The past year saw a major uprising across the United States as people mobilized against racist state violence in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis in May. Drawing on a divest/invest framework that abolitionists have been using for years, “defund the police” became a common demand at protests. The demand is a first step toward abolishing the prison-industrial complex by dismantling its infrastructure and shifting resources toward things people need like food, housing and community-based safety practices. From an abolitionist perspective, the events in the U.S. Capitol on January 6th have only made it clearer why more policing does not equate to more security: From their foundation, the police have always been on the side of white supremacy.
Woods Ervin, communications director of Critical Resistance, a nationwide abolitionist organization founded in 1997 by a group that included Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, put it this way: “The way that the prison industrial complex (PIC) is pitched is a one-size-fits-all model to address a variety of kinds of concerns that actually require specialized attention” — attention that doesn’t “involve bringing in more punishment, more violence, or removing people from those communities, which is what the PIC does.”
“Abolition is not about standardizing,” points out Miski Noor, co-director of Black Visions in Minneapolis. Abolition is liberating precisely because it is not homogenous and is not a pre-designed program. Imagination plays a big role — and therefore is not necessarily easily mass marketed.
But abolition is also a broader concept, encompassing the abolition of borders and imperialism, systems of social control including foster care and many kinds of social work, and the erasure of the concept of criminality itself. “Everything has to change in order for us to actually realize abolition because so much of how we live is embedded in punishment systems,” says PG Watkins with 313Liberation Zone and the Green Light Black Futures coalition in Detroit.
Recent comments made by former president Barack Obama and other Democrats claim that the call to “defund the police” does not have enough appeal or power. Speaking to activists reveals how much these comments miss the point. The movement to defund the police is making a constant and explicit commitment to center the people who are most impacted by policing and, in particular, those who Noor refers to as having been “failed over and over again.” The movement’s approach brings the margin to the center, putting into practice threads of Black feminist theory and traditions of Black liberation in which the abolitionist movement is rooted.
Unfazed by establishment Democrats’ opposition, organizers in cities across the country are working actively on a wide variety of abolitionist projects. Some are experimental, like Black Visions’ Transformative Black-led Movement Fund, which is redistributing resources they received after the uprising in Minneapolis. Noor sees the fund as a way to “till the soil and invest in an ecosystem of arts and culture and organizing and power-building” to recover from the divestment that has harmed Black communities and Black people. Money is being distributed to healers, organizers, artists, Black businesses building community wealth, and mutual and legal aid initiatives, to name a few. In Minneapolis and other cities, projects include defunding the police, working on emergency releases from COVID-infested prisons, taking chunks out of the prison-industrial complex like life sentences without parole, creating cop-free zones, and embodying and building up other practices of abolition in their communities, including critically centering voices usually left out of political conversations.
Although organizers have been working on divestment campaigns for years, there is new energy behind efforts to reduce policing budgets. Noor characterizes the difference as “exciting” because all of this year’s proposed budgets in the city are more than what activists felt they could demand just two years ago.
In Chicago, the city just wrapped up its budget process with the mayor’s budget — which did not substantially shift funding away from the police — passing by only a small margin, thanks to the efforts of the defund movement. This is historic, because the budget vote is “typically a process of rubber stamping the mayor’s agenda,” according to Asha Ransby-Sporn, a member of the Black Abolitionist Network and the steering committee of Defund CPD.
“What we certainly have won is a great deal of people over to our side when it comes to not just defunding the police, but also connecting that to other issues that affect Black and Brown, and poor and working people in the city,” Ransby-Sporn says, citing a recent city-sponsored survey where an overwhelming 87 percent of Chicago residents said they wanted to reallocate money away from the police and move it to other city services. Highlighting that it’s “not all about austerity,” Ransby-Sporn says Democratic mayor Lori Lightfoot has threatened council members with divesting from city services in wards where council members voted to divest from the police.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., organizers aim to cut the city’s policing budget in half over the next three years, while looking to increase taxes on the rich.
“Our agenda for next year is really going to be about ways to make sure that our state governments and our social safety nets do not go bankrupt — and that we’re not tightening budgets in ways that are going to hurt the Black people in the working class,” Makia Green, an organizer with an autonomous chapter of Black Lives Matter and the Working Families Party, says. Black Lives Matter DC is also focused on supporting public campaign financing so that regular people can run for office, like Janeese Lewis George, who just won a seat on the D.C. city council on a defund platform.
In Detroit, the budget cycle is coming up in 2021 and a major goal, according to PG Watkins, will be to “make the defund demand real.” Organizers are targeting not only the police themselves but also the surveillance program Project Greenlight, which has posted cameras at just under 700 local businesses, residential buildings, clinics, and other places in the community. The program provides real-time camera surveillance to the Detroit police department in exchange for preferential police response time.
Non-Reformist Reforms Planned for 2021
Kamau Walton, a member of Critical Resistance, says it’s clear that defunding will be a multi-year push in most places. Walton says Critical Resistance’s role is to support strategic planning and other needs as activists continue to push for defunding nationally.
