Copaganda Arrests Our Imaginations

“There’s so much deference to police around everything to do with public safety. What they say is taken as gospel without question, without requiring proof of concept, without requiring any kind of accountability for when what they’re saying actually doesn’t line up with the facts or people’s experiences,” says author and activist Andrea Ritchie. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Ritchie and host Kelly Hayes discuss Ritchie’s new book, No More Police, coauthored with Mariame Kaba, and talk about how copaganda “shapes our imagination about what policing is, what it’s doing, what it’s not doing, and the necessity of it.”

Music by Son Monarcas and Imprismed

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity, and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. Today, we are talking about abolishing the police. More specifically, we are talking about a new book from Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie called No More Police: A Case for Abolition. It will be no surprise to anyone that I love this book, but I am really excited to be joined today by my friend Andrea Ritchie to explore some of the ideas in this incredibly important book, which Kirkus Reviews has called, “A brilliantly articulated plan to abolish the police.” Andrea Ritchie is a Black lesbian immigrant survivor who has spent the last three decades documenting, organizing, advocating, litigating, and agitating around policing and the criminalization of Black women, girls, trans, and gender nonconforming people. She is the author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color and co-author of Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women, Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, and most recently, No More Police. Andrea co-founded the Interrupting Criminalization initiative with Mariame Kaba, as well as the In Our Names Network, which is a network of over 20 organizations working to end police violence against Black women, girls, trans and gender nonconforming people.

Part handbook and part roadmap, No More Police is a book written by organizers for organizers. The book makes a case for abolition, outlining failures of policing and police reforms, but also presents us with a practical vision for remaking the world we live in. This is an expansive book that has chapter titles like, “How Do We Get There? Toward a Police Free Future” and as an abolitionist and an organizer, I can tell you, this is a book that a lot of us have been waiting for. No More Police also addresses some of the tensions that often arise in abolitionist organizing, like concerns around personal safety, or whether to demand the imprisonment of killer cops. It even takes on the very tricky topic of abolition’s relationship to the state — which is a touchy subject, given that some abolitionists identify as communists or socialists, while others identify as anarchists, or none of those things. My conversation with Andrea about this book went deep, so today, we are going to talk about policing, language, and safety, and in two weeks, you will be hearing from us again about the relationship between abolition and the state, abolitionist futures, and more.

The first thing I really want to dig into today is how this book tackles language and how the media shapes our ideas about who cops are and what they do. As Andrea and Mariame write in No More Police, “It’s not simply that we can’t imagine a world without police, but that we are disciplined into not having that imagination through ‘copaganda’—propaganda favorable to law enforcement that inundates mainstream media.”

Andrea Ritchie: We really got to do a deep dive into how language shapes our imagination in terms of how we speak about police and policing. In that conversation, we’re really informed by people like Rachel Herzing, who has made it her mission for us not to use the word “officer.” Her reasoning behind that is “officer” implies someone that you should defer to. There’s so much deference to police around everything to do with public safety. What they say is taken as gospel without question, without requiring proof of concept, without requiring any kind of accountability for when what they’re saying actually doesn’t line up with the facts or people’s experiences. And Rachel really feels like words like officer embody that kind of deference, and that if we use words like “cops,” or “police,” which reflect what they’re actually doing, or who they are and don’t imply that deference, it shapes our imagination about what they’re saying and what they’re doing differently.

We also learned a lot from David Correia and Tyler Wall, who have a book called Police: A Field Guide, that talks about cop speak and the ways in which police shape our imaginations and the words that they use. So “armed suspect,” “use of force,” and just the ways in which they describe the work that they’re doing and the people they’re encountering, and their response to them in ways that sanitize their behavior, that place the blame squarely on the individuals who they’re committing violence against, or denying protection to, and really put us in their minds and in their framework.

And then, we also got to talk about how the media colludes in this process. I’m always inspired by Ida B. Wells in so many ways, but when writing about white terror and lynching in the late 19th century, talked about the ways in which the media was an accomplice to that state-sponsored or condoned terrorism. I think the same is very much true today. For instance, one term we talk about in the book is “officer-involved shooting.” Somehow it’s not “the cop shot someone and killed them.” It’s “a shooting happened, an officer was somehow nearby, but there’s no one who’s responsible for what happened.” Also, we don’t necessarily even hear in that sentence that the person died. We certainly don’t hear in that sentence how they died, how painful it was, the consequences and impacts on their families and communities, or any question whether that was the appropriate response at all.

And so, there’s been a lot of conversation lately about copaganda and the ways in which TV shows like “Law & Order,” or even “PAW Patrol,” or “Cops” shape our imagination about what police are and what they do. We take a little bit of a deeper dive with the help of people like Rachel Herzing, David Correia, Tyler Wall, into how deeply into our language cops speak and copaganda permeates and how that shapes our imagination about what policing is, what it’s doing, what it’s not doing, and the necessity of it.

