Police Abolition

In this session, we discussed what policing is, what abolition means, what abolitionists do, how abolitionist approaches differ from other critiques (like mass incarceration), why abolitionists demand more than reform, alternatives to policing, and the relationships between capitalism and the carceral state, abolition and socialism.

Although this session did discuss prison reform and prison abolition, this session focused on police abolition in greater detail.

Below, you will find a recommended reading list. Also included is a truncated summary of the topics covered in the session, with timestamps provided so you can listen to the topics explained in more detail.

Reading List

Are Prisons Obselete? by Angela Davis
Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California by Ruth Wilson Gilmore
“Towards the horizon of abolition,” interview with Mariame Kaba, The Next System Project
“Arresting the Carceral State” by Mariame Kaba and Erica R. Meiners, Jacobin
“Against Carceral Feminism” by Victoria Law, Jacobin
Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation by Beth E. Richie
The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale
Critical Resistance channel, Youtube
Resource Guide: Prisons, Policing, and Punishment by Micah Herskind
Resource hub about ending violence by TransformHarm.org

What is police abolition?

Police abolition might be best described by this quote from Ruth Wilson Gilmore:

Abolition is a movement to end systemic violence, including the interpersonal vulnerability and displacements that keep the system going…the goal is to change how we interact with each other and the planet by putting people over profits, welfare over warfare, and life over death.

Policing (and prisons) are ubiquitous features of our world, yet these institutions have not always existed, nor played as large a role in our society as they do today. For many, uprooting these institutions seems unthinkable, even among those who can envision a world beyond capitalism or who see them as inherently oppressive. In the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others, there is renewed controversy about policing and larger interest in police abolition.

Taking prisons and police for granted (3:40)

Think about when you first learned of the police. In children’s media, police are typically portrayed as all-purpose helpers, while in adult media there is a seemingly endless supply of police television that all share implicit messages: the association between violence and crime; the dehumanization and demonization of criminals and criminalized populations; the necessity of violence and lawlessness to contain disorder; and criminal justice as seamless and quick, impeded only by rights and lawyers. Documentary style media such as “Live PD” or “Cops” also reinforce these themes, as does mainstream news, which typically presents police perspectives as factual or neutral accounts of events or situations.

These perceptions are rarely challenged, save for moments of unrest or times of serious social upheaval, as we are seeing now. But the problem is larger than media representation. As stated by Angela Davis, “the ideological work that the prison performs…relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism, and increasingly, global capitalism.”

The origins of police and prisons (7:57)

Although police and prisons are ubiquitous, they have not always existed. Robert Peal founded the London Metropolitan Police in 1829, and this is often considered the beginning of the modern policing system. Peal took the lessons he learned during his time as a colonial officer in Ireland – at the time a possession of England – to develop a system for controlling an urban, working-class population in London. This origin is crucial for making sense of the critical issue endemic to our justice system – a system build to maximize control, rather than harm reduction and safety.

Prior to prison systems, jails were used mostly as holding pens for those awaiting corporal punishment or the death penalty. Prisons were introduced as a reform to this system – a place where criminals could be rehabilitated through confinement and control, theoretically providing a place for prisoners to reflect and reconsider their actions. It’s important to remember the origins of prisons – a reform system designed to rehabilitate offenders - as we consider what the point of high levels of incarceration and policing today.

Police abuse tends to be talked about in dramatic, personalized terms. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade. These are all personalized, but contemporary, examples of police brutality and abuse of power. But its critical to remember these incidents not as isolated events, but individual examples of a systemic problem. While abuse of police power affects everyone in American society, its downsides are experienced acutely by minority populations in the US, specifically Black Americans.

Following the end of slavery, private or quasi-public violence was the main means of exerting social control on freed Black populations, especially in the south. The construction of Black people as criminals, dangerous, and violent was one of the core ways white supremacy was legitimated (see Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness). In taking private use of force out of the hands of individuals, and integrating it into the responsibility of the state, official systems were introduced so that white people would not be held accountable for enforcing social control over Black Americans. It also provided the state with expanded capacity to control other disruptive populations – such as poor whites, labor organizers, and immigrant populations.

