By Ray Acheson
At the end of May 2020, protests erupted across the United States after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. In response, heavily militarised police forces cracked down violently against everyone in the streets. As one commentator noted on 30 May, “The police are rioting across America tonight—shooting and mowing down protestors, assaulting journalists, terrorising neighbourhoods, gleefully brutalising and arresting civilians en masse.” Another highlighted that “police all over the country teargassed protestors, drove vehicles through crowds, opened fire with non-lethal rounds on journalists or people on their own property, and in at least one instance, pushed over an elderly man who was walking away with a cane.” The violence continued for weeks, with police kettling, beating, and arresting protestors, deploying tear gas, and breaking bones.
The show of overwhelming and violent force from police, backed by the National Guard and threats by the US President to deploy the military and shoot protestors, must be considered in the broader context of governmental and institutional failure to address repeated and ongoing racist police brutality.
As noted in a blog published in WILPF’s COVID-19 series, structural racism is endemic to US policing. As it is in other countries, demonstrated for example with Canada and Australia’s rates of harassment and incarceration of Indigenous people, police violence against immigrant populations across Europe, and so on. More broadly, police brutality is a fixture of the US carceral system. The “band of brothers” in blue, much like the military, is part of the apparatus of coercive state power designed and deployed to maintain the privileges of the elite. Borne through the enclosure of the commons, shaped by settler colonialism, raised by slavery, trained by military operations abroad, and reinforced through the rise of the prison-industrial complex and border imperialism, US policing is a key node in the network of the “national security state,” which relies on perpetual war abroad and oppression at home to sustain itself.
This is not an issue of individual police officers, good or bad. This is an issue of structure: of systemic racism and a culture of militarism imbued within policing as a whole.
This article explores the structural racism and militarisation of the US police. Supporting the work of Black feminist and other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) activists, it advocates for defunding, disarming, demilitarising, and disbanding the police and for investments in preventative care and transformative justice as an alternative. While the violence and racism of the police is not limited to the United States, this article focuses on the US system and engages with the thinking of US-based scholars and activists because of the outsized role of the United States in training police in other countries and in exporting weapons and militarism abroad.
Structural bias in policing
The roots of policing as a whole is tied to the enclosure of the commons and the establishment of private property that took place throughout Europe over two hundred years. Marx, Engels, Foucault, and others all situate the rise of the “police state” in this process, as the answer of governments to creating what Mark Neocleous describes as a “peaceful and secure order of lawful obedience” in the face of dispossession and rising poverty created by capitalism. “A divided world was being engineered by enclosure,” writes Ian G. R. Shaw, “and an industrializing civilization had to forcibly subdue its alienated denizens.”
The enclosure of commons, dispossession of those living on the land, and the “forcible subduing” of people also became a key component of settler colonialism. As white settlers moved across the United States, they cleared the land by force and took as private property what had been the territorial land and waters of Indigenous nations. The roots of policing in the United States is thus tied, as The Red Nation describes, to the volunteer militias composed of settlers that “slaughtered Indigenous people to clear the land for more plantations.”
These plantations were worked by enslaved Africans, forming another node in the origins of US policing. Militias of the state and of plantation owners hunted and captured anyone attempting to escape bondage. But this practice did not end with the abolition of slavery. The police continued to be the main tool the state used to control, monitor, and incarcerate Black people, including in order to ensure the continuation of a cheap labour pool through the bondage of imprisonment.
As explored in books such as Policing the Planet and The End of Policing, multitudes of police tactics have been designed specifically for communities of colour, particularly Black communities: broken windows policing, community policing, and stop-and-frisk practices, for example, have all been designed and directed towards surveillance and oppression of people of colour, leading to their effective criminalisation. LGBTQ+ people, the poor and houseless, sex workers, and others have also been subjected to the same scrutiny and criminalisation.
Maintenance of this order—of the relationship between bourgeois and the landless peasant, settlers and Indigenous nations, white landowners and Black enslaved people—has been the main charge of the US police force. Challenges to this order have thus always been met with violence. The brutality in the streets seen in 2020 mirrors the violent response to the civil rights movement, ACT UP’s direct actions against HIV-AIDS policies, anti-globalisation protests, Occupy Wall Street, or any other social justice efforts.
Uprising against racism
It is in this context that the protests of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders, and police brutality against Black lives more generally, have persisted. Solidarity marches have been held around the world, many of which recognise that systemic racism and police brutality are not unique to the United States but also cost lives and well-being of Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour in many countries.
