The Magical Thinking of Reformism


Reformism Isn’t Liberation, It’s Counterinsurgency

You can’t abolish systemic anti-Blackness and racial-colonial violence by protecting the system itself

Dylan Rodriguez
Published in
9 min readOct 20, 2020

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…



Dylan Rodriguez
Writer for

Dylan Rodríguez is a 2020 Freedom Scholar, President of the American Studies Association (2020–2021), and Professor at the University of CA, Riverside.