Police abuse has been central to not only the civil rights movement, but mass protests and uprisings since. Grievances against police abuse, along with a whole gamut of other issues, spurred and informed much of the urban riots of the late 1960s. Prior to the 1970s, prison populations were sizable, but static. But in pulling data from The Sentencing Project, we observe that the prison population exploded in the 1970s. This reflected an increase in a growing “tough on crime” approach to policing, which believed that an expansion of punitive measures would deter criminal behavior.

The government quelled this unrest with concessions, but also violence and repression (such as the assignation of Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party, or imprisonment of Angela Davis). These experiences helped spur and inform radical theories on police abolition. But at the same time, both major parties moved to the right on the subject of crime. They worked to increase imprisonment and reduce the rights of civilians and those accused or convicted of crime. This time period also observed radical changes in the American political economy: prisons were expanded, taxes were reduced on the wealthy and corporations, social services saw cuts in funding, and new-depths of economic hardship were realized following deindustrialization. This resulted in an expansion of state funds to being spent on caging and policing, and less funds being spent to satisfy the basic human needs of its citizens.

There are number of times in our history where policing has been forced onto the agenda. As new waves of activists have come into the issue of policing and prisons, they all tend to largely learn the same lesson: that non-abolitionist reform movements have largely failed.

Non-abolitionist understandings of the problem (27:42)

Reform proposals tend to orient around fixing issues with the system, rather than fundamentally changing our approach to public safety. Reform proposals, even where considered an improvement to the status quo, never truly address the fundamental issues with our current system.

Some reforms seek to address the issue of mass incarceration – the huge expansion of the US prison population that began in the 1970s. It is absolutely true we have seen growth in mass incarceration – but there was a problem before that, and even if we want to reduce the size of the prison population, it still suggests there will be high levels of imprisonment. Some reforms seek to reduce racial disparities in arrest and policing. White supremacy plays a key role in the modern police state, but police abuse is also caused by inequalities produced under capitalism: larger shifts in the political economy, abandonment of full employment, and the flight of capital away from cities are all socio-economic forces that explain the rise of crime, prisons, and policing. These socio-economic issues all contribute to crime in one way or another, and racial disparity reforms tend to ignore the root causes of crime and incarceration. And some reform efforts suggest that the modern policing is a professional problem caused by a lack of formal educating on the part of police and authorities themselves. Even though police are already well paid relative to other public sector jobs, there’s little evidence that implicit bias training or expanded qualification measures have made any difference where enacted.

Overall, reform proposals tend to see the problems of overincarceration and modern policing as flaws in implementation, where the modern policing system is not representative of what policing or prison systems are designed to do. But abolitionists believe that the system is doing what it’s designed to do.

What abolition means (36:53)

Consider this quote from Mariame Kaba:

I am actively working toward abolition, which means that I am trying to create the conditions necessary to ensure the possibility of a world without prisons.

Many believe that abolitionists are saying that we open the gates to the prisons and shutter police departments tomorrow – that abolitionists are proposing a world that is exactly the same these institutions. That makes no sense to people – understandably. But what Kaba explains here is that the abolitionist effort is one seeking to change the world to make this a possibility. We tend to talk about crime as separate from the economy, gender, etc. But abolitionism asks us to explore how they are interconnected.

So what does abolition mean? We can summarize the idea in six points:

