Alex S. Vitale | Abolitionist Origins

By Alex S. Vitale

My abolitionist journey began about 30 years ago. In the early 1990’s I worked at the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness doing housing policy and advocating for spending for social and health programs of benefit to homeless and very poor people. This was work I had trained for at Hampshire College where I majored in Urban Studies and Cultural Anthropology. At that time there was very little discussion of the criminal justice system in urban studies courses. This was considered an independent concern handled by criminology and was disconnected from debates about affordable housing, tax policy, and community economic development initiatives. My research on Urban Enterprise Zones and community-based housing initiatives never overlapped with issues of policing and incarceration.

This separation between the two became disrupted for me when we began to see the growth of police harassment of poor and homeless folks in San Francisco, culminating in a full-scale political backlash in which the chief of police was elected mayor on a platform of criminalizing poverty in 1991, with a copy of Fixing Broken Windows under his arm.  This led to widespread abuses in which people were ticketed, harassed, and arrested for sleeping in public, panhandling, and merely taking up space in the center of the city.

In response, I was tasked with working with a committee of legal advocates and service providers to develop strategies to push back against this. As you might imagine, the initial emphasis was on pointing out the ways in which the police engaged in technical violations of the law. We set up an outreach effort called Streetwatch, modeled after Copwatch across the bay in Berkeley. We observed the police writing summons even when there was no legal basis, inappropriately discarding people’s belongings, and engaging in discourteous and threatening behavior that constituted an abuse of authority. In some cases, the police properly followed the law, but the law they were enforcing was constitutionally suspect, such as arresting people for sleeping outside when no shelter space was available for them or criminalizing panhandling. The result, was an effort to sensitize police through training efforts, creating a “know your rights” card for folks being targeted, helping people challenge their arrests and summonses in court, and challenging the constitutionality of specific ordinances. The results of these efforts were at best mixed. While some illegal abuses were diminished, the overall program of harassment and criminalization continued unabated. City leaders created new laws to give police new tools for criminalization, argued in court for broader interpretations of existing laws, failed to enforce court orders, and sent a clear message to police that their job was to get homeless people out of public sight.

It was at this point that it became increasingly clear to me that a set of legal and procedural interventions were not going to fix this problem. The police were not a rogue force that just needed some training and legal guidance. They were a highly trained professional force doing exactly what they were being asked to do. The law was merely a guidepost that set some vague limits on what they could get away with if exposed, but was easily skirted around in normal circumstances or changed if there was sufficient resistance to its misuse.

What also became clear was that the City of San Francisco, like so many others, had largely given up on the possibility of housing people or even providing them with emergency shelter and was intent, instead, on using police to put a lid on the problem; to relegating people to the darkest recesses of public space so that their impact on the rest of the city was minimized as much as possible. It was in this way that I realized the there was in fact a deep organic connection between mass homelessness and the criminal legal system. The apparatus of policing, under the guise of the “broken windows theory” was enabling the city to continue a set of housing and economic development policies that benefitted real estate and corporate interests. City leaders could continue to plow money into downtown led development schemes that caused the destruction of thousands of low-income housing units as long as the police could manage the impacts of those directly and indirectly forced into homelessness. The city could continue to underfund essential mental health services to allow more tax breaks for the rich as long as police kept a tight rein on those left to roam the streets.

In 1993 I decided to go back to school to look more carefully at the challenges that cities face in an era of increasing global competitiveness in hopes of finding models of resistance in which local places used their resources in the services of more equitable models of development. I arrived at the CUNY Graduate Center that fall only to see Rudolph Giuliani elected mayor and begin to implement the same “broken windows” based policing initiatives to criminalize New York’s poor. I decided not long after that to try to pull together these historically separate threads of policing and urban politics and look more closely at the ways in which criminalization is adopted to facilitate deep inequalities that have fallen most heavily on communities of color. This culminated on my first book, City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics.

