‘Disband, Disempower, and Disarm’: Amplifying the Theory and Practice of Police Abolition

Abstract

Critical criminologists have challenged the utility of efforts to reform the criminal justice system for decades, including strong calls to abolish the prison system. More recently, the rebellions in Ferguson, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Charlotte have made racialized police violence and police reform issues of national concern. In this article, we examine abolitionist claims aimed at law enforcement institutions in the aftermath of Ferguson and other subsequent rebellions. We consider the implications for abolitionist organizing when the institution of law enforcement, rather than prisons, becomes the explicit target of our movement(s). How are groups theorizing and practicing police abolition and how does this align with, challenge, or expand past conceptualizations of abolition? To answer this question, first we sketch the broad parameters of abolitionist thought, particularly as it is taken up in the disciplines of political theory and criminology. Second, we analyze an emergent praxis of police abolition that revolves around the call to disband, disempower, and disarm law enforcement institutions. We argue that by attacking the police as an institution, by challenging its very right to exist, the contemporary abolitionist movement contains the potential to radically transform society. In this spirit, we amplify abolitionist praxis that (1) aims directly at the police as an institution, (2) seeks to dismantle the racial capitalist order, (3) adopts uncompromising positions that resist liberal attempts at co-optation, incorporation, and/or reconciliation, and (4) creates alterative democratic spaces that directly challenge the legitimacy of the police.

Introduction

In July of 2016, the popular Fox News program “Kelly File,” hosted by conservative T.V. personality Megan Kelly, held a town hall style forum to discuss race and law enforcement. The forum brought together what Fox News considers a diverse cross-section of the U.S. public: former FBI agents, retired NYPD officers, conservative Black pastors, community organizers, and “regular” Americans whose views spanned the ideological spectrum. The recent deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of law enforcement, uprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Charlotte in the past year, and Micah Johnson’s targeted assassination of five Dallas police officers earlier in July, not only formed the backdrop for the conversation, but also set the conditions of possibility for such a conversation to air on a mainstream media outlet in the first place.

At one point the conversation turned toward an indictment of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Many forum attendees began to condemn BLM, reiterating racial tropes about Black-on-Black crime and “personal responsibility.” In a clip that has now gone viral, Jessica Disu, a Chicago-based community organizer and artist, tried to reframe the conversation: “Here’s a solution,” Disu interjected with conviction, “we need to abolish the police.” The Chicago Reader, a weekly alternative newspaper, described the ensuing reactions to Disu’s comment:

“Abolish the police?” came [host Megan] Kelly’s incredulous response, as a clamor of boos and protests rose from the forum. “Demilitarize the police, disarm the police,” Disu pushed on, undeterred by the yelling. “We need to come up with community solutions for transformative justice. Can we all agree that a loss of a life is tragic?” [Disu] asked the forum, attempting to explain her vision. “Who’s gonna protect the community if we abolish the police?” Kelly asked, a this-must-be-a-joke smile spreading across her face. “The police in this country began as a slave patrol,” Disu managed to squeeze in before being engulfed by the noise.Footnote 1

In roughly 60 seconds, Disu articulated a historical and political analysis of law enforcement in the United States, a point we return to later in this piece. In her call for police abolition, on Fox News no less, Disu challenged the hegemonic idea that the police are an inevitable fixture in society, and moreover, that the police are analogous to community safety. Disu’s presence on a national mainstream talk show illustrates that crises are also opportunities (Gilmore 2007). The uprisings, and corresponding organizing that expanded alongside or formed as a result of the rebellions, enabled Disu, and others, to publicly challenge law enforcement’s right to exist. That is, activist and movement organizers had already been pushing toward police abolition, but the difference is that this time there was an audience more willing to accept the challenge. In this article, we examine abolitionist claims aimed at law enforcement institutions in the aftermath of Ferguson and other subsequent rebellions.Footnote 2 We consider the implications for abolitionist organizing when the institution of law enforcement, rather than prisons, becomes the explicit target of our movement(s).Footnote 3 How are groups theorizing and practicing police abolition and how does this align with, challenge, or expand past conceptualizations of abolition?

In what follows, we begin to think through these questions. First, we sketch the broad parameters of abolitionist thought, particularly as it is taken up in the disciplines of political theory and criminology. In this section, we focus on how academics have thought about the concept, not to deny or ignore more grounded theorizations, but instead to highlight how academic theorizations divorced from movement participation lead to decidedly liberal interpretations of abolition, a conceit that criminology is particularly prone to. To turn again to Gilmore (2007): “[I]n scholarly research, answers are only as good as the further questions they provoke, while for activists, answers are as good as the tactics they make possible. Where scholarship and activism overlap is in the area of how to make decisions about what comes next” (p. 27). For heuristic purposes, we highlight liberal and radical tendencies that emerge from each school of thought. That is, these are rough categories outlined here only to push scholars and activists into thinking more critically about how to abolish the police.

Second, based on an extensive review of materials authored by various groups that organize explicitly for police abolition, as well as our own participation in grassroots abolitionist collectives, we analyze an emergent praxis of police abolition that revolves around the call to “disband, disempower, and disarm” law enforcement institutions “in all the spaces they operate” (For A World Without Police 2016). We argue that by attacking the police as an institution, by challenging its very right to exist, the contemporary abolitionist movement does contain the potential to make a more radical turn; however, as committed abolitionists, we must be wary of liberal tendencies that have always haunted the struggle for a world without prisons, policing, and mass criminalization. Given this, we argue for approaches to abolition that (1) aim directly at the police as an institution, (2) dismantle the racial capitalist order, (3) adopt uncompromising positions that resist liberal attempts at co-optation, incorporation, and/or reconciliation, and (4) create alternative democratic spaces that directly challenge the legitimacy of the police.

