In 2011, I was halfway around the world in Japan teaching English at a preschool when Occupy Wall Street started gaining momentum. Despite the presence of my parents, I felt stuck in isolation hell. To help pass the time, I became obsessed with checking the news, feeling invigorated by hashtags and Twitter feeds. I spent my mornings playing catch-up on the day’s events that transpired while I was sleeping. Sometimes I would even wake up in the middle of the night to hear sounds of protests blaring from my dad’s office, which was next door to my bedroom. My loneliness, although it felt all-consuming at times, was abated by solidarity with the “99%.”
When I returned to the United States, the movement had dwindled but the energy it left behind was deeply ingrained in me. Videos of police brutality never left my mind. When Trayvon Martin was killed and Black Lives Matter picked up momentum, the weight of what it meant to be black in this country began to sink in.
As the years went on and police brutality only seemed to get worse, I kept reading and watching, absorbing it all. I realized there was so much I didn’t know and will never know. What I do know is that being white and presenting as relatively financially stable protects me from much of the violence that exists in the world.
2011 was also the year I completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training. In yoga, we talk about ahimsa, or nonviolence. When grappling with ahimsa, you first attend to the violence you commit to yourself. That expands to the violence you’ve committed to those close to you, which then expands to your community, and finally to the violence you commit to the world at large. I’ve learned much along the way as I’ve attended to these layers. How I was taught to categorize violence as a Mormon girl from Utah is very different from the way I see it now.
I understand now how institutional violence has harmed my community. I understand that white supremacy and colonialism play a role in our military. I see how the military harms not only innocent civilians in other countries, but the soldiers, too, who thought they were doing the right thing by serving their country. I see a link between how we idolize the army and how the police can serve as a kind of de facto domestic military. The more I see, the more work I have to attend to.
“How can we organize our communities in ways to make violence unthinkable?”
This question led me to learn more about the prison abolition movement.
Black women such as Miriame Kaba and Angela Davis helped me comprehend that the prison system is not failing. People often say the system is broken and needs fixing. They talk about reform, as if changes within the system are the solution. What they gloss over is how the police and prison system itself is a source of violence, and it’s working as designed. I don’t see how we can solve violence with more violence.
I learned how the prison industrial complex intertwines with the government and other industries to “use surveillance and policing as a solution to economic, social, and political problems,” as Critical Resistance, a prison abolitionist group founded by Davis and others puts it.
Critical Resistance envisions “the creation of genuinely healthy, stable communities that respond to harm without relying on imprisonment and punishment. [They] know that things like food, housing, and freedom are what create healthy, stable neighborhoods and communities.”
With this knowledge, I started to see where that violence was taking place here in Salt Lake City:
Operation Rio Grande was sold to us as a way to resolve a crisis of poverty and homelessness. Our state prison is relocating to a sensitive wildlife area, a disaster only exacerbated now with potential development of an “inland port.” Utah has the highest number of jail deaths per capita in the nation (at least 357 since 2000), and the second highest incarceration growth rate. 2018 was the “deadliest year on record” for police killings in Utah, according to reports from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
For a year, I taught yoga in the women’s facility at the Utah State Prison in Draper. I wanted to take my practice to a place that felt overlooked by my community and offer some sort of reprieve in a place where your body is no longer yours to move where it wills. It was not there that I understood the gravity of harm that the cycle of prisons creates, but it was there that it became personal for me.
While my time there was brief, I understand that a yoga program continues there still. I often hope that one day I will be able to practice with them again; except my hope is that it will be here, on the “outside” instead of “in.” As a prison abolitionist, I know their place is in our community, and not secluded away in a different kind of isolation hell.
Brinley Froelich is a writer, yoga instructor and embroidery artist. She is the co-founder of Decarcerate Utah.