Finding alternatives to police and prison
A couple days after President-elect Donald Trump won, a couple days after a woman in a hijab on East William Street was threatened to be set on fire, a couple days after a woman on the corner of South University Avenue and Washtenaw Avenue was pushed down a hill for believing her religion and living in America, and a couple days after the Southern Poverty Law Center collected evidence of more than 900 hate crimes in the first 10 days of Trump’s America, I sat in my feminist thought class. We talked about the reported violence, we argued about the labeling of the violence as “intimidation” and we imagined the role the police might play in the coming years.
When violence happens, the general sentiment is that you’re supposed to call the police. The police will solve our problems, they will make us safe again. This, though, is only true for certain groups of people.
Trump and the rhetoric of his campaign normalized and encouraged angry white people to commit violence against people of color, LGBTQ people, Muslims, Jews, people with disabilities, women, etc. Almost none of these groups have been treated well historically or are treated well currently by the police, especially people of color. As an institution, the police have regularly brutalized these communities and/or ignored their needs. Thus, the people who are expected to have the most violence committed against them in the following years are put in an impossible position: What do you do when the people you’re calling on to deal with the violence perpetrated against you have a history of perpetrating that same, or worse, violence against you and your community?
There is a very real threat of increased civilian violence against people of color following Trump’s campaign and election, but because the police regularly commit acts of violence against communities of color, there still is no institution or organization to properly “deal with” this violence. Police and prison abolitionist movements are not new, but they feel necessary now more than ever.
In July of this year, Fox News invited community activist Jessica Disu, among other folks, to come onto “The Kelly File” to discuss the murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the Dallas police officers. The conversation was gross. It involved lots of white people yelling racist shit and Disu rolling her eyes, visibly uncomfortable. Eventually Disu chimed in, saying to an array of boos, “We need to abolish the police.” “Abolish the police?!” Megyn Kelly repeated back, in horror. Disu continued, ”Demilitarize the police, disarm the police, we need to come up with community solutions for transformative justice.”
In an interview with the Chicago Reader — which is really amazing and I recommend you read it — Disu compares the abolition of the police to the abolition of slavery: “I’m sure when someone first said, ‘We have to abolish slavery,’ it was like, ‘Whoa, that’s the stupidest idea, we’re making all of this money off of free labor, and you’re saying abolish? Like, that sounds ridiculous.’”
Police (and prison) abolition is far from the acceptable discourse concerning police reform you might hear on news outlets like CNN, Fox or even MSNBC. But many communities, especially poor communities of color, where the police are either not helpful or actively violent, have created and implemented police-free and prison-free ways of dealing with harm and violence.
You can read about lots of examples in the Chicago Reader, and I’ll summarize one for the sake of space. Ethan Ucker, co-founder of a restorative justice program in Chicago called Circles and Ciphers, tells a story about a robbery: A young guy stole from a store in the community. “One of the people at the store whose stuff was taken said, ‘Look, I don’t want to call the cops. Is there anything we can do?’ ” Somehow they found out that the young guy was selling some of the stolen stuff on Facebook, and they also found out that the young guy went to school at a place where Ucker had done some of his restorative justice work with Circles and Ciphers. So, Ucker was able to contact a teacher and get in touch with the young guy who had stolen the stuff and eventually brought the young guy who stole back together with the person he had stolen from. The young guy returned the stuff he hadn’t sold, and “in restitution for everything else” the young guy worked at the store. After he had worked as much as he needed, he realized he actually liked working there, so he went back after he was done to work and volunteer. He formed a relationship with the store, the owners, the patrons, etc.
Restorative justice is based on the principle that crime and violence are offenses against communities and individuals, instead of offenses against “the state.” This makes the approach and the reparations necessarily more intimate and personal. Studies have shown that in general, restorative justice approaches “reduce crime more effectively with more … serious crime,” especially violent crime. Restorative justice makes perpetrators of crime much more active in accepting responsibility than they’re made to be in the traditional, impersonal justice system; you committed X crime, the punishment for which is Y numbers of years in prison, here you go, accept it and then you’ve paid your debt to society — but not really even because our prisons are mostly a racialized caste system that once you get stuck in, you can never really escape.
We’ve been severely misled about the function of police and prison in society today. A world without police and a world without prisons doesn’t mean a world without protection or safety, nor a world plagued by violence. The police force as we know it was not created in response to rising crime rates, rather as a means of social control, “a response to ‘disorder.’ ” In southern states, the police were deliberately established as a slave patrol, whose responsibilities included: “(1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules.”
A world without police and prisons means a de-prioritizing of a certain understanding of “order,” it means community based solutions to problems and it means a redistribution of funding to support these new efforts. The presumption is not that crime will stop, but that we will find ways to deal with crime that do not necessitate more violence nor one-size-fits-all impersonal punishment.