We(?) Do This(?) ‘Til We(?) Free Us(?): Grappling With Abolitionism

from Haymarket Books, and I swear, if you buy this off Amazon…

Last week, when it was announced that the jury in the Derrick Chauvin case had reached a decision on whether or not to convict the former cop in the clear-as-day murder of George Floyd, there was an odd tension. Everyone knew he was guilty. Everyone adduced that the jury’s swiftness indicated one result. But all that surety almost added to the palpable cynicism: of course he’d get off.

That he didn’t, and was indeed indicted on all counts, was met with relief, but rarely with joy. Of course not — how could there be any joy? Floyd was still dead, and as so many of us rushed to social media to point out, this didn’t really mark a difference in the way policing in this country operated.

Typical piety

But what does that mean? What does “justice” mean in this context? If you were to ask me, I would have probably said something about how racial disparities were eliminated and the police no longer treated non-whites as an occupied people. “Justice”, I’d intone, “is not when George Floyd’s murderer goes to prison,” (dramatic pause, lip bite) “but when no one has the power to murder George Floyd under the flag of Law.”

You have to admit that “the flag of Law” would have been a nice touch, but then you’d ask: so, what does that mean?

And that’s where I’d falter. That’s where my edifice of justice starts to crumble. Because the truth is that I don’t know what that means. For me, those words are almost an act of magic. It’s a sentence that sounds good.

That’s because I, like so many liberals and leftists in this country, have not done the work to grapple with the fundamentals of the system. Because of that, the solutions seem both easy to say, and impossible to imagine.

For me, facing someone who has done the actual work is almost as impossible.

Mariame Kaba has done the work. Kaba, better known to most people in the online community through her blog Prison Culture and her twitter handle @prisonculture, has actually been working with the idea of what this kind of justice means.

I was reading her new collection of essays and interviews, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, last week when the results of the trial were coming in. This exact timing was a coincidence, but that I was reading it — or the book existed at all — was not.

The murder of George Floyd, the national outcry, the protests, and the immensity of the police violence that followed, moved more people into a radical direction than I think anyone had ever thought possible.

Anecdotally — but anecdotes borne out by data and by our politics — people started to question what the police actually meant, and why they were needed. I know so many people who were liberal-but-still-hated-hippies who went full “fuck the police” over the summer. Older liberals started truly seeing the darkness. It was in this milieu that “abolish the police” started to be heard.

Police and prison abolition is work that Kaba has done for decades. It’s work that she has explored, thought about, perused, and worked. This, then, should have been her moment.

In a way, it was: there was certainly more exposure for her work than ever before. But in the mainstream liberal-left, the argument tended to break down into two sides.

  1. No, we don’t actually mean “abolish the police” but it is a useful slogan to think about shifting funds into more community services while keeping police for limited duties while still making sure they are very regulated.
  2. Yes, get rid of them, yesterday.

The first one is a throat-clearing misrepresentation of how truly radical the notion of abolitionism is. And the latter is in its own way even a greater misrepresentation of the movement’s true radicalism. The idea isn’t just to get rid of the police because they are a corrupt, racist, violent paramilitary. It is to change a corrupt, racist, violent, militaristic society so that the police are no longer needed.

Now, this is where the argument begins to losE people like me. Let’s call us “wise people” because we like to think of ourselves as so. “Well that’s all well and good to think about, but what does that even mean? Is it not a pipe dream?”

Pipe dreams, for me, are comfortable. If I can call something a pipe dream, then I can pretend it isn’t serious, or at least not achievable, and continue to march and donate to mutual aid and all that without having to actually do something. It’s all well and good to imagine a different society, but we live in this one, don’t we? What would we do if there were no cops? Be serious.

Kaba’s great power is that she is deadly serious, because she’s done the actual work of thinking through what this all means. She forces people like me to actually confront the actual work. She doesn’t try to persuade through comforting pieties. She is not writing for me. But her words force me to turn my own pieties against themselves.

There’s an early example in the book, an essay from October 2020 entitled “So, You’re Thinking About Becoming an Abolitionist”, where she differentiates between what is criminal.

Moreover, crime and harm are not synonymous. All that is criminalized isn’t harmful, and all harm isn’t necessarily criminalized. For example, wage theft by employers isn’t generally criminalized, but it is definitely harmful.

