One of the New York Times' 6 New Paperbacks to Read

Now in paperback and with new material, a 2021 Kirkus Best Book of the year in both Nonfiction and Current Events, the book Naomi Klein called: “a triumph of political imagination and a tremendous gift to all movements struggling towards liberation.”


For more than a century, activists in the United States have tried to reform the police. Millions of people continue to protest police violence because these "solutions" do not match the problem: the police cannot be reformed.

In her critically acclaimed first book Becoming Abolitionists, Purnell draws from her experiences as a lawyer, writer, and organizer initially skeptical about police abolition. She saw too much sexual violence and buried too many friends to consider getting rid of police in her hometown of St. Louis, let alone the nation. But the police were a placebo. Calling them felt like something, and something feels like everything when the other option seems like nothing.

Purnell details how multi-racial social movements rooted in rebellion, risk-taking, and revolutionary love pushed her and a generation of activists toward abolition. The book travels across geography and time, and offers lessons that activists have learned from Ferguson to South Africa, from Reconstruction to contemporary protests against police shootings.

Here, Purnell invites readers to envision new systems that work to address the root causes of violence. Becoming Abolitionists shows that abolition is not solely about getting rid of police, but a commitment to create and support different answers to the problem of harm in society, and, most excitingly, an opportunity to reduce and eliminate harm in the first place.
WE CALLED 911 for almost everything—except snitching. Nosebleeds, gunshot wounds, asthma attacks, allergic reactions. Police accompanied the paramedics.

Our neighborhood was making us sick. From 1990 until 2006, my family moved among four apartments in a modest complex called Hickory Square. It was located at the edge of the Gate District between Jefferson and Ohio in St. Louis. A Praxair industrial gas–storage facility was at one end of my block. I had no idea what it was until one year, gas tanks exploded one by one. Grown-ups panicked that the explosions were another 9/11. Scorching asphalt burned our feet as we fled because there wasn’t enough time to put on shoes. Buildings and cars immediately caught fire and shrapnel pierced the trees and the houses. Nine thousand pounds of propane exploded and burned that day. Minnie Cooper died from an asthma attack related to the noxious fumes. The Black mother of three was only thirty-two.

At the other end of my block, there was a junkyard with military airplane parts in full view. The owner of the lot collected the parts as a hobby, and had at least twenty-six US and Russian war craft machines. Each one ranged in value between ten thousand dollars and seventy-five thousand dollars, and shipping costs could be as high as thirty thousand dollars. One man’s treasure came at the cost of exposing poisonous particles to children in the neighborhood every day. His lot still sits directly across the street from my middle school’s playground.

The fish-seasoning plant in our backyard did not smell. The yeast from the nearby Anheuser-Busch factory did. Car honks and fumes from Interstate 64 filtered through my childhood bedroom window, from where, if I stood on my toes, I could see the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

All these environmental toxins that degraded our health often conspired with other forms of violence that pervaded our neighborhood. Employment opportunities were rare, and my friends and I turned to making money under the table. I was scared of selling drugs, so I gambled. Brown-skinned boys I liked aged out of recreational activities, and, without work, into blue bandannas. Their territorial disputes led to violence and more 911 calls. Grown-ups fought too, stressed from working hard yet never having enough bill money or gas money or food money or day-care money. Call 911.

When people come across police abolition for the first time, they tend to dismiss abolitionists for not caring about neighborhood safety or the victims of violence. They tend to forget that often we are those victims, those survivors of violence, too.
 
THE FIRST SHOOTING I witnessed was by a uniformed security guard. I was thir- teen years old. He was employed by Global Security Services, a company founded by a former Missouri police chief who was later convicted of homicide. The former chief managed to secure multi-million-dollar contracts in an embezzlement scheme to provide armed private officers at almost all of St. Louis’s city-owned properties—including my public neighborhood recreation center. The armed guards replaced the city police. I was teaching my sister, Courtnie, who was nine, how to shoot free throws at the rec center when the guard stormed in alongside the court, drew his weapon, and shot his cousin in the arm. Courtnie and I hid in the locker room for hours afterward. I thought the guard was angry that his cousin skipped a sign-in sheet, but the victim only told the police the shooting had started as an argument over “something stupid.”

Like the boy at the rec center who was shot by the private guard, most vic- tims of law enforcement violence survive. No hashtags or protests or fires for the wounded, assaulted, and intimidated.

In 2020, Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin pinned George Floyd to the concrete as he hollered that he could not breathe. Floyd screamed. He screamed for his mother. He screamed for his breath. For his life. Until he died nine minutes later. Calls for “justice” quickly ensued. I often wonder, What if the cop who killed George Floyd had kneeled on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds instead of nine minutes? Floyd would have lived to be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for allegedly attempting to use a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. Is that justice? I did not think so. Too often, the public calls for justice when Black people are killed by the police and ignore the daily injustice if the victims would have lived.

I was surprised by what followed next. Unlike the “Black Lives Matter” calls six years prior, protesters were shouting “Defund the police!” Abolition was entering into the mainstream.

Initially, the notion of “police abolition” repulsed me. The idea seemed like it was created by white activists who did not know the violence that I knew, that I have felt. At the time, I considered abolition to be, pejoratively, “utopic.” I’d seen too much sexual violence and had buried too many friends to consider getting rid of the police in St. Louis, let alone across the nation. I still lose people to violence. Sapphire. John. Greg. Brieana. Monti. Korie. Christopher. Jarrell. Sometimes, I reread our text messages to laugh again. And cry.

But over time, I came to realize that, in reality, the police were a placebo. Calling them felt like something, as the legal scholar Michelle Alexander explains, and something feels like everything when your other option is nothing. Police couldn’t do what we really needed. They could not heal relationships or provide jobs. They did not interrupt violence; they escalated it. We were usually afraid when we called. When the cops arrived, I was silenced, threatened with deten- tion, or removed from my home. Today, more than fifteen years later, St. Louis has more police per capita than most cities in the US. My old neighborhood still lacks quality food, employment, schools, health care, and air—all of which increases the risk of violence and our reliance on police. And instead of improv- ing the quality of the neighborhood, St. Louis, which has the highest rate of killings by police among the largest cities in the US, spends more money on police.

Yet I feared letting go; I thought we needed them. I thought they just needed to be reformed. Until August 9, 2014, when police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown had a funeral. Wilson had a wedding. Most police officers just continue to live their lives after filling the streets with blood and bone.

On that day in August, I threw a conference for high school girls in Kansas City, where I had been organizing, attending college, and teaching middle school. This was a part of my farewell tour of the place I had called home for six years. Harvard Law School was on my horizon; I planned to become an education lawyer, and, one day, superintendent of a school district or, possibly, Secretary of Education. After the conference, my hometown, St. Louis, was next. In high school, I had rented a room in my aunt’s basement down the street from West Florissant and Chambers. She, like everyone in my family except my mother, lived in “the county.” St. Louis City, where I grew up, is independent of St. Louis County, and Black people migrated to north county fleeing the violence and school districts in the city. My furniture was being held in the bright orange Public Storage in the county, on West Florissant—the street where the Ferguson Uprising exploded.

For weeks I protested in Ferguson. We chanted, “Indict! Convict! Send those killer cops to jail! The whole damn system is guilty as hell!” Tanks rolled in, regardless of the crowd size and hype. I was a new mom, breastfeeding my six- month-old, and I learned on the streets that tear gas was not only noxious, but could possibly cause miscarriages. Somehow, I escaped tear gas for a year; I was terrified the chemicals would pass through my breast milk to my child.

I drove from Ferguson to law school after Brown’s death. I met, studied with, and struggled alongside students and movement lawyers who explained the power and the purpose of the prison industrial complex through an abolitionist framework. Mass incarceration, I learned, was a manifestation of a much larger, interwoven set of structures of oppression that we had to dismantle.

In Ferguson, I started to understand why we need police abolition rather than reform. Police manage inequality by keeping the dispossessed from the owners, the Black from the white, the homeless from the housed, the beggars from the employed. Reforms only make police polite managers of inequality. Abolition makes police and inequality obsolete.

