Review: The Pragmatism of Police AbolitionHistorians in the News
tags: book reviews, Police, police brutality, police abolition
Matthew Clair is an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University. He is the author of Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court.
In the nearly two years since the murder of George Floyd, our country has seen a renaissance of writing and organizing around the abolition of police and prisons. Alongside protests in the streets and participatory budgeting campaigns to divest funds from local police departments, the popular reception of books like Mariame Kaba’s We Do This ’Til We Free Us reveals that more people are willing to grapple with what abolition entails.
But there has also been a backlash, and not just from the right: Democrats have closed ranks in opposition to police abolition. They instead call for a battery of police reforms—such as racial bias training and banning choke holds—that have, at least thus far, failed to eliminate police violence. Investing in police departments appears, in fact, to be a bipartisan cause: This past August, the Senate voted 99 to 0 in favor of a budget amendment to withhold federal funds from local governments seeking to defund their police departments. One Democratic senator went so far as to call the amendment a “gift,” underscoring how eager he and many other Democrats have been to distance themselves from abolitionist politics.
As the lawyer and organizer Derecka Purnell shows in her new book Becoming Abolitionists, this abolitionist politics is often misunderstood and misrepresented. In the book’s eight chapters, Purnell invites skeptical readers into the fold by sharing her own journey to becoming a police abolitionist and the reasons why she believes you should become one, too. She takes us from her childhood in St. Louis, where she and her friends and family used to call 911 “for almost everything,” to her years of studying and organizing alongside classmates, professors, and neighbors in college, law school, and various grassroots organizations. We learn about her intellectual influences—from Angela Davis and Rachel Herzing to Robin D.G. Kelley, who encouraged her and other radical students at Harvard Law School to, in the Black radical tradition, build “loving spaces to study and struggle, where we could experiment with democracy, accountability, mutual aid, and care.” Through these intellectual exchanges and her own harrowing interactions with police, Purnell came to see how policing mostly perpetuates—rather than resolves—myriad forms of violence and oppression.
But Purnell’s account of abolitionist politics is more than just personal; into the threads of her story she weaves historical and social scientific research on police violence and community-based alternatives to make a compelling case for the practicality of police abolition, compared with reforms that have failed time and time again. The abolition of police means more than simply the absence of policing or the end of police-perpetuated harm, she writes. Rather than a quixotic demand to disband police departments overnight, abolition is a careful and collective endeavor to build a world where police—and the reasons we believe we need policing—become obsolete. Some have called abolitionism a single-issue politics; others, a utopian one. But abolition is better understood, Purnell argues, as a wide-ranging politics—one that demands strategies, resources, and mutual efforts working to reduce harm in the broader society through investments in education, employment, health care, housing, and environmental preservation. Such a politics seeks to uproot not just a system of violent policing but also interlocking forms of oppression that go well beyond it. For Purnell, this is the essence of abolitionist politics: a “paradigm to organize, navigate, and re-create the world.”
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