Conceptualizing Abolition

Abolition has a long, complicated, and inspiring history. Abolition crosses multiple historical periods, social movements, and academic disciplines. As such, abolition has different connotations depending on the author and context. Below, we provide a brief overview of the Abolitionist Movement, before moving toward a discussion of how political theorists and criminologists have developed and deployed the concept in academia, activism, and public policy. We argue that there are ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’ tendencies in abolitionist thought. We use these terms with trepidation, and only to push for a political debate on strategies and tactics regarding police abolition. That is, there are no ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’ traditions of abolitionist politics, per se, nor do activists necessarily categorize themselves as such. However, we suggest that these categories can clarify political differences that exist both within the literature and in abolitionist practice. Given this, the reader should accept these terms as neither definitive, static, nor as any one group’s firm ideological position. While abolitionist strategies may demonstrate both tendencies, having an open and honest discussion about this can only help develop a more critical understanding of abolition. Given this, we do argue that it is within the radical abolitionist tendency that we find the greatest insight into how to understand and evaluate recent police abolitionist claims.

Political theorists have made significant contributions to a radical interpretation of abolition. This position finds its intellectual roots in the Abolitionist Movement within the United States that began in earnest in the late 1700s. The Abolitionist Movement was multi-racial from its inception, and while diverse in terms of strategies and tactics, all who participated were united by a shared political project: “the overthrow of the slavery-based polity of the nineteenth-century American Republic” (Sinha 2016: 4). At its most militant, the movement cultivated a fanatical Christian morality that pushed for universal human rights and the uncompromising claim that slavery was wrong and had to be eliminated at any cost (Reynolds 2009). Some abolitionists described themselves as radicals, unapologetically adopting extremist positions. For example, here is how Abolitionists issued their call for a new political party:

We hope to witness a gathering of such men [sic] as the solemnity of the hour, and the exigencies of our case, demand. We want men [sic] at this crisis who cannot be frightened from the advocacy of our “radical” doctrines, because of their unpopularity… Let us not, then, grow weary, but believing that “whatever is RIGHT, IS PRACTICAL, go forth with renewed determination to conquer, though we die in the conflict. (qtd. in Stauffer 2009: 12)

This multi-racial movement famously produced militant figures like William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, and John Brown. The radicals within the abolitionist movement, therefore, understood slavery not as a self-contained issue, but rather as an institution that defined global struggles for democracy writ large. Abolitionists, Sinha (2016) argues, “recognized that the oppression of slaves was linked to other wrongs in the world…They used the vehicle of antislavery to criticize the democratic pretentions of Western societies and expose their seamier side” (3). Given this, the abolition of slavery required moral rectitude, ideological fervor, and a wiliness to use any means necessary to abolish the racial order and fundamentally transform the democratic project itself (Du Bois 1992; Reynolds 2009; Sinha 2016; Ruchames 1964; Olson forthcoming)

Following this tendency, the political theorist Olson (2007) used the term ‘zealot’ to point toward a fanatical form of politics exemplified by many in the Abolitionist Movement. For Olson, fanatical politics is defined as “the unconventional, extraordinary political mobilization of the refusal to compromise” (Olson forthcoming). The key here is a commitment to move beyond traditional pluralist political methods based on compromise, dialogue, and incremental reforms toward an ultimate goal. Instead, this approach embraces an ethical position that seeks a more abrupt and immediate change via the mobilization of populations.Footnote 4 It was after all, as Sinha (2016) argues in her definitive history of abolition, “slave resistance [and rebellion], not bourgeois liberalism” that animated the abolition movement (1).

Other scholars, most notably W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davis, studied the Abolitionist Movement to further develop the concept of abolition. Writing in Black Reconstruction, Du Bois (1992) used the phrase “abolition-democracy” to advance his argument that slavery, and the oppressive conditions that produced and maintained the institution, could not be eliminated by mere legal reform. Angela Davis (2005) expands on Du Bois’s point by explaining that the primary project of abolition is not “a negative process of tearing down,” but rather one of collectively “re-imagining institutions, ideas, and strategies, and creating new institutions…that render prisons obsolete” (75). In 1997, Davis joined others to found Critical Resistance, the most important contemporary abolitionist movement in the United States. With chapters across the country, Critical Resistance fights to eliminate all forms of policing, confinement, and surveillance from everyday life. Abolition is understood as both “a practical organizing tool” and a long-term vision to build “lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.”Footnote 5

Here we see the term abolition closely linked to a critique of white supremacy, with Du Bois arguing that democracy in the United States started with a white racially constructed citizen. Inspired by Du Bois and the Abolitionist movement, Olson (2004) calls for “abolishing white democracy,” suggesting that the foundations of democratic theory and practice in the United States start from a racialized location, thus leading to a flawed approach to universal personhood. In this sense, Olson argues, democracy and racism are not antithetical, but rather originate together to support white supremacy. It is only through dismantling both of these institutions, and reconstructing them, that we will bring forth emancipatory possibilities.

From the political theory perspective, then, a radical abolitionist approach includes struggles to dismantle structures of oppression through uncompromising politics, alongside an effort to build new ways to respond to harm, new meanings of justice, and new modes of democratic living (Du Bois 1992; Davis 2003, 2005; The CR10 Publications Collective 2008). Radical abolition has four important components. First, it places the racial structure of society at the center of the analysis. That is, given the development of capitalism in the United States, it rightly targets the racial order as a focal point, around which our organizing efforts ought to be centered. Second, and relatedly, radical abolitionists seek to dismantle not only criminal justice institutions, but also the racial order and the rule of capital. Third, radical abolitionists practice fanatical politics as defined by Olson. Fourth, these uncompromising positions open the possibility for dual powerFootnote 6 situations where the destruction of oppressive institutions coincides with the creation of “new democratic institutions” that directly challenge the legitimacy of the status quo. This stands in contrast to how some criminologists have conceptualized abolition, to which we now turn.

