Entering Abolition

Originally posted to Facebook on June 7, 2020

so: abolition has entered the conversation on social media. let’s talk about it.

first of all, though it shouldn’t even need to be said, let’s be clear about what abolition is not: a thanos-snap that ends all policing and prison instantaneously, plunging us into chaos. you probably recognize as much, from so many earnest posts explaining that abolition just means shifting our money from policing to services, deploying social workers and therapists instead of cops. and that’s… part of it. that’s the starting place. but “services” are not a solution to white supremacy, because white supremacy lives in services too. the welfare system is anti-black (and anti-indigenous), and it causes harm. the health care system is anti-black (and anti-indigenous), and it causes harm. shifting to services is an important form of harm reduction and is the first step, but abolition requires and promises so much more.

so. if “defund the police” is incomplete, then what does abolition mean? well, to be clear, it means defunding the police, gradually but substantively. but it also means disarming the police — gradually but substantively, starting with demilitarization — and it means decriminalizing the pretexts by which police enter so many lives, beginning with drug use, sex work, and every goddamn sit/lie law and loitering ordinance in this country. there is organizing around all of these, and resources available through critical resistance and blm. if we can do these things, and end qualified immunity, cash bail/pretrial detention, mandatory minimum sentencing, and solitary confinement and capital punishment, we will have created a much less harmful system; and if that possibility seems radical to you, understand that what i have described is more or less in place in a few other rich countries, where police forces and penal systems are both much smaller and much less violent.

but abolition is not merely the lessening of state harm. in its fulfillment, it is the positive presence of justice. it is the condition for liberation. so in addition to defunding, and disarming, and decriminalizing, there are two more elements to abolition which demand our effort.

the first is to divest from the culture of policing and punishment. we see this culture even in our messaging around ostensibly ending white supremacy: the idea that ‘justice’ can be accomplished by putting police officers in prison. but if this is our vision of justice, then we will never climb out of our historical harms. it is the only lever of accountability that we have now, and so we must use it, but that so few meaningful consequences are available to us is an indicator of the system’s poverty and brutality, and we should not claim it as success. that we confuse retribution and justice so easily points to the need for this divestment, of finding new narratives that don’t valorize cops and punitive systems, that see vengeance as what it is: childish and boring. let’s tell those other stories. let’s also get police out of places where they don’t belong, especially schools; if you are a parent of a school-age child, one of the most important avenues of activism, where you can create real change, is to ensure that your school — or school district — maintains a restorative justice program, rather than a contract with police. disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. teach children that there are better choices to manage conflict than to outsource it to agents of state violence.

and we, as adults, must teach ourselves the same thing: don’t call the police. we are taught from early childhood that calling the police is not only rational but responsible and we reproduce this sentiment regularly — if a friend tells a story about, say, passing by a couple arguing loudly in a public place, how often is the follow-up “did someone call the police?”

but what might we ask instead?

what if we wondered: were you able to offer care to anyone involved?

and we all know about amy cooper, and we all remember bbq becky, and henry louis gates before her, and so you might think that my instruction is “don’t make nuisance calls to the police” or “don’t call the police when a black person is existing harmlessly” or “don’t call the police when what you feel is just mild discomfort.” but what i wrote was, and what i meant is: don’t call the police.

short of a dead body: don’t call the police.

and this is where white feminism often loses its footing altogether, playing into a trap laid all too easily — what about rape and sexual assault? and i did not celebrate the convictions of brock turner or harvey weinstein, though they were as necessary as one for derek chauvin; with such privilege, a sentence is the only substantial consequence we can offer right now, so we must. but we must not confuse it with justice, and so still i say don’t call the police, and i am saying nothing that i haven’t done myself.

