With the protests still going strong, the calls to defund the police have been getting louder. Increasingly, they’ve been joined by demands to abolish the police and the racist institutions it enforces. While defunding the police has gained traction and substantial support, abolishing it has been met with more resistance and confusion. Many people are incapable of imagining a society without police officers to “protect and serve” the community, or prisons to punish criminals. But the current state of police and prisons is a comparatively recent development that was only established following the end of slavery.
As Angela Davis details in her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, the primary mode of punishment before prisons was corporal and public: most crimes were punished with torture conducted in public to warn onlookers about the dangers of transgression. But then came the Age of Enlightenment, when the idea of an individual’s rights to life, liberty, and freedom was becoming increasingly popular. Pushes for punishment reform grew, and so prisons were suggested; in theory, they’d confiscate one’s rights and encourage solitary reflection. The early imprisoned population consisted of predominantly white men, who were usually free to leave and return to the prison as they saw fit. While in the prison, they were typically in solitary confinement, an environment allegedly best suited for silent reflection and religious reform. It’s important to know that though solitary confinement—now known as one of the worst forms of torture, though still widely used in prisons—was a celebrated form of “civilized” punishment, it did face criticism, even from Charles Dickens.
Once slavery was abolished, there was a sudden and intense need for cheap labor to facilitate the white economy. To satisfy this need, a police force (which was just an evolved form of the slave patrol) was formed and laws prohibiting unemployment, homelessness, and “loitering” were passed. The police quickly began arresting newly freed Black people they found violating these arbitrary, fickle laws and sent them to prisons, where they were forced to work for hours on end. Soon, it became normal practice for those imprisoned to be leased out to companies in need of labor, and convict laborers were instrumental in rebuilding the post-war South. According to Are Prisons Obsolete?, prisoners weren’t seen as “property” the way slaves had been, and were sometimes cared for even less and would work with almost no food and no rest. Some were known to just literally drop dead during a day’s work. Very quickly, an institution that was intended to rehabilitate perpetrators became a tool by which white capitalists profited off the labor of imprisoned people. Prisons became the new plantations, and to this day they function in the same manner—just look at how many brands depend on the slave labor of imprisoned people.
Demands for prison abolition were made as early as the 1940s with W.E.B. Dubois’ book Black Reconstruction, and the works of Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore have furthered the discussion surrounding it. Because of these abolitionists’ writings, the movement has become a driving force at the current protests. Today, the movement has never been so widely heard nor its demands so popularly embraced. When people say “abolish the police,” they don’t mean reimagining or reforming the police; they mean the complete eradication of the police state, both globally and domestically. This means the dismantling of the prison industrial complex, the end of immigrant criminalization (bye, ICE!), the end of prisons and jails as solutions, the termination of all police departments, and a complete demilitarization of our country. Abolition means you don’t believe in putting people in cages. While it may seem daunting at first, just remember that corporations profit from building and selling supplies to prisons, and the police facilitate this prison economy by enforcing immoral laws passed by politicians who want to prove how “tough on crime” they are. This reality has continued to prevail because the media glorifies the police and vilifies “criminals,” thus embedding the dichotomy of “savior cops” and “bad criminals” into our collective conscience.
Besides, in actuality, imagining a society without policing doesn’t take much imagining at all. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it, police have essentially been defunded and abolished in white suburbs. In White America, police are rarely, if ever, called—and if they are it’s more often than not to report a “suspicious-looking” Black person. Abolitionists want a world where structures that benefit white people at the expense of Black people are dismantled.
With an abolitionist approach, neighborly disagreements would be settled within the community. Any instances of “illegal business” (such as theft or drug-dealing) would be resolved not by vindicating the person engaging in these activities, but instead by looking at their reason for doing so, which is usually a lack of resources. An abolitionist approach would entail meeting the person’s needs for food, shelter, etc. so they wouldn’t have to participate in harmful behaviors. Instead of criminalizing people with drug addictions, they would be sent to comprehensive rehabilitation centers. If someone were in the midst of a mental health crisis, they would be directed to a free, intensive mental health facility. Women who murder their abusers would be given resources and support rather than an unforgiving sentence. If someone were speeding, a traffic expert who wasn’t armed would report it. The list goes on. So many of our current societal problems could be solved by funding community-based organizations that are much better equipped to identify root causes of criminal behavior instead of turning to a punitive justice system that simply discards individuals it arbitrarily deems problematic or disruptive.
But what about the murderers, rapists, and school shooters? Unfortunately, people are murdered, raped, and shot even within our prison industrial society. In fact, most cops are murderers and very rarely are rapists ever convicted. As for mass shootings, those usually end with the police doing nothing, and the shooter either committing suicide or exiting the building following an evacuation. Even then, the mass shooter is often treated with more leniency than an unarmed Black person. The prison system isn’t meant to protect the public from actual threats, but instead is designed to imprison Black and brown people for nonviolent offenses. Abolition doesn’t only entail the abolition of the police and the structures that mandate it, but also the destruction of white supremacy and capitalism. Under these oppressive systems, there are no gun laws restricting the sale of guns to dangerous shooters.There’s a systemic entitlement to others’ bodies, and there are no mental health services available to people showing violent tendencies. Capitalism relies on the subjugation of low-income Black and brown people, and the criminal justice system is a direct reflection of that.
An abolitionist society can’t happen overnight. It would require a rebuilding of our education system—a comprehensive curriculum of how the Western world’s colonial empires continue to perpetuate systemic racism. It would require the liberation of Black cis and trans women from the oppressive misogynoir and homophobia within their own communities in addition to their freedom from a white supremacist society. It would require a more egalitarian society where everyone, especially Black and brown people, have their basic needs of shelter, food, and water met. Ideally, there’d even be a universal basic income. Nobody said it’d be easy, and there’s no singular answer on how to achieve this, but for all Black lives to matter, we have to consistently aim for this outcome. Anything less will make more permanent a world that profits off the subjugation and exploitation of Black people.
Resources to Check Out
Are Prisons Obsolete? By Angela Davis
Podcast: Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition
The Socialist Case Against the Police: Part 1 & Part 2
Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police
By Modesty Sanchez
Photo by Erik McGregor