My mother proved protection is possible without police, even if she doesn’t know it
Black people have and are doing this abolition shit all the time.
Sometimes, an answer is not an answer to everyone. Sometimes, whether something is an answer depends, like seeing a blue or gold dress or hearing yanny or laurel in that auditory illusion. Or like when Black people are finally allowed in token numbers to receive a few of the laurels we hear we should always aspire toward and are told to rest on them, told to be content with the illusion of how far we have come. Sometimes, an answer is a Rorschach test, and what you see and hear is more about the context you acknowledge than what is actually presented to you.
So, when I say, “We will figure it out”—as in, “Black people”—that, to my mother, is not an answer to her question of what will happen in a world without police. For the entire time she spent living in Cleveland, she has seen niggas trying to figure it out without police. She has tried to figure it out without police. And the result of those efforts, too, is a matter of perspective. I would say she succeeded more often than she failed. I think she is afraid that she failed too often. I sometimes believe she failed too often, too, and maybe sometimes she did.
But these last few months I have been focused on naming her successes over and over and over again, chanting them like the Hindu prayers that have guided her for so long, as she lies with a pain that comes in increasingly excruciating spurts, fighting the untreatable cancer to the inevitable end. I need her to know that I see those successes now more than ever. That I have always seen them.
“When your grandmother was struggling with her bipolar disorder the way she was, when she would have breakdowns and was throwing things and attacking me and attacking you, my children, sometimes I had no choice,” my mother says, welling up. She is upset that I am upset with her for starting an argument she knows I won’t allow her to win. An argument about the uprisings in the name of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, or was it another Black person killed by police that week whose hashtag faded into the abyss more quickly, quietly? An argument about my little brother’s anger at my older sister who is a cop, and why I don’t blame him for it.
She shouldn’t be a cop, my little brother said, explaining that he finds it hard to respect my sister anymore, no one should, but at the very least no one he calls family. No one he loves. My mother is upset because she doesn’t understand why he and I are fighting for Black lives in the way that we are, as abolitionists who cannot make space for policing even in our family, when it hurts so many people we love to push this hard for a world entirely free of police and prisons, rather than trying to reform the system the people we love have spent so long investing in surviving. When it hurts my sister. When it hurts her.
Abolition can hurt so many people we love; that is true. “But it’s also true that you sought after other choices,” I remind my mother. “It’s also true that in the rare moments you gave in and called and the police came, even if they stopped grandma from raging in the immediate, they did not help in the long term. Throwing her in cages and forcing needles through the veins on her arms throbbing with as much sadness as blood did not help her in the long term. It’s also true that the police did more damage than they prevented, cumulatively. It’s also true that not abolishing the police hurts the people you love even more.”
I brace for a rejoinder, and the rejoinder is a reluctant nod. Yes, but. Yes, police don’t really prevent or solve crimes well. Yes, the criminal justice system concentrates violence among the most vulnerable who are caught in its snare. Yes prison culture is not concerned with healing or rehabilitation. But she had been trying to make a point about how, when you’re faced with difficult decisions, sometimes the best one is shitty. In this scenario, she was presenting the best option as the one in which she called the cops, as a world in which we need a reformed police system, and I know why she wants to believe that. Because if she didn’t need to put her mother through the torture police enacted upon her and she did anyway, even if however rarely, however reluctantly, then damn. Damn.
But I think those times my mother didn’t call the police on grandma, those numerous times she chanted or reasoned or tried to physically shield us away from our grandmother or called her siblings or turned to my father—who wasn’t always helpful—instead, I think those were the ones that were shittiest, that were best, that happened more often, that had more successful long term impacts. It is a matter of perception.
My mother looks like she might be beginning to cry. I think she feels ganged up upon, because my little sister is making the same point. Is saying that there are other ways to live, that police aren’t safety, have only ever offered safety to us on a temporary, vanishing platter, if at all. Never prevented grandma’s mental health crises. Came after the fact with guns and batons, claiming to be able to beat everything into conflictlessness, a bloodthirsty paradox.
But my mother is too tired to continue the conversation. She is too tired for so many of the conversations I want to still have around what I learned from her, and why I respect her so much, even though we disagree on so many things. So I don’t say, “If you failed, Mata, you succeeded so many other times when it mattered,” which I think is what she needs to hear. What she has always needed to hear. The temporary and immediate solution is to pull back instead, apologize, change the subject to the Gin Rummy game in front of us. She is winning. She always wins when it is not an argument about Black people, and only then can these types of games—presenting a perfect binary of victors and losers—exist without our deaths.
