“We are the ones who keep us safe” How abolitionists see an America without police and prisons

The Independent reports Washington DC mayor Muriel Bowser — whose city streets just blocks from the White House had been painted with massive yellow block letters reading “defund the police” — told CNN on 8 June that those words don’t necessarily mean what some might assume.

“I think a lot of people have different meanings for what they mean when they say ‘defund the police’, and as I’ve listened and read, most people are saying they want reform,” she said, “and they want good policing.”

Her remarks were echoed by pundits and lawmakers across the US as millions of people continue to protest police brutality and the killings of black Americans by police while repeating the mantra to shift the nation’s priorities when it comes to public safety. Meanwhile, the phrase has been weaponised by Donald Trump as a campaign cudgel against his Democratic challenger Joe Biden, who has nothing to do with the abolition movement.

But police and prison abolitionists who have carried the phrase through decades of organising — against police violence, mass incarceration and their disproportionate and deadly impacts among communities of colour — say “defund the police” means exactly what it says.

Abolitionists are challenging lawmakers and communities to make policing and prisons obsolete.

“Defund the police means defund the police,” says Critical Resistance member Kamau Walton. “One of the things to be wary and sharp about is the co-opting and mixed messaging in this moment. A lot of people are trying to say there’s a difference between police reform, defunding the police and abolition. And the call to defund the police is abolitionist. It’s a step towards abolition. It is not a separate, moderate or watered-down thing.”

Critical Resistance, a national abolitionist organisation co-founded by revolutionary scholars Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, has sought the dismantling of a “prison-industrial complex”, one in which for-profit prisons rely on government support for their expansion, justified by swollen prison populations, despite outside reforms to reduce America’s world-leading incarceration rates.

Gilmore has argued that prisons and police have served as a “catch-all” response to address social and moral failures that would be better served by richer investments in social services that can prevent conditions that enable crime in the first place.

Instead of cities spending a lion’s share of their budgets on their police departments, abolitionists argue that money should support affordable housing, healthcare, child care, mental health treatment and other services.

A 2017 report from the Centre for Popular Democracy, Black Youth Project 100 and Law for Black Lives found that several major cities have “stripped funds from mental health services, housing subsidies, youth programs, and food benefits programs, while pouring money into police forces, military grade weapons, high-tech surveillance, jails, and prisons”.

The United States is the world’s incarceration capital, housing a quarter of the world’s prisoners in a nation that represents only 5 per cent of the global population.

It also disproportionately jails black people — African Americans make up 13 per cent of the US but more than 40 per cent of prison populations.

Abolitionists also seek to end the prison system’s legacy of racism, from its roots in plantation-era America to its echoes in mass incarceration today.

Following the ending of enslavement at the end of the US Civil War, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery except for those convicted of a crime, allowing the adoption of “black codes” in economically devastated southern states at the end of the war to impose harsh penalties against newly freed black Americans for minor crimes, ensuring their continued “free” labour in prison.

“Convict leasing” would go on to provide labour for massive private infrastructure, while legalised segregation and Jim Crow-era terror criminalised black Americans.

Organisers argue that the system can’t be “repaired” or “reformed” because it is doing what it set out to do; efforts to “reform” merely entrench law enforcement’s role in policing and imprisoning communities.

Abolition is “absolutely getting rid of the systems and tools that support oppression, punishment and marginalisation of people,” Walton says. “That means getting rid of policing, getting rid of imprisonment, [and] dismantling surveillance and court systems that are used to inflict harm, trauma and violence on marginalised people. And it also means changing what we prioritise and how we define safety, and it means building up institutions, systems, tools and resources that actually keep our folks safe.”

Abolitionists argue it’s not enough to “reform” these institutions but to divest from them entirely, with city budgets directing millions of dollars earmarked for law enforcement into other community services, not as a one-time emergency fix but as a long-term solution to repair and transform the conditions that create violence.

“Abolition is about being more forward-thinking and preventative and not only just responding to harm and violence but also investing in our communities and caring for each other so we prevent a lot of that violence from happening in the first place,” Walton says. “When communities are stable, healthy and thriving, we know there’s a lot less harm and violence.”

Following unrest and protests over the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, groups across the US began adopting an abolitionist framework, gaining broader support and traction across organisations in public health, housing and other areas, as well as direct action campaigns like bailout funds and community efforts to stop local jail expansions.