My journey toward abolition is not mine alone. I’m an elder in what Elizabeth Alexander describes as the “Trayvon generation,” the young people who have watched the deaths of Black people go viral, the youth who were born again in the streets under clouds that rained smoke, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Alexander writes that when her sons were young, her love was an armor that sufficiently protected them, but as they aged, she grew to fear for their lives. I’m older than her children, as are many of my peers who organized in the wake of Trayvon’s killing. I witnessed activists of this generation organize to send Tray- on’s killer to prison, like I did, evolve into critical thinkers and budding revolutionaries who organized to close prisons and end policing altogether. The evolution was not linear and remains messy—as birthing ideas and relationships can be. This aligns with what it means to be a “generation.” Fear, love, and possibility provide the armor for our generation. Most importantly, this generation, our generation, has been in deep love, study, and struggle with all generations to forge abolitionist futures.
 
IN THIS BOOK, I share how the lessons from these generations have pushed me toward understanding police abolition, which is just one part of abolishing the prison industrial complex and key to a more just world. This journey has been made possible through radical Black and multiracial social movements, here in the US and abroad. By radical, I mean the people, plans, and practices within democratic traditions of activism that examine how power is arranged in society, and committing to eradicating exploitation where we find it. The commitment is key. James Baldwin wrote that “People can cry much easier than they can change.” We need people to commit to changing, and the traditions that inspire these changes are vast. Consequently, Becoming Abolitionists is full of time travel and world travel, from the 1500s to the 2020s, from St. Louis to Soweto.

Policing is among the vestiges of slavery, colonialism, and genocide, tailored
in America to suppress slave revolts, catch runaways, and repress labor organiz- ing. After slavery, police imprisoned Black people, immigrants, and poor white people under a convict-leasing system for plantation and business owners. During the Jim Crow era, cops enforced segregation and joined lynch mobs that grew strange fruit from southern trees. During the civil rights movement, police beat the hell out of Black preachers, activists, and students who marched for equality wearing their Sunday best. Cops were the foot soldiers for Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs and Joe Biden’s 1994 crime bill. Police departments pepper-sprayed Occupy Wall Street protesters without provocation and indis- criminately tear-gassed Black Lives Matter activists for years—including me, twice. Most Black people I know trust the police—they trust them to be exactly what they have always been: violent.

Black people, including Black slavery abolitionists, have tried different routes to stop police violence. They have resisted the role of prisons and police for centuries by physical force, flight, hiding, and the courts. They even tried becoming police officers to protect Black communities from racist mobs and white police officers. Believing that they were entitled to equal protection under the law, they tried, usually to no avail, to reform the patrol and the police.

In recent decades, Black prison industrial complex abolitionists have developed alternatives to 911, created support systems for victims of domestic violence, prevented the construction of new jails, called for the reduction of police budgets, and shielded undocumented immigrants from deportation. They have imagined and built responses to harm rooted in community and accountability. Abolition, I have learned, is a bigger idea than firing cops and closing prisons; it includes eliminating the reasons people think they need cops and prisons in the first place.

After each video of a police killing goes viral, popular reforms go on tour: banning chokeholds, investing in community policing, diversifying departments—none of which would have saved Floyd or most other police victims. Princeton professor Naomi Murakawa wrote to me in an email:
 

At best, these reforms discourage certain techniques of killing, but they don’t condemn the fact of police killing. “Ban the chokehold!” But allow murder with guns and tasers and police vans? The analogy here is to death-penalty reformers who improved the noose with the electric chair, and then improved the electric chair with chemical cocktails.

But the technique of murder doesn’t comfort the dead. It comforts the executioners—and all their supportive onlookers. Like so much reform to address racism, all this legal fine print is meant to salve the conscience of moderates who want salvation on the cheap, without any real change to the material life-and-death realities for Black people.
 

When Donald Trump was elected president, many liberals feared the end of consent decrees (legal agreements between the Department of Justice and police departments) intended to spur real change. After law school, I worked for the Advancement Project, which supported community organizers in Ferguson on the decree that was negotiated in the aftermath of Brown’s death. Millions of dollars went toward an investigation, publicity, and a lawsuit to rid the Ferguson Police Department of “bad apples” and transform its culture.

After decades of police terror, widespread unconstitutional policing, and a year of militaristic ambush on the community, the consent decree provided members of the police department with mental health services to cope with the unrest, but no treatment or restitution for the residents who were tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and traumatized by the tanks at the edge of their driveways. The Obama administration’s DOJ objected to dismissing thousands of old cases that were the result of unconstitutional policing, and protected the police department from criticisms that community organizers shared with the judge in court.

Constitutional policing is a problem too. As the legal scholar Paul Butler explains, the overwhelming majority of police violence is constitutional. Stops, frisks, and most of the police killings that turn our stomachs are protected by Congress and the Supreme Court. I believe that people began chanting “defund the police” precisely for these reasons. Reforms cannot fix a policing system that is not broken.

Still, many Americans believe that most police officers do the right thing. Perhaps there are a few bad apples. But even the very best apples surveil, arrest, and detain millions of people every year whose primary “crime” is that they are immigrants, Black, poor, and unhoused. Cops escalate violence disproportionately against people with disabilities and in mental health crises, even the ones who call 911 for help. The police officers who are doing the “right thing” maintain the systems of inequality and ableism in Black communities. The right thing is wrong.

Policing cannot even fix what many of us might fear most. People often ask me, “What will we do with murderers and rapists?” Which ones? The police kill about a thousand people every year, and potentially assault, threaten, and harm hundreds of thousands more. After excessive force, sexual misconduct is the second-most-common complaint against cops. Many people are afraid to call the police when they suffer these harms, because they fear that the police will hurt them, too. Thousands of rape survivors refuse to call the police, worried about not being believed or about being reassaulted, or concerned that their rape kit would sit unexamined for years. In three major cities, less than 4 percent of calls to the police are for “violent crimes.” Currently, the arrest rate for homicides has declined from 80 percent to 60 percent, and cops frequently arrest and force confessions out of the wrong people.
 
SO IF WE abolish the police, what’s the alternative? Who do we call? As someone who grew up calling 911, I also shared this concern. As Becoming Abolitionists explores: Just because I did not know an answer didn’t mean that one did not exist. Infinite questions, answers, and possibilities were on the road ahead, and many of them were already in play. Along with others asking similar questions, I had to study and join and create organizations, and find my place in the larger freedom movement. Rather than thinking of abolition as simply get- ting rid of police overnight, so many of us who were becoming abolitionists started to think about it as an invitation to create and support a range of answers to the problem of harm in society, and, most exciting perhaps, as an opportunity to reduce and eliminate harm in the first place.

That is where you, the reader, come in. This is not a “how-to” book on becoming an abolitionist. This is an invitation to share what I have been pushed to learn in developing the politics of abolition; this is an invitation to love, study, struggle, search, and imagine what we have around us to make this possible, today. This book’s purpose is to share the freedom dreams and real contradictions of a movement that I, that many abolitionists, hold dear, and to share how those dreams and contradictions and opportunities inspire me.

Before we begin, I make two requests of you.

First, I write about prison and police abolition as one paradigm, as one way to think about and experiment with problems and solutions. Abolition is important to me, but not abolition alone. I try my best to study abolition along- side other paradigms, such as feminism, decolonization, and internationalism, and hope that you will consider doing this, too. For me, understanding abolition’s relationship to capitalism is also essential to our liberation. I think about capitalism as a political and economic system that categorizes groups of people for the purposes of exploiting, excluding, and extracting their labor toward the profit of another group. Those categories can consist of race, gender, disability, sexuality, immigration status, and much more.

The slave trade is an example. By creating a category of enslaved Black people, white people could exploit their labor by benefitting from what slaves produced that they could not benefit from themselves. Additionally, by confining Black people to slave status, white people did not have to compete with it for other jobs on the labor market because Black people were excluded from them.

Ironically, slavery became a tense debate among capitalists because slaves performed work that white people could have been paid to perform. But instead, poor white people were paid to manage enslaved Black people, as overseers, slave patrols, police, wardens, sheriffs, and prison guards. Today, the criminal legal system continues to manage people who are excluded from labor markets, education, health care, and quality housing—all of the things we need to reduce harm, and all of the things that cities and the feds choose not to fund when we can.

