In Columbus, Ohio, where I live—just as in towns and cities across the country—the streets have been alive with rallies and marches, sit-ins and die-ins, community events and emerging mutual aid networks, in solidarity with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, three black people among many killed by police this spring. And as has also been the case in cities and towns across the country, the police response has been brutal and repressive. Handmade cardboard signs and spray paint now decorate public spaces with the new demands of mass protest: “Defund the Police,” “Fuck 12,” “ACAB,” and “Abolish the Police.” From coast to coast, the target of these protests is the very institution of policing, rather than “a few bad apples.” The demands reflect growing recognition that the problem is not individual police or isolated bad acts, and that reforms like body cameras and civilian review boards simply will not lead to the profound change that many know is necessary. The protesters are saying, loud and clear, that the only solution to the violence of policing is less policing—or maybe, none at all.
The call to defund police has rapidly developed momentum, with mayors across the US considering budget cuts to their police departments, and Minneapolis City Council committing to full dissolution. These calls to defund and disband police have roots in decades of prison abolitionist organizing, which aims to end incarceration and policing in favor of a society grounded in collective care and social provision. In fact, from Minneapolis to Los Angeles to New York City, where local officials are most quickly announcing the most concrete changes, abolitionist organizing has been growing since the 2014 Ferguson and 2015 Baltimore rebellions. Minneapolis, for example, is not simply the place where the uprisings began after the murder of George Floyd last month—it is also home to the Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block, both of which have been working to defund the police since 2017.
Until fairly recently, the most common demand at protests responding to police killings had been the call for the criminal prosecution of individual police officers. But as happened in the case of Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who killed Michael Brown, most police are never charged for their violence. When they are, police unions provide officers paid counsel. Judges dismiss cases and juries acquit. In the rare case of a charge and a conviction, judges typically impose sentences less severe than is commonplace for far less serious crimes.
Since the emergence of Black Lives Matter (BLM), and long before, we have watched this police impunity play out time and time again. Many non-black people have had to grapple with the reality that policing is different for different people and in different communities: whereas police tend to treat middle class and wealthy white people with respect, they often treat black, brown, queer, trans, and poor people with violence and disregard. Meanwhile, cities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on body-camera programs; but police often turn these cameras off, and there is no clear evidence that they reduce police violence even when used properly. And as journalists scrambled to document the rates at which police kill every day—data that, before 2014, was not publicly available and that the federal government still does not collect—we learned that police kill almost three people every day. That rate of killing has not let up.
Although calls for defunding and dissolution, rather than reform, may feel new to many, abolitionist organizing against the “prison industrial complex”—which includes prisons, police, and surveillance—goes back more than two decades. The organization Critical Resistance, established in the late 1990s in Berkeley, California, and now with chapters in Oakland, New York, Los Angeles, and Portland, is central to both the organizing work and the dissemination of ideas on which today’s campaigns draw. Critical Resistance places its efforts in the history of struggles against enslavement, and identifies slave patrols as the progenitor of US policing. Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Rose Braz, and Rachel Herzing are among the group’s co-founders. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?, Gilmore’s Golden Gulag, and Critical Resistance’s various handbooks, workshops, and campaigns for prison and police abolition—including against jail expansion and police enforcement of gang injunctions—have become blueprints for organizers across the country.
As organizers were witnessing the failures of reform to produce meaningful change within the criminal legal system, abolitionist experiments across the country made progress. In 2015, a campaign for reparations by Project NIA, We Charge Genocide, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, and others won redress for black people subject to the Chicago Police Department’s decades-long torture program under police commander Jon Burge. The reparations ordinance, adopted by Chicago’s City Council, includes free junior college tuition and counseling for survivors and their families, and changes to the public school curriculum to reflect the history of police violence. Mariame Kaba, the founder of Project NIA, explained that the reparations ordinance created “an expansive potential vision of what justice could look like when people are harmed.” It disavowed criminal prosecution as a means of gaining redress, and offered an alternate way of providing some measure of justice. It inspired new ways of thinking about campaigns for change.
In August 2016, months before Trump’s election, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a coalition of more than fifty black-led racial justice organizations, released a policy platform endorsed by hundreds more racial justice organizations. The “Vision for Black Lives” marked a shift within the BLM ecosystem toward an abolitionist stance, framing prisons and police as central to the country’s history of anti-blackness, rooted in the structures of enslavement. While the Vision does not call for outright abolition of prisons and police, its demands aim to shrink the carceral state and deny its legitimacy as a purported guarantor of public safety. The Vision’s call for investment “in the education, health, and safety” of black people alongside divestment from prisons, police, and the criminal legal system, demonstrated the growing influence of abolitionist frameworks on racial justice movements.
The Vision soon inspired “invest-divest” campaigns across the country, which, in turn, led to a widespread understanding of the disproportionate share of municipal budgets allocated to police departments. In 2017, the Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives, and BYP100 released a joint report that analyzed local budgets across the country: it found that Oakland spent an astonishing 41.2 percent of its general fund expenditures on the police department, followed by Chicago at 38.6 percent, Minneapolis at 35.8 percent, and Houston at 35 percent. Echoing Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s analysis that policing and prisons have become “catch-all” responses to social problems like homelessness and unemployment, the report noted that elected officials had over the preceding three decades “stripped funds from mental health services, housing subsidies, youth programs, and food benefits programs, while pouring money into police forces, military grade weapons, high-tech surveillance, jails, and prisons.”
