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ABOLITION IS THE PRACTICE OF BUILDING A RADICAL VISION FOR THE END OF IMPERIALISM, CIS HETEROPATRIARCHY, CAPITALISM, AND WHITE SUPREMACY—AND IT IS VERY POSSIBLE.
Police reform is a carceral tactic. The long history of police reform in the United States shows how reformism has only functioned to embolden and escalate the carceral state. ‘Better trained’ and more tech-savvy cops aren’t the answer to police brutality.
Today, we collectively rage against and grieve the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery—and many more murdered by police. At the same time, we know these deaths are not exceptional. In the long history of the carceral state, these events are continuous—symptomatic of a white supremacist state that relies on legally sanctioned violence to manage communities marked as unruly, threatening, or inherently criminal.
As a political formation, abolition refers to the long history of survival against a carceral state built on the foundations of Black enslavement, settler-colonial occupation, and white nationalist exclusion. It’s not just a buzzword thrown around whenever footage of a police lynching goes viral. Abolition is an ongoing, constant, and long-standing movement that has a history and an intellectual inheritance that prepares us for violence inside and towards our communities.
Campaigns like 8 Can’t Wait, funded by Campaign Zero, position the project of “police reform” as newly urgent. In doing so, they refuse to acknowledge the decades of work that Black feminist thinkers have invested in theorizing the carceral state and how we can free ourselves from its grip. These thinkers and movement leaders have prepared us for the discussions that we as organizers are now having at municipal budget hearings. They have prepared us with tactics that are responsive to the legacy of police reformism in this country—reformism that emerged after Ferguson, after crime reform legislation in the 1990s, and after the Kerner Commission report in the 1960s, which failed to address police violence.
American policing is still as racist today as it was intended to be. But it’s also evolved in many important ways. Because of technology, mission creep, and militarization, the policies designed to restrain or subdue American policing will have percolating effects on police practice worldwide; on how cities allocate funds to the project of police reform, instead of community needs; and the extent to which so-called alternatives to policing and incarceration are normalized. Moreover, at a time when the punitive logic of social control is deeply embedded into existing social service programs, such as public welfare programs that criminalize poverty, any conversation about “policing” must happen at a systemic scale. Police have embedded themselves everywhere: schools, hospitals, nursing homes—even our mosques and synagogues. There is no easy fix to the problem of police violence.
Instead, we need new models for care, wellness, and safety. Models that are community-led—like investing in local grocery cooperatives as a resource for food or non-coercive drug and alcohol treatment programs and mental healthcare. We need models that disentangle our communities from the repressive reach of the carceral state and make room for thriving—for us to breathe.
The 8 to Abolition platform confronts the carceral reformism by honoring the revolutionary energy we have inherited from Black feminist abolitionists—those who have led the way for us. As an offering for abolitionist practice and transformation, 8 to Abolition envisions the end of policing and the prison industrial complex by bringing abolitionist theory and strategy into debates playing out in city politics across the U.S.
Abolition is the practice of building a radical vision for the end of imperialism, cis heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy—and it is very possible.
Abolition as anti-imperial and anti-militaristic
“Abolition must be green, it must be red, and it must be transnational,” Ruth Wilson Gilmore, MUMI 2019.
Slave patrols, indigenous genocide, strike-busting, eugenics and forced sterilization, the US occupations of the Philippines, Iraq, and Afghanistan: these are the historic antecedents of the occupational forces descending on American streets today.
Police abolitionists have long been invested in dismantling pernicious and interlinked social systems: the prison industrial complex, the military-industrial complex, and the border. This is not just a politics of solidarity or co-liberation; these systems actively inform and condition policing in the United States. Police abolition must be anti-imperial and anti-militaristic—because American policing is co-constituted by practices of imperialism and militarization.
Dean Spade calls this “abolitionist discernment”: the ability to recognize what these systems share and how they reinforce one another. These are all sites of social subjugation that kill, maim, and devalue human lives to further the American imperialist project. They share legitimation strategies (Spade specifically names pinkwashing), tools and technologies, and they share tactics and a common language.
