Defunding the police is only the first step to abolition

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Image: Mitchel Raphael

"I don't know about you, but I never thought I would wake up to see an article about abolitionism in Cosmopolitan magazine!" said Syrus Marcus Ware as he joined other abolitionists on a live webinar organized by Toronto Prisoners Rights Project.

Ware led a talk on June 11 to discuss abolitionism with fellow leaders of the movement in Canada such as Sandy Hudson, Kyisha Williams, Ashanti Omowali Alston, Viviane Saleh-Hannah and Morgan Switzer-Rodney. 

In the talk, they discussed what it's been like to see the movement spur into a cross-national discussion of possible alternatives to policing structures that value community accountability. 

"Community accountability comes away from punishment as the goal, it recentres change as the goal and support as the goal," said Kyisha Williams. 

Abolitionism has many different meanings, especially in today's context of civil unrest after the death of George Floyd sparked protests all over the world. His death, which was filmed and distributed to the masses, spurred a widespread movement to defund the police in cities across North America. 

#DefundThePolice calls for the gradual reallocation of funds to social services and away from the policing institutions in all cities across the country. It's part of an overarching movement to dismantle the carceral system and reimagine what public safety could look like by addressing the root cause of crime. 

"We're asking for people to take a conceptual leap with us," said Syrus Marcus Ware, an abolitionist scholar and activist. "We know the police and prison system as it currently stands, does not keep us safe or more secure. It's brutalizing our communities and it's resulting in a disproportionate amount of death of Black and Indigenous people on Turtle Island."

So what would defunding the police look like? It's hard to imagine, but it's been done before. In 2012, Camden, New Jersey moved to disband their police force and replaced it with an entirely new one since corruption made it unfixable. Before the reforms, the city had one of the highest crime rates in the United States, and a long history of police brutality. 

After police reforms, the crime rate plummeted by 42 per cent over the last seven years. City officials have pointed to their improvement of community-oriented policing which emphasizes de-escalation and engaging with the residents in communities. 

While the impact of disbanding the police force in Camden showed shocking results, this isn't exactly what abolitionism is about. 

"The problem with institutions is that [its] purpose is to preserve itself," said El Jones, an activist and abolitionist. She refers to a concept coined by Michael Jackson, a prison lawyer, who sums up the history of prisons as a cycle of crisis and reform. In the 1960s, there was a sweeping reform that modernized prisons across the country, which also indubitably securitized the prison system.

"Once something exists, there's a notion that it has to be preserved and there's no other way to do it… The police are a relevantly recent invention, so why do we have to do something we were doing in 1830 in 2020? How does that make sense?" she said. 

In January, Jones made a plea with the City of Halifax to freeze the police budget until they could prove that they are no longer racially profiling community members. This plea came shortly after video footage of Santina Rao, a 23-year-old Black mother, showed her violent arrest in front of her children. Jones said her request was not positively received at the time, and that at the meeting one of the officers asked if she could say something nice about the police in an effort to mock her. 

"You only get the budget you have until you can demonstrate any progress, and even that was treated with a quite large amount of disrespect and then skepticism and ignored," she said. 

Jones points to the lack of police accountability as one of the main reasons why reform isn't going to work. Initiatives like body cameras and banning chokeholds don't address the root cause of harm in our communities.

Watching the world respond to COVID-19 has shown that we're more capable of change than we may have once thought. Jones says she's been advocating and pushing officials to allow incarcerated people to serve their time in communities, and was met with a lot of pushback and criticism. Yet once COVID-19 proved that prisons were a public health threat, many were eventually let out.  

"We can build the community structures of care," says Jones. "These things we're told that can't be done, that are ridiculous and radical, are actually the most practical and real thing we can do. We can't believe that these things are impossible because we've seen it." 

Since incarceration takes perpetrators out of their community networks and connections to resources, community care has become another pillar of abolitionism. Imagining a team of social workers, mental health workers and paramedics could appear at every 911 call instead of a person who is armed and lacks skills in de-escalation. 

"When we say abolition, we are imagining public safety without these kinds of structures in place which are punitive, which are meant to kill, meant to deny human, social and economic rights, to particular groups of people. [Especially] those who are Black, Indigenous, racialized and most marginalized," said Beverly Bain, a scholar and activist on abolitionism. 

Bain says that we've been watching governments divest money from housing, education and employment and funnel it into policing structures so they can "facilitate a much more brutal law and order agenda that we are constantly experiencing today."

"Why do we need police to be armed and why do we need them to be intervening in these kinds of situations when we can have this money go into communities where various kinds of support can be created in order to take care of our community," she said.  

So far we have seen cities like Minneopolis, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles propose legislation or take steps toward defunding the police. Even though this seems like a step in the right direction, Justin Piché, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa says that he remains vigilant.

"We've seen calls for social justice flare up in the past, and we have to really guard against both conservative backlash and liberal co-optation," he says, and points to examples of band-aid solutions like implementing expensive body cameras or investing millions in one halfway-house project -- which ultimately fail to address the root cause of harm in our communities.

"Frankly that's bullshit. That's not what people are calling for and that's not going to end anti-Black and anti-Indigenous discrimination, that's just piecemeal reform. That's going to bring us back to a crisis," he said.

Piché has been teaching abolitionism for years, and every year he always wondered how his teachings could not only make it into mainstream discussion, but also transform the way we respond to social harm. 

"An abolitionists' vision of policing is decentred, prisons are decentred as a solution in favour of other ideas like drug decriminalization, mental health supports, peer support, youth programs and transformative justice."

The Criminalization and Punishment Education Project and the Toronto Prisoner's Rights Project have put together an email zap tool. It's a computerized form that plugs in your information into an formulated letter that automatically sends it to your city councilor. The tool was made to help people easily contact their representatives and tell them to defund the police. 

"Very soon, we'll be back here. If we don't win this time, we'll be back here making these calls again. So we have to stay vigilant and be ready," he says.

Lidia Abraha is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, whose work has appeared in VICE Canada, NOW Magazine, The Canadian Press and Exclaim! She is the recipient of rabble.ca's 2020 Jack Layton Journalism for Change Fellowship. Her work at rabble focuses on some of the issues most urgently affecting racialized and marginalized communities, notably racism in the criminal justice and policing system.

Image: Mitchel Raphael

Editor's note, June 25, 2020: A previous version of this story incorrectly credited Justin Piché for an email zap tool to help people tell their elected representatives to defund the police. The tool was actually a joint project from the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project and the Toronto Prisoner's Rights Project.

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