The Practical Politics of Police Abolition

The Practical Politics of Police Abolition

Study and Struggle

The pragmatism of police abolition.

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In the nearly two years since the murder of George Floyd, our country has seen a renaissance of writing and organizing around the abolition of police and prisons. Alongside protests in the streets and participatory budgeting campaigns to divest funds from local police departments, the popular reception of books like Mariame Kaba’s We Do This ’Til We Free Us reveals that more people are willing to grapple with what abolition entails.

But there has also been a backlash, and not just from the right: Democrats have closed ranks in opposition to police abolition. They instead call for a battery of police reforms—such as racial bias training and banning choke holds—that have, at least thus far, failed to eliminate police violence. Investing in police departments appears, in fact, to be a bipartisan cause: This past August, the Senate voted 99 to 0 in favor of a budget amendment to withhold federal funds from local governments seeking to defund their police departments. One Democratic senator went so far as to call the amendment a “gift,” underscoring how eager he and many other Democrats have been to distance themselves from abolitionist politics.

As the lawyer and organizer Derecka Purnell shows in her new book Becoming Abolitionists, this abolitionist politics is often misunderstood and misrepresented. In the book’s eight chapters, Purnell invites skeptical readers into the fold by sharing her own journey to becoming a police abolitionist and the reasons why she believes you should become one, too. She takes us from her childhood in St. Louis, where she and her friends and family used to call 911 “for almost everything,” to her years of studying and organizing alongside classmates, professors, and neighbors in college, law school, and various grassroots organizations. We learn about her intellectual influences—from Angela Davis and Rachel Herzing to Robin D.G. Kelley, who encouraged her and other radical students at Harvard Law School to, in the Black radical tradition, build “loving spaces to study and struggle, where we could experiment with democracy, accountability, mutual aid, and care.” Through these intellectual exchanges and her own harrowing interactions with police, Purnell came to see how policing mostly perpetuates—rather than resolves—myriad forms of violence and oppression.

But Purnell’s account of abolitionist politics is more than just personal; into the threads of her story she weaves historical and social scientific research on police violence and community-based alternatives to make a compelling case for the practicality of police abolition, compared with reforms that have failed time and time again. The abolition of police means more than simply the absence of policing or the end of police-perpetuated harm, she writes. Rather than a quixotic demand to disband police departments overnight, abolition is a careful and collective endeavor to build a world where police—and the reasons we believe we need policing—become obsolete. Some have called abolitionism a single-issue politics; others, a utopian one. But abolition is better understood, Purnell argues, as a wide-ranging politics—one that demands strategies, resources, and mutual efforts working to reduce harm in the broader society through investments in education, employment, health care, housing, and environmental preservation. Such a politics seeks to uproot not just a system of violent policing but also interlocking forms of oppression that go well beyond it. For Purnell, this is the essence of abolitionist politics: a “paradigm to organize, navigate, and re-create the world.”

Purnell was not always a police abolitionist. For much of her life, she believed police were necessary to keep people, especially people of color, safe from interpersonal violence. She thought that the prosecution of crime and the imprisonment of those found guilty were necessary for ensuring justice. When George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in 2012, she helped organize protests in Kansas City that demanded Zimmerman’s arrest and prosecution. She and others facilitated small group discussions in the community, focused on generating strategies for de-escalating violence among Black teens as well as teaching people how to file complaints with the police to “ensure that the police arrested people for crimes, so that they wouldn’t remain free like George Zimmerman.”

At the time, Purnell’s views on the police were not unlike those of many other organizers in the emerging Black Lives Matter movement, who viewed policing as a necessary part of any system of accountability and harm prevention. Following police officer Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, activists took to the streets to protest policing as racially biased but not as fundamentally racist. And when the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney declined to indict Wilson, they took to the streets again, demanding reform of a criminal legal system that undervalued the lives of Black victims. The solution, many activists thought, was to work to improve policing and the broader criminal law.

Common demands during the early years of Black Lives Matter organizing focused more on implementing reforms like implicit-bias training, mandating an end to stop-and-frisk policing, and improving police–community relations than on the abolition of policing altogether. Organizers devoted much time and energy to meeting with politicians and police chiefs, coming away with assurances that their departments would revise their policies concerning the use of choke holds and Tasers and apply for funding for body cameras to be worn by officers. And many police departments did just that.

