Police Abolitionism: A Marxist Critique.

AuthorRyan, Howard


US police violence and high-profile cases such as the killing of George Floyd have triggered a grassroots movement that calls for defunding and abolishing police, abolishing prisons, and more. This movement, in turn, is guided by a broad-scope ideology known simply as abolition, which draws on the black radical tradition, feminism, and Marxism. Without minimizing the many achievements of the abolition movement, the article brings a Marxist scrutiny to the ideology and to its posture on policing. It raises analytic questions of materialism and idealism and of how social change is imagined by abolitionists and suggests the need for a broad rethinking of policing and public safety issues by the left.


IN THE WAKE OF GEORGE Floyd's MURDER AND THE ATTENDANT Uprising of summer 2020, the call to defund the police became part of a national and global conversation. Whereas elected officials sought police reform, as in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act sought by Democrats in Congress, grassroots activists demanded police defunding and that moneys be rerouted to social programs. (1) Moreover, the rising movement regarded police defunding as an interim step toward police abolition, linked to a broader abolitionist social vision inspired by scholar-activists Angela Davis (2005; see also Davis et al. 2022) and Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2022, 2023).

The present essay, though acknowledging the impressive contributions of the police and prison abolition movement, calls into question its strategy and theoretic framework, with particular attention to the US movement. The essay does not provide an alternative remedy for police violence and abuse; to rely on conventional police reform is clearly not the answer, as the abolitionists point out. The conclusion does speculate on potential new directions, but what is needed more generally is a broad, exploratory conversation among activists, scholars, and communities.

Abolition as a Social Movement and Ideology

Police abolition is inseparable from an emerging social movement and ideology known simply as abolition. Abolition seeks to end the "prison-industrial complex" and envisions a new society based on economic justice and alternatives to racial capitalism (Gilmore 2023). The ideology and its police abolition component are both examined here; another major component, prison abolition, will not be examined in order to keep the paper's scope manageable. But generally, prison abolition is a less controversial part of this terrain and does not generate the same public safety debates raised by abolition's posture on policing. In practical terms, the current policy agenda of prison abolition--toward reducing carcerality and criminalization--is largely consonant with that of allied non-abolitionist work (e.g., Bazelon 2020, Kubrin & Seron 2016, Natapoff 2018, Travis et al. 2014).

The abolition movement reflects a vitally needed grassroots voice against problematic historic trends for which the United States is the effective global leader. These trends include (1) the quadrupling of US incarceration rates since the 1960s (Travis et al. 2014); (2) the persistence of US police violence, with official reforms fading to quell the nation's roughly one thousand fatal police shootings per year since 2015 (Washington Post, n.d.), a figure far higher than in comparator countries; 2 and (3) the sharply racial nature of US mass incarceration and police violence, with disproportionate impact on communities of color and above all on black men (Davis 2018).

The achievements of the US abolition movement over the past two decades include various victories against prison expansion (Gilmore 2007), electing progressive prosecutors (Bazelon 2020), fomenting change on the policing front (President's Task Force 2015), and the building of anti-racist awareness in schools and communities (Jones & Hagopian 2020). Abolition as both a political ideology and social movement has, in the post-Floyd era, also gained an enthusiastic endorsement on the US left, and this extends beyond abolitionist groups such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Critical Resistance. Thus, the 100,000-member Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) 2021 platform affirms a commitment to the "horizon of abolition" and calls for cutting police budgets annually "toward zero." (3) Leading left publishers such as Haymarket and Verso boast growing collections of abolitionist titles. Abolition is similarly well received in progressive scholarly journals like Social Justice and has gained a foothold in some progressive-minded academic institutions. (4) Whereas the movement's deepest base lies in the United States, it has gained traction elsewhere including in Canada (Pasternak et al. 2022) and the United Kingdom. (5)

The US movement struck a solid chord in summer 2020, when an estimated 15 to 26 million Americans, outraged at the fatal choking of Floyd and by other police killings, hit the streets to insist that black lives matter. (6) Yet the movement's proposed remedies did not resonate nearly as well. Polls showed strong public support for police reform--an avenue that abolitionists largely reject--and little support for police defunding (Crabtree 2020, Saad 2020). In a Gallup poll of late June/early July 2020, 86 percent of Americans and 81 percent of black Americans wanted police to spend either the same amount of time or more time in their area (Saad 2020).

