PITTSBURGH – The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), and Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP filed a class action lawsuit today on behalf of people with psychiatric disabilities incarcerated in Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). The lawsuit alleges severe and systemic constitutional violations, as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, for the jail’s failure to provide adequate mental health care and its discriminatory and brutal treatment of people with psychiatric disabilities.
The lawsuit asserts
that although ACJ houses hundreds of people with psychiatric disabilities,
including anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, ACJ is
lacking a functioning mental health care system. Every
aspect of a comprehensive system for mental health care, from intake screening,
to medication management, provision of counseling and therapy, suicide
prevention, and training is either non-existent or wholly deficient at ACJ.
there are many employees at ACJ who try their best to provide care, yet face an
impossible task due to inadequate systems, resources and direction,” said
Keith Whitson, Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP. “This lawsuit
focuses primarily on the illegal systemic failures that make treatment nearly
nonexistent, and the frequent imposition of punishment in place of
The complaint contends that instead of ensuring proper staff training and adequate mental health staffing levels, or creating policies that provide adequate care, Warden Orlando Harper and Deputy Warden Laura Williams oversee a system that responds to people in mental health crisis with brutal levels of force and solitary confinement. People with psychiatric disabilities are tased, sprayed with OC, beaten, and placed in restraint chairs for several hours for minor infractions and for simply requesting mental health care. They are commonly placed in solitary confinement for weeks and months on end, often without having a hearing, in conditions universally acknowledged by correctional experts, courts and the United Nations as torture.
extensive investigation of the conditions at ACJ, including hundreds of
interviews of those currently and formerly incarcerated at ACJ as well as
former employees, and review of medical records, have reinforced what we
already knew–the system of mental health care at ACJ is appallingly and
unconstitutionally inadequate,” said Jaclyn Kurin, staff attorney for the
Abolitionist Law Center.
As a result of the systemic lack of mental health care
and discrimination against people with psychiatric disabilities, the jail has
one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. These dehumanizing conditions leave a lasting impact
on communities outside of the jail, primarily Black communities. While Black
people only make up 13.4% of the population of Allegheny County, they
constitute a striking 61% of those held at ACJ. Most people invariably leave
ACJ worse off than they enter it, making it more difficult to re-integrate into
their communities and further fueling the cycles of incarceration, poverty, and
“Allegheny County is failing its most vulnerable
communities by incarcerating people with psychiatric disabilities and then refusing
to uphold its moral and constitutional obligation to provide treatment,” stated
Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, Managing Attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law
Project. “Without a complete overhaul of
the practices at ACJ, people will continue to suffer long lasting trauma and
The class action lawsuit seeks to represent all people with psychiatric disabilities who are currently, or will in the future, be held at the Allegheny County Jail. The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania and names Laura Williams, Orlando Harper, Michael Barfield, and Allegheny County as defendants. The plaintiffs are represented by Bret Grote, Quinn Cozzens, Swain Uber, and Jacklyn Kurin of the Abolitionist Law Center; Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; and Keith Whitson of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.
The Abolitionist Law Center’s Board of Directors is pleased to announce that it has selected Robert Saleem Holbrook as the organization’s next Executive Director. Robert Saleem Holbrook has a long history of community organizing and previously served as ALC’s Director of Community Organizing, a role in which he oversaw the organization’s expansion into abolitionist organizing and litigation in the city of Philadelphia. He also led and participated in ALC’s advocacy and litigation campaigns against long term solitary confinement and death by incarceration sentences.
Saleem joined ALC in 2018 following his release from prison after 27 years of incarceration for an offense he was convicted of as a child. Saleem had a long history of organizing in defense of prisoners and social justice. In 2001 Saleem helped co-found the Human Rights Coalition, an organization founded by incarcerated people and their families to advocate against solitary confinement and to defend the human rights of prisoners. In 2005 he helped found HRC’s Pittsburgh Chapter when while imprisoned at SCI-Greene. HRC was founded at the height of mass incarceration in Pennsylvania and was the torch bearer for ALC.
