Be Like Water, An Abolitionist Relationality

Green and purple ink swirls in water

“Be Like Water, An Abolitionist Relationality” will be published in two parts. Part I (below) is the third piece in the 2020 Visions: Imagining (Post-) COVID Worlds series, which aims to reflect on the uneven impacts of the “pandemic year” and to consider new futures that might be made possible in its wake. You can find Part II here. Series editors: Weishun Lu, Juniper Lewis, Richelle Wilson, and Addie Hopes.

This past year, I spent a significant amount of time pondering water. Waterhealing, fluid, motion, stillness, ease, play, life. Inspired by adrienne maree brown’s book, Emergent Strategy, particularly brown’s call to “be like water,” I began to wonder: what can we learn from water in practicing abolition in our everyday ways of being in and relating to the world?

On Water

Since March 2020, when we were instructed to quarantine, I have repeated “be like water” as a mantra to remind myself to be adaptable, find ease, go with the flow, and create time for play. During this COVID-19 pandemic I have been learning to be like water.

What does it mean to be like water? “Be like water” means to heal. In the first three months of quarantine, I realized that I have a propensity for healing. Though unemployed due to the pandemic, I had the privilege of spending the first three months of quarantine looking inward, digging deep, doing difficult and unpleasant, but necessary, shadow work. I intentionally got to know the dark side of myself and befriended my ragea part of myself that I had repressed for so much of my life.

I was enraged by the murders of George Floyd, Tony McDade, David McAtee, Rayshard Brooks, Damien Daniels, Breonna Taylor, and Darrell Zemault Sr., and too many more, by police last summer. These anti-Black police killings and the resulting protests were triggering for myself and my family in San Antonio as we continue to grieve the life and death of my younger cousin, Charles “Chop” Roundtree, Jr., who was murdered by the San Antonio Police Department in 2018. The rage was overwhelming, I almost did not know what to do with it.

Be like water, my dear

Flow gentle

Be like water, my dear

Stay fluid

Be like water, my dear

Find ease

Be like water, my dear


Be like water, my dear


Be like water, my dear

Find a way

Be like water, my dear

Cry, cleanse, carry on

Be like water, my dear

Find your way

Be like water, my dear

How could I be like water and be with and release my fire? I turned to my ancestors, to my community, and inward toward myself. I intentionally set out to nourish my spiritual health and developed new spiritual practices, including a daily meditation practice, maintaining an altar to commune with my ancestors, and I joined a community of Black folks learning about African and African diasporic religious traditions through biweekly virtual orisa circles. During one of our orisa circles, we learned about the Yoruba river deity, Ọ̀ṣun, who protects the Osun River in Nigeria and represents love, fertility, and femininity. During this orisa circle, we learned about how Ọ̀ṣun used play instead of violence to create peace between two villages and discussed how we cannot do anything without water. Water is life. During these first three months of quarantine I felt like I truly learned what it meant to be like water.

On Abolition

Angela Davis makes the case that the prison is so naturalized in most societies that we have trouble imagining alternative responses and solutions to harm. The prison has become a “common sense” solution to social, political, and economic problems. Davis and other abolitionist scholars also emphasize that carceral logics extend far beyond the sites of physical prisons. The prison permeates our schools, our workplaces, our homes. The state does not only surveil, police, criminalize, isolate, control, and punish us, but we practice those ways of relating to each other, ourselves, and the more-than-human world. Therefore, if the prison shows up in the spaces where we live, learn, work, pray, and play, then these also have to be our sites of abolition. If we internalize those carceral logics, then our relationships, our bodies, our ways of being and relating must also be our sites of abolition.

As an abolitionist, it is important for me to practice abolition in my daily life. For years, I have asked myself what abolition looks like in my day-to-day. How do I practice abolition in the ways that I relate to myself, to others, to the environment? A question that flows through this reflection here is, what does abolition mean for the ways we relate to ourselves, to other humans, to the land, and to the more-than-human world? After a year reflecting on being like water, I further ask: what can we learn from water in creating ways of relating that are based in abolition praxis? How does thinking with water shift the way we think and talk about abolition? What does abolition mean for the planet, for our relationship to the planet? What does abolition mean for how we relate?  