KH: One recent consequence of copaganda is that many media outlets have regurgitated fear-mongering about rising crime rates in the face of fascist violence. When Paul Pelosi, husband of House speaker Nancy Pelosi was recently attacked by a man who entered her home saying, “where’s Nancy,” media outlets, including The New York Times, joined Republicans in pointing to rising crime rates, rather than emphasizing the likelihood that this was a fascist assasination attempt. Nancy Pelosi was a named target of Capitol rioters who also voiced plans to hang Mike Pence on January 6. U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has previously stated that the speaker was eligible for a death sentence, due to her supposedly treasonous acts in Congress, and once liked a social media post indicating that the fastest way to remove Pelosi from office would be a “bullet to the head.” Representative Lauren Boebert faced calls for her removal after the January 6 insurrection for tweeting about Pelosi’s location during the attack, in what many surmised was an effort to help the rioters’ locate and potentially harm the speaker. But in spite of the murderous, fascist rhetoric Republicans have aimed at Pelosi for years, and the riotous hunt for the speaker that many of us have witnessed in chilling videos of the Capitol riots, the attack on her husband has been framed by many as the product of rising crime rates.

On Sunday, Elon Musk shared a conspiracy theory about the attack on Paul Pelosi on Twitter, a platform he now owns. Notably, the conspiracy theory played into right-wing smears against queer people, which are an important part of the current fascist agenda.

For Musk, sharing an offensive story from a widely discredited website seems reminiscent of Trump’s frequent nods to QAnon — an embrace of the fact that his target audience wants nothing to do with reality. But what’s with the “rising crime” narrative around an attack that was so clearly targeted? When it comes to Republican leaders, the explanation is obvious. For them, blaming this attack on rising crime rates is no different than blaming school shootings on “mental health issues” in our society. In this case, copaganda is a form of misdirection — which is all Republicans are left with when their violence manifests in ways that people find upsetting. Democratic leaders are poorly positioned to interrupt this narrative, because their neoliberal governance offers up policing and prisons as the only possible solutions to just about every social problem. That makes copaganda and fear-mongering about crime as important to them as it is to the Republicans. Politicians, whether Democratic or Republican, who preside over deprivation and skyrocketing inequality need their cops to make sure everyone stays in line. That means Democrats have relied on narratives about rising crime rates, rejecting calls to defund the police and proposing new funding bonanzas for cops. The Democrats also seem to live in fear of saying anything too polarizing, even as their opposition seeks to overthrow the electoral system amid the rise of global fascism.

The corporate news media thrives on copaganda, often acting as “stenographers for the cops,” as Mariame Kaba often says. So in the absence of more aggressive rhetoric from most Democrats, it’s not surprising that most networks and publications are failing to capture the reality of the fascist threat we face. Our society is not prepared for an honest assessment of its own violence. I have had a number of friends reach out to me in recent days to express how nervous they are about the media’s handling of the attack on Paul Pelosi, and how poorly the media is responding to what we are up against. This kind of failure sadly is not new. We have also seen the corporate media fail miserably when it comes to covering threats like climate change, often opting to ignore the topic. Given that the corporate media is owned and operated by the very people who are screwing us all over, they have no incentive to acknowledge truths that might lead to social upheaval or demands for systemic change. Much like politicians, the super rich have no solutions for the trouble ahead, aside from relying on police to keep our suffering, destruction and disposal as orderly as possible — which makes copaganda important to them too. So these outlets tend to peddle predictable narratives that enshrine the status quo, which includes the idea that we have no constructive options as a society in crisis, except to throw more money at police. The contradictory nature of this argument amid the rise of fascism, given that police are clearly a fascistic force, is neither acknowledged nor resolved. It cannot be, because neither Democrats nor the corporate press have any framework in which they can name these truths while also maintaining the status quo.

AR: Micah Herskind in Atlanta did a really interesting mapping of how the prison-industrial complex, who the players are at the local level and how they’re playing out in a fight that organizers there are in to stop the construction of a multi-multimillion dollar police facility on forest land. He mapped how the police foundation, and the police union, and police officials are connected to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which is the paper of record in Atlanta and probably frames itself as mainstream and perhaps slightly even liberal. But there’s a way in which the relationships between police as political actors and the mainstream media are not visible. We need folks to do as Micah did. There’s a resource that he created that’s available on the Interrupting Criminalization website to map exactly how police, as a political force, are shaping mainstream media, not just in the press conferences they’re having, but in the relationships between their foundations, their unions, their officials and the media.

KH: In Mariame and Andrea’s discussion of copaganda, I found one example they offered particularly interesting: William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies.

AR: That whole discussion flowed from a story that Mariame sent in and wanted to include in the conversation about a [half] dozen or so Tongan teens who found themselves stranded on an island after taking a boat for a joy ride and being lost at sea in a storm, and who were on the island for [15] months, living cooperatively with mutual aid and accountability, resolving conflict peaceably, creatively, because they knew that all of those things were necessary to their survival. It’s a story that she’s been sharing for years. As we were talking about that in comparison to Lord of the Flies, which is a fictional story that was actually written in response to, I learned, another account of folks stranded, I think it might have been Swiss Family Robinson, that the author of Lord of the Flies didn’t think was realistic. He didn’t think that it was realistic that people stranded on an island together could live peaceably and cooperate together to survive.

