'We are the ones who keep us safe': How abolitionists see an America without police and prisons

While some campaigners see the phrase 'defund the police' as a starting point for reform, others argue it should mean exactly what it says, writes Alex Woodward

Friday 19 June 2020 23:54 BST
Minneapolis councillor Alondra Cano speaks at a rally after two weeks' protest over the death of George Floyd and wider problems of police violence
Minneapolis councillor Alondra Cano speaks at a rally after two weeks' protest over the death of George Floyd and wider problems of police violence (AP)

Washington DC mayor Muriel Bowser — whose city streets just blocks from the White House had been painted with massive yellow block letters reading "defund the police" — told CNN on 8 June that those words don't necessarily mean what some might assume.

"I think a lot of people have different meanings for what they mean when they say 'defund the police', and as I've listened and read, most people are saying they want reform," she said, "and they want good policing."

Her remarks were echoed by pundits and lawmakers across the US as millions of people continue to protest police brutality and the killings of black Americans by police while repeating the mantra to shift the nation's priorities when it comes to public safety. Meanwhile, the phrase has been weaponised by Donald Trump as a campaign cudgel against his Democratic challenger Joe Biden, who has nothing to do with the abolition movement.

But police and prison abolitionists who have carried the phrase through decades of organising — against police violence, mass incarceration and their disproportionate and deadly impacts among communities of colour — say "defund the police" means exactly what it says.

Abolitionists are challenging lawmakers and communities to make policing and prisons obsolete.

"Defund the police means defund the police," says Critical Resistance member Kamau Walton. "One of the things to be wary and sharp about is the co-opting and mixed messaging in this moment. A lot of people are trying to say there's a difference between police reform, defunding the police and abolition. And the call to defund the police is abolitionist. It's a step towards abolition. It is not a separate, moderate or watered-down thing."

Critical Resistance, a national abolitionist organisation co-founded by revolutionary scholars Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, has sought the dismantling of a "prison-industrial complex", one in which for-profit prisons rely on government support for their expansion, justified by swollen prison populations, despite outside reforms to reduce America's world-leading incarceration rates.

Gilmore has argued that prisons and police have served as a "catch-all" response to address social and moral failures that would be better served by richer investments in social services that can prevent conditions that enable crime in the first place.

Instead of cities spending a lion's share of their budgets on their police departments, abolitionists argue that money should support affordable housing, healthcare, child care, mental health treatment and other services.

A 2017 report from the Centre for Popular Democracy, Black Youth Project 100 and Law for Black Lives found that several major cities have "stripped funds from mental health services, housing subsidies, youth programs, and food benefits programs, while pouring money into police forces, military grade weapons, high-tech surveillance, jails, and prisons".

The United States is the world's incarceration capital, housing a quarter of the world's prisoners in a nation that represents only 5 per cent of the global population.

It also disproportionately jails black people — African Americans make up 13 per cent of the US but more than 40 per cent of prison populations.

Abolitionists also seek to end the prison system's legacy of racism, from its roots in plantation-era America to its echoes in mass incarceration today.

Following the ending of enslavement at the end of the US Civil War, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery except for those convicted of a crime, allowing the adoption of "black codes" in economically devastated southern states at the end of the war to impose harsh penalties against newly freed black Americans for minor crimes, ensuring their continued "free" labour in prison.

"Convict leasing" would go on to provide labour for massive private infrastructure, while legalised segregation and Jim Crow-era terror criminalised black Americans.

Organisers argue that the system can't be "repaired" or "reformed" because it is doing what it set out to do; efforts to "reform" merely entrench law enforcement's role in policing and imprisoning communities.

Abolition is "absolutely getting rid of the systems and tools that support oppression, punishment and marginalisation of people," Walton says. "That means getting rid of policing, getting rid of imprisonment, [and] dismantling surveillance and court systems that are used to inflict harm, trauma and violence on marginalised people. And it also means changing what we prioritise and how we define safety, and it means building up institutions, systems, tools and resources that actually keep our folks safe."

Abolitionists argue it's not enough to "reform" these institutions but to divest from them entirely, with city budgets directing millions of dollars earmarked for law enforcement into other community services, not as a one-time emergency fix but as a long-term solution to repair and transform the conditions that create violence.

"Abolition is about being more forward-thinking and preventative and not only just responding to harm and violence but also investing in our communities and caring for each other so we prevent a lot of that violence from happening in the first place," Walton says. "When communities are stable, healthy and thriving, we know there's a lot less harm and violence."

Following unrest and protests over the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, groups across the US began adopting an abolitionist framework, gaining broader support and traction across organisations in public health, housing and other areas, as well as direct action campaigns like bailout funds and community efforts to stop local jail expansions.

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and global protests against police violence, abolitionists have counted some victories across the US, paved not just by the growing demonstrations but by the groundwork from community groups in prior decades.

The Minneapolis City Council unanimously supported a resolution to determine a community-supported replacement for the city's police force. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also announced his intention to strip $250 million from the city's police department budget, which tops $1.8 billion, and redirect funds into youth programs, healthcare and other areas.

New York City police commissioner Dermot Shea also dissolved a plainclothes unit that has been criticised for pitting police against communities it serves.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, following the police killing of Rayshard Brooks, also ordered her city's police department to "immediately adopt" deescalation policies, including holding officers accountable for their "duty to intervene" against another officer's use of deadly force.

