The core problem with policing and incarceration is the same problem that plagues our whole political system: elite capture. The laws, the regulations, the bailouts, and the wonks who write and evaluate all of the above are all powerfully influenced—if not functionally controlled—by elite political and corporate interests. We cannot put our faith in elected representatives and merely vote our way out of this problem: elections are more dominated by dollars than ever, and grassroots energy around political figures is increasingly shaped by identity politics, which faces its own elite capture problem. Instead, we need to give power back to the people—directly. Under one specific proposal, offered by the Washington, D.C.–area group Pan-African Community Action (of which I’m a member), communities would be divided into districts, each of which would be empowered to self-determine how to maintain public order. Each district would hold a plebiscite to decide what to do with its current police department, immediately giving the community the direct voting power to abolish, restructure, downsize, or otherwise reconstruct their departments.
Many organizers have done more than imagine alternatives to police and prisons; they have begun building their cultural, communal, and structural foundations. As scholar and veteran abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore points out, our relationship to policing is inseparable from the “entirety of human-environmental relations”: it concerns our most basic relationships to the value of life and the structures we build in response.
State Violence Has No Opposition Party.
Communities that want to dismantle police departments will need the power to do that work themselves.
The clashes between police and protesters in response to the recent police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and others throughout the country expose the violence inherent to the U.S. system of policing. Social media has been inundated with hundreds of videos chronicling police aggression and brutality. Cities nationwide, particularly in the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C., have faced unprecedented militarization of their streets. Police have wielded weapons typically used only by special forces in overseas military campaigns, even going as far as to use a Lakota helicopter with Red Cross markings in a show of force against protesters (in violation of the Geneva Convention).
A number of attempts to give political expression to the energy in the streets have emerged in recent days. Some have emphasized the symbolic. Not a month after proposing a budget to increase the local police budget by some $45 million, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser commissioned artists to paint “Black Lives Matter” on the streets near the White House where clashes between protesters and armed state security still continue, prompting immediate and sharp rebuke from Black Lives Matter DC. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden cobbled together legislation calling for reforms that include creating a national database of civilian complaints against police and banning chokeholds and no-knock raids—a tepid defense of the status quo wrapped in kente cloth.
Others have emphasized surgical reforms. Campaign Zero’s “8 Can’t Wait” lists eight potential reforms to laws and rules regulating police conduct. These run the gamut from banning specific uses of force (including chokeholds and strangleholds) to “requiring warning before shooting.”
But more radical proposals are also circulating, particularly on social media. Many now demand that we defund police departments. This is a particularly pressing project in Los Angeles, where the LAPD leviathan consumes some 53 percent of the city’s discretionary funds. The activists of the People’s Budget, a coalition convened by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, have responded by advocating a budget with a completely revamped schedule of spending priorities that would shrink the LAPD budget to a paltry 5.7 percent of unrestricted revenues.
Another radical call is under consideration: abolishing the police. Police and prison abolitionists imagine a different way of responding to harm and maintaining entirely, including a direct answer to #8Can’tWait in #8ToAbolition. In their vision of the world, police and prisons are active impediments to justice and safety. #8Can’tWait focuses on regulating police activity—for instance, one provision requires fellow officers to intervene if they believe an officer is using excessive force, in order to puncture the blue wall of silence that shields violent officers from accountability. #8toAbolition takes a wider view, including investing in care (like food banks and child care) and housing, taking aim at the social insecurity that abolitionists take to be the fundamental sources of social harm.
Fulfilling the demands of either of these campaigns would surely improve our political situation to some degree. But there is another approach to consider—one not yet a prominent part of the national conversation—that was built into the Movement for Black Lives policy platform. It has the support of the Twin City Coalition for Justice for Jamar, a coalition of Minneapolis activists formed in the 2015 uprising after the police murdered Jamar Clark. It has been explained at length and in detail by co-authors M Adams, a Black, queer, and gender-nonconforming community organizer and movement scientist based in Madison, Wisconsin, and Max Rameau, a Haitian-born Pan-African theorist, campaign strategist, organizer, and author. I believe Adams and Rameau are right, and that the most promising path forward—on the way to a fuller reorganization of society around human needs instead of profit and domination—is community control over the police.
The U.S. system of policing evolved to maintain exploitative economic systems and maintain oppressive social hierarchies. In the South, the organizational predecessor to modern police departments were the slave patrols; the private property of interest were the enslaved Africans themselves, and slave patrols hunted fugitives and used campaigns of terror to deter fleeing and other forms of resistance. In the North, the primary spurs for police department development were union busting and strike breaking. The end of the nineteenth century saw an incredible amount of labor militancy: in the period from 1880 to 1900, New York City alone had over 5,000 strikes and Chicago almost 2,000. Police departments were tasked with surveillance of immigrants and newly freed Black Americans, and businessmen were given keys to special alarm boxes that would alert the police at the first sight of visible worker unrest. In both the South and North, the purpose of the police department was fundamentally the same: to secure, within the settled frontier, the social order on which elites’ profit-making activities and social prestige depended.
Today, the colonial system that subsequently militarized the police and set incarceration running at warp speed is maintained by a dizzying array of wildly perverse incentives, meticulously mapped by co-authors Chris Surprenant and Jason Brennan in Injustice for All. Policing and incarceration are big business, shaped by the direct influence and lobbying activity of corporations and investment groups for which there is not even the pretense of public accountability. This business is aided and abetted by the formal political system: police militarization and mass incarceration policies are managed across red, blue, and purple states by actors from both parties at all levels of government. State violence has no opposition party.
Thus, communities will have to dismantle the prison-industrial complex themselves—brick by brick. The financial and political relationships that sustain it are much larger than police departments themselves, much less their budgets. To make headway, we have to pick our spots, and insert community power in between police departments and the wider, tangled mess that fuels their operation.
Defunding police, by itself, will make the problem smaller. This is, in a sense, progress. But it leaves the basic political structure intact: it does not necessarily change how police evaluate themselves, which means that they will continue to target the people that their human or algorithmic supervisors identify as fair game. It will not change the revenue structure of the cities that fund themselves with fines and forfeiture; police will still get directives from on high to engage in piracy, incentivizing interactions that prove tragic for the plundered.
The core problem with policing and incarceration is the same problem that plagues our whole political system: elite capture. The laws, the regulations, the bailouts, and the wonks who write and evaluate all of the above are all powerfully influenced—if not functionally controlled—by elite political and corporate interests. We cannot put our faith in elected representatives and merely vote our way out of this problem: elections are more dominated by dollars than ever, and grassroots energy around political figures is increasingly shaped by identity politics, which faces its own elite capture problem. Instead, we need to give power back to the people—directly. Under one specific proposal, offered by the Washington, D.C.–area group Pan-African Community Action (of which I’m a member), communities would be divided into districts, each of which would be empowered to self-determine how to maintain public order. Each district would hold a plebiscite to decide what to do with its current police department, immediately giving the community the direct voting power to abolish, restructure, downsize, or otherwise reconstruct their departments.
Whichever police departments survive the vote would be directly controlled—not overseen, not solicited for advice, not merely “participating” in decision-making—by a pair of civilian control boards. To prevent the corporate capture of elections through lobbying and advertising that plagues the rest of our political system, these boards would be staffed by sortition (random selection of the population, in the way juries are composed) rather than elections. The random selection severs the links between police departments and the wider web of prosecutor, corporate, state, and federal incentives that now govern their behavior.
The boards would have direct control over hiring and firing, the prerogative to set and enforce community priorities and objectives for harm response, and to set relationships with other communities (for example, merging departments with a neighboring district). They would rotate membership, with community tenure lasting anywhere from three months to a year, depending on the complexity of the issues at a given point in time. A variety of methods could help ensure that members have the time and energy to devote to their tasks, including provision of child care, paid leave (or direct compensation, for the retired and unemployed), weekend scheduling (as Ireland’s recent Citizens Assembly used), and other forms of support to the citizens acting as officials of the community.
In the best case, community control over police would come packaged with a broader commitment to sortition, in which case the budget the civilian board managed would be the outcome of a similar process arranging the local budget as a whole. Even in a less than ideal scenario, community control over police would be a marked improvement over the current system. It would be within the boards’ power to run the operation at any scale below the upper bound of their budget allocation. An abolitionist civilian board could, then, effectively nullify even a pro-police militarization budget from an ideologically opposed city council.
Under the current system, police interact with Black people as if they are helpless subjects. They know, for a fact, that the current power structure allows them to beat, torture, and imprison them with little oversight and accountability. Under community control of the police, community police interacting with Black residents would be interacting with their bosses.
All of the other demands under discussion—from Campaign Zero’s eight regulations on police conduct, to defunding the police, to partial or full abolition of police departments—are achievable from this starting point. Community control over the police is compatible with each of seasoned abolitionist activist Mariame Kaba’s seven guidelines for proposals to support on the way to abolishing the police. But the control part is key, which is what separates this proposal from the “community policing” Kaba rightly criticizes. “Community policing” is essentially a public relations campaign that aims to put a friendly face on state control of violent force in Black and brown neighborhoods. It is state-run and state-directed, and controlled by the push and pull of the same elite forces that plunder the rest of our economy and social lives. Community control over police—putting the public in charge—is as far from this as possible. A community in control of how order is maintained does not have to grin and bear the decisions of its police. It has the power to hire officers, fire them, fund department initiatives, or abolish policing altogether. This would not require another dollar to go toward police funding.
Moreover, community control over police is the best position from which to reach these other laudable goals. Instead of asking the elite funders of the police to give them less funding this fiscal year—a process reversible during next year’s budget negotiations, when attention will likely have diminished—we should demand to be the funders of the police, to permanently and directly determine which dollars go where. Instead of asking those who set police departments’ rules of engagement and goals to make them in a more community-minded fashion, we should demand to be the agenda setters.
From the bedrock of community control, further goals to defund, abolish, or differently regulate police are no longer requests made to the state, which is full of actors whose incentives are irretrievably aligned with maintaining the general features of the current system. If and where we want to abolish the police, we can use community control over hiring and firing to simply fire departments out of existence. If we seek to defund police (in the sense of redirecting resources to other aspects of community life), we can use community oversight over personnel, priorities, and budgets to shrink departments to the precise size and shape that we want.
The essence of this demand could be materialized in different ways; the rationale of the core demand for community control does not stand or fall with the particular details of any one model. But providing specifics helps keep the conversation rooted in material reality and constructive proposals about what we want the world to look like. This is in keeping with the maturation of a movement from pure opposition to injustice—allowing the current power structure to decide what our rage should mean, institutionally speaking—to the advancement of justice.
Undoubtedly, this proposal would incur many practical challenges. It would likely work out unevenly in different districts. It would mean a direct and immediate increase in power for predominantly Black communities, and where abolitionist ideology wins out, communities can vote to take steps to abolish or restructure their police departments without the intervention of lobbyists and careerists. But conservative and/or majority-white policing districts may well vote to retain police departments above the protestations of their Black or POC neighbors. Moreover, within a district, people will disagree bitterly about the priorities that govern how harm is prevented and responded to, whether the community has a police department or not.
