'Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom' | By Derecka Purnell | 2021 | Astra House | Hardcover | 288 pages | $28
Illustration by Jon Williams, Dignity City
Will throwing bad police in jail resolve the problem — or just add to a cycle of violence? Derecka Purnell’s ‘Becoming Abolitionist’ defines new solutions
Review by Mike Wold
“Defund the police,” one of the slogans that’s come out of the Black Lives Matter movement, gets a lot of skepticism. A typical reaction is “who’s going to protect us?” Protect us, that is, from burglary, mugging, rape and murder. And it’s not just white, middle-class people who ask that.
One way to answer is to ask, “Do the police really protect us?”
Derecka Purnell, the author of “Becoming Abolitionists,” grew up in a poor Black neighborhood in St. Louis. She writes that her family called 9-1-1 a lot. They called 9-1-1 because that was the only thing they knew how to do. They also knew that the police might not do anything, but what else could they do?
Part memoir, part political analysis, the book follows Purnell’s gradual realization that police protection is inadequate. It comes at a cost that includes unnecessary deaths from police over-reaction. It also reinforces oppressive structures in society. Her answer is not more police, or less racist police, or better police training. All these things have been tried. Purnell points out that the police do exactly what they were intended to do, which is to keep a lid on social unrest (whether political or criminal) to the benefit of people with property.
Police forces in the South had their origins in organizations that pursued runaway slaves; in the industrial North many police forces were formed to break labor strikes. Police in the Southwest enforced dispossession of Mexican and indigenous villagers. Purnell claims they are simply not designed in such a way as to effectively protect people of any race from violence or property crimes.
As an activist, Purnell originally believed that the solution to police violence was to send abusive police officers to jail, and to train police to see Blacks as people deserving of respect. But it was also clear to her that prisons were not effective in reducing violence in society. As the Black Lives Matter movement erupted, she questioned whether even sending police officers who killed people to prison was really justice. If justice is defined as making a victim whole, then the murdered person was beyond justice. Simply sending an individual police officer to prison also did nothing to help the family of the victim.
Purnell believes that locking people up in an abusive prison system adds to the cycle of violence; white police or vigilantes in jail would likely inspire and find kindred spirits in white supremacist organizations. While some might feel that getting violent cops off the streets would be helpful to Black communities, Purnell argues that police violence is endemic not just in police training, but enabled by a violent, militarized society. Purnell felt that the focus on charging and convicting individual cops took attention away from the need to change our whole approach to violence and property crime.
Purnell began to recognize that, practically, police do not prevent crime — at best, they may find those responsible after the fact and funnel them into the dysfunctional system of punishment, destruction of lives, and release, with little hope for rehabilitation. The rate of crimes committed in lower income neighborhoods are not reduced by repressive policing or punitive prison sentences; while these policies are justified by the need to crack down on crime, according to Purnell, they actually increase poverty and disrupt families, causing more crime.
Purnell draws on her experiences working with domestic violence victims to illustrate this. Typically, Black women she’s known who suffered domestic violence don’t want their abusers sent to prison because they will then be unable to provide financial support or fathering to their children. Purnell cites a 2010 survey of women who reported rape and sexual assault to police indicated more than half wanted the violence to stop, not to send someone to prison. Stopping the violence requires both protection for the women and therapy, jobs and support networks for the men causing the abuse.
That insight can illuminate how to deal with other types of crimes in poor neighborhoods. These are typically crimes rooted in poverty, stress and a lack of alternatives. The solution, according to Purnell, is not to arrest people and send them to prison after they’ve committed crimes; rather it is to fund solutions for the myriad of social problems that lead to these crimes. There is no one solution — each source of crime must be addressed separately. Prison doesn’t deter crime, and, according to FBI statistics, more than half of reported violent crime and more than three quarters of property crimes are not solved by police; thus crime is neither effectively prevented nor addressed by the existence of a police force.
Purnell points out that the most egregious crimes — the ones that rob the most people or destroy the health of thousands — are committed by corporations. These crimes typically are never addressed by the criminal justice system; much of the damage they cause is not even illegal.
Purnell asserts that abolition cannot be fully implemented without addressing all the oppressive structures of society. She discusses how each of these structures, as well as environmental degradation and militarism, contribute to violence, a violence that is not addressed by policing and that often is exacerbated by police biases.
As an alternative, communities could organize themselves to reduce street violence, provide child care and foster care, establish community gardens, health clinics and neighborhood green teams for garbage, recycling, and composting, and create art, mediation, and conflict resolution centers. Purnell doesn’t expect achieving this to be easy. As she points out, “our freedom dreams are the greatest threat to capitalism, colonialism, and the carceral state … We need rebellions and riots as much as we need sit-ins and marches. We privilege ‘peace,’ but peace alone has never gotten anyone free.”