What Is and What Could Be: The Policies of Abolition
From state-level coalitions to sweeping federal mandates, imagining the future means spending money in the right places
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.
By Dan Berger and David Stein
The far-reaching vision of abolition is enacted daily in political struggles over spending priorities — a key measure of whose lives matter and how. Abolitionists have picked up the torch of 20th-century Black labor radicals and other racial and economic justice organizers who have insisted that public budgets have moral implications.
The call to defund the police is a deeply rooted strategy that to some entered the 2020 landscape as if from nowhere. Yet the demand has been shaped by more than three decades of organizing against police and prisons. It has been molded by what historian Barbara Ransby has described as movements filled with leaders: from activists like James Yaki Sayles in the 1980s; to Ransby’s own work building the Black Radical Congress in the 1990s; to that of Eddie Ellis and the New York-based Prison Moratorium Project in the 1990s and 2000s; to the ascent of the broader Movement for Black Lives and both the ephemeral and durable formations that have sprung up over the past six years since the Ferguson protests gripped the world’s attention.
The call to defund is best understood as an effort to revoke the political and economic power of police — and of the larger criminal legal system it upholds. Indeed, before the protests against the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor popularized the demand to defund the police, abolitionists around the country initiated campaigns for clemency and to decarcerate jails, prisons, and detention centers. These campaigns could be found in prison, too. Incarcerated people have staged dozens of rebellions against institutional medical neglect in the face of a deadly pandemic, building on 10 years of labor and hunger strikes inside U.S. prisons.
While Republicans and Democrats may use different talking points, state spending demonstrates their shared commitment to preserving racist social control through police and prisons. Whether speaking the language of authoritarianism or professionalism, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden responded to the summer 2020 uprisings by pledging additional funding and support to police. That is why abolitionist campaigns to defund the police and decarcerate prisons are so transformative: They approach local and national budgets with necessary urgency as a venue in which the status quo can be either reinforced or remade. It is both a defensive posture and a visionary one. It’s a three-pronged strategy that the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance has summarized as Dismantle, Change, Build.
Abolitionists have long operated at this intersection of opposing what is and fighting for what could be. Beginning in the 1970s, several national organizations tried to stop the growing punishment regime evident in new laws and new prisons. After Black Marxist scholar and abolitionist Angela Davis was acquitted of federal charges in 1972, her defense committee transformed into a broader effort to stem the tide of criminalization. Among its priorities, the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (NAARPR) protested “repressive legislation” and “police crimes,” both of which were abetted by massive funding grants enabled through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration and the Nixon administration’s open hostility to communities of color and the left.
The NAARPR was one of several national coalitions to contest this increasingly repressive turn under the Nixon administration. The National Moratorium on Prison Construction (NMPC) gathered faith-based and secular progressives to challenge the federal government’s plan to construct additional prisons in the 1970s. One of the most colorful efforts in this era, the Stop the Olympic Prison (STOP) campaign, worked to block turning the 1980 Olympic village living quarters for athletes into a prison. The U.S. Olympic Committee sued STOP for its poster, which featured the Olympic rings locked in a cage. A judge sided with NMPC on First Amendment grounds, though the prison was ultimately built.
These and similar campaigns sought not only to stop new construction but to support currently incarcerated people, who continued to publish newspapers, form labor unions, support defense campaigns, and otherwise organize against their captivity. And while they could not stop the onslaught of repression that sacrificed millions of people to police and prisons, groups like the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons and the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown, formed in the 1970s and 1980s, helped seed new abolitionist efforts in the 1990s and 2000s that began to have greater success.