Across districts that retain police, we can also expect deep differences. Communities will need to negotiate terms between them—processes we can expect to be fraught and conflict-ridden. Likely, state law will need to adapt to regulate inter-community relationships and resolve inter-community questions of jurisdiction and harm response.
No proposed reform, or proffered institution, could possibly avoid the problems that stem from differences in political opinion—particularly those that stem from differences in education and socialization—and only a deeply authoritarian political project would even try. But could two different, democratically organized communities possibly have a less bridgeable political divide than the one that currently separates the interests of incarcerated, harassed, and brutalized people from the interests of elites who profit financially or politically from their incarceration, harassment, and brutalization?
While we cannot prevent the existence or political salience of ideological differences, we can change the balance of power between competing political views. The ruling elite is not some bastion of progressivism standing between us and the naked bigotry of the unwashed masses. In fact, complex codes of etiquette that pretend otherwise and sanitize oppression are part and parcel of the history of racial domination (and other forms of oppression), in this country and many others.
Under the current setup, the tiny minority of decision makers that vote in GEO Group board meetings and backdoor political party gatherings have their bigotry magnified and are functionally unchecked by the vast majority of people, who have no choice but to put up with the structural outcome of elite racial animus, apathy, pure opportunism, or combinations thereof.
Under the Adams-Rameau proposal, the overt white supremacists and misogynists within the ruling elite are diminished to exactly as much influence as the rest of us have: one person, one ballot. We should greatly prefer our chances of successfully confronting harmful ideology through intra- and intercommunity dialogues to confronting the same bigotry in corporations like CoreCivic and Raytheon or the “public” judicial institutions that force toddlers to mount their own legal defense in deportation hearings.
Rev. Barber 6/14/20: 700 people die a day from poverty and low wealth every day, before COVID. 80 million are 53 cents spent on war and the war and war economy. 16 cents on health care, education. There is a death measurement in every piece of public poverty. Black women are 4x more likely to die. Blacks are 2.4x more likely to die of COVID. Blacks are 3x more likely to die from air pollution. Double percentage of asthma and death rate 10x higher. Heat related deaths is 150-200% greater than whites. Native health care is funded at 16 cents on the dollar – a commitment when the government took their land. 84% to corporations and banks, no guarantee of health care. Columbia Univ determined that over 69% who have died did not have to die. I can’t breathe: the democracy itself. America’s enduring, systemic racism and poverty.
Nevertheless, the observation that communities will differ in what they choose to do about policing helps explain why the strategic stance of community control over police flows out of a philosophical commitment to abolitionism rather than in opposition to it. Many organizers have done more than imagine alternatives to police and prisons; they have begun building their cultural, communal, and structural foundations. As scholar and veteran abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore points out, our relationship to policing is inseparable from the “entirety of human-environmental relations”: it concerns our most basic relationships to the value of life and the structures we build in response. The task of abolition, then, is much broader than the restructuring or elimination of any one institution. Though police departments and prisons often house the most violent and spectacular abusers and abuses, other social institutions have also colluded in the broader project of punitive social control and surveillance, particularly of working-class Black people, most notably our schools and welfare programs.
Thus, the cultural work of abolition is absolutely indispensable. Without political education, intracommunal struggle, and a deep reckoning with our fundamental social and political values, we cannot possibly prevent control over police from converting us into agents of our own destruction. For years, practitioners of transformative and restorative justice have modeled the work that communities will need to engage in to counter prevailing cultures of disposability, trans-antagonism, patriarchy, and violence. It is no surprise, then, that feminist, queer- and trans-centered, and/or working-class organizations like Critical Resistance and INCITE have been at the forefront of this work. Without it, we would not be in a position to advance the demand for community control, a demand that owes its plausibility to the historically unprecedented mobilization of mass opposition to anti-Black racism and police brutality that the work of abolitionists and Black Lives Matter helped create.
We should be encouraged by the results from Ireland’s own experiment with sortition and direct democracy: its Citizens’ Assembly brought 100 randomly selected members of society to discuss and decide weighty social matters. The results included a string of progressive victories on some of the most politically contentious issues of the day, including on marriage equality, abortion, and climate change.
The problem with policing is power, not prejudice. All of the possibilities for real, lasting, and meaningful change are downstream of community power. Until we demand and organize for power itself—rather than pleading for those who have it to take the actions we’d like—we will never get it. And until we get it, we will always be at the mercy of those who have it. They have shown us over the decades whose side they are on: the side of profit, racial hierarchy, and colonial domination and control. It’s time we chose ours.
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, where he focuses on social/political philosophy and ethics. He is also a member of Pan-African Community Action and an organizer of the Undercommons.
Police “Reforms” You Should Always Oppose
I read today that President Obama has offered some measures for “reforming” the police.
Here is a simple guide for evaluating any suggested “reforms” of U.S. policing in this historical moment.
1. Are the proposed reforms allocating more money to the police? If yes, then you should oppose them.
2. Are the proposed reforms advocating for MORE police and policing (under euphemistic terms like “community policing” run out of regular police districts)? If yes, then you should oppose them.
3. Are the proposed reforms primarily technology-focused? If yes, then you should oppose them because:
a. It means more money to the police.
b. Said technology is more likely to be turned against the public than it is to be used against cops.
c. Police violence won’t end through technological advances (no matter what someone is selling you).
4. Are the proposed “reforms” focused on individual dialogues with individual cops? And will these “dialogues” be funded with tax dollars? I am never against dialogue. It’s good to talk with people. These conversations, however, should not be funded by taxpayer money. That money is better spent elsewhere. Additionally, violence is endemic to U.S. policing itself. There are some nice individual people who work in police departments. I’ve met some of them. But individual dialogue projects reinforce the “bad apples” theory of oppressive policing. This is not a problem of individually terrible officers rather it is a problem of a corrupt and oppressive policing system built on controlling and managing the marginalized while protecting property.
What “reforms” should you support (in the interim) then?
1. Proposals and legislation to offer reparations to victims of police violence and their families.
2. Proposals and legislation to require police officers to carry personal liability insurance to cover costs of brutality or death claims.
3. Proposals and legislation to decrease and redirect policing and prison funds to other social goods.
4. Proposals and legislation for (elected) independent civilian police accountability boards with power to investigate, discipline, fire police officers and administrators. [WITH SOME SERIOUS CAVEATS]
5. Proposals and legislation to disarm the police.
6. Proposals to simplify the process of dissolving existing police departments.
7. Proposals and legislation for data transparency (stops, arrests, budgeting, weapons, etc.)
Ultimately, the only way that we will address oppressive policing is to abolish the police. Therefore all of the “reforms” that focus on strengthening the police or “morphing” policing into something more invisible but still as deadly should be opposed.
Mariame Kaba is an organizer, educator and writer who lives in Chicago. Her work focuses on ending violence, dismantling the prison-industrial complex and supporting youth leadership development. She is the founder and director of Project NIA, a grassroots organization with a mission to end youth incarceration.MORE BY THIS AUTHOR…
From the Marshall Fund: Reforms in Minneapolis PD since 2015 did not do the job. Chokeholds still allowed and more…
The feds released their “diagnostic analysis” in 2015, describing the city’s “ineffective” system for tracking problematic cops. The report recommended that the police department automate its system for flagging poorly behaved officers and alerting supervisors when a cop has started to rack up too many complaints. The document also suggested that the police department revamp an alternative-to-discipline “coaching” program.
The program lets police officials opt to send a cop to a coaching session to brush up on a specific department policy after a complaint is filed, in place of suspension or other discipline. The federal report, however, said the coaching process was filled with “inconsistencies and confusion.”
Harteau agreed to update the intervention system. She also narrowed the circumstances in which Minneapolis officers were authorized to kill. In 2016, the department rewrote its use of force policy with a focus on the “sanctity of life.” The new rules also required officers to intervene when a fellow cop became abusive.
Those steps, and inviting the federal review in the first place, won praise from some national advocates of policing reform. But some important things were left undone: the department did not fully revise its policy on neck restraints, a police technique that was already under fire across the nation for other lethal incidents. Minneapolis officers can still choke someone unconscious if the person is “exhibiting active resistance,” according to the department’s policy. Lethal choke holds are also deemed acceptable when deadly force is legally justified. Neither Harteau nor the department responded to requests for comment.
Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, also didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Kroll, who is white, was once named in a racial discrimination lawsuit against the police department brought on by a group of black cops, including an officer who is now the current police chief. The 2007 suit alleged that Kroll openly wore a “white power” badge on his motorcycle jacket.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey told reporters this week that the restraint used on Floyd was an unauthorized tactic and should never have been used. He also called on local prosecutors to file criminal charges against Derek Chauvin, the officer recorded kneeling on Floyd’s neck.
Teresa Nelson, Legal Director of the ACLU of Minnesota, said that the actions of the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck violated the department’s policy allowing neck restraints because it resulted in a death when lethal force was not justified.
Floyd’s final moments, pleading that he couldn’t breathe while Chauvin knelt on his throat, violate the department’s “sanctity of life” policy, she said. And the cops who stood by and watched without intervening also broke department rules.
“They completely violated this policy, but the policy does allow someone to be rendered unconscious, which I think is problematic,” Nelson said. “I hope real reforms come out of this.”
Nelson added that the revised use-of-force policy explains why the department was able to fire all four arresting officers in Floyd’s case within 24 hours of his death, speed that has been rare in previous police-brutality cases.
The policies on the use of neck restraints are not the only area in which reforms felt short in Minneapolis police, advocates said. They also point to the process supposed to identify “problem behaviors” in officers. It’s unclear if the department ever followed through with the federal recommendations on how to automate the system.
“They never got back to the public. It is frustrating,” said Chuck Turchick, a police accountability advocate who was on the committee formed to help the city roll out the federal reforms. “It was a joke.”
The police department wouldn’t comment on whether that early-warning system ever flagged Officer Chauvin, or any of the other three officers involved in Floyd’s arrest. But records show Chauvin and one of the other officers had complaints filed against them.
Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the department, racked up a dozen complaints from the public, none of which led to discipline, city records show. Those records do not show the nature or severity of the complaints. Likewise, city coaching records aren’t public, so it’s unclear if Chauvin was sent to any of the policy training sessions as an alternative to discipline.
Past news stories show that Chauvin was involved in at least three cases in which a police officer shot a civilian during a six-year period. He was placed on paid leave in 2006 after being present, but not being the shooter, during a fatal confrontation with a man armed with a knife. In 2008, Chauvin shot a 21-year-old who was suspected of hitting a woman. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, police said the man in that incident tried to grab either Chauvin’s or his partner’s gun, prompting Chauvin to open fire. And in 2011, Chauvin was at the scene when a colleague shot a suspected gunman, who witnesses said had his hands up and was trying to surrender, according to news accounts.
Chauvin’s attorney did not return a call seeking comment.
