Abolition, Now

Originally posted on Facebook on May 3, 2021; edited to embed links (links originally posted in comments due to FB algorithms).

#DefundThePolice has been the hashtag and slogan by which many people have come to know abolition in the last year. And that’s great! Defunding the police is an important part of constraining police power, and abolishing punitive and carceral logic.

But it’s not the only piece; not at all. And the murder of Daunte Wright highlights the importance of another: #DisarmThePolice. Because “Oops, I thought I was reaching for my Taser!” is not a new excuse; most memorably, especially for those of us who live(d) in the Bay, it was the line trotted out by the BART cop who murdered Oscar Grant on the Fruitvale platform on Christmas Eve, more than a decade ago now. That trial was notable because it was one of the rare instances where an officer did time. Yet it did not prove a deterrent for future cop-killing, or even for the deployment of the exact same justification. (“Prosecute killer cops” is not abolitionist; as Mariame Kaba says, not everyone is an abolitionist, and that’s OK.)

The very possibility of the “I reached for the wrong weapon!” excuse highlights the necessity of an abolitionist framework, however, when engaging in efforts to craft a new understanding of public safety. Last summer, much of the pushback to “defund” and “abolish” was that these words were too strong: what’s wrong, folks asked, with “reform”?

But all too often, “reform” is simply a cover story to increase police power — as the story of police use of Tasers demonstrates all too clearly. Critical Resistance, the abolitionist org co-founded by Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, distinguishes between abolitionist reform and “reformist reform” by interrogating whether or not these reforms limit or expand, respectively, the resources and scope of policing. Increased budgets, increased training, increased technology — these only give cops more resources for violence.

Because the pitch behind the Taser is that is a non-lethal alternative to a cop’s firearm. This is already more branding than reality; Tasers are only truly non-lethal under controlled conditions and with certain kinds of people — namely, non-elderly adults with no underlying health conditions. They are a somewhat less lethal option than a gun. They are not non-lethal.

Yet by giving cops a choice between a Taser and a gun, we validate the wishful thinking of the Taser as “non-lethal” — as a gentler choice. We also validate the idea that there are scenarios where something *more* lethal than a Taser is necessary; that is, the presence of both a Taser and a gun naturalizes them both. The Taser does not reduce violence but only increases the landscape of justifications for its deployment.

(A few months ago I posted a story from a couple years ago about the history of the Taser. It is pretty full-on sociopathic.)

A Taser is only an incremental step towards disarming if it is not offered in addition to a gun, but rather, as a substitute to it. Such a step would not end the lethality of policing, but would reduce it somewhat. But offering the Taser as an addition to a gun only offers it as an additional tool of violence, which means: additional violence. In the words of DiDi Delgado: “That boy shouldn’t have been Tased, either.”

Abolition does not end with defunding and disarming, though; in Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s famous aphorism, when it comes to abolition, “there is only one thing we have to change. And that is everything.”

Perhaps this is dispiriting to hear — what an impossible scale, to change everything! But the optimistic truth is that changing everything means that there is vital work within your reach, right now. Beyond defunding and disarming, we must decriminalize; we must divest; we must dismantle; and we must, most deeply, discover — because without alternatives to carceral logic, at most we will only limit its damage.

There is a commonly used phrase to describe that limited damage, which I have often used in the past: harm reduction. I am no longer using it in this context, as during the 2020 election, many organizers within the communities where strategies of harm reduction were first developed — particularly amongst queer and trans sex workers of color — objected to the term being used to describe voting for Democrats, or even voting in general. Harm reduction, they said, is a strategy of community resistance to state violence, and using the term to refer to electoral processes that empower the state itself is antithetical to its origins, an act of erasure and co-option.

So I do not use the term in the context of state and institutional structures anymore. But I think the discussion points to the core of carceral logic, which derives from our common Western definition of the state: as so many of us learned in Poli-Sci 101, the defining characteristic of the state is that it should hold a monopoly on violence. “Prosecute killer cops” is an aspiration to participate as an equal citizen in this inherent violence, as if racially proportionate brutality might erode white supremacy; as if “a monopoly on violence” is, in fact, what a state should be about. “Prosecute killer cops” naturalizes and validates the state’s monopoly on violence, and trusts that it is possible for such violence to be deployed rationally and justly. Applying that violence more equitably does nothing to erode it, but the idea that it might forms the powerful and enduring central argument of punitive and carceral logic.

