Questions for Abolitionists

Siobhan O’Neill (NPMP)

This article is from NPMP’s annual magazine. You can see the full magazine online, and order physical copies here.

As someone who claims ‘I am an abolitionist’, I find myself asking questions about what this means and what questions come with taking up this position. While I am yet to have the answers – and perhaps need not have them all to imagine an alternative world – I share my ‘Questions for Abolitionists’ here in the hope that writing them down will help me think them through and perhaps be helpful for others too. I also hope that posing these questions might spark reflection and conversation amongst those of us interested in abolitionism. I frame these questions with police abolition specifically in mind – and in the context of the UK in particular – but it is important to note that police abolition is one part of a larger, global picture. Police abolition is linked, not only to prison abolition and the transformation of the criminal justice system, but also to the abolition of state violence in all its forms (for example border enforcement and migration controls) and, more broadly, of structures of global racial capitalism.  

Abolitionism, and police and prison abolitionism in particular, are not new. They have, however, become more widespread in popular discourse in recent times. Following the global Black Lives Matter mobilisations in 2020, which were ignited by widespread outrage at George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin in the US and the continuity of police violence this case represented, conversations about defunding, divesting and abolishing the police have become ever more prevalent. While the violence and harms of policing are also not new, more and more people are recognising and critiquing how problematic policing and the cultures embedded in police forces are.

According to figures based on Home Office, IOPC and other governmental agency data, there were 1,804 reported deaths in police custody and/or following other forms of contact with the police between 1990 and 2021. Racially minoritised people die disproportionately as a result of use of force or restraint by the police and “in the past ten years, 8% of those who died in custody were racialised as Black, despite representing only 3% of the population”

Racially minoritised people are “disproportionately represented in the CJS at every level, from stop-and-search to arrests, conviction and imprisonment and deaths in custody”. It has also been reported that “there were 1,500 accusations of sexual misconduct (including sexual harassment, exploitation of crime victims and child abuse)” against police officers between 2012 and 2018.

Furthermore, “at least 15 women have been killed by police officers” and “one woman a week comes forward to report a serving police officer for domestic or sexual violence” with “700+ reports of domestic abuse” being made against police officers between April 2015-2018. Not only is it clear that “at every level, racism defines UK policing”, evidently, sexism too is a constituent part of UK policing (see Connelly, article five). As well as the statistical evidence, specific cases – such as the murder of Sarah Everard by Met Police Officer Wayne Couzens (and the excessive use of police force at the vigil held for her) as well as the (racialised) policing practices throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (see Harris, article two) – have demonstrated tangibly just how problematic the institution and cultures of policing are here in the UK (and beyond).

These are not problems that can be ‘reformed’ away, they are systemic and entrenched in the foundations of policing. From its emergence, policing has always been about ‘discipline and control’, ‘protecting private property, quelling social unrest, putting down strikes’ and disciplining the unruly poor rather than preventing crimes and protecting ‘the people’, as is commonly argued. Given these roots, refining and improving such an institution – one designed with these racialised, classed and gendered power dynamics embedded in it – is an extremely limited intervention. Rather than addressing the problems of policing through superficial reforms that make policing friendlier and more diverse, and seek to hold ‘bad apples’ accountable for their individual wrongdoings, abolition offers us a transformative solution to the problems of policing, by understanding those individual wrongdoings to be institutionally mediated. Thus, abolition is a process of dismantling the institution as a whole and the logics that underpin it, it pushes us to open up our political imaginations beyond the systems, structures and institutions that we take for granted. This, however, is not simple and there are a lot of challenging questions that arise through considerations of abolitionism, below I consider just a few.

What do we do in the meantime?

For abolitionists, building an alternative world is the goal. Yet building such a world is a challenge that takes time and a lot of work. The goal can feel a long way off so what do we do in the meantime? I begin with this question because it feels the most immediate.

