Christine Prevas | Police Abolition and the Possibility of Radical Transformation

By Christine Prevas

“[W]here police power retreats, abolition envisages the opening up of space for other modes of collective governance to flourish.”[1]

Demands for police abolition, as they have been spotlighted by recent protests, have been met by many with a flurry of negative emotions: not just resistance, but disbelief and fear. The word abolition, for too many, brings to mind the negative project of tearing down rather than the positive project of building up new structures, the abolition democracy framed by W. E. B. Du Bois and Angela Davis. On top of that, mixed calls for various levels of defunding, divesting, delegitimizing, and dismantling have confused the message: those new to the idea of abolition are left wondering just what it means to call for the abolition of the police. In her Atlantic article “How I Became a Police Abolitionist,” Derecka Purnell expresses the revulsion and fear she felt when first faced with the idea of police abolition:

Police couldn’t do what we really needed. They could not heal relationships or provide jobs. We were afraid every time we called. When the cops arrived, I was silenced, threatened with detention, or removed from my home. Fifteen years later, my old neighborhood still lacks quality food, employment, schools, health care, and air—all of which increases the risk of violence and the reliance on police. Yet I feared letting go; I thought we needed them.[2]

Through a constant presence, both on the streets and in media, where movies and TV shows routinely focus on heroic cops solving dangerous crimes, the presence of police seems ingrained in our world to the point where it can become hard to imagine what a world without police might look like. For many, even those routinely targeted and victimized by police, the idea of the police is synonymous with safety: they are crime fighters, peacekeepers, the very symbol of law and order. Fear becomes a rational first reaction to the idea of police abolition when backed by the cultural myth of who police are and what they do. And yet, the issue of police reform or abolition is one of life or death.

In her article “An Abolitionist Horizon for (Police) Reform,” Amna Akbar does not let us focus on this fear, or on the “negative” piece of the abolition project; instead, she imagines the scope of the horizon, the wealth of possibility that becomes in the absence of policing. The abolitionist project, she writes, is one “rooted in hope rather than cynicism,”[3] and by framing an image of the future in which new structures can flourish in the absence of police power Akbar  illustrates how the police abolition movement insists on the possibility of more: if the police, as Purnell writes, are a placebo, then acknowledging that allows us to begin to build new structures that actually work to reduce harm, support those living in precarity, and find ways of reinvesting that aren’t tied inextricably to racialized violence.

As Akbar reflects, “violence is the central tool police use against poor people of color; that violence is centrally defined by the scale and power of police; and that policing has become a defining institution of American life and governance.”[4] Policing is violence even when it is not in the form of a deadly shooting; policing is economic violence in the form of exploitative fines and fees inflicted unequally on those unhoused or living in poverty; policing is racial violence in the form of targeted harassment of people of color, and particularly of Black people; policing is sexual violence against Black women and transgender people; the list goes on and on. By acknowledging violence not as an accidental byproduct of individual bad actors, but as central to policing, as enmeshed in even the most mundane, everyday police interactions, we move past the idea that pro-police reform—reforms Akbar broadly outlines as “more democracy, more bureaucracy, more procedural justice and training, and more tools and technology”[5]—can solve the problem of police violence, and into the space of possibility of imagining new frameworks and structures, new alternatives which are not historically, functionally, and inextricably tied to racialized violence and structural inequality. It shifts our attention away from the criminalization of the individual body, the individual actor, and back to the structures of our society, harmful structures in desperate need of transformation.  And it is in the possibility of that transformation that the horizon of Akbar’s “abolitionist horizon” comes into play: “We have to ask if police and prisons are the stuff of structural violence, what are the elements of structural flourishing, and what are the strategies to build them?”[6]

Alex Vitale similarly takes up the futility of reform in his book The End of Policing, outlining the limits of attempting to reform a system which is operating exactly as designed, by maintaining structural inequality through violence. As he writes, “the basic nature of the law and the police, since its earliest origins, is to be a tool for managing inequality and maintaining the status quo. Police reforms that fail to directly address this reality are doomed to reproduce it.”[7] Vitale’s account traces the origin of police and policing tactics not only to slave patrols and other post-slavery efforts to maintain racial inequality, but also to colonial projects such as the British colonial occupation of Ireland and the US occupation of the Philippines; to the settler colonial eradication of indigenous Mexican and Native American populations in Texas; and to the surveillance of political radicals and the labor movement. Vitale critiques liberal calls for police reform on much the same bases Akbar does: “They want the police to be better trained, more accountable, and less brutal and racist—laudable goals, but they leave intact the basic institutional functions of the police, which have never really been about public safety or crime control.”[8] The End of Policing is attentive to the limits of this kind of reform, analyzing attempts at police reform as they relate to crucial issues such as racial violence, the war on drugs, the school to prison pipeline, the criminalization of homelessness, violence against people with mental illness and disabilities, gang suppression, political violence, and border policing and immigrant deportation. He locates the root of most, if not all, of these problems with the very culture and function of the police, and “the use of threats and violence to control the poor and socially marginal.”[9] Though Vitale’s book does not quite advocate for police abolition in the same way Akbar and the abolition movement she examines do, both agree that the very role of police within our society must be questioned, and that there are alternatives to the rampant and invasive policing which is currently the norm in the United States, alternatives which are rooted in investment in individuals and communities.

Vitale concludes the introduction to The End of Policing thus: “We don’t need empty police reforms; we need a robust democracy that gives people the capacity to demand of their government and themselves real, nonpunitive solutions to their problems.”[10] To Akbar, the formation of this kind of a “robust democracy” is a project that is best seen by looking towards the abolitionist horizon, by taking inspiration from abolitionist demands and experiments can reorient our thinking as to open pathways through which legal scholarship can “transform the structures and relations of power that undergird the country.”[11] And while imagining a world without police may seem impossible to some, so too, Purnell argues, did the abolition of slavery, and yet the uncertainty and the fear and the risk were worth the risk to imagine something newer, something better. Police reform only serves to provide more resources to an oppressive system that cannot escape a history of racialized and colonial violence and has no reason to. Abolition, on the other hand, lays the groundwork for the possibility of radical transformation.

Notes

[1] Akbar, Amna. “An Abolitionist Horizon for Police (Reform)” (August 10, 2020). California Law Review, Vol. 108, No. 6, 2020,. Available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3670952, p.155.

[2] Purnell, Derecka. “How I Became a Police Abolitionist.” The Atlantic, July 6, 2020, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/how-i-became-police-abolitionist/613540/.

[3] Akbar, p. 104

[4] Ibid., p. 132.

[5] Ibid., p. 121.

[6] Ibid., p. 159.

[7] Vitale, Alex S. The End of Policing. New York: Verso, 2017.

[8] Vitale.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Akbar, p. 162.

Fonda Shen