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The idea that the police do not exist to protect us has long been criticized as a hyperbolic, extremist belief held by those with left-leaning political ideologies. As law enforcement faces mounting international criticism about their response—or lack thereof—in last month's horrific massacre of 19 children and 2 teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Americans are publicly warring with a centuries-old, unyielding national deference to those entrusted to "serve and protect."
A mass realization that the police often do not protect citizens in the instance of danger, and are in fact not required to, has once again left many asking what purpose the police do serve. As evidenced by Supreme Court cases DeShaney v. Winnebago and Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales—two precedent-setting decisions from decades past that featured the abuse and death, respectively, of children due to inaction by law enforcement—this is not a new conversation.
Throughout American history, abolitionists and those advocating for police reform have pointed to the origins of American policing in slave catching and bounty hunting for the same answer we arrive at today: The police serve no other purpose than to protect property, reinforce capitalistic ideals, and protect the interests of white supremacy.
Still, even with rates at which police solve violent crimes at historically low levels as of 2020, the public-at-large is still fearfully reluctant to envision what the world could be without policing as we know it.
What does a world look like without the brutality many communities have become so accustomed to? What would it mean to abolish the police in today's world?
The foundation of that world already exists. In fact, the tactics to get there have already been put to test throughout modern history.
Since the 1980s, abolitionists have advocated for and helped to implement a restorative model of justice, one that centers accountability and community-driven modes of public safety that the current strictly-punitive system lacks.
A look at past models of resistance and alternatives to policing—as well as the often-ignored challenges past abolitionist eras faced—may provide just the blueprint we seek today.
History's anti-abolition narrative
Most American students hear the term "abolition" for the first—and usually, the last—time during brief elementary school lessons about historical figures like Harriet Tubman, who repeatedly sojourned the Underground Railroad in pursuit of freedom for herself, her family, and all those who sought to be free from slavery in the North. What is not often spoken about is her lifelong epilepsy as a consequence of a head injury she received from refusing to aid her enslaver.
In college, some institutions delve into the role religion played in early abolitionist struggles—like The Religious Society of Friends, colloquially known as Quakers, who stood against slavery internationally as far back as the 1600s, and petitioned the American colonies to cease the slave trade and bounty hunting by slave catchers—the original police—with the formation of The Pennsylvania Abolition Society in the late 1700s. But what is often dismissed from their history is how the Quakers were jailed and exiled for their abolitionist beliefs and for providing safe passage, shelter, and supplies to escaped fugitives and the enslaved traveling through the Underground Railroad.
As carceral institutions evolved into what we recognize as modern policing, abolitionist theory and organizing evolved with it. Feminist and abolitionist Ida B. Wells' national anti-lynching newspaper column through the early 1900s brought her constant death threats for her calling attention to police terror in Black communities.
The removal of consequence from the narrative surrounding anti-policing practices separates the idea of abolition from that of public safety in the American psyche. Misrepresentation and erasure of these stories in the popular imagination allowed a separate narrative to form through the 1900s—one that framed police as a necessary, chaotic good, where police must exist to keep the general public safe from harm. Still, abolitionist theory and practice continued to evolve in response.
The birth of modern abolitionism
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s serves as the blueprint for much of today's activism. Historically associated with civil unrest and protest driven by minority communities seeking the recognition of their rights and personhood, the era also presented an urgent need for policing alternatives, which were paramount to communities of color that, historically, could not rely upon law enforcement to serve and protect equitably. There are many historical instances of abolitionist work that still endure today that were proposed, designed, and implemented in direct response to a lack of law enforcement presence or concern in the past.
It's around this time that concrete community policing and crime prevention tactics, wherein neighborhoods provided much of the security and redistribution of vital resources to ensure safety en masse for its residents, were born. The Black Panther Party's organized response came in the form of the Free Breakfast for School Children Program, as well as a free ambulance program, manufacturing and disbursement of shoes to impoverished children and adults, public health and vaccination programs, legal representation, and educational and tutoring programs, among others. Many of these programs were soon implemented across every American city with a Black Panther Party chapter. One of the party's programmatic thrusts, the Black Panther Party Ten-Point Program, called for members to follow police to precincts upon the arrest of Black people, informing them of their legal rights, and bailing them out of jail immediately. Their efforts helped to reduce incarceration in the areas the chapters served.
Also around this time, across the Northeast, groups of Chinese, Latinx, and other immigrant communities organized themselves into neighborhood groups based upon nationality and native language—dubbed "gangs" by law enforcement—as defensive responses to white-led turf wars and police threats. These groups provided protection for youth and families from racial discrimination and police violence in neighborhoods and schools, and created avenues for immigrants to obtain safe housing and ease the language barrier.
Dehumanization practices toward marginalized communities continued to spark more creative and expansive abolitionist practices. Community-led organizations have long stood at the forefront of redistributing medical and public health resources to those being targeted instead of aided by the police.
Sex workers and the LGBTQ+ communities have also pioneered abolitionist strategies in response to unequal treatment under the law. Starting in the 1970s, the slang term "NHI" or "No Human Involved" was used amongst law enforcement for crimes victimizing sex workers, drug users, and those affiliated with gangs largely in Black and Latino neighborhoods. As former Los Angeles Police Department traffic cop turned sex worker and activist Norma Jean Almodovar described in the 2009 documentary No Humans Involved, "[T]erms like these make it clear that those of us who choose, for whatever reason, to engage in commercial sex are no longer considered a part of the human race."
