Posted on May 17, 2021

The Emerging Movement for Police and Prison Abolition

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, New Yorker, May 7, 2021

The murder of George Floyd last spring provoked an unprecedented outpouring of protests, and a rare national reckoning with both racism and police violence. Public officials across the country pledged police reform. On April 20th, Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, was found guilty of murder. {snip}

In a certain sense, the trial of Chauvin has been viewed as a piece of a national reform strategy. There is a hope that his conviction will serve as evidence that police do not operate above the law and that they can be subjected to its punishments. But if it takes tens of millions of people marching, and an extraordinary recording capturing Chauvin’s cool torpor as Floyd’s life left his body, to secure some measure of legal accountability for the police, then what does this conviction mean for the transformation of American policing? In effect, Chauvin had to be convicted for it to remain even remotely credible that, in the United States, the law protects the rights of African-Americans. Pursuing such an outcome allowed Chauvin’s employers and supervisors to disavow him, describing him as a rogue cop who had abandoned his training. {snip}


Minutes before the verdict in the Chauvin trial was revealed, a white police officer in Columbus, Ohio, shot a Black sixteen-year-old, Ma’Khia Bryant, four times in the chest, killing her. Bryant was wielding a knife and threatening to stab another girl when she was shot, but the officer’s default to shooting and Bryant’s resulting death quickly dashed any hopes that the guilty verdict in Minneapolis indicated a turning point in American policing. Since then, new cases involving police shootings of unarmed Black men have surfaced in North Carolina and Virginia.

The continuation of police abuse has reaffirmed the calls of some activists for an end to policing as we know it; for others, it has confirmed that the institution of policing should be abolished completely. In the past year or two, the propositions of defunding or abolishing police and prisons has travelled from incarcerated-activist networks and academic conferences and scholarship into mainstream conversations. Of course, this doesn’t mean that these politics have become mainstream, but the persistence of police violence disproportionately harming Black communities has pushed far more people to contemplate radical proposals for dealing with issues of harm and safety.

One Black woman who has been at the center of these conversations is Mariame Kaba, an educator and organizer who is based in New York City. Kaba fund-raised for large-scale mutual-aid operations as the impact of covid-19 began to set in and the lack of public provisions threatened hunger, homelessness, and illness for untold numbers. She is also known for helping to organize a successful campaign to award reparations to Black men who survived torture orchestrated by the former Chicago police commander Jon Burge. Those reparations include a five-and-a-half-million-dollar compensation fund for the victims and their families, waived tuition at the City Colleges of Chicago, a mandatory curriculum for Chicago public schools about the police torture, and a public memorial. It was an unprecedented campaign and outcome, which mirrored the professed values of the growing abolitionist movement: repair and restoration. Kaba and her fellow-activists were less interested in prosecuting the offending police officers than in developing initiatives that could repair the harms done by the Chicago Police Department.

Many were introduced to Kaba and her work through her blog, Prison Culture, which she began, in 2010, as a way to talk about her organizing projects and to educate and engage with a small public about the consequences of prevailing law-and-order politics in the United States. Kaba writes in Prison Culture about the culture of punishment that has functioned as a guiding principle in American jurisprudence. She also shares movement reports, articles published elsewhere, poems from other writers, and lots of visual art. When I spoke to Kaba recently, she told me, “I am not interested in writing. I am an organizer who writes.” But, as an organizer, she writes quite a bit, and, in February, she published a book, “We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice,” an eclectic collection of articles, interviews, speeches, short pieces co-written with some of Kaba’s political collaborators, and more, edited by the sociologist Tamara K. Nopper.

The book, which débuted on the Times best-seller list, offers an entry point into the world of abolitionist politics, beginning with an essay titled “So You’re Thinking about Becoming an Abolitionist.” It contains several basic but profound observations: “Increasing rates of incarceration have a minimal impact on crime rates. Moreover, crime and harm are not synonymous. All that is criminalized isn’t harmful, and all harm isn’t necessarily criminalized.” If there is a mismatch between punishment and crime, and crime and harm, then what is the intent of the criminal-justice system and the police it employs? Kaba refers to the “criminal punishment system” to emphasize that justice in the United States means a promise of retribution much more than an effort to understand why an infraction has occurred. She writes, “If we want to reduce (or end) sexual and gendered violence, putting a few perpetrators in prison does little to stop the many other perpetrators. It does nothing to change a culture that makes this harm imaginable, to hold the individual perpetrator accountable, to support their transformation, or to meet the needs of the survivors.” When we spoke, Kaba told me, “I am looking to abolish what I consider to be death-making institutions, which are policing, imprisonment, sentencing, and surveillance. And what I want is to basically build up another world that is rooted in collective wellness, safety, and investment in the things that would actually bring those things about.”