He wanted to articulate a story that advanced the idea that humans are inherently violent, chaotic, and will descend into savagery, basically, without the controls of civilization. And I think what I learned from that is that copaganda is not always legible as such. Because until that conversation with Mariame, I hadn’t thought about how everyone in the Commonwealth, in the English speaking world almost, is required to read Lord of the Flies, in middle school, or whenever you’re supposed to read it, maybe high school, but that it’s basically conditioning all of us to believe that that is the world that will ensue without police. Again, David Correia and Tyler Wall write in their book, Violent Order, more deeply about this idea that is at the root of copaganda and is at the root of the order that police manufacture, is this notion that police are necessary to civilization. And without them, we will return to a world of, as they say, that’s nasty, brutish and short, that’s violent, chaotic and dangerous.

Certainly, Lord of the Flies isn’t the only piece of fiction that reifies that story, but it is definitely one of the most widespread. I think we see, whether it’s The Purge, it’s Blade Runner, it’s most recently folks were writing about “Yellow Jackets” in this way, but there are so many stories that are told over and over again. And we wouldn’t necessarily think of those as copaganda in a way that we would target “Cops,” or “Paw Patrol,” or “Law & Order,” but those are equally, if not more, shaping our imagination about what’s possible. And we don’t often see stories in media of any kind in which people cooperate and collaborate to survive without someone forcing them to at the end of a gun or a baton.

KH: It’s so important for us, as organizers, to understand that just about every imagination we encounter has been forced through a gauntlet of narratives about how fundamentally cruel and dangerous other people are, and how screwed we would all be without police around to keep us safe. But as Andrea and Mariame document in their book, “a New York Times investigation based on data collected by police found that only 1 percent to 4 percent of police calls are for ‘serious violent crime’ like homicide, rape, or robbery.” When police do respond to such calls, they find the person responsible a mere one-quarter of the time. Arrest and conviction rates are even more abysmal.

But we have been socially programmed to believe in the necessity of police. I was reminded of that reality as I stood in a park over the summer when I addressed a group of mostly Black and brown junior high and high school students in a conversation about police and prison abolition. After I introduced myself and the ideas I was there to discuss, a young person immediately raised her hand to say that while she agreed with a lot of what I was saying, she still thought police and prisons were necessary because of murderers and rapists. I agreed with her that rape and murder were major concerns, but also reviewed some statistics. Because when you want to diss the police, the numbers are pretty much always on your side.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, “out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 975 perpetrators will go free.” As Matt Clarke reported in Criminal Legal News in 2018, “Statistically, U.S. law enforcement agencies are the worst crime solvers in the Western world.” As Mariame and Andrea write in No More Police, “On average, police solve far fewer than half of homicides or other violent crimes.”

So-called clearance rates are also notoriously unreliable. In Chicago, where I live, for example, police have managed to bolster their embarrasingly low clearance rate for homicides by more frequently blaming dead suspects for murders. In New Orleans, Louisiana, and Columbus, Ohio, police declare a homicide “cleared” when a warrant has been issued for a suspect’s arrest. Crime analyst Jeff Asher argues that the high clearance rates of the 50s, 60s and 70s, when many police departments reported 90 percent clearance rates for homicides, should be disregarded entirely, as these numbers were likely the product of both false arrests and false reporting. So the problem isn’t that police have gotten worse at catching killers, but rather, that this was never a core function of policing, or something that cops were terribly good at.

After reviewing some statistics with the young people, I asked them how the numbers matched up against their own experiences. Were the police preventing violent crimes or creating safety in our neighborhood? Did seeing police make them feel safe? The sense of recognition on some of their faces pained me. On some level, some of them already knew the police were not there to protect them, but we all want to believe a panic button exists, and that if something bad happens, we can hit that panic button, and that we might be helped. I tried to explain to those young people that we do need those mechanisms, and that people are creating and sustaining modes of safety, every day, within their own communities, just as we always have. The young people I spoke with that day were pretty open-minded, but in my experience, young people often have more flexible imaginations than those of us who have been inundated with copaganda for decades.

AR: The experience that you just described of walking people through the ways that police don’t actually produce safety and then the solemn, and almost kind of un-mooring realization that people have in that moment, is something I’ve seen a lot with people who I represented in cases of police, what’s called police brutality cases, or just the violence of policing when they’ve been directly impacted by it and seek redress in civil courts. They’ve described something similar where when they have been beaten, or sexually assaulted, or otherwise violated by the cops, one client of mine talked about it as kind of the ground falling out from under her, and just realizing that as a Black lesbian, the people who had been violently beaten by police, who also, I think, called her a butch-ass dyke while they were doing it, for her, she said that was a moment where she was like, “Wow. Who do I call in that moment? The people I’m told are the source of safety for us as a queer community, as women, as, to a certain extent, Black communities,” in that moment were absolutely the opposite, and described that feeling of just the ground dropping out from under her.