8 to Abolition is intentional about naming the constantly evolving strategies through which policing has reconfigured itself over the past twenty years. The fight before us right now is beyond congressional prohibitions on the distribution of 1033 military-grade armaments. Abolitionist discernment requires we reassess our concept of “militarization” and account for how American policing is fully operationalized as a research site for military innovation. America’s Green-to-Blue pipeline is bidirectional—which is why person-based risk profiling algorithms innovated through the 2009 NIJ predictive policing grant injections (like Chicago’s now-deprecated Strategic Subject List) served as templates for military detention algorithms, or social media flagging systems designed for gang policing were then repurposed by DARPA to monitor ISIS recruitment.
8 to Abolition also calls out the wide range of actors who have long escaped scrutiny for their role in racialized police violence. We call out academics and technologists who have acted as handmaids to these modes of violence, engineering and refining police weapons, or profiting from the data-rich environments that police surveillance offers to advance their research. These are expropriative arrangements, and these actors are effectively profiteering from police violence.
We also call to attention the ways in which global policing partnerships and the transnational economies of policing mean that abolition requires building global coalitions. It is not enough to get our teargas canisters out of city limits if these weapons will simply be packed up and shipped worldwide; it is not enough if prohibitions are placed on chokeholds if the police departments in Bangladesh and Indonesia, trained by American police, continue to use the practice to kill with impunity. For decades, American police have exported their racist, deadly practices worldwide—and our work must face that reality.
Abolition as anti-capitalist
“We’re not going to abolish the police, if we don’t abolish capitalism, by the way!…If you’re interested in abolishing capitalism you have to work to end the PIC. You just do. It’s not separate. It’s the same fight.” – Mariame Kaba
Capitalism is rooted in racial systems. As abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore theorizes, racial capitalism exposes certain communities to premature death. Conditions such as poverty, homelessness, and unemployment, which disproportionately impact poor and working-class Black and brown communities, are caused by capitalism, which renders these r populations disposable.
During COVID-19, an unprecedented global public health emergency, we witnessed the deep entanglement of the carceral state and racial capitalism. Instead of providing care, PPE, and support, this crisis was policed. It was characterized as a crisis of misbehavior—police enforced social distancing, the National Guard was tasked with care provision, and there was an abject neglect of those on the inside, caged without healthcare or the means to safely shelter. Rather than investing in early testing, public healthcare infrastructure, or housing for unhoused people, city, state, and federal governments abandoned entire communities. Racial capitalism’s solution to coronavirus was a measly $1200 and bailouts for oil companies.
Abolition fights against austerity and the “organized abandonment” of communities—it re-orients us away from punishment and extraction towards care-taking and sustainability. It enables us to ask why we focus so much on the need for institutions to cage, rather than demanding institutions prioritize social wellness. Clinton-era police reforms, that couple the dismantling of welfare with the expansion of the carceral system, punish communities rendered vulnerable for being poor. We need to repeal these laws that criminalize survival, we need to decriminalize street economies (such as drug and sex trades), and we need to repeal ordinances criminalizing people experiencing homelessness. All of these are policies that bring us on the road to complete decriminalization and undoing the trauma and harm caused by quality of life policing, liberal reformism, and the punitive model of social safety.
So many survivors today are left without real justice as a result of policing and prisons. In fact, these systems enable gender-based violence. Repeatedly, we see stories of police killing trans people; of corrections officers assaulting prisoners; of women being murdered by the U.S military. Often, the response to sexual violence is one of carceral feminism: “lock him up!” This is why Dr. Angela Davis calls for an “abolitionist feminism,” in which the safety and health of survivors, queer people, and women are prioritized alongside the dismantling of the PIC. Abolition feminism asks us to recognize precincts, courts, and prisons as institutions that produce harm and create survivors.
