Abolition! – Because Words Matter
David R. Weiss – February 15, 2023
[I’m not looking to pick a fight here, least of all with my friends on the left. I’m just grasping for words to say something that strikes me as absolutely essential … and yet almost unimaginable for most of us. Plus, these are ongoing reflections, fed in part by an Abolition reflection group I’m in right now. I will have more to say.]
During the summer of 2020 I rather unexpectedly became an aspiring abolitionist. Initially, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by the police, I was empathetic toward, but also uneasy with calls for Abolition or to Defund the Police. I sympathized with the rage (although, for a white man, that sympathy admittingly came cheap), even as I wrestled with the choice of words.
Then two things happened. No, three.
First, my conservative friends began to openly mock these calls in comments that ranged from “merely” dismissive to thinly veiled racism. Second, even my liberal friends began to characterize the phrases as unrealistic and counterproductive.
Third, I began to read abolitionist writers for myself. They told the history of policing and incarceration and explained how that history was intertwined—by intent and design—with the oppression and outright decimation of black communities. They called for a future without police or prisons, in part because they knew that a future with them was unlivable for their communities. But also, because in their longing for a world in which the well-being of their communities (of all communities, really) was truly centered, there was no place for police or prisons.
Not that they assumed there would be no more need for public safety. No, even in the society they envision, public safety needs are still real and “still” met. (Indeed, they would assert that it is only in a world without police or prisons that public safety needs are actually met.) Abolitionists argue that in our present society, “public safety” is, in fact, the management through coercive force of the inevitable conditions of inequity and impoverishment created by white supremacy. (Go back and read that sentence again. In fact, write it out for yourself. Ten times.)
Still, if “Abolition” isn’t a rallying cry that captures the general public’s imagination, shouldn’t the movement, if only for sake of strategic appeal, seek a more inviting phrase, a more moderate “brand”? I can admit that I understand that position. And I can also say, NO.
True, an abolitionist vision reaches far beyond simply dissolving police forces and closing prisons. So, literally, “abolition”—the erasure of the police-prison system—is not the whole of it. But the honest and essential bottom line is that abolition does not settle for less than this. Any future without abolition is a false future. In that sense, even though not the whole of that future, abolition is the goal.
A simple example helps explains why. When a police officer’s knee is on a black man’s neck, the gasping cry, “I can’t breathe,” is not an invitation to abstract civil discourse about police reform. It is an urgent call to remove the knee.
For those of us who live largely (almost entirely) insulated from both the legacy and the immediacy of police violence or incarceration, every discussion of policing or prisons IS abstract. But when you live and move and breathe in black communities—in black skin—every genuine conversation about policing and prisons BEGINS with the knee of your neck. And that’s true whether it’s an actual knee or a whole racist system that functions like a knee over a lifetime. Over lifetimes.
Racism has proven its ability to reinvent itself time and again, from slavery to Jim Crow to segregation to redlining to criminalized poverty and mass incarceration. And the history of police violence against communities of color has been uninterrupted and demonstrably unreformable. To pretend that another round of proposed reforms is going to truly change anything is to ignore the character of the system itself. IT IS THE KNEE.
This isn’t about attacking the character of individual police officers, although there are surely more officers than we’d like to admit for whom the badge is about racialized power. The harder truth, however, is that, from its inception, policing has been about “keeping the peace” in a world made unequal through racialized injustice. Policing was conceived to preserve safety for the haves by enforcing laws on the have nots, whose desperate living conditions predictably fomented unrest.
It doesn’t matter that more “legitimate” roles have been added into policing over the years. So long as the conditions of racialized inequity have not been addressed, the core function of police and prisons in our society continues to be the preservation of order by force on a population that is, by design, kept desperate. When that knee has been—and continues to be—on the neck of your communal life nonstop for generations, there are no added roles that can convey legitimacy. The entire system needs to be abolished so that something wholly new can be brought forth.
But—and this is where it becomes untenable for most white people—abolition is emergent. It will not suddenly appear as a finished project. Rather, it will unfold across years. It will necessarily involve equitable education, accessible housing, living wage and career-growth job opportunities, fully funded healthcare, tending to generational trauma, reparations for past injustice, restorative justice practices for the present, and more. All of that is fundamental to an abolitionist vision. Because all of it is critical to fostering the well-being of communities of color. (It’s critical to the well-being of all communities, but it’s in communities of color that these conditions have been systemically and intentionally suppressed.)
By investing proactively in these things, we work toward eliminating the desperation that seeds the harm that can become crime in communities. Tragically—foolishly and reprehensibly—we have spent generations investing in the very desperation that serves to “justify” police and prison. We have been feverishly busy making a just humane society harder to achieve. Abolition calls on us to deploy the wealth of our public funds toward the flourishing of communities rather than their policing. In doing this we create the conditions where we can finally discover together how to address the remaining challenges of our civic life in nonviolent ways.
Is this an idyllic vision? Yes. And No. It is, ultimately, merely honest about the linkage between injustice and social unrest—and simply aspirational enough to believe we can do better. Besides which our current vision is racist, punitive, and a purposeful failure compared to other societies.
Abolition is not simply about the erasure of police and prisons. It is also and ultimately about the wellbeing of communities, but to second-guess the cry of abolition is, in fact, to change the subject entirely. More than absence? Yes. But less than that? NO.
To critique the cry for abolition, to say Republicans and the general public will never go for that (and therefore Democrats shouldn’t pursue it either) is not only to acknowledge how entrenched racialized inequity is in our society, it is to make common cause with injustice itself. Because no half-measures will suffice. Nothing less than the full-scale dismantling of police and prisons will allow for communal public safety that is truly just.
We dare not set the bounds of hope for those persistently imperiled by racism according to the comfort level of those who benefit (willingly, knowingly, or otherwise) from their peril. (Read that sentence again. It’s dense, but every phrase matters.) To limit our aspirations, our support, our solidarity to what strikes us as realistic is to be awkwardly, implicitly, undeniably in solidarity with the very forces that limit the imagination of justice.
Words matter. So, for all that it means, from first steps to final realization: Abolition! Now.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.