And then, she had the experience of community coming together around her. The Audre Lorde Project in New York City organized around her case. We had legal representation, but we also had community rallies, and protests, and marches, and statements, and just people coming together around her and another person who had the same experience during the same incident, and she got to experience safety from that perspective. And I don’t know that it fully healed or repaired the sensation she had of the ground falling out from under her, but that sense that you describe when people realize that police cannot keep them safe, and do not keep them safe, and are not even set up to keep them safe is definitely an opening. And it can also be what makes people reach harder for it, and double down on, well, we have to be able to fix it. We have to be able to make this work. We have to be able to do this, because I can’t tolerate the alternative, which is the knowledge that they don’t keep us safe, and can’t, and won’t, and aren’t set up for that purpose.

So we really need to, as organizers, seize that opening and invite people into this conversation about what safety is. And the first thing I think we have to do is help people see how they are creating safety for themselves and each other, and what kinds of things will increase their sense of safety and wellbeing, housing, healthcare, connections with people in community, the knowledge that if you need something, if you fall sick with COVID, if you fall down the stairs, if you just can’t go out that day to get food, someone might check in on you. Someone will help you get what you need. Someone will check on you by phone and talk to you if you’re feeling low. And to help people see how they’re already creating safety in their lives, or creating more safety, and where, if we had more of the resources, more of the relationships, more of the skills, more of the infrastructure, that creates a community of collective care, the closer we’ll get. So I think that’s one piece.

I think the second piece is…. And this, again, is a moment where Mariame really brought this to our conversations in the book, and blew my mind open, was this notion that safety is just relative. It’s relative to the resources you have, the relationships you’re in, the conditions that you’re living in, but it’s just not an absolute. You can’t achieve perfect safety. And that’s what the cops try and sell us, and that’s what capitalism tries to sell us, but somehow, we never quite get it. So we talk about it as kind of a protection racket, right? Where the cops come and say, “Give us your money. We’ll give you safety,” and then turns out safety’s not possible, so they come back and say, “Give us more money and we’ll give you safety,” and they just keep coming back, saying, “More, more, more, more, more. You’ll never get it until you give us more,” and it’s the realization that safety is relative and something we create ourselves and with each other collectively that can break us free of that cycle and of that protection racket.

We talk about a couple of things around that. We talk about abolitionist conceptions of safety, which is not something that someone can sell you, but in fact is something that you build together. We talk about the relative nature of safety in a film called The Giverny Document, in which a filmmaker just stood in Harlem and asked Black women if they felt safe in that moment as they walked by. And their answers were all conditional. They were like, “Well, it depends if I’m with this person. It depends if I feel like I’m supported by my friends and community. It depends if the time of day. It depends where I am. It depends,” was basically the answer everybody gave, right? And it’s recognizing the “it depends” part, and the relational part of safety, that I think opens us up to a better understanding of how we create greater collective wellbeing in our communities.

And then recognizing we’ll never achieve it, and Mariame introduced me to this quote from James Baldwin, from his last interview, where he was like, look, you know, we can think that we’re safe, but all of us are just out here “whistling in the dark.” And anything could happen at any time, and the sooner we accept that and stop pursuing an “illusion of safety,” of perfect safety, of complete safety all the time, the less we’ll be prisoner to what people try and sell us in order to achieve that.

And the last thing I want to say about safety is a quote that I heard from Erin Miles Cloud, that just really, I think, encapsulates when people say abolitionists want to abandon our community to violence, or abolitionists don’t care about safety, or we don’t care about all the kinds of violence that are in our communities. She said, you know, “Everyone cares about someone’s safety, somewhere, some of the time. Abolitionists care about everyone’s safety, everywhere, all of the time,” and that’s what motivates us to give a really clear-eyed look at what is and isn’t getting us closer or producing relatively more safety, and what gives us a really clear-eyed look at what police are and aren’t doing, and helps us pull back the veil and debunk the myths that they are promoting, and the smokescreens that they’re putting out about the fact that they are somehow essential to the notion of safety, and helps us see that they actually get in the way of that. They rob us of the resources we need for safety. They create unsafety, as Mariame says, by their mere presence. They signal lack of safety, and helps us really get concrete and clear-eyed about what our communities need in order to increase our individual and collective wellbeing.

KH: I could not agree with Andrea more; knocking down people’s illusions about police is not enough. Because when we leave people grasping for answers, they will often grasp for some version of what they already know. And that means they will be vulnerable to notions that if we only throw more money at this failed mechanism, it will finally save us. We have to invite people into the work of creating solutions, and we have to share examples of how that’s happening, and invite people to consider what they are already doing in their own lives to create safety. One young activist I talked with after the fall of Roe told me about how she and other students had worked to crowdfund abortions for classmates in need when she was in high school. On a number of levels, getting that care was a safety issue, but it didn’t always work out, because the efforts of these young people were not supported by the system or the adults in their lives. We talked about the unsafe situations and traumas that might have been avoided if those students’ efforts at mutual aid had been better supported, or even embraced or taken up by their community as a standard response to an unwanted pregnancy. I assured that young person that they and their friends had been on the right track, and the fact that society was set up in opposition to their success does not mean they were doing something wrong. It means that society is set up in opposition to our safety, and it takes collaborative work to combat the dangers that are imposed upon us.