  1. Abolition is an organizing demand. In the act of making it, it requires us to think of the changes necessary to make this happen. It asks to change what our sense of making things possible is, allowing us to reconsider the things we take for granted.
  2. Abolition distinguishes between harm and crime. We could get to zero rates of crime tomorrow by making everything legal. That’s not anyone’s actual goal, of course. For most of us, our actual goal is addressing harm. From a policy perspective, we have been pulling more and more public resources away from addressing harm – or satisfying human needs – to instead fight crime, regardless of whether or not it creates harm.
  3. Abolition sees the system working as intended. Abolitionists see the system as designed to threaten and control populations seen as subversive or dangerous – black and brown populations, the poor, homeless, labor organizers, etc. This is what makes police departments so hostile to criticisms or critique - they understand the job, and they know what is really being asked of them.
  4. Abolition wants to address root causes of criminal and harmful behavior. People steal because they are poor. They commit violence because they experienced violence or trauma. They sell sex because they may be otherwise powerless to get by via other-means. Abolitionism means addressing the root causes of harm and criminal behavior. The carceral state does not address these root causes – in fact, in many cases it actively perpetuates them.
  5. Abolition is a framework, not a single idea. What do you replace police with? Abolition is not single proposal. It’s not to say we replace prisons with this, or police with that. Abolition provides a framework for figuring out how to deal with the root causes of harm across a society.
  6. Abolition is a way of thinking about reform. There’s a belief among many that abolitionists are anti-reform, which isn’t always right. Although we’d say that abolitionists are against “non-reformist reforms”, where reforms “patch” up the system, rather than actually changing fundamental problems in policing systems.

The big questions with police abolition (55:25)

Many have a sense that these common problems act as a counter to the idea of police abolition. But really, the system’s failure to adequately control or address this problem may provide greater evidence for abolition as a proposal:

  • What about rape? The prevalence of rape and sexual assault in our society seems to provide the most obvious examples that the existing system does not work. There have been numerous stories of piled up rape-kits and high rates of underreporting. One of the reasons this happens is because survivors of rape or sexual assault go unreported and treated poorly by the system itself. This hasn’t stopped people attempting build solutions to this problem that involve police and prisons (dubbed carceral feminism). But abolition provides an alternative approach for thinking about this problem: how can we organize society to think about interpersonal punishment unthinkable?
  • What about murder? The US has particularly high murder rates. Places that tend to be most heavily policed tend to have the highest rates of murder and unsolved cases. ed murder. Trauma, poverty, and mental illness are all the root causes of murder, and abolition provides a framework for thinking about how we address the causes of homicide.
  • What about serial killers? Serial killers tend to be depicted as brilliant and masterful. Most of this is not real – most serial killers tend to prey on the weak and vulnerable, and abolition provides a way for thinking about how we empower vulnerable populations to be resilient to abuse or reduce their potential for being targeted for assault or murder.

Abolitionists cannot promise these concerns can be wholly prevented - but the current system can’t either. What abolition thinking provides is a way of dealing with these problems more effectively – by stamping out their root causes.

Imagining abolition (1:01:14)

In the Floyd case, we’ve seen instances of people calling the police for help – either for themselves or for someone who they believed in trouble – only to have the situation ending in violence. Part of the idea surrounding abolition policing is that society invests in various other professional services that provide alternatives to involving the police that help solve our problems, thus reducing the likelihood of violence occurring.

A poster series developed by Luna Syenite, help us imagine what an abolitionist future might look like. They are an invitation to think collectively and think through what we want public safety to mean. Consider the text from some of the posters:

You are experiencing intimate partner violence. Imagine texting a number & a trauma informed crisis intervention specialist meets you in a safe place. An hour later, you are working together to make a plan that will keep you safe long term. Isn’t that public safety?
Someone is behaving erratically and is in harm’s way, or threatening harm to others. Imagine texting a number, and an unarmed urgent responder trained in behavioral and mental health comes within 5 minutes. An hour later, that person is safe, getting the support they need. Isn’t that public safety?
Someone seems to be snooping in car windows on your block. Imagine calling your neighbors who are trained in self-defense and de-escalation to approach the person. An hour later, the conflict is resolved and the person responsible is getting the support they need. Isn’t that public safety?

Even if you are not willing to go the full step to abolitionism, imagining these systems provides a path to reducing policing and carceral punishment.

Abolition and socialism (1:05:19)

Capitalism places pursuit of profit at the center of its system, and socialist places meeting human needs at its core. What we talk about here is about meeting human needs – addressing deep inequalities directly, instead of trying to manage the consequences of these deep inequalities. When we describe it this way, the connection between abolition and socialism becomes clear.