Disclaimer: I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing, but I’m willing to be vulnerable & share what I’m learning, what I’m struggling with, and how I move towards abolishing all systems of oppression & domination. Today, I'm examining "Practicing Abolition."
Policing is at the top of my mind this morning. My social media feeds are filled with news of the varied and sustained ways police (and their compatriots the military) across the globe are killing Black, Palestinian, poor, immigrant, trans, disabled, and so many "othered" peoples. I also see post after post about the numerous policies being passed by state legislatures that are policing trans people and their autonomy over their own body. Then, there is the constant policing of my unhoused neighbors by our own gay San Francisco politicians, who seek to further criminalize the material conditions of being fucking poor, rather than create policy to end poverty.
It is enough to overwhelm and create a sense of foreboding despair because, truly, how the hell do we fight against all of this policing every-fucking-where?
For me, a white, cis, anti-binary, queer artist, who was raised Catholic in the suburbs of Minneapolis and lives on Yelamu (aka San Francisco), it starts by examining the myriad ways policing (and its interlocking concepts of shame, punishment, plunder, domination, and oppression) show up in my life, family (of blood and choice), and communities. It asks me to question the very foundations of what I think I know and who I think I am. It demands that I see all people as human, value all my relations (human and non-human), and seek to repair harm done by the behaviors, systems, and institutions (e.g. the Catholic Church, capitalism, whiteness and White Supremacy, eugenics, cisheteropatriarchy, …) that continue perpetuating shame, punishment, plunder, domination, and oppression.
That might seem like A LOT, and it is a lifelong undertaking. It also starts by taking steps towards liberating our thoughts and behaviors from all the ways we continue to police ourselves and each other. We cannot wait for others to take those steps. Each of us needs to be willing to really disrupt patterns of harm and, instead, reinforce behaviors and patterns of care.
Here are some tactics that have helped me take steps to unlearn harm and affirm care.
Attend Police Commission meetings regularly.
Listen specifically to how the Captain talks about crime, police training and recruitment, the public, and accountability. These will reveal how the police see the world. Begin to notice the patterns of speech and turns of phrase that the police use to justify their budgets, militarized weapons, and use of force. Tune into where you use similar justifications in your language, beliefs, or perspectives.
You will begin to find that we often mindlessly parrot (and then reinforce) the language of and justifications for policing. Once you notice your own contributions to upholding the police state of mind, you can begin to find better ways to disrupt it everywhere.
Additionally, we need more people listening to Police Commission meetings because we need more public accountability on the police. The League of Women Voters here in San Francisco live tweets San Francisco Police Commission meetings. It is an easy way to give a public account of the official police stance on all sorts of policies. I have found it incredibly helpful when I can’t attend meetings to read the summaries. Their brevity helps me better understand the literal “talking points,” which makes seeing them in other places (e.g. in movies, on the news, in thoughts about how to respond to someone pushing boundaries, etc.) a bit easier.
The League of Women Voters of San Francisco don’t just observe Police Commission meetings. They aim to bring public transparency (and thus aid in public accountability) to all public meetings. To this end, they provide free monthly trainings on how to observe public meetings. It is a simple step you can take to disrupt your own thoughts and patterns and contribute to collective transparency and accountability. The records we leave for future generations can push us further towards abolition.
Remember: People in crisis are PEOPLE (in crisis).
When someone is in crisis, police do not and cannot help. This is such a hard and uncomfortable reality to live within because it means that when we see someone in crisis we have to make a choice: How do we want to engage them? So often, we do not want to engage with people (in crisis) because we do not want to bear the responsibility for them (or their crisis), so we respond the way we are trained to respond: We call the police. This still will not address the immediate crisis, and often it escalates once police arrive.
(I want to preface this next part by confirming that I am not a trained mental health professional. I can only share the ways I show up in public life and cannot state that my actions have always been the correct ones. Nor can I state with any authority whether these actions are the right ones for any other person to make.)
When I see someone (in crisis), I take a quick mental note of how I am feeling in that moment. I decide if I can engage or not engage. If I cannot engage, I find ways to distance myself as much as physically possible. If possible, I keep an eye on others closer to the person to see if harm might come to someone else. If I have the capacity to engage, I often move closer in proximity to the person. More often than not, my presence changes something, and a conversation ensues. When talking, I have to know what I can and cannot provide and be clear with the person who is speaking. I am not a savior. I am a comrade who can listen and when possible offer what aid I can.
There is a growing movement to create alternatives to policing. In Oakland and Sacramento, the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) created and is running MH First. It is “a cutting-edge new model for non-police response to mental health crisis. The goal of MH First is to respond to mental health crises including, but not limited to, psychiatric emergencies, substance use support, and domestic violence safety planning.”
Additionally, APTP has created deeply researched reports to aid Oaklanders (and others too) in better understanding police staffing, public safety, and local policy on police accountability and community protection. They’ve also written a First Responders Training Guide that outlines why we need community-level First Responders and what is needed to create a First Responders Network in your community.