Moments when people not only realize the true nature of the system, but also understand their own power, in relation to other people, don’t happen everyday. Many people are in need of what Mariame and I have called a “jailbreak of the imagination.”

I often talk about someone who responded to a Twitter thread I wrote, some years ago, explaining how little police actually assist people in crisis, and how actively dangerous their presence can be for some of us. Someone replied that they understood everything I was saying, but that if they get robbed or attacked, they wanted there to be someone for them to call. It was then that I realized that, on some level, a lot of people know nothing positive will happen when they call the police, but that sense of routine — that there is something we are supposed to do after a bad thing happens, that we have some kind of recourse — is important to people, even when the results are routinely unsatisfying, or even harmful.

I often find that, for some people, experiencing the reality of solidarity is the only thing that has the power to interrupt these cycles. Earlier this season, I described a direct action in defense of trans lives, during which a man who disagreed with our message clearly wanted to confront me while I was speaking through a bullhorn, but lost his nerve in the face of a determined crowd of people who were loudly affirming their commitment to defend trans lives. That was an amazing night, but one thing I really hoped people came away with was the power we had in that moment, to keep each other safe. Because if anyone was going to protect me that night, it was not going to be a cop. I knew that going in, but actually seeing people step up, and having the experience of realizing that they, collectively, are a force that can defend trans lives, gave me a lot of hope. Because, just as the crowd was my safety that night, we are each other’s best chance at safety in any given moment.

AR: Even police research shows that most of the time, even in those situations where it’s a robbery in progress or whatever, people call… They don’t call the police first. They call someone else, a friend, a neighbor, an insurance company if the thing has already happened. It’s part of research around police response times, and whether shortening the response time makes a difference in resolving what they label as crime, so it’s sort of hidden in this research that basically, it doesn’t make a difference. The response time doesn’t make that much of a difference, because people are calling someone else first, and that basically, usually the cops get there. Whatever has happened has happened, and either people were able to call someone to assist them or they weren’t, that was closer by, that was nearby, or someone was present nearby. So that, I think, is interesting.

I think also, in that scenario, I want to think about what we can do to make sure someone isn’t going to be robbed in the first place, right? And if someone’s needs are met, then maybe they’re not going to try and have them met in a way that might harm another person. So it’s also backing up from that moment of crisis, and I think that’s what abolition organizing really feels like to me, is getting 1,000 miles ahead of the crisis, rather than organizing our lives around crises that, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore talks about, and many organizers talk about, rather than organizing our lives around responding to the crises that racial capitalism creates for us, and responds to with policing, we can get ahead of those crises by restructuring our society entirely, as she says, by changing everything such that people’s needs are met, we have the skills to deescalate and respond to conflict, and we have the skills to prevent, intervene in, interrupt, and heal from violence, and everyone is able to engage in that work on a daily basis, so it doesn’t fall on just a few people to do all of that.

And the research really shows that it’s not the presence of police necessarily. It’s just the presence of someone in a situation that can, as you were saying, interrupt, prevent, and heal from violence without needing to involve someone with a gun, or a taser, or a baton, which never doesn’t carry with it the likelihood and risk of violence at the same time.

KH: When it comes to interrupting and preventing violence, I have already spoken to the inadequacy of the Democrats, and why they cannot acknowledge any of the facts about policing that we are discussing here, but we would be remiss if we didn’t also address the Biden of it all.

AR: Oh, my God. Biden makes my head explode and has been since 1994, and he just keeps being Biden. It could not have been more fortuitous in terms of timing that on the day that Biden made an announcement that he was going to pour yet another $1.3 billion into police and put another a hundred thousand cops in our streets and neighborhoods, that that was the same day that No More Police came out. And so the response is there, and it really just starkly highlighted that we are contending for power and fighting around two dramatically different visions of the world, right? One is where wealth is increasingly concentrated and the line around diminishing resources available to the rest of us will be increasingly and more tightly and more violently policed, and a world that we were just talking about, in which everyone’s needs are met, people have everything that they need to not just survive, but thrive, and to reach their highest human achievement potential, and we all have the skills and capacities and desires and imaginations to respond to the problems we face in ways that reflect Black feminist politics of collective care.

And so it feels like that day was a day when the two visions were being sort of starkly juxtaposed in the world. And also, given his speech I think later that day, claiming to be anti-fascist, was just irony upon irony. You can’t claim to be anti-fascist while fueling fascism by pouring more and more money into policing. And it’s not just that there are an alarming, to many people, number of cops who are Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and members of explicitly white supremacist and pro-fascist organizations. It’s that, as you just said, the premise of policing is sorting people into deserving/undeserving, and sorting people into people who are deemed criminalized and people who are not, doing that in ways that absolutely manufacture and reinforce a social order that is racialized, gendered, sexualized, and organized around a fascist notion of nation state.