Divestment, Walton says, is about “chipping away at the reach of the PIC in communities.” Abolitionists sometimes refer to practices of chipping away as “non-reformist reforms,” or changes that get the movement closer to abolition instead of reforms that simply make policing seem more palatable to those who are not really affected by it.
Ervin with Critical Resistance highlights that organizing for releases is at the top of the list for 2021, “because it’s such a red alarm emergency.” COVID, of course, makes the already toxic conditions in the prison even more dangerous. They point out that “there’s been a surprising lack of releases,” even from high-powered Democratic governors like Gavin Newsom (California), Andrew Cuomo (New York) and Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan) who have received a lot of praise for how they have handled the pandemic.
In California, Aminah Elster with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) says the group is engaged in this urgent effort to push for releases as well as several efforts to change sentencing and improve conditions within prisons. One key effort is ending “life without parole” which “in the state of California is essentially a death sentence.”
At the national level, the People’s Coalition for Safety and Freedom seeks to repeal the 1994 Crime Bill, co-written by President-elect Joe Biden, and to replace it with legislation written by people in communities most directly affected by the bill. They describe this as a revolutionary process of “people’s movement assemblies” through which people will propose and implement their own solutions at the policy level rather than having legislative solutions prescribed by those who sit outside of their (harmful) impacts, including an acknowledgement of wrongdoing in the original ’94 Crime Bill.
Watkins from Green Light Black Futures says that for organizers, a major goal for 2021 is to “normalize abolition.” “Defund the police” is a launching point to discuss and deepen organizing against all the ways that the prison industrial complex organizes and targets people on the street, in the prisons, in social services, and through the very ways our lives our organized.
Mutual Aid and Care
Abolitionists often thread their policy proposals, plans and analyses with the principles of care and love. When Makia Green talked about defunding police in D.C. — the city with the highest police per capita — they talked about how such a change would decrease the number of interactions their younger cousins have with police and stop them from being pushed into the prison system. In particular, abolitionists prioritize deep care and respect for the people who are often forgotten, marginalized, invisible and most directly harmed by the police and the prison industrial complex.
The core of Black Visions’ mission is to show this love by making Black queer and trans people and their experiences visible so they can receive the care they need and deserve. The organization actively holds space for queerness, for family, and for joy in the “fullness of our humanity.” It’s about “practicing the love and care now so that we can actually be in practice of it, so that we can create a world in which all of us can be free,” Noor says.
Elster says CCWP is also working to “wrap up our efforts to maintain communication with folks on the inside, and also fighting to make sure that they are not overlooked in this pandemic.” The group is growing their pen pal training program since there is currently no in-person visitation, continuing their “survival and release advocacy work,” and raising money in response to COVID to help currently and formerly incarcerated people with their necessities.
“We need to double up,” on taking care of each other and creating things, says Watkins in Detroit, especially with the pandemic. They continue, “I think part of the fight for abolition is showing people in real time, what types of systems of care we can create, and actually doing that experimentation in small- and large-scale ways.” As an example, Watkins describes the 313Liberation Zone project, which has set up several police-free “liberation zones” in the middle of the city for several hours or days with music, cookouts, arts and crafts, community meetings, free stores and political education. They describe the 313Liberation Zone project as a way for Detroiters to be “embodying liberation and practicing liberation in our spaces.”
Keeping the Movement Going Under a Biden/Harris Administration
Abolitionist organizers want to “turn this spark from last year into a fire,” Ervin says. From California to Detroit, people are refocusing on the importance of political education as a tool to keep the momentum going from this summer’s uprisings. In Minneapolis, Black Visions has been holding Sunday Salons to answer questions about abolition, while Elster says she’s really excited about the possibilities that may grow from the new coalitions that have formed this year with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.
Ransby-Sporn says she believes “political education is fundamental to building a base and growing a movement, because that’s where you get people on the same page about what we’re actually fighting for.” In political education spaces, we can work together to “build a new common sense of how we think the world should look.”
One reason there is so much investment in political education as local campaigns transition into 2021 is because they fear cooptation as the new Democratic administration enters the White House. Biden and Harris are “actually well versed at being able to absorb radical movements,” says Ervin, and emphasizes that activists need to be aware of this in our organizing. The new administration is expected to present “false alternatives” of “21st century policing 2.0,” as Walton put it. Examples of these include body cameras and bias trainings, which only expand the resources being given to the PIC rather than shift resources away into community-controlled, noncarceral alternatives. Meanwhile, these initiatives do not deter the very things they aim to prevent; chokeholds were already banned in New York City when Eric Garner was murdered by the NYPD. Organizers and scholars have repeatedly shown such “reformist reforms” are ineffective at best.
Abolitionists remind us that the Black Lives Matter movement itself became necessary and began under the Obama/Biden administration. These activists are skeptical about the Biden/Harris administration’s openness to “non-reformist reforms.” Regardless, organizers will continue to target city and state budgets, to demand non-policing resources that support communities in flourishing, and refuse to shrink their political imaginations. This movement is not backing off once Trump leaves the White House.