Tou Thao, another of the officers involved in Floyd’s encounter, has had at least six complaints filed against him, city records show. Five resulted in no discipline and one is still under investigation. And in 2017, the city paid a $25,000 settlement to Lamar Ferguson, who said Thao knocked out his teeth during an arrest, court records showed. Thao had approached Ferguson, who was walking with his pregnant girlfriend, to ask about the whereabouts of people believed to be Ferguson’s relatives, according to the court file. The confrontation quickly escalated.
Thao’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
The reputation of the Minneapolis’ police department as a leader in police reforms came to an end well before Floyd’s death. In July 2017, Officer Mohamed Noor fatally shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a yoga teacher from Australia who had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault near her home. Harteau resigned days later.
Noor, a Somali-American, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for shooting Damond, a white woman. The city of Minneapolis paid a $20 million settlement to Damond’s family and lawyers. Because Noor didn’t record his encounter with Damond on his body camera, the police department updated its policy and now requires cops to activate their body cameras while traveling to a call. Officials said that the officers involved in the Floyd case all had their cameras turned on.
State Attorney General Keith Ellison said he is well aware the state has long-standing policing challenges. “The reforms thus far have been halting, inadequate, and just put it on the shelf until we get to the next tragedy,” he said. “Without tragedies to keep propelling it, it gets ignored after a while.”
Ellison said that it will take cultural and political change to fix the relationship between police and the communities in Minnesota, but that policy fixes can help. The COVID-19 pandemic stalled the progress of a working group on “police-involved deadly force encounters,” which Ellison leads alongside the state’s public safety commissioner. In February, the group released 28 recommendations including new training standards and independent investigations into the use of deadly force.
But many of the suggested changes require the state legislature’s approval. If the recent past is any guide, they are unlikely to gain much traction. Since 2015, elected leaders have proposed more than a dozen police reform bills, but failed to pass or substantially advance any of them. Several of the failed bills would have overhauled statewide standards for when cops can use force, and set up independent investigations for fatal incidents. Another would have funded training on racial bias and de-escalation for officers in the state’s larger departments.
Some of Ellison’s proposals fall under the guidance of the state’s Peace Officers Standards and Training Board, or POST, which oversees police licences for all law enforcement across Minnesota. Those suggestions would beef up the board’s power to suspend or revoke a cop’s license. But at present, Ellison said, the agency doesn’t have enough power to enforce standards and the legislature has not adopted a proposal to give it that power.
“Currently POST is not a force for change,” Ellison said. “It’s more of just a passthrough.”
Ellison, who was outspoken on policing issues as a six-term U.S. Congressman, said if he was dissatisfied with county prosecutor Mike Freeman’s handling of the Floyd case, he could ask the governor to hand the case to the Attorney General’s office, where Ellison could oversee the prosecution directly.
Freeman said late Thursday in a press conference that while “no person should do” what officer Chauvin did, “there’s other evidence that does not support a criminal charge,” and that he wasn’t going to “rush to justice.”
It remained unclear whether charges against the officers would stop violent protests that on Thursday entered their third day and prompted the governor to activate the National Guard.
And a criminal prosecution might not bring peace to Floyd’s family. After Castile’s death in 2016, officer Jeronimo Yanez was charged in the killing, but a jury found him not guilty of all charges.
Asked what he would tell people like Castile, who are frustrated and feel that little or nothing has changed, Ellison replied: “I only got one thing for Valerie in that regard. We have to try. I’m not going to tell her something has changed. I’m going to tell her we’re going to try to change it.”
Jamiles Lartey is a New Orleans-based staff writer for the Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, He was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.
Simone Weichselbaum is a staff writer who focuses on issues pertaining to federal law enforcement and local policing. She also chairs the organization’s diversity & inclusion committee. She was a police reporter for the New York Daily News and the Philadelphia Daily News and holds a graduate degree in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania.Tags: →MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA→MINNESOTA→POLICE MISCONDUCT→GEORGE FLOYD→PHILANDO CASTILE→POLICE KILLINGS→POLICING
NEWS PRISONS & POLICING Minneapolis City Council Members Pledge to Abolish the Police Department The move to defund the police will likely need a change to the city’s charter, too, requiring a city-wide vote.by Chris Walker, Truthout June 8, 2020
OP-ED ECONOMY & LABOR Police Violence in Minneapolis Affirms Why Cops Have No Place in Labor Movement Already the labor movement has signaled growing impatience with the police and their so-called unions.by Cedric de Leon, Truthout June 8, 2020 – Excerpt below
Policing cultivated what W.E.B. DuBois called the psychological “wages of whiteness.” Being on patrol placed poor whites above their Black counterparts. This was a comfort, for landless whites feared equal status with the enslaved. The work of policing preserved and made visible their elevated social status, and they jealously guarded it.
That dynamic continues to this day. White elites continue to use the police and the rhetoric of “law and order” to divide working people, while white police officers continue to assert their prerogatives over communities of color. Minneapolis Police Federation President Bob Kroll, for example, said to his members, “Given the right numbers, the right equipment, and your ability to use them [we] would have ended this Tuesday night.” He later called Black Lives Matter a “terrorist organization.”
Some may object that police officers are union members, too, and are part of the wider labor movement. If they are just a pawn in the rich man’s game, then trade unionists should organize them to see reason. To this, I must say that any organization that condones the exclusion, harassment and murder of workers of color ain’t a union — it’s a goddamn club.
Already the labor movement has signaled growing impatience with the police and their so-called unions. As Truthout reported, “the central body of labor groups which represents more than 150 unions and 100,000 workers in the Seattle, Washington, area approved a resolution Thursday giving an ultimatum to the Seattle Police Officers Guild: Address Seattle Police Department’s systemic racism or face potential expulsion.” On June 2, Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy wrote,
There is no room for white supremacists in our movement. The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis is not, nor has it ever been a member of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. Bob Kroll and those who have enabled violence and brutality to grow within police ranks do not speak for us.
Likewise, on June 4, Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, released a statement saying, “The labor movement must stand with the Black Lives Matter movement in demanding an end to police violence with the same commitment that we fight to improve workers’ rights for a just economy for all.”
These statements reflect the fact that organized labor and the Black Lives Matter movement have worked together since 2015 on a number of campaigns, including public school curriculum reform and the Fight for $15. Any public differences over Black Lives Matter have been primarily between police unions and the rest of the labor movement, though on the broader issue of diversity, the progressive rank-and-file of many unions continue to press their leadership into action. Organized labor has therefore built a nascent coalition with the new civil rights movement, but we have not yet taken a coherent position on the police as an institution. In my view, local, state and national unions should call for the abolition of the police and propose an alternative community-led model designed to protect all people from injustice and harm.
Let us not forget that the police are no friend of labor and never have been. The number of strikes they have broken is legion; the number of workers they have killed is countless. It is time, once and for all, for the labor movement to denounce this institution as an enemy of workers everywhere.
An injury to one is an injury to all, we say, and that must go for our brother George Floyd and our sister Breonna Taylor, too. Their killers — Derek Chauvin, Myles Cosgrove, Brett Hankinson and Jon Mattingly — were on slave patrol.
More Trainings Are Not the Answer to Police Violence Against Disabled People Training police to deal with disability-related crises cannot replace the dire need for social services.by Euree Kim, Truthout February 4, 2020
More Trainings Are Not the Answer to Police Violence Against Disabled People
The Chicago Police Department (CPD) recently announced it would be hiring an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance officer. The ADA compliance officer will be brought on to monitor CPD’s accordance with federally mandated ADA regulations, implement new policies for CPD and provide disability-related training. While the compliance officer may not have “police power,” they would be closely working with law enforcement officers.
The new position is part of a federal consent decree filed by the attorney general’s office and the city of Chicago in September 2018. The drafting of the consent decree, which contains requirements and policy recommendations for police reform, originated from a 2017 investigation into CPD by the Department of Justice. This investigation found excessive use of force against Chicago residents, specifically Black and Latinx people.
While the local disability rights community has largely cheered on CPD’s new position and celebrated it as a victory, others rightfully question whether these new changes will actually benefit community members of color, low-income communities, homeless people, immigrant communities and other groups who are continuously affected by police brutality. Here, we once again find limitations in applying the typical disability rights framework to address issues of police brutality against disabled people in Chicago.
The Ableist History of Policing
Hiring a new officer is an expansion of the police force, and the police force is grounded in racism — and in ableism. Historically, in the U.S., people who were labeled as deviant, unproductive, dangerous, unworthy and unfit were killed by the police force or arrested and incarcerated in large, segregated institutions. These institutions included asylums, prisons, jails, internment camps, poorhouses and many other facilities. People with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, poor or homeless people, immigrants, Black, Brown and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC), orphaned children, and other marginalized people were the ones to be subject to such surveillance and confinement.
In Chicago, policing has been used as a tool to enforce racist and ableist policies and regulations; to inflict segregation and displacement of people of color, as well as to exclude disabled and poor people from society. The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public by Susan Schweik refers to how disabled people were fined and incarcerated for being present in public spaces, like streets, under the Chicago City Code of 1881.
While the passage of the ADA in 1990 enabled many disabled people’s access to education, transportation, employment and various other services, it did not eliminate state violence against disabled people who were multiply marginalized. Today, nearly 50 percent of the individuals who are assaulted or killed by law enforcement are disabled, while constituting only 12.7 percent of the population overall. Moreover, Black and Brown people are grossly overrepresented victims of police violence, and the risk is escalated when the person is also disabled. By the age of 28, 55 percent of Black men with disabilities are arrested by law enforcement, compared to their white counterparts’ 40 percent. When it comes to policing in Chicago, such disparity has been grounded in how specific policies are implemented and targeted toward marginalized communities.
More Money for Cops, But Hardly Any for Badly Needed Social Services
While the ADA enabled many disabled people’s access to education, transportation, employment and various other services, it did not eliminate state violence against disabled people who were multiply marginalized.
Last year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the construction of a $95 million police academy in Chicago’s West Side — a project originally proposed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. CPD’s budget is expected to grow to over $1.7 billion (about 30 percent of the entire expenditure) this year, on top of the $115 million needed to meet the requirements of the federal consent decree and several other changes in the department. The total budget for Public Safety in 2020 is $2.7 billion, covering the costs from the Police Board (half a million dollars), Office of Public Safety Administration ($34 million) and Civilian Office of Police Accountability ($13.8 million) — all expanded since 2019. At the same time, the city has remained reluctant to invest in historically disadvantaged communities, and provide more opportunities for Black and Brown communities on the South and West sides, who have been affected by the violent policing for many years. These communities also have a higher prevalence of disabilities, health disparities and poverty rates than any other parts of the city.