Historically, the field of criminology emerged alongside the carceral state. Garland (2001) noted that even at moments when criminologist tried to reform and diminish punishment, the end result was an expansion of social control. However, also present within some small circles of criminologists is a critique of the carceral state and criminology itself. Most relevant to this paper is the idea of abolition within the field. Abolition appears within criminology mostly through critical scholars who seek to eliminate punitive responses to “crime.” These scholars criticize the reliance of punitive measures of social control administered through state mechanisms aimed at marginal populations (Cohen 1988; Pepinsky and Quinney 1991; Braithwaite 2002). Echoing an anarchist perspective, they argue that the problem originates from repressive, top-down, and punitive forms of punishment backed through a well-funded state apparatus that leaves little room for social justice (Kanduc 2000). Scholars and activists who form this tradition exist in both liberal and radical abolitionist forms. At their most liberal, criminologists produce scholarship that aims to reform the criminal justice system and not necessarily abolish oppressive institutions. At their most radical, criminologists fight to destroy and transform the structural conditions of society that produce subjugation, while building new ways of being in the world.Footnote 7 Further still, some criminologists also criticize the discipline for its complicity in building the carceral state (see Brown and Schept 2017). However, criminology as a field has been slow in taking this position.

Generally speaking, liberal forms of abolition are well intended, seeking to minimize the retributive approach of the criminal justice system through a variety of restorative justice or dispute settlement practices that divert offenders away from punitive measures. More specifically, we can use Stanley Cohen’s categorization of abolitionist principles to outline some of the strategies that result from a liberal position. According to Cohen (1988), there are at least five strategies that result from a liberal abolitionist perspective, including: “decarceration (away from prison), diversion (away from the institution), decategorization (away from offender typologies), delegalization (away from the state) and deprofessionalization (away from the expert)” (qtd. in McLaughlin and Muncie 2012: 1).

While diverse in practice, these strategies often lean toward programs that, at best, divert individuals from the criminal system toward more humane practices, leaving the original system still in place. For example, in the 1970s abolitionist criminologists targeted the prison system, with advocates building alternative legal sanctions for offenders (Mathiesen 1974). However, these alternatives were soon criticized for their “net widening” effect, thus having expanded the capacity of the state to sanction individuals (Austin and Krisberg 1981). In response, abolitionists proposed methods of non-punitive responses to social problems designed to address structural social problems (de Haan 1990). It is fair to say that within a more liberal position, abolitionists seek ‘minimal criminal law’ and alternatives to crime, punishment, and criminal justice institutions, sometimes inside the state, and others outside its boundaries. Here the intention is to reduce the role of punitive institutions, while increasing the respect for basic economic, political, social, and other human rights. Yet in some instances, liberal abolitionist tendencies, as it has been taken up in criminology, miss some important components that a more radical conceptualization of abolition offers, namely “the extent to which the penitentiary system and its attendant forms of labor were heavily influenced by the prevailing ideologies and economic structures of racism” (Davis 1998: 104).

To restate, the radical and liberal approaches described above are only tendencies that sometimes emerge in the literature, often not fully recognized. Yet, making these distinctions more apparent, should allow us to assess emergent abolitionist work. To that end, we now move toward a detailed discussion of police abolitionist organizing.

‘For a World Without Police’: The Fight to Abolish Law Enforcement

The call for police abolition gained national traction soon after the 2014 Ferguson rebellion and is encapsulated by the slogan: “disband, disempower, and disarm the police!”Footnote 8 This is more than a slogan however. The over-arching strategy is to eliminate the institution of policing, while disarmament and disempowerment are two inter-related tactics used to achieve this goal (Vitale 2017). In this section, we examine these efforts, paying close attention to how grassroots collectives are defining the terrain of struggle and deploying disarmament and disempowerment in their battle to end policing as we know it. We argue that both liberal and radical forms of abolition praxis exist in the current struggle. More specifically, we suggest that the tactics aligned with radical abolition hold greater potential for restructuring social relations and bringing into being the new democratic institutions that Du Bois called for so long ago. We begin by placing the call to abolish the police in historical context.

The call to disband or abolish law enforcement stems from a particular understanding of the role of the police under racial capitalism. For example, when Disu informs the Fox News audience that the police “began as slave patrols,” she is using a historical analysis to challenge the hegemonic understanding of the police as a largely benevolent and heroic force, here to “protect and serve.” Under the headline “the problem”, the anonymous collective For a World Without the Police (2016) argues, “The police force was created to repress the growing numbers of poor people that accompanied the rise of industrial capitalism, while on plantations and in agricultural colonies, [the police] formed in response to the threat of slave revolt.” Their analysis outlines the core functions of policing under racial capitalism: protect the property of the capitalist class; maintain stable conditions for capital accumulation; and defend against any threats to these unequal conditions of rule (For a World Without Police 2016; see also Williams 2015; Whitehouse 2014).

Following the history of radical abolitionism, many of the collectives we studied place white supremacy at the center of their analysis. In doing so, these collectives situate anti-Black violence as a constitutive, rather than aberrant, element of policing, and position the police as integral to the (re)production of the racial order (see Black Youth Project—100 2016; We Charge Genocide 2016; Assata’s Daughters 2016). This analysis has led some radical abolitionists to argue that to even speak of “police brutality” is itself an oxymoron; a misidentification of the problem (act versus structure) that runs the risk of entrenching rather than disrupting the very violence activists seek to eliminate (Rodriguez 2012; Wilderson 2015; A World Without Police 2016).

