Mayaki Kimba | Building a Movement for Police Abolition: Reflections on Abolition 3/13

By Mayaki Kimba

“I don’t think we could ever truly get justice for Matthew. He was only nineteen years old. He had his whole life ahead of him, and he was just executed. They shot multiple times at his car, and then dragged his lifeless body, and he lay on the street for God knows how long, like he was an animal.”

Samantha Felix during Abolition 3/13[1]

Abolition 3/13 opened with a conversation between Samantha Felix and Ghislaine Pagès on this horrifying experience of injustice. The younger brother of Samantha Felix—Matthew Felix—was murdered by plainclothes officers from the Nassau County Police Department. He was going to celebrate his twentieth birthday the following week, was always protective of his older sister and mother, and aspired to become a mechanic. He was just outside of his home in southeast Queens when Long Island police, operating outside of their jurisdiction, took his life. Since then, police and public officials have left Samantha Felix and her family in what she described as “a very frustrating process with no answers.” Even though it has been eight months since police murdered Matthew Felix, neither the number nor the names of the officers have been disclosed. Unedited footage of the murder has also not been disclosed, notwithstanding the claims of Attorney General Letitia James that her office would “proactively release” such footage.[2] It exemplifies the futility of reforms that leave the larger system of policing in place. This system, as Alex Vitale reminds us in The End of Policing, has always centered “the suppression of workers and the tight surveillance and micromanagement of black and brown lives.”[3] This reality has led an increasing number of scholars, activists and community members to join the movement for police abolition. Abolition 3/13 accordingly shed light on how some of its panelists—including Amna Akbar, Derecka Purnell, Josmar Trujillo, and Vitale himself—became police abolitionists. The conversation of Abolition 3/13 also focused on how to build a movement for abolition, and on what this movement should build. In this blog post, I reflect on Abolition 3/13 and aim to connect its discussion to the readings that guided it. In particular, I focus on ways in which Abolition 3/13 can help us understand how to build a movement that is large enough to effectuate the systemic and transformative changes that abolition democracy demands.

While Amna Akbar chose not to focus on strategies for winning people over to the cause of police abolition, her remarks nevertheless suggested a powerful channel to grow the movement. She began by noting that she would center the connective tissue between campaigns that link anti-racist with anti-capitalist critique. This connective tissue matters for Akbar because it signals the potential of building a larger movement for political, economic and social transformation. She thus suggested, as her “provocation of the night,” that the connective tissue between movements today matters more than “how to respond to the law-and-order types or even the liberal reformers.” I nevertheless care about winning over law-and-order types and liberal reformers, in part because I belonged to the latter category myself and because abolition democracy seems unattainable without a democratic majority in favor of it. This democratic majority currently appears to be lacking. Akbar herself alluded to this in her article on “an Abolitionist Horizon for (Police) Reform,” in which she critiqued the possibility of “more democracy” as a means of police reform. “More democracy” will not work when “powerful segments of the populace have consented to a democratic system that empowers police to punish poor, Black, and Brown people.”[4] And while this consent to the system is not absolute—Bernard Harcourt has shown, for instance, that there is bipartisan support for ending sales and transfers of military equipment to local police departments[5]—too many Americans continue to view the police as an indispensable good. Upending these lingering commitments to the police may require a cultural change. Indeed, we may recall the book chapter by Kendall Thomas that we read for Abolition 2/13. In this chapter, Thomas argued that campaigns against the death penalty must attend to the symbolic functions of capital punishment. In a similar vein, campaigns for police abolition must challenge the cultural norms that valorize police and the economic system that police protect. [6] The connective tissue on which Akbar focused may very well contain the potential to effectuate such a cultural change. It may provide what Vitale called for in his book: “a process in which the very struggle for change produces cultural shifts.”[7]