In 2006, Saleem met ALC’s Legal Director Bret Grote, who joined HRC-Fed Up! as a volunteer organizing against solitary confinement. In 2014, Saleem was a founding member of the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI), a constellation of Pennsylvania-based prisoner support groups and activists who’ve been at the forefront of the struggle to abolish Life Without Parole (death by incarceration). During Saleem’s incarceration, he was heavily influenced by the narratives and contributions of Political Prisoners in Pennsylvania including Russell Maroon Shoatz, Fred Burton, and Mumia Abu-Jamal. While incarcerated Saleem wrote extensively on political prisoners, solitary confinement, police violence, and racial discrimination in mandatory sentencing.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish together during my tenure as Executive Director. We’ve built a powerful tool for organizing and defending the most oppressed, and Saleem has been an integral part of that work from the beginning. The second lawsuit we ever filed was Holbrook v. Jellen, a piece of litigation that Saleem organized from prison, even writing the first draft of the complaint. We won that lawsuit, and many more since. Saleem’s dedication, determination, and vision has been proven time and time again in the intervening years. I applaud the Board of Directors’ decision, and I can think of no better person to lead the Abolitionist Law Center during this critical period for the movement to abolish prisons and state violence.” – DUSTIN MCDANIEL
Saleem will succeed Dustin McDaniel, who will transition into ALC Director of Operations overseeing finances and administration. “Dustin helped take an abolitionist idea birthed by activists within and outside the Pennsylvania prison system and bring it into reality. He helped lay a strong abolitionist foundation that we will be building upon for years to come. We are grateful for his leadership and we all look forward to him bringing his determination, discipline and passion into his new role within ALC.” says Robert Saleem Holbrook.
FROM THE ALC BOARD OF DIRECTORS
“Robert Saleem Holbrook is a leading abolitionist thinker, organizer, and activist. His activism on behalf of incarcerated people and his tireless work on behalf of all people facing state violence and oppression provide a model of leadership, courage, and perseverance. Saleem’s work is an example of what it looks like to implement abolitionist theory into actual change on the ground and everyday practice. His relentless drive will build upon the Abolitionist Law Center’s bold and transformative litigation, organizing, advocacy, and public education. In the legacy of those freedom dreamers who have come before him, Saleem demonstrates the power of hard work and imagination in our collective struggle to transform our society and push for radical change and liberation for all.”
– JAMELIA MORGAN ALC BOARD PRESIDENT
“Saleem’s appointment reflects the history, vision and mission of ALC, and that is to abolish class and race based mass incarceration in the United States, litigate on behalf of people whose human rights have been violated in prison, and to prioritize the struggle to acknowledge and free all U.S. held Political Prisoners. Saleem’s life experience, involvement and community respect makes his appointment truly revolutionary. After having sacrificed decades in prison, we stand behind his dedication uttered in his own words: “Having been sentenced to death by incarceration as a juvenile, I am committed to doing everything I can to bring others home.”
– JIHAD ABDULMUMIT ALC BOARD MEMBER FORMER POLITICAL PRISONER
Portland is not unique. Peduto’s police are no different from Trump’s gestapo. Peduto and the City of Pittsburgh allow their robocops to hide their identities and refuse to identify themselves to community members when asked. Peduto says he “opposes” Federal agents in Pittsburgh – which makes sense if he already has police in our city openly and anonymously terrorizing and surveilling Black community members, activists, and witnesses. Police that collaborate with Homeland Security, the DEA, and FBI to target, isolate, and detain our friends and family members.
Below is a redacted vs unredacted excerpt of Section 4.0 of PBP FORM 290, ORDER #: 42-13 (2/14/19) which outlines the Operational Guidelines of Pittsburgh’s “Special Response Team (SRT)” aka riot cops. It is unclear why the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police have attempted to redact these paragraphs, except maybe to hide fascistic policies that are both embarrassing and jeopardizing to their public image as crime-fighting comic book heroes – particularly in white imaginations. The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police tried to hide its policies allowing its officers to hide their own identities. They didn’t do a good job of hiding it, so we thought we’d share with you all.
Hover and slide the divider below  to view the unredacted version ⤵️
Hover and slide the divider  above to view the unredacted version ⤴️
Anonymous riot cops and secret police are not new. We are reminded of COINTELPRO‘s presence in Pittsburgh. We are reminded that anonymous cop brigades evolved from execution firing squads: the identity of the state agent who fires the lethal shot is never to be revealed.
If local agents of state violence remain unidentifiable, then how do we keep them accountable?
On May 31, 2020, amid nationwide protests against police violence and other abuses against Black people, the PPD repeatedly attacked protestors of police brutality, residents, and bystanders who congregated in West Philadelphia’s 52nd Street area of the city. PPD officers used military-style weapons – including rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray – against these individuals as they either peacefully protested against police abuse or simply engaged in daily activities in or near their homes.