Police abolitionists situate the police in history to articulate a counter-narrative of the origin and function of law enforcement in society. This historical analysis establishes a foundation from which police abolitionists can articulate a broader claim: the institution of law enforcement cannot be reformed; it must be disbanded. Importantly, by not positioning law enforcement as a recuperable project, this analysis is aligned with radical abolitionist thought that seeks to destroy both the racial order and the rule of capital. Disbanding the police then, is the fanatical or uncompromising position, and disarmament and disempowerment comprise the primary means for achieving this goal. It is to those strategies, and to the various tactics deployed to realize those strategies, that we now turn our attention.

Disarmament

In the United States, the sheer magnitude of racially gendered lethal violence unleashed by law enforcement is staggering. In 2016, police officers killed 1093 people. Those killed were disproportionately Native American and Black men in the prime of their lives (The Guardian 2016).Footnote 9 The lethality of the police is not relegated to firearms alone. Deaths from Tasers, rubber bullets, asphyxiation, and assault have all been reported on recently (see Laughland et al. 2015; Brush 2012). Images and video from Ferguson and Baton Rouge of law enforcement outfitted in full riot gear traveling in tanks and Humvees made it plainly visible that law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are fully militarized (Balko 2014).

Under these circumstances, the call to disarm law enforcement seems not only intuitive, but also justifiable given the rate at which police officers use deadly force in a manner that is perceived as illegitimate by growing numbers of the public. Indeed, Disarm NYPD—a collective that takes as their immediate aim to disarm the New York City Police Department—points to this very crisis in their literature titled “Why Disarm”:

The NYPD, just like the Ferguson police department, has no legitimacy in poor communities. We believe that any institution with no legitimacy has no claim to arms…Since the gun makes it so easy for the police to take life the first step in renewing the humanity for black life must be the immediate disarming of the police departments. This goal for Disarm is not to return legitimacy to an illegitimate police department but to begin the process of establishing a new political reality and social reality that is not based on humiliation, but on a dignified life. This begins with the disarming of the police and concludes at the dismantling of the police force altogether.Footnote 10

Using a form of radical abolitionist thought to make their claim to dismantle the police “altogether,” Disarm NYPD draws the reader’s attention to the ontological nature of police violence, suggesting that every lethal bullet that takes away Black life works to renew and reify the racialized division between human and non-human. “In actuality,” the statement continues, “the relationship with the larger world for black Americans becomes a form of total policing. The struggle against the status quo is, in essence, a fight for human renewal” (Disarm NYPD 2016; emphasis added).

To frame policing as a project of human (i.e. white citizen) renewal, as the literature from Disarm NYPD suggests, resonates with afro-pessimist arguments that position the police as “the avant-garde of white supremacy” (Martinot and Sexton 2003). Policing is “a methodology for a form of social organization” and that form is white supremacy (Martinot and Sexton 2003: 3). Whiteness is a social relationship structured through what Wilderson (2003) calls an “asignifying absence.” In other words, because my body does not magnetize bullets, I am white. Therefore, one of the functions of policing is to reproduce through violence “the inside/outside, the civil society/Black world”; a distinction “between those whose human being is put permanently in question and those for whom it goes without saying” (Martinot and Sexton 2003: 8). Put succinctly, these activists and theorists argue that policing writ large is violence, a constitutive element of white supremacy, and integral to the (re)production of an anti-Black social world.Footnote 11

In addition to offering an incisive theoretical understanding of police violence, Disarm NYPD articulates a broad vision of Black liberation that begins with taking guns away from the police, but does not end until the institution of law enforcement is “obsolete.” Disarm NYPD builds toward this vision by organizing in their neighborhoods, which they describe as “heavily occupied” low-wealth Black and Brown communities. Group members run political education workshops, team up with Copwatch “to create no-cop zones,” and develop “alternative, community-based forms of conflict resolution, [along with] councils and networks to enable local communities to organize their own lives” (Jegroo 2015).

Thus far, the movement to disarm law enforcement has not gained much traction in the United States. As a political objective, the strategy shares both liberal and radical forms of abolitionist thought. That is, taking lethal weapons away from law enforcement would arguably be an effective harm reduction tactic, given the number of people that are killed by firearms and tasers each year in the United States. Countries where law enforcement do not carry weapons experience far lower rates of officer-involved violence (Noack 2015). Disarming the police then, would ideally put meaningful constraints on police power; however, it does not depend upon the destruction of the systems that underwrite the need for policing in the first place: the racial order and the rule of capital. It could also leave the door open for what some are calling “e-carceration”—the widespread use of electronic monitoring devices to place people in “virtual prisons” (Lacambra 2018).Footnote 12

Organizers and groups looking to work on disarmament would do well to follow the example of Disarm NYPD and pair efforts at immediate relief via taking weapons away from the police, in service of a broader vision that puts the theory of radical abolition into practice by building the capacity for self-determination, both to confront police power, and to create new democratic institutions. Ultimately, disarming the police “requires a revolutionary transformation of society as a whole, since removing their ability to inflict violence prevents the police from maintaining capitalist exploitation and oppression” (For a World Without Police 2016).Footnote 13

Disempowerment

Disempowerment uses a diverse and often mutually reinforcing set of tactics to confront and erode police power, catalyze (or deepen) a legitimacy crisis for the police, and build a world where the function of policing itself has been rendered obsolete. On their website, For a World Without Police (2016) disempowerment is described as a “long-term project” that involves “rebuilding community relationships to solve social problems, building fighting organizations against police violence,” and eventually “reclaiming public spaces to air grievances, imagine alternatives and socialize, while challenging the fragmentation that capitalism produces and police enforce.”Footnote 14 In what follows, we examine the following four methods grassroots collectives are employing to disempower the police: (1) attacking laws and policies that give police power; (2) direct action; (3) divestment campaigns; and (4) building alternatives that directly challenge the legitimacy of the police. In doing so, we turn to specific examples of recent mobilizations for police abolition and pay close attention to the written statements, declarations, and voices of the activists themselves.