There are around 293,591 people with disabilities (out of 2,693,496 — 10.9 percent of the total population) residing in Chicago. Among the disability population, 27.7 percent are white, 46.1 percent are Black, 20.9 percent are Latinx and 9.4 percent are classified as “other” (Asian, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, Native American, or two or more races). In Illinois, as of 2012, Black (13.8 percent) and Native American (11.4 percent) people showed the greatest disability prevalence compared to white people (8.2 percent). Poverty, health disparity, frequent exposure to violence, and other environmental factors created by discriminatory policies and a lack of access to necessary resources contribute to this debilitating effect on communities of color. At the same time, disabled BIPOC experience harder times accessing disability-related resources for systemic barriers based on geography, class, language and citizenship status.
Community organizers, advocates and allies have long requested funding for equitable community investment: mental health clinics, essential school resources, such as special education instructors and counselors, affordable and accessible housing, and other basic needs — all of which would clearly serve disabled people. But those requests continue to be either largely ignored or simply receive a token gesture. For many years, mental health advocates and activist groups, such as Mental Health Movement and Collaborative for Community Wellness, have protested against the extreme budget cuts on community mental health services and called for the re-opening of the 6 out of 12 mental health clinics that were closed under the Emanuel administration. During her election campaign in 2018, Mayor Lightfoot promised a revival of the closed clinics, but such a pledge is unlikely to be realized due to budget constraints. While the consent decree has enlarged CPD’s budget, it has not provided the critical community investment and expansion of the social safety net that are proven to be more effective in reducing crime and bringing about safer and healthier communities as a whole.
The Black Hole: Accountability in the Chicago Police Department
The lack of accountability is another issue for CPD. Rarely, as numerous critics have pointed out, are perpetrating officers held to account. The Department of Justice reported that over 30,000 complaints of police misconduct were filed with the City of Chicago between 2011 and 2016, but fewer than 2 percent were sustained, resulting in no discipline in 98 percent of these complaints. Even when such a complaint is received, the actual commitment to accountability is improbable.While the consent decree has enlarged CPD’s budget, it has not provided critical community investment and expansion of the social safety net.
In 2017, Sergeant Khalil Muhammad shot and injured Ricardo Hayes, a Black and Autistic teenager. In December 2019, the Chicago Police Board found Muhammad guilty of violating four police department rules and suspended him for six months. An attorney for the victim’s caregiver condemned the Board’s decision, saying, “I can’t believe he’s still a police officer.” Despite the implementation of the CPD’s consent decree, it remains unclear whether it will actually work to rein in the criminalization of Black and Brown disabled people and hold officers to account by preventing those who exert violence from re-accessing police power.
Additionally, whether more training will make the system less ableist or harmful is questionable. As recommended in the consent decree, the CPD’s strategic plan for 2019-2022 states that the department would increase procedural justice and implicit bias training and enhance Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training.
The Problems With Training and Limited Reforms
According to the Anti-Defamation League Midwest, which provides training for law enforcement officers, implicit bias training intends to reduce the influence of bias interactions and decision-making by law enforcement. Procedural justice training, on the other hand, aims to improve the police force’s relationship with communities and police legitimacy, which means people have trust and confidence in the police, accept police authority and believe officers are fair.Over 30,000 complaints of police misconduct were filed with the City of Chicago between 2011 and 2016, but fewer than 2 percent were sustained, resulting in no discipline in 98 percent of these complaints.
CIT training is a type of police training to prepare officers for encounters with people who may be suffering from mental illnesses. The training has been deprecated by advocates for a long time, as it has been often used as a strategy to replace the public need for mental health clinics and other community-based resources, and it is rarely conducted properly. It also further stigmatizes the mental health and neurodivergent community as calling police becomes a default response to disability-related crises.
Moreover, not only do the police officers who have harmed civilians still occupy their job positions, they are also allowed to facilitate implicit bias training on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and more. It was reported that more than 60 percent of the CPD officers who have provided procedural justice training since early 2017 have been accused of violating Black civilians’ rights, with more than half having been accused two times or more of mistreatment of Black civilians.
Furthermore, the problem with positing limited disability rights-oriented reforms as a solution to police violence is that many have merely focused on providing reasonable accommodation or making little alterations within the system while keeping its basic form intact, without diminishing or questioning its influence. This kind of disability rights framework lacks intersectional considerations with regards to how police violence impacts marginalized communities disproportionately.
Police violence against disabled people is deeply rooted in systemic issues of inequity, injustice and oppression in the U.S. It’s about the whole history of colonialism, racism, classism, militarism, capitalism and ableism further harming marginalized communities systemically. Without thinking critically about the complex realities and radically envisioning the liberation of all, this framework only serves to solidify the presence of violent systems and grants them more institutional power and control.
Euree Kim is a disability justice activist and abolitionist. Kim is a co-founder and former organizer of Alternatives to Calling the Police During Mental Health Crises (ACP) based in Chicago. ACP is a grassroots movement to facilitate community dialogues about state violence on psychiatrically disabled and neurodivergent community members; envision an alternative collective to support community members experiencing mental health crises; and further, empower community resilience. Kim is also an author of #AcceptUs #NotKillUs zine.MORE BY THIS AUTHOR…
Does “Special Ed” Serve Students? Disability Activists Say No. Students with disabilities, families and teachers want inclusive classrooms with better support for teachers.by Eleanor J. Bader, Truthout February 23, 2019
Beyond Awareness: Mental Illness and the Ableism of Capitalism Capitalism values people based on their ability to produce, rather than their contributions to the lives of those around them. by Katie Klabusich, Truthout May 31, 2016
50 Years Ago Today, Police Murdered Fred Hampton. His Activism Lives On. Civil rights attorney Flint Taylor discusses the past and present fight against Chicago’s systemic racist policing.by Claudia Garcia-Rojas, Truthout December 4, 2019
Flint Taylor: Fred Hampton was a dynamic and charismatic young leader. He was a political visionary who, with his BPP comrades, was spearheading the formation of the original Rainbow Coalition — the BPP together with the Young Lords Organization, the Students for a Democratic Society, Rising Up Angry, the Young Patriots, and Chicago’s street organizations or gangs. The BPP was revolutionary in its programs and its actions, and its 10-point program was a model for social change and resistance that still resonates today.
Why did you title your new book “The Torture Machine”?
The Torture Machine has two meanings, both related to the police torture scandal in Chicago. The first is pictured on the book’s cover — the electric shock box that police commander Jon Burge and his crew used to torture African American suspects into giving confessions. The second meaning is a reference to the political machine in Chicago — “the Daley machine” — from [former Chicago Mayor] Richard M. Daley on down through the political, police and prosecutorial ranks who facilitated, encouraged and covered up the two-decade-long reign of torture.
Your book opens with a detailed account of how the CPD conspired to assassinate Hampton and Clark and then maneuvered the media to frame several Panther members as having provoked a shootout. What ensued was a 13-year battle to expose the truth. What makes this case so historically significant?
It is significant for several reasons. It is important to understand the threat that Hampton and the BPP presented to government, both local and national, and to its police enforcers at a historical point in time where the very legitimacy of those governing forces was under a withering attack. It also teaches us how far those governing and policing forces will go to suppress a Black liberation movement and its leadership when it perceives and fears the power of that movement — employing brutally racist tactics that include political assassination. It also demonstrates the power of resistance movements that challenge the false official narrative, expose the truth and establish a people’s narrative that aids in making political change.
In your opening chapter, “Murder by Darkness,” you write that the assassination of Hampton and Clark “marked the start of a movement” in Chicago that shifted our political landscape. Why do you think this is?I am encouraged by the militant and creative organizations that are challenging police “business as usual” in Chicago and thereby carrying on the proud tradition of Fred Hampton.
More correctly, it wasn’t the start of a movement, but rather the refueling of one. People were outraged by the murders of Hampton and Clark, particularly in the Black community. Thousands of people walked through the apartment where the murders took place, on tours conducted by the Panthers, and could see the cold-blooded truth with their own eyes. Then the feds refused to indict the murderers, and that caused further outrage and organizing, which in turn led to the appointment of a special prosecutor. He indicted Cook County State’s Attorney (and Richard J. Daley protégé) Edward Hanrahan and the raiding cops not for murder, but rather for obstruction of justice. When a machine judge (there’s that word again!) acquitted Hanrahan on the eve of the 1972 election, the outrage fueled a movement that voted Hanrahan out of office, and is widely thought to be the genesis of the political movement that elected Harold Washington — Chicago’s first Black mayor — in 1983.
You detail how the CPD colluded with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, prominent judges, prosecutors and politicians to coordinate the assassinations and cover up the truth. And as was later revealed, Hampton’s murder was part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, which mainly targeted and sought to neutralize Black political leaders and organizations. What does this collusion tell us about these institutions that we faithfully trust and rely on? What does it say about our “political power structure”? About how the police operate in Chicago? About whiteness and white supremacy?
This isa multi-layered series of questions and the answers are informed by several relevant historical truths. The evidence uncovered in the Hampton case shows that the FBI, at least during the reign of J. Edgar Hoover, operated as a political police force that employed illegal and unconstitutional tactics across the country with impunity; tactics that devolved into systemic racist violence bent on destroying Black liberation organizations and their leaders. This was with the political encouragement, rather than in contravention, of President Richard M. Nixon, his political henchmen and the Justice Department. Locally — both in the Hampton case and during the police torture scandal — the political machine worked hand in glove with its police, prosecutors and judges to not only perpetrate the racist assassinations and systemic torture, but also to reward the perpetrators and cover up their actions, all in pursuit of the holy grail of racist law and order.
One thing that comes across in your book is that there can be no justice without changing the dominant narrative fabricated by people in power. You end your book by saying that the People’s Law Office “had joined with many others over those three decades — courageous torture survivors, dedicated citizens and activists, families of torture victims, fellows attorneys, political allies and intrepid reporters — to use our roles as lawyers to help change the narrative.” Is changing the narrative justice praxis?
I don’t think that changing the narrative delivers justice per se, but rather, by striving to uncover and publicize the evidence of systemic wrongdoing, you aid activists and the movement to better understand history from the people’s perspective — for example, the roots and history of white supremacy and its relationship to both enslavement and racist police violence. It also helps those in struggle to better resist the lies and distortions that flow from those in power who propagate a false narrative, both current and past; to understand the mistakes of the past; and to be better equipped to fight the current battles.
In 2015, Obama’s Justice Department conducted a civil rights investigation into the CPD. This resulted in a report published in 2017 that found that the CPD engages in “both discriminatory conduct and the disproportionality of illegal and unconstitutional patterns of force on minority communities.” The City of Chicago and the DOJ signed an agreement to negotiate a consent decree — a court order that establishes an enforceable plan for sustainable reform — that Trump’s administration opposed. This prompted Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to file a lawsuit to obtain reform of the CPD. The CPD has failed to implement a majority of the reforms stipulated in its consent decree. Given your 50 years investigating and exposing the CPD’s abuse of power and its systematically racist violence against people of color, what is your take on the consent decree and the stipulated reforms?
