Reimagining the Commons Is One Step Toward a Future Without Police

The abolition of policing is about building a new world centered around “the commons” — a term initially used to describe an area of land in the center of medieval towns to be used by all. The commons was a place to graze sheep and plant crops, to meet, to hold weddings and funerals, and to mark the passage of the seasons. Owned by no one, it was used by everyone for collective sustenance and celebration. It has evolved to describe the concept of collective resources for the collective good, while “commoning” has come to describe the process and practice of coming together to cultivate and manage common resources.

“Commoning” is about affirming humanity, eliminating inequality and social hierarchies, and promoting shared well-being and greater safety. Police are the antithesis of the commons: their original and continuing role is to police who gets what and when, all towards the purpose of enabling wealth accumulation. Rebuilding the commons doesn’t mean expanding institutions of soft policing in the name of building up “the public sector.” Instead, it means abolishing the social order that privatizes and polices the commons so that we can build a new society and forms of governance that will reinstate the commons and grow it sustainably. We’re not asking for kinder, gentler cops, or broader or softer lines around who gets what. And we’re not demanding more money for public services that are administered in punitive and criminalizing ways. We’re demanding the creation and expansion of the commons as part of a Black feminist culture of care rooted in shared resources, infrastructures, and knowledge that will allow communities to self-govern and thrive. The goal is collective flourishing and the acknowledgment of our shared humanity.

How does this translate into actionable demands? Universal accessible, quality womb-to-ancestor health care, education, child and elder care, housing; safe, sustainable, accessible and meaningful ways to contribute to the collective; a universal basic income regardless of whether people choose to work; and everything else needed for life and safety. To make these common entitlements and not “benefits” policed through social policy, they must be universal and, along with land and labor, de-commodified. Recreating the commons also means ensuring de-commodified access to things that make life worth living — the things that are necessary to live fully into our individual and collective human potential, like arts, culture, recreation, and rest. This is about far more than access to goods and services; it’s about a new conception of community and social relations. “Commoning” to meet everyone’s material needs requires us to shift from a deficit mindset to one of abundance. It means we must stop constantly looking for the person who is “undeserving,” “cheating,” taking more than “their share,” or “getting over on the system,” whose behavior or ways of being must be policed through denial of access to social goods. These frames all come out of policing — labeling someone an “appropriate” target for criminalization, abandonment, or regulation. Instead, we need to create and maintain a sustainable culture in which there is enough for everyone. The degree to which policing interrupts cultures of care was apparent in a (now deleted) tweet posted by the police department in Bloomington, Indiana. The department tweeted that they had noticed people were taking all the books from the town’s free library. Despite the fact that this is the explicit intention of a free library, the department was agitated. They fixated on a presumption that people were reselling the books on the secondhand book market even though there is no prohibition against doing so. A culture of care makes books available to anyone who needs them, in whatever quantity they need, without question about what they are doing with them, within a broader context of collective care that extends to care for the planet.

Shifting to an abundance mindset can be challenging for many of us — including abolitionists. In Charmaine Chua’s recounting of the two-week occupation of the Sheraton in Minneapolis described in greater detail in the “No Soft Police” chapter, she describes the work volunteers had to do to interrupt their own instincts to police, and to instead create a “culture of abundance” within the reclaimed space in which residents were free to take more than one meal or stock up on snacks. Just as we need to unseat the “copaganda,” “copspeak,” and “cop knowledge” described in the “How Do We Get There?” chapter within ourselves, we also need to interrupt the instincts ingrained by racial capitalism to protect me, mine, and my people at the expense of others. We also need to unseat the instinct to become the “soft police” ourselves, by controlling access to resources in ways that coerce compliance with notions of “normalcy” and “proper citizenship” while still holding people accountable to shared values. At the core of these commitments is a recognition of our deep, collective interdependence. That means taking responsibility for each other’s care. It means structuring society in such a way that there is enough to go around, and it doesn’t fall to a few individuals to care for others in unsustainable ways.

Cultivating a culture of abundance and meeting communities’ material needs will no doubt go a long way toward reducing the likelihood of harm. And, even once all our needs are met, people will still harm each other. We are all still human. However, as Rachel Herzing says, “Eliminating the PIC will expand the context in which we can develop new ways of relating, build protection, and address harm.” Policing currently takes up so many resources and so much airtime that it crowds out opportunities for underfunded and unfunded community-based solutions to prevent, intervene in, and help us heal from harm and violence. Defunding police and refunding the commons would generate resources and create space for community programs to grow and practice nonpolice and non-carceral responses to crisis. It will also allow for investment in an ecosystem of preventive and respite care to stop crises from happening in the first place. Reimagining and rebuilding the commons is thus a critical step toward creating futures without policing.