Thank you for joining us at the Abolition House Party. Almost 1,000 people across the country took part in a similar presentation this month. We know many people were excited to return to the information shared and share it with others, so attached are the FAQs and some of the resources made available by SURJ National.
Here’s one quote that stands out,“A prerequisite to seeking any social change is the naming of it. In other words, even though the goal we seek may be far away, unless we name it and fight for it today, it will never come.” Rose Braz, a longtime staffer and member of Critical Resistance
Political education, personal reflection and organizing from a place of mutual interest alongside Black and Brown led abolition campaigns will radically change the world. We are in a historic moment with an opportunity to create lasting change from the grassroots both locally and globally. We need organizers who are prepared to build community support for a radical system overhaul.
Thanks again for coming, and let us know how you are interested in furthering this work.
For the long haul,
SURJ ROC, August 2020
Abolition Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Won’t abolishing the police create chaos and crime? How will we stay safe?
Police abolition work is not about snapping our fingers and magically defunding every department in the world instantly. Rather, we’re talking about a gradual process of strategically reallocating resources, funding, and responsibility away from police and toward community-based models of safety, support, and prevention.
The people who respond to crises in our community should be the people who are best-equipped to deal with those crises. Rather than strangers armed with guns, who very likely do not live in the neighborhoods they’re patrolling, we want to create space for more mental health service providers, social workers, victim/survivor advocates, religious leaders, neighbors, healers, and friends – all of the people who really make up the fabric of a community – to look out for one another.
But what about armed bank robbers, murderers and supervillains?
Crime isn’t random. Most of the time, it happens when someone has been unable to meet their basic needs through other means. By shifting money away from the police and toward services that actually meet those needs, we’ll be able to get to a place where people won’t need to rob banks.
Sure, in this long transition process, we may need a small specialized class of public servants whose job it is to respond to violent crimes. But part of what we’re talking about here is what role police play in our society. Right now, cops don’t just respond to violent crimes; they make needless traffic stops, arrest petty drug users, and engage in a wide range of “broken windows policing” – behaviors that only serve to keep more people under the thumb of the criminal justice system.
Even people who support the police agree: we ask cops to solve too many of our problems. As former Dallas Police Chief David Brown said: “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country! Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it! Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops! That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
To really fight crime, we don’t need more cops; we need more jobs, more educational opportunities, more arts programs, more community centers, more mental health resources, and more of a say in how our own communities function.
But why not fund the police and fund these alternatives too? Why is it an either/or?
It’s not just that police are ineffective: in many communities, they’re actively harmful. The history of policing is a history of violence against the marginalized. American police departments were originally created to dominate and criminalize communities of color and poor white workers, a job they continue doing to this day. The list has grown even longer: LGBTQ folks, disabled people, activists – so many of us are attacked by cops on a daily basis.
And it’s bigger than just police brutality; it’s about how the prison industrial complex, the drug war, immigration law, and the web of policy, law, and culture that forms our criminal justice system has destroyed millions of lives, and torn apart families. Cops don’t prevent crime; they cause it, through the ongoing, violent disruption of our communities.
It’s also worth noting that most social service agencies and organizations that could serve as alternatives to the police are underfunded, scrambling for grant money to stay alive while being forced to interact with officers who often make their jobs even harder. In 2016, the Minneapolis Police Department received $165 million in city funding alone. Imagine what that kind of money could do to keep our communities safe if it was reinvested.
What about body cameras? What about civilian review boards, implicit bias training, and community policing initiatives?
Video footage (whether from body cameras or other sources) wasn’t enough to get justice for Philando Castile, Samuel DuBose, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, and far too many other victims of police violence. Other reforms, even when noble in intention, simply do not do enough to get to the root of the issue.
History is a useful guide here: community groups in the 1960s also demanded civilian review boards, better training, and community policing initiatives. Some of these demands were even met, but universally, they were either ineffective, or dismantled by the police department over time. Recent reforms are already being co-opted and destroyed: just look at how many officers are wearing body cameras that are never turned on, or how quickly Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department has moved to end consent decrees. We have half a century’s worth of evidence that reforms can’t work. It’s time for something new.
