Justice and Abolition

George Floyd mural

By Madden Gilhooly

“Capitalism doesn’t exist without cops because cops are the violence workers that fabricate and maintain relations of private property that are fundamental to capitalism.” (David Correia and Tyler Wall, 2018, from ‘Police: A field guide’)

Fast forward to May 25 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where unarmed Black man George Floyd shouted “I can’t breathe” while police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he was no longer breathing. The whole 8 minutes and 46 seconds was filmed, the brutal truth of police existence projected around the world. So, in June 2020 the Black Lives Matter movement resurged from the release of film capturing George Floyd’s murder by a police officer, the subsequent murders by police of Breonna Taylor as she slept in her bed, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, David McAtee, Walter Wallace, Dion Johnson and the murder of Amaud Arbery by racist vigilantes. Protestors took to the streets in major US cities and rural towns as well as in solidarity across the world. Their signs read “I can’t breathe”, “Justice for George Floyd” and “Defund the Police!”.

These are familiar narratives and they present an all too familiar clouded analysis of policing as another angle of US-American exceptionalism – police murdering unarmed Black folks is always happening and only within US territorial borders. But we know this not to be true. Police violence is an international phenomena. Police violence is familiar to the First Nations communities of this continent with more than 450 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. In the streets of so-called Australia, when protestors marched in solidarity for US-based comrades in June 2020, they also spoke the names of First Nations comrades killed in police custody; David Dungay, Tanya Day, Ms Dhu, Kumanjayi Walker and more recently there has been five recorded Aboriginal deaths in custody since March 2nd 2021. In the first four months of 2020, police killed 606 people in the state of Rio de Janeiro, in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Adama Traoré, a Black man, was killed in custody after being restrained and apprehended by police in France. Rashan Charles, Sarah Reed or Edson Da Costa – all black deaths in custody on English soil.

Police; same story, different lands. 

The project of police Abolition is theoretically congruent with Anarchist principles; the dismantling of unjust, archaic institutions that serve to stifle the freedom of individuals deemed surplus by Capitalism and building anew by reconceptualizing safety, justice and repairing harm. The 2020 resurgence of Black Lives Matter has radicalised another wave of workers globally with Abolitionist demands. This highlights the fact that many newly politicised and mobilised folks are entering political spaces through the prism of Abolitionism, and are keen to engage in movement thinking, building and organising. Our political education praxis must prioritise the urgency of Abolition and acknowledge the centrality of street public intellectuals in their fight for self-determination and justice on the unceded Gadigal lands in which our Reading Group meets and global lands separated only by borders reterritorialized by bourgeois power.

Politically, Abolition can be thought of not simply as a set of demands to dismantle police, prisons and the Prison Industrial Complex, but rather as a pedagogy of justice congruent with revolutionary political economy perspectives, imaginations and analysis. In definition, grassroots Abolitionist organisation, Critical Resistance, articulates Abolitionist practice and strategy as dismantling, changing and building[1]. This essay is written with an introductory lens in the interest of accessibility and as a foundation in which to build on within this publication. 

Those identifying with Anarcho-communist pedagogy are well-versed and on-board with the theory and revolutionary imagery of the Abolition movement. However, as was raised in our Reading Group discussions on justice, in the event of being faced with an issue of safety that regardless of political education, it is likely or “clear” that people would still call the cops in that instance because we are not yet faced with any other viable options. This is a common point of tension in Abolitionist discussions, and all revolutionary theoretical mapping; what do we do in the meantime? When this was raised in our Reading Group, some pushed back highlighting that in actuality, not everyone does call the cops when they are faced with an issue of personal, familiar or communal safety. In fact, we know that communities that are policed at greater rates, Black and Brown communities, poor communities, queer, trans and gender diverse folks, First Nations communities, immigrant or undocumented communities, sex workers, are less likely to call the cops. This is because they, often the furthest removed from wealth and capital, know that the cops do not exist to protect them – the cops exist to further criminalize their bodies, families and communities[2]. So, those of us who have greater proximity to safety and “protection” of the police due to the intersecting perceived value of our bodied and communal experiences, our solidarity to comrades as listed above requires us to commit ourselves to not call the cops. This is what it means to practice Abolition, to consciously and intentionally be in the process of dislodging the police-logic embedded in our brains. We must remain staunch in knowing that police exist not to keep the peace but to guard capital. The question Dr Davis posed has been answered not only by Dr Davis herself, but by several generations of Black organisers and scholars: prisons (and police) are indeed obsolete[3]. We must embed a new heuristic in our consciousness: we do not call the cops, we keep us safe[4].

