While protesters for Black lives across the country are being met with the same kind of brutalizing behavior that led them to the streets in the first place, many are beginning to consider whether the institution of policing can be saved at all. Leading the charge is an increasingly broad and diverse group of organizers, academics, and even politicians who have begun to consider whether the twin institutions of policing and incarceration are worth the suffering they seem incapable of evading. Though the abolition of prisons and policing is often dismissed as unimaginably radical, these advocates contend that our communities would be safer and healthier were we to divert the funds we spend on these measures towards bettering economic, housing, and health outcomes in the most vulnerable neighborhoods.
It may be difficult for many of us to begin to imagine public safety and accountability that does not rely on police and prisons, but two modern cartoons, Rebecca Sugar‘s Steven Universe and Noelle Stevenson‘s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, are both replete with abolitionist themes that can inspire us to commit to new ways of keeping each other safe.
In Steven Universe, Steven and the other Crystal Gems use “bubbling” to hold in stasis the gem monsters they defeat. Unlike incarceration, bubbling doesn’t actively harm the gem monsters, but Steven recognizes as early as Season 1’s “Monster Buddies” that the Crystal Gems should seek to heal the corruption—described by Garnet as a tear in the fabric of the mind—that causes gems to turn into monsters rather than bubble them indefinitely.
In Season 3’s “Monster Reunion,” Steven discovers that the gem monsters were corrupted by experiencing violence: an analogy that holds true in the real world, where experiencing childhood violence makes people more likely to later commit acts of violence themselves. The quest to heal and release the corrupted gems becomes a major narrative arc of the show, concluding in “Change Your Mind” when Steven and the Diamonds who were responsible for the violence that created the corruption in the first place work together to begin to repair the harm they’ve caused.
But Steven Universe’s abolitionist ethic isn’t limited to pursuing an alternative to bubbling; it also governs how the Crystal Gems reintegrate various antagonists back into society rather than discarding them, even when those antagonists have been responsible for sometimes unimaginable offenses. Lapis Lazuli turned the Crystal Gems over to Peridot, who tried to kill them. Spinel tried to destroy Earth. The Diamonds successfully completed countless whole-world genocides.
But Steven recognizes that these antagonists’ harmful behavior was usually rooted in various traumatic experiences; Lapis and Spinel, for instance, both spent thousands of years abandoned and trapped in isolation. Steven devotes nearly all of his energy towards beginning to heal those traumas, rather than towards punishing the Gems for the harm they’ve caused. By the end of the series, Lapis, Peridot, Spinel, and the Diamonds are all in community with Steven and engaged in ongoing reparative and transformational work on themselves and each other.
Steven Universe also recognizes that none of us are immune from engaging in harmful behavior; all of the trauma Steven experiences catches up to him in Steven Universe: Future, and he himself becomes corrupted and turns into a gem monster. But his community, now well-versed in resolving disputes and healing trauma, responds in kind, with Garnet explaining, “As long as he believes he’s a monster, he’ll stay one.” This community support helps Steven recover his humanity.
In She-Ra, the protagonists similarly avoid a retributive response to characters who engage in harmful behavior. Both Scorpia and later Catra (major foils for Adora and her friends throughout the first three seasons) are welcomed into the Rebellion once they make a commitment to abandon the Horde. And just as in Steven Universe, there is no clearly delineated division between “bad” antagonists and “good” protagonists. Entrapta joins the Rebellion, but often seriously hurts her friends and allies with her blind pursuit of technological advancement; Glimmer’s willingness to use the Heart of Etheria weapon against the wishes of her allies in Season 4 exposes the planet to incredible danger.
This is not to say that the reintegration of any of these characters back into their communities is effortless or simple. Both the offenders and those close to them often face a lengthy struggle to process the physical and emotional consequences of the harm done. But because time and resources aren’t spent on incarceration and retribution, this ongoing, difficult, interpersonal work gets the energy it needs to be successful.
The abolitionist ethics of Steven Universe and She-Ra start with seeing the full humanity of wrongdoers, as opposed to reducing individuals to the worst decisions they have made. It requires a persistence and a dedication to these values. Adora continues to seek to bring Catra back into community despite Catra’s repeated incalcitrance; Steven makes the same efforts with Peridot and Lapis. It also requires holding offenders accountable to a commitment to repair. Yellow Diamond explained her approach to this commitment, “After all the damage I’ve done, it’s only right to use my powers for a little reconstructive work on the gems I’ve hurt.”
Anyone curious about how safety and accountability might work without the policing and prisons we’ve come to rely on need look no further than the examples set by Steven Universe and She-Ra. Perhaps the question is not whether we can imagine this kind of world, but whether we have the fortitude to build it.