(Again: “abolition” became a buzzword in the last year. That’s been great and important, but it’s also emptied the word of a lot of meaning, as it’s become easily deployed as a general anti-police hashtag rather than a specific lineage and practice. But it’s a word with a fuck of a lot of meaning, and NO non-Black person needs to be out here co-opting and redefining the term for our own egos or “personal brand” or whatever the fuck we do whenever we appropriate Blackness — it’s bad enough to do it with slang like “on fleek” and “woke” but to do it to a word that has described four hundred years of Black liberation struggle against genocidal violence is an absolutely grotesque act of linguistic violence and erasure. Just. Fucking. Don’t.)


And if the idea of “linguistic violence” seems like a stretch, then let’s talk about the verdict rendered to George Floyd’s murderer — a designation which is now legally validated, and all by a single word. To call a man “guilty” is not to enact justice, nor is it to ensure accountability. It is simply for the state to acknowledge that when an agent of the state kills a Black person, it is possible — when there is some combination of incontrovertible evidence, extreme public pressure, and particularly extraordinary or heinous violence (George Floyd’s murder involved all three; a guilty verdict in cases involving Black victims of policing typically requires at least two) — it is *possible* for such an act to legally (which is to say, in the state’s own formulation) constitute murder.

And when we understand the verdict rendered to George Floyd’s murderer in such terms, the sociopathy of the state — with its monopoly not only on meting out violence, but on defining the legitimacy of its violence — becomes all too apparent. Because: what was Breonna Taylor’s death, if not murder? What was Daunte Wright’s, or Ma’Khia Bryant’s; or Philando Castile’s or Freddy Gray’s or Mike Brown’s or Tamir Rice’s or, or, or?

So many folks — especially non-Black folks, especially especially white folks — have been so eager to name the verdict rendered in George Floyd’s murder as justice, or at the very least accountability. But more accurately, it is a momentary reprieve in the state’s four-hundred-year-long refusal to acknowledge that it renders harm to Black folks. It is, in this singular instance, a reprieve from white supremacist gaslighting, allowable because it can then be deployed instrumentally as justification for a deeper gaslighting: that is, that the presently-constituted state is capable of justice, and that this was an example of it; that the holder of a “monopoly on violence” is capable of deploying that violence responsibly; that the deployment of violence can *ever* be responsible. That it can be simultaneously so meager and yet also so meaningful is a testament not to the monumentality of this single verdict, but to the monstrosity of the system which produced it: a legal system — a violent system, a carceral system, a criminalizing system — which dares to name itself “justice.”

Linguistic violence is not incidental to or less-than other forms of violence. It is a collaborator, a premise and a cover story, for all of them.

What does it mean, then, to claim this verdict as “accountability”? It means that our vision of accountability is one of authority: that accountability is imposed from above. But when we actually seek accountability in our relationships, is this what we mean, at all? Or is naming this verdict as “accountability” simply proving the entire thesis of bell hooks’s “All About Love”: that our “ethic of domination” is so pervasive, so defining, and has so thoroughly permeated our understanding of our relationships to one another, that we cannot imagine something like accountability outside of it, even as we all crave a more expansive vision of relationship?

Or perhaps: this verdict has nothing to do with accountability, at all.

The truth is that the vast majority of us have no fucking clue what accountability means. That we live as adults, with jobs and responsibilities, kids and houses, and yet our experience of accountability barely exists. Consider who this country has elected as our highest leaders! Our collective notion of accountability is so deeply impoverished, and much like the concept of “public safety,” our public accountability is constituted from our experience of personal accountability — which most of us avoid, or reject. We rely on authority as a source of faux-accountability because this hierarchy excuses our own responsibility, our own autonomous capacity to be in accountable relationship. And for many of us, this is a relief. Because accountability is hard. Because we were taught in our homes and our schools that accountability meant pleasing authority, particularly violent authority. Because the idea of organizing society outside of this dynamic, the idea of even recognizing, let alone challenging, violence as the most fundamental architecture of our lives, seems terrifying.

