Abolition or Bust: Liberal Police Reform as an Engine of Carceral Violence

June 26, 2020

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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.

Understanding the historical harm of liberal law and order and the police reforms it wrought requires breaking down two key, and seemingly internally contradictory assumptions that have anchored liberal law and order politics. First, while less overt and sensational than conservatives’ dog whistle and thinly-veiled racist law and order politics, proponents of liberal law and order helped sustain racial violence by ironically seeking to remove racial bias from law enforcement.

As Naomi Murakawa puts it in The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, liberal law and order sought to “modernize and deracialize carceral machinery,” which in turn helped submerge the structural racism inherent to the police’s discretionary power to criminalize and punish (10). Second, liberal law and order encompassed an anti-Black belief in the inherent criminality of Black people, which in turn justified punitive interventions into their communities as necessary and logical rather than white supremacist and carceral. This toxic ideological hybrid meant that throughout the post-WWII period, liberal police reforms ostensibly seeking to reduce police violence and improve relations between police and racially marginalized communities failed to meaningfully confront the racial violence inherent to policing and instead helped expand and normalize police presence Black urban communities. In other words, liberal police reform ensured the continuation and intensification of racist police violence, and arguably caused our contemporary crisis of racialized mass incarceration.

How is this possible?

Part of the reason has to do with how postwar liberals understood racism. As numerous scholars such as Naomi Murakawa, Jodi Melamed, and Elizabeth Hinton have shown, postwar race liberals understood racism as an “individual whim” and “psychological in nature,” a problem of faulty and illogical morals and biases rather than of structural formations of power embedded into the United States political economy and modes of governance. With such an understanding, liberal reformers understood racism in law enforcement narrowly as a problem of “bad apples” – or the individual officers with overt racial biases – rather than confronting how the very function and operation of policing historically operated to uphold racial hierarchies, suppress dissent, and protect capital. As Murakwa notes, law and order liberals understood “racist violence” as “arbitrary violence”—an “irrational belief, erratic and baseless” – meaning that fixing the problem of racism in law enforcement required simply modernizing and professionalizing law enforcement in ways that ostensibly insulated against racist behavior. If racism was merely an “administrative deficiency” of criminal legal systems and not something central to the operation of those systems, the thinking went, then professionalization and procedural reforms could bring about a truly “neutral” system of criminal legal administration, and racist police brutality could be cured.

While invested in constructing a “fair” criminal legal system free of racial bias – however misguided and harmful such a project actually was – proponents of liberal law and order also believed in their own variant of white supremacist thinking that similarly tainted liberal police reform. Influenced by figures such as President Lyndon Johnson’s then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose 1965The Negro Family: A Case for National Actionserved as the intellectual spine of liberals’ view of crime and poverty in Black neighborhoods, postwar liberals believed that years of white racism against Black people had led to the “breakdown” and “cultural deprivation” of Black families. The effects of decades of racial discrimination — the “racist virus,” as Moynihan put it — led to a “tangle of pathology” in Black urban families that caused these communities to be stuck in a “cycle of poverty and disadvantage.” To “prove” his point, Moynihan cited high rates of poverty, unemployment of Black men, single-parent and female “dominated” households, illiteracy, and crime in Black urban neighborhoods. The implication was that years of white racism had inculcated so-called cultural pathologies that made Black criminality inevitable.

Because “knowledge” of Black criminality was understood as a scientific and neutral fact, rather than a narrow and racialized political construction, liberals understood heightened policing in Black urban neighborhoods not as a form of racism and ongoing white supremacist terror, but as a legitimate and necessary response to urban crime. In the process, they conveniently invisibilized ongoing structural racism and police terrorism against Black communities. Through such a framework, they could declare their proud support for civil rights while also believing it necessary to expand the policing and penal control of Black urban neighborhoods. When Black people rose up against racist police brutality and oppression in a series of urban rebellions throughout the 1960s, liberal policymakers hardened this “consensus” around the so-called criminal behavior of “rioters” and intensified rather than confronted the harmful role of law enforcement in these neighborhoods. As Elizabeth Hinton writes in From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, “racism embedded within federal policy and the social science research that rationalized it encouraged officials to embrace patrol, surveillance, and confinement as a means of exerting social control in neighborhoods of segregated poverty.” These twin features of liberal law and order – the belief in the criminal legal system’s objectivity and fairness on the one hand, and a racist belief in a “statistical and sociological ‘truth’ of black criminality” – have ensured liberal police reforms have not only failed to make police less violent against Black people. As historians have shown, these reforms have actually worsened police violence and paved the way for our contemporary crisis of mass imprisonment.

