Prison and police abolition: Reimagining public safety and liberation

BY:Jamal Rich| June 25, 2020
Prison and police abolition: Reimagining public safety and liberation

Since the Trayvon Martin murder in 2012 and the Ferguson uprising in 2014, the Movement for Black Lives has further developed its demands from reforms such as new police training methods, “community policing,” body cameras, and diversity in hiring to a more militant stance of defunding and eventually abolishing the police in the aftermath of the most recent violent police murder of George Floyd in Minnesota.

How did we get here? Anti-Black racism and settler colonialism are built into the very foundation of our society, which gives rise to a white supremacist superstructure. This means that racism and capitalism are separate but intertwined, parallel (not identical) struggles that must be fought against to move towards a future built on justice. Lenin himself saw the struggle for democracy indivisibly bound up with the struggle against racism, class, and national oppression and saw this struggle as key to advancing unity among the workers of the oppressor nation and the people of any oppressed nation or nationality.1 Henry Winston, former Communist Party, USA, Chair, said that it was the Communist Party that saw from its inception that the struggle against racist oppression was part of the class struggle and that it also recognized that Black people were oppressed as a people and that “labor with a white skin and labor with a Black skin could not be free unless the special demands of the triply-oppressed Black people were put at the center of the struggle for progress and socialism.”2

Since the ending of chattel slavery and the expansion of industrial capitalism to the U.S. South, continued forms of slavery began to emerge to keep profits in the hands of the ruling class, such as the penal and convict lease systems and the modern prison-industrial complex, which now holds one-third of Black men (and increasingly Black women, trans, and gender-nonconforming folks) under its control and also the largest prison population in the world. In Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Y. Davis explains that due to the U.S. and global capitalist economy, which is driven by an unprecedented pursuit of profit and the concomitant dismantling of the welfare state, “poor people’s abilities to survive became increasingly constrained by the looming presence of the prison.” Davis also spoke of how elected officials and the corporate media justified the new sentencing practices (for example, the 1994 Crime Bill), “sending more and more people to prison in the frenzied drive to build more and more prisons by arguing that this was the only way to make our communities safe from murderers, rapists, and robbers.”3

Mass incarceration of Black and brown people expanded due to new national criminal punishment and policy such as the War on Drugs, neoliberal cuts in funding of the social safety net, poverty and housing policy leading to chronic homelessness, draconian immigration measures, and expanding policing in schools while cutting public education budgets. This led to the now widely known “school-to-prison” pipeline, where Black youth are heavily criminalized not only in their own neighborhoods and communities but also in their spaces of learning. Alex Vitale in End of Policing  writes:

In 1994 [Bill Clinton] introduced the Gun-Free Schools Act, which ushered in “zero tolerance” school discipline policies. Following that lead, legislators and school administrators embraced a raft of harsh disciplinary codes, placing surveillance systems, metal detectors, and huge numbers of police in schools. These policies have led to the growing criminalization of young people, despite falling crime rates. According to the Department of Education, 92,000 arrests were made in the 2011–2012 school year. . . . Schools with high percentages of students of color are more likely to have zero tolerance policies and generate more suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.4

Mass incarceration has reverberating effects that put more profits into the hands of the ruling class. For example, states like Florida and others take former inmates’ citizenship away by removing their right to register to vote if they have a felony on their record. (Florida’s voters approved a ballot measure to restore voting rights; this has been overturned and replaced by a modern-day poll tax fiasco.) On top of this, felony convictions on a person’s record lead to more difficulty in finding employment for these “returning citizens.” Private profit has also been a result of the heavy reliance on criminal punishment and imprisonment, leading to the construction of private prisons and detention centers, where many of these prisons have inmates performing slave labor for private companies like JC Penny. Also, state and federal penitentiaries have inmates perform prison labor—an example being the prisoners fighting fires in California or making products such as Bounty paper towels, Crest toothpaste, Emergen-C, hand sanitizer, and many more sold by corporations. And we cannot leave out the global context, with private contractors like G4S who profit off increased security at U.S. schools, surveillance at the U.S.-Mexico border, and Israeli apartheid measures on Palestinians.5

Abolition has to be understood as a process and a call to action, not some empty ultra-revolutionary rhetoric. Further, to call oneself an abolitionist is to want to abolish the conditions that subject majorities of Black people. We (Black people) cannot wait for socialist revolution or global communism to put an end to these conditions of criminalization, mass incarceration, and state violence, and that is what this current uprising against police terror is about. In fact, Marxism insists that socialism will never be achieved unless the equality demands of Black people and other people of color be addressed in the here and now. Understanding that the basic Marxist-Leninist analysis of the state as a repressive tool of the ruling class and a site of democratic struggle does not mean we (as Marxists-Leninists) should ignore the independent character of the Black liberation struggle, as Winston warns. Because capitalism is built on a racism, these anti-racist struggles are fundamental to its undoing. “Abolition means not just the closing of prisons [and subsequently, the dismantling of the police] but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack,” says Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Since the term “prison-industrial complex” was coined by Mike Davis in the 1990s and Angela Davis popularized the phrase “prison abolition” through her speaking and writing, these ideas have picked up a lot of steam in the past several years by predominantly Black women and Black queer organizers, especially those in Critical Resistance and BYP100 who have understood the role of racist and gender violence as a form of super exploitation in the modern prison-industrial complex.