Abolition requires us to challenge then reframe our current understanding of “common sense” as it relates to how and when safety and justice occur. “Common sense” conceptions of the world regulate our daily lives. Racial Capitalism, that is to say all Capitalism, has evolved institutional frameworks whose function is to warp common sense understandings of safety and justice into an abstraction digested by the masses[5]. Such institutional frameworks, like the Prison Industrial Complex, will constantly remake and legitimise themselves symbiotically with Capitalism. This process of legitimising the existence of policing and prisons manifests a “common sense” approach that delivers neoliberal policies like Broken Windows, that can be commodified by U.S. academic-police teams and exported around the world[6]. The task of critiquing the legitimised “common sense” logic of police and prisons equalling safety and justice is to, as Geographer David Harvey states, “[…] penetrate the underlying meaning of such phenomena and to explore their ramifications for daily life[7].” The police are the protectors of capital and private property. Police exist therefore to legitimise Capitalism. 

The relational importance of changing and building, as core to Abolition, is just as important as the dismantling of police and prisons. The most common pushback against the Abolition of police and prisons is: “well, what will we do about all the murderers and rapists?”. This question lends to our previous discussion about “common sense” and the internalisation of what David Correiaia and Tyler Wall define as “copspeak”; how the police see the world[8]. Security is essential to the justification of prisons and policing. All that police do is justified in the name of security[9]. Police shoot to kill unarmed Black people in the name of security, police arrest children for “misbehaviour” at school in the name of security, police imprison mothers in the name of security. The obsession with security shapes the violence of police work and perpetuates the mythology of the liberal democratic state as the protector from “outsider” violence. The most truthful answer is most people who have murdered or raped are not visited by the police and do not go to prison. Rather, many are tasked with shaping policy. We need not look further to find perpetrators of sexual violence than the so-called Australian Federal ministerial cabinet, their staffers, and members of the US Supreme Court. Ironically – but not surprisingly – rapists and murderers also hold positions at the London Metropolitan Police. We are encouraged to be numb to the fact that political leaders of nation-states send soldiers to war to kill and be killed, supported by the ideology of war that is protected by international law, with no one dragging them into a courtroom to face charges of murder. Hardly any perpetrators of horrific war crimes face justice for the terror and devastation they’ve wrought – national leaders allow media to sanitise their crimes with myths of “targeted bombings” and narratives of “defending democracy”.

So, how do we, as staunch Abolitionist Deb Kilroy posits, “reimagine justice”[10]? Simply, there is no one answer. We should not be looking to replace the Capitalist functions of police and prisons with one solution. Furthermore, we should not fall victim to the necessity of having all the answers. The project of Abolition is revolutionary in thought and praxis. 

2020 did sound different to many of us alive to the trajectory of freedom movements, especially those who had come to Abolition through the teachings of Dr Angela Y. Davis, Dr Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, George Jackson, Dr Robin D.G. Kelley and Debbie Kilroy here in so-called Australia. Seeing and hearing masses of people on the streets yell Abolitionist demands like “Defund the Police” and “Abolish the Police” felt nothing short of revolutionary. Let us remain firm with that momentum, lean into our political education consciously and intentionally, and seek the rigorous analysis of our revolutionary comrades.

Reference list

[1] See Critical Resistance at: http://criticalresistance.org/about/cr-structure-background/ 

[2] Gilmore, R.W., 2007. Golden gulag: Prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California (Vol. 21). Univ of California Press.

[3] Davis, A.Y., 2011. Are prisons obsolete?. Seven Stories Press. 

[4] See Mariame Kaba’s list of key Abolitionist texts: http://www.usprisonculture.com/blog/essential-pic-reading-list/

[5] Harvey, D., 2006. Spaces of global capitalism. Verso.

[6] Gilmore, R.W. & Gilmore, C., 2016. Beyond Bratton. in Policing the planet: Why the policing crisis led to black lives matter. Camp, J.T. and Heatherton, C. eds. Verso Books.

[7] Harvey, D., 2006. Spaces of global capitalism. Verso. 

[8] Correia, D. and Wall, T., 2018. Police: A field guide. Verso Books.

[9] Correia, D. and Wall, T., 2018. Police: A field guide. Verso Books.[10]Kilroy, D., 2018. Imagining abolition: Thinking outside the prison bars. Griffith Review, (60), pp.264-270.