How Can DSA Fight Mass Incarceration?

Instead of symbolic litmus tests, socialists should translate moral outrage into materially grounded analysis and clear strategic action.

On Sunday I published “DSA Is At A Crossroads” and the response so far has pleasantly surprised me. Thousands have read it and dozens of DSA members from across the country (and even non-DSA socialists) have reached out to talk to me about it.

What that essay does not include is explanation of where I stand on the question of the abolition of police and prisons. I decided to set it aside, because this question deserves its own treatment.

In the Bread & Roses Priorities Resolution that we are putting forward before our local convention, we propose that

East Bay DSA shall mobilize working people against oppression, police violence, mass incarceration, deportations, environmental destruction, imperialism, and war. Our campaigns against austerity should make connections between our positive demands for universal social programs and the high costs of state repression.

While many liberal and progressive groups and even some conservatives decry the inhumanity of mass incarceration, it’s important to remember the additional reasons that socialists fight against it. As with every socialist project, our analysis informs how we fight. Christian Parenti explains it well:

the important things criminal justice does is regulate, absorb, terrorize, and disorganize the poor. At the same time it promulgates politically useful racism….[which] divides the working class and causes people of all races to misunderstand their real material conditions. It creates, via racialized scapegoats, pseudo-explanations for poverty and exploitation, deluding and frightening downwardly mobile voters.
Most important, the criminal justice crackdown and overuse of incarceration allows capitalism to have the positive effects of mass unemployment (lower wages due to an economically frightened workforce) without the political destabilization that mass poverty can bring. Unlike a robust social safety net, incarceration and militarized policing absorb the poor and working class without empowering them or subsidizing their rebellion, as was the case during the sixties and seventies.

What is abolition?

At an East Bay DSA steering committee candidate forum this past Sunday, the first question posed to the 13 candidates for At-Large Steering Committee positions was about the abolition of police and prisons. Almost every candidate said that yes, in an ideal socialist society, there would be no need for prisons or police and they would be abolished. But almost all of these candidates also said that (a) they’re not sure if such an ideal society is even possible, and (b) it’s hard to imagine what a society with zero police or prisons would actually look like. Instead, multiple candidates referred to the symbolic value of the notion of abolitionism, the “horizon” that we should orient towards regardless of whether or not it’s possible or even conceivable.

Some of this rests on a correct assumption: that most interpersonal violence is rooted in the exploitation, immiseration, and alienation produced by our class society. Part of the reason we fight for a socialist society is to prevent the circumstances where people are driven to hurt one another. But even prison abolitionists recognize that in a dramatically more just society, people might still seriously harm one another or themselves, and that society should have a way to deal with that. For example, prison abolitionist Jeannie Alexander writes in Abolition Journal:

“To be clear, we recognize that when harm occurs in a community it may be necessary to separate those whose immediate physical actions have resulted in harm to another. Social separation has its place. However, successful social separation should be as brief as possible and should result in the restoration of the individual to his or her community and the restoration of victims and their families.”

As Roger Lancaster writes, Alexander’s approach effectively “reinvents the minimal rehabilitative prison” similar to the already-existing ones in Norway or Finland, where inmates might tend to farm animals, ski, cook for themselves, and live in well-equipped private cottages or private apartments. (Really, watch this video.) This is vastly different from the system in the United States, which abolitionists are right to recognize as a place where forms of slavery continue to exist; which functions a tool for labor control; and a dehumanizing, punitive, and often deadly replacement for defunded mental health services.

Compare Alexander’s words to the policy of the Directorate of Norwegian Correctional Service: “Prison should be a restriction of liberty, but nothing more. That means an offender should have all the same rights as other people living in Norway, and life inside should resemble life outside as much as possible.” On a practical level, Alexender’s approach seems to me to be very similar the limit of what I think is possible under socialism, or even to what already exists in Norway.

This begs the question of why my fellow candidates in East Bay feel it’s important to insist on complete “abolition” if their goals are in practice indistinguishable from those of reformers. The answer given is often that this framework will help us organize people of color.

They’re certainly correct that the brutality of the American prison system is extraordinarily unpopular among people of color and the working class generally. According to a 2017 ACLU poll, over 70 percent of Americans think the US should reduce its prison population, including 52 percent of Trump voters. Eighty-four percent think mental health should be dealt with as a health issue and not by incarceration, while two-thirds would support candidates and policies that would reduce the prison population and reinvest tax dollars in treatment for drug addiction and mental illness. Seventy-two percent support eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing laws. If every one of these reforms were implemented, the change in the current carceral system would be dramatic (albeit only the beginning of the transformation we desire). And the reforms appear to be increasingly popular, so advocates of reform are in a good position to push for them.