And so we come again to abolition, and to the need to change everything; we come again to “discover.” Because if we consider the project of abolition less as “a world without police and prisons” — institutions whose absence most of us find it impossible to imagine, and the mechanism for which feels out of the reach of anyone — but rather as “denaturalizing violence and punitive authority,” suddenly we encounter the potential for abolition *everywhere.* Abolition lives in parenting, in caregiving, in employing, in educating; it lives in every aspect of all of our lives.

Without this broad and universalizing understanding of abolition, we will never achieve it. Because while it’s true that the origins of policing exist within slave patrols and strikebreakers, our contemporary notions of public safety are not derived exclusively from the experiences of power, but rather from the convergence of powerful interests with community concerns, which is to say: our own private experiences of unsafety constitute our vision of public safety, when those private experiences can be aligned with the interests of power, and it is precisely this alignment which is used to justify the need for policing, for prisons, for all the institutions and systems which abolition seeks to undo. The most potent recent example of this is the way that white feminism’s sensationalizing demands for increased criminalization of sex trafficking dovetailed with anti-immigrant sentiment and became a pretext for increased criminalization of immigration, including by the absurd charge of “self-trafficking.” This law-and-order approach played so deeply into right-wing fantasies that sex trafficking became the centerpiece of the bullshit fantasia of QAnonsense. Which is not to say that sex trafficking isn’t a real thing, but: to actually listen to those who have been most impacted by it, what they seek is not, typically, heroic narratives of police rescue, but rather a transformation of the social conditions which led to their experience.

Black folks have made similar demands for centuries now. Most recently, the 1994 crime bill demonstrates how easy it is to manipulate these demands when policing is a part of them: as historians wrote in a 2016 NYTimes editorial, “When [Black people] ask for *better* policing, legislators tend to hear *more* instead.”

The point isn’t to suggest that Black folks have been asking for the wrong thing, but rather, to answer the most common critique to abolition, which is, again, the call for reform — often alongside a dismissal of abolition as impossible, impractical, and idealist, with reform positioned as the reasonable way forward. But such a framing is flatly ignorant of history. Calls for reform are invariably co-opted into “reformist reforms,” like the Crime Bill, which only further entrench policing and punitive and carceral logic. Abolition is a gradual project, and with each chipping away of the power of the state to enact violence, we inch closer towards it.

Such gradualism is necessary, because without time to discover — to build alternatives — we will simply continue to perpetuate what has always existed, albeit slightly rearranged, as in Camden’s dismantling of its police department. To abolish instantaneously is also to invite the creation of private police forces, which are already well under development by the wealthy; given the grievous laxity of USian gun laws, private policing is all too easy to instantiate, and without even the flimsy false accountability of public policing to act as a buffer to its harm. Fantasies of instant abolition come less from the Black feminist abolitionist tradition and more from white anarchism, which — much like white feminism — contains a few glimmers of good ideas stunted by a much larger pile of bullshit. The differing focus of each approach is perhaps best summarized by the way that white anarchism centers consensus, while Black feminism centers accountability: when it comes to the human capacity to generate new mechanisms of harm, Black femmes are not naive.

The intellectual and ethical rigor of Black feminist abolition is also necessary to apply to “abolitionist reforms,” lest those reforms — in our impoverished vision of accountability, of justice, of nonviolence — become their own ends. The Taser is instructive here. If USian policing switched from guns to Tasers tomorrow, this would not mean that police would be made non-lethal, or that they had been disarmed, although this is likely how it would be framed; it would be only a lessening of lethality, a hard-fought step towards a more just world, not justice in itself. The extremity of our current violence can delude us into believing that gentler oppression is freedom.