But the violence continued in the face of these reforms. In 2015, police shot and killed Walter Scott as he was running away, and Sandra Bland was found hanged in a jail cell after a traffic stop. In 2016, police fatally shot Philando Castile as his family looked on in horror. In 2020, police killed Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others that our news feeds seemed unable to keep up. These killings were not anomalies: Police in the United States today kill about 1,000 people each year, and marginalized people of color continue to die disproportionately from gun violence —violence that police departments have been unable to prevent, despite receiving billions of dollars in funding every year. Although good social scientific research has shown that some police reforms, including body cameras and increasing diversity in law enforcement, can reduce the levels of police violence (the evidence here is mixed), Purnell is nevertheless convincing in her broader claim that such reforms are largely impractical responses to recurring and entrenched police violence and abuse.

For Purnell, this is why abolition is not a utopian politics but a practical one. Tracking her own evolving thoughts on abolition, she tells her readers how, in 2015 and 2016, she and other young activists began to see policing not as an institution that simply tended to oppress marginalized groups and uphold racial capitalism but rather as an institution that was fundamentally built to perpetuate such oppression and exploitation. “Policing was, and is, deeply connected to the control of land, labor, and people who threatened white supremacy,” Purnell writes. The excessive deaths of Black people, Latinx people, Indigenous people, disabled people, poor people, and queer people at the hands of police is, she argues, no accident; rather, it is a predictable outcome of an institution that seeks to control, and extract resources from, these very groups. With this diagnosis of the problems of policing in mind, abolition becomes the only solution.

The police have long upheld a broader system of racial control and economic exploitation. In the United States, many modern police departments emerged from colonial-era slave patrols and militias. In the Southern colonies, slave patrols were established to control enslaved Africans, often in direct response to major slave rebellions that threatened the racial order and slaveholders’ profits. The English militias, which had initially been focused on external threats to the colonists—from the Spanish, the French, the Dutch, or Native American nations—turned inward, assisting in the formation of slave patrols, the enforcement of slave codes, and the surveillance and punishment of not just enslaved Black people but also free Blacks and other people of color. Given this history, it is not difficult to understand why, during and following Reconstruction, the police often “joined, supported, or refused to intervene in violence from the Klan and other racist vigilante mobs,” Purnell writes.

This unjust history is not confined to the United States. The policing of enslaved and Indigenous populations was a central mechanism for maintaining European colonialism throughout the world. In Barbados in the 1600s, Purnell informs us, Spanish slaveholders taught English slaveholders how to establish policing systems that would repress enslaved people’s resistance and catch runaways. In South Africa under apartheid, police enforced laws meant to control the language, movement, and freedom of Black South Africans. As Black resistance to apartheid strengthened in the 1970s, police often claimed that activists who died in police custody had committed suicide. European colonial police forces shared repression tactics in the 20th century just as they had in the 17th: Apartheid police “learned torture tactics from French police and military who occupied Algeria” and “joined cooperation agreements with Argentina, Italy, Chile, France, and Taiwan to learn and share oppression and torture tactics against colonized people across the world.”

Today, compared with other wealthy countries, the United States is an outlier with respect to police killings, but Purnell insists that “fewer shootings” in other countries does not “necessarily mean good policing” is taking place there. From St. Louis, Nashville, and Boston to Puerto Rico, London, and the Netherlands, the colonial era’s systems of control and exclusion—not just death and destruction—can be found animating contemporary policing. In Amsterdam, Purnell finds that policing in the city cannot be separated from the histories of Dutch colonialism and broader European intrusions around the world. A group of immigrants from North Africa and Syria tell her that in the metropole—not just in the former colonies—“they faced immense police surveillance and violence, and that Europe’s heightened xenophobia and Islamophobia made them and their families susceptible to street violence from white Europeans.” The policing of immigrant groups in the Netherlands today works to exclude them from the economic benefits of incorporation and citizenship—one of the very same reasons Black people have been so heavily policed in the United States since Reconstruction. Such everyday exclusion is what sociologists Rory Kramer and Brianna Remster have recently called, in the Annual Review of Criminology, the “slow violence” of policing.