You’re giving these hundred thousand cops the discretion to manufacture that order with violence and impunity, and you’re also fueling fascism, as you just said, by robbing communities of resources, and then creating fertile ground for the right to organize people who have been robbed of resources into blaming and criminalizing the same people that the cops are targeting, and instead of creating a fertile ground for us to imagine and enact ways of being that reflect collective care and a common purpose of surviving this moment.

Under the pretense of fighting fascism, Biden and the Democrats are creating conditions in which fascism can flourish and thrive, and conditions in which people can organize someone to believe that Black people in a Tops supermarket in Buffalo are the source of their problems and the deprivations that they’re experiencing, and not the people who are organizing them to go enact violence. And it’s one of the many things I really appreciate about Movement Memos, is that you are creating the conversations that help us to really get sharp around that, not only in our understanding of it, but also how we’re talking about it, and it also has to infuse how we organize.

So for instance, the Democrats can’t claim to be pro-choice and then pour $1.3 billion into the police who will enforce abortion bans and criminalize pregnant people and people seeking to end pregnancies. They can’t claim to be pro-labor and pour $1.3 billion into police who then crack down on organizers. They can’t claim to be pro-environment and then pour $1.3 billion into police who will crack down on water protectors. You can’t keep pouring money into police coffers instead of people’s pockets and meeting the needs of folks, including, I mean, this is most outrageous, that Pandemic Relief is going into police pockets, which was part of Biden’s plan, which is just outrageous.

And you were talking earlier about how the media is complicit in copaganda. I just, it’s also so complicit in the just genocidal policies that the government is enacting right now around the pandemic by not reporting on the fact that we’re experiencing more deaths, COVID-related deaths now, than at the height of the pandemic; that we are experiencing a mass disabling event, that we are all literally being sacrificed on the altar of capitalism. And then adding insult to injury, the funds, the resources that are being named as responsive to that, are being funneled to police and there’s just no question that that’s how we should respond to the crisis created by the pandemic, the climate, the economy, and the combination of them. So I just, yeah, rant complete.

KH: I know we’re going to get yelled at for that segment because people are going to say we are telling people not to vote for Democrats, but to be clear, we are not saying that at all. I will be voting on November 8. For one thing, we have a bunch of judges on the ballot in Illinois, including two State Supreme Court seats, and I also believe in casting defensive ballots to slow the march of fascism. But for all the reasons Andrea just explained, I do not believe we can afford to view the Democrats as a force against fascism. A fascist mass movement must be countered by an antifascist mass movement. So I will be voting, but I hope people understand that voting is not even, as I have heard some people say, “the bare minimum.” In the scope of my personal political life, it amounts to running a quick errand. But I do urge people to assess what’s on the ballot in their area, no matter how fed up you are with establishment Democrats, because we have a lot of people to protect and a lot of ground to defend right now, and local races, like judicial races, ballot measures, school board races and city council seats are more important than ever. There are fascists fighting to seize just about every level of governance, and we need to push back against those advances.

If you are not in the know about local races, I recommend looking for voting guides from organizations you trust. In Chicago, I tend to rely on the Girl, I Guess voting guide and Injustice Watch’s guide to judicial candidates.

When it comes to non-electoral political matters, I also rely on a lot of guides and toolkits. Several of my favorite resources that have appeared in the last couple of years come from an initiative Andrea co-founded called Interrupting Criminalization. Those of you who check the show notes of our episodes for organizing resources will probably be familiar with that name because I regularly recommend their toolkits and reports as resources for organizers. But given that a lot of Interrupting Criminalization’s work is the kind of background support that allows other organizing projects to happen, a lot of people are unaware of the initiative’s contributions.

AR: Interrupting Criminalization is, um… we weren’t very creative with the name. We want to support organizing to interrupt criminalization, and particularly the criminalization of Black women, girls, queer and trans folks. So, we definitely look at criminalization through the lens of race, gender, and sexuality, disability, class, nation. And the work we’ve been doing since the uprising has been very much about supporting organizers working to defund police and divest from policing and invest in and build ecosystems of collective care and community safety that are root in Black feminist politics and ethics of collective care.

And so we do research reports. We put out toolkits, we put out resources. I think some of the more invisible but important work that we do is hosting spaces for organizers to come together and strategize, and practice spaces for folks to really be able to come to to workshop the ways in which we are practicing new worlds, to workshop the million experiments we’re engaged in, as the millionexperiments.com website and podcast document, to imagine and live otherwise and to enact abolitionist visions in the day-to-day.

But I think one of the spaces that feels most relevant, I mean, they’re all incredibly relevant, but one of the spaces that feels important in this moment is one that we actually first convened in 2019 around criminalization through access to medical care. And actually, we started the conversation in May of 2019 around recognition that the Trump administration was advancing all of its policy objectives through criminalization, because that is the fascist playbook, that’s also the neoliberal playbook, that criminalization is the method by which their policies are advanced. And we were already seeing increasing criminalization of sexual gender and reproductive autonomy.

