Abolition as Liberation in the Movement for Black Lives
Could abolishing police and prisons make communities safer and end one form of systemic racism? A conversation with activist and abolitionist Nabil Hassein.
The third in a series of interviews with transformative activists, organizers, writers and leaders from the New Left and Freedom Movement of the 1960s through the radical social and political movements of today.
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This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nabil Hassein is an activist with Millions March, an NYC-based multiracial, grassroots collective committed to the Movement for Black Lives. He is also an organizer for Abolition Square, part of a coordinated campaign in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to abolish the police.
Radical Democracy: Until recently, most of the Movement for Black Lives direct actions have been protests, focused on drawing attention to a specific shooting by a police officer, or petitioning for reform. But the protests this summer in NYC, Chicago and L.A. demanded outright abolition of the police and prison systems. It feels like a significant shift.
Nabil Hassein: I’m a member of Millions March NYC, a police and prison abolitionist group within the Movement. Our belief in abolition rather than reform comes from our grounding in history: in this country, more specifically New York, the police originated as slave patrols. They’ve been the enforcers of Jim Crow, and were killing the Black Panthers, and the Black Liberation Army, during the ’60s and ‘70s.
Our view is that racist police violence and murder are no accident. That’s what the police are intended to do. Our demands point in the direction of abolition because we say you can’t fix what isn’t broken. Since the police are intended to be racist and violent, the only way forward is to abolish them, and replace them with alternative institutions designed with the uplift of Black communities in mind.
The Democrats dishonest response to “Make America Great Again” is that America has always been great. I think the truthful response is that America has never been great. As that consciousness penetrates more and more we’re going to see people from all backgrounds demanding a change, demanding control over their own lives.
RD: How did the idea for occupying City Hall Park, and creating “Abolition Square” come about?
NH: Our group has the word “march” in it, but there was a sentiment that we were exhausted with marching. We’ve been marching for so long we want to try something else, and encampment is a very old tactic. Obivously, that was a crucial part of Occupy, but the tactic is much, much older. To have three encampments going on in L.A., New York, and Chicago at the same time was very valuable in terms of attention to the Movement, especially in putting forward a specifically abolitionist message — which was particularly strong coming out of Chicago.
RD: Connecting policing to slavery, Jim Crow and the killing of earlier Black liberation leaders implies a serious criticism of society at large. Can you talk about that a bit more?
NH: We see a close link between abolitionist politics and anti-capitalist politics. A common refrain that you hear both within and outside of the Movement for Black Lives is that the police exist to uphold law and order. But we have to ask what kind of law and question what type of order. Especially in New York City: we have the most billionaires in the country, the most fabulous wealth, and at the same time, the number of people sleeping in the streets increases every year. Police violence and murder is unchecked. Sexual violence, gender violence is rampant. That’s the order that the police exist to uphold. Their function is to maintain the concentration of wealth, where a few people monopolize the resources of the society and leave so little for the rest of us. That’s why we fight for abolition and not reform. There’s no way that tinkering around the edges of this system could ever lead to anything than more of the same.
Real safety in our communities first and foremost means access to the kind of resources that affluent communities have. Access to affordable housing, to healthcare, including mental healthcare. Access to education, transportation, good paying jobs that pay a living wage. That’s what we need to see for our communities.
RD: How do we keep our communities safe if we abolish the police? What sort of institutions or processes might replace them?
NH: As abolitionists, we know the police don’t protect us. So the question is, who’s going to, right? The only answer is that we have to do it ourselves. In terms of our political demand to defund the police, last year here in New York the city council voted to spend an additional hundred million dollars hiring thirteen-hundred more cops. We need to see those kinds of resources being put to alternative use, including actual safety for our communities.
There’s no way anyone can predict, exactly. It’s going to look different in different communities. In terms of the demands put forward at Abolition Square, one points in this direction the most clearly: to defund the NYPD’s five and a half billion dollar annual budget, and reinvest it in the city’s Black and other working class communities.
If we look at the communities that are actually safe, like the Upper East Side, they’re not safe because they have police standing on every street corner ready to snatch people up for petty crimes. De Blasio came in as mayor talking about a “tale of two cities,” and he wasn’t lying about that. He’s lied about many things, but that was a true statement. And in only one of those two cities does his NYPD deploy broken windows policing. Real safety in our communities first and foremost means access to the kind of resources that affluent communities have. Access to affordable housing, to healthcare, including mental healthcare. Access to education, transportation, good paying jobs that pay a living wage. That’s what we need to see for our communities.