If the prison shows up in the spaces where we live, learn, work, pray, and play, then these also have to be our sites of abolition.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes abolition geography as a space where different groups with different struggles come together over an issue that connects their struggles (e.g., where a struggle against water pollution is also a struggle against the criminalization of youth). Gilmore says, “abolition geography is work based on noticing and recognition.” She discusses this noticing and recognition in the context of making a conscious and collective effort to struggle against capitalism. It is the recognition of interdependence, that your struggle is my struggle, my liberation is tied up in your liberation. This recognition is important at both the large-scale level of movements and the small-scale level of interpersonal relationships.

In Angela Davis’s “Visualizing Abolition” conversation with Gina Dent, Davis reminds us that feminist abolitionism is “the recognition of knowledge that is not segregated from feelings. So what does it mean to be an abolitionist calling for the abolition of institutions, but internalizing those impulses and allowing those impulses to define one’s relations to others?” We cannot propose to abolish institutions that uphold the logics of separation, isolation, control, heteronormativity, and racial capitalism without recognizing and confronting how we internalize and practice these logics in our ways of relating.

So how can we use abolition praxis to shift our ways of relating, not only to other people, but to ourselves, to other species, and to the land? After a year and a half of meditating on adrienne maree brown’s book, Emergent Strategy, particularly brown’s call to “be like water,” I propose being like water as an abolitionist relationality. I suggest that internalizing water as a way of being can help us practice abolition at the level of how we relate to the world. Inspired by Octavia Butler’s writings on our relationship to change, Emergent Strategy is about what we can learn from nature in our organizing and ways of being. As abolitionists, what can we learn from water, both at the level of how we move collectively and how we move as individuals?

Being Like Water as an Abolitionist Relationality

Water is healing. We need to center healing in our movements for liberation and hold ourselves accountable to our individual healing. We all have unique life experiences and traumas that influence how we show up in and navigate the world. Rejecting a savior complex, we can recognize others’ struggles/pain/trauma without taking on the faux responsibility of trying to save or heal them. We heal ourselves, and we can support others in doing the same because we heal on our own terms. This is not to promote an individualist framework for healing. Our healing must also be collective or done in community and as a community.

Water is always collective. We can look to healing justice, a framework for understanding that our trauma and oppression is political and requires collective healing practices to transform the consequences of oppression. It is important that we practice healing in our organizing for social change. Too often, people burnout and organizations fall apart because they reproduce the same toxic ways of relating that they are fighting against. Being like water would mean prioritizing healing and restorative practices in our organizations and movement spaces.

Internalizing water as a way of being can help us practice abolition in ways of being in and relating to the world.

Water requires immersion. To practice being like water as an abolition relationality means dealing with depth and complexity. Rather than operating under binaries such as perpetrator/victim, good/bad, criminal/non-criminal, normative/non-normative, human/animal, violent/non-violent, guilty/innocent, deserving/undeserving, etc., we immerse ourselves in the complexities and multiplicities of our embodied experiences. To immerse ourselves means that we get wet; we accept that none of us are innocent. This means recognizing the ways in which we have all been perpetrators of harm or complicit in harm at some point, embracing non-innocence. Immersion is vulnerable. Abolition work requires vulnerability. To be like water is to be vulnerable with each other, and to honor and embrace vulnerability when it shows up. I believe it also is to be vulnerable with the land.

Water invites us to play. To be like water is to create space for play, to notice our bodies, and to prioritize pleasure. This might look like making room for joy and laughter in our organizing spaces, feeding our bodies what they need, and moving our bodies, connecting to what feels good. Being able to play demonstrates our resilience. I think that it is an important part of how we remain resilient. The prison industrial complex is a system that produces and normalizes premature Black death. Being like water as an abolition relationality looks like uplifting Black joy and honoring Black life while we are living. If one of the functions of the prison is to contain and disconnect us from our bodies and our communities, then we must be uncontainable, build and sustain connection to others across differences, and (re)connect with our bodies’ needs and the experiences that bring us pleasure. What better way to connect and express our uncontainability than through play?   