The remarks of Derecka Purnell offered an additional channel that could help the movement for police abolition gain strength in numbers. She described the role that Fred Moten, Stefano Harney, W. E. B. Du Bois and Angela Davis played in her journey to police abolition. She read The Undercommons by Moten and Harney as part of a student movement seeking to formulate demands against Harvard Law School. The Undercommons allowed her to appreciate abolition as not being about the elimination of, say, prisons or police, but rather as being about the abolition of a society that could have police of prisons. Du Bois and Davis, meanwhile, enabled her to reject any romanticized notions of abolition that continue to cling to capitalism. Reading these scholars thus helped to change the initial stance of Purnell toward police abolition—a stance that she described in The Atlantic as one of repulsion that rejected police abolition as a “white and utopic” idea.[8]  The experience of Purnell thus highlights how academics can contribute to the abolitionist movement by providing a political education to those who may at first be highly skeptical of a world without police. Such academic contributions are all the more important seeing that academics have played critical roles in the shaping and legitimation of police. Indeed, The End of Policing contains many examples of academics whose work structured and justified destructive police strategies.[9] And during Abolition 3/13, Vitale noted that the inadequacy of many liberal reforms does not stem from the naïveté of their authors, but rather from their authors’ support of and reliance on the capitalist regime that predicates on police for the management of racialized inequality. Seeing this complicity of academics in police brutality, it becomes all the clearer that academics have a responsibility to contest, as opposed to legitimate, unjust systems. As Akbar noted at the end of the Q&A, elite institutions exist to relegitimate the social order in response to crisis, and academics and other professionals inside such institutions should work to maintain the sense of crisis by putting the contradictions of the social order on the table.

The remarks of Josmar Trujillo contested the very idea that realizing abolition requires building a consensus in favor of it. Rather, he argued, realizing abolition requires real resistance. Real resistance, for Trujillo, includes starving the police beast by redirecting its funding to programs of social uplift. It also involves practices like copwatching and an understanding that there will be no police accountability without political accountability. Activists must therefore understand which politicians vote for police budgets and which community members are deployed to facilitate police claims that the community welcomes their presence and practices. But most importantly, Trujillo emphasized that winning requires fighting which in turn requires knowing your enemy. In describing this enemy—that is, the police—he noted how strategies of predictive and precision policing help evolve the police toward dominance and how the police must be understood as a political institution. Indeed, while the political role of police unions might be obvious, less attention is often paid to the importance of police foundations (the “piggybanks” of police, as Trujillo described them), the recurrent PR-strategy of “community policing” and the never-ending trope of a so-called “War on Cops.” This focus of Trujillo on resistance as opposed to coalition-building resonates with the conclusion that Purnell drew at the end of her article in The Atlantic, in which she wrote that “Black people might still be on plantations” had “abolitionists waited to convince every single person that liberation was worth the pursuit.”[10] While I think this is true, I also think that resistance and coalition-building can be complementary pursuits. In fact, many people may be skeptical of police abolition because they think it is infeasible. (I certainly believed that police abolition was infeasible.) Through direct actions that curtail the power of police, abolitionists may demonstrate that the police is not an inviolable institution and that abolition is not an impossible demand, growing the movement for abolition as a result.

The remarks of Alex Vitale confirmed the potential of such a strategy. Vitale explained that when he wrote The End of Policing, his main goal was to stop people from thinking of the police as the solution to all their problems. Since then, and especially since this summer, public discourse has moved in a much more abolitionist direction than many would have anticipated in 2017. And I would say that this shift is in large part thanks to successful actions taken against abusive police departments. Moreover, the shift toward increased support for abolition occurred in spite of powerful countervailing forces, which did not just originate from conservatives and the current inhabitant of the White House. Vitale explained, for instance, that the Obama Police Task Force was also deeply invested in salvaging the legitimacy of the police and accordingly reproduced the myth that procedural justice could cure the harms and avoid the deaths that police systematically inflict.[11] This effort and many countervailing forces like it failed thanks to their own irredeemable flaws, as the Minneapolis Police Department exemplifies. The now-infamous Department had been, Vitale informed us, the shining star of police reform, with its officers receiving implicit bias training. The brutal murder of George Floyd thus testifies to the utter failure of such “reformist reforms” that leave a racial capitalist political economy in place.[12]

