What Abolition Looks Like, From the Panthers to the People
Calls to defund prisons and policing is neither new nor hopelessly utopian
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.
What if Trayvon Martin was offered a ride home instead?
— Dream Defenders, “Defund Police and Rebuild Our Communities”
The slogan “Defund the Police” has become a political lightning rod. To Donald Trump and his people, it is a terrorist plot hatched by socialists (read: Democrats) and thugs (read: Black people). Joe Biden and most of his party stalwarts run from the idea, proposing instead to increase funding for law enforcement for better equipment and training. Abolition also has its share of critics on the left who think it is utopian fantasy and a political dead end. All sides share two things in common: They believe police keep us safe, and they fundamentally misunderstand the demand to defund or abolish the police.
For Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other communities of color, especially the poor, women, and LGBTQ folx, the police are often a threat to safety and security — alongside a racist and sexist “criminal justice” system, inadequate income, housing, health care, and schools, and neighborhoods divested of services and overrun with toxins and unchecked violence. This is why abolition is necessary. Abolition works to dismantle systems that have caused harm, namely police and prisons, and reallocate funds to social and economic resources, and to develop new systems of community-controlled public safety and restorative justice. The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a coalition made up of over 150 organizations, came up with such a plan to divest billions of dollars from prisons, policing, and the Pentagon, and invest in education, universal health care, housing, living wage jobs, restorative justice, food justice, and green energy.
Abolishing the police is not the brainchild of some extreme left-wing think tank but a product of grassroots social movements fighting police violence and racially biased laws, while simultaneously trying to make their own communities safer.
For example, since 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) gave over $30 billion in direct grants to state and local law enforcement, and the Department of Defense’s (DOD)1033 Program issued some $7 billion worth of surplus military equipment to police departments as well law enforcement units to select colleges and school districts. The federal government doles out billions with little oversight and no accountability, and no evidence that we are safer as a result of militarized policing. The M4BL Policy platform proposes reallocating these funds to “long-term safety strategies such as educational, community restorative justice, and employment programs.” The data is clear: Children in a Chicago study who did not participate in preschool programs were 70% more likely to be arrested by age 18; in another study, youth who participated in summer job programs in Chicago saw a 43% decrease in arrests over a 16-month period. Shifting $37 billion from policing to education and restorative justice initiatives will not only strengthen communities, it will make them safer.
Abolition is neither new nor hopelessly utopian. On the contrary, after over a half century of “reforms,” police and prisons continue to enact irreparable harm to vulnerable populations. None of the police reforms currently proposed are new: civilian review boards, better training, altering use of force policy, more tasers, more transparency, more Black cops, residency requirements (officers must live in the city where they work), better data to flag patterns of misconduct, body cams, and banning choke holds. These reforms have not stopped the wanton killing and beating of civilians or made communities that are consistently policed any safer. Before George Floyd’s execution in Minneapolis, the city’s police department was a poster child of reform. Minneapolis’ diverse force was well-trained in mental health crisis intervention, implicit bias, de-escalation, and praised for being exceptionally compassionate.
A decade of unremitting police violence followed by non-indictments has inspired new movements to embrace abolitionist principles. Those organizations include: #BlackLivesMatter, Dream Defenders, Black Youth Project 100, We Charge Genocide, BOLD (Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity), Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, Dignity and Power Now, Ella’s Daughters, Assata’s Daughters, Black Feminist Future, Know Your Rights Camp, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, The #LetUsBreathe Collective, to name just a few. Before Black Lives Matter became a hashtag, Oakland’s Black Organizing Project and the Community Rights Campaign in Los Angeles were fighting to demilitarize schools, decriminalize tardiness and truancy, and abolish school police. In Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, Black youth in Hands Up United, Lost Voices, and Millennial Activists United, gave us a model of a sustained revolt dedicated to police abolition that inspired a group of anarchists to publish a pamphlet A World Without Police and launch a companion website.
Abolishing the police is not the brainchild of some extreme left-wing think tank but a product of grassroots social movements fighting police violence and racially biased laws, while simultaneously trying to make their own communities safer. We have been told that Richard Nixon’s stance against rising crime and urban rebellions won him the presidency in 1968 — a strategy Trump is currently trying to replicate. But the wave of urban rebellions were responses to police violence, exacerbated by the violence of disinvestment, segregation, and poverty.