Both chambers of Congress, meanwhile, are eyeing extensive policing reform packages, while self-described "law-and-order" president Donald Trump issued a set of policing guidelines, including funds for training and a ban on chokeholds — "except in those situations where the use of deadly force is allowed by law".

Following New York's passage of a massive legislative package with sweeping reforms, Governor Andrew Cuomo told protesters: "You won."

But abolitionists argue that incremental efforts ultimately do nothing to stop police violence and merely reinforce the institutions they have sought to disband, pointing to a history of investigations about police misconduct that all led to similar outcomes, while police killings and abuse persisted.

Abolitionists painted a massive 'defund the police' message in Washington DC. (Getty Images) 

Critical Resistance started its 8 To Abolition campaign as a counter to 8 Can't Wait, which was roundly criticised by abolitionist groups for its incrementalist approach to preventing police brutality.

The 8 Can't Wait platform calls for a ban on chokeholds, although these were already banned by the NYPD for more than two decades when Eric Garner was killed.

It also would require officers to warn people before they shoot them, which is already required in a majority of police departments, and would require officers to "exhaust all alternatives" before shooting. But officers have often cited perceived threats to their life in deadly encounters, which meet the legal threshold for use of deadly force.

A "duty to intervene" — also invoked by Mayor Bottoms — was in place in Minneapolis as three other officers looked on while Derek Chauvin placed his knee into the neck of Mr Floyd for nearly nine minutes.

In The New York Times, organiser Mariama Kaba argues that commissions, studies and the "best practices" that emerge from police abuse investigations from as early as 1894 only "served as a kind of counterinsurgent function each time police violence led to protests."

There were calls for reform following the 1967 uprisings in cities across the US and as a response to the police beating of Rodney King in 1991 as well as to the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014.

While Barack Obama's President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing led to bias training and use-of-force recommendations and community listening sessions after the Ferguson protests, a task force member noted in the report that "policing as we know it must be abolished before it can be transformed."

"The philosophy undergirding these reforms is that more rules will mean less violence," Kabe writes. "Why on earth would we think the same reforms would work now? We need to change our demands. The surest way of reducing police violence is to reduce the power of the police, by cutting budgets and the number of officers."

That urgency is underscored by the coronavirus pandemic, Walton says, as millions of recently unemployed Americans navigate rent, healthcare and other needs without a safety net.

Minneapolis mayor booed off stage for refusing to abolish police

"When people are put in situations where they're not able to live in the homes they've been in, where they're not able to get access to running water in the midst of a pandemic, that puts them with a lot less options," Walton says. "We are not prioritising folks being able to shelter in place during a pandemic, and we don't have any services that balance that out, but we aren't willing to protect people and keep them safe."

But Princeton University sociologist Patrick Sharkey, who is sympathetic to the abolitionist movement, argues that while communities should have a greater role in reducing harm in their communities, "those who argue that the police have no role in maintaining safe streets are arguing against lots of strong evidence."

"One of the most robust, most uncomfortable findings in criminology is that putting more officers on the street leads to less violent crime," he writes in The Washington Post. "Considered alongside the brutal response to protests over the past few weeks, this evidence forces us to hold two incongruent ideas: Police are effective at reducing violence, the most damaging feature of urban inequality. And yet one can argue that law enforcement is an authoritarian institution that historically has inflicted violence on black people and continues to do so today."

Abolition argues for restorative justice, or repairing relationships that existed in communities, as well as transformative justice, which shapes communities to prevent future harm.

"There is this effort to want to believe that there is someone else who is going to keep us safe, and if we give them the tools that they need they will finally do it right, but that's not the case," Walton says. "We are the ones who keep us safe, and we're the ones who deserve to be invested in."

Rather than public safety spearheaded by police, abolitionists call for the communities themselves to take the lead. Neighbours can learn to deescalate incidents, respond to mental health issues and hold one another accountable for their communities. Most conflicts could be disrupted through mediation, or defused by social workers or mental health workers and other care providers.

But the calls to abolish police and prisons don't ignore the inevitability of violence. Instead, abolitionists argue that police don't actually stop violence from happening, and that a better administration of justice should come from communities holding people accountable. Addressing the conditions that lead to people committing violence would prevent it from happening in the first place, they argue, while prisons don't inherently repair the health or harms that lead to a person's imprisonment, including their mental health, addiction or abuse.

The National Crime Victimisation Survey found that roughly half of all sexual assaults, robberies and aggravated assaults go unreported. For every 1,000 people who commit sexual assault, roughly 995 do not spend any time in prison, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, the nation's largest organisation against sexual violence.

As for court systems, abolition would dramatically reduce the number of people in pretrial detention — people held in jails before they're convicted of a crime. The number of people in US jails before they've been convicted swelled by 433 per cent from the 1970s to 2015, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

A 2018 report from the National Institutes of Health determined that a "combined investment in a public health, community-based approach to violence prevention and a criminal justice approach focused on deterrence can achieve more to reduce population-level rates of urban violence than either can in isolation."

The Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, for example, shifted from thinking about transformative justice within "communities" to "pods", which are "made up of the people that you would call on if violence, harm or abuse happened to you", had witnessed, or wanted accountability for.

"Why can't we be the ones taking care of each other, instead of police, who tend to escalate and further traumatise people when that doesn't need to happen?" Walton argues. "Why not invest in people who are going to see you as a neighbour, a cousin, a friend, a loved one, that they care for and want to take care of? That's the idea behind the solutions we want to see, that they need to be based in communities that see people as people, people connected to them and that they're accountable to."

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