This all sounds good in theory, but wouldn’t it be impossible to do?
Throughout US history, everyday people have regularly accomplished “impossible” things, from the abolition of slavery, to voting rights, to the 40-hour workweek, and more. What’s really impossible is the idea that the police departments can be reformed against their will to protect and serve communities whom they have always attacked.
The police, as an institution around the world, have existed for less than 200 years – less time than chattel slavery existed in the Americas. Abolishing the police doesn’t need to be difficult; we can do it in our own cities, one dollar at a time, through redirecting budgets to common-sense alternative programs. Let’s get to work!
Does being an abolitionist mean you just want to let everyone out of prison?
At its core, abolition isn’t only about throwing all the prison doors open wide. It is also about creating new models for living. Imagining a future based on abolition means totally shifting how we think about living with each other. We must create stable communities for people to come home to even as we work to shut down all the prisons.
As a set of political beliefs, prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition is based on a feeling of what is possible. So, instead of thinking about what we want to destroy, it may be more helpful to think about what we must build to abolish the PIC. Our vision needs to include everyone affected by the PIC, not only the first-time drug offender or the wrongly convicted, but everyone. We need to be able to create environments for ourselves that provide the basic necessities we need to live such as safe and steady housing; sufficient food; access to medical care; access to information and tools with which to process that information; resources to participate in an economy; a way to express opinions, interests or concerns; freedom from physical and psychological harm (both from individuals and the state). We need to start building those kinds of environments for ourselves as we work to abolish anything. We need healthy environments that don’t depend on punishment and harm to protect the interests of the state or the rich or powerful.
We also can’t just get rid of prisons without making dramatic changes in the systems that lead people to prison. We need to think about what kinds of things we could put in place to support people for whom even the best social setting may not work out. If creating a better environment still can’t keep some people from hurting others (in all the ways that hurt happens), we do need to have something in place that would help everyone involved in the incident patch up their differences. But our current systems of policing, surveillance, courts, detention, family services, probation, and parole do not get the job done. Restorative justice practices that do not depend on our current policing and court systems may be one way of settling harms between people.
Abolition means creating long-term alternatives to the ways that we earn our livings, live together, and resolve conflicts. Working for a future based on abolition means building something real today that can be the foundation for how we want to live. It means making practical plans for taking small steps that move us toward our dreams. It means figuring out ways for all of us to believe that things really could be different and that each of us can include this vision in our day-to-day lives.
It also means, of course, throwing all the prison doors open, tearing down the prison walls and the station houses and the detention centers and the punishing mental ‘health’ hospitals.
What about the rapists, the child molesters, and murderers? Aren’t there some people who really need to be locked up?
Rape, the sexual abuse of children, and murder are very serious and upsetting problems for everyone concerned about the wellbeing of loved ones, children, and members of our communities. Acts of great harm can understandably bring up great anger and fear. This anger can turn into a desire to punish, while fear can turn into a desire to try removing those responsible from society.
But the ‘need’ to lock people up is a false need. No one needs to be locked up. If we take time to think through what makes an appropriate response to harm, we come to a different conclusion about what needs to be done. If we want our society to be healthy, safe, just and fair, then alternatives to punishment and imprisonment must be put into place.
Let’s consider a couple of matters in depth:
1. Punishment and Imprisonment are not Appropriate Responses to Harm
To understand why punishment and imprisonment are not appropriate responses to harm, it helps to walk through the common sense steps that lead us to developing a good response. If we walk through these steps, we come to a very different solution than punishment and imprisonment.
Awareness is one of the first steps. We need to be aware of the conditions and experiences of the person who was harmed, the person who committed the act of harm, the surrounding community, and the whole society. For our discussion here, what matters first is trying to understand those who commit acts of harm as well as the situations in which the harm happened.
When we begin to become more aware, a picture of what happened becomes clear. In learning why the act of harm happened, we usually find that more than one person needs to be held accountable. Even the worst kinds of harm do not happen without a reason. Usually there are a number of people and systems that should be held accountable. People who commit acts of harm often have been harmed themselves in the past. As a result, they also need appropriate care and concern.