Protestors and city officials in many US cities are also tearing down racist monuments. Statues celebrating white supremacists, particularly Confederate soldiers and slave owners, have been removed in the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia. This, too, has spread across the pond, where activists in Bristol, England pulled down a statue of a slave trader and rolled it into a river. Statues of Columbus in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Virginia have been torn down or beheaded.
As those tearing down these statues have made clear, the history of racism and oppression must be remembered, but not honoured. In this context, to paraphrase one Twitter user, we need to tear down all the monuments to slavery—especially police and prisons.
The killing continues
This is made abundantly clear when the shooting of unarmed Black people continues even in the wake of public outrage. On 2 June in Vallejo, California, Sean Monterrosa, 22, was on his knees with his hands raised when he was fired at five times and killed by a police officer. On 6 June, California state police shot and killed 23 year-old Erik Salgado and injured his pregnant girlfriend Brianna Colombo. Since then, there have been more attacks on Black lives across the country.
Overall the police are responsible for the deaths of thousands of people a year. Black people are 24 per cent of those killed, despite only constituting 13 per cent of the population. Mapping Police Violence has found that in all of 2019 there were only 27 days when police did not kill someone.
“What we’re talking about here is a worldview that says that police are the only force capable of holding society together,” explained Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, in an interview with The Intercept. The view turns on the notion that “without the constant threat of violent coercive intervention, society will unravel into a war of all against all.” In this context, “authoritarian solutions are not just necessary, they’re almost preferable.”
Militarisation of police
The “warrior mentality,” like structural racism, has been embedded in US policing since its origins. Alfred McCoy traces this back to 1898, when the US military annexed the Philippines and imposed a police state over the country that it repatriated to build a system of surveillance, informants, and “counterintelligence” agencies at home in the early 1900s. Police forces across the country began to be “professionalised” through bureaucratic management, explains Ian G. R. Shaw, transforming the police “into a more sealed, hierarchical, and authoritarian agency.”
The militarisation of the US police really took off in the 1960s, in response to the civil rights movement. The Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) police units were created in 1969, setting in motion what Shaw describes as “a ruinous lurch toward a machismo-infused military policing in the United States.” This was followed in the 1980s by the Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act. Coupled with the decision to name the drug trade a “national security threat,” this Act set the stage for the total militarisation of the police forces.
Since 1987, when Congress began allowing the US military to transfer “surplus equipment” to US police forces across the country, billions of dollars of military weapons, vehicles, and other gear has been transferred to state and local police departments. This has included assault weapons, ammunition, grenade launchers, armoured vehicles, helicopters, battle armour, night-vision equipment, and more. Most of this equipment has been transferred under the 1033 Program, established in 1997 as part of the “War on Drugs”. This programme was further amplified after 11 September 2001 under the “War on Terror”—which not only transferred equipment but also tactics from the military to the police.
US police forces also receive direct training from the US military and from private military and security companies. Alex S. Vitale, author of The End of Policing, notes that the police have been trained to respond to uncertainty or fear with deadly force. “Part of this emphasis on the use of deadly force comes from the rise of independent training companies that specialize in in-service training, staffed by former police and military personnel,” he explains. “Some of these groups serve both military and police clients and emphasize military-style approaches.”
The equipment and training isn’t just for show. “Departments use these wartime weapons in everyday policing, especially to fight the wasteful and failed drug war, which has unfairly targeted people of color,” notes the American Civil Liberties Union. It is also used, as we have seen time and again, to suppress protest. In Seattle, Washington in 1999, nonviolent activists protesting globalisation were attacked by police armed with pepper spray, tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. In Ferguson, Missouri, where protests erupted over the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, people on the streets “were met with armored vehicles, noise-based crowd-control devices, shotguns, M4 rifles like those used by forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, rubber-coated pellets and tear gas.”
Militarisation of police also has implications for the border. New surveillance technologies are tested along the US-Mexican border and the US military cooperates with border patrol. As described in another article in this series, the framing of the transnational movement of human beings as a crisis has led to the expansion of budgets and weaponisation of the border in a “War on Migration,” leading to horrific human rights violations, abuse, and death of thousands of people. Furthermore, the US and Israeli governments have initiated “exchange programmes” that bring together US police officers, ICE and Border Patrol agents, and the FBI with soldiers, police, and border agents from Israel. This “exchange of worst practices,” as the Jewish Voice for Peace describes the programme, promotes and extends “discriminatory and repressive policing practices that already exist in both countries, including racial profiling, massive spying and surveillance, deportation and detention, and attacks on human rights defenders.”
