The Emerging Movement for Police and Prison AbolitionRoundup
tags: prisons, activism, Mass Incarceration, prison abolition
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a contributing writer at The New Yorker, where she writes about Black history and politics, social movements, and racial inequality in the United States. Taylor is a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and the author of several books. Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership was a semifinalist for the 2019 National Book Award and a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for history.
The murder of George Floyd last spring provoked an unprecedented outpouring of protests, and a rare national reckoning with both racism and police violence. Public officials across the country pledged police reform. On April 20th, Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, was found guilty of murder. It is rare for police to be prosecuted, let alone punished. I remember my incredulous reaction, in 1992, when my mother called to tell me that the four police officers who beat Rodney King, in Los Angeles, were found not guilty. I remember, in the summer of 2013, being at a Chicago restaurant, having dinner with my wife, and feeling the numbing shock of seeing in real time, on television, George Zimmerman acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. We left the restaurant to join a protest downtown, crossing the street to catch the train. When I walked through the turnstile, a Black woman wearing the uniform of the Chicago Transit Authority looked at me with tears in her eyes, and mouthed, “They let him get away with it.” For most ordinary African-Americans who have watched helplessly, for years, as police act with violent impunity in their communities, the conviction of Chauvin feels like justice long delayed. For Floyd’s family, the verdict came as a relief. Philonise Floyd said that the conviction “makes us happier knowing that his life, it mattered, and he didn’t die in vain.”
In a certain sense, the trial of Chauvin has been viewed as a piece of a national reform strategy. There is a hope that his conviction will serve as evidence that police do not operate above the law and that they can be subjected to its punishments. But if it takes tens of millions of people marching, and an extraordinary recording capturing Chauvin’s cool torpor as Floyd’s life left his body, to secure some measure of legal accountability for the police, then what does this conviction mean for the transformation of American policing? In effect, Chauvin had to be convicted for it to remain even remotely credible that, in the United States, the law protects the rights of African-Americans. Pursuing such an outcome allowed Chauvin’s employers and supervisors to disavow him, describing him as a rogue cop who had abandoned his training. “Policing is a noble profession,” the prosecutor Steven Schleicher said at the trial. “Make no mistake, this is not a prosecution of the police—it is a prosecution of the defendant. And there’s nothing worse for good police than bad police.”
The continuation of police abuse has reaffirmed the calls of some activists for an end to policing as we know it; for others, it has confirmed that the institution of policing should be abolished completely. In the past year or two, the propositions of defunding or abolishing police and prisons has travelled from incarcerated-activist networks and academic conferences and scholarship into mainstream conversations. Of course, this doesn’t mean that these politics have become mainstream, but the persistence of police violence disproportionately harming Black communities has pushed far more people to contemplate radical proposals for dealing with issues of harm and safety.
One Black woman who has been at the center of these conversations is Mariame Kaba, an educator and organizer who is based in New York City. Kaba fund-raised for large-scale mutual-aid operations as the impact of covid-19 began to set in and the lack of public provisions threatened hunger, homelessness, and illness for untold numbers. She is also known for helping to organize a successful campaign to award reparations to Black men who survived torture orchestrated by the former Chicago police commander Jon Burge. Those reparations include a five-and-a-half-million-dollar compensation fund for the victims and their families, waived tuition at the City Colleges of Chicago, a mandatory curriculum for Chicago public schools about the police torture, and a public memorial. It was an unprecedented campaign and outcome, which mirrored the professed values of the growing abolitionist movement: repair and restoration. Kaba and her fellow-activists were less interested in prosecuting the offending police officers than in developing initiatives that could repair the harms done by the Chicago Police Department.