In a context where policing is taken for granted and deeply embedded in our societies and cultures, what is best practice for abolitionists in the meantime? For instance, if I were to witness a man being violent and threatening towards a woman in public, and if that man were armed and I felt unequipped to intervene and that my safety might also be at risk, what should I do? Though I would feel conflicted about doing so, in such a situation and in a context in which policing seems to be the only option (or at least the most available option), I would be inclined to call the police, even as I acknowledge the inadequacy and risks of doing so. Similarly, if someone were to break into my flat late at night and I felt I was in immediate danger, what should I do? As a young woman of colour, the police don’t invoke a sense of safety and security for me. However, in a situation where there is immediate danger and no established alternatives to turn to, calling the police seems like an action I might have to take.  As abolitionists how can we reckon with this? What is the best course of action when there are not alternative and legitimate channels available? What is best practice for abolitionists in societies where we are yet to establish alternatives and in which we are striving for, but have not yet reached, abolition?

What are the alternatives to policing?

Following this, what are the alternatives to policing – and the current criminal justice system – and do we need to know what they are in order to be abolitionists? As Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues, “abolition is not absence, it is presence, it is “building the future”. As well as setting out to dismantle the institution of policing, we must adopt “proactive, visionary positions that centre alternatives to policing”. With this in mind, what are the processes, practices and institutions we would want to see in the quest to build alternative, better and more just societies?

Some of the alternatives should be structural solutions that tackle the issues at the root of ‘crime’. Investing in education and health services, building up and providing accessible mental health and counselling services, decriminalising and destigmatising drugs and sex work, as well as broadly tackling poverty would drastically transform our societies, opening up opportunities to those who have been disadvantaged and excluded from the formal economy. If people are denied access to or success in the formal economy, and if they are constrained to living in areas that have been neglected by the state, ‘crime’ can be the only option for survival. Dealing with the structural causes in this way would massively reduce ‘crime’ and thus the need for policing. This is especially pertinent given that, in policing and the popular imagination, the label of ‘crime’ is primarily reserved for the actions and behaviours of the poor and working classes.

As such, the police – and criminal justice system more broadly – tend to ‘excuse and ignore’ the crimes of elites while ‘intensely criminalising’ the poor and working classes. An example of this is the way that those whose actions led to the endangerment of tenants’ lives and actual deaths when Grenfell Tower caught fire in 2017 – the Kensington Tenants Management organisation, local and central government, and the companies that supplied the flammable cladding to Grenfell Tower – have not been held accountable.

As well as these systemic alternatives, are there alternative institutions we want in our abolitionist future? While abolitionists and those who have had bad experiences with the police take issue with the police’s self-appointed role as ‘protectors of the people’ who keep us safe, there is a question to be asked about what kinds of institutions and people we want to keep us safe, and when interpersonal violence does arise, what kinds of non-punitive and non-carceral processes might we have in place?

There is no singular or simple alternative to policing and the current criminal justice system. As Angela Davis says, we should look for “an array of alternatives that will require radical transformations of many aspects of our society”. What are some of the various options we might want? And relatedly, do we need to know exactly what our alternatives are to be abolitionists or is it enough to want to dismantle policing without having alternatives in mind?

What does justice look like after abolition?

Related to the idea of alternatives, there is a question to be asked about what justice looks like after abolition. What might we imagine justice to be when it is not punitive or carceral? In an abolitionist future, what does justice look like for those who have been subjected to violence and harm? What might a community-based system of justice look like and what steps must we take to implement such a system?

When thinking about these questions about abolitionist justice – particularly in terms of the way we approach the perpetrators of violence and injustice – I think especially about those police officers who have been responsible and/or involved in the unlawful killings of people like Sean Rigg, Christopher Alder, Joy Gardner, Leon Patterson, Sheku Bayoh, Ronaldo Johnson (see Pimblott, article six) and many others (see the United Families and Friends Campaign) who have died at the hands of the police. How can we hold these police officers – and others in the criminal justice system – to account? How do we seek justice while also being abolitionists who oppose the current structure and punitive ideology of the criminal justice system? How, as abolitionists, can we balance our goals with the immense grief and need to see those who have committed serious harms held accountable for their actions? In what ways can we give space to those who have lost loved ones and been so deeply harmed by violence and injustice that they might turn to carceral responses?