One tactic organizers use to disempower the police is to attack laws and policies that give police power. These can be laws or policies that are already on the books, or ones that have been proposed. For example, in Oakland, California, Stop the Injunctions Coalition (STIC) led a successful six-year campaign to prevent the city from using gang injunctions. Heralded by law enforcement as a “public safety tool,” gang injunctions use civil court orders to designate a particular group of people as a “public nuisance,” placing restrictions on their mobility and freedom of association (American Civil Liberties Union 2010). In 2010, city officials in Oakland obtained injunctions against roughly sixty Black and Brown men living in the Fruitvale district, effectively criminalizing the entire neighborhood and turning what was a space of sociality into a site of racially gendered regulation (Ellison and Lenz 2016).

STIC countered the city’s narrative that gang injunctions reduce violence and promote public safety, by highlighting the racist impact of the injunctions (by marshaling evidence-based studies and using experiential knowledge), and through their demand for community self-determination. STIC’s vision, outlined in the document “Our Oakland, Our Solutions,” argues for a world where people exercise their capacity to “build real alternatives for safer, healthier communities that do not rely on systems of oppression or political hierarchies.”Footnote 15

In March of 2015, Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker filed to dismiss the gang injunctions, ending the use of this repressive policing tactic (The Mercury News 2015). Ending the use of gang injunctions was an important victory for the people of Oakland. While this is just one example, the fight to disempower law enforcement by attacking discriminatory laws and policies is a tactic shared by many groups fighting for police reform and for police abolition, highlighting an important tension between liberal and radical forms of abolitionist thought. Attacking laws and policies that strengthen the police is an effort at harm reduction by constraining the power that punitive institutions have over people’s daily lives. However, this tactic on its own is an incomplete strategy for police abolition because it risks misidentifying the source of police misconduct as stemming from laws and procedures, rather than the system of racial capitalism that the police were created to defend.Footnote 16

This tension, between harm reduction in the short term and abolition in the long term, speaking from the authors’ collective experience as abolitionist organizers, is not easily resolved. Indeed, many activist-scholars and collectives have written at length about this, adopting the principle of “non-reformist reforms” (Gorz 1967), or those deliberate changes to the system that neither expand the state’s capacity to punish, nor create “more obstacles in the larger struggle” (Gilmore qtd. in Berger 2014: p. viii). Much of written material published by the police abolitionist collectives that we examined is attune to this tension (see Critical Resistance 2016; For A World Without Police 2016; Unity and Struggle 2016). In fact, as we will discuss in the following section, this tension can lead to an embrace of more radical forms of thought and action. Just as STIC recognized, to push beyond the confines of liberal-abolitionist thought, the struggle to end harmful laws and policies must be done alongside efforts to build community self-determination, thereby reducing “our reliance on policing as the answer to community needs” (Critical Resistance 2016).

No Business as Usual: Direct Action for Police Abolition

From protests, to occupations, to die-ins, to blockades, to disruptions, direct action is yet another way groups across the United States have mobilized to disempower the police. In this section, we turn to two examples of direct action that gained national media attention—the occupation of City Hall Park in New York and the disruption of the annual meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in Chicago—in order to think through how grassroots collectives are using direct action in the fight to end policing.

In October of 2015, a coalition of Chicago area activist groups, led by Black Youth Project-100 (BYP-100), came together to disrupt and ultimately shut down the IACP meeting being held in their city. The meeting brought over 16,000 additional law enforcement personnel from across the world into Chicago, a city where the “organized abandonment” (Gilmore 2008) wrought by the pernicious and uneven politics of neoliberalism are intimately felt, with every public school closure, death from gun violence, and shuttered factory (see also Harvey 1989).Footnote 17 Organizers expressed a keen understanding of the racialized politics of abandonment, citing police violence, the closures of public schools and mental health facilities as further evidence tht city officials “do not care about Black lives and voices. [T]hey should have known we were going to do something about it” (Howard and Autman 2015).

Organizers successfully shut down the IACP meeting for four hours, dispersing coordinated groups of people to form blockades inside and outside of the meeting. Organizers also scaled the flagpole outside the convention center, replacing the U.S. flag with a one that said “Unapologetically Black” (Howard and Autman 2015). At City Hall, protesters released a set of demands that called for “all local, state, and federal budgets to defund the police and reinvest in social services like education and public health that will meet real community needs” (We Charge Genocide 2016: p. 15; emphasis added). In an open letter to law enforcement published online and handed out to arresting officers on the day of the action, the organizers expressed an uncompromising position reminiscent of the early Abolitionists: “We are tired of meetings and conferences where you talk about different ways to kill us…We will kick you out of power and destroy every system that keeps us oppressed. What side are you on?”Footnote 18

A coalition of New York City based activists echoed these sentiments in August of 2016 as they began an occupation of City Hall Park, which they renamed “abolition square encampment.” In their orientation guide, the organizers explained their use of direct action as being both a response to the harm inflicted by the “repressive apparatus of the U.S. state” and an effort to “build our own power in our communities [to form] a mass, militant and integrated abolitionist movement separate from the state and the two party system” (Millions March NYC 2016: 2).Footnote 19 In addition to articulating their long-term abolitionist vision, organizers made three immediate demands: (1) Fire NYPD police commissioner William Bratton and end Broken Windows policing; (2) Defund the NYPD and invest in Black, Brown, and working-class communities; and (3) Provide reparations for the victims’ families and survivors of police terrorism (Millions March NYC 2016: 3). Activists vowed to maintain the occupation until these three demands were met.

Germane to our purposes here is the encampment’s incisive critique of reform, evident in the orientation guide. In a section titled “Why Abolition and Not Reform,” the authors’ of the guide write:

Reforms to the social, political, and economic system typically involve providing conciliations to those making demands while keeping intact the relations between the exploiters and the exploited. This approach leaves the root of the problem untouched …This is why we fight for the abolition of policing and prisons and will not be fooled by fake reforms like body cameras and so-called community policing, which further increase the budget and power of the racist and brutal NYPD (Millions March NYC 2016: 3).

The purpose of assuming such a tough position on reform is to drive a wedge between activist groups that seek to merely “tweak Armageddon” (Gilmore 2007) by focusing on liberal reforms, and those that are struggling for more radical forms of abolition (Norton 2016). Crucially, this passage notes that reforms are often a concession leaving “intact the relations between the exploiters and the exploited.” A radical abolitionist position then, strategically rejects compromise in favor of fanatical political strategy that seeks to “destroy every system that keeps us oppressed” (Lifted Voices 2015).

The NYC coalition not only used direct action to issue immediate demands, they also claimed public space in an attempt to further disempower the state by enacting a democratic commons, a gesture to Arab Spring and the Occupy movements. Encampment residents practiced direct democracy, forming horizontal rather than hierarchical leadership structures and utilizing assemblies to make large decisions. Residents also offered skill shares and provided mutual aid (Norton 2016). Again, this dual power strategy (dismantle and build) is emblematic of radical abolitionist praxis.

‘Fund Black Futures!’ Divestment Campaigns

Abolitionist collectives are also using divestment campaigns in the struggle to disempower the police. The call to divest is a response to the fact that the United States spends roughly 100 billion dollars on law enforcement every year, an amount that rises annually (Justice Policy Institute 2012). In New York City alone, the annual operating budget for the NYPD routinely exceeds four billion dollars (The Council of the City of New York 2016). This is despite a consistently low crime rate and ample evidence that increased spending on law enforcement has no measurable impact on public safety (Justice Policy Institute 2012). In fact, as the JPI report suggests, increased spending on law enforcement tends to generate more harm rather than less.Footnote 20

Groups like BYP100 and Youth for Justice in Los Angeles see divestment as a crucial tactic in a broader effort to disband the police. In their “Agenda to Build Black Futures,” BYP100 calls for a divestment from police departments, the establishment of participatory municipal and state budgets, and the reallocation of funds toward “services and institutions critical to [the] survival and success” of Black people (BYP-100 2016).Footnote 21 Similarly, in Los Angeles—“the county that locks up more youth than another place in the world”—LA for Youth has organized a divestment campaign. The “1%” campaign targets a fraction—either 1% or 100 million dollars a year—of the Los Angeles County’s law enforcement budget, demanding that those funds be reallocated to create 25,000 youth jobs, fifty youth centers, and five hundred full-time community peace builders (LA for Youth 2016).

Divestment campaigns have a rich social movement history. The effort to reallocate spending on law enforcement toward life giving services and institutions joins related struggles against apartheid in South Africa, Israel’s occupation of Palestine, fossil fuels, and private prisons. Taxpayer funding of local police agencies has a particularly cruel irony for Black and Brown residents who pay into a system that sanctions and produces their premature death. A statement from the North Carolina-based collective Durham Beyond Policing (2016) makes this point clear: “[E]ssentially, Black and Brown taxpayers fund our own harassment, degradation, and deaths. We are here to say no! Not on our watch. Not on our dime.”

Similar to the strategy of disarming the police, divestment campaigns can have liberal-abolitionist tendencies. That is, divestment ideally deflects funding away from law enforcement and toward other, more life-giving priorities. However, if the strategy is not carefully implemented, and because it still works within the confines of racial capitalism, then the possibility remains that local municipalities could simply reallocate funds to other criminal justice institutions, like so-called “community” corrections, ultimately having a net-widening effect.Footnote 22 To be clear, our intention is not to dismiss important efforts to disempower law enforcement through divestment, as an immediate act of harm reduction, nor to overly simplify struggles on the ground. If the radical abolitionist claims articulated by the groups discussed above can be realized and money is drained from the police coffers and distributed to communities directly, this could create a dual power situation that has the potential to bring us closer to Du Bois’ vision of abolition-democracy.

‘Safe Outside the System’: Challenging the Legitimacy of the Police

Building alternatives that directly challenge the legitimacy of the police is the fourth approach grassroots collectives are using to disempower law enforcement. At its core, building alternatives to the police is about changing how we respond to harm, replacing banishment, policing, and criminalization with healing, transformative justice, and new understandings of safety. As the examples described below should make evident, the work of making law enforcement irrelevant requires the creation of a sustainable infrastructure in this moment that can respond to harm when it occurs, provide support, healing, and accountability for people in need, and enable people to confront the “cop in our own heads”; or, the common sense understanding that the only possible response to harm is punishment (see Wilson 2016).

Critical Resistance, an abolitionist collective that has been guiding this work since its inception in 1997, launched the Oakland Power Projects (OPP) in 2014 with the explicit goal of “eroding the power of [the Oakland Police Department].” The OPP was initiated against the backdrop of uninterrupted racialized police violence in the Bay Area, the riots in Baltimore and Ferguson, and a successful campaign to stop gang injunctions. Conceived of as an insurgent, rather than reactionary strategy, the OPP seek to “build capacity for Oakland residents to reject police” by investing “in practices, relationships, and resources that build community power and wellbeing [by] identifying current harms, amplifying existing resources, and developing new practices that do not rely on policing solutions.”Footnote 23

Like the Bay Area, New York City is home to a vibrant array of abolitionist collectives. The Audre Lorde Project’s Safe OUTside the System (SOS) is an important example of a group that has been organizing for police abolition in the city for years. Safe OUTside the System is an anti-violence project led by and for queer, trans, and two spirit people of color in central Brooklyn. For over 10 years, SOS has worked to create non-carceral safety practices through their Safe Neighborhood Campaign and by providing community support for survivors of police and hate violence. In a recent essay for Truthout, former SOS coordinator Ejeris Dixon (2015) argues that through the act of building alternative models of safety we fundamentally reshape “our ways of engaging with each other.” Dixon’s observation points to the prefigurative nature of abolition—as we do the work, the work changes us; as we do the work, we model “our own values of addressing violence and harm without relying on [law enforcement] or disposing of community members” (Amezcua, Dixon, and Long 2016).

In Durham, North Carolina, Spirithouse, a Black feminist cultural arts collective, is guiding an effort to build harm free neighborhoods, schools, and families (Wilson 2016). The Harm Free Zone (HFZ) Project is an outgrowth of an earlier collective in Durham—Ubuntu—as well as the work of Critical Resistance member Kai Barrow. Similar to collectives in the Bay Area and New York City, the HFZ project works primarily with directly impacted community members to strengthen their capacity to prevent, intervene, and respond to harm without relying on the criminal justice apparatus in any form.

Spirithouse facilitates HFZ trainings, free of charge, to teach people harm reduction and mediation skills. During a recent TED talk in Durham, the Executive Director of Spirithouse, Nia Wilson (2016), who aptly describes herself as “a warrior, healer, and cultural alchemist” shared how the trainings work:

Since 2014, [Spirithouse] has trained over sixty Durham community members in Harm Free practices. Our intense training pulls artists, business owners, low wage workers, formerly incarcerated people, church moms, students, and retirees, of every age, race, ability, gender, class and sexual orientation into 15 week incubation hubs. We use a culturally rich, participatory process that includes home cooked meals, movement, music, in depth historical analysis, group visioning, and art making (always art making) to create an inclusive community, where we can all thrive without the need to displace or discard anyone.Footnote 24

In the spirit of the Black radical tradition, interdependence, the imagination, healing, reciprocity, and self-determination are animating forces, cultivated and exercised throughout the crafting of a Harm Free Zone (Spirithouse 2014; see also Kelley 2002). Crucially, the processes that guide the work—prevention, intervention, reparation, and transformation—are understood as dynamic and contingent, rather than static or linear. “Thus, there is an important reciprocal relationship between the processes through which a community is accountable and the conditions that make accountability possible” (Spirithouse 2014).Footnote 25

At its most radical, this tactic has potential to challenge the legitimacy of the state directly. That is, by taking over basic state functions, like emergency response, these practices could lead to a dual power situation wherein neighborhoods could self-organize outside of the system, much like the Black Panther Party’s community self-determination programs. As such, this self-organization could create not only independence from police services, but also presents autonomous locations where new forms of democratic practice emerge. However, this potential requires direct challenge to the authority of the law enforcement.

The Radical Potential of Police Abolition

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 proved to be a decisive turning point in the Abolitionist Movement. As historians have documented, the fugitive slave law created a state of exception, bypassing due process, deputizing all white people to act as slave patrollers, and criminalizing those who would assist slaves on the run (Sinha 2016; Hadden 2003; Brucato 2014). Abolitionists could not in good conscience obey the law. The question then became how best to resist it. Sinha (2016) argues that the passage of the Fugitive Slaves Act “bolstered the emerging consensus among abolitionists that the use of violence in self-defense by slaves and their allies was justified” (502). The document released by the president of the New York State Vigilance Committee, is a useful illustration of the fanatical politics of radical abolitionists. The open letter “to the American slave from those who have fled American Slavery,” read in part:

[When an insurrection takes place] the great mass of the colored men [sic] of the North…will be found by your side, with deep-stored and long-accumulated revenge in their hearts, and with death-dealing weapons in their hands (qtd. in Sinha 2016: 501–502; emphasis added).

In this article, we have argued that a practice of radical abolition offers the most enduring lesson and greatest promise for people organizing to eliminate policing in the present moment. To reiterate, this promise stands on: (1) aiming directly at the police as an institution; (2) dismantling the racial-capitalist order; (3) adopting uncompromising positions that resist liberal attempts at co-optation, incorporation, and/or reconciliation; and (4) creating alternative democratic spaces that directly challenge the legitimacy of the police. It is the emphasis on these four, inter-related pillars that distinguishes radical from more liberal forms of abolition.

Likewise, we join others in cautioning against those strategies and tactics that seek to disempower the police solely through reform, whether those reforms are targeted at laws, institutional policies and practices, or the distribution of economic resources (see Gilmore 2015; Rodriguez 2012; Camp and Heatherton 2016). If the battle is to “abolish the white world” (Olson 2004: 133) and to build world where people create, realize themselves, and enjoy life, to paraphrase Du Bois, the institution of law enforcement must be directly targeted, without compromise. That is, like the Abolitionist Movement’s focus on slavery, a current attack on all forms of police control (and the institution itself) can open up liberatory possibilities for the rearrangement of the economic and racial order toward emancipatory ends. The struggle for police abolition is full of potential. It is a struggle to build new modes of sociality, “insurgent forms of safety,” (McDowell 2017) and to develop more complete forms of freedom and justice.

Notes

  1. 1.

    “Abolish the police? Organizers say it’s less crazy than it sounds.” M. Dukmasova (August 25 2016). The Chicago Reader. Retrieved from http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/police-abolitionist-movement-alternatives-cops-chicago/Content?oid=23289710.

  2. 2.

    The argument here is not that the rebellions in Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Charlotte “caused” an abolitionist movement to emerge. Rather, we are suggesting that the work of activists in movements around police abolition made much more sense to a broader population after the rebellions. That is, the rebellions changed the broader common sense of how we view police.

  3. 3.

    Here we follow the lead of two scholars whose recent and forthcoming work examines the trend from prison toward police abolition. The first is Ben Brucato (forthcoming), who is working on a manuscript tentatively titled Race and Police: From Slave Patrols to Mass Incarceration. Brucato argues that abolitionists targeting prison should also, and perhaps first, point to the elimination of policing institutions. The second scholar is Alex Vitale, who recently published The End of Policing (2017), arguing that police are the very problem we must solve.