The complaint establishes that this use of force directed against a predominately Black community was unconstitutional, violating the plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force, First Amendment right to peaceably assemble and express their views, and Fourteenth Amendment right to be free from racially discriminatory policing under the Equal Protection Clause.
In what many witnesses described as a war zone in an otherwise peaceful, residential community, police officers in tanks traveled away from West Philadelphia’s business corridor and down residential side streets for hours, chasing residents into their homes and indiscriminately firing canisters of tear gas at them — all under the guise of responding to incidents of looting. As a result, families, including those with small children, were injured while inside and outside of their homes and, in some cases, forced to temporarily evacuate their homes and seek treatment for tear gas exposure.
“I realized police had fired tear gas at our family’s home after my three-year-old son began crying and my six-year-old son complained that something was in his eyes,” said plaintiff Shahidah Mubarak-Hadi. “Our family’s home is supposed to be our safe space amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing civil unrest in this country. Yet, PPD officers violated the sanctity of our home, without forethought, senselessly firing tear gas around our residence while we were inside. Because of this incident, my children and I no longer feel safe in our own house – and we demand that police are held accountable for the lasting damage they have caused.”
“The events of May 31 represent yet another act of city-sanctioned violence endured by the Black community in West Philadelphia. Law enforcement has a long history of engaging in overly harsh tactics and racist violence against residents of West Philadelphia — most notably, the police bombing of the homes of MOVE members and their neighbors in 1985,” said Cara McClellan, Assistant Counsel at LDF. “City officials must be held accountable for these militaristic police actions, which are discriminatory, illegal, and completely unacceptable. Our clients deserve safety and security in their own neighborhood and to be free of fear of discrimination and police terror.”
“The Philadelphia Police Department deployed violence against West Philadelphia’s Black communities in retaliation for protests that sprang up in response to police violence. Such blatant disregard for First Amendment freedoms and targeted attacks against Black communities in West Philadelphia are rooted in a long history of police violence,” said Jamelia N. Morgan, Of Counsel at the Abolitionist Law Center. “At a time when some Philadelphians celebrated the removal of the Frank Rizzo statue, it is now time for the city to break with this legacy of violence and racial discrimination and remedy the wrongs done to these communities.”
“The excessive and unreasonable use of tear gas and rubber bullets by police in military gear against non-violent protesters, residents, and bystanders in West Philadelphia on May 31 was the latest episode in a long line of racially biased policing that this City has tolerated for far too long,” said Susan M. Lin, partner at Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP. “Our clients have brought today’s lawsuit to hold the city accountable and demand that the city’s leadership make changes.”
“While the mayor has apologized for the treatment of protesters on Interstate 676, he continues to ignore and dismiss the horrifying police attacks against Black protesters and residents in West Philadelphia, further demonstrating how underlying racial discrimination often dictates whether police are held accountable for their actions.” said Anthony Smith, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and an organizer with Philly REAL Justice. “The irony is that PPD has responded to protests of police brutality, racial discrimination, and excessive force, with further brutality, discrimination, and excessive force.”
Like countless communities around the country, residents of West Philadelphia engaged in protests advocating for systemic reforms to eliminate racist and violent policing following the May 25 death of George Floyd. Notably, while the city of Philadelphia apologized for using tear gas on another, more racially-diverse group of protesters gathered on Interstate 676 on June 1 – and subsequently put a moratorium on the use of tear gas – the city has hardly acknowledged the police violence against West Philadelphia’s Black residents on May 31.
During the same weekend that PPD terrorized residents in West Philadelphia, PPD officers declined to use any force in other predominately white neighborhoods where looting and rioting occurred. This disparate treatment of Philadelphia residents by PPD epitomizes the very racial discrimination that motivated the protests in the first place.
July 8, 2020, Harrisburg, PA –Today, people in Pennsylvania serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences, commonly known as Life Without Parole, filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s prohibition on parole eligibility for those serving life sentences after convictions under the felony murder rule. In Pennsylvania, people convicted under that rule are mandatorily sentenced to life imprisonment, even though they did not take a life, or did not intend to take a life in the course of the crime. A separate provision of the law prohibits parole eligibility for any individual serving life. The lawsuit, filed by the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and the Center for Constitutional Rights,is the first challenge of its kind in the country and argues that mandatory Life Without Parole sentences for those who did not kill or did not intend to kill are unconstitutionally cruel under the Pennsylvania constitution.They join a movement of advocates currently and formerly incarcerated in referring to Life Without Parole as Death By Incarceration, which they say is the true impact of these sentences.
