Abolition or Bust: Liberal Police Reform as an Engine of Carceral ViolenceRoundup
tags: racism, Protest, policing, militarization
Charlotte Rosen is a doctoral candidate in History at Northwestern University researching the history of prisons and prisoner resistance in late-twentieth century Pennsylvania. She has written for the Journal of Urban History, Belt Magazine, The Cleveland Review of Books and The Metropole, the official blog of the Urban Historical Association, where she is also an Associate Editor.
The police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, and the subsequent uprisings against racist police brutality in Minneapolis and cities across the nation, have suddenly thrust calls for police abolition into the mainstream. Although the movement to abolish police and prisons has a long history, until recently it has remained largely on the margins, even in some Left spaces. Now, a panoply of explainers, graphics, and other useful political education tools on police abolition have gone viral seemingly overnight. Abolition has gained so much traction that even the sleek, celebrity-backed police reform effort #8cantwait generated vocal criticism for its reformist approach, especially after abolitionist organizers developed a similarly shareable and viral-ready #8toabolition counter-response.
Amid this flurry of information sharing and distribution of action items around police abolition, some have questioned why police need to be defunded and abolished rather than simply reformed. Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden has called for reforms, advocating for $300 million to be allocated for more police training, community policing, and hiring more nonwhite police officers, over defunding or abolishing police. Even progressive darling Senator Bernie Sanders has shied away from growing calls for police abolition, calling instead for the “transformation of police departments” into forces that are “well-trained, well educated, and well-paid professionals.” Further, despite pushback, the aforementioned #8cantwait campaign similarly focuses on reforming the police, suggesting that cities implement provisions like banning chokeholds and strangleholds, requiring officers to warn individuals before shooting, and improving internal reporting on the use of force.
Abolitionists resist efforts to merely reform police because, we argue, police are inherently and structurally white supremacist institutions. With origins in slave patrols and in municipal police forces deployed to suppress worker strikes, the causes of racist police brutality are not individual officers who hold particular racial biases, but rather with an institution whose very intent and structure is to protect capital accumulation through the differential grouping, control of, and violence against racially and economically marginalized populations. As Alex Vitale puts it in The End of Policing, the purpose of police is for “managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing…those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements” (32). Even well-intended reforms, abolitionists contend, ultimately funnel more money and resources to police departments without altering the racist and violent structure of policing. “Reforms,” then, ultimately end up expanding police power, thereby enhancing rather than dismantling racist police violence. Abolitionists note that many police departments have gone through decades of “reform,” and yet police are still murdering Black people with impunity and largely facing little to no consequences. Indeed, they point out that many cities notorious for anti-Black police brutality have already enacted all or most of the #8cantwait reforms, suggesting the serious limitations of a reformist framework for ending racist police violence.
But abolitionist activists and scholars can go beyond merely saying that police reform doesn’t work. Historians of the modern carceral state have shown that reform, and specifically the brand of “liberal law and order” promoted by liberal policymakers in the second half of the 20th century, is chiefly responsible for continued police brutality and the contemporary crisis of racialized mass incarceration. In other words, we should reject calls for police reform not simply because they sap energy from radical visions, do not go far enough, and do not work. We should reject reform because liberal reform efforts – notably undertaken by Democratic administrations often celebrated for their ostensible commitment progressive values – have historically intensified carceral violence against Black people.
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