot of community programming and in-person events. Can you share a bit about those offerings?

Capehart: When it comes to our in-person offerings we look to meet in circles as much as possible, trying to draw people from the neighborhood together around things that move us already. So we have things like our Black queer writing circles, sunset service, or the Black love reading circle. We’re [also] looking into cooking circles and circles specifically around masculinity. Just trying to draw people in around the things that we’re already talking about and [figuring out] how can these things help orient us toward liberation? Our big thing is trying to reconnect our kin with their own brilliance, [so] let’s sit around in a space in which we don’t have this kind of hierarchical model. Maybe one person has more experience in this [topic] than others, so they’ll share, but every single person in here can come through with their own brilliance. Everyone has the space to lead the circle or to facilitate it on any given day since we rotate every other week, making sure that everybody feels like they have a sense of ownership over the culture that we are building.

By bringing that real in-person connection, we get to really highlight how important meaningful conversation is versus just consuming information, and that’s been one of the greatest joys that we’ve had as The Garden over the past year. It’s been super beautiful. We’ve watched people not only come into the space and have their ideas challenged around what liberation looks like for themselves personally, in their community, their families, and beyond, but we’ve also seen them take that and apply it to their lives and to the spaces where they thought they couldn’t before, or maybe they were a little scared about doing it alone.

Our in-person gatherings allow us to really challenge what people mean when they say “community” because it is a word that’s thrown around quite a bit, but often it just means a bunch of people who have one or more things in common. We wanted to challenge that and say, no, community is when people come together and they show up for one another, and they challenge each other through joy, through laughter, through all of it, which is so much more than just yeah, we are all Black, or we are all African people. It’s more so that we are all willing to extend ourselves for the spiritual, physical, and mental development of each other. And I’ve seen the way that people are pushing themselves to decolonize their minds and to shift the material conditions of the people in the neighborhood. 

Davis: Can you share your perspective on why our politics should be informed by love? How does talking about love in our interpersonal relationships help when talking to your community members about abolition?

Capehart: At the end of the day, most things that are happening on a macro level are reflections of things that are happening in the micro. [How we relate] to power, exploitation, colonialism, to all these things that have shaped our lives and are affecting us on this macro level, you can see them in our [personal] relationships. It’s really easy to look at our reliance on the prison-industrial complex—to our reliance on punishment specifically—and how that shows up in the way we raise our children, our romantic relationships, our familial relationships, our work relationships. All these things get repeated. By turning to the interpersonal, we can really look at a place where people have some sense of influence or power over the relationships in their own lives. 

How we as Black and African people see each other and see ourselves shapes the way that we’re willing to move for each other and how much we’re willing to sacrifice, what we’re willing to give up, how much we’re willing to fight, and what we’re willing to imagine and dream for one another. All of those things are so incredibly and inextricably tied to how we view ourselves, and how we love each other on a really, really small scale. So love is an incredible force for political and social change. 

Unfortunately, that word love has been co-opted and used in ways that have stripped some of the power from it—the word itself can come off as weakness, it can be linked to non-violence, or it can be linked to this sense of passivity. But in fact love is possibly the most active and is the most demanding. It has the highest expectations of us and the people around us. It is violent in protection of itself and of its people. Love is fantastic. Specifically bell hooks, [her] thinking about Black love, and Salvation have had such a huge impact on the way that not only I view love but how love is shaping what The Garden is and how our various communities are being moved to organize around specific goals.

Davis: We often talk about common misconceptions around prison-industrial complex abolition, but I’m curious as to whether there’s an aspect of abolition that has been the most difficult for you to help people to understand or buy into?  

Capehart: Some people look at abolition as an end goal, and it’s truly not. Abolition is one piece to the liberation that we need to experience—it is a worthy goal, but it cannot be the only one. Abolition means more than just disappearing police and prisons from the world—it actually looks like shaping, changing, building, creating communities in which these systems are obsolete. That work is really difficult to do when people are so invested in the way that things are. And of course, that’s by design, and for many people, it’s not their fault; some people are afraid of shaking things up too much because they’ve learned how to navigate what is. 

Davis: What has been your community’s response to The Garden so far and has any of that response posed new challenges?

Abolition means more than just disappearing police and prisons from the world—it actually looks like shaping, changing, building, creating communities in which these systems are obsolete.

Joseph Capehart

Capehart: There’s been two responses. The main response has been excitement, specifically from a lot of the elders in the community, because when I talk to them about The Garden or when they show up at one of our pop-ups or they hear about one of our events, they are reminded of a time that they thought had passed. They’re reminded of things that they had seen in Bed-Stuy, the libraries, bookstores, and educational hubs from the Black Power movement. When I talk to the folks over at Sistas Place, and those in the D12 movement, who have been doing this work for decades on decades, they look at The Garden and they see hope and a remnant of this idea [from the past] that we have not completely lost yet. I’m so grateful for those moments. 

But another response has been skepticism like, “This is a lot of talk and this all sounds really nice, but are you actually going to show up for us? Are you actually here? And if you’re here now, where have you been and where were you before?” I feel like that response has been so beautifully challenging because it constantly reminds us that our work has to lie with the people. It helps us orient ourselves [so] that when we show up it’s never first to say, “Here’s some information we can give you,” or “Here’s the answer to your problems,” or “Here is abolition, our Savior,” or anything like that. It’s truly asking, “How can we serve you?” 

By starting at that place. I think that’s why we’ve seen the success that we’ve had [and] why people have begun to trust us. Building that trust was our main goal last year and letting people know that we’re here and we’re here for them. Those [were] conversations [we wanted] to have before we got to actually building a physical space and just dropping it in the middle of the damn neighborhood because technically, that could have been the move. I could have pulled together a business plan, got some investors, and done it—people like bookstores, that would have happened—but I [knew] that if I built it in that way, it would be built around me and power and all the things that have been truly detrimental to our communities.

Even something that on its surface seems liberatory can be very confining, limiting, and damning to the work that we want to do. So many organizations, initiatives, and movements have really, really great intentions, but the actual impact tends to be more like a poison than it is a salve and we can’t afford that. We cannot harm the people who we’re working with and we’re working for. That type of harm and exploitation is actually incompatible with liberation, with the love that we want to see in our community, and with the futures that we want to build.

Davis: Do you have any advice or prescriptions for people who want to develop similar initiatives in their own neighborhoods? Specifically, on how to balance utilizing one’s own personal strengths while also decentering themselves to create something in service to their community as opposed to extracting from it?

Capehart: Collaboration is key. If I were to do all of this work on my own, it would have damn near ended up in that place because regardless of how much integrity I might have, capitalism is a little bit stronger than one person. So make sure that it’s a collaborative effort and truly ground yourself in the history of a space before trying to create its future. [I started by] taking my time first to meet with elders, to talk to organizations, to people who have been doing this before—because there are libraries, there are bookstores, there are people having reading clubs and book circles and all that stuff in Brooklyn already and there’s people who are doing fantastic work specifically in Bed-Stuy, [like] the Free Black Woman’s Library and the BLK Book Swap—so we’ve got a lot of these different initiatives and movements and experiments and all these things that have been here. 

So the first thing to ask is how can your skills be beneficial to what is already here? And then you can ask “What can I build?” And you’re not always going to know everything that’s happening, so grounding yourself in community and history is your best bet—continue to check back in with the people you’re serving. In a lot of cases, people aren’t trying to gatekeep that [information]—if the goal is actually liberation for the community, they want to share in that work. 

A lot of times, it’ll feel like you’re not doing as much because on the surface it’s not as fancy, shiny, or cool. But you really have to decide: is it the appearance of activism that you’re interested in? Or is there an actual action that you believe your community needs to have? You’re gonna have to answer that question every single day. I have to answer every day, and some days, I realize, “Oh, dang, I was a little bit more concerned with the appearance of the thing than the actual thing.” So now let me regroup and go to the people that I’m accountable to and see how we might be able to readjust and take another look at this. Is this thing that I believe I have to offer truly shaping my community? Or is this something that is just shaping me? 

Also, just read some books because all of [these learnings] are things that I’ve read. There are people in the neighborhood who have handed me books, and I [can’t] be afraid to step back and see how those things might inform me before hopping back into the work. There is so much work to do, and none of it will be done by one person [or] one group of people—it’s always collective, and it requires rest and reflection. It requires a true desire to sacrifice the ego for the people, and that’s not something that we’re inherently prone to do, so taking the time to exercise that muscle of integrity and collaboration is truly the best way to go.

Davis: What are some of those grounding books that you find yourself returning to often or that you frequently recommend to others?

Capehart: Salvation: Black People and Love and All About Love by bell hooks. Both of those really shaped the focus on love in the work that I do and have helped me be at a place where I’ve been able to be really patient with people as we move on this journey of abolition, but also have the highest expectations of us as well. Mariame Kaba’s We Do This ’Til We Free Us has been really great to return to. I’m also returning to the work of Kwame Nkrumah and Kwame Ture and looking into things like our connection to pan-Africanism and ideas around the Black radical tradition in general. Black Marxism is one that I have to consistently return to. [Also] Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? and Freedom is a Constant Struggle. The Black Power Mixtape is great, whether it’s the documentary or the book itself, and there are endless books about the Black Panthers that you can read. I’ve also been returning recently to a lot of poetry. So looking at June Jordan, Lucille Clifton, and Audre Lorde, their poetry has been so informative and so instructive in how one loves themselves and loves their people. Also Freedom Dreams by Robin D.G. Kelly and Black Utopia [by Alex Zamalin] help remind us of what resistance has looked like in the past, and being rooted in the work of our ancestors is so important for keeping us audacious and brave enough to continue to move forward. 

Davis: Finally, how can people tap into the work that The Garden is doing this year and how can they support it?  

Capehart: In February, we’re going to be launching our Patreon for people around the world to support us on a recurring basis, even if they don’t necessarily want to buy a book every month. We’re also going to have a full online bookstore rather than using bookshop dot org. [You can] follow us on Instagram to see when our pop-ups are because we absolutely love connecting with people whenever we’re just selling actual books. It’s a really, really beautiful part of what we do. Also, we’re currently partnering with a couple of organizations and trying to raise $5,000 for direct cash assistance for families in New York who may have been impacted by the pandemic and other folks who just need help. 

If you live in Brooklyn, specifically in Bed-Stuy, reach out to us, and we can talk about how to build community together. I think regardless of what organizing work you’re doing, if you’ve been doing it for 50 years, or you’ve been doing it for five months, connect with us. We’d love to share any resources that we have so that we can all work together. I promise you, there’s a way that you can use your brilliance to help bring life back into our community, and we’d be happy to help facilitate that. Pull up. Show up when we’re outside, show up when we’re inside, show up virtually—all of those things help refine this culture of being committed to one another, as Black people, as African people. This is the work that we’re doing for our liberation, and we’re going to do the work together.

No matter where you’re located, you can currently support the Garden by purchasing books via their online shop on Bookshop. They will receive a portion of the profit from your order.

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.