Extraction is harder for me to explain, but I know it when I feel it. It’s the immeasurable and forced removal of our body parts, ideas, and emotions that accompanies capitalism. It’s forcing someone to work fifteen-hour days picking cotton so that you can spend your time doing what you wish. It’s the two-hour public bus rides that Amazon factory workers take so that the owner, Jeff Bezos, can travel between cities in an hour by a private jet. What’s sad is that people claim that poor, Black communities need the police the most to protect them, but this is not quite true. Capitalists need policing the most—to protect their property, billions, businesses, and borders by arresting the people whom they’ve exploited, excluded, and extracted from the most.

Second, let go. Well, maybe not let go, but, notice why you may want to know what “the alternative” is to police or prison. As someone who called 911 regularly as a child, I immediately wanted to know what the alternative would be if and when I was in a situation and needed help. A short answer is this: What if the solution is not one alternative, but many? By solely focusing on a single alternative, we fail to examine and eradicate the harm that gives rise to what we fear. And, we deserve options. “Option” stems from the Latin optare, meaning to “choose.” Police and prisons—the default responses today—are woefully insufficient because they don’t solve harm, they simply react to it. We must choose something better.

Who chose to have police? Originally, kings, colonizers, and capitalists. They chose police to protect their power to rule over people who had less. We must never forget that.

Certainly not the masses of Black people, whom police captured, brutal- ized, and returned to the plantation. Immigrants did not choose cops either, especially the immigrants who the police threatened to remain in their enclaves. Before the Irish were considered “white” in the US, they experienced policing as colonial subjects under Britain. Then, when they migrated to the United States, police targeted and arrested them so much that police vans are still called “paddy wagons,” a derogatory use of the popular Irish name “Padraig.” Women, even white women, had relatively little power in “choosing” to have police; during slavery, they were policed for prostitution and faced death for having sex outside of their marriages. And Indigenous people did not choose the police, either, or choose to be subject to the governance of those who displaced and dispossessed them of their lands and relegated them to “reservations.”11 Rather, police and rangers participated in mass genocide and war against Indigenous people in creating artificial borders called “states.”

The people who chose the police were the same people who drafted the Constitution, who started the wars, who owned slaves, who possessed property, who had the most to lose if oppressed people ever decided to revolt: wealthy white men. And rather than unifying and organizing against the concentrated wealth of this class, the rest of us have been tricked into demanding that the police protect us, too. They cannot.

Thus, there is no singular alternative to police that does not risk replicating the forms of oppression that we currently face. Police developed through slave patrols, colonialism, and labor suppression. The institution continues to support broader social, economic, and racialized systems that took millions of decisions to create. Together, we will undo them all. Somebody had to hammer “Colored” and “Whites Only” signs at schools, subways, businesses, and parks. Somebody had to remove them, too.

Slavery abolition required resistance, risk, and experimentation. Black people plotted, rebelled, ran away. Built an underground railroad. Marooned. Abolitionists wrote and orated against the “peculiar institution.” Allies funded campaigns, passed legislation, and changed the Constitution. Of course, people at the time felt a range of anxieties about abolition. Slave owners worried about their plantations and the profits that the labor camps wrought. White overseers feared joblessness. Both feared the loss of superiority. Some Black people had reservations about how they’d sustain themselves without the steady, yet violent, income from their owners. Police abolition triggers similar anxieties today—moral, economic, and otherwise.

But if abolitionists had waited to convince every single person that freedom was worth the pursuit, Black people might still be on plantations. Slavery’s violence and repression was riskier than Black people’s plans, imagination, and will to be free. So they held the uncertainty in their bellies and started planning. Some started running. Rather than waiting for comforting answers to every potential harm ahead of us, let’s plan. Run. Dream. Experiment. And continue to organize, imagine, and transform this society toward freedom and justice without police and violence.
"Becoming Abolitionists by Derecka Purnell, blew me away with its compassion, introspection, research, stories and clear sighted case for abolishing our criminal punishment system and radically reconstructing our society to address the root causes of harm and violence."
—Ibram X. Kendi, bestselling author of How To Be An Antiracist

"Wherever we are on our abolitionist journey—whether an experienced organizer or freshly on the path—there is something to take away from Purnell’s powerful story, even something as intangible as hope."
—Sophia Ramirez, PEN America

"An enlightening and inspiring book about a bold idea with great potential to change society."
—Seattle Book Review

"Becoming Abolitionists provides a blueprint for each of us to begin to run, dream, and experiment toward a just and livable future."
The Nation

“This book will open up your sociopolitical imagination and leave you optimistic about what is possible when we commit to safety for all.”
—Brea Baker, Elle.com

"An informed, provocative, astute consideration of salvific alternatives to contemporary policing and imprisonment." 
—Starred Review, Kirkus

"Part memoir, part essay, and part argument, Becoming Abolitionists is an organizing tool itself, inviting in skeptics and offering a bridge to committed activists in other movements."
—Lyra Walsh Fuchs, Dissent

"Far from avoiding the tough questions, Purnell dives in headfirst. Drawing from history, she deftly connects the roots of violence to the racial and economic hierarchies police are charged with maintaining, arguing that precarity cannot be eradicated by the people who are paid to protect it. Becoming Abolitionists is ultimately about the importance of asking questions and our ability to create answers. And in the end, Purnell makes it clear that abolition is a labor of love—one that we can accomplish together if only we decide to."
—Nia Evans, Boston Review

"Drawing upon a Black radical tradition of social movements, Becoming Abolitionists reveals the power of self-study, collective political education, and resistance to reform efforts to inspire a new generation of activists. Purnell offers a persuasive and warm invitation to us all to deliver on the promise
and potential of abolition."
—Aida Mariam Davis, Stanford Social Innovation Review

"[Purnell] draws convincing parallels between the past and the present to demonstrate that today’s policing systems are vestiges of this oppressive framework ... She is in such command of her material [that] even if you disagree with her, you are compelled to listen."
—The Guardian (UK)

"Through deft historical research, political analysis, and gutting prose, the book uses a variety of approaches to map Purnell’s complex and fulfilling political evolution."
The Cut

"Part memoir, part political and social commentary, the St. Louis native’s genre-bending book demonstrates her road to adopting abolitionist politics and makes the argument for why the new abolitionism — the push to end prisons and policing in the United States — ought to be the future of the country."
—Kovie Biakolo, Essence

"Blending trenchant social critique with intimate stories from her own upbringing, Purnell’s text marks a necessary installment in the larger tradition of abolitionist writing." 
—Dean Spade, them.us

"Bold and utopian, yet grounded in Purnell’s experiences and copious evidence of how reform efforts have fallen short, this is an inspiring introduction to a hot-button topic."
Publishers Weekly

"Packed with glimmering moments of poetic clarity and power. Purnell has gifted us a book that is engaging, textually rich, clear in voice, driven, even paced, astutely researched, necessary and damn good. A must read."
—Darnell Moore, author of No Ashes in the Fire

"[For Derecka], abolition isn’t just about taking away the institutions that give people an illusion that everyone is being kept safe when they’re actually not – it’s about building new structures that remove the need for these violent and oppressive systems to begin with."
—Tayo Bero, The Guardian

"Becoming Abolitionists received a starred Kirkus review for its insight into the problematic nature of policing, including constitutional policing—that which upholds the U.S. Constitution and individual civil rights. Purnell highlights her evolution from cop-caller to abolitionist and dissects the violence in policing culture." 
—Nia Norris, Kirkus Reviews

"While her narrative is densely fact-packed throughout, Purnell is able to deftly lead the reader through the ins and outs of the abolitionist mindset so that it is clear and comprehensible for all, including those who, like her, might be initially skeptical."
—Booklist

"It's been amazing having you here, and your book is twice as amazing as the conversation because you can have it for so much longer."
—Trevor Noah, The Daily Show

