“I may be doomed to the stake and the fire, or to the scaffold tree, but it is not in me to falter if I can promote the work of emancipation.”
– David Walker, 19th Century Radical Black Abolitionist
The Abolitionist Law Center extends our unqualified support to those in the struggle against police terror and state violence. We support the rights of our community members rising up in rebellion in the name of Black Liberation. At a time when the government cannot protect the health of the people in the US, when mass death is ravaging Black communities, while corporate and political elites seek an ever-larger sacrifice population to keep the profits flowing — we support revolt. We must become ungovernable if we are to transform the police and prison systems into something more than servants and instruments of racialized capitalism.
Police and prisons are the two core parts of a system of state violence that maintains a race and class order that derives from coercive capitalism and serves its interests. Police serve as the occupying troops that instill fear of and subordination to corporate and government interests, while jails and prisons then warehouse, stigmatize, traumatize, and disenfranchise those the police have removed from communities. The two together divide and dehumanize communities of color, keeping them disempowered, alienated, and ready serve as a standing reserve of labor. The violence inherent in their control is self-evident: sometimes it is graphic, as in the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade, or the physical abuse that the incarcerated suffer at the hands of prison staff; other times it is more hidden and quietly corrosive, as in the systemic use of surveillance in impoverished communities or the rampant use of solitary confinement in prison. Either way, the violence is obvious and unacceptable, and we support the efforts of Black communities, poor communities, people of color, immigrants, and queer people to resist it and demand an end to it.
We also know that another system is possible — that state violence is not inevitable and that racial capitalism is not our fate. We know that police forces were founded in the early industrial era to protect middle- and upper-class properties and businesses, while prisons were serving as dungeons and workhouses to dispose of the unwanted poor; we know that early law enforcement forces formed in the american south and the slave-holding north to terrorize enslaved African peoples, and track them down after they had escaped and sought their liberation. And we know that the idea of police and prisons as ‘protectors’ of the general community has only recently achieved consensus, and has done so by appealing to divisions between those who benefit from the racial-economic system by demonizing and disempowering those who do not. The entire contemporary assumption that agents of state violence are neutral entities that benefit the public good and mete out justice and accountability is a recent ideological smokescreen, and we support all efforts to highlight the race- and class-control of these systems and build a counter-consensus against the legitimacy of police and prisons.
We furthermore support the right to pursue these goals by any means necessary. The police and prison system in its current forms are so deeply woven into every level of our political systems, that asking for it to change will inevitably lead to superficial, empty changes and further divided communities. We support the right of people of color to bear arms to protect their lives in a society that does not value their lives, and we refuse to ignore a history that tried to keep arms only in white hands for so much of american history. We also reject the current divisions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ police and ‘peaceful’ and ‘aggressive’ protestors, which both distract from the real problems and reinforce the false assumption that police have legitimate protective functions. In particular, we reject the ‘outside agitator’ trope that politicians of both parties reflexively deploy to diminish Black agency and try to discredit legitimate protest against unspeakable injustice. This same idea was used by slave states to blame northern agitators for slave rebellions, attempting to deflect from the brutality of slavery and the right of the enslaved to revolt. It was cynically used again when Black cities erupted in response to white supremacist violence in the 20th Century, as communists were blamed for agitation instead of the violent segregation that sparked the protests. During the Black urban rebellions of the 1960’s white hippies and counterculture figures were blamed for agitation. And in the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising,“gangs” and “looters” were to blame. The white antifascists and anarchists now blamed are only the latest way to deny the very real anger and frustration of years of oppression and create paranoia and division. We must be vigilant against these divisions and mythologies; we must keep our collective focus squarely on the violent state’s enforcement of racial capitalism that has produced these uprisings, decade after decade, and will continue to until we force a change to something better.
The change we look forward to and fight in the name of is one in which communities have no state-sponsored forces imposing and enforcing social control and coercion. In communities without police and prison systems, we see possibilities for those communities currently targeted by police to become more autonomous, less traumatized and more healed, and to find their own way out of poverty by taking back the resources formerly given to law enforcement. We see the possibility for communities strengthened by moving from a model of punishment to one of accountability and transformative justice — by shifting not just how we respond collectively to harm, but also to how we relate to one another and take collective care of each other.