I have serious doubts about the utilization of consent decrees as a method of systemic police reform. That being said, if decrees can lessen repression in communities of color, as it has, for example, in New Orleans, they can’t be entirely discounted as a vehicle for changing police behavior in a positive way. Meaningful community involvement and control is vital, and in Chicago, it is too early to tell if the decree, as watered down as it is, will have any significant impact. The movement in Chicago has been very active and vocal in its demands since the murder of Laquan McDonald came to light several years ago, but city government, both old and new, has rejected movement demands for true community control of police, demands to reject the $95 million new cop training academy, and now, Mayor [Lori] Lightfoot has brought in former Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Chief Charlie Beck as the interim police superintendent, despite the LAPD’s horrendous record with regard to deadly officer-involved killings under his watch.
From the CPD’s assassination of Hampton to the Jon Burge tortures to the fight to free those wrongfully convicted to the campaign for reparations, every single story in your book is a searing record of the CPD’s long history of police violence. Do you think the CPD can be reformed? [Former Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emanuel’s initial proposal for a new cop academy, which is now being supported by Lightfoot, was introduced as part of the city’s efforts to reform CPD. How will this new cop academy change the landscape of policing in Chicago?
The CPD certainly has a consistently notorious record of racist policing, going back many decades before my book begins in 1969. Simon Balto has documented that earlier history, starting in 1919, in his excellent new book Occupied Territory. Unfortunately, the new cop academy and additional increases to the police budget will in all likelihood help to further modernize the CPD’s methodology and implementation of 21st century policing — a chilling thought to be sure. The money could be better spent to reopen mental health clinics, invest in the Chicago public schools, or in a multitude of worthy social and economic programs.
In your book you write, “The truth is that [this history of torture] will never be ‘behind us,’ and Chicago’s collective conscience will not be cleansed, until and unless the City of Broad Shoulders, and the nation as a whole, reckon fully with the systemic racism of law enforcement, of the criminal courts, of mass incarceration and the death penalty, and of the political power structure.” How do we reckon with this and what has been accomplished?
Looking at the police torture scandal, there are still men in prison on the basis of confessions tortured from them. At the very least, they should be afforded new hearings and trials without the taint of tortured evidence. The city must make good on its promise to fund the public memorial honoring the torture survivors, and shut down its Homan Square “black site.” The accomplishments over the decades include the firing of Jon Burge, then decades later, his conviction and prison sentence; the clearing of Illinois’s death row and the subsequent repeal of Illinois’s death penalty; the establishment of a Torture [Inquiry and Relief] Commission to review cases of torture; the historic reparations package for the survivors of police torture, their families and their communities; and the changing of the torture narrative are among the key moments and victories in the three-decade intergenerational and interracial struggle against Chicago police torture.
As you mentioned, Mayor Lightfoot announced that former LA Police Chief Beck will serve as interim superintendent of the CPD. In an open letter to Chicagoans, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles issued a warning, saying, “under Chief Beck, the LAPD became the most murderous police department in the nation.” What will it mean for Chicago’s culture of policing that he has been appointed interim superintendent?
Unfortunately, when it comes to progressive change in the areas of policing, bond and sentencing reform, and criminal justice, Mayor Lightfoot the reformer seems to have reverted to Lightfoot the former federal prosecutor. She also has not stood up to the notoriously racist and reactionary Fraternal Order of Police when its leaders have attacked State’s Attorney Kim Foxx for her attempts to reform the prosecutor’s office and implement modest criminal justice reforms. Beck is no doubt an insulting step back; how the mayor handles the appointment of the permanent superintendent next year will be even more telling, and the signs, as reflected in the appointment of Beck, are not promising.
Fifty years after Hampton’s assassination, we seem to be in a similar place with the killing of Laquan McDonald by white cop Jason Van Dyke. What followed was a similar pattern of the City of Chicago and the CPD trying to portray the killer cop as a victim in order to cover up a heinous execution. From your perspective, has policing in Chicago changed? If so, how?
If not for the video, we most likely would have had another alleged murder of a young Black man, a false official narrative and a successful cover-up. Only because of some dogged reporters, a resourceful lawyer, a concerned politician, and — most importantly, after the video came to light — an outraged movement in the streets, led by the Movement for Black Lives, was the murder fully exposed and some political consequences imposed. However, the parallels to the past are obvious — a wanton police murder, a cover-up that went to the top, one Cook County judge who gave a light sentence to the police murderer, and another who acquitted three of the officers most directly culpable for the attempted cover-up. I am tempted to say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” but I am encouraged by the bold young activists in the Movement for Black Lives, BYP 100, Assata’s Daughters and No Cop Academy, to name some of the most militant and creative organizations that are challenging police “business as usual” in Chicago and thereby carrying on the proud tradition of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. I end my book with “A luta continua” — the struggle must continue — and these organizations are leading the way in doing so.
Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind
In three decades of advocating for prison abolition, the activist and scholar has helped transform how people think about criminal justice.
By Rachel Kushner April 17, 2019
There’s an anecdote that Ruth Wilson Gilmore likes to share about being at an environmental-justice conference in Fresno in 2003. People from all over California’s Central Valley had gathered to talk about the serious environmental hazards their communities faced, mostly as a result of decades of industrial farming, conditions that still have not changed. (The air quality in the Central Valley is the worst in the nation, and one million of its residents drink tap water more poisoned than the water in Flint, Mich.) There was a “youth track” at the conference, in which children were meant to talk about their worries and then decide as a group what was most important to be done in the name of environmental justice. Gilmore, a renowned geography professor (then at University of California, Berkeley, now at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan) and an influential figure in the prison-abolition movement, was a keynote speaker.
She was preparing her talk when someone told her that the kids wanted to speak with her. She went into the room where they were gathered. The children were primarily Latino, many of them the sons and daughters of farmworkers or other people in the agriculture industry. They ranged in age, but most were middle schoolers: old enough to have strong opinions and to distrust adults. They were frowning at her with their shoulders up and their arms crossed. She didn’t know these kids, but she understood that they were against her.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“We hear you’re a prison abolitionist,” one said. “You want to close prisons?”
Gilmore said that was right; she did want to close prisons.
But why, they asked. And before she could answer, one said, “But what about the people who do something seriously wrong?” Others chimed in. “What about people who hurt other people?” “What about if someone kills someone?”
Whether from tiny farm towns or from public housing around Fresno and Bakersfield, these children, it was obvious to Gilmore, understood innately the harshness of the world and were not going to be easily persuaded.
“I get where you’re coming from,” she said. “But how about this: Instead of asking whether anyone should be locked up or go free, why don’t we think about why we solve problems by repeating the kind of behavior that brought us the problem in the first place?” She was asking them to consider why, as a society, we would choose to model cruelty and vengeance.
As she spoke, she felt the kids icing her out, as if she were a new teacher who had come to proffer some bogus argument and tell them it was for their own good. But Gilmore pressed on, determined. She told them that in Spain, where it’s really quite rare for one person to kill another, the average time you might serve for murdering someone is seven years.
“What? Seven years!” The kids were in such disbelief about a seven-year sentence for murder that they relaxed a little bit. They could be outraged about that, instead of about Gilmore’s ideas.
Gilmore told them that in the unusual event that someone in Spain thinks he is going to solve a problem by killing another person, the response is that the person loses seven years of his life to think about what he has done, and to figure out how to live when released. “What this policy tells me,” she said, “is that where life is precious, life is precious.” Which is to say, she went on, in Spain people have decided that life has enough value that they are not going to behave in a punitive and violent and life-annihilating way toward people who hurt people. “And what this demonstrates is that for people trying to solve their everyday problems, behaving in a violent and life-annihilating way is not a solution.”
The children showed Gilmore no emotion except guarded doubt, expressed in side eye. She kept talking. She believed her own arguments and had given them many years of thought as an activist and a scholar, but the kids were a tough sell. They told Gilmore that they would think about what she said and dismissed her. As she left the room, she felt totally defeated.
At the end of the day, the kids made a presentation to the broader conference, announcing, to Gilmore’s surprise, that in their workshop they had come to the conclusion that there were three environmental hazards that affected their lives most pressingly as children growing up in the Central Valley. Those hazards were pesticides, the police and prisons.
“Sitting there listening to the kids stopped my heart,” Gilmore told me. “Why? Abolition is deliberately everything-ist; it’s about the entirety of human-environmental relations. So, when I gave the kids an example from a different place, I worried they might conclude that some people elsewhere were just better or kinder than people in the South San Joaquin Valley — in other words, they’d decide what happened elsewhere was irrelevant to their lives. But judging from their presentation, the kids lifted up the larger point of what I’d tried to share: Where life is precious, life is precious. They asked themselves, ‘Why do we feel every day that life here is not precious?’ In trying to answer, they identified what makes them vulnerable.”
Prison abolition, as a movement, sounds provocative and absolute, but what it is as a practice requires subtler understanding. For Gilmore, who has been active in the movement for more than 30 years, it’s both a long-term goal and a practical policy program, calling for government investment in jobs, education, housing, health care — all the elements that are required for a productive and violence-free life. 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.”
“Every age has had its hopes,” William Morris wrote in 1885, “hopes that look to something beyond the life of the age itself, hopes that try to pierce into the future.” Morris was a proto-abolitionist: In his utopian novel “News From Nowhere,” there are no prisons, and this is treated as an obvious, necessary condition for a happy society.
In Morris’s era, the prison was relatively new as the most common form of punishment. In England, historically, people were incarcerated for only a short time, before being dragged out and whipped in the street. As Angela Davis narrates in her 2003 book, “Are Prisons Obsolete?” while early English common law deemed the crime of petty treason punishable by being burned alive, by 1790 this punishment was reformed to death by hanging. In the wake of the Enlightenment, European reformers gradually moved away from corporal punishment tout court; people would go to prison for a set period of time, rather than to wait for the punishment to come. The penitentiary movement in both England and the United States in the early 19th century was motivated in part by the demand for more humanitarian punishment. Prison was the reform.
If prison, in its philosophical origin, was meant as a humane alternative to beatings or torture or death, it has transformed into a fixed feature of modern life, one that is not known, even by its supporters and administrators, for its humanity. In the United States, we now have more than two million incarcerated people, a majority of them black or brown, virtually all of them from poor communities. Prisons not only have violated human rights and failed at rehabilitation; it’s not even clear that prisons deter crime or increase public safety.
Following an incarceration boom that began all over the United States around 1980 and only recently started to level off, reform has become politically popular. But abolitionists argue that many reforms have done little more than reinforce the system. In every state where the death penalty has been abolished, for example, it has been replaced by the sentence of life without parole — to many people a death sentence by other, more protracted means. Another product of good intentions: campaigns to reform indeterminate sentencing, resulting in three-strike programs and mandatory-minimum sentencing, which traded one cruelty for another. Over all, reforms have not significantly reduced incarceration numbers, and no recent reform legislation has even aspired to do so.