"With deep insight and moral clarity, Purnell shares her compelling journey of political education and personal transformation, inviting us not only to imagine a world without police, but to muster the courage to fight for the more just world we know is possible. Becoming Abolitionists is essential reading for our times." 
—Michelle Alexander, bestselling author of The New Jim Crow

"Becoming Abolitionists is part memoir & part manifesto for our times. Beautifully written, the book takes the reader on a personal journey from the Midwest to South Africa with a pit stop in New England. As a member of the ‘Trayvon Generation,’ Derecka offers us invaluable insights into how young activists are navigating and challenging current injustices. If you’ve been curious about the modern abolitionist movement, this book is a must read!"
—Mariame Kaba, bestselling author of We Do This Til We Free Us

"At once specific and sweeping, practical and visionary, Becoming Abolitionists is a triumph of political imagination and a tremendous gift to all movements struggling towards liberation. Do not miss its brilliance!"
—Naomi Klein, bestselling author of The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything

"Derecka Purnell has one of the most exciting minds of a generation, and Becoming Abolitionists gives us all an excuse to praise her. This book is an explosion of deep intellect matched with great love, showing a journey toward radical politics that embraces the messiness. Derecka does not expect we all wake up and become abolitionists immediately--it didn't happen that way for her--but by showing both her intellectual and emotional path toward abolitionist thinking, she provides a roadmap that is also compassionate to those moving in a slower lane. But with an argument rooted in history, criticism guided by deep care, and writing that pulses with urgency, Becoming Abolitionists will convince you that is exactly what we all need to do before you even put the book down."
—Mychal Denzel Smith, bestselling author of Invisible Man Got The Whole World Watching and Stakes Is High

"Derecka Purnell's writing is freeing and draws you. Becoming Abolitionists is a beautiful invitation to understand what is possible if we commit to unlearning our dependence on police and address the underlying injustices that cause harm in our communities. This is the book we have been waiting for and knew we needed to advance abolitionist efforts. Purnell is the abolitionist writer of her generation." 
—Bettina Love, author of Abolitionist Teaching

"One of the most perceptive and passionate thinkers of any generation, Derecka Purnell, has written a genuinely revolutionary text for our times—one that resists easy answers or solutions and never shies from the hard questions. She proves that abolition is not an event or a utopian dreamstate, but rather a journey of assembly struggling to create new worlds of freedom as we fight the unfree world we inhabit. Beautifully written, passionate, honest, Becoming Abolitionists charts a journey we all must take if we plan to survive, let alone live together."
—Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

“With the elegant prose of a gifted storyteller, the acumen of a seasoned organizer, and the sharp-edged wit of a radical legal scholar, Purnell takes us on the powerful journey to police abolition in her new book, Becoming Abolitionists. It is a must read for anyone serious about understanding this moment, and the ongoing Black freedom movement.” 
—Barbara Ransby author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement

"In this moving and mind-expanding meditation on the nature and possibility of justice, Derecka Purnell—a self-professed member of the 'Trayvon generation'—traces her personal journey from her hometown of Saint Louis, Missouri to the frontlines of a global movement against racism and police brutality. A true philosopher, Purnell gleans wisdom at every opportunity, studying and struggling whether she’s in a law school seminar or protesting in the street, in a courtroom defending a client or visiting a nail salon. Being radical, this wonderful book reminds us, doesn’t mean having all of the answers—it means constantly questioning, listening, learning, and being willing to reassess and grow.  Becoming Abolitionists brilliantly lays out the connections between policing and other forms of oppression and shows why even well-meaning “reforms” won’t get us where we need to go. This profound, urgent, beautiful, and necessary book is an invitation to imagine and organize for a less violent and more liberatory world. Everyone should read it." 
—Astra Taylor, author of Democracy May Not Exist but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone

"For those skeptics of abolition, this brilliant, revolutionary book will take you on a breathtaking journey to the other side. As Derecka makes clear, abolition is not just about firing cops and closing prisons; it’s about eliminating the reasons people think they need them. If you read any book this year – read this. It's a radiant and practical blueprint for the new world." 
—V (formerly Eve Ensler) author of The Vagina Monologues and The Apology

"Becoming Abolitionists
is a vital resource for anyone committed to the struggle for social justice, written by one of the sharpest and most inspiring voices to emerge in a generation. Taking readers on a journey from her childhood in St. Louis to the protests in Ferguson, the halls of Harvard, the streets of Soweto and beyond, Derecka Purnell’s heart-rendering analysis gives us the tools to envision a new society with endless possibilities. Even more, Purnell’s extraordinary blend of personal memoir, history, and critical theory provides a roadmap to build a safer and more just world. Like the Autobiography of Angela Davis, Becoming Abolitionists is sure to remain an essential text for decades to come."
Elizabeth Hinton, author of America on Fire and From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime

"An extraordinary, wonderful, insightful, and immensely generative book that makes the case for abolitionist thinking, amplifying the self-activity of the masses already in motion, and at the same time providing a thoroughly absorbing and captivating description of the author's own journey. Rather than encouraging each of us to brand ourselves as radical, Purnell points us toward the collaborative acts of co-creation and accompaniment that can make revolutionary change possible. She incorporates decoloniality, feminism, Indigeneity, environmental justice, and disability activism organically into her critiques and solutions. One of the most exciting, inspiring, and enlightening books I have read in a long time."
—George Lipsitz, author of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness

"Derecka's book provides a front row seat to how a generation of young people have been radicalized by a series of contradictions living within the heart of global empire: the United States. She explains, with powerful stories and brilliant analysis, how she has committed herself to abolition in the context of ongoing collective study and struggle. The abolition she discusses is anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist, committed to racial, economic, and gender justice. A call to not simply tear down prisons and police, but to build a society where our collective needs prevail over profit and punishment. This book is more than a front row seat, it is an invitation to join the most important movement of our time." 
—Amna Akbar, Professor of Law, The Ohio State University

"Purnell is undoubtedly one of the most important writers and activists of our generation, offering us a vivid, moving and compelling book for anyone interested in one of the most urgent issues of our times. Purnell weaves experiences of racism and resistance to articulate a blistering critique of racial capitalism, state power and imperialism, taking readers on a journey towards the radical alternatives to police and prisons which have shaped Black political movements in the 21st century." 
—Adam Elliott-Cooper, author of Black Resistance to British Policing

"At once an account of the life and education of an already extraordinary young life and a sharp and searching effort to remake our society in the image of abolition democracy and the movement that began in Ferguson, this book is, in the end, more than a book. It is an act of radical love."
—Walter Johnson, award-winning author of The Broken Heart of America and Soul By Soul

"Becoming Abolitionists is a wise and passionate argument for the urgency of first responders without guns. Purnell takes on the hardest questions with analytical rigor and common sense. This is abolition for the people."
—Paul Butler, MSNBC Legal Analyst and Author, Chokehold: Policing Black Men
© Allysa Lisbon
Derecka Purnell is a human rights lawyer, writer, and organizer. She received her JD from Harvard Law School, and works to end police and prison violence by providing legal assistance, research, and training to community-based organizations through an abolitionist framework. Her work and writing has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, The Atlantic, the Boston Globe, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, The Appeal, Truthout, Slate,  and many other publications. Derecka is currently a columnist at the Guardian. View titles by Derecka Purnell

Derecka Purnell on The Daily Show

Discussion Guide for Becoming Abolitionists

Provides questions, discussion topics, suggested reading lists, introductions and/or author Q&As, which are intended to enhance reading groups’ experiences.

(Please note: the guide displayed here is the most recently uploaded version; while unlikely, any page citation discrepancies between the guide and book is likely due to pagination differences between a book’s different formats.)

CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION:HOW I BECAME A POLICE ABOLITIONIST

1: WHAT JUSTICE?
2: FIRST WE WERE FREE
3: RESISTANCE AND REFORM
4: LOVE AND ABOLITION
5: JUSTICE FOR THE LIVING
6: SEX, LOVE, AND VIOLENCE
7: DEHUMANIZATION, DISABILITY, AND RESISTANCE
8: “WE ONLY WANT THE EARTH”

CONCLUSION

ENDNOTES

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

About

One of the New York Times' 6 New Paperbacks to Read

Now in paperback and with new material, a 2021 Kirkus Best Book of the year in both Nonfiction and Current Events, the book Naomi Klein called: “a triumph of political imagination and a tremendous gift to all movements struggling towards liberation.”