“A life sentence means death in this Commonwealth,” said lead plaintiff Marie Scott. “In other words, you are sentenced to a life sentence that you must live out until you die. The more I serve what feels like Death By Incarceration, the more I wonder, how could such a draconian penalty be handed down to those of us who’ve neither killed anyone nor intended to kill. Clearly, in my mind, there has to be some room for a chance at redemption.”
The complaint is on behalf of six plaintiffs serving Death By Incarceration sentences after being convicted of felony murder in their late teens or early 20s. They have all spent between 23 and 47 years in prison. Despite their sentences, none caused or intended the death of the victim. The complaint argues that sentences of Death By Incarceration, which the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized are akin to the death penalty in their severity and irrevocability, are disproportionate and serve no legitimate penological interest when applied to individuals who do not kill or intend to kill as part of their crime.
“Death-By-Incarceration sentences mean that the punishment of people serving that sentence is perpetual. Despite serving decades in prison, the parole board refuses to look at any of our clients’ cases to see if they can safely be free in our communities. And we believe that they and many others like them should be home,” said Kris Henderson, Executive Director of Amistad Law Project.
The complaint filed today notes that Pennsylvania is an outlier within the United States and around the world in terms of the number and rate of prisoners serving Death By Incarceration sentences. At approximately 5,200 people, Pennsylvania has the second-highest number of people serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences in the country and accounts for 10 percent of the total number of Death-By-Incarceration sentences in the country. It is one of only six states that does not allow for the possibility of parole for people serving life sentences. Philadelphia county, in particular, has more people serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences than 45 states – and more than any country in the world. In fact, Philadelphia’s rate of Death By Incarceration is higher than the overallincarceration rate of 140 countries.
“Although Death By Incarceration does not further public safety, it indisputably aggravates apartheid in the criminal punishment system as 70 percent of the approximately 1,100 forced to die in prison under the felony murder rule in Pennsylvania are Black,” said Robert Saleem Holbrook, Director of Community Organizing for the Abolitionist Law Center. “This has to end. Granting parole eligibility and establishing a right to redemption for this group will be an important step toward racial justice.”
Attorneys say Pennsylvania’s Death-By-Incarceration sentencing scheme exacerbates many of the problems that exist throughout U.S. prisons. Like incarceration overall, vast racial disparities exist within Pennsylvania’s Death-By-Incarceration sentencing scheme; Black people are sentenced to Death By Incarceration at a rate 18 times higher, and Latinx people at a rate five times higher, than white people. Advocates say this challenge to Death By Incarceration joins demands around the country for an end to state violence against Black people. The complete impossibility of parole for people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania has also contributed to the aging nature of the state’s prison population, with over 10,000 people over the age of 50, the fourth-highest number in the state. The concerns and costs of incarcerating thousands of aging or elderly people are heightened in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic given the impossibility of social distancing in prison and the fact that older people are particularly at risk. The plaintiffs in this case, like the majority of those serving Death-By-Incarceration sentences in Pennsylvania, are aging or considered elderly by prison standards, and face the risk of an even sooner death in prison.
“The plaintiffs in this case exemplify the excessiveness and cruelty of Death-By-Incarceration sentences—the monstrosity of locking anyone up for life, with no possibility ever of release, no matter their circumstances, or whether healing and security are actually served for the communities impacted,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Pardiss Kebriaei. “These sentences, which affect thousands of people across the country, help justify the supposed need for a massive prison system built and resourced to put people away for decades or life, and, like other extreme U.S. sentencing practices, must be challenged as part of the movement to end mass incarceration..”
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
Amistad Law Project is a public interest law center that fights for the human rights of people in our community by providing free and low-cost legal services to Philadelphians and those incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s prisons. Additionally, we advocate for laws and policies that reflect our vision for a new justice paradigm and organize events and activities to educate the public on their rights and the law. Amistad’s vision is to abolish the prison industrial complex and create alternative systems of accountability and healing while reducing the harm of the system in the meantime. Follow Amistad Law Project on social media: facebook.com/AmistadLaw, @AmistadLaw on Twitter and Instagram.