While the militarisation of police in the United States has led to much more violence, it has certainly not led to less “crime”. A report released in 2018 found that police militarisation “neither reduces rates of violent crime nor changes the number of officers assaulted or killed.” Instead, as other studies have found, the transfer of military equipment to police increases not just the material militarisation of police departments but also militarises their cultural, organisational, and operational practices and leads to more violent behaviour.
Militarism celebrates, promotes, and facilities a culture of violence. The weapons and strategies deployed to oppress and kill abroad, which are being integrated into domestic policing, inevitably carry that violence them. Thus, the militarisation of the police only leads to one thing: violence. There is no room for militarisation to lead to de-escalation of conflict or resolution of grievances. When governments and police forces decide to go down this road, they take an active stance for violence.
The digital panopticon and autonomous racism
The rising use of surveillance and tracking technology to “fight crime” is also a key part of the militarisation of police. Critical race scholars and Black rights advocates have long characterised police militarisation as yet another means by which the state enhances its control over Black and other people of colour, including through expansion of surveillance. New technologies, such as facial recognition, biometric technologies, data mining, and “predictive policing” tools are massively exacerbating the structural racism of surveillance.
Not only is the origin of facial recognition racist itself, but this technology is leading to further incarceration, harassment, and battery of Black people and other people of colour. The algorithms used in facial recognition software have consistently been shown to be racist, resulting in must higher rates of false positives for Black, Asian, and Indigenous faces than for whites. The systems worst failings were with African-American women. Meanwhile, doorbell cameras, video surveillance systems, and crime-reporting platforms “are playing a role in people of color being reported as ‘suspicious’ while they are simply going about their daily lives.”
The introduction of “predictive policing” also has grave implications for criminalised communities. The technology relies on data sets of past “crime” to determine where and when future crime will occur. Police are given maps of neighbourhoods to patrol in order to deter or stumble upon criminal acts. As Jackie Wang argues in Carceral Capitalism, “Even when it does not use race to make predictions,” predictive policing technologies “can facilitate racial profiling by calculating proxies for race, such as neighbourhood and location.” This type of technology does not benignly “interpret data,” it actively constructs reality. It constructs the future “through the present management of subjects categorized as threats or risks.”
But as Micah Herskind points out, risk is not an identity. “The risk assessment paradigm tells us that risk, or dangerousness, is something that resides within a person—and that risk categorizations can tell us the likelihood of one’s inner dangerousness manifesting externally.” This frames human beings as being inherently “risky” when in reality, it is the conditions in which people live that produce risk and create the potential for harm.
Tools such as predictive policing do not look at root causes of harms caused. As part of the growing militarised surveillance state, they only serve to provide the state with yet another way to control and confine populations ascribed with characteristics determined by that state. And once this kind of “digital carceral infrastructure” is built up, Wang warns, “it will be nearly impossible to undo, the automated carceral surveillance state will spread out across the terrain, making greater and greater intrusions into our everyday lives.”
We can already see this with the use of drones for surveillance of US cities. The expanding use of surveillance planes and drones during the recent protests against police brutality—including the same drones that are deployed at the US-Mexican border and that were deployed at the Standing Rock protests in 2016—also show another tactic for police to monitor and enact violence against anyone they consider a threat, be they immigrants, Indigenous Water Protectors, or Black rights activists. The city of Baltimore has approved the use of “surveillance planes” to conduct persistent monitoring of the city under the guise of aiding investigations of “violent crimes”. The LA County Sheriff’s Department has also tested an airplane-mounted surveillance kit to monitor the entire city of Compton, with equipment similar to the US military’s Gorgon Stare technology.
The FBI has flown drones for surveillance operations; US Customs and Border Protection operates a fleet of Predator drones along the US-Mexico and US-Canada borders; and CBP has “loaned” its drones to local law enforcement agencies hundreds of times. Intercepted data can be stored indefinitely and there have been proposals to modify drones so they can track cell phones. Ian G. R. Shaw warns about the installation of “a system of ubiquitous air policing across major US cities,” which would establish “a permanent police presence in the skies.”