But these numbers get flipped on their heads, even among black people, when you ask about actually removing police from their communities.

According to polling collected in this paper, while black Americans are much less likely to have faith that police are well trained or justified in killing so many people, blacks and whites seem to agree on one thing: 89% of black Americans polled by Gallup, compared with 92% of whites, said they would prefer either a larger police presence in their neighborhoods or no change at all. (See graph below.)

When we take stock of these statistics, we’re immediately forced to entertain the thought that an open commitment to the wholesale abolition of police and prisons is not, as some proponents claim, the quickest path to building legitimacy for our overwhelmingly white organization among workers of color — something that everyone agrees is an urgent task.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that we should ever advocate for increased police in poor communities or any measures that would strengthen the carceral state. But if we hope to reduce demand for more policing it has to come from showing that we are capable of winning practical reforms to the criminal justice system as well as the social investment — federal jobs guarantees and an end to employment discrimination, good public education, free and universal health care, well equipped recreational facilities for youth — that actually reduces crime and improves the lives of poor and working people.

Should prison abolition be a litmus test?

When I brought up these concerns (in a private conversation that was then leaked online), comrades running against me in our local Steering Committee elections accused me on social media of supporting mass incarceration and by extension “white supremacy.” Logically this could only mean that they view the millions of people represented in the polling data above the same way. And clearly, if you’re a white supremacist, you shouldn’t have a place on the Left.

I view this approach as enormously destructive. If “abolition” is not a particularly effective symbol among the multiracial working class, if it isn’t actually our goal, and if indeed it’s an obscure idea that only seems to have currency among the marginal activist left, then why do some in our organization demand that we use it as a litmus test for admission into the left?

I personally think this litmus test threatens to alienate the vast majority of society who are neither white supremacists nor prison abolitionists. Many of these people are themselves victims of police repression; yet they are also, because of a lack of resources and support networks, uniquely vulnerable to crimes like domestic abuse, stalking, harassment, gun violence, and theft. Instead of using shibboleths to block these people’s participation in our movement, we should be engaging them through demands that speak to their felt needs.

At stake here is how we view the purpose of a political organization. Those who would call people “white supremacists” for not embracing abolitionist rhetoric would seem to view it as a social club, a place for self-actualization, and a place to perfect the performance of your political identity. I argue we need to view DSA as a tool, a vehicle that helps us intervene in society in order to change it. We must commit to making it as effective a tool as possible, because the stakes of our failure are very high. In the case of abolition, we’re committing to a niche rhetoric that speaks exclusively to the already existing left, which, despite its growth, is still a miniscule group that is isolated from the larger working class. We should instead be organizing to dismantle the carceral state with demands that the mass base we need will actually respond to.

Millions of non-activist Americans despise the brutality, misery, and profiteering of the US police state, and thanks in no small part to the Black Lives Matter movement millions of them are willing and ready to change it. Like Houston DSA’s Franklyn Bynum, two candidates that East Bay DSA is campaigning for, Gayle McLaughlin and Jovanka Beckles of Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) fame, have advocated for dismantling crucial elements of the carceral system as we know it, starting with ending cash bail, eliminating the noxious “Police Officer’s Bill of Rights,” ending private prisons, decriminalizing drugs, and “banning the box.” These demands are not only popular, but the record of RPA organizers and now activist DA Larry Krasner in Philadelphia show what meaningful progress towards decarceration is possible in a short amount of time.

To win a truly humane society we need to build a movement of millions, and elections and ballot measures are only two key ways to focus the public’s attention on the injustices of the status quo and show the path forward. As socialists we should identify strategic campaigns where we can speak to ordinary working people about the links between capitalism, class struggle, and mass incarceration. In the near and medium term, we must also push reform movements towards more radical ends like disarming the police and releasing from prison all nonviolent offenders. This is how an effective political left can translate blinding moral outrage into materially grounded analysis and clear strategic action.

But none of this is possible without open, honest, and oftentimes uncomfortable debate within our democratic organization. As the reborn socialist movement quickly moves past political performance and litmus tests and towards strategic political action, I’m humbled by the opportunity to learn from and contribute to these discussions.