By a graduate student in the seminar
Whereas Abolition 2/13 discussed abolition democracy’s ambition to positively establish institutions for a just society, Abolition 3/13 discussed one of the central institutions creating repression and racial injustice today: the police. From maintaining slavery in the antebellum period to racial profiling, broken windows policing and militarized policing in the twentieth century, the police have historically been associated with maintaining a caste society in the United States. Having witnessed the police’s unending atrocities, it is time to reflect on the role the police should play in today’s society. Bernard Harcourt chaired the discussion at Abolition 3/13, and the panel consisted of activists Samantha Felix, Ghislaine Pagès, Derecka Purnell, Josmar Trujillo and scholars and activists Amna Akbar and Alex Vitale.
The seminar started with a conversation between Pagès and Felix, sister of Matthew Felix, who was shot dead by the police outside his home in Queens on February 25, 2020. After the tragedy, Felix was denied access to any information concerning the police officers involved in the homicide and was unable to obtain unedited footage of the homicide. Felix and some elected officials who reached out to help her got only runarounds from the Nassau County Police Department, the New York City Police Department and the Attorney General’s Office handling the case. The conversation illustrated clearly how justice and accountability are denied and obstructed in the criminal justice system.
Following the conversation, Akbar discussed the possibilities of building larger movements committed to political, economic and social transformation. Akbar pointed out that grass-root campaigns today are not only demanding defunding police, racial justice and gender justice, but there is also a growing intersection of abolition democracy campaigns with anti-capitalism and socialism campaigns. Akbar argued that neoliberalism and anti-black racism have made us all less free, evidenced by the material and ideological crisis we are now experiencing, where neoliberal policies fail to meet people’s basic needs, such as healthcare and housing but continue to fund the police and prisons and the carceral state. The demands, in Akbar’s opinion, are fundamentally demands to transform political, economic and social relations and to have a say on how the collectively-generated wealth is spent: to build prisons and training facilities for the police, or housing, schools and healthcare facilities for the public.
Purnell then shared her journey towards the idea of abolition democracy. While a student at Harvard Law School, Purnell read The Undercommons, written by Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey and was introduced to the idea of abolition not only as the destruction of anything, but as the founding of a new society that would not have slavery and prisons. She then read Angela Davis’s Abolition Democracy and W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America and was struck by Du Bois’s distinction between the real abolitionists who called for immediate and deep social transformations and those who rested on the American assumption of individualism and capitalism. Inspired by Frederick Douglass’s questioning of the system of law and slavery rather than the incidental harms slavery creates, Purnell interrogated the entire oppressive system today, including the police, that creates the conditions for the repeated violence and demanded the police, as a system, be abolished.
Trujillo, in turn, discussed how to achieve the abolition of the police, which starts with understanding the police. For Trujillo, the police are an enemy with evolving weapons such as predictive policing and precision policing: it commits violence, it consumes a disproportionate amount of the budget, and it changes people’s mindset to resort to the police whenever a dispute arises. The police, moreover, is a political institution that obtains private funding from police foundations, employs community policing as a public relations strategy to earn more resources, and creates the false impression of the police being threatened under the “War on Police” narrative. Nevertheless, Trujillo also highlighted some of the campaigns that made real progress in abolishing the police, such as LACAN, No Cop Academy and No New NYPD that focus on diverting resources from the police to social programs, and Cop Watch that redefines the idea of safety without the involvement of the police. In the end, Trujillo emphasized that there would be no police accountability without political accountability and we should understand that the abolition of the police is ultimately a political fight.