In the end, trying to develop higher levels of awareness gives us a broad view that makes an act of harm seem less like an isolated event. When we see harm as an event that is interconnected with the rest of the world, channeling anger only toward a particular individual doesn’t make sense. Our anger is better directed elsewhere.
Abolition is about having a vision that seeks to change the social and economic conditions that lead to violence. Right now, punishment is a part of these conditions. Instead of discouraging harm, punishment makes future harm more likely because punishment encourages people to lash out. If someone committed harm because they had been harmed earlier in life, harming them even more with punishment really doesn’t make sense.
Instead of punishment, people who have seriously harmed other people should have appropriate forms of support ranging from supervision to social and economic resources. Furthermore, in place of punishment we also need humane forms of accountability. Accountability means holding people to their commitments to others. Because punishment creates a feeling of social isolation instead of responsibility to other people, we need an alternative.
What a different response should look like is difficult to say, because the dominance of prisons as a response has kept us from developing alternatives. A few things, however, might be said. Immediately following an incident of serious harm, there is an especially urgent need for living spaces that ensure safety and wellbeing in a number of ways. First, these spaces should make sure that the person or people who committed the act can’t harm anyone else. Second, they should make sure that people who want revenge couldn’t hurt the person (or people) who committed the harm. Third, the spaces should make sure that the person who committed the harm would not harm themselves. Because these spaces seek safety and wellbeing, they should be nothing like prisons. In fact, they should be the exact opposite since prisons are fundamentally dehumanizing and violent environments.
2. Locking People Away is a Violent Abuse of Power
Locking anyone away is wrong because it, without doubt, involves using violent and abusive power. We see this most clearly in terms of police and practices.
First, policies and practices should never be dictated by force or fear. They should be based on concern for our collective wellbeing. Because we live in a society where the media takes advantage of our fears and angers, we are constantly being hit with news about acts of violence that are coded in racist, classist, and homophobic ways. For example, connecting violence and crime with Black people is so deep-rooted and commonplace that Black people as a whole are criminalized. In this case, when fear is allowed to control policies and practices, Black people get targeted.
Second, the policies and practices of any institution, group, or society shouldn’t be based on individual cases. Even though only a small percentage of people are imprisoned for really horrible acts, these acts are allowed to have a very uneven effect on how policy is created. Instead of basing policy on individual cases, policy should be made with the collective good in mind.
To be appropriate, responses to harm should be tailor-made in order. However, we should follow general guidelines for all responses to harm in order to guarantee fairness, equality and humane treatment. Far from meeting these standards, the PIC goes against them as a matter of course. In the past and present, the PIC has been a central force of white supremacy and class domination. It has forced many people of color and poor whites to the lower rungs of society. Likewise, it has done this with constant violence.
Third, policies and practices should not create institutions that are anti-democratic or authoritarian. Prisons are fundamentally anti-democratic and authoritarian. Because prisons cannot operate without prison labor and general submission, prisoners are kept from organizing and having any real self-rule. As a way of excusing their position of power, the people running these institutions easily become won over by beliefs that make prisoners seem less than human. To treat someone brutally becomes possible when they are either no longer seen as human, especially in terms of race. When someone is no longer regarded as human, almost any act of violence or abuse becomes possible.
How will we stay safe without prisons or police?
One way to answer this question is to understand all the ways you are already safe. While the media and politicians focus on “crime” as a major problem in the US, the fact is, crime rates have dropped or stayed the same since before the prison boom. Also tough on crime law making and enforcement have not had a big impact on public safety. These media and political campaigns feed the panic about urban crime in particular. For example, most physical injury happens between people who know each other. Random violence is not as common as it’s made out to be. Economic crime, like theft, is often linked to a downturn in the economy or drug addiction. People in need are more likely to turn to more desperate measures when jobs and assistance (like drug treatment or harm-reduction resources) aren’t available, often because of state policies.
The government creates other crimes to increase the police’s ability to control people. Along these lines, loitering, panhandling, public camping, and other so-called quality of life crimes, become excuses for police to hassle homeless people, queer people, young people and others who spend time living or socializing on the street.
