Police Abolitionists Aren’t ‘Too Radical’ – They’ve Been Making Gains for Decades

by Sarah Jaffe

12 June 2020

Defund the police. Geoff Livingston/Flickr

Since the uprisings began in Minneapolis after the police killing of George Floyd, there’s been a new spotlight on a demand that has deep roots but is nevertheless new to many people watching around the world.

Like police violence itself, the demand to defund and eventually abolish the police is something that has been discussed and organised around for many years in black and other racialised communities in the US – but has mostly been kept out of the mainstream. While journalism is facing its own reckoning with its failure to cover these issues properly, plenty of pundits, caught by surprise by what seems to them to be the sudden appearance of radical demands, have nevertheless taken it upon themselves to tell the movement these demands are the wrong ones. The gatekeepers are still gatekeeping, even after it’s been made clear they’re very bad at the job.

But as I said on Twitter the other day, these criticisms are nothing new to a movement that in this iteration dates back to the 1990s or so, according to one of its leading thinkers, geographer and organiser Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Despite the common cry that ‘abolish’ or even ‘defund’ the police is too radical, the demand is popping up in protests in small towns that are in some cases 90% white, while 54% of Americans think the burning down of a police station was at least partially justified following Floyd’s death.

The double move of projective opposition is on full display right now. Projective opponents will rarely just come out and say they oppose the demand to abolish the police – rather, their opposition is always projected onto a presumed ‘normie’ who will be turned off by it. First they say ‘abolitionists clearly haven’t thought it through’; confronted with Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Angela Davis, they shift gears to ‘if you go to a working-class black community, most people don’t want to abolish the police.’ (May I suggest James Forman Jr’s book Locking Up Our Own on the subject if you actually want to know the history of black communities’ demands around policing.) If you point then to the organising done by actually-existing groups rooted in that very working-class black community, supporting the victims of violence inflicted by the police and others, somehow that will not grow into a mass movement, even though that mass movement is in the streets right now in every state in the US – and across the UK too.

But what the pundit class has missed (perhaps it ought to do a little more journalism) is that ideas that suddenly break through to the mainstream have usually been incubated at the grassroots for a long time. Abolition is rooted in a black radical tradition in which the word is used precisely because it echoes the fight for the abolition of slavery, because it calls attention to the roots of policing and prisons in controlling enslaved people. Like ‘reparations’, the demand is considered ‘too much’ by the pundit class in part because it makes white people consider their implication in a racist system, even as it makes concrete gains.

The winning of reparations for police torture in Chicago in 2015, after a decades-long campaign, is just one of those concrete gains. Longtime abolitionist thinker and organiser Mariame Kaba wrote at the time of the victory, noting the dismissal of early protests against the vicious regime of police commander Jon Burge: “It’s a reminder, I think, that our perspectives on historical moments that we inhabit can sometimes be myopic. [This writer] could not have known that the organising in the ‘90s would serve as a foundation and a road map for efforts into the future.” That organising, she noted, took the form of “protests, advocacy, litigation, and storytelling,” and the six months that led up to the reparations legislation passing were filled with “rallies, sing ins, marches, light actions, train takeovers, exhibition-ins, and more”. 

The testimony of the Chicago torture survivors is harrowing – people were electrocuted, suffocated, beaten and burned, held incommunicado and terrorised and then framed for crimes they didn’t commit. But eventually they did win reparations: nearly $100,000 per torture survivor, plus free education and counselling for the survivors and their families. Importantly, though, the reparations included something else: public schools would teach the story of the police torture to Chicago children, and a public memorial would be erected. In a time when statues of slaveholders are coming down from Bristol to St Paul and their defenders complain activists are destroying history, it is important to note that justice is done by the accurate teaching of history, the accurate memorialising of harm. This is the everyday work of abolition.

Political activists often do not know how our efforts will pay off. A Labour backbencher named Jeremy Corbyn, once mostly known for his willingness to show up at protests against apartheid (another once ‘unrealistic’ black freedom struggle) and nuclear weapons and for workers, probably didn’t think in 1984 when he was being carted off from the South African Embassy by police that one day he’d carry the hopes and dreams of a new generation of socialists to within an inch of 10 Downing Street. So too do abolitionists look at the long struggle to prevent a new prison, get early release for prisoners during a pandemic, replace a district attorney, ban stop and frisk, and so many incremental victories to chip away at the power of police and prisons and win back a little bit more freedom and think, ‘perhaps not in my lifetime, but nonetheless, the work is creating the possibility of change’. They evaluate reforms based on whether they will give more money and power to the institutions they wish to end or not, and they lay groundwork that, despite the pundits’ complaints, is very well thought out.

Opinions suddenly change because material conditions do. The demand for abolition grew from the material conditions of black people, who experienced police in their communities as violence workers, not protectors, and it is spreading now because more people are experiencing that violence, and looking at their country’s priorities and finding them askew. As author Mychal Denzel Smith said on Democracy Now! this week: “One thing that’s come of this global pandemic of Covid-19 is an understanding of what constitutes ‘essential’ – what do we actually need? And police have shown they are inessential.”

What has been proved essential is healthcare, food, cleaning work, mutual aid – all this labour that has been devalued as cities slash services to the bone and pour money into police departments. This mutual aid has long been a practice of abolitionists groups: they do ‘swipe it forward’ actions in New York City (swiping people into the subway to avoid fare-beating arrests), jail support for protesters, provide food and counselling and run bail funds to free people from jails. 

Abolition, organiser and writer Kelly Hayes has observed, “is a construction project”. It is a project of building institutions for repair and for life-making that address people’s needs, and in this moment, it is breaking through because activists have been doing the work day in and day out of meeting the needs of their communities in a way the police do not. This essential work, abolitionists have long noted, properly funded and supported and expanded, is what will create a world that prevents violence rather than punishes it after the fact.

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center. She is also the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt and the forthcoming Work Won’t Love You Back.

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