This must also serve as a warning as to what is most likely to happen with the development of autonomous weapon systems. International discussions on these weapons have predominantly focused on the challenges they will pose in war. But, especially in countries that have a military-to-police pipeline for equipment, such weapons are likely to also be deployed in policing situations. The “permanent police presence” predicted by Shaw is likely to include not just the “eyes in the sky” provided by surveillance drones but also incorporate the suite of biometrics, facial recognition, predictive policing and precrime reporting, and weaponised autonomous systems that operate together to monitor and control populations.
As such weapons will rely on sensors and software to determine “targets” without meaningful human control, they will inevitably reflect the innate bias and racism within the system that produces them. As ethicist Peter Asaro notes, “it would be easy to intentionally design a robocop to be racist, and quite difficult to design one that is not, given the existing standards, norms, and policing strategies.” Thus once again, the militarisation and weaponisation of technology and police leads not to solutions to the challenges posed by social, economic, and political choices, but to their violent exacerbation.
The failures of reform
All of this demands a fundamental shift in our thinking about security. We need to stop looking to the apparatus of coercive state power to keep us “safe” and start looking at alternatives to those structures. This is true of borders, police, prisons, militaries, and all the other structures through which this power manifests and sustains itself at the expense of human life and well-being.
An essential part of making this shift in thinking is recognising that the current structures are past the point of reform.
Reform has been tried. Bias training, body cameras, anti-racist courses. Minneapolis, for example, was one of the pilot cities for the Obama administration’s response to the national call for police accountability. Its police force underwent a multi-year, multibillion-dollar training project; yet police officers still murdered George Floyd in broad daylight.
Alex S. Vitale argues that police reforms implemented in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson in 2014—from diversity initiatives to community policing to body cameras—“fail to acknowledge that policing as an institution reinforces race and class inequalities by design.” Individual accountability of officers, when it comes, likewise feeds into the idea that there are just some “bad seeds” at work and they are not representative of policing as a whole.
Yet as one former police officer reports, there are no bad seeds, only bad structures. “Police officers do not protect and serve people, they protect and serve the status quo, ‘polite society’, and private property,” he writes. “Using the incremental mechanisms of the status quo will never reform the police because the status quo relies on police violence to exist. Capitalism requires a permanent underclass to exploit for cheap labor and it requires the cops to bring that underclass to heel.”
He advocates against reforms, seeming to concur with the organisation Critical Resistance’s argument that reform only seeks to improve policing’s war against people. Reform does not address structural racism or the “warrior mentality” deliberately infused and embedded within US policing; it leaves intact the size, composition, and nature of police forces; and it can actually lead to increasing police budgets. For example, in the midst of the current actions to defund police in many cities, US presidential candidate Joe Biden proposed increasing budgets for police so they can “institute real reform”.
At the end of the day, “Police cannot be reformed,” notes Mariame Kaba, because the essence of their power is their discretion to use violence.” This is what enables them to beat protestors, murder Black people, harass queer communities, sexually assault women, and escape any accountability. “The system was designed to perpetuate harm, not to prevent it,” says Micah Herskin, “so if we want to undo harm, we have to undo the system.”
Rethinking harm and “crime”
All of this is why demands for the abolition of police and the creation of new forms of community-based security and safety mechanisms and tools, rooted in the pursuit of equitable human security, are increasingly recognised as the only chance for real change.
Yet when abolitionists advocate for the deconstruction of this current structure, people tend to want an answer that says, how will you eliminate crime? How will you prevent harm?
The counter question is, what is the current system doing to eliminate crime or prevent harm? The answer is: the current system is massively exacerbating both.
It’s important to remember that, as Andrea Ritchie explains, “We are not proposing to abandon our communities to violence. We are naming policing as a form of violence that we all experience.” Along with recognising the failure of reforms to the current carceral system, an important aspect of the work to build true human security is shifting people’s minds about who are dangerous people and what constitutes “crime”. Right now, as Dean Spade explains, in the United States the most violence is coming from—and most dangerous weapons are in the hands of—police, the military, and agencies like Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Yet their violence is (deliberately) made invisible.
Secondly, we need to recognise that the current carceral system of police and prisons does not prevent “crime”. It does not prevent harms from being committed. That is not what police do. Police respond to harms already committed. Thus, for those who respond to calls for police abolition with comments such as, “Well how are you going to stop murder? Or school shootings? Or rape?”, the first thing to recognise is that our current system is not stopping these things. It is a false equivalence, then, to demand that abolitionists offer a guaranteed roadmap to stop these things. But what abolition does offer is a chance to try something else that is preventative.
