AuthorButler, Paul

BECOMING ABOLITIONISTS: POLICE, PROTESTS, AND THE PURSUIT OF FREEDOM. By Derecka Purnell. New York: Astra House. 2021. Pp. 288. Cloth, $28. Paper, $18.

PROGRESSIVE PROSECUTION: RACE AND REFORM IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE. Edited by Kim Taylor-Thompson and Anthony C. Thompson. New York: New York University Press. 2022. Pp. 312. $45.


Black women are guiding the future of the American criminal legal system. They are leaders of two divergent movements, one focused on reform and the other on radical transformation. Two recent books suggest the potential and limits of these movements--and the tensions between them. Each book centers the vital work of Black women, who too often are the unsung heroes of social justice movements. (1)

In the essays compiled by Kim Taylor-Thompson and Anthony C. Thompson (2) in Progressive Prosecution: Race and Reform in Criminal Justice, scholars and elected district attorneys make the case that prosecutors are integral to ending the racialized mass incarceration famously described by Michelle Alexander as "the New Jim Crow." (3) Derecka Purnell's Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom (4) is part autobiography and part manifesto for a country without prosecutors and police.

Both books were published during a time of significant attention to racism in the U.S. criminal legal system. The murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed in 2020 by Minneapolis police officers, set off a national reckoning on race (Taylor-Thompson and Thompson, p. 1). But women of color had already done much of the theorizing, organizing, and activism that laid the ground work--most notably, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Ayo Tometi, the founders of the Movement for Black Lives. (5) By the time of Floyd's murder, Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, published in 2010, had become one of the best-selling and most influential books on race of all time. (6)

The fact that Black women stand ready to lead change in the criminal legal system does not mean that they all agree on what that change should be, and how to accomplish it. The Black women whose stories we learn in Progressive Prosecution and Becoming Abolitionists appear to fall along traditional Left fault lines: liberal reformers versus radical disrupters, civil rights versus critical race theory, and Barack Obama versus Ta-Nehisi Coates. Thus, in Progressive Prosecution, reformers like the legal scholar Angela J. Davis (7) and Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx advocate for conviction review units and ending punishment for drug possession crimes. Purnell, in contrast, calls for the abolition not only of police and prosecutors, but also of capitalism.

Likewise, the diverse organizations and activists who make up the Movement for Black Lives have sometimes embraced strategies that can seem inconsistent. For example, the platform of the Movement for Black Lives states, "We believe we can achieve complete abolition and reimagination of current systems." (8) It calls for "an end to all jails, prisons, immigration detention, youth detention, and civil commitment facilities." (9) But some BLM chapter leaders have endorsed "progressive prosecutors" in local district-attorney elections. (10)

This Review explores ways of reconciling these apparent tensions through a Black feminist politics. It proceeds in three parts. Part I heralds the significance of Progressive Prosecution and Becoming Abolitionist for their respective social justice movements and critiques each for not doing even more. Part II highlights apparent tensions between the two books and more generally between the reformist and abolitionist movements. It then points to shared ground between the two books--the role of Black women and their lived experience in leading both movements. Part III draws on the history of Black feminist movements, particularly the Combahee River Collective, to imagine the potential of Black women leading the transformation of the American criminal legal system.


    On the surface, Progressive Prosecution and Becoming Abolitionists represent opposing approaches to addressing entrenched problems in the U.S. criminal legal system including mass incarceration, police brutality, and extraordinary race disparities. While this Review ultimately argues that the two are not irreconcilable, there is no doubt that the proponents of each movement diverge in their views in some deep and fundamental ways. Progressive Prosecution and Becoming Abolitionists are compelling and accessible surveys of and entry points into each movement.