I would never deny that violence exists in our communities, even before the police get involved. It’s a serious issue that we have to address. But it’s clear that jails and prisons don’t actually decrease the violence in this society. They just mask it and concentrate it in a few places. I don’t know how long we can expect to keep it in places like Rikers Island or Sing Sing or Attica before it just reaches a point where it’s going to erupt beyond those walls.
RD: It seems that just getting bodies in jail is often a higher priority than addressing violence, or keeping communities safe.
NH: Here in New York City the number one arrest is for jumping the turnstile. When someone is arrested for something petty like that, and then you put them in Brooklyn Central Booking or in Rikers Island, they’re going to do what they need to do to survive. It does not rehabilitate or help the community or decrease violence in any way. For the cases of more serious violence that occur in our communities, especially around gender violence and sexual violence, that’s definitely one of the most challenging for abolitionists to address.
In terms of our political demand to defund the police, last year here in New York the city council voted to spend an additional hundred million dollars hiring thirteen-hundred more cops. We need to see those kinds of resources being put to alternative use, including actual safety for our communities.
When we look at the fact that police commit domestic violence at twice the national average rate, it’s clear that bringing them into our communities’ disputes is not going to help solve these disputes. It falls on us to first think about how to prevent as many of these incidents as possible from taking place, and also think about what restorative justice and transformative justice would look like in our communities when these incidents do occur. Even in a world after abolition, I’m not going to say that these things won’t happen, you know? But I think a civilized society would have an alternative means to address them than putting human beings in cages, because that doesn’t actually address the root causes of patriarchy and racism that causes violence. I advocate for community self-determination over what these processes would look like, and that’s going to look different in every community.
There are groups doing this work — the Audre Lorde Project has something called the Safe Outside the System Collective, for example. There’s so much work to be done, and it’s challenging to address things while the State holds the power — the police are the only ones with the ability to commit violence or hold people against their will without being held accountable. I’m not going to say that we have fully worked-out answers. We’re in conversations about what alternatives would look like, but ultimately it’s going to be people in the community who build these alternatives.
RD: Right. It’s about taking steps in the right direction. A week into the occupation at Abolition Square, the first demand was met when Police Commissioner Bratton resigned. Why was Bratton targeted, and how big a victory was his resignation?
NH: It was a huge victory for the grassroots. There’s been organizing against Bill Bratton ever since Bill de Blasio announced him as police commissioner, well before he took office. The fact that a so-called liberal, progressive mayor was bringing back Rudy Giuliani’s hand-picked and notoriously racist police commissioner should have been an indication about what this mayor is actually about, despite all his nice words.
Bill Bratton is known as the architect of the racist policy of broken windows policing, which essentially targets Black people, Latin people, working-class people of all backgrounds, for enforcement of petty crimes — and sometimes not even crimes, just violations. Including the most petty offenses imaginable, like jumping the subway turnsitle. The idea that this is somehow going to reduce major crime is ridiculous. People are jumping the turnstile because the subway fare is expensive, and Black people need to get around one way another, despite the fact that they have no jobs, or jobs that don’t pay enough for them to be able to move around the city. Jumping turnstiles is not what’s causing murder or violent crime. There’s no evidence that this policy does anything to keep communities safe, despite the NYPD’s huge investment in it. We’ve seen it exported from New York to L.A. and Boston, places where Bratton was commissioner, and fact that he has such a close association with this racist policy meant that he had to go.
As an abolitionist group our problems with the police are systemic and structural, and they’re much bigger than one person. That’s why our demand was not only that Bill Bratton should be fired, but also that the policy of broken windows policing should end. I’m not aware of any reason to believe that Bratton’s successor, James O’Neill, who has worked closely with Bratton and is a thirty-three year NYPD veteran, is going to change the policy in any meaningful way.
RD: The Department of Justice investigations of the Ferguson and Boston police departments concluded they were systematically targeting neighborhoods of color and poorer neighborhoods. In Ferguson, Black neighborhoods where targeted as a matter of policy in order to generate revenue from violations, even when their own statistics showed they would catch more criminals if they targeted areas that were not predominantly Black.