For more than a century, activists in the United States have tried to reform the police. Millions of people continue to protest police violence because these "solutions" do not match the problem: the police cannot be reformed.

In her critically acclaimed first book Becoming Abolitionists, Purnell draws from her experiences as a lawyer, writer, and organizer initially skeptical about police abolition. She saw too much sexual violence and buried too many friends to consider getting rid of police in her hometown of St. Louis, let alone the nation. But the police were a placebo. Calling them felt like something, and something feels like everything when the other option seems like nothing.

Purnell details how multi-racial social movements rooted in rebellion, risk-taking, and revolutionary love pushed her and a generation of activists toward abolition. The book travels across geography and time, and offers lessons that activists have learned from Ferguson to South Africa, from Reconstruction to contemporary protests against police shootings.

Here, Purnell invites readers to envision new systems that work to address the root causes of violence. Becoming Abolitionists shows that abolition is not solely about getting rid of police, but a commitment to create and support different answers to the problem of harm in society, and, most excitingly, an opportunity to reduce and eliminate harm in the first place.

Excerpt

WE CALLED 911 for almost everything—except snitching. Nosebleeds, gunshot wounds, asthma attacks, allergic reactions. Police accompanied the paramedics.

Our neighborhood was making us sick. From 1990 until 2006, my family moved among four apartments in a modest complex called Hickory Square. It was located at the edge of the Gate District between Jefferson and Ohio in St. Louis. A Praxair industrial gas–storage facility was at one end of my block. I had no idea what it was until one year, gas tanks exploded one by one. Grown-ups panicked that the explosions were another 9/11. Scorching asphalt burned our feet as we fled because there wasn’t enough time to put on shoes. Buildings and cars immediately caught fire and shrapnel pierced the trees and the houses. Nine thousand pounds of propane exploded and burned that day. Minnie Cooper died from an asthma attack related to the noxious fumes. The Black mother of three was only thirty-two.

At the other end of my block, there was a junkyard with military airplane parts in full view. The owner of the lot collected the parts as a hobby, and had at least twenty-six US and Russian war craft machines. Each one ranged in value between ten thousand dollars and seventy-five thousand dollars, and shipping costs could be as high as thirty thousand dollars. One man’s treasure came at the cost of exposing poisonous particles to children in the neighborhood every day. His lot still sits directly across the street from my middle school’s playground.

The fish-seasoning plant in our backyard did not smell. The yeast from the nearby Anheuser-Busch factory did. Car honks and fumes from Interstate 64 filtered through my childhood bedroom window, from where, if I stood on my toes, I could see the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

All these environmental toxins that degraded our health often conspired with other forms of violence that pervaded our neighborhood. Employment opportunities were rare, and my friends and I turned to making money under the table. I was scared of selling drugs, so I gambled. Brown-skinned boys I liked aged out of recreational activities, and, without work, into blue bandannas. Their territorial disputes led to violence and more 911 calls. Grown-ups fought too, stressed from working hard yet never having enough bill money or gas money or food money or day-care money. Call 911.

When people come across police abolition for the first time, they tend to dismiss abolitionists for not caring about neighborhood safety or the victims of violence. They tend to forget that often we are those victims, those survivors of violence, too.
 
THE FIRST SHOOTING I witnessed was by a uniformed security guard. I was thir- teen years old. He was employed by Global Security Services, a company founded by a former Missouri police chief who was later convicted of homicide. The former chief managed to secure multi-million-dollar contracts in an embezzlement scheme to provide armed private officers at almost all of St. Louis’s city-owned properties—including my public neighborhood recreation center. The armed guards replaced the city police. I was teaching my sister, Courtnie, who was nine, how to shoot free throws at the rec center when the guard stormed in alongside the court, drew his weapon, and shot his cousin in the arm. Courtnie and I hid in the locker room for hours afterward. I thought the guard was angry that his cousin skipped a sign-in sheet, but the victim only told the police the shooting had started as an argument over “something stupid.”

Like the boy at the rec center who was shot by the private guard, most vic- tims of law enforcement violence survive. No hashtags or protests or fires for the wounded, assaulted, and intimidated.

In 2020, Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin pinned George Floyd to the concrete as he hollered that he could not breathe. Floyd screamed. He screamed for his mother. He screamed for his breath. For his life. Until he died nine minutes later. Calls for “justice” quickly ensued. I often wonder, What if the cop who killed George Floyd had kneeled on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds instead of nine minutes? Floyd would have lived to be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for allegedly attempting to use a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. Is that justice? I did not think so. Too often, the public calls for justice when Black people are killed by the police and ignore the daily injustice if the victims would have lived.

I was surprised by what followed next. Unlike the “Black Lives Matter” calls six years prior, protesters were shouting “Defund the police!” Abolition was entering into the mainstream.

Initially, the notion of “police abolition” repulsed me. The idea seemed like it was created by white activists who did not know the violence that I knew, that I have felt. At the time, I considered abolition to be, pejoratively, “utopic.” I’d seen too much sexual violence and had buried too many friends to consider getting rid of the police in St. Louis, let alone across the nation. I still lose people to violence. Sapphire. John. Greg. Brieana. Monti. Korie. Christopher. Jarrell. Sometimes, I reread our text messages to laugh again. And cry.

But over time, I came to realize that, in reality, the police were a placebo. Calling them felt like something, as the legal scholar Michelle Alexander explains, and something feels like everything when your other option is nothing. Police couldn’t do what we really needed. They could not heal relationships or provide jobs. They did not interrupt violence; they escalated it. We were usually afraid when we called. When the cops arrived, I was silenced, threatened with deten- tion, or removed from my home. Today, more than fifteen years later, St. Louis has more police per capita than most cities in the US. My old neighborhood still lacks quality food, employment, schools, health care, and air—all of which increases the risk of violence and our reliance on police. And instead of improv- ing the quality of the neighborhood, St. Louis, which has the highest rate of killings by police among the largest cities in the US, spends more money on police.

Yet I feared letting go; I thought we needed them. I thought they just needed to be reformed. Until August 9, 2014, when police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown had a funeral. Wilson had a wedding. Most police officers just continue to live their lives after filling the streets with blood and bone.

On that day in August, I threw a conference for high school girls in Kansas City, where I had been organizing, attending college, and teaching middle school. This was a part of my farewell tour of the place I had called home for six years. Harvard Law School was on my horizon; I planned to become an education lawyer, and, one day, superintendent of a school district or, possibly, Secretary of Education. After the conference, my hometown, St. Louis, was next. In high school, I had rented a room in my aunt’s basement down the street from West Florissant and Chambers. She, like everyone in my family except my mother, lived in “the county.” St. Louis City, where I grew up, is independent of St. Louis County, and Black people migrated to north county fleeing the violence and school districts in the city. My furniture was being held in the bright orange Public Storage in the county, on West Florissant—the street where the Ferguson Uprising exploded.

For weeks I protested in Ferguson. We chanted, “Indict! Convict! Send those killer cops to jail! The whole damn system is guilty as hell!” Tanks rolled in, regardless of the crowd size and hype. I was a new mom, breastfeeding my six- month-old, and I learned on the streets that tear gas was not only noxious, but could possibly cause miscarriages. Somehow, I escaped tear gas for a year; I was terrified the chemicals would pass through my breast milk to my child.

I drove from Ferguson to law school after Brown’s death. I met, studied with, and struggled alongside students and movement lawyers who explained the power and the purpose of the prison industrial complex through an abolitionist framework. Mass incarceration, I learned, was a manifestation of a much larger, interwoven set of structures of oppression that we had to dismantle.

In Ferguson, I started to understand why we need police abolition rather than reform. Police manage inequality by keeping the dispossessed from the owners, the Black from the white, the homeless from the housed, the beggars from the employed. Reforms only make police polite managers of inequality. Abolition makes police and inequality obsolete.