The last panellist, Vitale, discussed the essence of police reforms and explained why police reforms do not work. Vitale pointed out that the focus of police reforms has been procedural justice since the Obama administration, but procedural justice only has the effect of bettering people’s feelings about the outcomes. Improving people’s feelings about the outcomes, however, is totally irrelevant to fixing the police’s problems and bringing more justice, and the failure of the reforms is evidenced in the thousands of police killings we have witnessed since then. The police today are actively involved in the production of racialized regimes of exploitation under the disguise of neoliberal austerity, the notion that all the state can do is to subsidize the already most successful parts of the economy and hope that the wealth created will benefit the rest, while turning problems such as mass homelessness, mental healthcare, failed education and black markets for drugs all to the police. What reforms are really about is legitimacy seeking: reforms produce legitimacy for the police, which in turn produces legitimacy for the state by managing resistance in a manner more but only more civilian than the military.
While the panelists’ presentations did not lay down a direct pathway leading to the abolition of the police, the presentations answered some important questions involved in the abolition-of-the-police campaigns. It answered the question of what the police is: the police is a repressive institution of the state that, under the disguise of safety, enforces racialized regimes of exploitation with growingly coercive tools. It answered the question of why police reforms are futile: the reforms are futile because the police, by its nature, is a repressive institution, and efforts to make repression only appear more just can never replace repression with real justice. It also answered the question of what ordinary citizens can and should do: on the more basic level, ordinary citizens can and should hold the elected officials accountable for the police’s atrocities so that the police and police officials can be held accountable; on the more general level, ordinary citizens can and should reflect on neoliberal austerity as the settled distribution plan of the wealth collectively generated and think of replacement distribution plans that address the root causes of the prevailing social problems.
The panelists’ discussions after the presentations were also very enlightening. The two exchanges that I found particularly interesting were the exchanges on “defund” as the label of the police abolition campaigns and how to deal with violence without police. On “defund” as the label of the campaigns, Harcourt expressed his concern that the phrase “defund” may be too consensual in that it blurs some of the disputes the campaigners actually have among themselves. Vitale echoed Harcourt’s concern and pointed out that “defund” omits from the narrative the positive construction aspect of abolition democracy. Akbar, in contrast, argued that the attractiveness of “defund” as a label is exactly its capaciousness so that it allows people who are state-oriented and anarchy-oriented to join forces. My understanding of this question, which benefitted a lot from the panellists’ contributions, is that what constitutes a good and appropriate label of the campaign depends on the stage of the social movement. I agree with Akbar that the capaciousness and, I would like to add, the destructiveness of “defund” are attractive when the campaign is gaining momentum and public support. However, as the movement proceeds, the constructive aspect of abolition democracy needs to be reflected in the movement’s agenda and fuller discussions and debates would emerge. Nevertheless, I am much less comfortable with the idea of the campaign’s label being nuanced, which, in my opinion, would cut the tie between the movements and the general public.
Regarding the solution to violence without police involvement, Purnell recognized that people are genuinely concerned about this issue, but went on to point out that it is actually a false dichotomy between police’s non-violence functions as transferrable to other institutions and its violence functions as non-transferrable. She shared her personal experience of helping people respond to harms on their own and highlighted some abolition-based organizations’ efforts to respond to such problems. Trujillo, meanwhile, made the point that discussions on violence have largely ignored the problem of poverty that is underlying the violence, which is the root cause that should be addressed. Purnell and Trujillo’s points were echoed by Pagès, who argued that violence may not be a constant and may be reduced after resources and money are diverted from the police to the communities.
As a member of those people who are genuinely concerned about post-police violence, I appreciate Purnell’s frankness in acknowledging that some of the concerns are genuine and that not all violence concerns are fabricated to obstruct the police abolition movement. Nevertheless, I would have liked to see our panellists directly address how post-police violence, if it exists, can be resolved on a practical level. Partly due to my lack of imagination and partly due to the influence of the police narrative, I have so far failed to come up with a solution to violence essentially different from the police, which would not involve force or coercion. How to design an effective mechanism that constrains and supervises a coercive and violent institution would therefore be something for me to ruminate about after Abolition 3/13. Participants and readers who are more imaginative and forward-looking, meanwhile, are invited and welcomed to devise novel and alternative solutions to violence.