Anti Police-Terror Project offers research, models, and actions that can aid in directing funding away from policing and towards community- and care-centered responses to crisis.
Read books and articles, listen to podcasts or radio shows, watch panel discussions from others who have been and continue to work to abolish the police (and other unjust institutions) and “talk” to them.
There is a long tradition of abolition that spans centuries, and with each generation more people contribute to the collective body of knowledge that seeks to get us all free from behaviors and systems of shame, punishment, plunder, domination, and oppression. Some recent people that keep illuminating new path / ways for me are: Nick Estes, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Robin DG Kelly, Joshua P. Hill, Rupa Marya and Raj Patel, Melanie Yazzie, Mariama Kaba, Derecka Purnell, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Alice Wong, Imani Barbarin, and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. There’s lots more too, and I will continue sharing new resources as they come my way.
One way I have deepened my understanding of abolitionist texts is to critically engage in a dialog with them. I take copious notes. I will write and rewrite passages from them. I will ask myself questions and not seek an immediate answer. Then, I will come back to the text and question later to see if an answer has emerged. To really understand and practice abolition requires a commitment to learn, unlearn, and learn again. And abolitionist texts can be dense or difficult to unpack because they force us to question our whole worldview. Keeping yourself in dialog with other abolitionists helps us talk about abolition with others who are not as far down the path as we may be.
As someone who was kicked out of university once and dropped out a second time, getting through books, research, and articles that come from “the academy” takes me forever. That is perfectly ok. These structures of oppression have been built over millennia, and abolishing them will not happen in our lifetimes. We can continue learning and growing in our understanding in this lifetime so that the next generations begin further down the path.
There are a few presses, including Haymarket Books and AK Press, that have directed me towards the authors listed above. Additionally, Bookshop.org is a great alternative to Amazon. You can buy directly from small, independent Latinx, queer, Filipino, Black (and other culturally-specific) bookstores like Luna’s Press Books, Out & About Bookshop, Arkipelago Books, and Marcus Books. Finding or starting a Book Club can also aid in building community around abolitionist texts. The Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice, and Health hosts an Anti-Colonialism Collective Book Club. It meets on the last Tuesday of the month from 12pm to 2pm PST / 3pm to 5pm EST.
Remember: Policing is more than the police. It is all the ways we shame, punish, plunder, dominate, and oppress.
Policing shows up everywhere because it is the enforcement arm of our laws and policies. What this means is that policing does not start with the police. It starts with policies that legislate who is human (aka a citizen, resident, neighbor, community member, etc.) Keeping this at the fore of your mind is important because it helps you discern what the media, politicians, and other leaders are advocating for.
Policies that continue to or further dehumanize groups of people are always on the side of police and policing. A good example is the constant barrage of policies that seek to criminalize the behaviors of people who are forced to live on the street. Both San Francisco and the state of California are making it easier to put people under conservatorship. Yes, it is uncomfortable to have people in crisis or on drugs living on our streets. And further criminalization does nothing to help them or address the root cause of their material conditions.
The simplest solution to both homelessness and crisis is: free supportive housing. Providing it is the humane thing to do. If that seems like too bold of a solution to man-made human suffering, there may be more to unlearn about the value of people and all our relations.
This also goes for policies that continue to legislate people’s autonomy over their own body. This is most starkly clear in “debates” around adolescent health. Numerous states are passing legislation that makes providing trans-affirming healthcare not just impossible but criminal. This is a century-long fight, one that Chase Strangio of the ACLU outlines quite clearly. There is no “debate” among health professionals about trans-affirming health care: it saves lives. The “debate” is solely waged by people who want to control not just trans people or adolescents, but by those who want to control the bodily autonomy of all people.
These anti-trans policies must be stopped, and one way more of us can contribute to ending them is by constantly affirming and advocating for other people’s autonomy, especially children and adolescents, over their own bodies. This includes passing policies that affirm trans healthcare from birth and legislation that makes abortions free, safe, and legal for all people of any age who can get pregnant. It also encompasses embracing disability justice (as articulated by Patty Berne and Sins Invalid) as a core organizing principle.
I am on the beginning of my abolitionist path. I started walking it on May 26, 2020, the day after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police. Kafi-Ayanna Allah, an Indigenous, Black librarian at Orange County Public Library (formerly the Confederate Memorial Library) in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with whom I was in fellowship, asked me to co-create an intergenerational conversation about abolishing police in media and arts institutions (e.g. libraries). We pulled together a small group of artists, educators, and organizers, and engaged in dialogue about our own understanding of abolition and how we begin to practice it. This initial conversation has sparked at least three more intergenerational, cross-territorial dialogues, including A Space for Dreaming Abolition.
This dialectic is central to my understanding and practice of abolition. Abolition is not something that any one person can do because no one person will ever be able to take down a system. Instead, it is a commitment to act with others in ways that heal and make it possible for the next generation to be even more free from the grip of shame, punishment, plunder, domination, and oppression.
Each and every one of us has to reckon with: How and with whom are we abolishing the police and policing today and everyday?