So we came together to talk about all the ways that that’s happening and all the institutions that that’s happening in, and some are more obvious than others, police, probation, parole, jails, but also health care, public health, housing, social services. There’s many arenas in which that policing of sexual, reproductive, and gender autonomy takes place that aren’t always as visible. So we mapped that out, mapped out where people were engaging in resistance and where people can plug in from where they are. If you’re already working on public health issues, you can plug in there, if you’re already working on housing issues, you can plug in there, to interrupt the criminalization of sexual, reproductive and gender autonomy.

So that was the meeting we had in May 2019. In the fall at the SisterSong Let’s Talk About Sex Conference, we focused particularly on this criminalization of sexual, gender, and reproductive autonomy through health care access and public health. And we thought about all the ways in which accessing medical care or health care is a point or sight of criminalization, and not just for pregnant people, people seeking abortions, but also for parents, for trans people, for sex working people, for drug-using people, for migrants, and for disabled people, and for HIV-positive people. And so we brought people from all of those movements into a room together to say, “How do we address the fact that the medical-industrial complex is a point of intersection and entry into the prison-industrial complex, and the ways in which those two institutions, frameworks, complexes intersect?” And that particularly comes from our approach of looking at criminalization through the lens of the experiences of Black women, girls, queer and trans people, because when you do that, you see how policing and criminalization happens beyond just the cop on the beat on the street. You see how people are profiled when they go to hospitals for prenatal visits, delivery. You see how people are denied care or criminalized as they access care as parents, or as people in the sex trade, or as drug users. You see where disabled people are denied reproductive autonomy. You see all the ways in which policing happens, or certainly many more ways in which policing happens.

And so, we came out of that convening with a network of folks across those movements, along with health care providers and health care users, to think about, “What are the principles we want health care providers, institutions, and associations to adopt that will interrupt criminalization at the point of accessing medical care?” And we don’t want them to just sign these principles, we want them to enact them. And so we over two years work-shopped these principles. We’re about to launch them publicly on November 3rd. And, it just is an example of organizing where that work was happening over a period of years. It was percolating, it was happening, and then, the summer happened. Roe was overturned, and criminalization of gender-affirming care for trans youth and trans adults.

There was a wildfire of legislation across the country. And it was a moment where we were asking health care providers to stand in their principles, their ethics, their beliefs, their commitments as healthcare providers to do no harm. And we had already created this framework of inviting them into the knowledge that criminalization is harm. And so their participation in criminalization goes against their core oath as public health providers, or as healthcare workers or providers. And so, we were ready, and we released two documents in the last six months around how fights against criminalization are fights against or for reproductive sexual and gender autonomy, and fights for reproductive sexual and gender autonomy, and access to sexual gender and reproductive health care need to be involved in a larger fight against criminalization.

So, that’s what organizing is, is that you continue to build across movements. You continue to move from where you are, but in coordination. And, you continue to build the analysis, and the tools, and the frameworks necessary, so that when a moment erupts like 2020, or like the current moment around the abortion bans spreading across the country and the trans health care bans spreading across the country, you have the frameworks ready, you have the ways for people to plug in, you have possibility for people to resist.

So that’s what we’re trying to create at Interrupting Criminalization is those resources, practice spaces, supports, frameworks, and cross-movement conversations. And I just want to say again, if we’re resisting fascism, we can’t be in silos. We can’t be in, “Oh, I’m only fighting over here for my right to have an abortion, and I don’t actually believe in trans people’s rights to access health care that affirms their gender or frankly their right to exist.” You can’t do that and effectively fight fascism. It’s the same fight. It’s literally the state telling you what you can and can’t do with your body, and doing that along the axis of race, gender and sexuality.

It’s patriarchy in operation. You can’t fight patriarchy only from one place and not understand how it operates across the board. And, so I just really want to emphasize that and I want to come back to the conversation around Democrats and criminalization, and to say that the people who are fighting for abortion care access has to be fighting against criminalization, and they have to be resisting this notion that we’ve got to poor $1.3 billion into more cops because those cops are the ones who are going to be doing the things that you’re trying to fight.

And, you have to also join in the fight for trans health care and sexual and reproductive autonomy across the board because it’s the same fight. And, you have to fight against criminalization of drug users, and pregnant people, and parents, because it’s the same fight. And against the criminalization of disabled people, migrants, HIV-positive people, because it’s the same fight. So that feels like some of the most powerful work that we’re doing right now, and we’re doing so many more other things, but it feels like maybe it’s some of the most relevant to the topics that you’ve been talking about here on Movement Memos.

KH: Circling back to the kinds of constructive conversations we need to have with people about the realities of policing, Andrea emphasized a point that Mariame and I also try to drive home in our upcoming book, which is that when you are inviting someone to transform their worldview, facts are not enough.

AR: I think in the conversation like the one that you describe about when you’re having conversations with people in community about safety and how we create it. I think one mistake that we sometimes make and that we talk about in the book is that, yes, facts and figures are important, and they play an important part in unmasking the myth, the lie, that police produce safety. But we have to recognize that we’re not just talking to people’s heads, we’re talking to people’s hearts. And we’re talking to the most basic human instinct to feel safer, at least. And so we have to learn how to speak to people’s embodied experiences of safety and emotional experiences of safety. Just as we need people to divest financially from policing, we need them to divest ideologically, but also emotionally and spiritually from policing, including the ways that we enact it ourselves in our lives, in our families, in our communities, in the name of our own safety.

And, so that work feels important and it feels important for us to really practice, and highlight, and continue to work from a place of how do we remind folks of when they’ve had embodied feelings of safety and how to create those more? And how do we create those embodied feelings together? And so that, to me, is the part around the million experiments, the practices, the small-scale, “How can we create safety in our building through a text thread? How can we create greater safety in our friend community by having a phone tree? How can we create greater safety on our block by just knowing that theses five people will cop-watch while these five people will deescalate, while these five people will make sure people’s material needs are met?” Because we need to feel it, we can’t just talk about it. And I think that’s something that a lot of us have been practicing over the course of the pandemic, prior to the pandemic, forever, and certainly your work and others who engage in mutual aid work and folks who are engaged in transformative justice across the country have been practicing it for decades. But I just want to name that there’s only so far we go with facts and figures. And the notion that we just somehow have to, we can shift the narrative by just the right combination of words, the right slogan, the perfectly placed op-ed in the Washington Post —that’s not how we’re going to get where we’re going. How we get where we’re going is in relationship and in conversation with each other, and in practice of safety and collective care with each other.

KH: Dialogue is something a lot of people struggle with these days. People are exhausted. The pandemic maximized our time on social media, which has, to put it gently, not improved our collective communication skills. Some people seem to have fully embraced the death cult of normalcy, while COVID continues to kill and debilitate people in a near-maskless United States. Those who have not often find themselves frustrated, sometimes questioning whether they can even relate to other people anymore. I see a lot of organizers, who are normally outgoing and passionate about reaching people, becoming more frustrated and resentful. The invisibilization of COVID as a social crisis is not happening in isolation. Because if people are putting up emotional walls that make them oblivious to an extra couple of thousand deaths per week from COVID, what else isn’t getting past those walls? There’s a sense of disconnection between people right now. We have a solidarity shortage and we desperately need to reconnect.

An issue like police and prison abolition, which is a marginalized perspective, might not seem like a unifying place to begin, but I would argue that it’s an important one. Because to get our heads around the idea of abolishing the police, we don’t just need to understand the violence of cops. It’s important to understand what they are and what they actually do, but we also have to understand how much violence is erased when we frame violence within the scheme of cops and criminals. As Mariame and I discuss in our book, Let This Radicalize You, which will be out next year, when all of the death and violence around us is happening according to the dictates of the system, we are told we are experiencing peace, and people often accept that characterization. We need to not only disturb that false peace, but also obliterate the illusions that maintain it.

One of the many sections of No More Police that lends itself to that task is about homicide statistics, and how they overemphasize the risk of experiencing violence, for most people, since violence is concentrated in particular areas, where the impacts of organized abandonment are most concentrated, but also underestimate our risk of preventable death, because the structural harms that are most likely to kill us are not considered homicides. Andrea and Mariame wrote:

Organized abandonment that manifests, for example, as lack of access to routine health care and healthy foods, unsafe employment, proximity to pollution, or evictions and foreclosures, produces very real increases in risk of premature death that are not reflected in homicide statistics. For instance, by some estimates, evictions directly contributed to more than 11,000 COVID deaths in the U.S. in 2020 that were not counted as homicide.… Homicide rates thus both overestimate the danger of being randomly harmed and underestimate the likelihood that we will experience preventable violence.

Conversations around policing and prisons, and what is considered violent or acceptable, are crucial right now. We have been conditioned to ignore mass suffering and death, so long as these things happen within the social order we have been handed, as enforced by cops. Getting people to understand the violence of this system, and how it affects them, will require a shift in understanding about what constitutes violence. The true story of what we are up against has to overtake the illusions created by the news media, by shows like “Law & Order” and novels like Lord of the Flies. We have to tell different stories, and we have to understand ourselves, and one another, as people with a greater potential to help each other, than to hurt each other. We know there are people who would hurt us. I am all too aware of them. But that’s why, more than ever, we need to figure out who we can turn to, in order to create safety in our lives, and we need to broaden those circles.

I am so grateful for No More Police, which is an incredible tool for organizers and a book that I think is going to help light the way in our struggles. I am also incredibly grateful to Andrea Ritchie for making the time to talk with me. I always get so much out of our conversations, and I hope you all did as well, because you will be hearing from us again in two weeks, when we talk about abolition and the state, and abolitionist futures. Thank you for doing this with me, Andrea, and for all that you do.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

Don’t forget to check out the book:

Resources:

Referenced: