Amna A. Akbar | From Know Your Rights to Know Your Options

By Amna A. Akbar

For many years I worked with other lawyers and law students to put on Know Your Rights communities for Black, brown, immigrant, and Muslim communities. In NYC and Columbus, Ohio, we did these trainings on request by community and civil rights organizations, mosques, churches, schools, and student groups on university campuses. We would share the basics: you have a right to remain silent, you have a right to refuse a search, do not speak to the cops or ICE without a lawyer present, do not let them into your home unless they show you a judge-signed warrant. Exercise these rights as fully as you feel comfortable with this key goal in mind: get out as quickly as possible with your safety intact.

We did role-play to try to create muscle memory around refusing police pressure. We tried not to reify rights: we shared that the police can and do lie to you, but you can be prosecuted for lying to them. We were clear that announcing “I do not consent to this search” may not stop the police from searching or brutalizing you, but that it might help a lawyer later argue the search was not proper. We did not get into the fact that most cases are resolved by plea deals, that most people do not have lawyers who have time to litigate the propriety of police action, and that most judges are deferential to the police, whether because they are former prosecutors or receive campaign donations from the police unions.

I did those trainings before I understood abolitionist praxis. I feel ambivalent about them now. Those trainings were important ways to build solidarity in communities of color around our experiences and analysis with the violence of policing. To engage in a rights discourse that did not engage in liberal fantasy about the power of rights or the decency of policing. We centered the power and violence of police, though we probably could have been a bit more blunt about it. I wish we had talked more—in the way that movement lawyer Carl Williams has reframed the potential of those trainings for me—about rights as a tactic of resistance, and about the necessity of resistance.

I wish we would have been more disciplined about connecting those trainings with political education and sustained organizing campaigns. A mandate within abolitionist work is for building connections to each other and collective resilience—to be led by the collective rather than the individual, to think collaboratively and horizontally. These demands should push all of us to rethink what we do and how we do it.

To build an abolitionist future requires more than radical imagination, it requires radical, disciplined, and reflective collective practice. I think of Oakland Power Projects (OPP), and its aim to develop “practices, relationships, and resources that build community power and wellbeing without relying on cops.”[1] OPP embodies a focus on what we are building and practicing, what we are making available together and for one another to avoid the police. They expand the scope of resistance. Rather than awaiting the point in time where we face the police, the work asks how do work together to minimize contact? If we know that rights are limited to ineffectual in stopping police violence, we have an imperative to build different approaches.

OPP teaches us the importance of organizing to minimize contact with the police, to strip police of legitimacy and resources.[2] And while some of that work takes the shape of organizing campaigns to defund the police and dismantle its infrastructure, other work focuses on building community resilience so that fewer people call the police to begin with.[3] This too has material and ideological ripple effects, and takes a mix of work focused on the material and ideological infrastructure of policing.

OPP stemmed from Critical Resistance Oakland’s long-term organizing, and directly from the successful Stop the Injunctions Coalition campaign to limit police power to enforce civil gang injunctions.[4] In 2014 and 2015, organizers surveyed the Oakland community and found that police often showed up in response to emergency 911 calls. There was a strong community desire for health care without cops.[5]

OPP started an Anti-Policing Health Workers Cohort made up of healthcare practitioners committed to “abolition as both a strategy and long-term vision.”[6] The goal of the Cohort is threefold: to “increase resistance of the every-day violence of policing,” to “strengthen people’s skills to respond to community emergencies in ways that minimize police contact,” and to “ultimately decouple access to health care from policing.”[7] The three goals ground organizing for an abolitionist horizon in concrete community need in a way that reflects the nested nature of simultaneously urgent and necessary projects.

The Cohort developed three “Know Your Options” workshops jointly facilitated by health care workers and organizers.[8] Each workshop focuses on a particular community health need: mental-health emergencies, drug overdoses, and acute injuries like gunshot wounds and car accidents. The workshops provide space to “practice ways to reduce our contact with policing,” to deepen collective analysis around community needs and policing, and to build capacity to “address community health needs.”[9]

The project creates alternatives to calling the police while questioning the logic of their involvement in health crises. It creates space for communities, organizers, and health care providers to work together to deepen analysis and build capacity. It builds “practices, relationships, and resources” that expand community capacity and connection to allow for more organizing. It is also inspiring similar initiatives across the country.

As Derecka Purnell powerfully explains, abolition is an invitation.[10] To reflect, to shift, to work and to work together. Freedom is a constant struggle, as Angela Davis has taught us—that means we must start now.[11]


[1] The Oakland Power Projects, 27 The Abolitionist 7 (Spring 2017),; Oakland Power Projects #1, The Anti-Policing Health Worker Cohort: An Interview with Ruben Leal, Oakland Power Projects,; Decoupling Policing from Health Services: Empowering Healthworkers as Anti-Policing Organizers, Oakland Power Projects,; Candice Bernd, Community Groups Work to Provide Emergency Medical Alternatives, Separate from Police, Truthout (Sept. 14, 2015),

[2] See also Critical Resistance, Reformist Reforms vs. Abolitionist Steps in Policing,

[3] Amna A. Akbar, An Abolitionist Horizon for (Police) Reform, 108 Cal. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2020).

[4] Critical Resistance, The Oakland Power Projects (2015),

[5] Id.

[6]Oakland Power Projects – Health Resources, Critical Resistance,; Oakland Power Projects,

[7] Oakland Power Projects – Know Your Options Workshops, Critical Resistance,

[8] Id.; Oakland Power Projects – Health Resources, supra.

[9] Oakland Power Projects – Know Your Options Workshops, supra.

[10] E.g., Derecka Purnell, “How I Became a Police Abolitionist,”  Atlantic (July 6, 2020),

[11] Angela Y. Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (2016).