Here’s what’s true no matter how you look at the events of the last week:
Cops and vigilantes are continuing the disproportionate extrajudicial killing of Black people in America.
Police departments around the country are armed with state-of-the art riot gear, and even supplied with decommissioned military equipment (through a program that began under the Clinton administration in the 1990s).
Hundreds of thousands of people are willing to gather en masse despite a global pandemic.
This country is experiencing an economic crisis on a scale unseen since the Great Depression.
One’s interpretation of just about everything else that’s unfolded as people took to the streets in protest over the police killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Tony McDade in Florida, and countless others, will depend on one’s life experiences, political persuasions, and where one gets information. Narratives of the nationwide protests range from “the peaceful demonstrations were disrupted by unhinged cops who want to sow chaos to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement,” to “outside agitators and antifa are instigating riots and looting to destroy America.” Amid the chaos of millions of simultaneous events flashing across screens and streets, how might one understand the call to abolish the police?
Police and prison abolitionists, as we’ve explained over the years, do not subscribe to the idea that policing is somehow “broken” and in need of reforms. They do not see an idyllic past in which policing “worked” for communities of Black, poor, or queer people, for people experiencing domestic violence, housing discrimination, and other forms of state and interpersonal oppression. Instead, abolitionists propose—and indeed demonstrate through their work—that community order can be maintained without the intervention of an armed representative of the government and that justice can be accomplished without punishment.
Abolition can be challenging to imagine because many assume that the absence of harsh punishment for behavior considered to be socially harmful or unacceptable will lead to increased disorder and violence. But abolitionists tend to point out that America’s prison-industrial complex and the increasing militarization of police hasn’t rooted out endemic pathologies like pedophilia, or mental illnesses that drive people to behave in socially frowned-upon ways, or made people less poor. Indeed, as abolitionist educator and organizer Mariame Kaba often argues, police abolition already exists for the wealthy. In communities with well-funded schools, food security, ample jobs, reliable transportation, and access to health care—communities where people’s needs are met—police are mostly invisible. “People in Naperville are living abolition right now,” Kaba told me in 2016. “The cops are not in their schools, they’re not on every street corner.” The abolitionist proposal is to redirect the resources the state has allocated toward prisons and police for decades toward community-directed and community-endorsed education, health care, food, jobs, and housing.
“We have this abolitionist framework where we want to see the policing institution dismantled and we want to see it transformed into something that centers community and restorative justice,” said organizer Kofi Ademola, an adult mentor with GoodKids MadCity, as he prepared to march in the demonstrations on Saturday. “The minimum [police officer salary] is a good salary to start on. If you gave folks in a community $65,000 a year to keep their communities safe you’d see communities transformed.”
But, Ademola said, abolitionist work is gradual and long-term; changing a society that took hundreds of years to reach its current form takes time. “As we reach towards that goal we still have to think about harm reduction,” he said. “We don’t believe abolition will happen overnight.”
Harm reduction usually marshals community resources to fill in gaps left (or created) by the state and the private sector. It takes the form of mutual aid networks that collect money and essential items and redistribute them to people in need, or bail funds that get people accused of crimes out of pretrial detention in dangerous jails, or collectives that offer child care, transportation, and medical services, or reclaiming abandoned land to feed the neighborhood. It may look like charity, but abolitionist organizations tend to eschew the private philanthropic models of large nonprofits which they see as self-serving and out-of-touch with community needs.
On Saturday night, in a move that echoed Mayor Richard J. Daley’s cordoning off of Black neighborhoods to confine riots within them after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Mayor Lori Lightfoot decided to kettle thousands of angry people in the Loop. The city lifted bridges, shut down the CTA, and imposed a sudden curfew, as cops brandishing weapons, tear gas, and handcuffs flooded the streets. Abolitionists at the Chicago Freedom School, meanwhile, opened their downtown office to offer shelter, food, and water to stranded protesters. As arrests surged (the city still hasn’t been clear on how many people were detained over the weekend, but estimates range from 240 to 1,000), the Chicago Community Bond Fund was raising so much money to bail people out that their website crashed. On Monday morning, as Chicago Public Schools suspended its food distribution program for kids, community groups throughout the city mobilized to make and deliver meals.
“There were all these narratives in the media that Mayor Lightfoot has criticized Minneapolis PD and so I think a lot of people went down with the assumption that our police wouldn’t mirror some of the activities we saw in Minnesota,” said Richard Wallace, founder of the community organization Equity and Transformation, who participated in the demonstrations. “There are people who might have come to the protests who weren’t radical but that left radical, or left abolitionist because of the way the city of Chicago handled that.”
The organizers interviewed for this story all said that while the killing of George Floyd may have catalyzed the mass protests, people’s rage has deeper roots. The structural, institutional inequities that lead to disproportionate police violence leveled against Black people is also fueling the grim statistics of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is disproportionately claiming Black and Latinx lives. (As Block Club Chicago recently reported, it’s also led to disproportionate police enforcement of quarantine rules in Black neighborhoods.)
The pandemic “is laying bare how different our world could be and even more it’s laying bare how terrible our world actually is,” said Black Lives Matter Chicago organizer Ariel Atkins. “More and more people are being touched by what’s happening personally and are way more awake than they have been in a long time . . . watching [the government] save corporations and banks, watching Jeff Bezos become a trillionaire while the people working for him are dying and being overworked and underpaid.”
From the vantage point of abolitionists, the disease has also shown that the police, rather than being an institution that promotes safety, is one that’s a threat to public health. “It’s not insignificant that we had, in recent memory, two Black men whose last words were ‘I can’t breathe,'” said Page May, cofounder of Assata’s Daughters, a youth political education group that runs a community garden to provide free produce to Washington Parkers, among other initiatives. “In a moment where everyone in the world is afraid of a respiratory illness that takes away our breath, it’s a metaphor for how we’ve been living: We can’t breathe. There’s people on our necks literally and metaphorically.”
As protests continue around the country, and the pandemic shows no signs of abatement, abolitionist organizers are expecting interest in their vision to increase. “There are more and more people every day that want to get plugged in and that makes the work more possible,” said May. “I think people are seeing that no one is coming to save us and that it’s up to us and we’re all we got.” v