So while there is real harm that happens everyday, the fear for our public safety is based less on real harm than on hype that blows the threat of that harm way out of proportion. Of course, harm does happen, and any movement for PIC abolition has to create ways to prevent harm more effectively and address everyone involved when harm happens. Before we think about how to reach this important goal, it’s also helpful to make a new framework for what we mean when we talk about staying safe.
While police and prisons may make some people feel safer, they are not actually making us safer, especially in the long run. Rather, police, prisons, and the wider effect of the prison industrial complex create major barriers to other kinds of safety we need to live. With most financial resources going into policing and controlling people (especially people of color, poor people, immigrants and others), there is less of an opportunity for people most affected by crime and poverty to get resources to deal with those concerns where they live. Police target specific neighborhoods and specific people for surveillance and control. As a result, people of color, poor people, queer people, and others are often made unsafe by the intrusions of police – whether they suffer physical abuse, constant harassment, or removal from their communities.
The impact of imprisonment is also serious. Many people of color and poor people have really suffered because people from their families and neighborhoods are being removed. Not only has building up police and prison failed to change official crime rates, the focus on crime fighting as the only way to create safety limits what we think of us as keeping us safe. Basic needs, like housing, food, access to mental and physical health care, and knowing that those things are not constantly at risk, are also essential for people’s safety.
Working to end the prison industrial complex means trying to create all these kinds of safety, including day-to-day stability, self-determination, and a way to deal with interpersonal harm. PIC abolition is one way of creating safety. Abolitionist organizing projects focus on tearing down the system by seeing it as unnecessary. These projects also create safety by coming up with better ways of dealing with harm that involve regular people (not just police, courts, and prisons) and that meet the need of anyone affected by an act of harm.
Taking care of everyone’s needs is crucial to help keep harm from happening again. Our current system does not focus on this and does not do this. Since many harms happen between people who know each other, well-developed ways for creating accountability without punishment could keep families and other communities together while reducing the harm within them. Abolitionist strategies are also focused on dealing with the societal inequalities that harm people. Hopefully, these strategies can lead to stability and self-determination that will help keep harm from happening in the first place.
Of course, when people are in immediate danger – whether that’s physical violence by a partner or the threat of violence on the street – we need to know there is some possible way of getting safe immediately. So far, abolitionists have not created practical ways of providing that alternative to the police. This has to be one of our projects, along with others aimed at creating better ways of doing what we’re told the PIC does for us. Creating those working alternatives is a part of the abolitionist vision for creating real safety.
What can I do instead of calling the cops?
One of the biggest problems we face trying to build a world that doesn’t rely on policing and punishment is that when people need an outside person to get involved in a situation, the police are often the only option. In so many different situations when people are in direct physical danger, or when someone hears a strange noise or a fight down the street, even when someone needs directions, the police get called. Our dependence on the police in all these situations just strengthens the PIC.
As abolitionists we don’t believe that we can just say never call the police and people will be safer. But we do need to think about what happens when the police get called, why they get called, and how we can set up our own plans to replace the police. It makes sense that people call the police because they want support or need to change a situation. But when you call the cops, you mostly get only bad options.
Calling the police is a catch-all solution for what are normally specific problems with specific roots. The cops are a catch-all with only one real option: they can use or threaten to use force. Cops have the legal and physical power to direct the situation, so they end up controlling all the options. This usually means doing nothing, or taking one person (or more) away. Typically these are not effective strategies for handling an immediate conflict and preventing others.
Calling the police doesn’t guarantee that a situation will get better. Everybody loses control when the police come. Not only does a person being violent or threatening violence run out of options, but so does the person who called the cops and everyone else around. Even people in the neighborhood who don’t have a connection to the situation lose control. This happens because more cops in the area means more surveillance, which means more people getting taken away. This loss of control over the situation is especially true in communities of color that already suffer under intense police repression and surveillance.
A better option might be calling someone else — a neighbor, family member, or friend. Call someone who can get to where you are quickly, help tone things down, and help come up with a comfortable ending. That ending might be staying until everybody cools off, or checking out that strange noise with you, or providing a place for someone to stay for a while, or helping someone to leave.
