We live in a world of police, a society built around policing and that presumes their necessity. The world of police is one where those in power see the police as a one-size-fits-all solution for every social problem: poverty, mental health, a lack of opportunity, or inadequate afterschool or sports programs—just send in the police, and if that doesn’t work, send in some more. When you’re holding a hammer, as the old adage goes, everything looks like a nail.
The catch-22 of this world of police is that those communities where the police do the worst are the same ones where safety is most needed, where entire sectors of the population are excluded from the formal workforce and left to hustle or starve, where poverty and mental health create a permanent feedback loop of crisis, and where there isn’t always anyone else to call. But these are also the communities most in need of radical solutions. Without alternatives, it’s difficult to tell people—especially those most marginalized and vulnerable—to simply stop calling the police on principle. People in physical danger, women and others in abusive relationships, families with loved ones suffering dangerous mental health crises—rich and poor, Black and white, people of all backgrounds call the police every single day because they have no one else to call.
And yet, as we will see, the police don’t actually help. They don’t prevent violence, and they don’t make any measurable contribution to public safety. If anything, what the police are most adept at is eating up billions of dollars in resources that could be repurposed to build truly secure communities. The police have wormed their way into the very foundations of American society and work every day to make themselves—and their bloated budgets—seem indispensable.
As a metaphor, think of cities built around highways and cars, where it’s often difficult to walk or take public transit anywhere. So too are we accustomed to navigating a world where policing is built right into the structure of everyday life. The task of undoing these kinds of structural arrangements, putting an entire society in reverse, can seem overwhelming. It’s no small job to tear the whole foundation from beneath a building, much less to reconstruct it anew. But to paraphrase novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, while the power of the police can seem inescapable, “so did the divine right of kings.” Once upon a time there were no cops, and that day is coming again soon.
Abolition is not simply an against, however: it is also a for. As daunting as it is to imagine and begin to build a world without police, it is precisely in the simultaneity of these two tasks that the new world comes into focus. Despite its name, abolition approaches the task of dismantling oppressive institutions as an active process of rebuilding new and more human alternatives. “Abolition is about presence, not absence,” in the words of the radical geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore: “It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” Abolition is about laying a new foundation under, around, and in the cracks of the old world until the old foundation is no more. It is this double move, and the dynamic relation between the two parts—the negative and the positive—that scholar-activist Angela Davis gestures toward when she speaks of making prisons “obsolete.”
Fighting against mass incarceration means building alternatives to prison, and insofar as these alternatives exist and the conditions underpinning the prison-industrial complex recede, the carceral state will wither away. As with prisons, so too with their handmaidens, the police: as organizer and educator Mariame Kaba has put it: “We are not abandoning our communities to violence. We don’t want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete.”
This double task has been a part of abolitionist movements from the beginning, because the abolition of slavery has always meant more than the mere elimination of a single institution. Intuitively, we know this to be true. We know the Thirteenth Amendment wasn’t enough without the citizenship, equal protection, and suffrage conferred by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. We know that abolition wasn’t only about the vote, either, but about those educational and material transformations that would make Black votes matter. We know that abolitionists demanded not only emancipation but also the economic reparations denoted by the phrase “forty acres and a mule.” We know, in short, that the brief period of post–Civil War reckoning that in some states saw self-rule by the Black majority was called Reconstruction for a reason.
For W.E.B. Du Bois, the dyad of abolition and Reconstruction marked out the most important moment in US history—“an eternal second in a cycle of a thousand years,” whose failures and lessons ring deafeningly in our ears today. His magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, showed how in its most radical moments, Reconstruction sought to build a society not just of political equality, but of social equality as well. Reconstruction governments pioneered public welfare for the poor and a public school system; created orphanages, schools for the deaf and blind, and mental hospitals; halted debt collection and abolished debtors’ prisons; distributed land, expanded women’s rights, and eliminated property restrictions on voting—extending the franchise to even many poor whites as well.
These were accomplishments that preceded and rivaled those of the Paris Commune, and this experiment, what Du Bois called “abolition democracy,” promised a better society for everyone. Abolition democracy “went beyond” simply abolishing slavery because mere political equality “was no logical stopping place; and it looked forward to civil and political rights, education and land, as the only complete guarantee of freedom, in the face of a dominant South which hoped from the first, to abolish slavery only in name.”
Even then, freedom was far from guaranteed. Black Southerners could not defend their vote with votes alone, and within a few years the material force of Black freedom was defeated by the equally material force of white terror and the Ku Klux Klan. Reconstruction was crushed, and if this was the supreme tragedy of American history, it was a tragedy for everyone the world over: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery,” and as a direct consequence, “the whole weight of America was thrown to color caste.” Global war and imperialism divided and destroyed working-class movements, Du Bois concluded, because poor whites continued to choose their race over their class: “The plight of the white working class throughout the world today is directly traceable to Negro slavery in America.”