For instance, the first federal prison reform in almost 10 years, the bipartisan First Step Act, which President Trump signed into law late last year, will result in the release of only some 7,000 of the 2.3 million people currently locked up when it goes into effect. Federal legislation pertains only to federal prisons, which hold less than 10 percent of the nation’s prison population, and of those, First Step applies to only a slim subset. As Gilmore said to me, noting an outsize public enthusiasm after the act passed the Senate, “There are people who behave as though the origin and cure are federal. So many are unaware of how the country is juridically organized, and that there are at least 52 criminal-legal jurisdictions in the U.S.”
Which isn’t to say that Gilmore and other abolitionists are opposed to all reforms. “It’s obvious that the system won’t disappear overnight,” Gilmore told me. “No abolitionist thinks that will be the case.” But she finds First Step, like many state reforms it mimics, not just minor but exclusionary, on account of wording in the bill that will make it even harder for some to get relief. (Those convicted of most higher-level offenses, for example, are ineligible for earned-time credits, a new category created under First Step.)
“So many of these proposed remedies don’t end up diminishing the system. They regard the system as something that can be fixed by removing and replacing a few elements.” For Gilmore, debates over which individuals to let out of prison accept prison as a given. To her, this is not just a moral error but a practical one, if the goal is to actually end mass incarceration. Instead of trying to fix the carceral system, she is focused on policy work to reduce its scope and footprint by stopping new prison construction and closing prisons and jails one facility at a time, with painstaking grass-roots organizing and demands that state funding benefit, rather than punish, vulnerable communities.
“What I love about abolition,” the legal scholar and author James Forman Jr. told me, “and now use in my own thinking — and when I identify myself as an abolitionist, this is what I have in mind — is the idea that you imagine a world without prisons, and then you work to try to build that world.” Forman came late, he said, to abolitionist thinking. He was on tour for his 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Locking Up Our Own,” which documents the history of mass incarceration and the inadvertent roles that black political leaders played, when a woman asked him why he didn’t use the word “abolition” in his arguments, which, to her, sounded so abolitionist. The question led Forman to engage seriously with the concept. “I feel like a movement to end mass incarceration and replace it with a system that actually restores and protects communities will never succeed without abolitionists. Because people will make compromises and sacrifices, and they’ll lose the vision. They’ll start to think things are huge victories, when they’re tiny. And so, to me, abolition is essential.”
The A.C.L.U.’s Smart Justice campaign, the largest in the organization’s history, has been started with a goal of reducing the prison population by 50 percent through local, state and federal initiatives to reform bail, prosecution, sentencing, parole and re-entry. “Incarceration does not work,” said the A.C.L.U. campaign director Udi Ofer. The A.C.L.U., he told me, wants to “defund the prison system and reinvest in communities.” In our conversation, I found myself wondering if Ofer, and the A.C.L.U., had been influenced by abolitionist thinking and Gilmore. Ofer even seemed to quote Gilmore’s mantra that “prisons are catchall solutions to social problems.” When I asked him, Ofer said, “There’s no question. She’s made tremendous contributions, even just in helping to bring about a conversation on what this work really is, and the constant struggle not to replace one oppressive system with another.”
Of the A.C.L.U.’s objectives, Gilmore is both hopeful and cautious. “I look forward to seeing how they revise their approach from the exclusionary First Step Act,” she told me, “and to seeing how their ambitions, working in multiple jurisdictions, play out.” In the last decade, prison populations nationally have shrunk by only 7 percent, and according to the Vera Institute of Justice, 40 percent of this reduction can be attributed to California, which in 2011 was mandated by the Supreme Court to solve overcrowding. Ofer conceded that the greatest challenge is to stop sorting who receives relief based on a divide between violent and nonviolent offenses. “To genuinely end mass incarceration in America, we have to transform how the justice system responds to all offenses,” Ofer said. “Politically, this is a hard conversation. But morally, it’s clear what the direction must be: dismantling the system.”
Critics have been asking whether prisons themselves were the best solutions to social problems since the birth of the penitentiary system. In 1902, the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow told men held in Chicago’s Cook County Jail: “There should be no jails. They do not accomplish what they pretend to accomplish.” By the late 1960s and early 1970s, an abolition movement had gained traction among a diverse range of people, including scholars, policymakers (even centrist ones), legislators and religious leaders in the United States. In Scandinavia, a prison-abolition movement led to, if not the eradication of prisons, a shift to “open prisons” that emphasize reintegrating people into society and have had very low recidivism rates. After the 1971 uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility outside Buffalo, N.Y., resulting in the deaths of 43 people, there was growing sentiment in the United States that drastic changes were needed.
In 1976, a Quaker prison minister named Fay Honey Knopp and a group of activists published the booklet “Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists,” which outlined three main goals: to establish a moratorium on all new prison building, to decarcerate those currently in prison and to “excarcerate” — i.e., move away from criminalization and from the use of incarceration altogether. The path that abolitionists called for to achieve these goals seemed strikingly similar to the original (if ultimately failed) goals of the Great Society and “war on crime” laid out by Lyndon B. Johnson in the mid to late 1960s: to generate millions of new jobs, combat employment discrimination, desegregate schools, broaden the social safety net and build new housing. But the ravaging impact of deindustrialization on urban communities had already begun, and it was addressed not with vast social programs but with new and harsh forms of criminalization.
By the late 1990s, as prisons and prison populations expanded significantly, a new call emerged to try to stop states from building more prisons, centered in California and led by, among others, Gilmore and Angela Davis, with the formation of groups like the California Prison Moratorium Project, which Gilmore helped found. In 1998, Davis and Gilmore, along with a group of people in the Bay Area, founded Critical Resistance, a national anti-prison organization that made abolition its central tenet — a goal dismissed by many as utopian and naïve. Five years later, Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), of which Gilmore is a board member, was formed to fight jail and prison construction. CURB quickly rose to prominence for its successful campaigns, which, at last count, have prevented over 140,000 new jail and prison beds (in a state where 200,000 are currently held in prisons and jails). CURB just recently succeeded in halting construction of a huge new women’s jail in Los Angeles County, in coordination with several local groups.
Each of the many campaigns Gilmore worked on over the years was built from a different coalition of people who could be negatively affected by a new jail or prison. Her strategy was not to simply fight prisons directly and hope others joined in but rather to seek out groups that were already mobilized. Whether environmentalists who could be made to realize that a new prison would harm biodiversity, or local community members worried about a prison’s impact on the water table or undeliverable promises of local employment, “whatever is already there, in terms of people who are organized, that is how to direct the work,” Gilmore told me. “You have to talk to people and see what they want.” In 2004, for example, there was a measure on the Los Angeles County ballot to hire 5,000 new police officers and deputy sheriffs and to start expanding the city’s jail. Gilmore helped organize a campaign in South Central and East Los Angeles, meeting and talking to people, getting them to ask questions and to express their needs. Did the needs of neighborhood residents coincide with the needs of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s and Police Departments? Did they want more police officers in their communities? The answer was no. The measure failed. “It was plodding work — organizing, and organizing, and organizing — but we won. We beat them back.”
When the state wanted to build what it was calling new “gender-responsive” prisons, abolitionists organized with people in California women’s prisons. The organization Justice Now circulated a petition that 3,300 incarcerated people signed, to protest the new facilities intended to house them. A list of the incarcerated signatories — a 25-foot scroll — was presented at the State Capitol, to audible gasps from the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Prisons. The proposal by the state’s Gender Responsive Strategies Commission was defeated. “It’s not that everybody who was organized on these campaigns was themselves an abolitionist,” Gilmore told me, “but instead that abolitionists engaged in a certain kind of organizing that made all different kinds of people, in all different kinds of situations, decide for themselves that it was not a good idea to have another prison.”
By the time Gilmore began graduate studies at Rutgers University, in 1994 at the age of 43, she was a seasoned activist who had benefited from an extensive informal education with scholars like Cedric Robinson, Barbara Smith and Mike Davis, the author of “City of Quartz,” who popularized the term “prison-industrial complex.” Gilmore originally thought to pursue a Ph.D. in planning at Rutgers, which seemed the closest to what she wanted to do: parse social problems in relation to the world we’ve built. Then she encountered the work of the influential Marxist geographer Neil Smith and quickly decided to mail her application to the geography department instead. Geography, she discovered, allowed her to examine urban-rural connections and to think broadly about how life is organized into competing and cooperating systems.
Gilmore received her Ph.D. four years later and was hired the next year as an assistant professor at Berkeley. She wanted to call the first course she taught there “Carceral Geography.” The head of the department disapproved. “Can’t you call it ‘Race and Crime’?” he asked. She replied that her course was not about race and crime. (The department head has a different recollection.) She got her way and has been developing the concept of carceral geography ever since, a category of scholarship she more or less single-handedly invented, which examines the complex interrelationships among landscape, natural resources, political economy, infrastructure and the policing, jailing, caging and controlling of populations. In the years since, Gilmore has shaped the thinking of many geographers, as well as generations of graduate students and activists.
I saw her ability to situate the problem of prison in a much larger political and economic landscape when Davis and Gilmore engaged in a conversation moderated by Beth Richie, a law and African-American studies professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in a large church in the city, the three of them — black, radical, feminist intellectuals — seated in huge and ornate bishops’ chairs. The event, organized by Critical Resistance, was crowded with South Side organizers, the youngest of whom were invited onstage to offer tributes to Davis, the most famous person in the room. It was all feel-good vibes, and then Davis turned to Gilmore and brought up the topic of private prisons. The tone in the room grew tense.
By now it has become almost conventional wisdom to think that private prisons are the “real” problem with mass incarceration. But anyone seriously engaged with the subject knows that this is not the case. Even a cursory glance at numbers proves it: Ninety-two percent of people locked inside American prisons are held in publicly run, publicly funded facilities, and 99 percent of those in jail are in public jails. Every private prison could close tomorrow, and not a single person would go home. But the ideas that private prisons are the culprit, and that profit is the motive behind all prisons, have a firm grip on the popular imagination. (Incidentally, it isn’t just liberals who focus their outrage on private prisons; as Gilmore points out, so do law-enforcement agencies and guards’ unions, for whom private prisons draw off resources they want for themselves.)
Davis noted the “mistake,” as she put it, in the film “13th,” by Ava DuVernay, in sending a message that the main struggle should be against private prisons. But, she said to Gilmore, she saw the popular emphasis on privatization as useful in demonstrating the ways in which prisons are part of the global capitalist system.
Gilmore replied to her longtime comrade that private prisons are not driving mass incarceration. “They are parasites on it. Which doesn’t make them good. Which doesn’t make them not culpable for the things of which they are culpable. They are parasites.” And then she began a sermon on the difference between the profit motive for a company and how public institutions are funded and run. In her fluency on these subjects, a certain gulf opened between the two women. If Davis’s charisma could be described as unflappable eloquence, Gilmore’s derives from a fierce and precise analysis, an intolerance of vagaries, and it was Gilmore who commanded the room.