A problem is that we don’t usually set up these situations ahead of time, so people call the cops (even if they don’t really want to) because there isn’t another plan. It might help here to remember that we don’t call the cops naturally. We are always being told to call them. We hear this from teachers in elementary school, from movies, news, and other media, from seeing other people do it, and, not least, from cops themselves.
So it makes sense that we should do a little planning ourselves to set up an alternative. It doesn’t have to be complicated, or involve a million back up plans, or involve a complex commitment. It can be as simple as asking a friend a basic question:If I needed to, could I call you? or telling someone, If you ever needed someone, you could call me.
We know that this is nothing like a perfect solution. But we have to begin to try out what solutions might work, especially because we know that calling the police doesn’t.
What makes an abolitionist approach to the PIC different from reformist ones?
Abolitionists are often described as inflexible. There are many ways to come at abolishing the PIC, and no one path to a world without prisons and policing. There are actions that make sense up front, like opposing changes to visiting regulations for family members or for attorneys and their support staff. These actions help make sure that people who are locked up are treated as human beings.
However, there are also reforms that in the end make the long-term goal of getting rid of the PIC impossible. For example, in response to the terrible conditions that most prisoners across the country live in, abolitionists might focus on strategies that first look at how we can let people out of those cages instead of ones that just build better cages. Building new cells and prisons help to extend the life of the PIC as a system. This goes directly against a long-term abolitionist goal of eliminating the system. It also just gives us one more prison to close down in the end.
The differences between these approaches are more than just being inclusive or exclusive. They are about strategy and long-term vision. They depend on what you want the end result of your work to be. The history of reform has brought us such things as prisons themselves (in the form of penitentiaries) and the expansion of prison systems when new prisons are built to replace overcrowded or crumbling old ones. Folsom Prison in California was built to replace San Quentin prison to deal with overcrowding and poor conditions — both prisons still exist nearly 125 years later.
Mandatory minimums, determinate sentencing, and the juvenile justice system, are all reforms that have strengthened the PIC instead of tearing it down, or even shrinking it. At the core, the difference between the two positions is the difference between trying to make the PIC better and trying to tear the PIC down.
For those reasons, sometimes organizers who identify themselves as abolitionist support groups that use strategies that might be called reformist rather than abolitionist (like providing better healthcare and education to prisoners, making parole and probation accessible to more prisoners, supporting prisoner work stoppages and strikes — all things that don’t necessarily abolish the system itself). There are certain strategies however, (like the trade off between “violent” and “non-violent”prisoners or constructing new jails and prisons to create better conditions) that undercut the work that abolitionists do and create the distinction between abolition and reform.
Cullors, Patrisse. Abolition And Reparations: Histories of Resistance, Transformative Justice, And Accountability.Harvard Law Review, 10 Apr. 2019, www.harvardlawreview.org/2019/04/abolition-and-reparations-histories-of-resistance-transformative-justice-and-accountability/.
FUSION. The Criminal Justice System is Broken: Should the Police be Abolished?Youtube, commentary by Janaya Khan, 27 Mar. 2017, https://youtu.be/vjIEZf8Skx4
NativeLand.ca.Native Land, www.native-land.ca/.
Policing in the United States 1845-Present. Critical Resistance, www.criticalresistance.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/policing_timelinenew.pdf.Â
Reports.Los Angeles County Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group, www.lacalternatives.org/reports/.
Robson, David. “The ‘3.5% Rule’: How a Small Minority Can Change the World.” BBC Future, BBC, 14 May 2019, www.bbc.com/future/article/20190513-it-only-takes-35-of-people-to-change-the-world.
“What Is the PIC? What Is Abolition?”Critical Resistance, www.criticalresistance.org/about/not-so-common-language/.
• The Appeal Podcast Episode 7: What Abolitionists Mean When They Talk About Abolition [FROM SESSION: full episode]
• Abolition Now! Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle Against the Prison Industrial Complex – Critical Resistance
• Are Prisons Obsolete? – Angela Y. Davis
• Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition – Ruth Wilson Gilmore
• The End of Policing – Alex Vitale
• Fumbling Towards Repair: A Workbook for Community Accountability Facilitators – Mariame Kaba & Shira Hassan
Developed by White People for Black Lives Political Education Committee