    1. Progressive Prosecution: Race and Reform in Criminal Justice

      In the introduction to Progressive Prosecution, the book's editors--law professors Kim Taylor-Thompson and Anthony C. Thompson--explore the circumstances which led to the unprecedented public outcry for criminal justice reform that began in 2020 (Taylor-Thompson and Thompson, pp. 1-7). They suggest that George Floyd's death in May 2020 was a tipping point after a series of consecutive, widely publicized, racist incidents--including the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in February and March 2020, respectively, and the harassment of Christian Cooper, a Black ornithologist, by a white woman in Central Park in May 2020 (Taylor-Thompson and Thompson, pp. 2-3). According to the editors, these events exposed not only the targeting of Black and brown bodies in the United States by public and private actors but also the failure of prosecutors to obtain justice for individuals who are harmed in racist encounters (Taylor-Thompson and Thompson, pp. 2-7). As the authors highlight, prosecutors in both Arbery's and Cooper's cases initially failed to bring charges against the white perpetrators (Taylor-Thompson and Thompson, pp. 2-3). And local prosecutors in Taylor's case never charged any of the police officers responsible for her death. (11)

      This failure to hold accountable law enforcement officials who commit violence against people of color was hardly new in 2020. Taylor-Thompson and Thompson's theory is that the COVID-19 pandemic compelled white Americans to watch more closely: "[I]n ordinary times, the distractions of work or daily activities would likely have drawn their attention away from the video proof. But these were not ordinary times" (Taylor-Thompson and Thompson, p. 4). After Floyd's death, Taylor-Thompson and Thompson claim, with more hope than evidence, "something tectonic shifted in the country" (Taylor-Thompson and Thompson, p. 5). It's true that for a few months U.S. mainstream media covered police killings more frequently than it had before. But certainly there had been other times when police violence against Black people had garnered a lot of press attention and provoked broader dialogues about race relations, including in the 1990s when Los Angeles police officers beat up an unarmed Black driver named Rodney King and were later acquitted of criminal charges relating to the episode. (12) In the decade before Floyd's death, the killings by police officers of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott, among others, received extensive publicity. (13) Taylor-Thompson and Thompson's optimism that Floyd's murder created a "tectonic" shift is overstated. Indeed, a common refrain among activists post-Floyd is how they might convert the "moment" to a "movement," an implicit recognition that preceding "moments" had not resulted in significant change. (14)

      The thesis of Progressive Prosecution is succinctly stated in Thompson and Taylor-Thompson's introduction: in the quest to reform the criminal legal system, prosecutors "should have been the first to step up" but instead they "remained painfully silent" (Taylor-Thompson and Thompson, p. 6). Prosecutors wield enormous power in exercising their vast discretion about who to charge, and what crimes to charge. Thompson and Taylor-Thompson believe that prosecutors have the power to reform the system from within--if they can resolve their cozy ties to law enforcement and commit themselves to being "minister[s] of justice" for their entire community. (15) Thompson and TaylorThompson call for "robust" reform of the criminal legal system and state that each of the contributors to their edited volume "starts from the premise that the prosecution function should be the place where that reformation/re-formation begins" (Taylor-Thompson and Thompson, p. 7).

      Progressive Prosecution is an important and useful handbook for current and aspiring progressive prosecutors, and any citizen looking to hold their local district attorney accountable. (Taylor-Thompson and Thompson, p. 12). The anthology would have been even stronger if any of its contributors had seriously engaged the liberal or radical critiques of the progressive-prosecutor movement. (16) In contrast to Becoming Abolitionists, Progressive Prosecution exudes a "preaching to the choir" vibe that is unlikely to gain any new converts to its cause. The reality is that the main day-to-day work of prosecutors, progressive or otherwise, is locking people up--particularly people of color and poor people. As I have written elsewhere, "Adding up the costs of a lifetime of deprivation and then presenting the bill to the person who suffered it seems an odd job for a humanitarian." (17)

      On a more theoretical level, the Left critiques of the progressive-prosecutor movement also engage Audre Lorde's famous edict that "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" to suggest that prosecutors are incapable of eradicating systemic racism from inside the criminal legal process. (18) As I suggest below, I suspect that many of the contributors to Progressive Prosecution would mainly agree, but defend their project based on individual cases in which deserving defendants get breaks from progressive prosecutors that the defendants might not get from other prosecutors.

      I have had the honor...

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