Government agencies don’t make profits; instead, they need revenue. State agencies must compete for this revenue, Gilmore explained. Under austerity, the social-welfare function shrinks; the agencies that receive the money are the police, firefighters and corrections. So other agencies start to copy what the police do: The education department, for instance, learns that it can receive money for metal detectors much more easily than it can for other kinds of facility upgrades. And prisons can access funds that traditionally went elsewhere — for example, money goes to county jails and state prisons for “mental health services” rather than into public health generally. “If you follow the money, you don’t have to find the company that’s profiting,” Gilmore explained to me later. “You can find all the people who are dependent on wages paid out by the Department of Corrections. The most powerful lobby group in California are the guards. It’s a single trade, with one employer, and it couldn’t be easier for them to organize. They can elect everyone from D.A.s up to the governor. They gave Gray Davis a couple million dollars, and he gave them a prison.”
The explicit function of prison is to separate people from society, and this costs money. Fifteen and a half billion dollars of the proposed budget for the coming year will go to corrections, and 40 percent of that goes to staff salaries alone, not including benefits and generous pensions. This is state-subsidized employment, not a profit venture.
Between 1982 and 2000, California built 23 new prisons and, Gilmore found, increased the state’s prison population by 500 percent. If prison scholars tend to focus on one angle or another of incarceration trends, Gilmore provides the most structurally comprehensive explanations, using California as a case study. In her 2007 book, “Golden Gulag,” she draws upon her vast knowledge of political economy and geography to put together a portrait of significant historical change and the drive to embark upon what, as two California state analysts called it, “the largest prison building project in the history of the world.” Were prisons a response to rising crime? As Gilmore writes, “Crime went up; crime went down; we cracked down.” This sequence, and how crime rates are measured, have been heavily debated, but if this noncausal order is really the case, what was going on? Gilmore outlines four categories of “surplus” to explain the prison-building boom. There was “surplus land,” because farmers didn’t have enough water to irrigate crops, and economic stagnation meant the land was no longer as valuable. As the California government faced lean years, it was left with what she calls “surplus state capacity” — government agencies that had lost their political mandate to use funding and expertise for social welfare benefits (like schools, housing and hospitals). In the wake of this austerity, investors specializing in public finance found themselves with no market for projects like schools and housing and instead used this “surplus capital” to make a market in prison bonds. And finally, there was “surplus labor,” resulting from a population of people who, whether from deindustrialized urban centers or languishing rural areas, had been excluded from the economy — in other words, the people from which prison populations nationwide are drawn.
Prisons are not a result of a desire by “bad” people, Gilmore says, to lock up poor people and people of color. “The state did not wake up one morning and say, ‘Let’s be mean to black people.’ All these other things had to happen that made it turn out like this. It didn’t have to turn out like this.” Her narrative involves a broad array of players and facts, some direct, some indirect, some coordinated, many not: for instance, farmers who leased or sold land to the state for the building of prisons; the very powerful correctional officers’ union, state policymakers, city governments, cycles of drought, economic crisis and huge deindustrialized urban centers; and the lives and fates of the descendants of those who migrated to Southern California for factory work during World War II and after. Her fundamental point is that prison was not inevitable — not for individuals and not for California. But the more prisons the state built, the better the state became at filling them, even despite falling crime rates.
“Golden Gulag” has seminal status among Gilmore’s academic peers and activist network, and also more widely — Jay-Z praised it in Time magazine — but certain sections of the book can be intimidatingly technical. Even Gilmore suspects that some who name-check it haven’t actually sat down to read it. “The situation — causes, effects — are complicated,” she told me, “and people want something that’s easy.” And yet when Gilmore interacts with people, whether one on one or with an audience, she is direct and accessible. She has a warm and effusive demeanor and is quick to laugh with people and bond with them. She speaks plainly and yet refuses to oversimplify. She gets people thinking about interconnections among larger structures that lead to the creation of prisons, and also interconnections among groups of people that might work together to resist the building of prisons — like environmental activists and teachers’ unions.
It is in this manner that she organized in 1999 with both farmworkers and farmers (“in capitalist terms, natural antagonists,” as she pointed out to me) to stop a proposed prison in Tulare County, and successfully persuaded the California State Employees Association (CSEA) — then a union of more than 80,000 members — to support a campaign to oppose a new prison in Delano. “The guards could not believe that these public-service employees would go up against other public-service employees,” she told me. “Even we were surprised.” CSEA came to the understanding, as Gilmore recalls, that a guard is a state worker who has to have a prison to have a job, while state-employed locksmiths, secretaries, janitors and so forth didn’t need to work in prisons but might have to, if the guards’ union got all the resources.
Despite a lawsuit initiated by a coalition of legal and human rights groups, including Critical Resistance, and environmental concerns raised by a state senator, the prison in Delano did eventually open in 2005, but according to Gilmore it took many years longer than it would have without abolitionists’ campaigning against it. “It got to the point where in Sacramento, they were saying, ‘Just let us build this one, and we won’t build any more.’ That’s how they talked to us, because they got so tired of us. ‘Just let us do this, this will be our last one.’ Before the ribbon cutting, the secretary of corrections said, ‘This is probably the last prison we’re going to open in this state.’ He did not say ‘because the abolitionists got in our way,’ or ‘the abolitionists organized all these people that got in our way,’ but the implication was there.”
“To understand Ruthie, you have to understand where she came from, what her family was like,” Mike Davis told me. Gilmore was born in 1950 and grew up in New Haven, Conn., with three brothers in a household that she calls “decidedly Afro-Saxon,” quoting the term that one of her mentors, the political theorist Cedric Robinson, used to describe the family of W.E.B. Du Bois. “Puritan determination was our thing,” she told me. “I could not fail, because everything I did was for black people.” Gilmore’s family attended what was then Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church, which was heavily involved in the civil rights movement. “There was an ethos in my little church,” she said. “Everyone needs to learn as much as they can.” They had black-history lessons in Sunday school, where they were encouraged to wonder and ask questions. “If you made a claim, the rule was, you had to be able to tell someone how you knew it.”
As a child, Gilmore secretly wanted to be a preacher. On Sundays, in the pew, she would imagine herself in the pulpit in preacher’s robes. “Which is strange because I could barely open my mouth with strangers. So why I could imagine myself scolding and encouraging the masses, I don’t know.”
Gilmore’s father, Courtland Seymour Wilson, a tool-and-die maker for the firearm manufacturer Winchester, played a central role in organizing Winchester’s machinists. The only time in her childhood that white people came to the house was for labor meetings. She would sit on the stairs and listen to the men, who smoked and argued late into the night. As they left, she would peek through a window to watch them leave. “There was always a car outside that people had not gotten out of. It left when the others left.” When she learned about Pinkertons, who spied on mineworkers, Gilmore realized the men who parked outside her house were company spies, the equivalent of Pinkertons.
Gilmore’s father had inherited a tradition of labor organizing from his own father, a janitor at Yale who helped to organize the first blue-collar workers’ union at the university. Eventually Gilmore’s father also ended up employed by Yale, where he worked to desegregate its medical school. “He was without question the leader of the civil rights struggle in New Haven,” Davis told me.
While Gilmore’s father was not college-educated, he was intellectually driven and encouraged Gilmore, a daddy’s girl who showed much academic promise. In 1960, a local private school decided to desegregate before it was legally forced to, and sent letters to respected black churches asking about girls who might be “appropriate.” Gilmore took the school’s entrance exam, which was the same test it gave white girls, and passed. (“It was an easy exam. Like, for [expletive]’s sake, what was all the fuss?”) Gilmore was the school’s first and, for much of her time there, only black student, and one of a small number of working-class students. She was miserable, but she learned a lot.
In 1968, she enrolled at Swarthmore College, where she got involved in campus politics. It was the year of occupations. She and a group of other black students, among them Angela Davis’s younger sister, Fania, wanted to persuade the administration to enroll more black students, and Davis, on a visit to Swarthmore, gave the students advice. “She seemed so amazingly mature and knowledgeable to me,” Gilmore said. “I was 19, and she was 24. She had the Alabama style, talked slowly and deliberately, wore a miniskirt.” Davis told them: “Figure out what you want, and stick with it. Make a demand.”
In January, Gilmore, Fania and a handful of other black students took over the admissions office. Gilmore invited her parents to come down from New Haven and offer political guidance. It was decided that Gilmore and her father, representing the group, would approach Swarthmore’s president, Courtney Smith. When they found him, Gilmore, who was raised with formal manners, said, “President Smith, I’d like to introduce you to my father.” Smith turned his back and walked away. Gilmore was outraged, but her father was casual. “He knew how to keep his eyes on the prize. What’s it about? It’s definitely not about that.”
Gilmore’s parents left, and the occupation continued. Eight days into the occupation, Smith had a heart attack at 52 and died at his desk. White students spread a rumor that Gilmore and her cohort were in the president’s office, yelling at him when he died (in reality, they were nowhere near his office), and there were rumors that they had threatened to get revenge.
At the time, Swarthmore, just like Yale, had a large number of black employees who performed the necessary if less visible jobs around campus, and these people, it turned out, had been observing events from a distance. “They decided to save us,” Gilmore told me. “Cars pulled into the circular drive, and these black men got out and stood looking up at us, in the windows. We left with them. It all seemed magical to me. It was ontology put into action, that made it possible for folks to pull up in these cars and silently wait to rescue us, and we knew to be rescued.”
The men drove them to a house where they bedded down for the night. The next morning, some people went out for supplies and returned with food and a copy of that morning’s paper. In the paper was a picture of Gilmore’s cousin, John Huggins. He had served in Vietnam and been radicalized upon his return, becoming a founding member of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panthers. Now he and another Panther, Bunchy Carter, had been murdered on the U.C.L.A. campus by a rival political group.
Her cousin’s murder was a personal devastation, if also a symptom of the politics of the time (as later came to light, the F.B.I. had infiltrated these organizations, in order to create the divisions that most likely contributed to this fatal encounter). Gilmore left Swarthmore and moved home. Later that year, she enrolled at Yale and got deeply involved with her studies.
“Every year I had one teacher who was really good to me, interested in what I thought about and wrote,” she said. One of them was George Steiner. Another was the film and drama critic Stanley Kauffmann. Gilmore graduated with a degree in drama before vagabonding across the country. She ended up in Southern California, where she met her husband, Craig Gilmore, and embarked on organizing work they’ve participated in together since 1976.
Gilmore has come to understand that there are certain narratives people cling to that are not only false but that allow for policy positions aimed at minor or misdirected — rather than fundamental and meaningful — reforms. Gilmore takes apart these narratives: that a significant number of people are in prison for nonviolent drug convictions; that prison is a modified continuation of slavery, and, by extension, that most everyone in prison is black; and, as she explained in Chicago, that corporate profit motive is the primary engine of incarceration. For Gilmore, and for a growing number of scholars and activists, the idea that prisons are filled with nonviolent offenders is particularly problematic. Less than one in five nationally are in prisons or jail for drug offenses, but this notion proliferated in the wake of the overwhelming popularity of Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” which focuses on the devastating effects of the war on drugs, cases that are primarily handled by the (relatively small) federal prison system. It’s easy to feel outrage about draconian laws that punish nonviolent drug offenders, and about racial bias, each of which Alexander catalogs in a riveting and persuasive manner. But a majority of people in state and federal prisons have been convicted of what are defined as violent offenses, which can include everything from possession of a gun to murder. This statistical reality can be uncomfortable for some people, but instead of grappling with it, many focus on the “relatively innocent,” as Gilmore calls them, the addicts or the falsely accused — never mind that they can only ever represent a small percentage of those in prison. When I asked Michelle Alexander about this, she responded: “I think the failure of some academics like myself to squarely respond to the question of violence in our work has created a situation in which it almost seems like we’re approving of mass incarceration for violent people. Those of us who are committed to ending the system of mass criminalization have to begin talking more about violence. Not only the harm it causes, but the fact that building more cages will never solve it.”