The Black Panther Party was formed in 1966 in Oakland, California, precisely to monitor police violence, to create community-based models of public safety, and to provide for the social needs of Black communities where the state failed. Panthers around the country patrolled the streets, held know-your-rights workshops, exposed the names of brutal cops, and in various places provided free medical care, free clothing and groceries, ran free breakfast and lunch programs for children, food banks, community gardens, drug rehab centers, ambulance services, and housing cooperatives. These efforts at mutual aid were deemed so dangerous to national security that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover dubbed the Panthers as “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” BPP members, along with other liberation movement activists, sought to reimagine criminal justice at the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia in 1970. They proposed reorganizing the police as “a rotating volunteer non-professional body coordinated by the Police Control Board from a (weekly) list of volunteers from each community section.” Board members would be elected and its policies approved by popular vote, and “community rehabilitation programs” would replace jails and prisons. However, through systematic raids on Panther headquarters, surveillance, agent provocateurs, targeted assassinations, and harassment, the police and FBI actually created a dangerous and insecure environment.
Today’s vision of abolition, rooted in anti-prison movements, can be traced to the long 1990s (roughly 1989–2003), to opposition to Bush and Clinton-era neoliberalism, the war on drugs, the war on terror, prison expansion, the movement to free political prisoners, police violence, anti-Black and anti-immigrant racism, Islamophobia, and violence against women of color and the LGBTQ community. That vision is present in movements like Mothers ROC (Reclaiming Our Children), the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the National Jericho Movement, Prison Activist Resource Center, the Prison Moratorium Project, Critical Resistance, All of Us or None, Labor/Community Strategy Center, Project South, Southerners on New Ground (SONG); INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Sista 2 Sista, the Los Angeles Community Action Network, The Praxis Project, Safe OUTside the System (SOS), Project NIA, FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment), Queers for Economic Justice, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (BATJC), UBUNTU!, to name only a few.
The founders and forces behind many of these movements were key theorists of abolition, community organizers, survivors of gender-based violence, formerly incarcerated, and scholar-activists whose writings — even if not promoting an abolitionist agenda — profoundly shaped the current generation of activists. The current movement is unimaginable without the writings of my colleagues and compatriots who have also contributed to this project, as well many others.
It is not an accident that gender-based violence (physical, sexual, psychological violence directed at women, girls, queer and gender non-conforming people meant to subjugate and maintain gender inequalities) emerged as a key abolitionist issue. Women of color, queer and trans folx, are simultaneously criminalized and rendered disposable. It is not enough to say the names of those killed by police but also the tens of thousands whose deaths, disappearances, and abuse go unresolved. Legal Scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, co-founder of The African American Policy Forum, launched #SayHerName not only to draw attention to Black women killed by police but to how the state and the law make them more vulnerable to other forms of violence. Police not only enact harm through direct violence but by the criminal justice system’s inability to address gender-based and intimate violence. Carceral feminists believe that police, prosecution, and prison are the best way to address gender and sexual violence; abolition feminists argue that locking men up in cages reinforces violent behavior and never addresses the problem of sexual violence and its victims. Instead, the carceral state criminalizes and locks up women, transgender, and gender non-conforming communities and perpetuates racial and gender violence against our communities.
In 2001, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and Critical Resistance issued a statement calling for “strategies and analyses that address both state and interpersonal violence, particularly violence against women,” and the development of safe, community-based responses to violence independent of the criminal justice system and accountable to survivors of sexual and domestic violence. Following the police killing of two teenaged women of color in 2000, the Brooklyn-based collective Sista II Sista, created “Sistas Liberated Ground” as an alternative to calling the police to deal with gendered violence. (At the time, the NYPD had a backlog of over 100,000 domestic violence cases.) To protect Sistas Liberated Ground, women were trained in self-defense and conflict resolution. Through street performances, video screenings, discussions, and direct interventions they dealt with violence as a community issue. As a result, they succeeded in making their community safer without police. In 2008, INCITE! published a 117-page tool kit offering an array of strategies and resources designed to reduce violence and build caring communities without police.
The abolition of police and prisons is not only possible, it is necessary if we are serious about preserving Black life, reducing trauma, creating safer communities, and investing municipal funds in social needs rather than settling wrongful death and excessive force cases. But it will not happen without a political struggle. Because, truth be told, the role of police in the U.S. was never to keep our communities safe, but to protect property and its owners, to function as an occupying force in America’s impoverished ghettoes, barrios, and reservations, to use coercive force to oversee “criminalized” populations. And as protesters know firsthand, police are the first line of defense against strikes, demonstrations, and dissident social movements. Abolitionists know it’s not enough just to win the argument, and that abolition is not an event but a process, a struggle. Abolitionists expose the system’s oppressive character while also fighting to ultimately end state and interpersonal violence, end policing, create structures of accountability, demilitarize law enforcement, end solitary confinement, the death penalty, cash bail, resist police and prison expansion, roll back punitive measures, and find ways to interrupt violence and create safety so the police would not have to be called.