Our movements have been working towards that goal for decades, and we follow in that tradition now by calling for a drastic reduction in the power and influence of the police. As a first move towards that, we call for the following steps to be taken immediately to reduce the damage caused by the policing system and correct some of its more flagrant wrongs:
- Divert police funding to those in chronic poverty: Staffing for law enforcement makes up the largest single piece of most municipal and county budgets in Pennsylvania, and the majority of that money should be directed immediately to the relief of the over 1.5 million Pennsylvanians living in poverty. In Philadelphia, the most overpoliced and over-incarcerated part of the commonwealth, police staffing takes up a third of the payroll budget, in addition to millions of dollars spent on equipment, facilities, vehicles, etc; as much as possible of that money needs to go to the 400,000 Philadelphia residents — a quarter of the city’s population — living in chronic poverty.
- Politically isolate and marginalize the Fraternal Order of Police, on the way to dissolving it entirely: The Fraternal Order of Police has a consistent and unequivocal history of using all its power to defend police brutality, including rampant sexual assault and domestic violence, and increase the capacity of the police to intimidate and control. Police unions are recent inventions that were established and gained power only in the mass policing and mass incarceration era, and, while they pose as unions, they serve primarily as political lobbies and ideological defenders of maximal police and incarceration power. We challenge their legitimacy in total, and as a first step, we demand that FOP locals be dissolved and their labor negotiating merged into the larger civil unions of Pennsylvania, until a time when the police are disbanded. We call on our labor allies to support us in disbanding a lobby that disguises its advocacy for terror of Black and Brown communities under the guise of a union, or else be held accountable for being on the wrong side of both labor history and that of the collective humanity of this state.
- Make police contracts transparent and protect communities: contracts entered into with FOP locals must be negotiated in public, and negotiations must center stakeholders from impacted communities and their community control boards. There must be no tolerance for provisions protecting police for brutality, and no loopholes allowing reinstatements (or transfers) to police found to have engaged in direct violence. Furthermore, no labor contract or any other agreement negotiated with police needs to be honored absolutely; if police continue to act with wanton disregard for the lives and well-being of the people they are supposed to serve, the cities, counties, and community control boards, must suspend or dissolve those agreements.
- Reduce police power by mass de-criminalization: Police power is granted by political authorities, and it can — and must — be taken away by political authorities. Local and county officials must reduce their jurisdiction greatly by decriminalizing possession of controlled substances and sex work, prohibit arrests for disorderly conduct, prohibit incarceration for misdemeanor offenses, and abolish probation. Arrests on these charges are overwhelmingly directed at the poor and minorities, and ending them would greatly cut down on law enforcement funding and activity. In turn, this would free up public funds to support programs and services in poor Black and brown communities.
- Establish community control boards with full oversight: Community-based police control boards must be implemented throughout Pennsylvania: their members must come entirely from communities targeted by policing, and they must have full power to hire and fire officers, control city or county policing budgets, and oversee the entirety of law enforcement operations. Civilian police review boards in the past consistently have been deprived of efficacy due to the influence of police unions, politicians, and other entities and ideas invested in police-prison power. To prevent that, all members must have no stake in or financial ties to the police-prison complex (including anyone holding political office of any sort), and a majority of people on any board must have direct experience being targeted by police violence.
- Provide amnesty, debt forgiveness, and expungement to all protestors: All charges brought against anybody for protesting or demonstrating in any manner must be dropped. Outstanding debt from court costs, fines, and fees must also be forgiven, and any criminal record resulting from those arrests must be expunged in toto
These are all campaigns we must wage and victories we can win on the way to police and prison abolition. We must continue to build solidarity, organize against the deeply entrenched ideas of police and prison legitimacy, and push on every level for a society that serves the interests of its people. Abolitionist politics are not a distant never-to-be-realized utopia: abolition is the act of organizing to end state violence and all systems of oppression. And it is an urgent project that cannot wait.
“When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”
– Frantz Fanon