Reformism Isn’t Liberation, It’s Counterinsurgency
You can’t abolish systemic anti-Blackness and racial-colonial violence by protecting the system itself
This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.
The logic of ‘reform’
Reform is best understood as a logic rather than an outcome: an approach to institutional change that sustains existing social, economic, political, and/or legal systems, including but not limited to policing, two-party electoral politics, heteronormativity, criminal justice, and corporate destruction of the natural world.
To reform a system is to adjust isolated aspects of its operation in order to protect that system from total collapse, whether by internal or external forces. Such adjustments usually rest on the fundamental assumption that these systems must remain intact — even as they consistently produce asymmetrical misery, suffering, premature death, and violent life conditions for certain people and places.
While modern policing has emerged through the institutionalized violence of anti-Black apartheid and the long genocidal legacies of chattel slavery and frontier warfare, contemporary efforts at “police reform” nonetheless suggest that policing can be magically transformed into a non-anti-Black, non-racial-colonial (“racist”) system. As the story goes, this white magic is to be performed by way of piecemeal changes in police administration, protocols, “officer accountability,” training, and personnel recruitment.
The #8CantWait campaign, widely publicized on social media by the nonprofit organization We the Protestors and its Campaign Zero effort during the early days of the June 2020 global rebellion against anti-Black police violence, exemplifies the foundational fraudulence of this magical ambition. Premised on the untenable, poorly researched, and dangerous notion that adoption of its eight improved “use of force” policies will result in police killing “72% fewer people,” the 8 Can’t Wait agenda attracted immediate and widespread support from celebrities and elected officials, including Oprah Winfrey, Julián Castro, and Ariana Grande. Such endorsements are inseparable from the political logic of the nonprofit industrial complex: The infrastructure of liberal philanthropy commodifies simplistic narratives of reform into tidy sound/text bites that are easily repeated, retweeted, and reposted by public-facing people and organizations. This dynamic not only insults the intelligence of those engaged in serious, collectively accountable forms of struggle against state violence; it also glorifies clout-seeking laziness as a substitute for actual (abolitionist) activism.
One of many glaring problems with #8CantWait — which advocates de-escalation, “warning before shooting,” banning chokeholds, and installation of a “use of force continuum” — is that many of its proposed policy reforms were incorporated by the most homicidally anti-Black police departments in the United States (including the notorious Chicago PD) well prior to the state-sanctioned killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many others. Against all historical evidence, #8CantWait attempts to convince those questioning and rebelling against a violent, misery-making system that policing is reformable — that it can be modified and refurbished to protect and serve the very same places, communities, and bodies it has historically surveilled, patrolled, intimidated, and eviscerated.
As Project NIA director and abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba wrote in a June New York Times editorial, “There is not a single era in United States history in which the police were not a force of violence against Black people.” A recent amicus brief in Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review echoes Black radical feminist and abolitionist analyses like those of Kaba, Rachel Herzing, Alisa Bierria, Sarah Haley, Beth Richie, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore by considering how #8CantWait amounts to a liberal reaction to and attempted appropriation of an emerging global mass movement that radically confronts the foundational gendered anti-Black logics of modern policing. The brief suggests that “Campaign Zero’s decision to move forward with a middle-of-the-road proposal, just as abolitionist organizers have begun to garner increased public support in their demands to defund and abolish the police, is questionable.”
It is vital to ask why such reform campaigns consistently emerge with special intensity in historical moments of widespread anti-systemic uprising. The 2020 global rebellions against anti-Black policing, acceleration of abolitionist and proto-abolitionist organizing, and spread of Black feminist and queer radicalisms in our midst are, as the late Cedric Robinson might say, a brilliant, messy, beautiful totality that seeks to overthrow conditions of terror. These conditions are both deeply historical and acutely present, encompassing the deadly forces of criminalization, housing and food insecurity, incarceration, targeted environmental toxification, sexual violence, and cultural demonization. Yet, reform movements tend to simultaneously obscure and reproduce normalized conditions of terror by deferring and/or repressing militant collective confrontation with the historical foundations of gendered anti-Black and racial-colonial state violence. Put another way, if the foundation of such violence is policing itself rather than isolated acts of “police brutality,” or criminal justice rather than the scandal of “mass incarceration,” then reform is merely another way of telling the targets of such asymmetrical domestic warfare that they must continue to tolerate the intolerable.
What might it mean, in moments of widespread rebellion against normalized conditions of terror, to conceptualize reform campaigns like #8CantWait as a liberal-progressive counterinsurgency? How do such reformist counterinsurgencies serve to undermine, discredit, or otherwise disrupt oppressed, freedom-seeking (Black, Indigenous, incarcerated, colonized) peoples’ growing struggles for abolitionist, anti-colonial, decolonizing, and/or revolutionary transformations of existing social, political, and economic systems?
Reformism — the ideological and political position that fixates on reform as the primary if not exclusive engine of social change/justice — is another name for this soft form of counterinsurgency. Reformism defers, avoids, and even criminalizes peoples’ efforts to catalyze fundamental change to an existing order, often through dogmatic and simplistic mandates of “nonviolence,” incrementalism, and compliance.
Moreover, reformism sees the law as the only legitimate form of protest, collective cultural/political expression, and/or direct intervention on systemically violent conditions. (It is worth noting that the interpretation of violent vs. nonviolent acts requires discussion and debate, particularly in response to oxymoronic notions of “property violence” that rarely account for gendered anti-Black and racial-colonial state violence.) Reformism limits the horizon of political possibility to what is seen as achievable within the limits of existing institutional structures (electoral politics, racial capitalism, heteronormativity, the nation-state, etc.).