We need to ask, why do we have this kind of violence and harm being committed in the first place? As Dean Spade points out, in the United States we live in a highly militarised, patriarchal, white supremacist culture. This produces the kind of violence of which we are all so rightly terrified. Thus, we need to shift our society away from the idea that the way to be powerful is by wielding weapons and exercising violence. But the carceral system facilitates a culture of violence, glorification of weapons, white supremacy, and toxic masculinity—all of which actively facilitate the commission of harms.
What abolition can offer instead is a chance to reduce the context for harm by making our world safer, by expanding care for people, by creating a different context in which people live and work and go to school. “An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future,” explains Critical Resistance. “It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives.”
Abolition is not just about dismantling or disbanding existing structures—it’s also about building alternatives in its place. “Defunding the police is part of the abolition demand, but reflects only one aspect of the process represented by the demand,” explained Angela Davis on Democracy Now! “Defunding the police is not simply about withdrawing funding for law enforcement and doing nothing else…. It’s about shifting public funds to new services and new institutions, mental health counsellors who can respond to people in crisis without arms. Its about shifting funding to education, to housing, to recreation. All of these things help to create security and safety. It’s about learning that safety safeguarded by violence is not really safety.”
At the end of the day, “people want guarantees,” says Mariame Kaba, “but there are none.” We have to try, and fail, and try again. But trying something other than what we know is failing, what we know is creating harm, is essential. As Alex Vitale says, “There is no perfect world, there’s no perfect solution. What we have now is far from perfect. People get killed all the time, even though our society is filled with police. Can we come up with a situation where there are fewer killings, and fewer collateral consequences?”
To reflect on our current reality and possible alternative futures, we need to ask ourselves and each other questions such as:
What is our current system doing about people who commit harm? What do our current systems do to protect people? Do they actually protect people? Do they harm certain people in the process of protecting others? Do they produce more harm than protection? Whose protection and safety should be valued, accounted for? Everyone, or just a few? Who is protected the most, and from whom are they protected?
We also need to ask ourselves, who profits from the current system? Who is making money from militarising the police and from incarcerating millions of people? What happens to those people and the economic and social futures of those individuals and their communities?
We also need to ask, why do people commit harm in the first place? The former cop referenced above explains,
Every single second of my training, I was told that criminals were not a legitimate part of their community, that they were individual bad actors, and that their bad actions were solely the result of their inherent criminality. Any concept of systemic trauma, generational poverty, or white supremacist oppression was either never mentioned or simply dismissed. After all, most people don’t steal, so anyone who does isn’t “most people,” right? To us, anyone committing a crime deserved anything that happened to them because they broke the “social contract.” And yet, it was never even a question as to whether the power structure above them was honoring any sort of contract back.
What if everyone had food, shelter, employment, care, community? What if everyone had access to health care and mental health support? What if we had recreation and opportunities? What “crime” would manifest from such a society?
What do we even consider crime? Right now, most of those who create and enforce the systems of inequality that generate poverty, unemployment, lack of food security, employment, housing, and health care are not considered criminals: in fact, they are the ones the state apparatus seeks to protect at the expense of everyone else’s safety and security.
So then we also need to ask, what violence does the system itself generate? Is our system of policing, incarceration, and so-called justice actually producing more violence than it prevents? Is there something else we could try that might produce less harm while still obtaining accountability and justice for harms caused? What processes might actually result in accountability of those causing harms to entire societies and communities through the imposition and generation of inequalities and poverty?
Answering these questions, depending on who you are and what your experiences have been, may require that you think beyond your current understandings of the system and listen to what others are describing about their experiences. Doing the work of critical thinking, listening, and reflecting is essential to understanding the range of harms that are caused by our current carceral system.
The road to abolition
Fortunately, decades of work from abolitionists can provide plenty of material for that reflection. While it may seem remarkable that the call for police abolition has entered into the mainstream discourse so quickly, the reality is that the theorising and organising for police abolition has been ongoing for decades. BIPOC activists, in particular Black feminists such as Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba have long theorised about and organised for the abolition of police. These activists have founded organisations, written books, given interviews and podcasts, and created online resources for years. Groups like Critical Resistance, Incite!, Survived and Punished, Black Visions Collective, Project Nia, and others have long been advocatingfor the abolition of prisons and the establishment of alternative systems of care and community well-being.
