New Haven Mural Honors Prison Abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore

In New Haven, Connecticut, a new public mural in the neighborhood of Edgewood celebrates local advocacy for racial and economic justice through the lens of prison abolitionist and scholar Ruth (Ruthie) Wilson Gilmore. Painted on the red-brick exterior of the Possible Futures bookstore, the crowd-funded mural boasts a community-wide effort from start to finish that was heavily acknowledged during the October 21 unveiling ceremony attended by Ruthie and her family.

One side of the mural is a rendering of young Ruthie held up by her father, lifelong New Haven activist Courtland Seymour Wilson, as the pair look up at “portals” of formative memories that catalyzed Ruthie’s path toward abolitionism; a quote by her reads, “We can make freedom out of what we have.” The second side portrays a large portrait of present-day Ruthie holding native plants that frame a central portal of members from New Haven’s Citywide Youth Coalition and other community advocates fighting to improve funding for and remove police presence from the city’s public schools.

Several “portals” from Ruthie’s past were included in the mural to illustrate her path to abolition activism. (image courtesy Jess X. Snow)

Selected muralist Jess X. Snow told Hyperallergic that the project design was community-informed, noting that the project team engaged in conversations with Ruthie herself as well as five scholars of her work: Alán Pelaez Lopez, Adamu Chan, A. Naomi Paik, and Daniel Martinez HoSang.

“It was important for us to incorporate youth abolitionist organizing within New Haven and represent Ruthie’s vision for abolition and the impact that she had on the city and its history together,” Snow explained.

Ruthie’s scholarship and career in anti-racism and carceral geography have manifested in her co-founding of grassroots organizations for prison abolition including Critical Resistance with Angela Davis, the coalition of Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), and the California Prison Moratorium Project. As a renowned geographer and author of Abolition Geography: Essays Toward Liberation (2023) among other texts, she is regarded as a leading voice within the spheres of decarceration and prison abolition. A core teaching of hers that reverberates throughout the New Haven mural is that “what the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, experiments and possibilities.”

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Activist and scholar Ruthie Wilson Gilmore next to muralist Jess X. Snow at the mural unveiling ceremony on October 21 (photo by Devon John, courtesy Jess X. Snow)

“She really changed the way that I think about abolition,” Snow elaborated. “Sometimes, abolitionists talk about these grand visions that are theory-heavy, but I found that Ruthie was able to connect abolition to the small actions and the practices that we do on the daily and the ways that we relate to each other which was really powerful.”

The mural’s lead organizer and New Haven high school teacher Nataliya Braginsky told Hyperallergic that the “fragments” Ruthie refers to exist in New Haven already, as demonstrated by the Intergenerational Abolition Project with support from Connecticut’s Anti-Racist Teaching and Learning Collective — both entities were key facilitators of the mural. Braginsky said that Ruthie’s teachings were essential to her as she worked “to create alternatives to punitive discipline policies at Metropolitan [Business Academy],” where she taught for nine years.

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Nataliya Braginsky speaking to the ceremony attendees on October 21 (image courtesy Jess X. Snow)

“Ruthie teaches us that abolition is life in rehearsal, but I don’t think I fully understood what that meant until now,” Braginsky said during her unveiling ceremony speech shared with Hyperallergic. “So, when you look at this mural, know that it is not just about abolition, it is a product of it. It’s not just an ode to Ruthie, it is a practice of what Ruthie has taught us.”

Another compelling aspect of the mural, which was partially funded by the Center for Biological Diversity, is the representation of endangered flora native to the New Haven area, including the Sandplain Gerardia, the Small Whorled Pogonia, and the Jesup’s Milk-vetch.

“We wanted to relate Ruthie’s vision of abolition to also a vision of climate justice where these rare and native plants reclaim the land and grow toward the sky,” Snow highlighted, further enshrining the tangibility of Ruthie’s message.

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A view of the completed mural during the unveiling ceremony (photo by Devon John, courtesy Jess X. Snow)

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