We find ourselves where we are today because the abolition of slavery after the Civil War was incomplete and one-sided— because it failed to create the kind of world necessary for slavery to really, truly cease to exist. This was not for lack of trying, however: abolishing institutions is far easier than reconstructing the world that upholds them, and many a struggle since has stumbled and stalled on the level of the formal. As a consequence, instead of forty acres and a mule there was sharecropping; instead of freedom there was convict leasing, “Black codes,” Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. In short, instead of true abolition, we got the police.
For Angela Davis, the question of abolition democracy gets right to the heart of the dual and unfinished tasks of abolition and reconstruction today, which are not only, or not even primarily, about abolition as a negative process of tearing down, but it is also about building up, about creating new institutions . . . Du Bois pointed out that in order to fully abolish the oppressive conditions produced by slavery, new democratic institutions would have to be created. Because this did not occur; black people encountered new forms of slavery—from debt peonage and the convict lease system to segregated and second-class education. The prison system continues to carry out this terrible legacy.
Abolition democracy points not only to the failures of Reconstruction, however, but to its radically transformative potential as well. Abolition democracy means that who participates in political life changes how democracy functions and what alternatives become possible as a result. It’s about the kind of democracy that comes into view when white supremacy is in retreat, and the fact that the participation of the most exploited, oppressed, and excluded leaves no structure of inequality intact.
“Democracy died save in the hearts of black folk,” wrote Du Bois in 1935, and today, movements for Black liberation are once again setting the world into motion in ever more democratic directions.
If the flames that leapt up in Minneapolis cast police abolition suddenly into the mainstream imagination, these embers have been smoldering for centuries. From the very beginning, abolitionists have been stubborn agitators, zealots, and fanatics of the best sort who saw no room for compromise with the inhumanity of slavery and no way to reform away its evils. They drew a hard line between good and evil, demanding Americans pick a side— are you with humanity or with the slave masters? At first, they were a tiny minority in a society that largely viewed slavery as natural, but within a few short years, abolitionist ideas went from fringe heresy to mainstream common sense. This shift didn’t always— or even primarily— occur through reasoned argument and patient debate, but by unpredictable leaps and bounds and through the boldness and daring of Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, John Brown, and so many other rebels and insurrectionists.Instead of true abolition, we got the police.
Thanks to their struggles and sacrifices, few would consider slavery a natural institution today, but the same can’t be said of its carceral heirs: prisons and the police. When a group of scholars, activists, formerly incarcerated people and their families, and other community members got together to found Critical Resistance more than a century later, in 1997, nothing seemed more natural than the ballooning prison-industrial complex (PIC), and nothing could have seemed more impossible than demanding its total abolition. The 1994 Clinton crime bill had seen the establishment of a broad bipartisan consensus in support of the unrestrained use of policing and imprisonment as the only possible solutions to social problems. But thanks to the tenacity of Critical Resistance and other grassroots organizations, the intervening two decades have seen a sea change in public consciousness.
Today, amid a torrent of mea culpas from a Democratic Party leadership complicit in jailing its own electoral base, there is little question that mass incarceration is a “crisis” in need of radical solutions. While the prison population has declined in recent years, organizers from Critical Resistance are quick to insist that this work is far from over, and that we still live in a world of prisons to be dismantled and rebuilt on a different foundation: “Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people.” Since policing, like mass incarceration, has built our world in its own image, embedding and naturalizing the unnatural and inhuman, we can’t talk about abolition today without talking about the police as well.
Even before the emergence of the BLM movement, police abolition was beginning to gain steam. But it was the explosive resistance in the streets of Ferguson (2014) and Baltimore (2015), and the overwhelming military response, that propelled the question of the police squarely into the public eye. Movements once denounced for lacking a program soon found one, much to the chagrin of the powerful. The World without Police collective crystallized this emerging common sense by putting out a call for the three D’s: disempowering, disarming, and ultimately disbanding the police entirely. “You can’t reform a landmine,” they argue, “but you can dismantle it, destroy the factories that made it, and dissolve the governments and businesses that profit off of its existence.”
Halfhearted responses, reports, and reform proposals from Barack Obama’s Department of Justice seemed more concerned with containing Black rebellion than changing policing itself, and the questions left unanswered after Ferguson and Baltimore clamor for attention today with an unprecedented ferocity. While it shocked many to hear Chicago activist Jessica Disu insist on Fox News in 2016 that “we need to abolish the police, period,” this idea—along with her further insistence that “we need to come up with community solutions for transformative justice”—has, just a few years later, become common currency for many organizers. Thanks to the tireless agitation of abolitionists and the bravery of the rebels in the streets of Minneapolis and elsewhere, we stand today amid a swirling sea change much like that of mass incarceration a decade ago.
From A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete by Geo Maher. Used with the permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2021 by Geo Maher.