Prison abolition is more than a lofty theoretical. It’s also unpretty, everyday practices of resisting state policing
In making this movement more palatable, it's tempting to minimize the necessity of violence in our fight against carceral systems.
The man grabs her arm tightly and presses her against the gate, and in someone’s fantasy this, without context, might have been erotic. I want it to be—for her sake, I’d say if you asked—but I also want it for mine. I do not want to personally get involved in a violent dispute between strangers, but I know that I may have to. It’s clear that they are a couple, and it soon becomes clearer that they are in the midst of an escalating argument, and I am the only one around.
The man looks behind him, sees me, and grimaces. The woman looks also, sees me, and says, “Let me go.” The man looks back at me again, waiting for my next move. I stop and watch, loosening my bag, clenching my fists, preparing for something, I don’t know what. The man stares at me, sizes me up. He’s bigger than me. The woman says it again, “Let me go.” The man reluctantly relents, and powers in the opposite direction. The woman walks the same way I was headed. I follow, on the opposite side of the street. When he is far enough away I ask, “Are you okay?” and she says she is. I don’t know if I believe her, but I’ll never see her again.
I don’t fashion myself a savior of women in distress. Based on size alone, I probably would have lost any fight were it to proceed, and that’s not really saving anything. But there was only ever one option for me. As a prison and police abolitionist, I do not call the police, ever, and so I try to walk around prepared for shit like this, even though it often feels like I never am.
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Signified by congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s arguably supportive tweet last week, it has been both welcome and alarming that prison and police abolition is becoming a more mainstream topic of discussion. As an abolitionist, my hope is that with more people considering the possibility of a world without human cages and state-sanctioned violence, they will also be willing to join ongoing efforts to build that world. But I know too that liberal co-opting of this movement and its momentum while sanding down its revolutionary edges is inevitable (which can be demonstrated in AOC’s own unhelpful implicit distinction between violent prisoners who “belong” and nonviolent prisoners who don’t).
Along with this burgeoning public awareness around the topic, I also anticipate that the ground-level abolition-related question of “what do we do with rapists or murderers without police?” will increasingly follow suit. Often framed as an ultimate “gotcha,” it’s a question that I more and more want to respond dismissively to. I don’t consider it necessary to give someone who is stabbing you alternatives to plunging a knife into your body before they stop (and it’s undeniable that prisons and the carceral system create lasting damage to society), but, like most abolitionists, I have engaged these questions already, and so the assumption that we haven’t is frustrating and unproductive.
I’ve come to realize, however, that this query isn’t always as disingenuous as it feels. In some cases, it seems to simply be an inarticulate request for concrete examples of doing something different in situations to which society has trained us to rely solely on carceral systems to respond. It’s not so much that the questioners anticipate that prison abolition will make them any more poorly equipped to handle a hypothetical serial killer they may come across (because with 1 out of 3 homicides in this country going unsolved, an estimated 2,000 active serial killers today, many of them presumed to be police officers—a profession that best helps them get away with their crimes—you can’t get much more poorly equipped than this), it’s that they want to see specific examples of us responding outside of carceral systems so as to better understand how these theories relate to their own lives.
Yes, police often exacerbate violent interactions, and throwing offenders in prison does more harm in the long run. But what do we do when we see a man getting violent with a woman on the street? What do we do if our young children have mental health issues that drive them to want to kill themselves or us? Who can we count on to help us, and how do we help each other without exacerbating the problem?
Abolitionist organizations like Project NIA and your local copwatchers will have plenty of helpful resources, and there are guiding principles that assist us in answering these questions—punitivity does not heal; healing is the end-goal of justice; no one is deserving of abuse, even if they are deserving of consequences; state organized abuse is perhaps the greatest abuse. But it’s also important to embrace the truth that there are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers, and sometimes this work is dirty, messy and frustrating.
In making this movement more palatable to the mainstream, it’s tempting to minimize the necessity of violence in our fight against carceral systems. But if this is a fight, and it is, then violence is inherent. We need to understand what non-punitive, non-carceral violence looks like, and abolition needs to encourage us to enact it.
What also guides me in responding to difficult situations without police is my belief that abolition is an ancestral practice, that we only succeed when we look to those who have laid the groundwork for non-carceral interactions rather than just attempting to reinvent the wheel. It is just as important for me to model abolition in my own life as it is to look to and uplift those who have modeled it in theirs. Many of these people may never have been published in national publications (or even this one), but that doesn’t mean their stories don’t matter or don’t exist. Many of these people are not perfect role models, but abolition never asks us to be.
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For example, “No snitching” is often represented as a dangerous byproduct of communities ravished by the drug trade, but this representation has only ever served the state and its “war on drugs” and Black people. What “no snitching” can also be interpreted as is an organizational principle of those who have bore the brunt of state violence, a principle that fails these communities precisely because the state continues its unrelenting onslaught, not because it’s an improper response to it.
When I consider non-carceral violence, I think back to how my family, cousins and friends from neighborhoods where calling the police was almost never a thing might respond. How I learned to fight from them, even though I was sensitive and queer and soft. The ways my mother learned to respond to her mother’s constant mental health crises brought on by her bipolar disorder without having police drag her from our home. How my family was almost always ready to fight for me, for each other, with each other, if they had to.
These communities weren’t always right in how they handled these situations. Many times, they were wrong. But even within their mistakes is something to learn about the world we want to create. What I learned shapes the framework behind watching and deescalating fights in my neighborhood. It isn’t necessarily the approach for everyone, but everyone can learn something that frames their approach if they pay attention to those who’ve been doing this.
I don’t know what we do with any hypothetical rapist or murderer without police, because every situation is different. But I do know that we have to be ready to fight for the world we want, and to meet these different situations as they come, even if we don’t want to. I do know that even though we might fight in different ways, not always with our fists, we have to fight, and fighting is always messy, and never easy.
Fighting takes preparation, takes considering different situations you might come across and determining what you will do (actions which may consist of watching and deescalating, like I did, but may not, that is for you to determine). Prepare for the disturbances in your home and community. Consider and talk with others about the possibility of various crises, even when you don’t want to. Embrace the messy, those who don’t belong, and some of their tactics in how they respond to them. And even still sometimes we will lose precisely because the state continues its unrelenting onslaught. But losing has always been worth it.