In an abolitionist future – which is one in which we no longer dehumanise those who have caused harm to others as the current criminal justice system does – what does justice look like when we recognise the humanity in those who we are holding accountable for their wrongdoing? How can we simultaneously hold people accountable and honour those who have been the victims of wrongdoing while recognising the humanity of perpetrators?

Does alternative language help or hinder abolitionist goals?

Following this idea of alternatives through, I wonder how using alternative language might help or hinder abolitionist goals? Often, the language of divestment and defunding comes alongside (or instead of) abolition. These terms may be useful as they might be less alienating to those for whom the idea of complete abolition is unimaginable, intimidating or too extreme. The idea of diverting money away from policing and channelling it into education, healthcare, poverty alleviation, youth centres and so on seems to be more compelling to a wider public and to those who are critical of policing but think that there might be a role for such an institution in our societies – even if that role is reduced or reformed.

In this way, it seems valuable that a wider range of people can be brought into conversations about the problems of policing, and perhaps these people might be likely to ‘get on board’ with abolition given that they are already have some shared ideas of defunding and divesting and looking for alternatives to practices of policing. However, I wonder how using alternative (more palatable) language might dilute some of the radical intentions behind abolitionism. With this in mind, as abolitionists, should we use alternative language and, when we do, what is best practice to ensure that it is effective and, simultaneously, allows us to retain the radical and transformative nature of abolitionism?

Can we abolish the police without abolishing the state?

If the police function, as many abolitionists argue, to protect and uphold the state as agents of state violence and control, should we shift our abolitionist focus from the institutions of the state to the state itself? If the state has shifted from the “(potential) provider of social goods to […] security machine pre-emptively weeding out threat”,

does it have a place in the abolitionist future? And in what ways might we organise our politics if we are to move away from this?

Returning to policing and the criminal justice system as the focus, is it possible to abolish the police (and prisons) without abolishing the state? Perhaps, but as Ida Danewid articulated when I asked her the same question, if we abolish the institution of the police without dismantling the state, its violence will likely be carried out by another institution and/or in different forms. In which case, abolishing the state seems necessary. A secondary question that emerges from this is, should (or can) our solutions include the government? Given that the government can be understood as the particular group of people who govern the state and who have control over state apparatuses, is a solution that includes the government necessarily limited in that it does not extend to the state? While the concept of government is different from that of the state – the state is a political organisation that has jurisdiction over a particular territory and the government is one part of that organisation – the two are inseparable. I’m thinking about Alex Vitale’s ‘The End of Policing’ here, in which he argues “we need to build the capacity of communities to solve problems on their own or in true partnership with government”, and “we can use the power of communities and government to make our cities safer without relying on police, courts, and prisons”. Vitale imagines the government to be a “non-punitive” one, but does the inclusion of a government, no matter how non-punitive, necessarily limit abolitionist goals because of its inseparability from the state?  

For those abolitionists who are in favour of abolishing the state, there is another question about where our focus should lie. If we decide that it is in fact necessary to abolish the state, should we work from the bottom-up (abolishing various institutions in order to abolish the state) or from the top-down (abolish the state and the rest will follow)? Maybe it’s both or somewhere in between. There does not seem to be a clear answer. Referring back to the first question I posed – concerning ‘what we do in the meantime’ – might be useful here too. If state abolition is an unimaginable, far-off and contentious goal, to what extent can and should we include non-punitive governments in our steps towards abolishing the police while we are striving toward a broader, more radical abolition? Can we work with the state and/or governments in the meantime?

Concluding Remarks

These are big questions, to which I don’t have the answers, however, it is clear that we should continually engage with and grapple with these (and more) questions as we work toward abolitionist goals. There are no singular or simple answers to these questions, but it is important that we think about them collectively, not only for ourselves, but also that we might be better placed to respond to those who oppose abolition or who are yet to be convinced that we can imagine other societies.