Toward the Abolitionist Horizon

I was in high school in 2014 when Michael Brown was murdered by the Ferguson Police Department.

As Black Lives Matter became a powerful protest movement nationwide, my white suburban neighbors started putting up “We Support Our Local Police” lawn signs. People I had thought were my friends spoke about the protesters in a language I didn’t recognize. I began to research more, and it quickly seemed obvious to me: the police were racist, and we needed to do something about it. I got into arguments with people who accused me of being anti-police. I tried to defend myself at the time by saying that no, I wasn’t opposed to the police in general, obviously we need the police, but the police needed to be reformed.

As the years passed, I realized that what I was witnessing in police behavior was no aberration. This is who they really are. I watched my liberal classmates and acquaintances at my university twist themselves into knots trying to defend the actions of campus security and local police when they harassed and assaulted Black students and community members. I saw that the police were not making my community safe. Years of struggle and organizing within reform circles led me to the same conclusion that many others have reached: true safety will come when we can abolish the police.

Derecka Purnell’s Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom  is the book I wish I could have read all those years ago when I watched Ferguson burn on CNN from my dinner table. The book is, first and foremost, an invitation to Purnell’s journey through a lifetime of struggle against the racist police state. Purnell herself has been involved in various forms of organizing, from providing legal assistance to the oppressed to grassroots organizing for criminal legal reform. She guides us through various events in her life on her path to becoming an abolitionist. She deftly layers her lived experiences with theory, history, and analysis, showing us precisely why abolition is so crucial to her organizing.

Purnell recognizes and responds to the critiques from abolition skeptics throughout the book. Many people, in good and bad faith, bring up “What about murderers and rapists?” when they first hear about police abolition. But Purnell shows that even now society doesn’t answer those questions adequately. What about murderers and rapists? What about the fact that most murders and rapes go unsolved by police, and that cops themselves are responsible for many murders and sexual assaults? The current system doesn’t stop murders and sexual assaults. What it does do is disappear the problem for the people at the very top. We don’t stop to ask why murders and assaults are happening. Abolition is two pronged: absence and presence—the absence of structural violence and the presence of structural healing and care. If we want to stop murders and rapes from happening, we must take the time to understand why people commit these vile acts and we must resolve the conditions that produce them by building a society of care. She notes that many liberals and progressives generally make guns the site of attention for violence, but again, but the gun control we see is just carceral gun control. To truly stop gun violence, we need to get to the roots of the violence and build trust and support within our communities. This is not a hypothetical proposal; Purnell points us to various examples of grassroots community organizations working on violence interruption and conflict resolution within their communities.

Some critics claim that by focusing so heavily on police, abolitionists will turn white working-class people off from supporting the Left. Purnell reminds us that police are not a neutral institution that simply contains some individual bad actors. The function of the police has always been to protect the ruling class from the masses. Who gets called in to break strikes? Who evicts working people from their homes? Who does the ruling class call when the masses protest? Who infiltrates and demobilizes Left projects? The police. Abolition is fundamental to the success of any socialist project in the United States because the police are a powerful political institution that is routinely mobilized to stop progressive advances.

The battle against police violence is not just a domestic one. Purnell reminds us that the ruling classes of many nation-states work together to use the police to suppress their respective working classes. The United States supplies arms and has joint training operations with Israel, Brazil, and South Africa, among many others. Abolition requires us to think internationally about how the global capitalist regime perpetuates violence to uphold its power. We can learn from the successes and failures of resistance struggles all over the world. From St. Louis to Soweto, the battle for national liberation and self-determination of all colonized peoples will require global struggle against the police. 

While most analyses of the environmental crisis, even on the Left, engage only minimally with white supremacy, Purnell invites us to think about how important climate justice is to the fight for abolition. A critical goal of abolition is to create healthy, vibrant communities, something we can’t have if the planet is collapsing. There is a growing reckoning that efforts to combat climate change must also reckon with centuries of environmental racism, from lead in drinking water to pipelines through Indigenous land. She shows how neglect of the environment undermines the social cohesion within BIPOC communities, leading to increases in crime. And as the global climate breakdown gets worse, and millions are turned into climate refugees, how does the ruling class plan to deal with it? Border militarization. Immigration detention and the border-patrol state are fundamentally linked with the police, and as we struggle to replace the police with structures of social and physical healing, we must also be thinking about the environment and the effects of climate change.

Our abolition must be red, Black, and green: socialist, international, and environmental. This is the thrust of Purnell’s argument, and it represents the product of her journey organizing for a better world and her engagement with some of the most brilliant thinkers of our time. She acknowledges that this is going to be a long struggle. But she invites us to engage with the many organizations fighting for this better future by experimenting and practicing abolition in their organizing: Dream Defenders; the Movement for Black Lives;the Sunrise Movement; and, yes, the Democratic Socialists of America.

Abolition is on our horizon, and the only way to reach the goal is to start the journey. Let’s get to work.