This seems like a very simple argument. Sure, we all agree wage theft is bad. But very few of us would say that employers who engage in wage theft deserve to be in prison. After all, they are just stealing not-yet-earned money from people’s lives, as opposed to someone who steals money (whatever money means) from someone’s wallet.

But why is that different? Why shouldn’t the wage thief go to prison?

Or, more accurately, why should the traditional thief? If we believe that one kind of theft is ok, and punishable maybe by fines or something, why should the other one rob someone of their life for years or decades of grinding cruelty and systemic violence?

That, to me, is where the whole thing starts to get really uncomfortable. Because it shows that how we think about criminality is, essentially, random. And when you start to think about that…well, what else do you have to confront?

What Kaba does is make everyone confront the reality while presenting what could be. What it is is an act of imagination. In the same essay, she says that our adversarial court system is set up to create these adversarial positions, this godly idea of guilt and freedom. It removes accountability by placing fate in the hands of the a third party — and we take that as a natural law. Kaba writes that the “abolitionist imagination takes us along a different path than if we try to simply replace the (Prison Industrial Complex) with similar structures.”

It’s this “imagination” that is key to the project of abolitionism of prisons and police. It’s not, for Kaba, a matter of saying “no more police”, but a matter of creating a society where such a thing isn’t needed. It’s asking “what would it be like if we didn’t organize our society around the mostly-race-based carceral violence it’s been organized around since forever?”

To me, there is a slight parallel with Milan Kundera saying that the only way to live under the absurd but deadly literal totalitarianism of Czechoslovakia was to live “as if”: as if you were free, as if imagination was allowed, as if irony was the currency of life. Kaba is insisting that another way is possible and organizing and acting as if we already know the goal. The parallels between Czech communism, the tanks of 68, and the POC experience in America aren’t far off. As Kaba says elsewhere, “Black and brown people know that the state and its gatekeepers exert control over all aspects of our lives. This is not knew.” (I, belatedly, agreed.)

This act of imagination works backwards. It conjures up a society of transformative justice, of equality and freedom, of intersectional approaches to everything in life — the spectacular and the mundane — and works backwards. It imagines a world filled with mutual aid, or community accountability, and of an operation outside the confines of what we assume is the natural order of law and order, and organizes backwards from there.

Now, I want to be careful here, for a few reasons, that are tied together. I don’t want to oversimplify the arguments her and other serious abolitionists have made. There is enough of that on both the right and the left, and it gives people an out.

When that world, that future, is described as “imagination”, it makes it seem unserious. It allows for “serious” people to say that it is a pipe dream, and if we are well-meaning to advocate, even advocate ferociously, for piecemeal reforms that keep the system intact. (A brief instructive chapter is titled “Police ‘Reforms’ You Should Always Oppose”; the bulk of them are what s proposed every time we cycle through these endless cycles.)

But “imagination” here is misleading. It doesn’t mean “make believe”. It means asking what kind of world we want, and then doing the work to get there. As Kaba says, in a line she got from a nun, “Hope is a discipline.” It’s not about wanting something. It’s about working for it.

This is where her philosophy is both urgent and unrelenting and also long-term. One thing that keeps coming up throughout the book is a captivating modesty (and not only that she was reluctant for decades to put her name on the work she was doing). But she talks of how she is just part of the work of building a new society. Not only does she acknowledge that there is no clear finish line, but that this is the work of generations, and will not come close to fruition in her lifetime.

That’s hard to acknowledge if you are an activist or if you care. Or, let me be more accurate: that’s hard to acknowledge if you are an activist because you want to feel better about things. I can’t speak for true activists; they are lit by fires that I can’t bellow. But for myself, someone who is involved, the idea that change happens outside of my lifetime is extremely difficult. And the reason why is even more uncomfortable to acknowledge.

I can’t fathom a different society. I can’t imagine the world that Kaba and the other activists are envisioning and fighting for. And not (just) because it is so much work, but because I am the beneficiary of these cruel systems. They were set up for someone like me. And so it is much easier for me to imagine short-term solutions, fight for those, and feel good. Because a world in which everything we have now is inversed is a world in which I, and not just the bad people in riot gear, have to change.