And this is particularly apparent in one of the most widely supported reforms to emerge in the last year: non-lethal crisis response units of social workers and mental health professionals. Because social workers and mental health professionals are not nonviolent. The murder of sixteen-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant is the endpoint of a short life dominated by state violence; she was in foster care when she was murdered, and it does not require a PhD in history to recognize that state control over the structure of Black families — who are, of course, disproportionately represented within the child welfare system — has deep roots in our nation’s long history of Black enslavement and Black genocide. “Family separation” is not rehabilitated by the presence of social workers, rather than ICE agents. The mental health profession is utterly soaked in white supremacy, and has been since its foundation. We do, indeed, need care, not cops — but to truly achieve that, we must not mistake the myriad means by which care workers *are* cops already.

And so we return once again to Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s instruction to change everything, because: what good is it to send social workers and mental health professionals, if we are only lengthening the exposure to state violence? If we are only increasing the onramp to lethality, rather than transforming it to a cul-de-sac? If we are not rooting out punitivity and carceral logic wherever we find them, we will only make their operations more insidious; in the words of Lace Watkins, we must truly become “new people, doing new things, in new ways.”

Policing in the United States is uniquely lethal, but if we understand policing as a uniquely USian problem, rather than a deeply entrenched accessory to a globalized ethic of domination — imperialist domination, white supremacist domination, patriarchal domination — we will never effectively abolish it. When we valorize the relative non-lethality of policing in other rich countries, we fail to recognize its other forms, its presence at Calais and Christmas Island as violent as Santa Rita or San Quentin; which is not to say that we cannot learn from those other countries, but simply that whatever we learn will only ever be an incremental step, like Tasers or social workers. Necessary. But not at all sufficient.

Because at bottom, Tasers and social workers are technocratic solutionism, inserting new parts into the same basic design — and what abolition insists is that we draw up an altogether different blueprint, one in which accountability is not outsourced to authority but is practiced by all of us, centered in all of our relationships. And we do not do this by merely putting killer cops in jail. Indeed, the Los Angeles Sheriffs’ Department — infamous for its gangs and its violence — has seen many of its members imprisoned, including one actual former sheriff. These cops have been indicted and incarcerated not for the violence they have inflicted on citizens but for lying to federal police, in order to cover up that violence. And this reveals the fallacy of “prosecute killer cops,” because such prosecution requires an apparatus of additional policing in order to police the police — the very *opposite* of abolition, and a continuous retrenchment of policing and state violence.

The point of abolition is not to punish cops, vindicating though that possibility may feel. It is, in fact, to make them abolitionists.

That may sound laughably idealistic — but it is happening now, in those who police the police: that is, prosecutors. Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco, Baltimore, Los Angeles — all have recently elected prosecutors who ran on an explicit platform of decriminalization, of seeking to limit the power of their own office. Locally, BLM-LA ran a campaign — ultimately, a successful one — to remove the previous prosecutor from her office, on the premise that she failed to prosecute killer cops. But I did not vote for her successor because of who he might prosecute, but rather, because of all the people he might not.

Because at bottom, we will never find freedom by putting people in cages. The promise of “better” policing, or of “prosecute killer cops,” is that we are simply putting the wrong people in cages — but so long as “putting people in cages” is an option, the idea of “the wrong people” will always be a contest of power, rather than a matter of true accountability. A recent meme featured a picture of a cake, decorated with the words “Nobody should be in prison for marijuana.” And this is true, but not because marijuana is uniquely innocent: it is true because nobody should be in prison.

And so discovering alternatives to prison, to carceral logic, to punitivity, is the core work of abolition — not tearing down, as Mariame Kaba is fond of pointing out, but building up. Building accountability, and new visions of relationship and community that do not rely on the inherent violence of power-over. Not just proclaiming but actively *practicing* an ethic of love, rather than an ethic of domination.

On a semi-regular basis I wave a sign that says “Abolition Now.” This is not a statement of urgency, that we should end policing totally and immediately; urgency is a characteristic of white supremacy, and abolition is slow and durable work, done on intergenerational time. Rather it is a statement of present availability: there is abolition within your reach, right now. Right now. Right now. Because, as the Black trans artist Tourmaliiine has said, “Abolish the police means killing the cop inside your head. And your heart.”

And we can practice that everywhere.

And we can practice it now.

And we must.

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