I would like to end with a lesson and a question. One lesson from Abolition 3/13 concerns the importance of organizing, since organizing as part of a movement can generate the cultural shifts that enable the abolitionist movement to grow, and because acts of resistance against the police yield immediate benefits, avoid the pitfalls of reformist reforms, and contest the idea that abolition is impossible. One question that remains in my mind following Abolition 3/13 concerns community. An attendee asked during the Q&A whether police abolition, in asking communities to absolve harms and resolve conflicts, places undue burdens on them. In response, Trujillo noted that if we can organize society to win a war, and if we consider the riches of privileged citizens, then it should be clear that there are ample resources to take on the burdens of addressing and resolving harm in a restorative, as opposed to punitive, way. Purnell and Pagès observed that many communities are already doing the work that abolition would involve, while Felix poignantly questioned whether caring for one’s community should even be thought of as a burden, especially when compared to the real burdens that communities face today as they are forced to reduce and repair the harms that police inflict. While all of these responses compellingly demonstrated that we should not be held back by burdens that abolition may impose on communities, it remains less clear who these communities are. There is no reason to assume that relevant communities are easy to identify, that all community members share the same perspectives and objectives, and that the boundaries and memberships of communities are uncontested. It was this exact point that Adolph Reed made in his prophetic 1996 essay, which correctly predicted that Obama and his “vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics” were “the wave of the future in black politics.”[13] Reed highlighted how certain conceptions of community can constitute antidemocratic mystifications, and showed how such mystifications were critical to Obama’s neoliberal brand. If the abolitionist movement is to avoid being exploited toward such ends, it remains essential that we develop a better sense of what role communities should play in an abolitionist future, what relationship (if any) communities should have to the state, and what conceptions of community are able to recognize the heterogeneity of communities, address power relationships within communities, and serve abolitionist ends.


[1] For information on how to contribute to the campaign that seeks justice for Matthew Felix, see “On Matthew Felix | A Call to Action,” Abolition 13/13, October 26, 2020,

[2] Sydney Pereira, “NY Attorney General Commits to Swifter Release of Body Camera Footage in Investigations of Police-Involved Deaths,” Gothamist, September 20, 2020,

[3] Alex S. Vitale, The End of Policing (London: Verso, 2017), 27.

[4] Amna A. Akbar, “An Abolitionist Horizon for (Police) Reform,” California Law Review 108, no. 6 (August 10, 2020): 123,

[5] Bernard Harcourt, “How to Demilitarize the Police” (Data for Progress and Justice Collaborative Institute, September 2020),

[6] See Kendall Thomas, “Envisioning Abolition: Sex, Citizenship, and the Racial Imaginary of the Killing State,” in Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism, ed. Meg McLagan and Yates McKee (New York: Zone Books, 2012), 256–75,

[7] Vitale, End of Policing, 226.

[8] Derecka Purnell, “How I Became a Police Abolitionist,” The Atlantic, July 6, 2020,

[9] Vitale discusses, for instance, the importance of James Q. Wilson and George Kelling to the rise of “broken windows”-style policing (p. 5), the role of John Dilulio in spreading the “superpredator” myth and contributing to the rise of school policing (p. 56), and the intellectual contributions of Irving Spergel and David Kennedy to gang suppression strategies that still “rely primarily on intensive punitive efforts” (p. 166–68).

[10] Purnell, “How I Became a Police Abolitionist.”

[11] See Vitale, End of Policing, 15; Akbar, “Abolitionist Horizon,” 125; Allegra M. McLeod, “Envisioning Abolition Democracy,” Harvard Law Review 132 (April 2019): 1644, Vitale writes that advocates for procedural justice “at root … fail to appreciate that 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 fail.” Akbar identifies the central concern with police legitimacy and autonomy as the critical flaw of the procedural justice framework. McCleod argues that procedural justice will not work because it “focuses on a feeling of respect or fairness rather than on realizing substantively just conditions at a more fundamental level.”

[12] Akbar discusses the metrics that Critical Resistance uses to distinguish between reformist reforms and abolitionist reforms. See Akbar, “Abolitionist Horizon,” 143.

[13] Adolph Reed, “The Curse of Community,” The Village Voice, January 16, 1996.