By the beginning of 2020, a growing number of abolitionist and abolitionist-inspired campaigns had taken hold. The National Bail Out collective organized annual Mama’s Day Bailouts to obtain the release from jail of black mothers who cannot afford bail. Detention Watch Network’s #CommunitiesNotCages worked to close immigrant detention centers and stop the construction of new ones. Coalitions against jail expansions and new jails existed in New York City, the Bay Area, Detroit, Atlanta, St. Louis, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Chicago’s #NoCopAcademy organized against the creation of a second police training facility projected to cost $95 million, while Durham Beyond Policing opposed a $71 million plan for a new police headquarters in North Carolina, calling instead for a community-led safety and wellness task force. Campaigns to oust police from schools and invest instead in counselors and other support services proliferated under the banner #CounselorsNotCops. In Oakland, the Anti-Policing Healthworkers Cohort organized community-based alternatives to calling the police for health-care emergencies. These efforts aim to end the primacy of the criminal legal system, to shift resources into social services, to provide a social wage, and to empower black, brown, poor, working-class, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities.
Many of these campaigns have seen concrete wins and, by shifting the larger public discussion around police and prisons, they’ve redefined the debate. In the realm of incarceration, the discussion has moved from strategies for decarceration to the possibility of abolition. In the realm of policing, the conversation has shifted from reforms requiring additional investment—body cameras, new trainings—to the possibility of divestment. And it is the abolitionist framing of the fundamental violence of the criminal system that has so thoroughly undermined the moral ground of prosecutors, leading some (like Larry Krasner in Philly or Rachael Rollins in Boston) to claim the mantle of “progressive prosecutor.” Abolition has also gained wider political currency within the broader left, with the resurgent Democratic Socialists of America creating a Police and Prison Abolition Working Group at their 2019 convention.
This organizing work took on new significance with the Covid-19 pandemic. The failure of elected leaders to respond adequately to the public health crisis intensified concerns about how we care for ourselves and for one another. Mutual aid networks grew in their capacity to provide the resources and solidarity needed in the absence of government support. These initiatives have called into question why food, housing, and health care are commodities rather than entitlements. They also made visible the disproportionate impact of the disease on black and brown people and the poor.
Since February, in the face of soaring unemployment and rates of infection, campaigns to cancel rent, provide public health care, and release people from jails, prisons, and detention centers proliferated. #FreeThemAll campaigns have articulated the dangers of human caging amid Covid-19 and brought attention to the health crisis created by prisons and jails even before the pandemic. The police response to protests, including brutality, armored vehicles, curfew, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber and wooden bullets, brought attention to glaring contradictions in funding and priorities: between countless police officers equipped with high-tech gear and insufficient numbers of health-care workers, shortages of essential personal protective equipment, and exorbitant health-care costs, forcing millions into crippling debt; between the government’s immediate deployment of police to respond to protests, and its failure to respond to the pandemic with mass testing and distribution of funds.
Across the country, police budgets are astronomical and police union power is enormous. Consider Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s recent announcement that he hopes to take between $100–$150 million from the LAPD’s $3.14 billion budget to put into youth jobs, health initiatives, and peace centers—after years-long organizing by the group LA for Youth, which has called on the city to reallocate a percentage of its police budget to a Department of Youth Development. Even with that cut, the LAPD budget would, by Garcetti’s own account, still swallow just under half of the city’s general expenditures. In other words, the proposed cut represents a tiny fraction of a bloated police budget.
Despite the successes of abolitionist organizing in magnifying these issues of scale, power, and safety, the road ahead is long. I recently asked Herzing, now the executive director for the Center for Political Education, and Kaba for their views on defund as the demand of the current uprising. Both expressed tremendous hope—and considerable trepidation. Herzing told me she worries “that if defund is put forward as an end-game demand, we’ll wind up with a series of cities that skim a half a percent off their cop budgets and we’ll have given up the opportunity to make the deep transformations that I think are potentially embedded in the demand.” Defund is one “strategy among many other strategies,” Kaba explained. “We also want to drastically decrease and diminish and abolish the legitimacy of the police.”
Abolitionists are often caricatured as having unattainable ends and an impractical agenda. But many organizations, like Survived and Punished and generationFIVE, have demonstrated the failure of our system even on its own terms, and others, like Critical Resistance, have offered clear rubrics for how an abolitionist commitment reorients campaigns for change. There is no delusion among abolitionists that we will ever live in a world without conflict or interpersonal violence. Right now our go-to response to all manner of social, political, and economic conflict—whether it is homelessness, domestic violence, migration—is prisons and police. The abolitionist invitation is to investigate these problems with care and particularity, and collectively craft responses that do not rely on violence and punishment. In an abolitionist future, Kaba insisted, we would “continu[e] to struggle over violence,” but we would “have different social relationships and skills and what we need to make better decisions and take care of each other in better ways.”
The demands to defund and dismantle reflect a growing consensus about the failures of neoliberalism, the contradictions of capitalism, and the violence of white supremacy. While it is unclear whether all those carrying placards emblazoned with today’s slogans fully grasp the transformative project of abolition, these mass protests point to a growing understanding that the problem is not police training or inadequate technology. The problem is the institution of policing itself: its power, its origins in enslavement and indigenous dispossession, and its hold on how we conceive of public safety.
The struggle for abolition belongs to a broader push to rewrite the social contract, including efforts to cancel student debt, tax the wealthy, Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and the Red Deal. Over the years, I have heard organizers rally around “not one more dollar” or “starve the beast.” Now, more and more, you hear “care, not cops.” That new slogan embodies the abolitionist horizon, not simply to dismantle prisons and policing, but to build alternate forms of community care and collective provision for all.
An earlier version of this essay misstated the LAPD’s budget and the Los Angeles mayor’s proposed budget cut, and referred to Chicago Torture Justice Memorials as People’s Law Office. The article has been updated.