5 Burning Questions for Grassroots Abolitionist Organizers
Black History Month may be over, but we’re still investing in Black organizers. That means getting sharper together and expanding our knowledge of progressive values in the movement, such as abolition.
The abolition movement seeks to put an end to the oppressive system of policing, rather than just reforming it. Abolitionists believe that reforming the police is not enough – it suggests that the system is broken and in need of fixing when in reality, policing was designed to target and harm Black and brown people.
MVP recently interviewed 3 Black-led abolitionist organizations to ask the burning questions folks often have about the abolition movement. Read on to learn more about abolitionist values and our grassroots partners doing this work.
MVP: Let’s say we abolish the police. How do we deter crime? What are the alternatives to policing?
Mahnker Dahnweih, co-Executive Director, Freedom Action Now: We don’t explore alternatives to policing. We build what serves us from the beginning so that we don’t need to weaponize Kaiden [Arabic name meaning warrior] authoritative figures to intervene in times of harm and conflict. Abolition values human life above all, and seeks to build what we all need to thrive.
Now, if we are talking about alternatives to policing, or stopgap measures on the road to abolition, then that looks like basic income for those most targeted by police and the criminal (in)justice system. That looks like access to free, quality food, housing, and shelter for Black and Southeast Asian low to no-income women and girls, Queer, Trans, and Intersex folx. It looks like police-free zones in places of learning and residence. Basically, cutting access and opportunity for police to harass our communities.
Jada Peten, Electoral Justice Organizer Action STL Power Project: What is crime in a white supremacist capitalist genocidal state? We know that police are agents of the capitalist state and that means they are here to protect private property – not the community. So when I think about crime, I think about the crimes that police and government agencies inflict on our communities, both domestic and abroad, in order to continue this exploitative system. As such, interpersonal crimes are already not being deterred by the existence of police because that’s actually not their job.
Police are called and respond AFTER the fact and don’t actually solve or fix the problems. It’s the people in the community who care and respond when incidents are happening. It’s the people who de-escalate, it’s the people who give narcan, it’s the people running shelters out of churches and schools. It’s our loved ones housing us during domestic violence situations when police don’t respond to our abusers. We are already doing the things that they say police are paid to do, so how does their existence deter crime?
We know that research shows that interpersonal crimes (robberies, assault, etc.) and poverty are inextricably linked. When people do not have access to basic necessities, such as housing, food, clothing, etc, they are going to turn to crime in order to get those needs met and that’s often at the expense of other working-class people in their communities just due to proximity. That’s not their fault; that is the fault of the racial capitalist system we live in. When we give people access to healthcare, food, shelter, clothing, and all the other things that they need in their lives, they are less likely to turn to robbing their fellow neighbors because their needs are already met. A part of abolishing the police is also ending capitalism, and that means creating a system in which every single person has access to resources that they need to live and thrive.
As far as alternatives to policing goes, we have and are already creating better ways of addressing harm that does not rely on policing or punitive measures, but focusing on community-based restorative and transformative justice practices. These practices require a psychosocial shift in how people relate to other people around them, and how we collectively process trauma and harm. However, our communities already have a historical predisposition for protecting and looking out for each other. The difference is also having resources while engaging in further political education to create a fundamental shift in how we communicate with each other and how we relate to one another in our communities.
For example, Freedom Community Center is an organization in St. Louis that addresses harm and redirects from prisons/courts for survivors of interpersonal and/or carceral violence through a community-led approach. They have violence intervention specialists that not only intervene or mediate in situations but they also help procure resources to meet people’s basic needs to keep them from reoffending or causing more harm to their community. They hold space for those harmed and those doing the harm, knowing that we all have been on both sides as a result of the conditions we live in. In doing so in a way that centers restorative justice, they can bring both parties into a space to address recourse and think through accountability together. While this is just one example, other communities have organizations doing similar practices as a way to avoid police/prisons because they only cause more harm to us. At the end of the day, we protect us.
MVP: What does justice look like after abolition? Our world?
