Juneteenth is a day that celebrates the announcement of emancipation from slavery while providing us an important warning. Changes for the better can be followed by reconfigurations of past violence. Though some enslaved people celebrated freedom on this day, many continued to be kept in bondage and others were reenslaved. Meanwhile, those who wanted slavery to remain intact found new ways to reform the abolished system long past its official end. We can see their efforts to this day in prisons, courts and policing. Now that wide swaths of the country are hearing the call to abolish the police, those who are issuing these calls are being asked, “How?” Abolitionists are tasked with building what, for many, is unimaginable.
This has always been the case for abolitionists — from the earliest slavery abolitionists to today’s abolitionists, who are calling for an end to the criminal punishment system. Trying to eradicate that which is seen as completely normal and widely acceptable is quite an undertaking. In the midst of mass uprisings in response to countless police killings, the word abolition has gained mainstream appeal. What may have once been fringe and radical to many became plausible almost overnight.
That being said, there is a lot of misinformation circulating about what abolition actually is: Some are saying abolition is symbolic; others are saying abolition means reinventing failed reforms. In a society that desires easy and quick explainers, a proliferation of short and sweet summaries is being attached to a process that’s long and arduous. In order to shape the conditions we need, even those who have been practicing and teaching abolition for a long time will have to keep learning, alongside those who only recently discovered it.
In April 2019, Professor Joy James gave a lecture titled, “The Architects of Abolitionism: George Jackson, Angela Davis, and the Deradicalization of Prison Struggles.” During her talk, she warned how the confrontational nature of abolition was being diluted. One of James’s most important points was that “anybody at any time can claim to be an abolitionist.” She said it was “the logical conclusion of deradicalizing the prison struggle by severing it from a grassroots, working-class, Black base or people of color base that sought autonomy from the state.” She also cautioned against the sanitization of abolitionism that’s been taking place in academia, while pointing to prison reformist efforts like those recently led by fiscally conservative politicians.
Forces hoping to strip abolitionism of Black radicalism and misconstrue it have been doing so through pushing certain types of prison reform. Conservative forces like Charles Koch penned pro-reform op-eds decrying the “overcriminalization of America.” Liberals embraced it. President Trump took a call regarding a requested sentence commutation from the celebrity Kim Kardashian. He granted that commutation (of Alice Marie Johnson) before passing the criminal justice reform “First Step Act” on December 21, 2018, to acclaim from both conservatives and mainstream Democrats. The stage was already being set for what we’re witnessing now.
Those who did not know anything yesterday have become voices of authority today. People like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland have said widespread calls to defund the police are a “metaphor.” He sings alongside a chorus of confused and intentional mischaracterizations that are saying the same thing about abolition. Some even wrongly think defunding the police is abolition. Abolition is, in fact, about ridding ourselves of the problem that is the so-called “criminal justice system,” not trying to repair what’s working as it’s intended to.
Prison abolitionist and educator Mariame Kaba provided clarity in a New York Times op-ed entitled, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.” Mariame noted that policing is not keeping us safe — in fact, it makes Black people unsafe — and cops don’t actually do what we imagine they do. After providing substantial information about the deadly shortcomings of piecemeal, gradualist efforts to “fix” the police, she concludes, “What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all? This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice. When the streets calm and people suggest once again that we hire more Black police officers or create more civilian review boards, I hope that we remember all the times those efforts have failed.”
The violence against Black people at the hands of the state has become so ordinary that, for many, it’s seen as simply the price of “safety.” The concept of abolishing police can scare people who are at risk of being killed by this violence too. But if we’re going to achieve abolition, there has to be an embrace of the unknown. It’s going to be a reluctant embrace for some, because the unknown is scary. What those who feel this hesitancy should ask themselves, though, is: Why would it be better to settle for the nonstop death and violence of the current system? We’re hoping to leave this abusive relationship with the forces of state violence. And in doing so, we affirm our worth and defend ourselves against an abuser that’s not going to change.
How can we avoid diluting abolition to the point that it becomes something else entirely? For one thing, we have to keep abolition true to its core Black radical principles and foundations. Abolition originated as a direct challenge to capitalism. This system designated people as property and tasked slave patrols with social control and maintaining the bondage of Black people. Police still maintain this assignment of protecting property and the class interests of the wealthy. That’s why abolitionists must embrace the anti-capitalism, Black feminism, and self-defense politics that made the abolition movement what it is.
Abolitionists must reject the idea of centering inclusion — that is, the idea that Black and other marginalized people should simply be included more in the status quo society. After all, it’s the desire to be included in a white supremacist society that gave us Black police, judges and executioners. They’re no more ethical because they’re Black, are they? They’re merely helpers in a system carrying out its purpose: maintaining white supremacy. Their positions tell us that what white people have isn’t freedom, either: more access to a violently oppressive system isn’t liberating. Abolition has to demand much more.
Abolishing the police isn’t the end. It’s a process that’s part of a much larger task of taking control of our communities, which would include furthering a revolutionary social process. The changes we need have to happen across every aspect of society, and abolishing violent institutions is one part of that. Those institutions still have to be removed from the hearts, minds and bodies of the people they’ve harmed for so long.
Abolition doesn’t mean living in a fantasy; it means demanding much more than what we’re used to. On Juneteenth, let’s declare ourselves finished with this punishment system that lies and calls itself justice. Let go of it, and let go of the legitimacy it has in your mind. Let it die so we can experience what it’s like to have more than enough.
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