In our conversation and in her book, she made note of the police killing of Michael Stewart as formative to her own political awakening. On September 15, 1983, Stewart, a twenty-five-year-old African-American artist, was arrested for graffitiing the subway. Transit police beat and hog-tied him; he never regained consciousness. Nearly two years later, an all-white jury acquitted six police officers accused of murdering Stewart. On October 29, 1984, the sixty-seven-year-old Eleanor Bumpurs was shot and killed by police who were assisting in her eviction from public housing in the Bronx. Bumpurs suffered from mental illness, claiming that Ronald Reagan had come through the walls of her home, and she had barricaded herself inside her apartment. As police broke through the front door, Bumpers, wielding a knife, was shot twice, in the hand and the chest. The cop who shot Bumpurs was eventually acquitted of manslaughter charges. Both cases received national attention and inspired grassroots organizing and protest. Kaba notes that, while she was drawn into action to protest the killing of Stewart, she was not compelled in the same way by the activism surrounding the killing of Bumpurs. She writes, “I remember very clearly that she was killed. I remember that people were organizing against her killing. I don’t remember organizing against it, because I thought very much that the killing of Black men was the main thing we were fighting to end. I didn’t see myself so much as a woman or a girl. In terms of my own identity, my gender didn’t figure in the way that my race did.”

This had changed by the time Kaba left college and returned to New York City to work with survivors of domestic violence. She was befuddled that many of the women she was working with did not want to call the police on their partners. Kaba said, “Then I started asking people questions like, ‘Why don’t you want to go to the police?’ And people would look at me, like, ‘What are you talking about? Why wouldn’t I go to the cops? Do you not see who I am? The cops don’t keep me safe.’ And so I slowly came to consciousness.” In her book, Kaba writes, “What happens when you define policing as actually an entire system of harassment, violence, and surveillance that keeps oppressive gender and racial hierarchies in place? When that’s your definition of policing, then your whole frame shifts. And it also forces you to stop talking about it as though it’s an issue of individuals, forces you to focus on the systemic structural issues to be addressed in order for this to happen.”


By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the cumulative, devastating effects of twenty years of

{snip} Contrary to the beliefs of their critics, abolitionists are not impervious to the realities of crime and violence. But they have a fundamental understanding that crime is a manifestation of social deprivation and the reverberating effects of racial discrimination, which locks poor and working-class communities of color out of schooling, meaningful jobs, and other means to keep up with the ever-escalating costs of life in the United States. These problems are not solved by armed agents of the state or by prisons, which sow the seeds of more poverty and alienation, while absorbing billions of dollars that might otherwise be spent on public welfare. The police and prisons aren’t solving these problems: they are a part of the problem.

At its core, abolitionist politics are inspired by the necessity for what Martin Luther King, Jr., described as the “radical reconstruction” of the entirety of U.S. society. They intend to promote systemic thinking instead of our society’s obsession with “personal responsibility.” {snip}

To approach harm systemically is to imagine that, if people’s most critical needs were met, the tensions that arise from deprivation and poverty could be mitigated. And when harm still occurs, because human beings have the propensity to hurt one another, nonlethal responses could attend to it—and also to the reasons for it. To be sure, these are lofty aspirations, but they are no more unrealistic than believing that another study, exposé, commission, firing, or police trial is capable of meeting the desire for change that, last summer, compelled tens of millions of ordinary people to pour into the streets. {snip}

Our current criminal-justice system is rooted in the assumption that millions of people require policing, surveillance, containment, prison. It is a dark view of humanity. By contrast, Kaba and others in this emergent movement fervently believe in the capacity of people to change in changed conditions. That is the optimism at the heart of the abolitionist project. As Kaba insists in her book, “The reason I’m struggling through all of this is because I’m a deeply, profoundly hopeful person. Because I know that human beings, with all of our foibles and all the things that are failing, have the capacity to do amazingly beautiful things, too. That gives me the hope to feel like we will, when necessary, do what we need to do.” Abolition is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Even the guiding lights of the movement are embedded in campaigns for short-term reforms that make a difference in daily life. For Kaba, that has meant raising funds for mutual aid during the pandemic and campaigning for reparations in Chicago.{snip}