My journey toward abolition is not mine alone. I’m an elder in what Elizabeth Alexander describes as the “Trayvon generation,” the young people who have watched the deaths of Black people go viral, the youth who were born again in the streets under clouds that rained smoke, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Alexander writes that when her sons were young, her love was an armor that sufficiently protected them, but as they aged, she grew to fear for their lives. I’m older than her children, as are many of my peers who organized in the wake of Trayvon’s killing. I witnessed activists of this generation organize to send Tray- on’s killer to prison, like I did, evolve into critical thinkers and budding revolutionaries who organized to close prisons and end policing altogether. The evolution was not linear and remains messy—as birthing ideas and relationships can be. This aligns with what it means to be a “generation.” Fear, love, and possibility provide the armor for our generation. Most importantly, this generation, our generation, has been in deep love, study, and struggle with all generations to forge abolitionist futures.
 
IN THIS BOOK, I share how the lessons from these generations have pushed me toward understanding police abolition, which is just one part of abolishing the prison industrial complex and key to a more just world. This journey has been made possible through radical Black and multiracial social movements, here in the US and abroad. By radical, I mean the people, plans, and practices within democratic traditions of activism that examine how power is arranged in society, and committing to eradicating exploitation where we find it. The commitment is key. James Baldwin wrote that “People can cry much easier than they can change.” We need people to commit to changing, and the traditions that inspire these changes are vast. Consequently, Becoming Abolitionists is full of time travel and world travel, from the 1500s to the 2020s, from St. Louis to Soweto.

Policing is among the vestiges of slavery, colonialism, and genocide, tailored
in America to suppress slave revolts, catch runaways, and repress labor organiz- ing. After slavery, police imprisoned Black people, immigrants, and poor white people under a convict-leasing system for plantation and business owners. During the Jim Crow era, cops enforced segregation and joined lynch mobs that grew strange fruit from southern trees. During the civil rights movement, police beat the hell out of Black preachers, activists, and students who marched for equality wearing their Sunday best. Cops were the foot soldiers for Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs and Joe Biden’s 1994 crime bill. Police departments pepper-sprayed Occupy Wall Street protesters without provocation and indis- criminately tear-gassed Black Lives Matter activists for years—including me, twice. Most Black people I know trust the police—they trust them to be exactly what they have always been: violent.

Black people, including Black slavery abolitionists, have tried different routes to stop police violence. They have resisted the role of prisons and police for centuries by physical force, flight, hiding, and the courts. They even tried becoming police officers to protect Black communities from racist mobs and white police officers. Believing that they were entitled to equal protection under the law, they tried, usually to no avail, to reform the patrol and the police.

In recent decades, Black prison industrial complex abolitionists have developed alternatives to 911, created support systems for victims of domestic violence, prevented the construction of new jails, called for the reduction of police budgets, and shielded undocumented immigrants from deportation. They have imagined and built responses to harm rooted in community and accountability. Abolition, I have learned, is a bigger idea than firing cops and closing prisons; it includes eliminating the reasons people think they need cops and prisons in the first place.

After each video of a police killing goes viral, popular reforms go on tour: banning chokeholds, investing in community policing, diversifying departments—none of which would have saved Floyd or most other police victims. Princeton professor Naomi Murakawa wrote to me in an email:
 

At best, these reforms discourage certain techniques of killing, but they don’t condemn the fact of police killing. “Ban the chokehold!” But allow murder with guns and tasers and police vans? The analogy here is to death-penalty reformers who improved the noose with the electric chair, and then improved the electric chair with chemical cocktails.

But the technique of murder doesn’t comfort the dead. It comforts the executioners—and all their supportive onlookers. Like so much reform to address racism, all this legal fine print is meant to salve the conscience of moderates who want salvation on the cheap, without any real change to the material life-and-death realities for Black people.
 

When Donald Trump was elected president, many liberals feared the end of consent decrees (legal agreements between the Department of Justice and police departments) intended to spur real change. After law school, I worked for the Advancement Project, which supported community organizers in Ferguson on the decree that was negotiated in the aftermath of Brown’s death. Millions of dollars went toward an investigation, publicity, and a lawsuit to rid the Ferguson Police Department of “bad apples” and transform its culture.

After decades of police terror, widespread unconstitutional policing, and a year of militaristic ambush on the community, the consent decree provided members of the police department with mental health services to cope with the unrest, but no treatment or restitution for the residents who were tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and traumatized by the tanks at the edge of their driveways. The Obama administration’s DOJ objected to dismissing thousands of old cases that were the result of unconstitutional policing, and protected the police department from criticisms that community organizers shared with the judge in court.

Constitutional policing is a problem too. As the legal scholar Paul Butler explains, the overwhelming majority of police violence is constitutional. Stops, frisks, and most of the police killings that turn our stomachs are protected by Congress and the Supreme Court. I believe that people began chanting “defund the police” precisely for these reasons. Reforms cannot fix a policing system that is not broken.

Still, many Americans believe that most police officers do the right thing. Perhaps there are a few bad apples. But even the very best apples surveil, arrest, and detain millions of people every year whose primary “crime” is that they are immigrants, Black, poor, and unhoused. Cops escalate violence disproportionately against people with disabilities and in mental health crises, even the ones who call 911 for help. The police officers who are doing the “right thing” maintain the systems of inequality and ableism in Black communities. The right thing is wrong.

Policing cannot even fix what many of us might fear most. People often ask me, “What will we do with murderers and rapists?” Which ones? The police kill about a thousand people every year, and potentially assault, threaten, and harm hundreds of thousands more. After excessive force, sexual misconduct is the second-most-common complaint against cops. Many people are afraid to call the police when they suffer these harms, because they fear that the police will hurt them, too. Thousands of rape survivors refuse to call the police, worried about not being believed or about being reassaulted, or concerned that their rape kit would sit unexamined for years. In three major cities, less than 4 percent of calls to the police are for “violent crimes.” Currently, the arrest rate for homicides has declined from 80 percent to 60 percent, and cops frequently arrest and force confessions out of the wrong people.
 
SO IF WE abolish the police, what’s the alternative? Who do we call? As someone who grew up calling 911, I also shared this concern. As Becoming Abolitionists explores: Just because I did not know an answer didn’t mean that one did not exist. Infinite questions, answers, and possibilities were on the road ahead, and many of them were already in play. Along with others asking similar questions, I had to study and join and create organizations, and find my place in the larger freedom movement. Rather than thinking of abolition as simply get- ting rid of police overnight, so many of us who were becoming abolitionists started to think about it as an invitation to create and support a range of answers to the problem of harm in society, and, most exciting perhaps, as an opportunity to reduce and eliminate harm in the first place.

That is where you, the reader, come in. This is not a “how-to” book on becoming an abolitionist. This is an invitation to share what I have been pushed to learn in developing the politics of abolition; this is an invitation to love, study, struggle, search, and imagine what we have around us to make this possible, today. This book’s purpose is to share the freedom dreams and real contradictions of a movement that I, that many abolitionists, hold dear, and to share how those dreams and contradictions and opportunities inspire me.

Before we begin, I make two requests of you.

First, I write about prison and police abolition as one paradigm, as one way to think about and experiment with problems and solutions. Abolition is important to me, but not abolition alone. I try my best to study abolition along- side other paradigms, such as feminism, decolonization, and internationalism, and hope that you will consider doing this, too. For me, understanding abolition’s relationship to capitalism is also essential to our liberation. I think about capitalism as a political and economic system that categorizes groups of people for the purposes of exploiting, excluding, and extracting their labor toward the profit of another group. Those categories can consist of race, gender, disability, sexuality, immigration status, and much more.

The slave trade is an example. By creating a category of enslaved Black people, white people could exploit their labor by benefitting from what slaves produced that they could not benefit from themselves. Additionally, by confining Black people to slave status, white people did not have to compete with it for other jobs on the labor market because Black people were excluded from them.

Ironically, slavery became a tense debate among capitalists because slaves performed work that white people could have been paid to perform. But instead, poor white people were paid to manage enslaved Black people, as overseers, slave patrols, police, wardens, sheriffs, and prison guards. Today, the criminal legal system continues to manage people who are excluded from labor markets, education, health care, and quality housing—all of the things we need to reduce harm, and all of the things that cities and the feds choose not to fund when we can.