It is not the task of the left to necessarily follow the sentiments of the masses, who, after all, may be wrong. An effective left, however, must engage with the masses; it must listen well and learn and then shape its platform and strategy accordingly. To what extent does the abolition movement engage communities in this manner? As a black-led movement, to what extent does it engage the larger black community for whom it aspires to speak? And has the wider left, by aligning itself with abolition, truly aligned with working people and working-class concerns about crime and public safety? These are just a few of many vital questions that are worth asking about abolition--just as similar questions should be asked about any cause in which we engage or any ideology that we embrace.

Emergence of the Davis Model

In the 1970s, abolition primarily meant prison abolition. The movement at that time found expression in the advocacy of Quaker and other religious activists in North America along with prisoner and community groups and scholars in Norway, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. In 1983, these cohorts gathered in Toronto for the first International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) (Finateri & Saleh-Hanna 2000; see also West & Morris 2000). The members of ICOPA sought to roll back and eventually abolish prisons and all forms of carcerality. They sought to shift away from concepts of crime and criminality, insisting that harm between persons is best handled through peaceful and humane modes of reconciliation. ICOPA would go on to meet biennially, most recently in London in 2018.

The US-based abolition movement, which is part of the ICOPA network, has assumed its own unique character over the past two decades with police abolition an increasing part of its purview. What may be called the Davis abolition model--Angela Davis being "abolition's principal theorist and best-known practitioner" (Gilmore 2014, vii)--gained a strong launch at "Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison-Industrial Complex," a well-attended conference at Berkeley, California, in 1998. This was organized by Critical Resistance, a group that Davis and Gilmore helped found the prior year. The Davis model would expand its reach with a stronger focus on policing when the abolitionist BLM movement was catapulted forward by the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, triggered by the police killing of Michael Brown (Ransby 2018).

Davis's abolitionism (see Davis et al. 2022) joins ICOPA values with a leftist mass organizing orientation and borrowings from the black radical tradition, feminism, identity politics, and Marxism. The model's centerpiece, as articulated in Davis's (2005) Abolition Democracy, consists of a connecting line running from slavery abolition to prison abolition to black liberation to socialism. Here, Davis draws on sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois's major work, Black Reconstruction (1935/1998). Du Bois, Davis (2005, 95-96) explains, understood that slavery could not be truly abolished until former slaves were provided with the economic means for their subsistence:

They also needed access to educational institutions and needed to claim voting and other political rights ... Du Bois thus argues that a host of democratic institutions are needed to fully achieve abolition--thus abolition democracy. Davis (2005, 96-97) then connects that history to today's mass incarceration and the need for comprehensive remedies:

Prisons have thrived over the last century precisely because of the absence of those resources and the persistence of some of the deep structures of slavery. They cannot, therefore, be eliminated unless new institutions and resources are made available to those communities that provide, in large part, the human beings that make up the prison population. Davis (2005, 103) also brings to abolition a socialist dimension:

We need to insist on different criteria for democracy: substantive as well as formal rights, the right to be free of violence, the right to employment, housing, healthcare, and quality education. In brief, socialist, rather than capitalist conceptions of democracy. Davis's historic trajectory provides US abolition its essential foundation, upon which are added various other themes and ideas. One core theme as described by McLeod (2015, 1225) is justice reinvestment, "strengthening the social (rather than the criminal) arm of the state." This finds expression in the Invest-Divest policy platform of the national BLM coalition, Movement for Black Lives (M4BL): "We demand...

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