Police Abolition as Community Struggle against State Violence.

AuthorDobchuk-Land, Bronwyn

PRISON AND PENAL ABOLITIONISTS HAVE MADE NUMEROUS CONTRIBUTIONS to critical criminology. Penal abolition focuses on the abolition of prisons as well as a broader set of punitive sanctions (Baldry et al. 2015; Brown & Schept 2017; Carrier & Piche 2015,2019; Coyle & Schept 2018; Davis 2003; McLeod 2015). Penal abolition discussions have a long history in some European countries (Mathiesen 1986), and literature that follows in this tradition is expanding in Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere (Morris 1995).The European academic abolitionist tradition has tended to focus on imprisonment. However, the recent social movement focused on police abolition has a distinct scholar-activist genealogy that has been somewhat overlooked by academics who identify with the European abolitionist tradition. The Black feminist abolitionist tradition, rooted in decades of work to confront interconnected forms of state and interpersonal violence, has laid the groundwork for current calls to divest from policing and invest in noncarceral community safety and self-defense strategies (Richie 2012, Ritchie 2017). The transformative roadmap charted by this tradition calls for radical changes in the way we create community safety and well-being, which requires the abolition of policing and imprisonment.

Debates about public police abolition have soared to prominence along with struggles for justice led by Critical Resistance and Black Lives Matter, especially since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. The advances made by social movement organizing to defund police challenge abolitionist traditions to more thoroughly theorize the centrality of policing to the penal system. While prisons and jails do exert control over the people they confine, the pains of imprisonment and criminalization often originate in policing. Public police have extraordinary powers of criminalization and force, and they are "the core power of the state" (Lynch 2018; Seigel 2018,26). Businesses and private developers rely on police to help establish environments conducive to consumption (Camp & Heatherton 2016). Public police are entrenched in all nation-states across the globe and are interconnected with military and imperialist operations (Schrader 2019). Police unions are powerful and police bureaucracy is embedded in the state. Public police have also been known to suppress critics (Mutsaers & van Nuenen 2018, Shantz 2012).

Adding to the literature on police abolition (McDowell & Fernandez 2018) and proposing a bridge between the European penal abolition tradition and social movement organizing informed by the US Black feminist abolitionist tradition, we describe some of what a movement organized around demands to defund and abolish the police has to offer in terms of the theoretical and practical advancement of strategies and goals. First, we engage with existing work on police abolition, tracing the history of present demands to defund police. We consider how the Black feminist abolitionist tradition differs from other approaches including the European abolitionist tradition in its methods and focus. Second, we offer three arguments for police abolition that illustrate how Black (and Indigenous) feminist traditions inform social movements against policing. This sphere of thinking is dynamic at the time of our writing--there are new reflections on strategy and dispatches from the front fines of organizing every week. We emphasize some of the ways this tradition has remained dynamic through its grounding in praxis. We illustrate how budgetary analysis has been used as a tool for abolitionist organizing, revealing police spending as a significant source of fiscal drain and a strategic target for local political intervention. We demonstrate how the scholar-activist abolitionist tradition has tied together the twin demands for divestment from policing and investment in community capacities for survival, self-defense, and insurgent safety. We also describe how the Black feminist commitment to ending both state and interpersonal violence has informed a refusal to exceptionafize individual acts of police brutality, instead focusing on the institution of policing itself as a source of violence and neglect. We argue that there is a connection to be made here with criminological literature on social harm. A focus on the social harm of policing draws attention to the long-term consequences of public policing and criminalization for communities (many of which are already subject to multiple forms of oppression). We conclude by illustrating how decades of abolitionist analysis and organizing have provided an index of strategies and demands leading to concrete wins. This work confirms the importance of the scholar-activist tradition and its history of avoiding co-optation, and it illustrates that the only just route to decreasing violence and harm in our communities requires the abolition of police and prisons.

Police Abolition: Context, Debates, and Praxis

Academic abolitionism in the field of criminology focuses attention on prison abolition and the abolition of state capacities to punish. There are some exceptions in a growing number of criminology scholars who draw attention to the need for police abolition. Dilts (2017) argues that criminal justice is too narrowly defined as legal justice. Justice must be reconceived not in terms of negative punishment but as an active quest for freedom. The drive to improve the prison, the court, and the police is bound to fail, as these dominant institutions are all predicated on negative punishment. Seigel (2017,484) draws attention to police racism and the need for police abolition, arguing that "abolition of the police must take place, of course in the context of an overall move towards the abolition of prisons, for otherwise police will simply be replaced by another mechanism of control." For McLeod (2015), police abolition is an ethics and politics that calls for harm to be addressed in ways that do not involve police or punitive sanction. (1) McDowell and Fernandez (2018) argue that the focus of social movements and critique should be on disarming, disempowering, and disbanding public police. They advance strategies for deepening the current legitimacy crisis of public police (see also Brown 2019, Fernandez 2019). Much work on police abolition has appeared in more accessible mediums including magazines (Dukmasova 2016, Martin 2014, Meares 2017, Purnell 2017, Stewart 2016). These critiques have been extended not only to local and state police but national police agents including US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers.

Making an abolitionist argument within a criminological framework, Vitale (2017) demonstrates that police are not effective in dealing with what they contend they address, which is law breaking. If clearance rates or crime rates are used as an index, they have utterly failed. Public police overlook many forms of transgression, focusing on the transgressions of poor people, while dedicating little energy to white-collar and corporate malfeasance (Coyle 2018). Public police concern themselves with only a fragment of what the state calls crime, which draws attention to the political nature of law and policing practices (Correia & Wall 2018, Gordon 2006).

The necessity of police is a myth based on the idea that police can be held accountable (Vitale 2017). Other policing myths are that police provide safety, that police fight crime, that police are community based, and that police malfeasance is the result of bad apples (Crank 1994).The liberal myth of a benevolent police is unmasked when historicized, as the origin of most policing is in the defense of private property and the propertied classes and many so-called police services have roots in colonial conquest.

Much critical theorizing about policing comes from scholars of racism and colonialism. Public police have been elemental to settler colonialism in Canada and the United States. In the context of settler colonies like Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, the distinction between military and police occupation is constantly blurred (Neocleous 2014, Shantz 2016). The number of people that police in the United States kill every year is staggering (Butler 2018, Williams 2015), and racial profiling is a core feature of police work. In Canada, policing has been central to the history of state-sanctioned violence against Black people (Maynard 2017, Owusu-Bempah & Gabbidon 2020) and the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous people. Indigenous peoples, Black Canadians, Indo Canadians and other groups are racially profiled in Canada in ways that parallel the United States (Wortley & Owusu-Bempah 2011). While the histories of Black enslavement, Indigenous dispossession, and the regulation of Black and Brown people through criminalization and border controls varies across national contexts, police are consistently at the forefront of enforcing white supremacist visions of security.

Vitale (2017) argues that police racism and the failure to provide protection offer sufficient reason to contemplate a world without policing. While it is true that policing in general does not prevent violence or provide safety, these facts alone are not enough to produce social change. In addition to collecting evidence of the harms of policing, abolition demands strategies for intervening in the systems and ideas that sustain policing and punishment and that foreclose possibilities for justice and equitable models of community safety.

One way to make sense of the leap from analysis to intervention is to examine differences between the European academic abolitionist tradition, which has tended to focus on imprisonment and punishment, and the US scholar-activist abolitionist tradition, which, with its wider focus on state violence and transformative justice, has laid the groundwork for the current social movement...

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