With the recent murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minnesota, there has been a rising call from Black Lives Matter activists to demolish policing as a whole. Many people will, understandably, feel confused at how society could possibly function without this institution in their lives. This text is in response to that. Here, I will explain prison/police abolition framework because it’s important that we have this understanding especially when so many black people are being murdered and dehumanised and alienated by the police; there’s a theory of change out there.
An instinctive response I often come across, at the idea of abolition, is the image of anarchy and complete chaos as society is overrun by all sorts of deviant acts/people. Perhaps if we abolished police without enacting the politics of abolition on a personal and structural level, there may be chaos (though I don’t know how much I believe that). Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of institutions but replacing them with structures that benefit and protect everyone, unlike current police/prison systems.
The criminal justice system applies one strategy for all ‘criminal’ acts. For example, if you see a drunk/disorderly person, call the police; a mentally ill person, call the police, etc. There’s a wide range of acts that don’t require policing yet the police are just there as a ‘one size fits all’ solution which doesn’t truly help people- it just subjects them to violence. There should be qualified/trained people for specific situations of public concern within communities, who can be relied upon rather than the police. For example, trained medical professionals who are able to assist those mentally ill individuals in emergencies whilst also funding health services so that these vulnerable people within our society are better cared for as a whole. However, these non-violent criminalised behaviour are not generally the primary point of concern for people when abolition is introduced; there’s still the question of serious public safety concerns like rape or murder.
So, we know that there is over-policing in society but we need to question whether any policing a good idea. Police are a state institution which predominantly uses violence to enforce laws or punish them for not following them. The basis of laws in this country draws a line between criminal and not criminal acts and this line is often used to preserve power. Some of what is not labelled as legitimate crime is perpetuated by those in power but is incredibly harmful. Some of what is considered legitimate crime is not harmful whatsoever. I believe there needs to be mass decriminalisation of acts that do not harm other individuals. Laws regarding drugs should rather be considered public health concerns more than anything, as one example. This is why if we need to discuss public safety, in this abolition world, it should be discussed in terms of harm rather than ‘crime’ (which privileged/powerful people have a monopoly over defining).
Going back to the question of what happens when people face serious harm, such as murder or rape, I would say that I have more extensively researched the answer to this question with rape rather than murder as that is something which has more closely affected the people in my life. However, I will try to answer that question regarding murder also. Firstly, not all homicide is the same. Many factors that lead to murder are as a result of poverty or the culture of misogyny/homophobia/racism etc. — abolition aims to address those things by preventing them. We live in a culture which reproduces the cycle of poverty and ideology which violently oppresses women/racialised minorities/trans people etc. Those are beliefs we are raised to hold and eradicating those systems of oppression will inevitably reduce the violence against those groups of people. In terms of random acts of violence by someone who literally just enjoys killing people I actually don’t have an answer for that but it’s something I have to research further.
(Edit: Following this post, I’ve come to learn that someone who just enjoys killing may be someone who is suffering from psychopathy or malign narcissism in some form, thus prevention of childhood trauma or exposure to violence may reduce these cases. However, non-violent restraint is best administered by mental health nurses rather than further brutalising people within prisons. A pressing question regarding this may be whether mental hospitals epistemically transform into prisons which can only be safe-guarded against through the societal shift from punitive justice to that of care and transformation. Abolition is not merely the demolish of the buildings which we call prisons, rather it is the abolishment of all policing, punishment and conceptual prisons as we know. Thank you Vida for explaining this to me.)
Now, to address the sincere concern and question of protecting victims of rape in this abolitionist world. Statistically only 3% of reported rapes are convicted. The percentage of people who are rapists and get convicted is even lower because most people do not report. It’s so difficult to prove lack of consent due to the fact that we operate on a basis of innocent until proven guilty. The criminal justice system does not protect rape victims. As it stands today, it’s failing in regards to rape. So when people say “how can we not have prisons/police — what about rapists?”, most of them aren’t even in prison so there needs a better solution to honor and protect victims of this violence.
I recently came across a writer who was raped by the editor of a magazine and she wrote about how she tried to form justice with abolition in mind. From that article, I came to understand that rape (or indeed any act of violence) does not happen in a vacuum, there is an entire culture/society which leads a person to commit that act against someone. It’s a culture that objectifies feminine bodies, promotes unhealthy ideas about sex, doesn’t address patriarchal violence, does not teach consent, denigrates femininity and so much more. Abolition seeks to address those things. One thing that’s also really important about understanding that actions don’t stand alone is about holding the rapist and their community in joint accountability. This is what the writer attempts to do with the senior members of the magazine, where her rapist works. If someone you know rapes another person and it’s understood that you are as culpable as that rapist then people will better their own communities accountable.
This is a core principle of how abolition looks at acts of harm, by looking at acts within the context they occur. This means that we understand why people decide to take those actions and how to stop those things happening long before they harm someone.
To sum up what I’ve said, abolishment isn’t just get rid of police and prisons, it’s a theory of change in every aspect. Some steps that are feasible right now, would be to start defunding and disarming police. Stop giving weapons to people who are hold and act upon oppressive beliefs because that leads to marginalised people, black people, being killed or dehumanised and alienated by the state. Invest this money into social institutions that better society — ideologically and materially combat acts of harm before they ever take place. Whilst we live our lives under the shadow of policing and it can feel impossible to imagine a world outside of that, it’s something we need to strive towards; build the social institutions in our community that makes police redundant.
Ways to help — https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/
‘Are Prisons Obsolete?’ by Angela Davis (2003)
‘Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind’ by Rachel Kuchner (2019) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/magazine/prison-abolition-ruth-wilson-gilmore.html
‘Community Accountability Means We All Play A Role.’ by Leila Raven (2020) https://medium.com/@theleilaraven/community-accountability-means-we-all-play-a-role-3c6db597c8fb