Abolition and the Octopus
David R. Weiss – April 28, 2021
I can explain my support for police abolition in just two words: the octopus. (And the article—“the”—is really just there for convenience.)
I don’t mean to oversimplify things. Fostering the vibrant health of communities and tending to their public safety is complicated. And dismantling whole structures of policing and replacing them with other more just, effective, and wholistic ways of doing community care will (sadly) not happen overnight. True.
But let’s be clear on what constitutes a desirable—and necessary—future: police abolition. Because: the octopus. And, if we’re not clear on the goal, the telos, the end we seek, which is to END policing, we will never even get close.
Here’s what is unmistakably clear. The history of policing in the South was BORN with the purpose to terrorize black persons pursuing their irrevocable human dignity, whether by resistance or escape. Its aim from its very inception was to impose state terror on black people—largely at the behest of wealthy whites. The history of policing in the North was BORN with the purpose to terrorize the working poor and the destitute poor pursuing their irrevocable human dignity, whether by unionizing or in other (sometimes riotous ways) clamoring for justice. Its aim from its very inception was to impose state terror on the poor—largely at the behest of wealthy whites.
Enter the octopus. There are some incredible videos on the internet displaying the octopus’ unique ability to move through small openings. Lacking any bones, and “handily” equipped with eight arms and hundreds on suction cup grippers, an octopus can press, pull, slither its way through any opening large enough for its beak. There’s a National Geographic video that rather facetiously claims a 600-pound octopus can move through a Plexiglas tube the diameter of a quarter. No. The Giant Pacific Octopus has a beak that would require a tube about 3-inches in diameter, and a large adult one might weigh between 75 and 150 pounds. There are unconfirmed records of specimens at 300, 396, and 600 pounds. (Aside: National Geographic, you disappoint me!) But even a 150-pound octopus measuring 24 feet from arm tip to tip getting itself through a 3-foot tube just 3 inches in diameter is both amazing and more than a little bit unnerving.
So, with apologies to octopuses everywhere, its ability to squeeze through “impossibly” small openings when it suits its purposes is exactly how racism works.
Which is why all the talk about “police reform” strikes me as a dangerous façade. The end, the telos, the purpose of policing is indelibly bound up with white supremacy, racism, and the purposeful terrorizing of black people and poor people in order to preserve the disparity of power and the absence of justice.
Does policing occasionally produce good? Absolutely. But—and we NEED to be honest about this—it was NOT conceived to do produce good. It was conceived to foment terror on behalf of power. Period.
The fact that many of us who are white have been relatively buffered from this terror does not make it any less true. Not historically. And not in the present. Just this week the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence against People of African Descent in the United States—comprised of human rights experts from 11 countries—released its report declaring that policing in the U.S. occurs in ways that violate international law. And does it with such distinctive systematic terror aimed at black people that some cases constitute crimes against humanity.
That’s the octopus having crawled forward into each new container decade after decade after decade. After civil rights report after civil rights report after civil rights report. After reform after reform after reform. STILL violating international law and committing crimes against humanity. Not because of “a few bad apples”—those apples are exactly the fruit the tree of policing was designed to bear.
Police abolition will not happen quickly or easily. And it will take a degree of creativity and compassion that we’ve rarely exercised in public policy. (Although we do NOT need to start from scratch. There is a vibrant body of literature already out there—voices we’ve been determined to keep outside the conversation. In fact, the Mennonite church recently released a faith-based curriculum on police abolition.)
Abolition is the path toward a healed America. It’s not the only clean break with racism we must make, but proposals for police reform are a chimera designed to alleviate our sense of guilt while leaving just enough room for the octopus to crawl forward. It’s time to leave the octopus behind.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.