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Abolition is not about transforming the police, it is about transforming the nation.
Last year student activists at Harvard Law School covered the official portraits of the school’s professors with printouts of police shooting victims’ last words: Please don’t let me die. Why did you shoot me? You promised me that you wouldn’t kill me. I love you. In classrooms, many of our professors excluded victims’ voices from debates about criminal justice reform. This action centered them. Afterwards, a classmate asked: “How will we be safe with the police? How will we be safe without them?”
How can we re-center policing as a public good if it never was one?
In “Policing: A Public Good Gone Bad,” Tracey Meares calls for a “kind of policing that we all can enjoy.” She suggests that the police can be transformed after they have been abolished, and that “disadvantaged communities ought not give up policing any more than they should give up public schools, electricity, or water.” The Yale law professor hopes to re-center the police as a public good, change community perception of police encounters, and insist that cops value black life.
Meares’s post-abolition transformational call is at best unclear and, at worst, a liberal version of broken windows policing. How can we re-center an entity as a public good if it never was one? How can society transform police departments after they no longer exist? What do we gain by shifting how the community feels about police interactions? What do we truly believe police abolition to be?
First, disadvantaged communities have incomplete access to public goods. Poor people do not have the option of giving up public schools, water, or highways, and the state penalizes them for trying. Privileged groups give up public education by sending their children to private schools or moving to wealthy zip codes. When poor families use a relative’s address to send their children to a higher-performing school district, they go to jail. Highways are public goods for suburban residents who work in downtown centers. Yet poor black folk cannot give up the highways that divide and pollute their neighborhoods. Flint residents are still without clean water; 41 percent of them live in poverty. At one point, the state charged residents for overdue water bills. If they do not give up their water, they face sickness and death.
Oppressed people must give up the systems that harm them. Police are not public, nor good. Departments arrest for profit and sell vulnerable people to jails and prisons to fill beds. Cities incentivize and reward police officers for maximizing their ticket writing and traffic stops. On college campuses, cops make drugs disappear; on the streets, cops make alleged dealers disappear. Police officers are prison–industrial complex foot soldiers, and poor people are its targets. Disadvantaged communities should not ask for law enforcement to ensure safety any more than someone should ask for poisoned water to quench thirst.
Abolition requires more than police officers disappearing from the streets. It means decreasing and eliminating the reliance on policing.
Second, a call for police transformation after abolition undermines the purposes of abolition. The call tethers accountability to police review boards, task forces, and pleas to value black lives. Meares is silent on what shall remain of law enforcement to be transformed after it is abolished.
We must expand notions of abolition.
During slavery, abolition required more than just disappearing enslaved people from plantations. Society had to eliminate its reliance on forced and brutal labor (unfortunately, it largely shifted to sharecropping and convict lease labor). The country fought a civil war. Overseers, plantation owners, and slave importers had to become obsolete. Amendments were added to the Constitution. Capital was shifted. The formerly enslaved had to find labor, shelter, and protection. There was a short-lived Reconstruction period with elected black officials, civil rights gains, and Jim Crow losses. Abolition required a complete end to slavery, and an ongoing struggle to end all of its lesser versions.
Today abolition requires more than police officers disappearing from the streets. Last week I watched news footage of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, throwing punches and rocks at crowds of clergy counter-protesters. My professor, Cornel West, and hometown hero, Rev. Traci Blackmon, were among the attacked group. West, Blackmon, and I faced police military tanks, tear gas, rubber bullets, chemical agents, and physical violence in Ferguson, Missouri. Officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown, Jr., just three years ago this month. How can we account for the different police response to the white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville? State inaction in Charlottesville and state militarization in Ferguson demonstrate that for vulnerable groups, police officers can be either perpetrators or bystanders in violent encounters.
‘How will we be safe with the police? How will we be safe without them?’
Some argue that a “Ferguson Effect” has led to lax patrolling, intervention, and arrests. You see what happens when police don’t do anything? Who is going to keep law and order? Mere police absence, inaction, or non-intervention is not police abolition. Mychael Denzel Smith explains police activity in the Nation this way: “Ninety percent of an officer’s time isn’t devoted to our safety, but rather to things we may find annoying (or in the case of things like untaxed cigarettes, create a black market for goods that threaten the profits of businesses), inserting the potential for violence where there is cause for none.” Law enforcement arbitrarily enforces laws according to demographics and maintains order according to each officer’s subjective notion of peace. Transformation will not save it.
Police abolition could mean and require society to decrease and eliminate its reliance on policing. Rather than re-center police as a public good, the nation must become good and public. The prison–industrial complex must be dissolved. Communities must rebuild labor organizing to shift capital, and the state must drastically disrupt rising wealth inequality. Congress may have to pass laws around prison labor, voting rights, gun ownership, and campaign finance, and decriminalize thousands of behaviors. Social workers and activists must work with communities to find solutions for patriarchal, homophobic, and mental health–based violence. Police abolition advocates and scholars have robust visions for the future beyond transformation.
Finally, Meares suggests that finding a new symbolic language to think about police officers’ role in society would initially redeem the institution as a public good. Yet the community’s subjective perceptions of policing does little in the face of objective brutality. Meares does not provide data to suggest whether friendly police interactions make cops less likely to assault and kill people. Relying on police benevolence leaves black people vulnerable to the arbitrary spectrum of police violence. If more people cared about cops being nice to them personally, would that have saved Tamir Rice or Aiyana Stanley Jones?
… in May, COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans—coupled with the police killing of George Floyd—sparked a moment of racial reckoning. Articles such as this one reflect Boston Review’s commitment to combatting racism—from publishing strategies to end police violence to amplifying Black voices. Long before mainstream publications focused on racial justice, Boston Review provided one of the major forums for these discussions with seriousness and subtlety. We remain committed to the belief that race has a central place in any discussion of justice, democracy, and citizenship. Join us in providing free, open spaces for these conversations by becoming a supporting reader of Boston Review today.
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