The reformist counterinsurgency pivots on a fervent belief that the spirit of progress, national improvement, and patriotic belief will prevail over a fundamentally violent order. In practice, this belief approximates a kind of pseudo-religion.
While abolitionist, revolutionary, and radical forms of collective analysis and movement frequently create irreconcilable confrontation with oppressive institutions and systems, reformism seeks to preserve social, political, and economic orders by modifying isolated aspects of their operation. A peculiar assertion animates contemporary forms of this liberal-progressive counterinsurgency: that the long historical, systemic, institutionally reproduced asymmetries of violence produced by existing systems are the unfortunate consequences of fixable “inequities,” “disparities,” “(unconscious or implicit) biases,” corruptions, and/or inefficiencies. In this sense, reformism presumes that equality/equity/parity are achievable — and desirable — within existing systems.
The reformist counterinsurgency pivots on a fervent belief that the spirit of progress, national improvement, and patriotic belief will prevail over a fundamentally violent order. In practice, this belief approximates a form of dogmatic liberal faith — a kind of pseudo-religion. Thus, increased “diversity” in personnel and bureaucratic infrastructure, shifts in the legal and policy apparatus, and individualized “anti-bias trainings” ascend as some of the principal methods for alleviating state violence. There is yet another layer of fatal assumption that structures the reformist position: that those targeted for misery, displacement, and premature death under the existing social order must tolerate continued suffering while waiting for the reformist “fix” to take hold.
An abolitionist analysis and collective praxis, on the other hand, offers an urgent rebuttal to the bad-faith incrementalism of the reformist position. Two parts of the spreading abolitionist response are worth emphasizing: First, that the internal logic of the existing social, political, and economic order (following Sylvia Wynter, let us call this “Civilization”) amounts to a long historical war on specific peoples and places. Second, that the transformation of such an order not only requires its upheaval, but also must be guided by the liberation, collective health, and self-determination of African-descended peoples, Indigenous and Aboriginal peoples, and other peoples and places targeted by the long history of Civilizational war. Considering the anti-Black, genocidal, and proto-genocidal logic of racial capitalism, the (U.S.) nation-state, white supremacy, and settler-colonial domination, reformism is not merely inadequate to the task of abolishing anti-Black, racial-colonial warfare; it is central to Civilization’s expansion, sophistication, and deadliness.
To be fair, some rare reform campaigns seek immediate institutional adjustments that directly address the asymmetrical casualties of anti-Blackness and racial-colonial violence. Abolitionist approaches to reform, for example, endorse short-term measures that defend the existence of vulnerable and oppressed people while allowing organizers, teachers, scholars, and other activists to build greater capacity to completely overturn and transform existing systemic arrangements. #8toAbolition, the abolitionist response to #8CantWait, exemplifies such a program of immediate local reforms, which include defunding/redistributing police budgets, decriminalizing survival-focused economies and communities, decarceration of jails and prisons, and universal access to safe housing. Yet, the campaign nonetheless asserts that “the end goal of these reforms is not to create better, friendlier, or more community-oriented police or prisons. Instead, we hope to build toward a society without police or prisons, where communities are equipped to provide for their safety and wellbeing.” Reform is, at best, a stopgap emergency tactic that abolitionists undertake with principled suspicion.
This historical moment is marked by multiple obliterations of the reformist script: Growing numbers of people, communities, and organizations are unapologetically, militantly rejecting the contemporary sociopolitical and economic order. This is a time animated by widespread Black and Indigenous revolt, audacious visions of a future against/after Civilization, and a disciplined mass refusal to surrender to the intimidation of right-wing reactionaries and the open repression of the state. Proliferating grassroots activity, language, thought, and collective learning expose the brittle ideological claims of reformism, which wilt in the face of the surging art, movement, and poetry of abolition, revolution, reparation, and radical community that define periods like the summer of 2020. Readers of this and other contributions to Abolition for the People may already be engaged with such communities, but if they are not, they can likely search and find ways to link with such collectives with minimal effort. (Otherwise, they can feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll do my best to facilitate a connection.)
Finally, at a time when the United States is reacting to this insurgent, self-liberating swell of humanity by openly moving toward a 21st-century version of white nationalist fascism, it is helpful to revisit the words of Black revolutionary writer, teacher, and organizer George Jackson, from his book Blood in My Eye:
We will never have a complete definition of fascism, because it is in constant motion, showing a new face to fit any particular set of problems that arise to threaten the predominance of the traditionalist, capitalist ruling class. But if one were forced for the sake of clarity to define it in a word simple enough for all to understand, that word would be “reform.”
Fatal and terrorizing state violence is not containable to isolated incidents. It draws from and actively expands a long Civilizational history that is based on the evisceration and negation of Black life; the occupation and destruction of Indigenous peoples and places; the criminalization of queer, trans, and disabled people; the flourishing damage of state-sanctioned sexual violence; and the stubborn omnipresence of violent misogyny—which are the everyday order of things under the conditions of normalized (domestic) war.
Reform is at best a form of casualty management, while reformism is counterinsurgency against those who dare to envision, enact, and experiment with abolitionist forms of community, collective power, and futurity. Abolition, in this sense, is the righteous nemesis of reformism, as well as the militant, principled, historically grounded response to liberal counterinsurgency.
Abolition is not an outcome. Rather, it is an everyday practice, a method of teaching, creating, thinking, and an insurgent (“fugitive”) community-building project that exposes the pitfalls of the reformist adventure. It demystifies reformism’s cheap magic and summons an embrace of the dynamic Black radical and revolutionary tradition that informs collective labors of freedom, structures notions of justice and collective self-defense, and induces a political and ethical obligation to fight unapologetically, in whatever ways are available, effective, and historically accountable. Anything less is a concession to the logics of anti-Black and racial-colonial genocide.