Why abolishing the police and turning to the community won't protect women

Women come to us when their family and elders have not only failed to remedy the situation but reinforced it. Furthermore, communities cannot be held accountable in the same way as the state

Rahila Gupta
Sunday 21 June 2020 09:51 BST
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The killing of Rayshard Brooks by police in America happened less than three weeks after that of George Floyd. With jaw-dropping horror, these deaths point to the intractable history of police brutality towards the black community, despite an equally long history of reform. The killings have given new impetus to the long-simmering frustration of how do you solve a problem like the police?

Calls to defund the police and use the resources that are freed up on community welfare, health and education are rational and laudable, as those kinds of investments should reduce the need for police intervention further down the line. But defunding is usually seen as the tactical first step on the road to abolition by creating the kind of society in which policing would not be needed.

While the US context, with its prison-industrial complex and where the police began life as slave patrols, is significantly different from the UK, there are enough parallels in terms of disproportionate numbers of black people represented in the criminal justice system and killed in custody, to reflect on what it might mean for us here, particularly for black women.

Angela Davis, who has long been an abolitionist when it comes to the police, suggested recently in an interview with Democracy Now! that intersectional feminism which addresses both race and gender should be working towards abolition. “Abolition feminism counters carceral feminism, which has unfortunately assumed that issues such as violence against women can be effectively addressed by using police force, by using imprisonment as a solution,” she says.

This debate hasn’t quite landed in the UK yet, where abolitionist feminism rather refers to the ending of prostitution. However, tussling with the criminal justice system to safeguard women against violence has been a long and continuing struggle.

While I am in full sympathy with Angela Davis’s visionary aspirations, I believe that it is not possible to take an abolitionist position unless we have a revolution which ends capitalism. The police prop up an inherently unequal society, protecting the interests of capital and property; their policing strategy is bound to be shaped by those interests.

Angela Davis is right that the police are not an effective response to violence against women. It is a band-aid. An effective response would be to end patriarchy and to overturn the imbalance of power between men and women. But meanwhile there are women who are being beaten, killed and need support to escape violent men; often police intervention is needed.

At Southall Black Sisters (SBS), where I have been on the management committee since 1989, we have been doing intersectionality differently. The straightforward anti-racist line would have been to boycott the police. We negotiate the minefield of conflicting priorities of race and gender by engaging with the police to safeguard women, but every time the police fail to carry out their obligations or overstep the mark, we hold them to account.

From very early on, SBS found that the police were more interested in the immigration status of the parties involved than in safeguarding the women when they were called to what used to be dismissively known as a “domestic”. In the 1980s, it was usually the perpetrator whose immigration status was of interest to the police. More recently, even women facing domestic violence have been arrested because their papers are not in order. Many of these cases are enumerated in a super-complaint against the police instigated by SBS along with Liberty, to ensure that there is a firewall between police and Home Office data. This is a fairly new mechanism to hold police to account for systemic failings alongside judicial review or complaints against individual officers. It has yet to carry out its first investigation.

Pragna Patel, director of SBS, says, “We have to wait and see whether this will be an effective mechanism or more of the same covering up and trivialising of police failings.”

Judicial reviews are another avenue of holding the police to account. The Centre for Women’s Justice successfully overturned the probation board’s decision to release John Worboys, also known as the “black cab rapist”, early. In 2019 he was given two life sentences, what Angela Davis might describe as carceral feminism, but many women believed this was the only solution for those who felt at risk from a predatory man whose initial conviction rested on sexual assaults on 12 women but he finally admitted to drugging 90 women.

This catalogue of police failings and the relatively weak oversight mechanisms may make Minneapolis city’s calls for a community-based system of public safety seem attractive at first. But for organisations like SBS, the community itself is a problem riddled as it is with conservative, patriarchal and religious values. Women come to SBS as a last resort when family, community, elders, all the classic instruments of support, have not only failed to remedy the situation but reinforced it. Furthermore, communities cannot be held accountable in the same way as the state.

Unless communities can be radically reshaped to support gender equality and multi-racial inclusivity as the women’s revolution is doing in anti-capitalist Rojava, North East Syria, women will remain in the paradoxical situation of needing a system which also oppresses us.

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