I was also aware of a growing body of organizing and critical scholarship on mass incarceration. I participated in the Critical Resistance East gathering of 2001 at Columbia and was active in the Drop the Rock campaign to end the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws with their harsh mandatory minimum sentences. I also began teaching books like Golden Gulag by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Donald Braman’s Doing Time on the Outside to my graduate students. On the one hand, I was deeply impressed by the depth of the critique of mass incarceration and its roots in racial oppression and economic exploitation. On the other hand, I was frustrated that there was very little mention of the role of police. The reality is that no one gets incarcerated who hasn’t first had an interaction with the police. In addition, police produce a wide array of harms independently of incarceration. They engage in extensive harassment of targeted populations, enact violence and death on people, produce a broad array of fines and fees that place a huge financial burden on the poor, and suppress social movements through intimidation and violence.

At the same time, there was very little sustained organizing around abusive policing. I had participated in protests around the beating of Rodney King in 1992 and the killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999. The main narrative of these short-lived mobilizations was to hold individual police officers accountable for their violence. After the killing of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx, Al Sharpton put together an impressive array of community and political leaders to engage in sit ins at the NYPD headquarters in Lower Manhattan. I was arrested along with hundreds of others as part of a campaign to get the officers responsible for killing Amadou Diallo indicted. Once the officers were indicted, the movement largely faded away and when the officers were found not guilty there was no organized outcry. In other cities there were demands for community policing, training, and diversification of police in response to police murder, but none of this produced any real change and no real infrastructure of sustained resistance to policing emerged. Each time a killing occurred the same demands of individual officer accountability and superficial reforms tended to emerge only to quickly subside with little to show for the effort.

It was in this context that I arrived at the deal to write this book in 2013. My goal at the time was to try to take the most critical analysis of the prison abolition movement and apply it to policing in a way that might serve as a resource to people responding to these episodic incidents of high-profile police violence in hopes that a deeper analysis might lead to stronger demands and more sustained organizing. One of the challenges for me, was figuring out how to provide an abolitionist analysis without getting bogged down in defending the total and immediate cessation of policing in a moment when almost no one was talking about or organizing around such an idea. In the end, I decided not to use that specific language and instead to try to provide a deep critique of policing and lay out what alternatives to it would look like.

I felt that this was consistent with at least my own conception of abolition, which is the following. First, I see it as an analysis: that police were created to facilitate regimes of exploitation in the late 18th and early 19th Century: colonialism, slavery, and industrial capitalism. Police exist not to enforce the law or produce public safety, though these can be bi-products at times, but instead to produce a social order by managing the problems that the above regimes of exploitation produce such as what we call “crime” as well as formal and informal resistance to these regimes of exploitation: everything from rowdy working-class pleasures to organized strikes. To the extent that these behaviors interfere with broader projects of exploitation they will be suppressed. It is this analysis that prevents us from making the mistake that the problems of abusive and racist policing can be fixed with implicit bias training, body cameras or community policing. What we think of as racist police violence is not an aberration, it is and always has been a central feature of policing.

Second, abolition is a process. Even if we wanted to end the existence of all police tomorrow, there is no actual mechanism for doing so. We live in a society with broad support for a massive system of policing. Any effort to reverse that will take time and must engage in strategic interventions to reduce the scope and power of policing in stages. This is also important because police abolition is not just about ending policing. It is about eliminating regimes of exploitation and building up community resources to address harms in more just and restorative ways. And, as we succeed in these steps, we begin to dismantle the logic of exploitation backed by repressive policing and mass incarceration that dominates American society. As we pull back school police, we need to build up counseling and family support services and address the larger issues of racial segregation and deep inequities in school funding. All of this will take time.

Third, abolition is about a vision. It’s about imagining the possibility of a world in which social cohesion isn’t produced by people with guns or by putting human beings in cages. It is about addressing harms by building up people and communities, not tearing them down. It’s about the hard work of resisting the regimes of exploitation at the heart of American society and global systems of oppression and working out what an alternative might look like as well as the process of getting there. It is not about a teleological science of revolution based on some pre-ordained utopia that need only be reverse engineered. Yes, we need deep study of revolutionary thought and practice, but we also need a deep critique of their limitations and historical failures. A better world is possible, but we have a lot of work to do to get there.

Bernard Harcourt