Jae Shepherd, former Abolition Organizer, Action STL Power Project: Justice looks like never having to grieve the lives of Black folks at the hands of police because there are no police. Justice looks like Mike Brown, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Kiwi Herring, and so many more of our family still breathing because policing & criminalization are no longer in existence to harm us. Justice looks like communities self-determining how to hold each other accountable outside of harmful institutions like prisons and policing. Our world post abolition is a world where we are all well resourced. We all have basic needs and more to thrive. Communities are safe not because they have the most police, but because they have the most resources.
MVP: What do we do in the meantime – how can we mitigate harm right now?
Jae Shepherd, former Abolition Organizer, Action STL Power Project: In the meantime, we keep each other safe. We act as scientists in our communities by experimenting to create safety pods, community gardens, abortion doulas, and so much more. We create safe and healing spaces in our communities. We resource skills, knowledge, financial support, and what we can give to our neighbors in need.
MVP: What about the ‘violent offenders’?
Naushaba Patel, Communications Manager, SONG: This is a common question often posed to abolitionists, and in many ways, it’s based on a false premise. The question assumes that the current system solves the “problem of violent offenders” — however, it misses several key realities about the carceral state and the nature of violence.
When we think about “violent offenders” in society, we generally think of serial killer sociopaths– the irredeemably evil caricature that makes a good TV episode. However, a majority of violence and sexual assaults faced within communities are often perpetuated by those who the victims know personally, in a more complex situation, and more often than not, police are never called. This already calls into question whether the carceral state is doing anything to keep communities presently safe at all.
Further, the system itself is the biggest violent offender and serial rapist– most people who interact with the system face violence or death. This fact combined with the fact that the carceral state disproportionately cages Black and brown people shows that the system is not designed to keep communities safe, but instead as a structural legal method to continue violence towards Black people, the legacy that it was birthed from.
We also need to examine that a lot of the reason for someone causing violence is rooted in a history of facing violence, unprocessed trauma, lack of healing support, etc. As Danielle Sered said, “no one enters violence for the first time by committing it.” So a different question we should be asking is how violence would actually shift within society if communities had greater access to resources; if we built in practices for community accountability; if we practiced how to transform harm and violence and heal rather than putting people who perpetuate harm through a system that further causes violence. As Mariame Kaba says, “for many survivors, relying on police to keep us safe from rapists is like fighting fire with gasoline.” What would a different alternative look like that actually kept communities safe?
MVP: What can we do to get closer to abolition? / What needs to happen for abolition to be a reality?
Naushaba Patel, Communications Manager, SONG: For us to successfully abolish the carceral state, we need to deeply root it out of every sphere of our world– from within our own brains’ punishment-focused thinking, to the ways we show up in community with each other, to the existence of physical cages– jails, immigrant detention centers, prisons, juvenile detention centers, and the well-funded prison and global military-industrial complex. But abolition is not just about the tearing down, the defunding and the divestment– it is equally, if not more, about investing in alternatives that we can co-build together. It’s the planting of gardens that feed our people and get our hands in the soil; the nurturing communities that watch over us and keep our people safe; the practice of reparations that gives back land to Indigenous communities and resources back to Black people whose ancestors built those resources. Abolition is about the transformation of the harm that Black and brown communities specifically face– into healing, growth, safety, and abundance.
Mahnker Dahnweih, co-Executive Director, Freedom Action Now: Those most impacted by the carceral state must be examining our relationship to punishment, our bodies, and the land around us. We know that this current system is beneficial to our oppressors, so we can’t wait on them to change. What we can do is build up our own communities, struggle with each other around our understanding of where we are and what we want to build new, and then practice and grow it. Seriously invest money, time, and resources into building alternatives that serve our communities better than what the government is providing.
Organizations featured in this blog:
Southerners On New Ground (SONG)
SONG is a home for LGBTQ+ liberation across all lines of race, class, abilities, age, culture, gender, and sexuality in the South. They build, sustain, and connect a southern regional base of LGBTQ+ people in order to transform the region through strategic projects and campaigns
Action St Louis Power Project
Action St Louis Power Project is a grassroots racial justice organization that seeks to build political power for Black communities in the St. Louis region. They build campaigns that leverage organizing, communications, advocacy and direct action to mitigate harm against their community while fighting for long-term transformation.
Freedom Action Now
Freedom Action Now is a radical Queer Black and Southeast Asian Feminist organization that uses mass mobilization to expose systemic oppression and improve the lives of the most impacted communities in Wisconsin.