How important is that sort of documentation by the D.O.J. for the abolition movement?
NH: I’m a computer programmer by trade, so I deal with data, and I definitely think it is useful to have these kinds of systemic investigations. At the same time, I’m not sure that there was anything in the Department of Justice reports that couldn’t have been learned just by listening to the people in Ferguson, or Baltimore. The Department of Justice could probably choose police departments from around the country at random, conduct this kind of investigation, and find the same patterns in almost every case. Policy makers always want to say that their decisions are data-driven, but look at the sources of the data. Having an outside source for the data, like the Department of Justice, may be better or less biased than having the police say, oh, we collected the data and we investigated ourselves and it turns out that everything is great.
As abolitionists, we need to be doing our own data collection based in the community, so we can hear the voices of people who are affected directly without having the federal government as an intermediary.
Ultimately the Department of Justice, as a law enforcement agency itself, is never going to put out anything that points in the direction of abolition. It may highlight some of the problems with these departments, but a lot of the suggestions it makes are contradicted by its own data, or by other publicly available information. Like the rhetoric about restoring trust between the police and the community. I would challenge anyone to name a point in time when there was trust between the police and the community. Give me a city and a year, and let’s talk about that.
There is also talk about recruiting more police officers of color, but Baltimore should be a pretty decisive refutation of this idea. In Baltimore you have a Black mayor, a Black DA, a majority Black city council, and one of the most heavily Black police forces in the nation. The result of all this diversity and inclusion is that Black cops are the ones who murdered Freddie Gray. Again, the issues are systemic and result from the racist nature of policing and the system the police uphold. That the Department of Justice validated what residents of Ferguson and Baltimore have been saying all along is a good thing, but the problem is, people weren’t listening to the voices of the people in the first place.
Ultimately I think abolitionists have to build independence straight from the communities, and it’s not going to come from a Department of Justice report.
There’s no way that Black people are going to get free while indigenous people still have no control over the land and over their destiny. That connection is the same connection between struggles in this land and struggles in Palestine. It’s a similar colonial occupation, deeply racist, denying the right to national self-determination.
RD: The first and most visible phase of the #shutdowncityhallnyc campaign was the occupation of City Hall Park, renamed Abolition Square. Then you began to focus on the courts. Could you talk about that phase a bit?
NH: Our focus was outside the courthouse rather than inside. We were handing out flyers, giving free water and free cigarettes to people who had just gotten out of jail or just got out of court. We were engaging in the conversation, making contacts, getting people’s information to stay connected to the Movement. There was still some ongoing political and cultural programming, too. We had a tremendous success with the court outreach. We got a great response from people who are directly affected by the system. I think a lot of people are ready for abolition. They’re ready to hear the message that we’re putting out.
RD: There’s been an emphasis on outreach to other movements lately: to the Native American Water Protectors at Standing Rock, to the Palestinian struggle…
NH: Having an internationalist perspective, understanding that our struggles are bound together, is critical. When we become limited by these artificial national boundaries, we play to and we reinforce the exact same system that’s oppressing us. Millions March is also an anti-imperialist and an anti-American group, and it’s important to see that this is just one example of how the United States has always been a white supremacist, racist, settler, oppressor nation. The United States government is enormously powerful, has access to enormous wealth and resources, including military resources. But the borders that exist now are not the borders for all time, and the United States government has no legitimacy when you look at how it’s been dishonoring the treaties it’s signed with Native peoples. It’s important to discuss what this country and this flag stands for, what it represents. Like with Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the anthem — that’s right on. It’s important that we stand in solidarity with Native peoples, and with Palestinians, Puerto Ricans, and all those who are being oppressed by U.S. imperialism.
Speaking of Standing Rock and the water protectors there, a few of us from Millions are planning to travel there next week. There have been many contingents from different groups within the Movement, which is enormously important. When we think about the history of white supremacy and settler colonialism in this land, the connection between Black and Native communities becomes very clear. Not to say that all the connections are positive ones. There’s certainly been many cases where people in each community have contributed to oppression of people in the other community. But that’s no different from the ways that people within the Back community have contributed to the oppression of other Black people.
That’s an issue that we have to face forthrightly, and think about how we can build connections with our communities that would actually lead to liberation for all of us. There’s no way that Black people are going to get free while indigenous people still have no control over the land and over their destiny. That connection is the same connection between struggles in this land and struggles in Palestine. It’s a similar colonial occupation, deeply racist, denying the right to national self-determination. Given the fact that the Israeli government is absolutely dependent on the United States government for financial and military aid and for diplomatic cover, it’s clear that we have an obligation to say that we stand in solidarity with the Palestinians[JM2] .
Anything that reduces the police budget, reduces the numbers of police, that limits the situations in which police are legally allowed to use force, is a step forward. Those are the kind of measures within the current framework that actually advance abolition and Black liberation.
RD: We seem to be in a period similar to the ’60s and early ’70s, with movements growing and getting stronger. How far do you think we can move the ball in, say, five years? What would be a successful move forward?
NH: I think the future is very unpredictable. Recently, there was the vote for the U.K. to exit the European Union, and I think that’s a harbinger of things to come. Look what’s happening in Rojava, with Kurds and other folks in Syria and Iraq and the surrounding region, really taking control of their own communities and their own destiny against the old style of governance. There’s an immense amount to be learned from that in terms of truly democratic institutions being created in this land, for people to start to take control over their own lives.
As far as what we can accomplish, I contrast police and prison abolition with reform, because reformism tends to reinforce the overall system, and it’s important for us to avoid falling into that.
RD: This is one of the big questions as movements begin to flex their muscles again: how to strike the balance between pushing for the radical or revolutionary change that many want, and getting some sort of relief right now with doable reform.
NH: We have to recognize that there’s no way for us to leap from the world we live in to a world without jails and prisons or police. We can use abolition as an ideal, and then think about which steps are actually steps in the direction of abolition, and which ones are not. For example, there’s a lot of discussion around body cameras. But in North Carolina we see a law that prevents the public from having access to body cam footage — so this so-called reform was just used to increase the police’s powers of surveillance. It’s important for the Movement to have clear ways of distinguishing what are steps forward and what are not. Anything that reduces the police budget, reduces the numbers of police, that limits the situations in which police are legally allowed to use force, is a step forward. Those are the kind of measures within the current framework that actually advance abolition and Black liberation.
Ultimately, the U.S. Constitution and the United States, as a racist settler-oppressor nation, are incompatible with Black liberation, with Native peoples’ liberation, and even with the liberation of white people as workers under capitalism. I think all these things are ultimately going to have to be swept away, but I don’t expect to see all of that happen within the next five years. As movements continue to build strength, we can think about how we can include working people with a variety of schedules, and include parents and disabled folks. How we can draw in as much participation from this society as possible, to continue to build our numbers and our reach.
RD: How important was the recently published “Vision for Black Lives” for building the Movement?
NH: Although I’m not in full agreement with all of the platform, it’s definitely a step forward. Ultimately our orientation has to remain towards the streets, towards building the independent strength of our communities in order to address gender violence and inter-communal violence without State intervention. We need to draw in more people to participate in movements and build up the solidarity between movements.
Breaking the nationalist, patriotic, jingoistic, pro-U.S. attitude is immensely important, as is speaking about the true history of this land. These are steps along the way. But this U.S. has always been a racist, capitalist, patriarchal, imperialist nation. Trump is telling the truth more than Hillary Clinton, in terms of what this nation is about and what it wants to go back to. The Democrats dishonest response to “Make America Great Again” is that America has always been great. I think the truthful response is that America has never been great. As that consciousness penetrates more and more we’re going to see people from all backgrounds demanding a change, demanding control over their own lives.
RD: As I do these interviews with activists and organizers, it seems women are much more equally represented than in past movements, especially in leadership roles.
NH: It’s really important for us to think about the role of gender within movements. One of my comrades sent me a quote from a Native protestor called Defender Eagle at Standing Rock who said, “I think that we’ve waited long enough in various ways and means to listen always to what the white man tells us to do, and the time is dawning and the age is beginning when we listen again to our indigenous femininity.” A lot of people want to fight against the oppression that specifically affects them, but they don’t want to fight against oppression that gives them some kind of benefit. Sexist, patriarchal Black men and racist white feminists are the two best-known examples, but it could be brought up in the context of any oppression. It’s clear from experience and history that this kind of politics can’t possibly work, that it can’t win, and we have to see the connections between all these types of oppression. It’s also clear that the leadership of women, of disabled folks, of queer and trans folks, those who are most oppressed by society and have the most reason to fight for change, is crucial. That the Black Lives Matter hashtag and organization was founded by three queer Black women, and what Defender Eagle was saying about the role of women at Standing Rock, are connected.
RD: Absolutely. Some of the women I interviewed who were most active in the past talked about sexism within the movement in the sixties. Maybe we’re finally moving past that…
NH: Women were leaders in many ways in the movements of the ’60s and ’70s. The majority of the Black Panther membership were women, and women played crucial roles in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and SNCC. There’s still a lot of problematic gender politics in activist communities, but I see more open discussion of it, and we’re seeing women come to the forefront more — and that’s a healthy and positive step. I think it’s a great strength of the movement. There’s a lot more work to be done in that regard, but I’m optimistic.
RD: Since the last time we spoke, Trump got elected.
NH: Trump’s election is revealing in several ways. For example, it shows how deeply unpopular the neoliberal establishment is, as represented by Hillary and the Democrats. Of course, Clinton did get more votes than Trump, so it also reveals one of the many ways that America is not a democracy, and never has been.
Trump’s support is very real, very deep. The election sheds light on the US nation as a settler colony turned empire, founded on white supremacy on a basic level. It shows what a strong constituency that kind of racist appeal still has for a huge chunk of voters in this country.
RD: We had a strange choice between failed neoliberalism, and a narcissistic, incompetent, bigot.
NH: I can’t help but think of Malcom X’s quote about the 1964 election:
“If Johnson had been running all by himself, he would not have been acceptable to anyone. The only thing that made him acceptable to the world was that the shrewd capitalists, the shrewd imperialists, knew that the only way people would run toward the fox would be if you showed them a wolf. So they created a ghastly alternative. And it had the whole world — including people who call themselves Marxists — hoping that Johnson would beat Goldwater.
“I have to say this: Those who claim to be enemies of the system were on their hands and knees waiting for Johnson to get elected — because he is supposed to be a man of peace. And at that moment he had troops invading the Congo and South Vietnam! He even has troops in areas where other imperialists have already withdrawn.”
If you change the names of the candidates and the countries the US is invading, it applies to 2016 as much as it does to 1964. It’s a little bit depressing to look back and see that it’s been over 50 years and we’re still in the same situation. Of course, in 1964, Johnson won. This year, it was actually the wolf that got into office instead of the fox.
RD: It also makes think about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenging the Democratic Party to integrate delegations at the National Convention, also in 1964. There’s a John Lewis quote about the MFDP getting rejected, and the impact it had on many civil rights activists. I think there are similarities with the Sanders folks at this year’s convention:
“As far as I’m concerned, this was the turning point of the civil rights movement. I’m absolutely convinced of that. Until then, despite every setback and disappointment and obstacle we had faced over the years, the belief still prevailed that the system would work, the system would listen, the system would respond. Now, for the first time, we had made our way to the very center of the system. We had played by the rules, done everything we were supposed to do, had played the game exactly as required, had arrived at the doorstep and found the door slammed in our face.”
I think a lot of Bernie fans feel like they had the door slammed in their face. It’s another example of history repeating itself, but I’m hoping that more folks are waking up, or that we’re learning more each time. Somehow moving forward.
NH: I hope the lesson that people draw is that the system keeps doing this, because that’s what the system is designed to do. The only hope is to break out of the system, to break the cycle, to destroy the system and to create a different system instead. I hope that’s the conclusion that people draw. Obviously, we’ve seen that a lot of liberals and Democrats are instead coming to the conclusion that the problem is Putin and Russia, and basically doubling down on US nationalism and jingoism. Those people are no allies of mine.
RD: I think more folks are getting the importance of focusing on systemic change. In fact, it’s the definition we use for “radical” change: changing systems and institutions, not just candidates or policies.
NH: I think a clear lesson from the sixties era when folks basically attempted to take over the Democratic Party from a position of greater strength than we have now, is that it didn’t work. And it doesn’t seem likely to work this time, either. I really think that working from within the Democratic Party is a dead end. Obviously a lot of folks are still very interested in that strategy, even after what happened to Bernie Sanders in the primary.
Excerpted from the soon to be published ebook, Radical Democracy: an inventory of transformational ideas, documents, quotes and conversations