California is instructive: From 1980 to 2000, the state witnessed a nearly 500% rise in its prison population, complete with a two-decade prison building spree that saw 23 new prisons open. At its height, the California prison system held 160,000 people — well over half the entire country’s prison population in 1970. To stem that tide, organizations and coalitions like Critical Resistance, California Prison Moratorium Project, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Justice Now, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, and the Prison Activist Resource Center thwarted plans to open additional facilities in the state. More recently, these and other organizations have stopped jail expansion and pressured the governor to grant several large-scale clemencies. Together, these and other organizations comprising Californians United for a Responsible Budget have helped ensure that more than 140,000 new prison and jail beds were never built. As a result of this organizing, including the emergency clemency campaigns in response to the pandemic, the state’s prison population has dropped below 100,000 people for the first time in 30 years.
The last six months of upheaval and crackdown prompts the question of the last half-century and earlier: What type of protest movements could be built if communities were freed from the violence of policing and incarceration? Contests over budget priorities are about what the state can be and should be. Many abolitionists root this work in W.E.B. Du Bois’ classic analysis of abolition democracy — the political struggle led by formerly enslaved people in the wake of the Civil War to construct new institutions while also eradicating violent ones. A similar fight is underway today, where currently and formerly incarcerated people and their allies work to change the world by abolishing the prison-industrial complex. Scholar-activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore has similarly stressed that “abolition is a theory of change, it’s a theory of social life. It’s about making things.”
Abolition is and has always been a slate of affirmative demands for the world we need. The struggles to defund the police and decarcerate prisons are wholly intertwined with other efforts to transform society. Medicare for All, a job guarantee, and a homes guarantee are battles for a humane and ecologically just budget, as are efforts to release aging people in prison and close detention centers. The Green New Deal is or could be an abolitionist project; the Red New Deal certainly is. While many of those policy goals can only be fully achieved at the federal level, that spirit animates local and state battles, which is where most spending on police and prisons takes place. For example, while federal spending on prisons accounts for about 10% of all prison spending, only the federal government can thoroughly cushion against economic recessions and depressions.
But with the jackboots of local police off the necks of activists across the country, movements against austerity will have greater chances to flourish. Combating inequality will still be an uphill climb, particularly as municipalities try to co-opt or dilute abolitionist demands. By reducing the number of police and prisons, by eliminating the state’s capacity for repression, the defund struggles work to enlarge broader movement capacity. Abolitionists remain resolute on the larger goal of freedom.
From the civil rights movement to Occupy Wall Street, criminalization has been a key tactic to undermine protest and roll back the welfare state. Neoliberal austerity was imposed via a police officer’s pistol and the bars of prison cells. In response, abolitionists pursue what anthropologist Hannah Appel has called “reparative public goods” like housing, education, and health care for all. Entering the realm of public policy, abolition rejects the political obstinacy and technocratic fixes that have seen many major cities actually increase their funding for police departments this year, and most states continue to use conviction status to deny voting rights to most currently and formerly incarcerated people. According to the Sentencing Project, one out of every 44 adults is disenfranchised by the carceral system — just one of many ways that policing and imprisonment constrain political participation.
Police and prisons uphold the world that is. Abolition fights for the world that should be. Abolition unites struggles across time and space. Abolitionist causes like ending cash bail, decarcerating and closing prisons, freeing elderly and vulnerable incarcerated people, providing humanitarian aid to migrants, decriminalizing sex work, halting evictions, supporting incarcerated survivors of domestic violence, blocking deportations, expanding health care — these reforms have revolutionary implications, which is why they have been resisted so bitterly. When united together, they form a comprehensive agenda. It is a platform to eliminate austerity and create what Ruth Wilson Gilmore and sociologist Paul Gilroy have discussed as a universal future for humanity. These practices are both the abolitionist horizon and its route.
Dan Berger teaches at the University of Washington, Bothell, coordinates the Washington Prison History Project, wrote Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, and co-edited Remaking Radicalism: A Grassroots Documentary Reader of the United States, 1973–2001.
David Stein is a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of African American studies at University of California, Los Angeles. His book, Fearing Inflation, Inflating Fears: The Civil Rights Struggle for Full Employment and the Rise of the Carceral State, 1929–1986, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.