The Abolitionist Law Center is a public interest law firm inspired by the struggle of political and politicized prisoners, and organized for the purpose of abolishing class and race based mass incarceration in the United States. Abolitionist Law Center litigates on behalf of people whose human rights have been violated in prison, educates the general public about the evils of mass incarceration, and works to develop a mass movement against the American punishment system by building alliances and nurturing solidarity across social divisions. More information about our work at abolitionistlawcenter.org and follow us on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @AbolitionistLC.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org. Follow the Center for Constitutional Rights on social media: Center for Constitutional Rights on Facebook, @theCCR on Twitter, and ccrjustice on Instagram.
On June 1, 2020, a peaceful protest in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh against nationwide police violence turned into a yet another demonstration of excessive force by the police. Protesters who participated in this protest have filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against Pittsburgh Bureau of Police (PBP) officials, Mayor Bill Peduto, and the City of Pittsburgh after police unleashed violence on peaceful demonstrators, then rounded up and arrested nearly two dozen people who committed no crimes. The protesters are represented by attorneys from O’Brien Law, Abolitionist Law Center, and Elzer Law Firm, LLC.
Named Plaintiffs include a 13-year-old boy, his mother, and her fiancé, who attended the protest to learn about the First Amendment, but instead were met with tear gas and violence; a dance instructor who was arrested outside his apartment while he was on his way home; a local non-profit worker who was gassed and chased at gunpoint; an international peace observer who spent the night in jail after being tear gassed and arrested while trying to walk to their car; and a man who was shot in the back by four rubber bullets as he tried to leave the protest.
On June 1, the PBP escalated a peaceful protest into a scene of pandemonium, panic, violence and bloodshed. The PBP deployed hundreds of officers to counter approximately 150 protesters. As the assembled protesters held their hands in the air and chanted, “This is not a riot,” and “Hands up – Don’t shoot,” PBP ordered its officers to attack them with explosives, chemical agents and ammunition which is known to seriously wound and sometimes kill its targets. PBP officers drove ambulances past injured protesters without stopping. After ordering peaceful protesters to leave the area, PBP officers blocked their escape with chemical gas, riot police and mounted patrols. The PBP ordered tactical officers dressed in paramilitary garb to patrol a residential neighborhood in armored vehicles and arbitrarily throw canisters of chemical gas at anyone they encountered. The PBP arrested twenty-two protestors for failing to disperse, subjecting them to confinement in the midst of a global COVID-19 pandemic. The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office withdrew the charges for every person arrested due to a lack of sufficient evidence or allegations to support the criminal charges.
Immediately following the PBP’s overwhelming and unjustified use of force in East Liberty, Mayor Peduto, Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich and Chief of Police Scott Schubert held a press conference at which they disseminated flagrant lies to conceal and/or justify the PBP’s use of force against peaceful protesters. These officials accused protesters of hurling rocks and “volleys of bricks” at PBP officers, and vehemently denied using chemical agents. Numerous videos statements were patently false.
“In Pittsburgh and across the country, police officers’ use of chemical weapons such as tear gas and projectile munitions such as rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, and sponge grenades against protesters has resulted in serious and debilitating injuries. Moreover, the routine and indiscriminate use of these tactics deters would-be protesters from exercising their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble and petition the government,” said the attorneys representing the Protesters.
The lawsuit seeks an order preventing the City of Pittsburgh from declaring peaceful protests unlawful and from using chemical agents and projectiles against peaceful protesters. The lawsuit also seeks money damages for protesters whose rights were violated.
The suit was filed the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania by Attorneys Margaret Coleman of O’Brien Law, Quinn Cozzens of Abolitionist Law Center, and Christine T. Elzer of Elzer Law Firm, LLC.
Abolitionist Law Center posted this statement to Facebook on the June 2nd, in the early morning following the Pittsburgh Police’s violent descent upon peaceful protestors, terrorizing them with tear gas and excessive force in East Liberty. The post reached over 55,000 views and over 700 shares – aligning with the greater public’s eye-witness accounts of police terror and contradicting what the Pittsburgh Police had said during the news conference following the protest: that tear gas was NOT deployed.
Mayor Peduto’s office and the Citizen Police Review Board of Pittsburgh received countless complaints of police violence from protestors and bystanders who were brutalized, and those who had witnessed the use of tear gas, firing of bean bags, and violent arrests. In the afternoon of June 2nd, the Pittsburgh Police revealed that they had INDEED used tear gas – a chemical weapon banned in war – on peaceful protestors in the June 1 East Liberty protest.
Mayor Peduto has called for independent investigations into the police’s use of force on protestors supporting Black Liberation and police abolition in Pittsburgh.
“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.”