i was waiting at the bus stop in oakland to go to the grocery store and he pinned me to the bench, there on a sunny sunday afternoon in the spring of 2015. he was drunk, and nobody else was around. i couldn’t move and as he assaulted me i dissociated completely and i thought, should i call the police?, but then i thought — he is a black man, and i know what opd is capable of. maybe i shouldn’t call the police. and before you offer any cookies for my allyship know that ultimately i made the decision not for his well-being but for my own, because the first time i was sexually assaulted (and this incident at the bus stop was not the second) the police were called, and an arrest was made, and a case was built, and it. was. awful. it was awful, and it was nothing that i ever want to relive.

and however you might feel about my choice in that moment the truth is: whatever the police could have offered then would only have been a mirage; not safety or justice or accountability, but just the illusion of it. after that man assaulted me, i got on the bus and got my groceries. there was nothing else to be done.

there was nothing else to be done.

such a statement can be hard to accept because what whiteness promises is that there is always something else to be done, that there is always a remedy available for purchase. it is profoundly uncomfortable to recognize that the system which we have tasked with assuaging our deep insecurities about our own safety and mortality is wholly and utterly useless at most of the tasks to which it is set, that it is really only a panacea, a placebo pill whose primary sideaffect is violence and brutality against black lives.

i don’t know what genuine accountability would look like for that man’s actions, and you probably don’t either. and this brings us to the final and most crucial work of abolition: discovering alternatives by developing deep accountability with one another.

“deep accountability” does not mean the sort of responsibility promulgated by whiteness, of paying one’s bills on time and waving a flag. deep accountability is the practice of showing up, again and again, with vulnerability and humility. it is risking hurt, and it requires us to let go of both our pride and our shame, two sides of the same coin named ego, because although white supremacist capitalism has made this the currency of the realm we all know, deep down, that the path to liberation is not a transactional one; yet we cling to it nonetheless, so terrified that without this counterfeit value we might be worth nothing at all.

to be an abolitionist is to recognize the depth of such a lie.

but to be an abolitionist is to know too that this renunciation is not a singular event but a constant practice. because: amy cooper probably would’ve put up a black square. amy cooper probably would’ve posted a donation receipt. amy cooper was a democrat; amy cooper probably thinks services make more sense than policing.

it is not enough to say, “i am not amy cooper.” because she lives inside of every non-black person and it is the tempting certainty that we can, at any moment, shed our commitments and escape back to the false comforts of state violence against black lives which we must face and undo before we can truly participate in abolition. and if we cannot bear to face such a hard truth, then we will never be able to undo it. and this is why deep accountability is such a necessary practice: because white supremacist capitalism has conditioned us to believe that we can earn our way to mutual freedom, that if we post enough receipts then we have achieved a status worth accepting. but there are no receipts. there is only relationship. and if that challenges you, it is because deep accountability challenges all of us. it demands that we expand our capacity for uncertainty and discomfort. it also demands that we expand our capacity for joy and trust. we are so used to proving. but abolition is about loving.

because accountability does not live in prisons or police stations, or in laws. it does not live in the state at all but in each of us. accountability lives in kinship. to paraphrase mariame kaba: the unit of justice is relationship. and this is a weighty obligation but it is also an extraordinary liberatory opportunity, because we need not wait for the slow turning of the ship of state to find a more just way to live. we can practice it, every day, with each other, offering apology and seeking to repair harm instead of hiding in anger or avoidance. we instantiate a better and more just world every time we turn towards each other, rather than run away. we co-create nonviolence in our solidarity and our vulnerability, and we emancipate one another with the growing intimacy of our friendships. and though this might sound airy and insubstantial know that it is the most important abolition work of all, because if the house of your action is not securely attached to a frame of deep accountability, then all you have built is a facade.

but there is no single blueprint for a just and nonviolent future, and it is never too late for repair; and although you must wield your own set of tools, it is only together that we can draw up a plan.

and if you have fixed your ego to the completion of this project then you should know: this is long work. this is intergenerational time. the urgent demand of action is another trick by which white supremacist capitalism subverts lasting change. that urgent demand will tell you that justice is within reach, that love and relationship are only distractions from it — but love and relationship are exactly what constitute justice. do not believe the lie of urgency. take the time to be accountable, and deeply so.

welcome home.

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