Abolitionism doesn’t mean a reorganization at City Hall; it means tearing down the racist and classist and sexist and fear-based and cruel systems that were built by fearful and cruel racists and classists. It means acknowledging not just that the wallpaper is off, or that the plumbing is wonky, but that the whole damn house was designed by cannibals and built out of bones and its weight is borne by the suffocating masses underneath trying not to hold it up but to stave off its crushing, choking weight. That we can’t fix the house, but we have to move out of it, to blow it up, and to plant something new in the garden.

And so it is easier to ask “ok, but what about rapists?” and handwave off her long-term ideas about changing a culture of sexual violence. It’s easy to ask “and what of murderers, hmm?” than to engage with the idea of a violent society. And, to be sure, I don’t quite think that these are addressed by the idea of community accountability, but I am also vested in not having that imagination.

Kaba and other abolitionists don’t give themselves that luxury, and she admits that not everything is ironclad. That makes it easy to scoff, but in a long passage talking about failure in an interview, she basically says “fuck that”.

The freaking tech folks and the people who are running the banks talk about failure all the time. They normalize it. It’s only on the other side of folks who are interested in social transformation and change where failure is not supposed to be spoken about or a sign that you’re horrible or that your ideas don’t have merit. I just want us to be building a million different experiments….We’ll figure it out by working to get there. You don’t have to know all the answers in order to be able to press for a vision.

That seems correct. It isn’t evasion. It’s having an idea and making it happen. It is fiercely demanding immediate change and justice while working on a long-term vision to make a world where even more change is possible. That means organizing, teaching, building networks, creating workshops, teaching teachers, listening, learning, making mistakes, and moving forward. It’s endless, tiring work.

As Kaba says, not everyone is an abolitionist. Some of us just can’t do it, or genuinely want a graded step. But it is serious moral duty of anyone interested in transforming justice, anyone who has been made more radical, either slowly or all at once, to respect those who have done the work, to engage with their arguments with the same seriousness with which they are making them, and to support their vision of a world where we don’t have to have these arguments.

Warlords of America

Photo: NBC News

One of the more common hallmarks of what are referred to as “failed states” is the checkpoint. You’ve seen it, or read about it, or maybe experienced it while traveling in regions where the center failed to hold. A road blockade, manned by armed men, slowing and stopping cars. Picture it, if you want to heighten the drama, at night, your headlights glinting off Kalashnikovs.

In some cases, they are there demanding tribute: a toll for using the road, used to fund their insurgency. In other cases, they may be there to stop enemy militias or terrorists or other brigands and bandits from entering their newly-gained territory. It’s usually both. In any case, in the absence of the restraining power of the state means that they have the force of law. Their strength, their guns, give them power.

The primary difference between a “failed state” and a strong one is the regulation of violence. In America, as in pretty much every other country, we have given a monopoly on legitimate violence to the police. This can be defined broadly to include all state and federal organizations, or, as most of us experience it, the day to day local cops. The social contract underpinning this is that we have granted them the extraordinary right to use violence and to kill when needed, so that the rest of us don’t have to resort to doing it on our own.

Obviously, the “monopoly on legitimate violence” is a pretty thin veneer. Nearly every town has organized crime, whether that’s the demonized gang or the romanticized mafia. None are legitimate, per se, but all operate through corruption, blind eyes, and a rough agreement to uphold the status quo. In-group violence is usually tolerated; out-group violence is often prosecuted. It’s uneasy.

But that’s not really the problem. The problem is that, as a country, we have only ever really completed half the bargain. The social contract shouldn’t just be “you, because of your badge, are allowed to do violence.” It’s supposed to be “We are entrusting you with terrible power; you will be restrained (in every sense), plainly scrutinized, and judicious.”

American policing is the exact opposite. It’s unrestrained, flush with political power, and the default mode is to demand obedience and passivity. It is power, and its power gives it power. It takes extraordinary rights while bucking off even the most basic restrictions. It controls your day-to-day and is a life-and-death authority in every interaction, based entirely on the power it has taken for itself.

It is, in short, warlordism.

Glimpses of a Hot Midwest Spring

Photo Credit: Unicorn Riot

In Chicago, this afternoon, a police accountability board released bodycam video of the killing of 13-yr-old Adam Toledo, who we were told by cops, prosecutors, the mayor, and even the defense, had a gun. In the video, he had dropped the gun, and had his hands up, turned toward the police, before being gunned down. There is a grotesque argument being had as to whether there was a reason to shoot him; what there is no argument about is that the cops lied. Their story was a lie, a knowing lie, and was only shown to be a lie when the footage was released. But even so, cop union officers howled at the injustice being shown to them, and quailing politicians spent more time praising police than questioning why we should ever believe them. Is ever thus.