Becoming Abolitionists tells not only a transnational story but one that connects the crisis of policing with those created by this country’s capitalism, militarism, patriarchy, and ableism. Purnell shows how these other forms of oppression likely make policing more violent and ideologically entrenched. For instance, she analyzes case studies to show that many well-known mass shootings have been committed by men who were “either in or obsessed with the military.” The violence of US military occupations, especially in the Middle East, cannot, she notes, be entirely separated from the violence of domestic mass shootings, which police departments often leverage as a rationale for stockpiling military equipment. In addition, political and economic elites often rely on policing to manage the fallout from broader systems of oppression rather than deal with root causes. The fossil fuel industry relied on policing to disperse Indigenous protesters at Standing Rock, and landlords call police to coerce and evict tenants struggling to make ends meet. For this reason, an abolitionist politics, Purnell argues, must be paired with “radical feminism, socialism, environmental justice, and disability justice.”

Not all police abolitionists make these connections explicit, but as Purnell reminds us, there is always a maximalist and a minimalist version of abolitionist politics. Nineteenth-century anti-slavery activists, from whom many of today’s abolitionists take inspiration, also disagreed about how expansive their politics should be. While one faction of anti-slavery activists and politicians viewed the end of slavery as all that was necessary, more radical abolitionists, Purnell writes, insisted that freedom for Black people meant more than participation as wage laborers in an economy defined by wealth accumulation. Instead, it also required the full incorporation of formerly enslaved Black people and other marginalized groups into all aspects of society through a fundamental transformation of the capitalist economic order that had allowed slavery and colonization to flourish. For Purnell, today’s police abolitionists need to embrace this more radical strain. The achievements of the 19th century’s anti-slavery abolitionists were, in many instances, hampered or rolled back at the end of the century, partly because they did not advocate for more fundamental change. “Mixing abolition and capitalism was not enough to ensure the full liberation of Black people then, and it is not enough to ensure the full liberation of everyone now,” she insists. Likewise, those advocating police abolition today cannot separate the end of policing from broader struggles for freedom.

Critics of police abolition often ask how we would deal with harm in a world without police. Beyond showing how policing itself creates many harms, Becoming Abolitionists details practical alternatives. Abolition, Purnell writes, does not mean “the end of policing overnight” but rather “incremental progress toward shrinking the police” alongside robust investment in capacity-building programs, practices, and mutual aid within local communities. Purnell documents how some communities are already building abolitionist alternatives. She describes the success of violence interruption programs like Taller Salud and Cure Violence, which “build relationships with residents who are most likely to kill or be killed by gun violence,” thereby allowing them to de-escalate violent situations and orchestrate truces between rival gangs. She highlights Black and Pink, an organization that works with formerly incarcerated people as well as those living with HIV/AIDS and pools resources to provide “down payments and two months’ rent for members transitioning into housing.” She also discusses organizations like Survived & Punished, which works at the “intersection of ending law enforcement and gender-based violence.” In South Africa during the pandemic, she writes, “groups of residents, mostly women,” created “safe houses to take in anyone facing violence, which strengthened community responses to harm and accountability” without relying on police. Growing research in sociology and criminology has also demonstrated that such alternatives can reduce rates of interpersonal violence. Following the lead of activists, researchers could direct more of their energy and resources toward carefully analyzing community-based alternatives.

Becoming a police abolitionist requires committed study and struggle—of that, Purnell leaves no doubt. It requires a willingness to question our collective beliefs about why we think we need police and to make our world one in which we no longer do. The journey toward abolition will continue to be, much like many other radical causes, messy, politically fraught, and experimental. It is, after all, charting new ground. Some people have a vested interest in maintaining the oppressive racial and economic order that policing upholds. But for the rest of us—the vast majority of us, now and in the future—winning this struggle will make the difference between life and death. “Rather than waiting for comforting answers to every potential harm ahead of us,” Purnell asserts, “let’s plan. Run. Dream. Experiment.” Becoming Abolitionists provides a blueprint for each of us to begin to run, dream, and experiment toward a just and livable future.

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