“You’re both saying the same thing,” my partner follows, trying to wrap this fractured moment with a nicer bow, so that at least it still looks like a gift. We don’t have much time left. It could be months, weeks. “You both are saying there are some things that happen in families, in communities, that we need external help for. I think Hari is just saying that help doesn’t have to come in the form of police.”
“Yes, but,” I rejoin, tearing the bow off again. If it’s not going to look completely beautiful, then why even try dressing it up? If she can’t rest in peace, if any day one of her Black children—the only things that gave her love for Kṛṣṇa a run for its money—can walk outside and be killed by police in any city in this country with no redress, why hold back for this exhaustion? “My point is that we have to trust ourselves enough that, even if we haven’t named what that external structure that might help us is, we can move toward it. Police get in the way of even starting that figuring out work.”
Police have us here arguing about whether them beating my grandmother on her front lawn was actually for the best, after all. Abolition is the beginning, a journey, not a destination. Answers can be that, too.
“But there are good cops,” my mother insists.
“But the system is bad. You can’t do good work within a system that is designed to nullify everyone’s goodness. Designed to protect whoever kills us, designed to ensure our only value is as property.”
“But who is going to protect us when something bad happens?”
It’s an interesting question coming from the woman who has always preached that Kṛṣṇa will protect us from everything. But sometimes I see what looks like fear in her eyes when she’s lying in bed at the whims of the cancer’s next grip of pain, and she also said Kṛṣṇa will be waiting for us after this life, she also said there’s nothing to fear in death. Sometimes we say things, we believe things, and sometimes our beliefs still falter, no matter how right they are.
The gods I believe in are Black.
“Do you trust us? Do you trust us to protect ourselves, even when we falter? Do you trust us more than a police system designed to enslave us?”
She doesn’t answer. Or maybe that is an answer. I am learning that silence can be an answer if you let it. So many things we were told could never be an answer can be if you let them.
What do we do when something bad happens and there are no police? My family is doing it. The worst thing that could happen is this cancer, and we are figuring it out, inshallah. My partner and I moved to Chapel Hill to be with my mother until this is over. Four of my siblings were already living there. We worked out intricate plans for who cooks and cleans and shows up to give her her medicine and make breakfast for her and read to her when she’s too tired to do anything else.
I don’t want to always be the one to show up when it’s my turn. It’s so hard to get through the pages of the scriptures she asks me to read, so hard watching her watching me for the brief moments I look away so that she can show the pain on her face without me worrying, but I show up anyway. We, as a family, show up anyway. We have to. There is no other solution, so we do it. We plan and prepare and love and trust and cry and heal because that’s what you do when you are not policing yourself and the world falls apart.
I don’t think those times the police were called on my grandmother were solutions at all. At most, they were a stop-gap made from gauze taken from another wound elsewhere, which is not the same as a solution, even a solution that is just the start of a journey. The work my mother did in response to my grandmother and the work she asked of us beyond and outside of calling the police—finding grandma a treatment plan, moving her into the house, walking and talking to her when it was hard, when there was so much unresolved hurt and anger and pain—that was the work. And that is the work whenever a family or community finds themselves in a crisis. They come together. They share resources and support. They teach each other self defense and offer to defend those who can’t defend themselves. They name the pain and the trauma and seek to prevent it, but do not stop it from allowing them to love each other. To trust each other when they need to be trusting.
For the entire time she spent living in Cleveland, my mother has seen niggas trying to figure it out without police because Black people have and are doing this abolition shit all the time. And sometimes we falter. We hurt each other. Kill each other. Rape each other. And sometimes… sometimes we call the police. That doesn’t mean we can’t believe in another world and that belief can’t be right. That doesn’t mean that any of the things we do along this difficult path is always the necessary thing to do or to happen, or will always be the necessary thing to do or to happen again in the future. It doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the successes of alternative approaches to community and family crises, even when those approaches sometimes fail. It doesn’t mean we can’t respect each other enough to see each other as more than mindless monsters, even though we may disagree on so many things, even on matters of life and death.
It just means we haven’t expanded our imagination as far as we can. It means we aren’t looking at other contexts, are looking only at our failures rather than focusing on our successes and the possibility to increase them (which is not the same as ignoring the failures).
So, I let the silence be an answer this time, and my partner does too. I’ll let this world be torn apart this time, so that we can build a new one in its place.
You can read this essay at The Black Humanist Agenda as well. TBHA centers Black liberation through humanist healing practices, support systems & education.