The shift of these ideas and concepts into the mainstream represent an excellent example of people “picking up the ideas that are lying around” in times of crisis. As Naomi Klein says, “During moments of cataclysmic change, the previously unthinkable suddenly becomes reality.” In the context of the recent uprisings against white supremacy and police brutality against Black lives, in the midst of a pandemic that has also disproportionately affected Black and Latinx communities and resulted in a tailspin of unemployment, the idea of defunding the police and redirecting that money to invest in communities has taken off as not just as necessary but also as the only real solution available.
It is in this context that some work to defund, demilitarise, and disband the police has begun:
- In Minneapolis, the city council voted to dismantle and abolish the police department and replace it with a new system of community-led safety mechanisms.
- In Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, and more, mayors and city councillors have started looking at ways to reduce police budgets.
- The New York State Legislature voted to repeal section 50-A of the NY Civil Rights Law, which for 44 years has kept police disciplinary records secret from the public.
- Public school systems in Denver, Minneapolis, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, and others have announced the termination or suspension of contracts with their city police departments.
These are just a few of the recent and ongoing shifts we are seeing right now across the United States. Much more is happening — but also, much more needs to happen.
The praxis of abolition
In order to effectively prioritise human well-being, as abolitionists articulate well, there is not just “one thing” to replace the current system. We will need a collection of mechanisms, tools, and structures to prevent the conditions that lead to the commission of harm and to respond to harm that does occur.
Building on the theorising and organising of Black feminists and other BIPOC activists that have long championed prison and police abolition, several abolitions have set up a new website 8toabolition.org to help breakdown the essentials of what police abolition would look like. Key aspects include:
- Defund the police – including by ending contracts with private companies; rejecting increases to police budgets and demanding budget cuts each year until funding for police departments reach zero; and reducing the power of police unions, among other things.
- Demilitarise communities – including by disarming police; ending the 1033 programme that acts as pipeline for military equipment to police forces; prohibiting training exercises between policy and the military; ending broken windows, community policing, and other strategies that target Black and brown communities; removing cops from hospitals; ending and preventing police use of surveillance technologies and “predictive policing” tools; and more.
- Remove police from schools – including by ending contracts between schools and universities and police departments; removing surveillance technologies from schools; and more.
- Free people from prisons, jails, and detention centres – which is not just about freeing those currently in those facilities but also establishing alternative transformative justice mechanisms, ending immigration detention and family separation, and rejecting “alternatives to incarceration” that are still carceral in nature.
- Repeal laws that criminalise survival – which includes decriminalising houselessness and sex work, and decriminalising survivors of gendered violence.
- Invest in community self-governance – including by promoting neighbourhood councils as representatives in municipal decision-making; investing in multilingual resources for immigrant and asylum-seeking communities; assessing community needs and investing in community-based resources, such as groups from tenant unions to local shop-owners and street vendors, prioritising those from marginalised groups; and investing in community-based public safety approaches, including non-carceral violence prevention and intervention programs and skills-based education on bystander intervention, consent and boundaries, and healthy relationships.
- Provide safe housing for everyone – including by repurposing empty buildings to house people experiencing houselessness; removing cops from shelters; prohibiting evictions; providing support to refugees and asylum seekers; and more.
- Invest in care, not cops – including by allocating city funding towards healthcare, wellness resources, neighbourhood-based trauma centres, non-coercive drug and alcohol treatment, peer support networks, and training; investing in teachers and counselors, universal childcare, and support for all family structures; building free and accessible public transit; investing in food banks, grocery cooperatives, gardens, and farms; and investing in youth programmes that promote learning, safety, and community care.
As the above makes clear, there is not one thing that will replace the police. There are many things, each of which requires building and investing in community-based mechanisms for safety, support, and prevention—rather than relying on the state’s system of militarised coercive power and discipline to control, confine, and kill those it deems problematic. There are steps, as Rachel Herzing sets out, that we can undertake today, tomorrow, next month, next year, and beyond to reduce our reliance on police, defund and dismantle the structures of the violent carceral state, and build alternative resources, responses, and networks.