opening up possibilities 1

i am real and unreal

not your ideal, not your container

self-containing and uncontained

overflowing body of wonder

as unknown and unchartered as the depths of the ocean

this body is primordial, present, and not yet imagined

undefinable, like grasping water in your hands

this body is a map of who and where i’ve been, yet undiscoverable

unknowable, this body is only stories2

a landscape, an ecosystem, a universe

Macarena Gómez-Barris highlights the submerged perspectives of Indigenous and African-diasporic communities who live within or alongside extractive zones. She describes “these transitional and intangible spaces as geographies that cannot be fully contained by the ethnocentrism of speciesism, scientific objectification, or by extractive technocracies that advance oil fields, construct pipelines, divert and diminish rivers, or cave-in mountains through mining.” Capitalism is an extractive system. It is a system of taking from the land, taking from people, taking from other species. Gómez-Barris articulates what she calls the extractive view, which “sees territories as commodities, rendering land as for the taking, while also devalorizing the hidden worlds that form the nexus of human and nonhuman multiplicity.”  She argues that the extractive view facilitates the actualization of turning us into “extractable data and natural resources for material and immaterial accumulation.” To extract from us or to turn us into “extractable data,” it has to view us as containable. The extractive view contains and encloses.

Where do we find refuge from containment and enclosure? How do we resist containment and enclosure? Gómez-Barris and Alexis Pauline Gumbs suggest that we look to submerged perspectives. Taking on Sylvia Wynter’s challenge of rethinking blood as paint, in Dub, Gumbs broadens who she understands as her ancestors to include marine life––whales, corals, barnacles, bacteria. According to Gumbs, Dub is an artifact and tool for breath retraining and interspecies ancestral listening. She explores what it would be like to breathe like her ancestors who live underwater. What if we could breathe like marine life? How would that change the stories we tell about ourselves? Gumbs offers us a challenge: “when you think you gotta hold onto something (like who you think you are), let go.”

alternative bridge poem 3

Can we do bridge-work without bending over?

By we I mean Black women, Black femmes, Black trans women.

Can we be bridges without it being the undervalued, unpaid labor of our backs?

Let us turn to the water, to Osun—

Water is the bridge that connects us all.

Some of us believe that water is (or is like) our blood,

But what if we thought was blood, is only paint?

What then are bridges?

How then do we do bridge-work?

What if we moved across, through, and with oceans like our ancestors of the sea?

Oceans are no longer barriers that separate us over here from you over there or them over there.

Let us go to the water and see what we learn or remember there.

It might show us how to paint worlds of alternative bridges,

Bridges that aren’t our backs or at the expense of them

Yet still connect us like tissue.4

Bridges that expand, like water, across space and time.

Featured image: Ink in water. Image by engin akyurt, 2021.

Ki’Amber Thompson is a queer Blaxicana educator, organizer, artist, and entrepreneur from the West Side of San Antonio, Texas. Ki’Amber is the Founder and Director of the Charles Roundtree Bloom Project, an outdoor healing justice program for youth of incarcerated parents in San Antonio. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at University of California in Santa Cruz and continuing to build out the Bloom Project. Contact.

  1. The title of the poem came from Judith Butler’s 1999 preface of Gender Trouble: “The point was not to prescribe a new gendered way of life that might then serve as a model for readers of the text. Rather, the aim of the text was to open up the field of possibility for gender without dictating which kinds of possibilities ought to be realized. One might wonder what use ‘opening up possibilities’ finally is, but no one who has understood what it is to live in the social world as what is ‘impossible,’ illegible, unrealizable, unreal, and illegitimate is likely to pose that question.” Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (Milton Park: Routledge, 1999), viii. 

  2. From Sylvia Wynter’s “Homo narrans,” the idea that we are a storytelling species. 

  3. The title of this poem is inspired by Donna Kate Rushin’s “The Bridge Poem” in This Bridge Called My Back. My poem is in conversation with the book. Donna Kate Rushin, “The Bridge Poem,” in This Bridge Called My Back, ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa (Watertown, Massachusetts: Persephone Press, 1981). 

  4. Goméz-Barris writes that “Geo-choreographies theorize how water functions as connective tissue, wherein rivers express the microlevel of human embodiment. In this view, rivers form the arteries of liquid, as Caycedo puts it, ‘for the river is to water as the veins that carry our blood.’” Macarena Gómez-Barris, The Extractive Zone (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 106.