Posted on November 28, 2020

‘Burn It Down’

Christopher Rufo, City Journal, Autumn 2020

American cities are entering a period of chaos. Protests and riots have dominated headlines, but beneath the surface, activists are launching an unprecedented campaign to overthrow the traditional justice system and replace it with a new model based on a radical conception of social justice.

In Seattle, where this campaign may be most advanced, activists have crafted a narrative about police brutality, mass incarceration, and punitive justice that leads to a natural sequence of solutions: “abolish the police,” “divest from prisons,” and “defund the courts.” Over the past three decades, the city’s radical-progressives have seized control of municipal government—with the notable exception of the criminal-justice system, which they see as the final obstacle to total control. If they can dismantle it, activists believe, they can bring about their transformation of society.

The city’s political establishment has joined the campaign to “deconstruct justice.” Since the outbreak of the George Floyd–related protests starting in late May, elected officials in Seattle and King County have announced their intentions to defund the Seattle Police Department, permanently close the county’s largest jail, and gut the municipal court system. They believe that, when the oppression of the justice system is lifted, a new society can be shaped through criminal diversion, psychotherapy, and harm reduction.


For today’s radical-progressives, the nation’s traditional institutions are little more than vestiges of white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, and colonialist domination. Seen in this light, the recent unrest in America’s progressive cities becomes clear: the chaos is the necessary price—and the accelerant—for the revolution. During the recent occupation of Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, self-described “abolitionist” Nikkita Oliver translated the sentiments of the graduate seminar into the language of the streets, calling for the overthrow of “racialized capitalism” and “patriarchy, white supremacy, and classism.” Motivated by such goals, mobs have seized control of police precincts.

If radicals are successful in moving Seattle toward police abolition, the results will be catastrophic. The city is coming apart. Crime has exploded in the downtown corridor, businesses have barricaded their windows, and citizens fear that the city will collapse into anarchy. Yet the activists and political class are moving forward with their experiment at astonishing speed. Nearly every week, they offer new proposals for transforming the constituent parts of the criminal-justice system. “Burn it down” has evolved from a street slogan into a political platform.

In the progressive narrative, American police forces were established to catch fugitive slaves and have acted as the guardians of white supremacy ever since. {snip}

Reform, then, is no answer. The irredeemably racist institution of policing must be excavated root and branch—and then demolished. With this in mind, the Seattle City Council recently released draft legislation that suggests a path for replacing the police with a civilian-led Department of Community Safety & Violence Prevention. The plan is predicated on the idea that “institutional racism” and “underinvestment in communities of color” are the underlying causes of crime. Once the department is abolished and its budget redistributed to minority communities, social workers and nonprofits can keep the peace with a “trauma-informed, gender-affirming, anti-racist praxis”—more activism, in other words. The legislation also calls for race-based redistribution and “the immediate transfer of underutilized public land for BIPOC [black, indigenous, and people of color] community ownership.”

Meantime, to exert maximum pressure from the outside, mobs have been patrolling the streets of residential neighborhoods and paying midnight house calls to wavering public officials. One group, which calls itself Every Day March, has assembled gatherings as large as 300 people and descended on the personal residences of Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, former police chief Carmen Best, and nearly all city council members. They bang drums, chant slogans, and leave threatening messages on the driveways and doors of their perceived enemies: “Liberate oppressed communities,” “Don’t be racist trash,” “Guillotine Jenny.”

In one incident, the mob marched to the home of Councilman Andrew Lewis after midnight and rousted him out of bed. When Lewis arrived at his building’s entrance, ringleader Tealshawn Turner demanded that he verbally commit to defunding the police. Lewis, standing alone at the gate, was visibly frightened—and he relented, promising to cut the police budget by 50 percent, fire cops with citizen complaints against them, and redirect millions to “communities of color.” Having extracted her demand, Turner left with another threat: “If you don’t keep your promise, we’re for sure coming back.”