It is also important to recognise and accept that there is no checklist with dates, deliverables, measurables. A common reaction to the call for the abolition of police is to demand that abolitionists show exactly what will happen if we make changes like the ones proposed by 8toabolition.com, to demonstrate exactly how it will work. But as Mariame Kaba said this last year in an interview with Chris Hayes from MSNBC, this isn’t possible. For hundreds of years our societies have invested in the carceral state, we have lived under white supremacy and patriarchy, we have been ruled by capitalism. To demand that people wanting to try something else, who have never received the resourcing or funding or the opportunity to try it a different way, to demand that they spell out a guaranteed roadmap of how to make it all work, is not possible.
If we had investments, resources, and willingness within our cities and communities to try alternatives, then we could start establishing some of the “roadmaps” that people are looking for. We can already learn from local and contextual practices—from sex workers, from activists working on alternative mental health response, from groups of survivors of sexual violence, etc. But we also need to imagine, together, what alternatives we need to invest in and how to build a different system.
In this same way, abolition of police will also mean that we need to let go of our instincts for punishment and retribution in response to harms caused. This requires, as Kandace Montgomery of Black Visions Collective says, the construction of life affirming institutions but also “ending the culture of punishment and instead stepping into addressing conflict with each other and within community” in nonviolent ways.
Mechanisms and processes of transformative justice will be addressed in a future article on incarceration in this series; but in short, transformative justice, like abolition, isn’t about finding one thing to replace the current system. As Ann Russo explains, it “asks us to develop accountability from the perspective of the person or group harmed, and within the context of a community, an organisation or another collective that could actively support a process of accountability.”
TransformHarm.org, a resource hub created by Mariame Kaba that focuses on alternatives to the carceral system, and Beyond Survival, an anthology that that looks at community-based approaches to preventing harm and repairing damage, are just two of many resources that outline the possibilities of a transformative justice approach. Key to this project is that rather than an individualist, adversarial system of justice, transformative justice seeks to build collective and communal support, intervention, and accountability. It is an approach that attends to the needs of those who have survived harm, but also seeks to allow space and provide resources for those who have committed harm to be accountable for their actions and change their behaviour.
The imperative of now
This is inevitably a long-term, ongoing project of change. But abolition is not just about the future: it needs to start now.
In this moment that we are currently experiencing, this moment of profound shifts in thinking and in action happening across the United States and around the world, it is important to recognise that we are already doing abolitionist work. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and during the recent protests, we have built and enriched mutual aid networks—models of community support learned from, among others, Indigenous, Black, and queer communities. People from all walks of life are coming together to care for each other physically and emotionally. Many of these acts of solidarity and support are being documented through independent media like Unicorn Riot; much of it will never be recorded. But it is happening, and it shows what more we can do.
It also shows the urgency of the issue. The police continue to kill Black people in the streets and in their own homes. Meanwhile, our tax dollars continue to go towards funding the police instead of being invested in any of the initiatives that would help prevent the conditions that lead to “crime” and violence. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, while health care workers have had not access to protective gear and there have been vast shortages of Intensive Care Unit beds over the past several months, it seems that US cities somehow had enough money to pay cops overtime and fly helicopters over protests nonstop for weeks.
We also need to be aware that there have already been pushbacks against the efforts to defund and abolish police. Police departments in some of the cities where actions are underway have denounced mayoral or city council decisions to reduce police budgets, with the LAPD union even accusing the LA mayor of “losing his mind”. Meanwhile other cities have announced budget increases for police; Chicago has announced it will invest $1.2 million taxpayer dollars into private security companies.
The US already spends about $100 billion annually on policing, according to a recent report from the Center for Popular Democracy. In some cities, policing takes up between 30–60 per cent of the entire annual budget. In the midst of COVID-19, cities across the country are facing big budget cuts. This is a moment for people across the country to demand changes to what we collectively prioritise: the well-being of all people, or the profits of a privileged few. The momentum for police abolition has begun and must be supported now. This is an unprecedented opportunity to finally undertake decisions and actions that will support real structural change, rather than tinkering around the edges of a system of violence and oppression.
Activist Kenyon Farrow, who was a member and staff of Critical Resistance in the early 2000s, notes that back then, “Most ppl thought we were delusional at best. At worst ppl said we were destructive provocateurs for questioning the validity of police and the prison industrial complex. The lesson? Dream big. Keep working.”
Keep working we must. Because the bottom line is, what we have now is not working for the majority of people. What we have now is creating and reinforcing inequalities, violence, and harm. If we are serious about building a world that works for all, disarming and disbanding the “brothers in blue” by defunding and abolishing the police is an urgent imperative.