Imagining Abolition and Educational Safety Beyond Policing

Introduction by Series Curator Charles H.F. Davis III, Assistant Professor in the Center for Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan; Founder and Director of the Campus Abolition Research Lab

Illustration by Megan Rizzo

“Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.”

– Ruth Wilson Gilmore

The summer of 2020 marked yet another racial awakening in the United States. Various occurrences of anti-Black and state-sanctioned violence, including the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, inspired a massive wave of national protest that reinvigorated the public discourse and raised longstanding questions about the role of police in our society — and in particular, their presence in educational environments. It also brought into closer relation the longstanding work of community organizers working to defund and disarm the institution of policing and the intergenerational concern of students and families impacted by the violence of school discipline policies and brutality of campus police.

The parallel movements for police-free schools and police-free college campuses encouraged educational researchers to further investigate education’s policing problem, but also the broader realities about public safety at the intersection of education and society. Altogether, new demands emerged for the abolition of school and campus police as well as the socioeconomic conditions that necessitate their presence.

Conceptually, abolition in the United States is historically rooted in the efforts to resist and dismantle the settler-colonial and racial project of chattel slavery. First and foremost, this includes the deliberate acts of resistance undertaken by enslaved Africans at the very point of their violent capture and extends to their rebellions on plantations throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. It also includes the organizing and labor of freed people (often living in fugitive) as well as evangelical colonists who were morally opposed to the institution of slavery and militiamen (e.g., John Brown) who took up arms to end slavery by force. The basic premise of today’s abolition, however, is its recognition and refusal of carceral approaches (i.e., institutionalized discipline, judicial punishment, and state-sanctioned confinement) to address issues of harm, violence, and accountability, which are deemed both racially discriminatory and ineffective. This evolution is entirely the result of prison industrialization as an afterlife of slavery, by which slavery remains a constitutionally permissible form of punishment for those convicted of a crime in the US.

So, what is abolition doing in a “nice place” like education? I’m glad you asked.

At the very foundation of American (higher) education — itself a project rooted in the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples and sustained by the profits and labor of enslavement — abolitionism has always asserted new possibilities for teaching and learning. This includes longstanding efforts to eradicate the social and political conditions by which marginalized communities were rendered subject to state and state-sanctioned violence simply for pursuing knowledge. It also includes resisting curricula that often misrepresented or erased their histories and pursuing educational opportunities through employing what historian Jarvis Givens describes as fugitive practices to subvert racial subjugation and pursue collective liberation.

Within the context of modern primary and secondary schooling, eradicating the policies and practices that routinely railroad minoritized students into juvenile detention and youth jails (i.e., school-to-prison pipeline) and perpetuate their ongoing involvement with the juvenile and criminal legal systems (i.e., the carceral continuum) have been at the heart of advocates’, activists’, and abolitionist educators’ concerns. Within postsecondary contexts, campus abolitionists have sought to illuminate the ways higher education is entangled with apparatuses of criminalization (i.e., police) and carceral institutions (i.e., jails and prisons) as well as the role colleges and universities play in creating the conditions that necessitate policing in communities proximal to campuses.

Yet, abolition is not reducible to projects of removal or absence, which Ruth Wilson Gilmore refutes as incomplete, noting, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” Therefore, abolition should be understood as both an analytical tool and a material endeavor that seeks to imagine and build alternatives for the prevention of and redress for interpersonal and institutional harm.

Returning to the idea of educational safety and a kind of “campus abolition,” it is not exclusively concerned with the removal of school police and severance of carceral relationships in higher education. It is, instead, an abolishing of an educational system that could have policing, that could have food insecurity, that could exploit workers, that could gentrify neighborhoods, and therefore not abolition as elimination but abolition as the creation of life-affirming ways and places in which to teach and learn. This leads me to the development of this series, wherein authors have been asked to explore how students, communities, and campus educators disrupt and dismantle the carceral entanglements that undermine the ability of educational institutions to be life-affirming.

Across the six essays, the authors provide a variety of evidence in support of abolitionist intervention as well as edifying perspectives that expand current discourses of reimagining PK-12 and postsecondary education in important and comprehensive ways. For instance, Jade Jacobs’ essay offers a critical history and policy analysis to chronicle the rise of school police and the criminalization of Black youth. Bethany Murray and colleagues build upon Jacobs’ foundation and provide a detailed case analysis of school policing in Los Angeles and the youth-led movement to reduce school policing budgets and remove police officers from public schools.

Annalisa Myer’s and Ashley J. Carpenter’s essays take complementary approaches that challenge the ways we conceptualize campus safety. In particular, Myer encourages us to consider the role of campus police in rendering minoritized students less safe as well as the ways basic food security is an important precondition for safety among an ever-expanding group of students on campus. Carpenter draws upon evidence from the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racialized state violence to demonstrate how institutionalized anti-Blackness undermines the possibility of safety for Black students on campus. In a co-authored essay led by Lauren Shallish, the ways ableism, in tandem with other oppressive systems, shapes how schools and society determine one’s worthiness of educational opportunity and incarceration is explored and challenged. Lastly, but importantly, M. Colleen McDaniel and Jennifer M. Gómez interrogate the limitations of criminal legal approaches to campus sexual violence and the humanizing possibilities afforded by survivor-centered care.

The exercises of imagination presented in this series are intended to be an offering as well as an invitation. As readers, we hope that you will engage with the work, share and discuss amongst your communities of practice, and be compelled to examine your relationships to surveillance, control, and related forms of carceral punishment. More importantly, we invite you to undertake the process of imagining educational possibilities that improve the material conditions in which everyday people live, work, and learn over and over and over again.