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.
Copyright © 2021 by Derecka Purnell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.