Extraction is harder for me to explain, but I know it when I feel it. It’s the immeasurable and forced removal of our body parts, ideas, and emotions that accompanies capitalism. It’s forcing someone to work fifteen-hour days picking cotton so that you can spend your time doing what you wish. It’s the two-hour public bus rides that Amazon factory workers take so that the owner, Jeff Bezos, can travel between cities in an hour by a private jet. What’s sad is that people claim that poor, Black communities need the police the most to protect them, but this is not quite true. Capitalists need policing the most—to protect their property, billions, businesses, and borders by arresting the people whom they’ve exploited, excluded, and extracted from the most.

Second, let go. Well, maybe not let go, but, notice why you may want to know what “the alternative” is to police or prison. As someone who called 911 regularly as a child, I immediately wanted to know what the alternative would be if and when I was in a situation and needed help. A short answer is this: What if the solution is not one alternative, but many? By solely focusing on a single alternative, we fail to examine and eradicate the harm that gives rise to what we fear. And, we deserve options. “Option” stems from the Latin optare, meaning to “choose.” Police and prisons—the default responses today—are woefully insufficient because they don’t solve harm, they simply react to it. We must choose something better.

Who chose to have police? Originally, kings, colonizers, and capitalists. They chose police to protect their power to rule over people who had less. We must never forget that.

Certainly not the masses of Black people, whom police captured, brutal- ized, and returned to the plantation. Immigrants did not choose cops either, especially the immigrants who the police threatened to remain in their enclaves. Before the Irish were considered “white” in the US, they experienced policing as colonial subjects under Britain. Then, when they migrated to the United States, police targeted and arrested them so much that police vans are still called “paddy wagons,” a derogatory use of the popular Irish name “Padraig.” Women, even white women, had relatively little power in “choosing” to have police; during slavery, they were policed for prostitution and faced death for having sex outside of their marriages. And Indigenous people did not choose the police, either, or choose to be subject to the governance of those who displaced and dispossessed them of their lands and relegated them to “reservations.”11 Rather, police and rangers participated in mass genocide and war against Indigenous people in creating artificial borders called “states.”

The people who chose the police were the same people who drafted the Constitution, who started the wars, who owned slaves, who possessed property, who had the most to lose if oppressed people ever decided to revolt: wealthy white men. And rather than unifying and organizing against the concentrated wealth of this class, the rest of us have been tricked into demanding that the police protect us, too. They cannot.

Thus, there is no singular alternative to police that does not risk replicating the forms of oppression that we currently face. Police developed through slave patrols, colonialism, and labor suppression. The institution continues to support broader social, economic, and racialized systems that took millions of decisions to create. Together, we will undo them all. Somebody had to hammer “Colored” and “Whites Only” signs at schools, subways, businesses, and parks. Somebody had to remove them, too.

Slavery abolition required resistance, risk, and experimentation. Black people plotted, rebelled, ran away. Built an underground railroad. Marooned. Abolitionists wrote and orated against the “peculiar institution.” Allies funded campaigns, passed legislation, and changed the Constitution. Of course, people at the time felt a range of anxieties about abolition. Slave owners worried about their plantations and the profits that the labor camps wrought. White overseers feared joblessness. Both feared the loss of superiority. Some Black people had reservations about how they’d sustain themselves without the steady, yet violent, income from their owners. Police abolition triggers similar anxieties today—moral, economic, and otherwise.

But if abolitionists had waited to convince every single person that freedom was worth the pursuit, Black people might still be on plantations. Slavery’s violence and repression was riskier than Black people’s plans, imagination, and will to be free. So they held the uncertainty in their bellies and started planning. Some started running. Rather than waiting for comforting answers to every potential harm ahead of us, let’s plan. Run. Dream. Experiment. And continue to organize, imagine, and transform this society toward freedom and justice without police and violence.

Praise

"Becoming Abolitionists by Derecka Purnell, blew me away with its compassion, introspection, research, stories and clear sighted case for abolishing our criminal punishment system and radically reconstructing our society to address the root causes of harm and violence."
—Ibram X. Kendi, bestselling author of How To Be An Antiracist

"Wherever we are on our abolitionist journey—whether an experienced organizer or freshly on the path—there is something to take away from Purnell’s powerful story, even something as intangible as hope."
—Sophia Ramirez, PEN America

"An enlightening and inspiring book about a bold idea with great potential to change society."
—Seattle Book Review

"Becoming Abolitionists provides a blueprint for each of us to begin to run, dream, and experiment toward a just and livable future."
The Nation

“This book will open up your sociopolitical imagination and leave you optimistic about what is possible when we commit to safety for all.”
—Brea Baker, Elle.com

"An informed, provocative, astute consideration of salvific alternatives to contemporary policing and imprisonment." 
—Starred Review, Kirkus

"Part memoir, part essay, and part argument, Becoming Abolitionists is an organizing tool itself, inviting in skeptics and offering a bridge to committed activists in other movements."
—Lyra Walsh Fuchs, Dissent

"Far from avoiding the tough questions, Purnell dives in headfirst. Drawing from history, she deftly connects the roots of violence to the racial and economic hierarchies police are charged with maintaining, arguing that precarity cannot be eradicated by the people who are paid to protect it. Becoming Abolitionists is ultimately about the importance of asking questions and our ability to create answers. And in the end, Purnell makes it clear that abolition is a labor of love—one that we can accomplish together if only we decide to."
—Nia Evans, Boston Review

"Drawing upon a Black radical tradition of social movements, Becoming Abolitionists reveals the power of self-study, collective political education, and resistance to reform efforts to inspire a new generation of activists. Purnell offers a persuasive and warm invitation to us all to deliver on the promise
and potential of abolition."
—Aida Mariam Davis, Stanford Social Innovation Review

"[Purnell] draws convincing parallels between the past and the present to demonstrate that today’s policing systems are vestiges of this oppressive framework ... She is in such command of her material [that] even if you disagree with her, you are compelled to listen."
—The Guardian (UK)

"Through deft historical research, political analysis, and gutting prose, the book uses a variety of approaches to map Purnell’s complex and fulfilling political evolution."
The Cut

"Part memoir, part political and social commentary, the St. Louis native’s genre-bending book demonstrates her road to adopting abolitionist politics and makes the argument for why the new abolitionism — the push to end prisons and policing in the United States — ought to be the future of the country."
—Kovie Biakolo, Essence

"Blending trenchant social critique with intimate stories from her own upbringing, Purnell’s text marks a necessary installment in the larger tradition of abolitionist writing." 
—Dean Spade, them.us

"Bold and utopian, yet grounded in Purnell’s experiences and copious evidence of how reform efforts have fallen short, this is an inspiring introduction to a hot-button topic."
Publishers Weekly

"Packed with glimmering moments of poetic clarity and power. Purnell has gifted us a book that is engaging, textually rich, clear in voice, driven, even paced, astutely researched, necessary and damn good. A must read."
—Darnell Moore, author of No Ashes in the Fire

"[For Derecka], abolition isn’t just about taking away the institutions that give people an illusion that everyone is being kept safe when they’re actually not – it’s about building new structures that remove the need for these violent and oppressive systems to begin with."
—Tayo Bero, The Guardian

"Becoming Abolitionists received a starred Kirkus review for its insight into the problematic nature of policing, including constitutional policing—that which upholds the U.S. Constitution and individual civil rights. Purnell highlights her evolution from cop-caller to abolitionist and dissects the violence in policing culture." 
—Nia Norris, Kirkus Reviews

"While her narrative is densely fact-packed throughout, Purnell is able to deftly lead the reader through the ins and outs of the abolitionist mindset so that it is clear and comprehensible for all, including those who, like her, might be initially skeptical."
—Booklist

"It's been amazing having you here, and your book is twice as amazing as the conversation because you can have it for so much longer."
—Trevor Noah, The Daily Show