But in the United States, it’s difficult for people to talk about prison without assuming there is a population that must stay there. “When people are looking for the relative innocence line,” Gilmore told me, “in order to show how sad it is that the relatively innocent are being subjected to the forces of state-organized violence as though they were criminals, they are missing something that they could see. It isn’t that hard. They could be asking whether people who have been criminalized should be subjected to the forces of organized violence. They could ask if we need organized violence.”
Another widely held misconception Gilmore points to is that prison is majority black. Not only is it a false and harmful stereotype to overassociate black people with prison, she argues, but by not acknowledging racial demographics and how they shift from one state to another, and over time, the scope and crisis of mass incarceration can’t be fully comprehended. In terms of racial demographics, black people are the population most affected by mass incarceration — roughly 33 percent of those in prison are black, while only 12 percent of the United States population is — but Latinos still make up 23 percent of the prison population and white people 30 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. (Gilmore has heard people argue that drug laws will change because the opioid epidemic hurts rural whites, a myth that drives her crazy. “People say, ‘God knows they’re not going to lock up white people,’ ” she told me, “and it’s like, Yes, they do lock up white people.”) Once you believe prisons are predominately black, it’s also easier to believe that prisons are a conspiracy to re-enslave black people — a narrative, Gilmore acknowledges, that offers two crucial truths: that the struggles and suffering of black people are central to the story of mass incarceration, and that prison, like slavery, is a human rights catastrophe. But prison as a modern version of Jim Crow mostly serves to allow people to worry about a population they might otherwise ignore. “The guilty are worthy of being ignored, and yet mass incarceration is so phenomenal that people are trying to find a way to care about those who are guilty of crimes. So, in order to care about them, they have to have some category to which they become worthy of worry. And the category is slavery.”
A person who eventually either steals something or assaults someone goes to prison, where he is offered no job training, no redress of his own traumas and issues, no rehabilitation. “The reality of prison, and of black suffering, is just as harrowing as the myth of slave labor,” Gilmore says. “Why do we need that misconception to see the horror of it?” Slaves were compelled to work in order to make profits for plantation owners. The business of slavery was cotton, sugar and rice. Prison, Gilmore notes, is a government institution. It is not a business and does not function on a profit motive. This may seem technical, but the technical distinction matters, because you can’t resist prisons by arguing against slavery if prisons don’t engage in slavery. The activist and researcher James Kilgore, himself formerly incarcerated, has said, “The overwhelming problem for people inside prison is not that their labor is super exploited; it’s that they’re being warehoused with very little to do and not being given any kind of programs or resources that enable them to succeed once they do get out of prison.”
The National Employment Law Project estimates that about 70 million people have a record of arrest or conviction, which often makes employment difficult. Many end up in the informal economy, which has been absorbing a huge share of labor over the last 20 years. “Gardener, home health care, sweatshops, you name it,” Gilmore told me. “These people have a place in the economy, but they have no control over that place.” She continued: “The key point here, about half of the work force, is to think not only about the enormity of the problem, but the enormity of the possibilities! That so many people could benefit from being organized into solid formations, could make certain kinds of demands, on the people who pay their wages, on the communities where they live. On the schools their children go to. This is part of what abolitionist thinking should lead us to.”
“Abolition,” as a word, is an intentional echo of the movement to abolish slavery. “This work will take generations, and I’m not going to be alive to see the changes,” the activist Mariame Kaba told me. “Similarly I know that our ancestors, who were slaves, could not have imagined my life.” And as Kaba and Davis and Richie and Gilmore all told me, unsolicited and in almost identical phrasing, it is not serendipity that the movement of prison abolition is being led by black women. Davis and Richie each used the term “abolition feminism.” “Historically, black feminists have had visions to change the structure of society in ways that would benefit not just black women but everyone,” Davis said. She also talked about Du Bois and the lessons drawn from his conception of what was needed: not merely a lack of slavery but a new society, utterly transformed. “I think the fact that so many people now do call themselves prison abolitionists,” Michelle Alexander told me, “is a testament to the fact that an enormous amount of work has been done, in academic circles and in grass-root circles. Still, if you just say ‘prison abolition’ on CNN, you’re going to have a lot of people shaking their heads. But Ruthie has always been very clear that prison abolition is not just about closing prisons. It’s a theory of change.”
When Gilmore encounters an audience that is hostile to prison abolition, an audience that supposes she’s naïvely suggesting that those in prison are there for smoking weed, and wants to tell her who’s really locked up, what terrible things they’ve done, she tells them she’s had a loved one murdered and isn’t there to talk about people who smoke weed. But as she acknowledged to me, “Part of the whole story that can’t be denied is that people are tired of harm, they are tired of grief and they are tired of anxiety.” She described to me conversations she’d had with people who are glad their abusive husband or father has been removed from their home, and would not want it any other way. Of her own encounter with murder, she’s more philosophical, even if the loss still seems raw.
“I had this heart-to-heart with my aunt, the mother of my murdered cousin, John. On the surface, we were talking about something else, but we were really talking about him. I said, ‘Forgive and forget.’ And she replied, ‘Forgive, but never forget.’ She was right: The conditions under which the atrocity occurred must change, so that they can’t occur again.”
For Gilmore, to “never forget” means you don’t solve a problem with state violence or with personal violence. Instead, you change the conditions under which violence prevailed. Among liberals, a kind of quasi-Christian idea about empathy circulates, the idea that we have to find a way to care about the people who’ve done bad. To Gilmore this is unconvincing. When she encountered the kids in Fresno who hassled her about prison abolition, she did not ask them to empathize with the people who might hurt them, or had. She instead asked them why, as individuals, and as a society, we believe that the way to solve a problem is by “killing it.” She was asking if punishment is logical, and if it works. She let the kids find their own way to answer.
** COMMENTARY The Case for Abolition: “We have grown weary of worn-out debates over the feasibility of a world without prisons.” RUTH WILSON GILMORE AND JAMES KILGORE
Our belief in abolition is first and foremost philosophical. It grew from watching, experiencing, and opposing decades of reliance on concrete and steel cages as catch-all solutions to social problems. We want a society that centers freedom and justice instead of profit and punishment.
Locking people up does not provide adequate housing, proper mental health treatment or living wage jobs, nor does it make us safe in any other way. Moreover, reforms that embody electronic monitoring or other forms of e-carceration, build gender-responsive jails or broaden the scope of parole and other forms of carceral control only deepen our conviction that fundamental change is the only path.
While we value philosophy, we have also grown weary of worn-out debates over the feasibility of a world without prisons and whether we would like to abolish prison for Dylann Roof. We prefer to talk about what we do.
Ultimately, abolition is a practical program of change rooted in how people sustain and improve their lives, cobbling together insights and strategies from disparate, connected struggles. We know we won’t bulldoze prisons and jails tomorrow, but as long as they continue to be advanced as the solution, all of the inequalities displaced to crime and punishment will persist. We’re in a long game.
Authors of reforms claim expertise about what “the public” will accept, as if it were a single entity that’s already made its mind about everything. But people frequently broaden their commitments because they learn about, and link to, previously unfamiliar struggles. These are not the public experts invoke but a public resolved to pursue policies and plans to realize their goals.
In other words, a public is made. How do we know? Experience.
To forge such a public, for decades abolitionists have been doing everything we can imagine to bring about change. We stand on the frontlines to oppose all forms of state violence.
We work with communities sited for prisons to fight expansion, while organizing to secure decent wages and housing in the regional economy. We work with Republican ranchers worried about the water table, and with undocumented agricultural workers vulnerable to pesticides and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We work with city managers and residents of prison towns disappointed in lockups touted for economic development that never deliver.
We document the cultural and environmental degradation resulting from cities of incarcerated people deprived of their civil rights, write handbooks and advise rural and regional development experts on alternative projects. We work with unions, on strategy to develop long-term goals for job protection, environmental justice and membership growth—especially because half the U.S. labor force has some record of criminalization that makes employment insecure and depresses wages.
We were prompted to write by reading Bill Keller’s essay last week in The Marshall Project asking “What Do Abolitionists Really Want?” We took issue with many of his points and felt, by not quoting abolitionists, he echoed historical precedents of white people asking what Black people want, or men debating Roe v. Wade. But he got one thing right: Abolition is thriving, something he can’t quite figure out.
Abolition is thriving because our organizational energies draw on local and international infrastructures of mutual assistance like clubs, political organizations, faith communities, unions and neighborhood associations, previous and ongoing rounds of long-term organizing and widespread desires for greater democratic participation. Our ranks increasingly include those directly affected by incarceration and all forms of violence and trauma.
Our work thrives because we recognize that reform has assumed new, troubling shapes. From New York City to Los Angeles, and across rural America, jail expansion has been chugging along largely because law enforcement continues to absorb social welfare work—mental and physical health, education, family unification. To imagine a world without prisons and jails is to imagine a world in which social welfare is a right, not a luxury.
Every U.S. delegation that jets off to Scandinavia to study prisons comes back declaring they’ve seen a future they didn’t actually look at. As career criminal justice experts, they thought they could isolate a prison system from its context: tax, housing, health care, education, transportation, immigration and other policies. Everyone who says it’s unrealistic to demand more willfully ignores the fact that to use law enforcement, as the U.S. does, to manage the fallout from cutbacks in social services and the upward rush in income and wealth is breathtakingly expensive, while it cheapens human life.
Abolitionists have brought to the struggle against what came to be called “mass incarceration” an array of experiences in which we learned how to fight on many fronts at once: how to organize, promote ideas and bargain in the political arena. In other words, we work the entire ecology of precarious existence that shapes, but is not bounded by, the aggrandizing “criminal justice system,” including housing, jobs, education, income, faith, environment, status. Far from being starry-eyed idealists, we are specialists in the daily grind of the deliberate, patient and persistent work necessary for what we want–freedom and justice.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore is Professor of Geography at the CUNY Graduate Center. A co-founder of many social justice organizations, her research and writing link political, economic and environmental struggles in the growing local, regional and international movement for abolition.
James Kilgore is a Media Justice Fellow at Media Justice. Since spending six and a half years in federal and state prisons, he has written widely on issues of mass incarceration, labor, and electronic monitoring, including “Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time ” (The New Press, 2015).