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Abolition Through the Ages: Reform Versus Transformation, Then and Now

Just as slavery couldn’t be reformed and had to be ended, policing can’t be reformed and has to be abolished, say leaders of modern-day abolitionist movements.

The mass protests that broke out across the United States in 2020 ushered in a new wave of nationwide activism against state violence—specifically police killings of Black and Brown people—with a majority of the public, at least initially, embracing the basic tenet that Black lives matter. Now, a newly awakened generation of activists, incensed by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others are demanding a change to policing. The efforts they’re exploring range from minor reforms all the way to the abolition of policing and prisons.

By definition, abolition is a rejection of reformist approaches to improving policing. “Reforms make police polite managers of inequality,” human rights lawyer Derecka Purnell wrote in a 2020 article in The Atlantic, explaining the reason for her recent transformation into an advocate of police abolition. “Abolition makes police and inequality obsolete.”

And advocates for abolition literally mean just that.

“Our charge is to make imagining liberation under oppression completely thinkable, to really push ourselves to think beyond the normal in order for us to be able to address the root causes of people’s suffering,” organizer, educator, and author Mariame Kaba writes in her book We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice.

Project NIA, where Kaba is the executive director, is among a growing crop of organizations embracing the tenets of abolition. Project NIA (nia, which means purpose in Swahili) takes aim at youth incarceration and the juvenile justice system. It has adopted the slogan “community over confinement” and is redefining the idea of justice and security as relying “on community-based safety responses” rather than policing and incarceration.

Other groups supporting abolition include 8toAbolition, which centers its work on the idea that, “We believe in a world where there are zero police murders because there are zero police”; MPD 150, which describes itself as a “community-based initiative challenging the narrative that police exist to protect and serve”; and No Cop Academy, a campaign endorsed by numerous organizations, targeting a massive police training program.

Critical Resistance is one of the oldest groups embracing the abolition of prisons and police. Co-founded in 1998 by notable abolitionists Angela Davis, Ruthie Gilmore, and Dylan Rodriguez, it has “the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.”

In an interview, Rodriguez, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California, explains that it is a mistake to see law enforcement as “part of a criminal justice and policing apparatus exclusively.” Instead, he views carceral and policing systems as tools of war—war against people of color and Black people specifically. Rodriguez maintains that those “who are policed by anti-Black state violence are … casualties of a generally one-sided structure of normalized warfare.”

Parallels between historical movements to abolish slavery and the contemporary struggles to abolish modern-day policing are rooted in the similarities between slavery and policing. Some analysts have reframed the institution of American slavery as a historic state-sponsored war on African Americans just as modern critics like Rodriguez and others have cast policing as a war on Black people.

Viewed through such a lens, the contemporary manifestation of law enforcement—which stemmed from “slave patrols”—might be seen as an extension of this historical state-sponsored war. Indeed, the disproportionate arrest, brutalization and incarceration of African Americans today underscores the parallels between then and now.

Abolitionists of the past were not in universal agreement about how to end the war of slavery, and there were cleavages within the movements along racial lines. The Library of Congress’ section on “The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship,” explains that while Black and White abolitionists worked alongside each other to end slavery, their demands differed in significant ways because “[B]lack Americans tended to couple anti-slavery activities with demands for racial equality and justice.”

Today, there are echoes of those transformative Black-led historic demands in the Movement for Black Lives’ vision for change, which is an explicitly broad call for justice. That vision includes reparations, economic justice, and political power.

Abolitionist movements against modern policing see a split similar to their historic counterparts between reformist and transformational approaches. Campaigns like #8CantWait are pushing for short-term policy changes, such as bans on chokeholds, which organizers believe will immediately reduce police brutality. But, as veterans of abolition movements of prison and policing have noted, reforms have been tried and have simply not worked.

Although Rodriguez delights in the fact that more people than ever are embracing abolitionist viewpoints on policing, he worries about expropriation by the “abolition-curious.” Rodriguez says he’s even seen some people take to using the term “incremental abolitionism,” which he sees as ultimately “counter-abolitionist.”

Rodriguez decries the fact that even among those who have embraced the idea of “defunding the police,” there is a reformist tendency to see law enforcement as a necessary, if less important, part of society. “There is a kind of stubborn loyalty,” he says, to viewing law enforcement and incarceration as among those “forms of power that actually provide social order.”

Like their historic counterparts, Rodriguez and other abolitionists want to broaden the currently accepted mainstream definition of justice and security. There are persistent systems of discrimination in access to food, housing, health, and education along racial lines, and yet governments at every level—federal, state, and local—have often invested more heavily in policing and incarceration. Those investments only serve to reproduce the historic power dynamics this nation has seen in centuries past between enslavers and those enslaved.

Instead, says Rodriguez, the idea of “security,” which is what we are told policing and the carceral system provides, needs to be redefined to include basic needs such as housing and food security, health and emotional security, and recreational and educational security.

“If you look at the long history of abolitionist movements,” he says, “that’s in part what people were struggling for.”

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