"With deep insight and moral clarity, Purnell shares her compelling journey of political education and personal transformation, inviting us not only to imagine a world without police, but to muster the courage to fight for the more just world we know is possible. Becoming Abolitionists is essential reading for our times." 
—Michelle Alexander, bestselling author of The New Jim Crow

"Becoming Abolitionists is part memoir & part manifesto for our times. Beautifully written, the book takes the reader on a personal journey from the Midwest to South Africa with a pit stop in New England. As a member of the ‘Trayvon Generation,’ Derecka offers us invaluable insights into how young activists are navigating and challenging current injustices. If you’ve been curious about the modern abolitionist movement, this book is a must read!"
—Mariame Kaba, bestselling author of We Do This Til We Free Us

"At once specific and sweeping, practical and visionary, Becoming Abolitionists is a triumph of political imagination and a tremendous gift to all movements struggling towards liberation. Do not miss its brilliance!"
—Naomi Klein, bestselling author of The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything

"Derecka Purnell has one of the most exciting minds of a generation, and Becoming Abolitionists gives us all an excuse to praise her. This book is an explosion of deep intellect matched with great love, showing a journey toward radical politics that embraces the messiness. Derecka does not expect we all wake up and become abolitionists immediately--it didn't happen that way for her--but by showing both her intellectual and emotional path toward abolitionist thinking, she provides a roadmap that is also compassionate to those moving in a slower lane. But with an argument rooted in history, criticism guided by deep care, and writing that pulses with urgency, Becoming Abolitionists will convince you that is exactly what we all need to do before you even put the book down."
—Mychal Denzel Smith, bestselling author of Invisible Man Got The Whole World Watching and Stakes Is High

"Derecka Purnell's writing is freeing and draws you. Becoming Abolitionists is a beautiful invitation to understand what is possible if we commit to unlearning our dependence on police and address the underlying injustices that cause harm in our communities. This is the book we have been waiting for and knew we needed to advance abolitionist efforts. Purnell is the abolitionist writer of her generation." 
—Bettina Love, author of Abolitionist Teaching

"One of the most perceptive and passionate thinkers of any generation, Derecka Purnell, has written a genuinely revolutionary text for our times—one that resists easy answers or solutions and never shies from the hard questions. She proves that abolition is not an event or a utopian dreamstate, but rather a journey of assembly struggling to create new worlds of freedom as we fight the unfree world we inhabit. Beautifully written, passionate, honest, Becoming Abolitionists charts a journey we all must take if we plan to survive, let alone live together."
—Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

“With the elegant prose of a gifted storyteller, the acumen of a seasoned organizer, and the sharp-edged wit of a radical legal scholar, Purnell takes us on the powerful journey to police abolition in her new book, Becoming Abolitionists. It is a must read for anyone serious about understanding this moment, and the ongoing Black freedom movement.” 
—Barbara Ransby author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement

"In this moving and mind-expanding meditation on the nature and possibility of justice, Derecka Purnell—a self-professed member of the 'Trayvon generation'—traces her personal journey from her hometown of Saint Louis, Missouri to the frontlines of a global movement against racism and police brutality. A true philosopher, Purnell gleans wisdom at every opportunity, studying and struggling whether she’s in a law school seminar or protesting in the street, in a courtroom defending a client or visiting a nail salon. Being radical, this wonderful book reminds us, doesn’t mean having all of the answers—it means constantly questioning, listening, learning, and being willing to reassess and grow.  Becoming Abolitionists brilliantly lays out the connections between policing and other forms of oppression and shows why even well-meaning “reforms” won’t get us where we need to go. This profound, urgent, beautiful, and necessary book is an invitation to imagine and organize for a less violent and more liberatory world. Everyone should read it." 
—Astra Taylor, author of Democracy May Not Exist but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone

"For those skeptics of abolition, this brilliant, revolutionary book will take you on a breathtaking journey to the other side. As Derecka makes clear, abolition is not just about firing cops and closing prisons; it’s about eliminating the reasons people think they need them. If you read any book this year – read this. It's a radiant and practical blueprint for the new world." 
—V (formerly Eve Ensler) author of The Vagina Monologues and The Apology

"Becoming Abolitionists
is a vital resource for anyone committed to the struggle for social justice, written by one of the sharpest and most inspiring voices to emerge in a generation. Taking readers on a journey from her childhood in St. Louis to the protests in Ferguson, the halls of Harvard, the streets of Soweto and beyond, Derecka Purnell’s heart-rendering analysis gives us the tools to envision a new society with endless possibilities. Even more, Purnell’s extraordinary blend of personal memoir, history, and critical theory provides a roadmap to build a safer and more just world. Like the Autobiography of Angela Davis, Becoming Abolitionists is sure to remain an essential text for decades to come."
Elizabeth Hinton, author of America on Fire and From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime

"An extraordinary, wonderful, insightful, and immensely generative book that makes the case for abolitionist thinking, amplifying the self-activity of the masses already in motion, and at the same time providing a thoroughly absorbing and captivating description of the author's own journey. Rather than encouraging each of us to brand ourselves as radical, Purnell points us toward the collaborative acts of co-creation and accompaniment that can make revolutionary change possible. She incorporates decoloniality, feminism, Indigeneity, environmental justice, and disability activism organically into her critiques and solutions. One of the most exciting, inspiring, and enlightening books I have read in a long time."
—George Lipsitz, author of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness

"Derecka's book provides a front row seat to how a generation of young people have been radicalized by a series of contradictions living within the heart of global empire: the United States. She explains, with powerful stories and brilliant analysis, how she has committed herself to abolition in the context of ongoing collective study and struggle. The abolition she discusses is anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist, committed to racial, economic, and gender justice. A call to not simply tear down prisons and police, but to build a society where our collective needs prevail over profit and punishment. This book is more than a front row seat, it is an invitation to join the most important movement of our time." 
—Amna Akbar, Professor of Law, The Ohio State University

"Purnell is undoubtedly one of the most important writers and activists of our generation, offering us a vivid, moving and compelling book for anyone interested in one of the most urgent issues of our times. Purnell weaves experiences of racism and resistance to articulate a blistering critique of racial capitalism, state power and imperialism, taking readers on a journey towards the radical alternatives to police and prisons which have shaped Black political movements in the 21st century." 
—Adam Elliott-Cooper, author of Black Resistance to British Policing

"At once an account of the life and education of an already extraordinary young life and a sharp and searching effort to remake our society in the image of abolition democracy and the movement that began in Ferguson, this book is, in the end, more than a book. It is an act of radical love."
—Walter Johnson, award-winning author of The Broken Heart of America and Soul By Soul

"Becoming Abolitionists is a wise and passionate argument for the urgency of first responders without guns. Purnell takes on the hardest questions with analytical rigor and common sense. This is abolition for the people."
—Paul Butler, MSNBC Legal Analyst and Author, Chokehold: Policing Black Men

Author

© Allysa Lisbon
Derecka Purnell is a human rights lawyer, writer, and organizer. She received her JD from Harvard Law School, and works to end police and prison violence by providing legal assistance, research, and training to community-based organizations through an abolitionist framework. Her work and writing has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, The Atlantic, the Boston Globe, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, The Appeal, Truthout, Slate,  and many other publications. Derecka is currently a columnist at the Guardian. View titles by Derecka Purnell

Media

Derecka Purnell on The Daily Show

Guides

Discussion Guide for Becoming Abolitionists

Provides questions, discussion topics, suggested reading lists, introductions and/or author Q&As, which are intended to enhance reading groups’ experiences.

(Please note: the guide displayed here is the most recently uploaded version; while unlikely, any page citation discrepancies between the guide and book is likely due to pagination differences between a book’s different formats.)

Table of Contents

CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION:HOW I BECAME A POLICE ABOLITIONIST

1: WHAT JUSTICE?
2: FIRST WE WERE FREE
3: RESISTANCE AND REFORM
4: LOVE AND ABOLITION
5: JUSTICE FOR THE LIVING
6: SEX, LOVE, AND VIOLENCE
7: DEHUMANIZATION, DISABILITY, AND RESISTANCE
8: “WE ONLY WANT THE EARTH”

CONCLUSION

ENDNOTES

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS