Abolishing Prisons and Police: Five Readings

Image via MPD150

“Abolishing prisons and police” was one of those concepts that sounded super radical to me… until I actually listened, and learned more about it.

I know that a few links aren’t going to persuade everyone, but I do think it’s really important to think critically about the stories we’re told about justice, policing, and order, along with the stories we’re not told. Especially right now, as the narrative about the police killing of George Floyd, and the narrative about what needs to happen next, take shape.

“What about the murderers?” “How will we stay safe?” “It’s too unrealistic!” Whatever concerns pop into your head, know that you are not the only person who has asked them. Here are FIVE of the readings and resources that have been most useful to me on my own journey toward understanding the necessity of dismantling the current system.

We must look beyond police for community safety (Star Tribune)
As public health experts have been saying for centuries, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A police-first approach to public safety fails to address the underlying causes of crime, while contributing to our status as the most incarcerated country in the world, and one with incredibly high levels of police violence. Why don’t we try something different?

Thinking about how to abolish prisons with Mariame Kaba (Chris Hayes’ podcast – audio and transcript)
I’m a prison-industrial complex abolitionist, which means that I have a political vision and ideological commitments and belief in organizing, that we have to organize towards a horizon where we no longer have prisons, policing, and surveillance. That we figure out other ways of addressing harm within our communities.

“Building a Police-Free Future: Frequently-Asked Questions” (MPD150)
Police abolition work is not about snapping our fingers and instantly defunding every department in the world. Rather, we’re talking about a gradual process of strategically reallocating resources, funding, and responsibility away from police and toward community-based models of safety, support, and prevention.

“Reformist reforms vs. abolitionist steps in policing” (Critical Resistance)
These charts break down the difference between reformist reforms which continue or expand the reach of policing, and abolitionist steps that work to chip away and reduce its overall impact. (This graphic is really cool, but there is a similar, potentially easier-to-read piece here).

Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind (New York TImes)
Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack. Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as Gilmore puts it, they “mess up.”

BONUS UPDATE: Some writing from this past week’s Minneapolis Uprising in the wake of the murder of George Floyd:

Longer Reads:
Of course, these links are just a start, but I think they frame the argument really well. If you want to dig deeper into the data, the history, and the policy side of what needs to happen, here are some books and other resources that might make good next steps:

A parting thought: I wanted to share something here that was a little more focused than the “here are 35379 things people can do” pieces floating around out there. Of course, “learning more” isn’t the same as action, and isn’t enough to create the changes we need. But it is an important step, especially for those of us just getting involved for the first time.

One reason an abolitionist approach makes so much sense to me is that, as these readings show, it isn’t just an abstract philosophical concept- it’s a process with some pretty concrete, practical, winnable steps. Here in Minneapolis, I’d definitely recommend people check out Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective, the coalitions that are kind of at the center of this kind of organizing, as well as MPD150 (a group I’ve worked with for a while now; some cool stuff on the horizon too). An easy action step is to follow those groups on whatever social media platforms you use, and stay plugged in.

There’s short-term work that needs to be done (protesting, taking care of each other, contacting city council/mayor to demand divestment from police), and there’s long-term work that needs to be done (pressuring local policy-makers via elections, lobbying, direct action, and public pressure to shift resources away from police and toward community), but both can be done with an abolitionist framework. A last link: I’d encourage people who are interested in taking action to check out Deepa Iyer’s “My Role in a Social Change Ecosystem” to help with that process.