color photograph of an outdoor protest against police. people hold up cardboard signs reading "abolish police" in the foreground. in the background, a large sign on the side of a brick building reads "welcome to lower roxbury historic douglas square" with a large photo of frederick douglas
Protesters march by a photo of Frederick Douglas, a historic abolitionist, on June 22, 2020, during a Juneteenth protest and march in honor of Rayshard Brooks and other victims of police violence in Boston. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP) (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)

Language is one of the most important tools for any movement. The words we use to relay our mission and goals can make complicated issues more accessible. A slogan or hashtag in public spaces, whether on our Twitter feeds or on a tote bag slung across another commuter on the train, is a visual cue of someone’s politics and values. While language can evolve, sometimes for good—like the reclamation of the word queer by many in LGBTQIA+ communities—advocates and activists know all too well how easily liberation and justice-oriented language can be hijacked, twisted, and weaponized, often at the hands of the very same oppressive systems that liberatory movements oppose, as well as the corporations that profit from their ongoing existence. 

Advocates working for the abolition of prisons and police now increasingly face pushback from investors in the prison-industrial complex wielding language rooted in the abolition movement and the fight for gender justice. Officials and corporations whose profits and power depend on the existence of incarceration are adopting critical arguments around “gender-responsive corrections” to bolster reforms that funnel more resources into prison and jail construction while neatly ignoring how abuse and dehumanization are baked into the very nature of the carceral system itself.  

Gender-responsive approaches to incarceration ostensibly acknowledge the unique challenges faced by incarcerated women and gender non-conforming people nationwide as part of an overall critique of the carceral system. However, those approaches don’t include any critical interrogation of the assumed need for incarceration, allowing elected officials and prison operators to regularly exploit feminist rhetoric and language meant to further liberation.

This goes hand in hand with many mainstream feminist movements that continue to accept unquestioningly—and in some cases outright support—incarceration rather than confront how the carceral system uses feminist language to uphold the oppression of others. For example, #BEYONDrosies, a grassroots effort in New York City that garnered support from feminist icons including Gloria Steinem, sought to modify the plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex by advocating for a new women’s jail. The proposed women’s facility was presented as a “feminist” approach to incarceration. It would place women in closer proximity to their families and provide them with access to mental health support, social services, and aid in finding housing and employment upon their release. 

In an interview with Prism last July, organizer Mon Moha articulated the logical pitfalls of the campaign’s core tenets.

“Why does someone need to be incarcerated in order to receive that kind of care, and why does someone have to be incarcerated to receive those kinds of services?” said Moha. “Are these women being given the option to access these services outside of Rikers and outside the borough-based jails and potential women’s jail? Are they given options for different kinds of rehabilitation? Are we trying to change laws around the criminalization of sex work or possession or assault?”

Moha also brought attention to the fact that the #BEYONDrosies demands implicitly argue that those who remain in men’s facilities must not deserve access to those same kinds of supportive services. 

Other efforts to focus on “gender-responsive corrections” have exploited not just feminist rhetoric but also co-opted language rooted in the movement for prison abolition. When The Ripples Group, a Boston-based management consulting firm, released a report last summer outlining their plan for a new women’s prison in Massachusetts, they leaned heavily upon language associated with transformative justice, describing their proposed facility as a “holistic milieu” and a “trauma-informed healing and transformative environment.” They promised that staff would use person-first language when referring to and speaking to those inside. 

It would appear then that when faced with the choice to invest millions of dollars in a new prison or experiment with decarcerative efforts, the firm and the Massachusetts Department of Corrections decided the former was acceptable so long as those inside were referred to as “incarcerated people” as opposed to “inmates.” One has to wonder exactly whom these decisions are designed to appease.

“A lot of our on-the-ground organizing has been targeting architecture firms to say there is no such thing as a trauma-informed prison,” said Mallory Hanora, executive director of Families for Justice as Healing, a Boston-based group leading a campaign against new prison construction, in an interview with Prism last fall. “This was just an example of the carceral state really trying to morph and change to protect its hold on our people and control of our resources.” 

We’ve seen this happen before. Many anti-abortion groups, like Texas-based New Wave Feminists, regularly use language and slogans associated with feminism, racial justice, and police abolition to decry abortion access. In 2021, the group filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. According to Michele Sterlace, executive director of Feminists Choosing Life of New York, the brief seeks to overthrow “the fiction that women need and rely upon abortion rights to participate equally in civil society.” 

A cursory look at their online presence shows women, hailing from different races and ethnicities, donned in pink and screaming in defiant glee at protests while holding signs that read “FEMINIST.” Colorful infographics about migrant women’s rights are peppered throughout the organization’s Instagram grid. Their Twitter bio reads, “non-violence from womb to tomb.”

That stakeholders in traditionally oppressive positions of power are adopting the aesthetics and slogans developed by social justice advocates and movements for transformative justice and liberation to fortify the status quo is neither a coincidence nor a mistake. They’re attempts to appeal to a public that is increasingly online and claims to value—if not expect—diversity (or at least the appearance of it) but have yet to crystallize their politics around different issues of justice and haven’t yet learned to recognize the deception behind the lip service, especially when doing so threatens their sense of self and privilege.  

It’s not that there’s a lack of scholars, activists, writers, and thinkers who constantly try to explain how feminism intersects with other movements, like abolition or climate justice. But they’re dangerously hampered by the mainstream’s inability to adopt a more rigorous understanding of rhetoric, approaches used by justice movements, and intersections of oppressive systems. And it’s all too easy for even the clearest and most accessible argument for liberation to become muddied when groups that are opposed to these movements adopt their rhetoric, attempt to appeal to similar audiences, and often have the financial resources to drown out their opposition. 

Perhaps aesthetics and catchy slogans that help people identify with and initially enter into a movement are the very things that are most susceptible to co-optation because they’re so accessible. It can be easy to align with a term or phrase that helps one find belonging in a movement without fully grasping the specific underlying ideas and concepts. It’s what enables protesters at anti-mask rallies to create signs saying “my body, my choice,” pressuring onlookers to question how they themselves can support reproductive freedom while critiquing the decisions of those who choose not to wear masks. A similar dilemma emerges when someone supporting ending police violence comes up against anti-abortion groups that explicitly assert that “Black lives matter from the womb to the tomb.” In these ways, co-opting slogans and rhetoric doesn’t just innocuously strip an idea of its original intent; it also places contradictory views under the same umbrella, a manipulative tactic intended to confuse and make people feel as if their politics are inconsistent when in truth those ideas remain diametrically opposed.

We must think harder about who uses terms and language that evoke certain progressive causes and look more deeply at who and what actually benefits from the position or initiative those rhetorical strategies support. When advocates use feminist and transformative language to argue for constructing more “gender-responsive” prisons instead of prison abolition, it may be due to a well-intended misunderstanding or something more insidious. 

Without more critical engagement from media and other public information sources, language meant to shrink the power of oppressive forces can instead widen its reach when wielded by those invested in maintaining unjust and inequitable power systems. It’s how feminist slogans can be co-opted in the service of legislation that strips away the right to reproductive freedom or increased funding for a newer, “nicer,” and “more feminist” jail. 

And it’s how—if we’re not careful—we become desensitized to hearing language we think aligns with our goals of liberation when, in fact, it does the exact opposite—right under our noses. 

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