Even as chaos engulfed Seattle, the city council passed a measure depriving police of essential crowd-control tools, including pepper spray, tear gas, blast balls, and stun grenades. In a desperate letter to business owners and residents, Chief Best warned that officers had “no ability to safely intercede to preserve property in the midst of a large, violent crowd.” In essence, she was announcing the end of law and order within the city.

Though the crowd-control munitions ordinance was blocked by a judge hours before taking effect, one veteran cop told me that the activists have settled on a bare-knuckled strategy: reduce police power enough to achieve “mob rule” in the streets. If the activists can defund the police and disarm officers, they can break the state’s monopoly on violence. Whenever it can mobilize a crowd of 250 people or more, the mob will dominate the physical environment.

Yet despite rising street disorder and intimidation of public officials, 53 percent of Seattle voters in a recent telephone poll supported the plan that would “permanently cut the Seattle Police Department’s budget by [half] and shift that money to social services and community-based programs.” According to police officials, officers are in “disbelief.” They find themselves besieged both on the streets and in city hall.


Prison abolition has long been a goal of radical movements, from the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution to the jailbreak of Kresty Prison during the Russian Revolution. In modern-day Seattle, though, the revolution is developing from within. According to a set of leaked documents that I obtained from inside the King County Executive’s Office, policymakers have laid out the rationale for permanently closing the region’s largest jail and ending all youth incarceration—including for minors charged with serious crimes such as rape and murder.

The documents cast the prison system as an institution of “oppression based on race and built to maintain white supremacy.” In a pyramid-shaped graphic, policymakers claim that crime and incarceration are merely the “tip of the iceberg.” On a deeper level, the justice system is rooted in “white supremacist culture,” “inequitable wealth distribution,” “power hoarding,” and the belief that “people of color are dangerous or to be feared.” Once these premises are established, the conclusion is foregone—white supremacy must be eradicated. To this end, days after I released the internal documents, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced a plan for terminating youth detention and closing the downtown Seattle jail, which represents approximately two-thirds of the county’s jail capacity. More than half of all inmates are incarcerated for violent crimes; the plan will release such violent criminals onto the streets.


What will replace jails? According to Budget for Justice, the leading coalition of the progressive-justice movement, the government should “transfer resources from formal justice systems to community-based care” programs “rooted in restorative justice practices that are trauma-informed, human rights-, and equity-based.” Specifically, the activists highlight three nonprofit programs as models for the new justice system—Community Passageways, Creative Justice, and Community Justice Project—which will offer programs such as “healing circles,” “narrative storytelling,” art-based therapy, and community organizing. The three providers share a philosophical foundation predicated on the assumption that poverty, racism, and oppression force the dispossessed into crime and violence. The programs are designed to reveal how “systems of power create conditions that perpetuate violence in our homes and daily lives” and help offenders “reimagine a society in which their liberation is not only possible, but sustainable by the community itself.”


Seattle’s activists have long sought to limit the scope and authority of the municipal courts. For years, influential organizations such as Budget for Justice and the Public Defender Association have advocated for eliminating cash bail, ending probation, reducing the number of municipal judges, and easing sex-offender registration requirements—all under the rubric of “dismantling systems of racism, oppression, and poverty.” Now, with momentum from Black Lives Matter, the activist coalition is mobilizing behind a much more ambitious agenda: abolishing the municipal court altogether and transferring authority to a “shadow court system,” administered by ideologically aligned nonprofit organizations such as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which provides “crisis response, immediate psychosocial assessment, and wrap-around services including substance-abuse disorder treatment and housing”—that is, replacing the punitive state with a therapeutic one.


One veteran Seattle police officer told me that he thinks that the recent disorder is merely the prelude to a long and dark era for the city. “Derek Chauvin is the Gavrilo Princip of our time,” the officer said, comparing the Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd to the Serbian assassin who sparked World War I. {snip}