The question we need to be challenging ourselves with is how do we actually create forms of public safety, and how do we not reproduce forms of harm and violence?

“Reforming” the police is often just another way of giving the police more funding, expanding their budgets, and legitimizing their function in society. Campaign Zero, led by DeRay Mckesson, has recently put out a set of reforms aimed at lowering police deaths by 72%, called #8CantWait. These eight reforms include demands of banning choke holds and strangle holds, requiring de-escalation practices, requiring warning before shooting, exhausting all alternatives before shooting, duty to intervene, banning shooting at moving vehicles, and more. While these reformist demands seem well-intentioned to some, they actually legitimize the function of policing itself in society and are insufficient to bring about real change. In fact, many of these reforms have already been implemented across departments in the United States, including the one which was involved in the killing of George Floyd. Mckesson has also been criticized for being dishonest and watering down the Black Lives Matter movement by using corporate strategies to approach problems such as police violence.

As a response to the #8cantwait campaign led by Mckesson, abolitionist organizers and theorists have created #8ToAbolition, which includes the following:

  1.     Defund police
  2.     Demilitarize communities
  3.     Remove police from schools
  4.     Free people from jails and prisons
  5.     Repeal laws that criminalize survival
  6.     Invest in community self-governance
  7.     Provide safe housing for everyone
  8.     Invest in care, not cops

Central to these abolitionist reforms is the need to address wage theft and the wage gap by providing resources toward a living wage and special compensatory measures to address past racial and class exploitation, ending unemployment by enacting a jobs guarantee, universal single-payer health care, universal free public education, affordable and accessible housing (through expansion of rent control, public housing, and community land trusts), expansion of democratic enterprises, youth programs (that don’t involve police), etc. #8ToAbolition aims to “build a world where there are zero police murders, because there are zero police, not because police are better trained or better regulated in continuing to uphold systems designed to oppress our communities.”

Policing has to be understood as a tool of social control in terms of protecting private property (i.e., capitalism) and white supremacy, with its origins in Southern slave patrols and in colonial practices used to suppress workers’ movements in places formerly and currently under colonial and imperialist rule, including the United States. Also, the police and prison-industrial complex are inextricably tied to the military-industrial complex. In addition to receiving free surplus military equipment from the Pentagon through the military’s “1033 program,” police departments are purchasing military equipment directly from private military contractors using grant money from the Department of Homeland Security. Increasingly, the police function as a military occupation force of Black and brown communities. Further, “stop and frisk” practices which were widely used in New York City (and subsequently replicated in other major cities such as Washington, D.C.) target and harass poor and working-class Black and Latinx youth and put them through the juvenile punishment system. Black trans and queer people are openly targeted by the police as well, an example being the recent police murder of Tony McDade, a Black trans man. The role of the police is to create more harm and violence in society rather than provide public safety.

The End of Policing, authored by criminal justice scholar Alex Vitale, has gained a lot of traction in the past few weeks during the demonstrations, garnering the author many interviews for Democracy Now!, NPR, and others. Vitale’s book details the flaws of reformist policing and brings to light alternatives to policing and new forms of public safety for communities, including many of those demanded by the #8ToAbolition movement. The well-known abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba is the founder of Project NIA, a grassroots organization with a vision to end youth incarceration. Kaba was also a co-founder of We Charge Genocide, an inter-generational effort which documented police violence in Chicago and sent youth organizers to Geneva, Switzerland, to present reports to the United Nations, echoing work done by William L. Patterson, Paul Robeson, and W. E. B. Du Bois in the 1950s as part of the Civil Rights Congress.6 Kaba says,

We have to create the conditions that decrease the demand for police and surveillance. You need jobs, healthcare, housing and people need to be able to live their lives. You need to create structures to address harm and hold people accountable. People think abolitionists minimize harm but we take it very seriously. Safety is a collective action.

She also wrote a recent piece in the New York Times stating that “as a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm.”

The recently refounded National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression has also presented steps toward abolition. While there is an emphasis on community control of police through a democratically elected police accountability board, there has been more emphasis lately on community control of the city budget in order to cut police expenditures. For example, the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) in Chicago, led by Frank Chapman, demands complete control of the local police forces as a step toward Black liberation and is different from the common Civilian Police Review Boards whose appointees are often white supremacists and allies of the police. Says Chapman:

“Cities are spending large shares of their budgets on police at the expense of social services, health care, infrastructure, and other needs. Democratic community control of the police transforms the power dynamic between police and citizens. Black communities policing the police in their neighborhoods to confront the long-term racist roots of policing in the United States.

Demands like community control of the police and their budgets give CPAC and similar formations space to struggle and respond to the calls to “defund the police.” Expecting bourgeois politicians to respond to these calls will not result in meaningful action. Community control of the police would open up new democratic struggle and put more power in the hands of the community, which would be able to dismantle the police through a democratic process.

Critical Resistance, an organization that Angela Davis helped found in the late 1990s, has recently critiqued the call for community control. Organizer Kamau Walton says that “community control of the police” sounds like “community control of the military,” since the police (and the military)— an oppressive tool of criminalization and dehumanization—upholds the people in power who are profiting off the exploitation. The police in general do not protect Black people, immigrants, gender-nonconforming folks, or workers. Critical Resistance says that “community control” will not reduce funding of the police; will not challenge the notion that police increase safety; will not reduce the tools, tactics, and technology that police have at their disposal; and will not reduce the scale of policing. Critical Resistance recommends the following:

  • Prioritize spending on community health, education, and affordable housing.
  • Cap overtime accrual and overtime pay for military exercises and withdraw participation in police militarization programs.
  • Require cops to be liable for misconduct settlements.
  • Suspend the use of paid administrative leave for cops under investigation.
  • Withhold pensions and don’t rehire cops involved in excessive force.
  • Reduce the size of the police force.

It is important to note the historical context as well. The Black Panther Party (BPP) for Self-Defense called for “community control of the police” during their existence and also called for residency requirements for police in the communities they policed (now commonly known as “community policing”). The BPP formed and operated at a time before “prison-industrial complex” was termed and was dismantled by COINTELPRO and the FBI before evolving in an abolitionist direction. Critical Resistance aims to build off this historical work rather than repeat it, and to examine the next stage toward liberation by advancing these struggles by the BPP and Black Liberation Army.

We have to understand how closely linked our neoliberal capitalist economic system is with the expansion of criminalization and punishment, which is upheld by the police and the broader prison-industrial complex. Angela Davis deals with this at length in her book, Are Prisons Obsolete? We can also note that much of the violence is a result of our violent racial capitalist system. A country without free universal health care, affordable housing, free education, and a jobs guarantee is going to reproduce forms of violence to keep the status quo of chronic homelessness, mental health problems, school shootings, exploitation in workplaces, and so on. We need to shrink the footprint and need for policing itself, and that starts with decriminalization of drugs and ending the costly War on Drugs, expanding harm-reduction strategies by hiring social workers instead of cops at schools and in the neighborhoods and have them respond to calls of mental health crises, decriminalizing sex work and anti-homeless ordinances, making public transit free of charge (thus eliminating the “necessity” for policing of turnstile jumping on subways and trains), hiring more conflict-resolution mediators and community accountability facilitators to handle domestic violence and expanding funding for counselors, designating community problem solvers to be a point of contact for complaints and use restorative and transformative justice models in approaching disputes and any cases of violence.

We also need to be clear about what we mean by “transformative” justice approaches. Replacing cops with conflict mediators or social workers will not solve all the problems in society. Social work itself is an institution which has had an abusive history of Black people through practices of child separation, violation of bodily autonomy, and coercive drugging, and it needs to be transformed into an institution that provides the funding necessary for proactive mental health-care options for those in need. Examples include: trauma-informed crisis intervention teams to disarm and de-escalate conflicts of gun violence, petty robbery, or domestic violence; substance use services that intervene in harmful drug transactions; unarmed urgent responders trained in behavioral and mental health responding to erratic behavior; and different interactions with city employees in response to a broken tail light or sleeping on the streets. On top of this, groups like Black Lives Matter D.C. have developed forms of “cop watching,” which surveils and documents police criminalizing, brutalizing, or harming members of the community akin to the “panther patrols” of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense which can be a possible alternative to responding to violence in communities. These are realistic alternatives to the current approaches to public safety.

To be a Communist is to also be an abolitionist. Understanding that the struggles for socialism and Black self-determination are parallel but intertwined, as both Lenin and Winston noted, is to see that abolitionist ideas are realistic and are not constrained to a socialist revolution. However, if abolitionist ideas are implemented, they can lead to the dismantling of capitalism itself. We must continue to find ways to fight racial and national oppression by expanding people’s control over their communities and abolishing the prison-industrial complex and the police violence that enables it to function.

Further reading/Notes:

1 V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 22 (1916).
2 H. Winston, Strategy for a Black Agenda (1973).
3 A. Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003).
4 A. Vitale, End of Policing (2017).
5 A. Y. Davis, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (2016).
6 W. L. Patterson, We Charge Genocide (1953).

Cover image: Chad Davis, Creative Commons (BY 2.0).
Abolish the Police, Joe Piette, Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Military vehicle, ken fager, Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Defund the Police, ken fager, Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA 2.0).


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