The Perils of Being a Very Online Abolitionist

How Much Abuse Should an Organizer Take?

By Cheryl Rivera

Living under Covid-19, it can feel like the internet is all we have. In the absence of bullshitting at bars, there’s Twitter. (If you’re more of a TikTok-myself-in-the-club’s-VIP-section type, there’s also Instagram.) Everyone is more online than ever. Everyone except maybe K Toyin Agbebiyi, a New York City–based Black lesbian abolitionist and organizer who decided — at the height of their online popularity — to just not.

For some, the uprisings after George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent surge in organizing for the abolition of police and prisons came as a surprise. The revolution was Blacker than they expected, for one. A popular, if frequently challenged, view that the Black Lives Matter movement had failed to produce a strong left was upended by the resurgent demand that Black lives take center stage. The voices that had argued against the utility of identity politics in building mass movements faltered. 

Agbebiyi’s follower count grew over the summer as “abolition” and “defund” became buzzwords.

Agbebiyi’s voice rose clearly and confidently in that space. Although they are only 26, Agbebiyi is not a beginner: They’ve been organizing around prison abolition for over six years and in numerous formations, including Survived & Punished NY, No New Jails NYC, and the Inside/Outside Collective. Homebound between protests this summer, people flocked to Agbebiyi’s deeply political but also deeply personal Twitter account, @sheabutterfemme, where Agbebiyi wrote threads about organizing for beginners and how being a survivor of violence had made them an abolitionist. Like any millennial digital native ready to share all, they also posted about their partner, frustrations with their disability-related fatigue, inside jokes with their best friend, and outfit-of-the-day selfies. 

In the early days of the pandemic, Agbebiyi focused on mutual aid, launching a fund for disabled organizers working in the Black Liberation movement and promoting the Inside/Outside Brigade Soap Fund to raise money for incarcerated comrades to use at the commissary. Agbebiyi was militant about distinguishing between mutual aid — which for them had to be rooted in abolitionist politics — and charity as typically performed by nonprofit organizations. Mutual aid is solidarity in material form; no one is asked to prove their need via endless paperwork or background checks, and there’s no effort to monitor how people use the funds after they’ve been distributed. 

Agbebiyi’s follower count grew over the summer as “abolition” and “defund” became buzzwords. For Agbebiyi, the conversation around the 2020 uprisings represented both the next wave of a movement that had been building power for decades and a valuable opening for pushing abolition in the mainstream. “There was a period of time where it felt like everyone was learning about abolition,” they told me in a recent chat. “And I have this great platform where I can educate people and learn with them.” 

They were so inundated by questions that they created a popular Google Doc of prison abolition FAQs. (“How does the prison system currently fail to hold perpetrators of harm accountable?”; “How do you propose we punish the police then?”) They also became involved in high-profile projects like 8 to Abolition, a platform advocating for abolitionist approaches to police violence and a direct response to DeRay Mckesson’s milquetoast police reform campaign, 8 Can’t Wait. They sat on a panel with Angela Davis. 

A lot of people are talking about abolition online, “but are they talking about it in ways that we think will actually help the movement long term?”

Despite the benefits of popularity, Agbebiyi soon found that the line between pleasant engagement with an active community and parasocial consumption is thin. “Just as it got good, that’s when the harassment started from the left and the right,” they told me. At the beginning of 2020, their Twitter account had a few thousand followers; by November 6, when Agbebiyi announced they were leaving Twitter, the account had over 53,000. In the time between, Agbebiyi was accused of anti-Blackness by proxy (via a non-Black friend), of supporting abusers (through a loose association with another rising TikTok and Twitter star), of being oriented around the nonprofit industrial complex (they are a social worker), and of being a mean bully (for blocking people on Twitter). Most of these attacks were levied by self-proclaimed leftists. 

Agbebiyi closed the account just as New York City’s economic crisis was accelerating. According to the New York Times, one in five tenants could not pay their rent last September, and many would likely face eviction in the coming months. The city announced cuts to social services amid record unemployment, while the police department kept its $6 billion budget and welcomed a new cadet class. Building collective power to fight the increased policing that comes with austerity will be a crucial fight. Can an abolitionist organizer afford to abandon their social media platform if they want to win? 

It depends on what winning looks like, said Agbebiyi. They are now skeptical about social media as a space for political education, let alone community. A lot of people are talking about abolition online, “but are they talking about it in ways that we think will actually help the movement long term? I’m not completely sure,” Agbebiyi said. They also pointed to the difference in how conflict plays out, online and off. With in–person organizing, you’re likely to be arguing with someone you know, whereas online your interlocutors are often unknown and abstract, and your interactions with them more vicious. 

In early December, Agbebiyi logged back on to Twitter, though they don’t plan to use it much. Instead, they are working with trusted comrades in Survived & Punished NY, hanging out with their partner (who is not niche internet famous), posting photos of new stationery on their Instagram. When asked what advice they have for people newly engaged in the fight for abolition, they demurred. “Am I even in a position to even tell them anything? Because I am also relatively young. I think maybe all anyone wants from a new organizer is humility and honesty. People doing this work for the right reasons and people who are who they say they are.” Online, and off. 

Cheryl Rivera is a Brooklyn-based organizer with NYC-DSA and Abolition Action and an editor of Lux

Photo illustration by Sharanya Durvasula and Chloe Scheffe. Original photograph courtesy K Agbebiyi.