Abolition means envisioning a world, not without murder or death, but without fundamental devaluation of lives like that of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. It means one where the police don’t respond to the call from Cup Foods; where there are spaces for community healing and mediation.
8 To Abolition also calls out the connections between the carceral state and private industries that rely on policing, surveillance, incarceration, and military force as solutions to social problems. The political economy of carceral violence manifests in multi-billion-dollar contracts between city government, foundations, and real estate development for jail expansion projects (such as in the case of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to build new jails in New York City). They include contracts with phone companies like Securus and Global Tel Link that monopolize communications access to prison and jails, charging families exorbitant rates in order to communicate with their loved ones inside. This carceral profiteering also includes the financing of immigrant detention and deportation by big banks like JP Morgan and Wells Fargo, or the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency bankrolling the data analytics company, Palantir, which is used by ICE and large police departments. 8 to Abolition calls out the economy of fees and fines, from court costs, ticketing, cash bail, and probation fees, that integrate punishment and debt to further debilitate communities struggling to survive.
Defunding the police is a transitional strategy, one that aspires to getting us to zero police. This includes rejecting any proposed expansion to police budgets, demanding the highest budget cuts from police departments per year, getting rid of asset forfeiture programs and laws, and ending police contracts with social services. This also means prohibiting any private-public partnerships that profit from policing and prisons, such as technological innovation and data-sharing agreements.
Diverting money away from police means this money can go towards resources like safe and accessible housing; education and youth programs; community-based food banks and gardens; neighborhood trauma centers and non-coercive mental healthcare. Why can’t we have free and accessible public transportation, healthcare, and education? 8 to Abolition is about defunding and divesting about redistributing money to better support and care for human life in ways that also cares for all bodies we are in community with: land, water, plants, and beings.
Abolition as the end of white supremacy
For the past two weeks, Americans have been witnesses to the racist violence of policing. Not just those of us protesting on the street—almost everyone was affected by the cruelty of policing, streaming footage from Portland to Atlanta in the intimate space of our personal devices. Members of the press have been brutalized, women and children have choked on tear gas, and the most vulnerable among us have been assaulted by military-grade weapons deployed by those sworn to “protect and serve.”
This moment is making a demand on us to respond: abolition can’t wait.
And not just because American police, despite the worlds’ eyes on us, still can’t stop killing Black people. Or because the uprisings, city to city, have forced policymakers to pay attention (yet again). American policing is the inheritance of white supremacy, enacted through slavery, indigenous genocide, sexual and gender-based violence, racial segregation, border patrols, and military occupation. 8 to Abolition stands in defiance of this legacy, and asks us to imagine life outside of white supremacy. It is a call to celebrate and cultivate Black life, queer life, disabled life—other lives.
Abolition can’t wait because carceral reformism was stationed to act as soon as our uprisings began. Already, policymakers and police advocates have begun to campaign for retrogressive, system-expanding programs (like body-worn cameras), that manipulate our grief and yearning for justice to intensify police surveillance and power. Abolition can’t wait because there is a global market ready to absorb harmful, dissent-crushing technologies invented by American policing, even as U.S. corporations concede to moratoriums on the sale of weapons and data to law enforcement.
As a vision for transformation, 8 to Abolition offers one resource for people to build from and incorporate tangible abolitionist demands into local organizing efforts around municipal, state, and federal policies. We cannot continue to invest in the institution of policing. It would be outrageous to make demands for a kinder, gentler white supremacy—one that’s defanged and more appropriate for polite company. It is similarly outrageous to make demands for a kinder, gentler policing.
We need to make demands for abolition now.
K. Agbebiyi (@sheabutterfemme) is a macro social worker and abolitionist organizer in NYC. They are a member of Survived & Punished’s New York chapter and creator of the Disability Justice Mutual Aid Fund.
Mon Mohapatra (@cemicool) is an organizer and artist, working on local and national campaigns for jail moratoriums, digital safety, and other abolitionist initiatives.
K, Sarah, Rachel, and Mon are four of the ten co-creators of #8toAbolition.