Johnson’s War on Crime is a case and point. When incidents of racist police violence triggered Black-led uprisings against racist law enforcement and racial inequality more broadly, Johnson’s administration rushed to try to manage the crisis, which in many ways revealed the limitations of the Johnson’s passage of flagship civil rights bills and the shortcomings of his War on Poverty. Instead of grappling with the causes of urban unrest – such as years of racist policing, state-sanctioned racial segregation, and growing deindustrialization in urban cities that left the Black urban poor with little employment or education opportunities – Hinton and Murakawa both show that Johnson’s liberal law and order approach to police reform focused only on removing overt racial bias while also equipping local law enforcement to more punitively intervene into Black urban neighborhoods. In both of the administration’s law enforcement assistance bills, the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965 and the more robust Safe Streets Act of 1968, the Johnson administration significantly modernized and expanded the nation’s carceral machinery by allocating millions towards policing training, salaries, research, and equipment. Although ostensibly meant to achieve “racial fairness” by increasing training and resources for “police-community relations,” Naomi Murakawa shows that liberal police professionalization’s focus on reducing “prejudice” among officers “steered attention away from the structural racism permeating state machinery.” At the same time, as Elizabeth Hinton exhaustively demonstrates, liberal reformers racist belief in the “inevitable” criminality of Black urban youth led them to call for more and better resourced law enforcement in Black urban communities, not only on the streets through “community policing” but also in anti-poverty programs, where they quickly eclipsed the presence of social workers. On the surface, this fusion of law enforcement and equal opportunity programs ostensibly meant to promote “public safety.” Yet these punitive community programs – such as “mini” police stations “in storefronts and housing projects” or Youth Service Bureaus targeted towards an already criminalized category of “hard-core” and “potentially delinquent youth” – did little to alter patterns of racist policing and merely brought an already stigmatized Black urban poor into more “frequent contact with the punitive arm of the state, increasing the likelihood of their eventual incarceration.

At the local level, histories of police reform similarly portray liberal law and order’s particular role in intensifying racialized harm against Black and Brown communities. Simon Balto’s work on the Chicago Police DepartmentMax Felker-Kantor’s work on the Los Angeles Police Department, and Marisol LeBrón’s work on the Puerto Rico Police Department all demonstrate the shortcomings of liberal police reforms narrowly focused on “procedural fairness” and “building trust” while also actively working to heighten criminalization of Black and Brown communities with hyper-militarized, counterinsurgency tactics. In Los Angeles, for example, the liberal mayoral administration of Tom Bradley, which spanned from 1973 to 1993, sought to reform the notoriously racist and brutal LAPD through a “commitment to procedural fairness” and a “focus only on physical harm.” As Felker-Kantor notes, however, these same liberal lawmakers “often resisted extending the harm principle to people of color,” believing “that certain populations – especially so-called violent African American and Latino/a youth, drug traffickers in neighborhoods of color, and ‘alien criminals’ – posed a threat to social order and security and thus required discretionary supervision.” Bradley’s Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Planning (MOCJP) sought embodied his “framework of procedural fairness and equity” by seeking to increase community participation in the criminal justice system while also simultaneously ramping up punishment of “law-breaking” among primarily Black and Latinx youth. The result, Felker-Kantor shows, was the city’s expansion of a racist, carceral, and two-tiered juvenile justice system that led to the increased incarceration of Black and Brown youth, despite the MOCJP’s seemingly progressive citizen involvement and preventative components.

Without a meaningful reckoning with the structural white supremacy inherent to law enforcement nor the racialized conceptions of “law-breakers” embedded in liberal approach to criminal justice, liberal police reform kept aflame rather than put out the fire of racist policing. In doing so, these reforms repeatedly paved the way for the late-twentieth century explosion of the United States prison nation, which currently imprisons 2.3 million people nationwide, a disproportionate number of whom are Black, Latinx and Indigenous according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

History shows us that liberal police reform is not only ineffective, but has done more harm than good. By promoting a false narrative of the criminal legal system’s neutrality and fairness and by entrenching racist, psuedo-scientific, and criminalizing assumptions about Black people, liberal police reforms have historically emboldened law enforcement and multiplied racist police terror. As the movement for police abolition continues to grow, resisting the erasure of the historically generative, rather than passive harm of police reform is necessary. This history substantiates abolitionist calls for activists to discern between “reformist” and “non-reformist reforms,” the latter of which actually remove resources and funding from law enforcement, reduce the size of police forces, and enhance community control over police budgets. Reformist reforms, such as calls for more professionalized training, equipment like body cameras, or improving police-community relations, threaten to repeat this long history of deadly police reform that only normalizes an expands police power. To paraphrase Angela Davis’ words at a recent Dream Defenders panel on abolition in our lifetime, “the temporality that capitalism urges is a perpetual present.” Honestly appraising this longer, and more grave history of liberal police reform, not only increases the urgency for abolition now, but also enhances our ability to disrupt calls for reforms that only masquerade as justice, but really just promise continued carceral violence.


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 MagazineThe Cleveland Review of Books and The Metropole, the official blog of the Urban Historical Association, where she is also an Associate Editor.

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