Excerpted From: Kiah Duggins, Abolition and International Human Rights: Taiwan's Affirmation of Black American Abolitionist Movements, 57 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 361 (Summer, 2022) (214 Footnotes) (Full Document)


KiahDugginsI am writing this preface on January 6, 2021, as pro-Trump insurgents conduct an armed takeover of the United States Capitol Building with little intervention from the police or the National Guard. From pictures and videos, it appears that most of the insurgents are white. The police and military's weak response to this attempted coup stands in stark contrast to the police's violent, militarized response to non-violent Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020. This day, like all days, illustrates the salient point at the heart of this paper: the American police exist not to promote public safety, but to preserve a particular social order that benefits rich, white Americans. To enact meaningful justice in the United States, we must divest from this system rooted in white supremacist ideologies and invest in infrastructure that promotes a more inclusive, safe, and healthy social order.

The priorities of America's police and military are not unique and are reflected in other countries throughout the world. During Taiwan's martial law era of 1945-1987, the government used armed law enforcement and the military to maintain a social order that benefited those in power. As a Black American who rarely saw and never interacted with police when I lived in Taiwan from 2017-2018, I was shocked to learn that it had been under martial law 30 years prior to my arrival. Being an American citizen in a small country that depends on America as an ally granted me substantial privilege in a social hierarchy that contemporary Taiwan hopes to protect, and at least partially explains why I was shielded from any negative police interactions. However, as a Black person, I couldn't help but notice how much freer and safer I felt in Taiwan than I feel in America. I was pulled over by the police within 24 hours of returning home to Kansas after a year without any police interactions in Taiwan. My feelings and anecdotal experiences are not totally subjective, as “the 2017 Freedom House index shows that Taiwan ranks as the second-freest country in Asia,” and ranks ahead of the United States globally in terms of freedom.

Abolition is an expansive and iterative political framework and organizing strategy with many sub-strategies. This paper focuses on one sub-strategy: monetary divestment from state-sanctioned violence and investment into social infrastructures such as housing, healthcare, education, and democratic institutions. As the prolific abolitionist, organizer, and educator Mariame Kaba states:

“Prison-industrial complex [PIC] abolition is a political vision, a structural analysis of oppression, and a practical organizing strategy ... PIC abolition is a vision of a restructured society in a world where we have everything we need: food, shelter, education, health, art, beauty, clean water, and more things that are foundational to our personal and community safety.”

The abolitionist divest-invest sub-strategy is not new. Grassroots Black American organizers have fought and are currently fighting for the divest-invest model of abolition, and Taiwan's example demonstrates that these organizers' work should be supported and expanded. Citing the authors of the 1971 publication Struggling for Justice, Mariame Kaba writes, “'without a radical change in our values and a drastic restructuring of our social and economic institutions,’ we can only achieve modest reforms of the criminal punishment system (including policing).” Political prisoner Eddie Ellis championed abolitionist divestment and investment in the early 2000s. Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey's 2004 essay entitled The University and the Undercommons asserts:

“What is, so to speak, the object of abolition? Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.”

State-sanctioned violence is also an expansive and iterative concept with many definitions. This paper focuses on the legal infliction of physical harm, imprisonment, and labor upon people's bodies by agents of the state like the police, the military, and corrections officers. Taiwan's abolition of the police state formed during its martial law era affirms many of the divest-invest strategies, tactics, and theories of contemporary Black American abolitionists and exemplifies critical race theorist Derrick Bell's interest convergence theory. In their post-abolitionist system, Taiwanese activists fought for investments in reparations, the strengthening of democratic institutions, the strengthening of social infrastructures, and the increased legal protection of marginalized populations. These are all strategies that contemporary Black American abolitionists consistently champion. It is important to note that contemporary Taiwan still has police, but its strong social infrastructures have substantially shifted governing power from the police to the people.

Despite several striking similarities, the United States obviously differs from Taiwan. The United States is not under a national martial law decree like Taiwan was, and most of the United States' carceral system operates at a state and/or local level instead of a national level. Also unlike Taiwan, the United States' carceral system is rooted in race-based exploitation, and a racial majority mostly inflicts the harms of the carceral system on racial minorities. Most of the victims of the United States' carceral system have been disenfranchised for centuries, while Taiwan's official martial law era lasted for 42 years. The United States is geographically larger and more ethnically diverse than Taiwan. All of these differences make it much harder to build a cohesive abolitionist movement in the United States. Nevertheless, Taiwan's incredible example demonstrates that contemporary Black American abolitionists' divest-invest model is not just a far-fetched dream, but a tangible reality in another part of the world.

I want everyone, especially Black Americans, to feel the freedom and safety that I felt while in Taiwan. This is not a theoretical exercise for me, but rather an effort to tangibly help myself and others feel safe in their own bodies and their own countries. Grassroots movements of Taiwanese citizens helped abolish the police state, a system that largely benefitted a few people in power. Abolition allowed for the expansion of democracy and other institutional systems that benefit Taiwanese people more broadly. Taiwan “has one of the best national health insurance systems in the world, cultural diversity is generally respected, intense political competition ... has led to three peaceful party turnovers,” and its active Constitutional Court recently legalized marriage equality. I hope that by studying the abolition of Taiwan's police state and the nation's transition to protecting civil and human rights, I can help American abolitionists interested in Black liberation continue their human rights movement for reparations, divestment from oppressive police forces, and investment into important elements of our social infrastructure. Taiwan created a more equitable society, and so can we.

Part I of this paper will argue that state-sanctioned violence has been used as a tool for preserving the interests of the ruling class in both the United States and Taiwan. Part II will explain how people in the United States and Taiwan used interest convergence and organized resistance to dismantle the oppressive legal frameworks that enable state-sanctioned violence. Part III will explore how Taiwan has been able to shift societal power and successfully fight for long-term transitional justice, and argue that the United States' attachment to old systems of oppression will make its road to transitional justice look much different from Taiwan's.

[. . .]

Taiwan's abolition of its police state affirms that Black American abolitionist movements are, at their core, human rights movements. The United States differs from Taiwan in many obvious ways, but three main lessons from Taiwan's example confirm Black American abolitionists' divest-invest strategies: (1) state sanctioned violence and exploitation are tools for preserving the interests of the ruling class, (2) those tools can be dismantled through interest convergence and direct action, and (3) abolition is divestment and investment, so everyone must fight to build a better system that replaces the dismantled one. Taiwan's incredible example demonstrates that contemporary Black American abolitionists' divest-invest model is not just a far-fetched dream, but a tangible reality in another part of the world. Taiwan's example is still evolving and is far from perfect, but it shows that abolition is an intergenerational human rights movement demanding fundamental societal transformation that shifts power to historically marginalized communities. The example set by the work of grassroots Taiwanese activism should compel the United States to take Black human and civil rights organizations seriously when they call for divestment from the police state and investment into social infrastructures that promote citizen's health and safety. Taiwan is doing it, and so can we.

J.D. 2021, Harvard Law School.