August 7, 2021
From Red Pepper
Photo credit: Peter Burka

Understanding the cycles of social movements helps us to contextualise what has happened since the wave of protests in response to the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last summer. Social movements ebb and flow like tides: throughout history there is a pattern of an inciting event (such as a high-profile incident that exposes the violence of policing), followed by public reaction, which sometimes fans out from ‘affected’ communities and garners mainstream support. The peak of this period of protest at some point begins to clamber back down; in the contemporary moment this is marked by media interest dropping away, particular hashtags evaporating from our timelines and a return in some sense to ‘business as usual’.

Yet, this perceived ‘return’ obfuscates a crucial part of the movement cycle: a more long-haul, slow and steady period of growth and reflection, and a return in fact to a new normal that is indelibly marked by the oscillation of social action and reaction. Knowing this, that we are operating in a crucial period of potential growth and reflection, Abolishing the Police and We Do This ‘Til We Free Us emerge as critical guidebooks for the road ahead.

Inherent violence

Abolishing the Police is a collection of essays that carefully lays out the inherent violence and inequality of the institution of the police as it sits within larger structures of oppression, and why the police must cease to exist in order that we can all be free. The authors of the essays comprise organisers and academics; the vast majority straddle both these realms (or understand them to be necessarily overlapping arenas) and utilise the practical application of their analysis in the struggle to abolish systems of state violence, along with the learned knowledge of organising, to better think and re-think what a society premised on harm reduction will require.

Methods of living closer to harmony with each other without the police have long been utilised by communities who experience policing as a daily violence and cannot rely on state structures to prevent or reduce harm. The authors also outline new ideas and experiments that are being tested in the here and now, including but not limited to bystander intervention, and transformative justice approaches that take a more holistic view on how harm happens and how to break the cycle of violence.

What Abolishing the Police does so brilliantly is to defy the idea that political writing can either be accessible, or dense and rigorous, but never both. It’s notable that authors take care to explain terms and concepts within the body of their essays. As Koshka Duff writes in the introduction: ‘Insofar as [theoretical languages] are still languages of the powerful, used to exclude and marginalise, we want to subvert them to speak (and enable others to speak) to the relatively privileged in ways they cannot so easily dismiss.’ An online glossary accompanies the book, in an attempt to remove the barrier to comprehension that theoretical terminology can present. Audio versions of the essays are also available online, as well as podcast episodes and discussion questions to encourage further independent exploration of the topic.

Baked-in inequality

While being introductory, this text doesn’t water down its politics. It leads the reader or listener through the historical colonial foundations of the police through to the present-day institution that has inequality baked into its very operations.

The authors also present concrete and clear options for the road beyond abolition: the continued construction of communities that are well-resourced and operate on the premise of care and compassion rather than isolation and punishment. They detail how the violence of the state (meted out through prisons, policing and more) is not evidence of a ‘broken system’ but in fact part of a system of racial capitalism functioning as designed to uphold the interests of the elite and maintain deep chasms of inequality along lines of race, class, gender identity, disability and more. The historical basis of policing – that it emerged to repress vocal articulations about and resistance to this inequality, first in colonised countries and later on British soil – is informative about the true purpose of the police.

Abolishing the Police explores with a fierce rigour the necessary process of police abolition and provides not a single solution but a series of blueprints about how we might get there. The existing system of policing is not working. It does not prevent harm, it largely proactively harasses and brutalises our communities, and sometimes acts after the fact when harm has already been done. Policing, as an agent of the violent state, creates shockwaves of harm and brutality that enable violence to continue. Whether it is through surveilling and harassing black boys and men or failing to centre the needs and wishes of victims/survivors of gender-based violence when they do report harm, the institution of the police keeps us ossified in a constant cycle of pain and violence and provides a barrier to healing and justice. Abolition is the way forward. Abolishing the Police is a powerful contribution to the toolkit for our collective liberation.

Beating pulse

The close coupling of state abandonment and state violence is also a beating pulse throughout We Do This ‘Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba. Kaba is an abolitionist organiser based in the US, who much like other abolitionists, such as Angela Davis, roundly rejects her own iconhood. Kaba shares her perspective on remaining motivated even when ‘progress’ seems slow: ‘When you understand that you’re really insignificant in the grand scheme of things, then it’s a freedom, in my opinion, to actually be able to do the work that’s necessary as you see it and to contribute in the ways that you see fit.’ In an era when ‘activism’ has been co-opted as a job title that can land you a well-paid corporate sponsorship deal, reading Kaba’s reflections and analysis on her organising work is incredibly fortifying and grounding.

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us comprises a collection of essays and interviews with other organisers and writers, such as adrienne maree brown and Sarah Jaffe, providing a rich and digestible chronicle of both the solid theoretical foundations for abolition, as well as crucially providing examples of everyday acts of abolition. Central to Kaba’s book, and indeed to the process of abolition, is the building of communities and ways of relating to each other that render carceral systems such as prisons and policing plainly obsolete, through ‘[organising] to make interpersonal violence unthinkable’.

Transformative justice

These new configurations include the approach of ‘transformative justice’ (a community process developed by anti-violence activists of colour), distinct from ‘restorative justice’ in that it places emphasis on building support and more safety for the victim/survivor of harm, including by addressing the context in which harm happened, and taking steps to ‘transform’ that environment or set of factors so that further harm can be prevented. In short, Kaba explains how the abolitionist approach to violence is about centring the needs of a person who has been harmed, while also addressing that root cause of harm – rather than only addressing ‘symptoms’ as the current criminal legal system does, and inflicting more harm along the way.

… the road to freedom and justice can only be traversed through collective organising. This requires engaging in collective care, ensuring that our movements are sustainable and that people don’t get burnt out on the long journey ahead.

Most potently, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us emphasises that the road to freedom and justice can only be traversed through collective organising. This requires engaging in collective care, ensuring that our movements are sustainable and that people don’t get burnt out on the long journey ahead. Looking back at the path we have travelled, personally but also ancestrally, we should take courage and energy from knowing that, as Kaba writes, ‘organising is mostly about defeats’.

This means that when the media cameras turn away from the struggle for black lives, and corporate companies tire of tweeting mealy-mouthed declarations of ‘solidarity’ as they continue to exploit us behind closed doors, we can stay fast to our commitment to abolition, keep organising in our communities, and hold the line in refusing to settle for anything less than liberation for all of us. Invoking Angela Davis, Kaba states that ‘knowledge is built through struggle’. Our struggle is made richer and buoyed up by Kaba’s ever-evolving organising wisdom; through bringing together and sharing this intervention, there can be no doubt that our movements will continue to blossom and expand in solidarity.

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us is available from Haymarket Books. Abolishing the Police is available from Dog Section Press.

Leah Cowan is a writer and editor. She is the author of Border Nation.