  4. 4.

    As an example, we can point to the logic behind John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, where the intent was to incite a mass mobilization that ends slavery. While the attempt failed, it is the strategy that seems relevant here.

  5. 5.

    Read more about Critical Resistance here: http://criticalresistance.org/about/not-so-common-language/.

  6. 6.

    Dual power refers to a strategy to change the world that relies on the creating of independent institutions that meet the needs of the state and challenge its authority. This is unlike nonprofits, which can exist alongside the state.

  7. 7.

    For a recent example of this body of scholarship, see the special issue in Critical Criminology “Penal abolition and the state: Colonial, racial, and gender violences,” volume 20, 2017.

  8. 8.

    For example, see Unity and Struggle “Black Liberation, Police, Strategy, White Supremacy: 5 Ways to Build a Movement after Ferguson”, December 14, 2014 http://unityandstruggle.org/2014/12/11/5-ways-to-build-a-movement-after-ferguson.

  9. 9.

    The Guardian newspaper, as a part of their project “The Counted,” tracks the number of people killed by the police in the United States. This extensive database includes demographic information on each person who died, as well as the location where they were killed. In 2015, the first full year of the project, over one thousand people died at the hands of the police. Black, Brown, and Native Americans were more likely to be killed than whites and Asian/Pacific Islanders. The database is available online here: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counted-police-killings-us-database.

  10. 10.

    Disarm NYPD (2016), “About Disarm.” Retrieved from: https://disarmnypd.org/about/.

  11. 11.

    Afro-pessimism is a theoretical framework that is increasingly being utilized both in the academy and in movement spaces. The arguments put forth by Afro-pessimists must be contended with, even as they are often at odds with the more materialist interpretation of history we have articulated throughout our essay. While it is beyond our scope to fully delineate the points of debate between these two schools of thought (Afro-pessimism and Marxism), we would direct the interested reader to the work of Frank Wilderson, Saidiya Hartman, Jared Sexton, and Steve Martinot.

  12. 12.

    To read a comprehensive report on “E-carceration” that has just been published by The Center for Media Justice please visit: http://centerformediajustice.org/our-projects/challengingecarceration-electronic-monitoring/.

  13. 13.

    For a World Without Police, “Disarm.” Retrieved from: http://aworldwithoutpolice.org/the-strategy/disarm/.

  14. 14.

    For a World Without Police, “Disempower.” Retrieved from: http://aworldwithoutpolice.org/the-strategy/disempower/.

  15. 15.

    “Our Oakland, Our Solutions,” is archived online here: https://stoptheinjunction.wordpress.com/our-oakland-our-solutions/.

  16. 16.

    Political theorist Naomi Murakawa has done important work to illuminate this point. In her monograph “The first civil right: How liberals built prison America,” Murakawa (2014) argues that liberals conceptualized racial discrimination in the criminal justice system as an “administrative deficiency.” Consequently, what Murakawa calls “liberal law and order” sought to address racism through the development of supposedly bias free procedures, laws, and policies. “Administrative deracialization,” Murakawa suggests, “legitimized extreme penal harm to African Americans: the more carceral machinery was rights-based and rule-bound, the more racial disparity was isolatable to ‘real’ black criminality” (18).

  17. 17.

    Critical geographer and abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines abandonment as “the rigorously coordinated and organized setting aside of people and resources” (Gilmore qtd. in Gordon 2008: 178). Organized abandonment is a core “characteristic of contemporary [racial] capitalist and neoliberal state reorganization” (Gilmore 2008: 31).

  18. 18.

    The open letter can be read in its entirety here: https://liftedvoices.org/2015/10/24/stopthecops-a-march-against-the-chiefs-of-police-conference/.

  19. 19.

    This orientation guide is available online from: http://media.wix.com/ugd/881d51_12abc618efc746b0bc72a4fe47b6c90e.pdf.

  20. 20.

    The Justice Policy Institute report can be read in full here: http://www.justicepolicy.org/uploads/justicepolicy/documents/rethinkingtheblues_final.pdf.

  21. 21.

    The Black Youth Project’s “Agenda to Build Black Futures,” which includes more information about divesting from law enforcement, is available online: http://agendatobuildblackfutures.org/our-agenda/.

  22. 22.

    Again, we would encourage the interested reader to review the important work being done to theorize what the formerly incarcerated activist-scholar James Kilgore, along with others, terms “E-carceration.” A report co-written by Kilgore called “Challenging E-carceration” can be found here: http://centerformediajustice.org/our-projects/challengingecarceration-electronic-monitoring/.

  23. 23.

    Critical Resistance (2016), “About the Power Projects.” Available online: http://criticalresistance.org/chapters/cr-oakland/the-oakland-power-projects/.

  24. 24.

    A full transcript of Nia Wilson’s (2016) TED talk is available online: https://www.facebook.com/notes/nia-wilson/the-tedx-durham-talk-safety-ubuntu-the-harm-free-zone/10153892735437872.

  25. 25.

    For a full description of the Harm Free Zone Project, please see “Kai Barrow’s Daring to Dream: Crafting a Harm Free Zone.” https://www.facebook.com/notes/the-harm-free-zone-transformative-justice-training/kai-barrows-daring-to-dream-crafting-a-harm-free-zone/300537373439477.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Kristian Williams and Alex Vitale for comments and critiques on early drafts. The authors would also like to acknowledge the tireless work of people across the United States who continue the fight for a world without police, prisons, or mass criminalization.

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Correspondence to Meghan G. McDowell.

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McDowell, M.G., Fernandez, L.A. ‘Disband, Disempower, and Disarm’: Amplifying the Theory and Practice of Police Abolition. Crit Crim 26, 373–391 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-018-9400-4

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