The danger sex workers face, coupled with the lack of police care surrounding their harm, led to the creation of neighborhood buddy systems. These groups would write down the license plates of clients, and perform phone check-ins with one another to ensure their communal safety. Queer communities, often forced to engage in survival sex work due to hiring discrimination, frequently employed the same practices.
Further, discrimination towards Black people in both populations during this time was so egregious that police would often not dispatch ambulance services in predominantly-Black neighborhoods. This, amongst other atrocities, helped to spur the creation of the Freedom House Ambulance Service, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, community-led, community-funded ambulance service operated by laypersons trained to ensure equitable medical services to impoverished minorities. The program served as a foundational model for the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act of 1986, which guarantees all Americans the right to emergency care.
Under New York state law, since the 1970s, a transgender woman being found with a condom in her possession is enough evidence, to be arrested for suspicion of prostitution. As a result, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) organizations around the country, made up of sex workers and allies, organized bailouts to push back against the carceral system, worked to repeal laws and advocated for government-provided, inexpensive health screenings in the 1970s through the 1980s.
Violence against women
One of the most vehement anti-abolition talking points is the question of how to address the scourge that is violence against women. Many domestic violence activists and feminist scholars, even those who are purportedly prison and police abolitionists, war with providing solutions to survivors that keep communities and families safe. This too has been addressed by abolitionists throughout history, as addressing issues specific to women and girls is vital in creating a safer, more equitable world for all.
Law enforcement's involvement in addressing violence against women, especially domestic violence, is a fairly recent phenomenon, beginning in the 1980s in response to widespread feminist and sex worker activism and culminating with the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, which allowed police discretion to determine arrests of perpetrators in cases of domestic violence. Prior to this, victims were left to suffer in silence or lean upon community activism for aid.
In 1971, in response to the rape of a 13-year-old child followed up with six hours of interrogation and medical examination without her parents, the organization Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR) was formed. With the goal of empowering victims and protecting communities, BAWAR formed neighborhood watches and posted "street sheets," which included all known information about known rapists who had attacked women, such as their license plate numbers and physical description. Feminist network organizations like INCITE! coordinated housing and other resources for women to leave their abusers.
Police response to violence against women has also always been littered with ineffectiveness and systemic bias, which often makes policing itself an ineffective option for survivors. In feminist author Susan Schecter's 1982 book Women and Male Violence: The Visions and Struggles of the Battered Women's Movement, she describes how law enforcement policies specific to domestic violence incidents led to mandatory arrests, often of the survivors who fought back in self-defense. In the wake of the Violence Against Women Act, it is often LGBTQ+ survivors, victims with language barriers or who fear deportation, and women of color who bear the brunt of the state's domestic violence action plan at the hands of a police force—an institution of which, surveys have shown, some 40 percent of its own officers may be perpetrators of domestic violence themselves.
Abolitionist efforts of the 21st century show that the blueprint and tools given to us by our ancestors are alive and well. Abolitionists played an outsized role in picking up the pieces of communities dismantled by the post-Reagan "War on Drugs" era, which, in the 1990s, saw incarceration records in some American cities that still hold today. By this time, the movement had evolved, as it always has throughout history, to include the call for the dismantling of all the tools of the carceral state—prisons, jails, deportation facilities, juvenile facilities, and the police forces that man them.
The introduction of the idea of "mass incarceration" into the American psyche was met with the first forays into critical public thought around why the system of policing exists as it does. Scores of Americans demonized and arrested for substance abuse in the wake of the crack cocaine epidemic highlighted, for many, that police response, especially to a public health crisis, was just one of the many ways the system itself does not prioritize public safety.
Abolitionists of today have learned from the many lessons—and tactics—of the past.
As part of Scalawag's 3rd annual Abolition Week, pop justice is exclusively featuring perspectives from currently and formerly incarcerated folks and systems-impacted folks.
In 2020, multiple cities around the country reported that they were successfully reducing the need for police intervention by creating alternatives to 911, with a goal of preventing deaths and trauma associated with police involvement in non-emergency and emergency calls alike. Later that same year, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of police, residents of Minneapolis, Minnesota, voted to disband their police department and not replace it with another entity. In a move critics originally thought would usher in an onslaught of violence in a city already reeling from a rising crime wave, residents banded together to demand that the city use this as an opportunity to "reimagine what public safety can be and how money gets spent."
In a 2021 interview for The New Yorker, activist and The New York Times best-selling author, Mariame Kaba, described her theory of abolition, saying, "I am looking to abolish what I consider to be death-making institutions, which are policing, imprisonment, sentencing, and surveillance. And what I want is to basically build up another world that is rooted in collective wellness, safety, and investment in the things that would actually bring those things about."
A world without police and the systemic and oppressive violence they inflict is not impossible. The requirement of abolitionists and non-abolitionists alike is to commit themselves to possibility. The possibility that police are not necessary for every role we currently associate them with. The possibility that community is our strongest weapon against violence. The possibility that seeing each other through the lens of empathy—not racism, sexism, ableism, and other debilitating pillars that currently uphold and insist upon the carceral state's existence—could change the world.
History has shown us glimpses of what that world could be. We must only continue to create it.