In a suburb of Minneapolis, police killed Daunte Wright a 20-yr-old Black man, pulled over for having an obstructed rearview mirror. He had a warrant for a misdemeanor. The cops treated it as a matter of life or death, and when he didn’t comply, he was shot. The official excuse is that the veteran cop thought she was aiming her TASER. The official excuse still can’t explain why such a nothing situation demanded obsequious compliance or face an execution.

Meanwhile, the Kenosha cop who paralyzed Jacob Blake for the crime of not listening will not face any discipline. After all, he told Blake not to get into his car. Blake was doing nothing wrong, and wanted to leave. But when a citizen disobeys a cop, that citizen risks the death penalty.

Meanwhile, the trial for Derrick Chauvin, the murderer of George Floyd, whose death sparked last summer’s searing heat, continues.

Back in Brooklyn Center, protests over Wright’s killing grow, as does the police reaction. Riot-gear clad cops complain of having soup cans thrown at them and react with tear gas and rubber bullets. Mass arrests, curfew, and pleas from politicians for citizens not to be violent. After all, violence is the responsibility of the police. They treat it as a duty.

These cops, and the Minnesota State Police, know how to handle protests. They’ve been training for it in a multi-state effort to crush protests against pipelines, in this case Enbridge 3 — As the excellent investigative journalists at the anti-fash outfit Unicorn Riot revealed, the MSP worked with police from North and South Dakota to learn tactics used to attack peaceful protesters at the treaty-breaking DAPL line. (Background on that here)

To recap just what is happening in Minnesota: a city already on-edge over the police murder of a Black man sees another clear killing which, even if it was an accident, was the direct result of police treating Black people like an occupied people. As good citizens protest, as they get rightfully angry, and don’t feel that they have to be docile in the face of brutality levied out by ostensible civil servants, they are beaten and gassed and broken by police who trained for this in defense of a private company.

The Occupied and the Enemy

Taken together, this seems to be a story entirely about race. And in a way, it is that, of course. The history of American policing has been that of systemic abuse against people of color. If people like me are just beginning to see America as a police state, where the police act as an occupying force, that’s been the reality for Black people for centuries.

But even though I argued the police state reality in that link above, I sort of want to walk that back a bit. And here I want to tread carefully, since I do not mean to even sort of imply equivalence. I don’t think that the police treat Blacks, Latinos, and others as an occupied people, as I said. I think they see white people as the occupied people.

This is what I meant above by “warlordism”. Warlords (an inelegant and usually racialized term, but we’ll reclaim it for white folks) have territory that they control. Even if they see themselves as defending their people, they do so from a position of unquestioned power. They brook no dissent. They control any petty local politicians, who usually are allowed to operate under very constrained circumstances, and never allowed to interfere. They operate with impunity. And while the people in that territory aren’t under the gun, and indeed can live very well if they agree to the system (which, why wouldn’t we?), there is the knowledge that the warlord and their men can fuck you up at any time.

I can get away with a lot as a middle-aged, middle-class white guy, but if a cop feeling his oats told me to jump, I might not have to ask how high, but I damn sure couldn’t stay planted.

So where does that leave the primary targets of police violence? As the people outside the warlord territory. Here I admit the idea is complicated, since we aren’t talking about physical territory. It’s mental territory. It’s the idea that the fiefdom belongs to a few, for the complicit comfort of the many, and paid for with the lives of others.

This is literal, in the sense that so many police departments get their funding from traffic tickets, and those are usually targeted at the poor and people of color, who have to comply or face a beating or killing (this was probably the case with Wright). This was the case with Ferguson, whose revenue came disproportionately from fines and fees levied against its black citizens, which led the DOJ to call the police department a “collections agency“.

That’s targeted theft, yes. More than that, it is targeted theft done with the explicit promise that if the target resists they will be killed and their murder will be lied about. If they don’t stop at the checkpoint and pay money to the men with guns, the guns will be turned against them, and there is nothing anyone can do.

There are attempts at reform, but the police wield too much political power to truly be stopped. Politicians from the most performatively blood-thirsty Republican to the most reform-minded Democrats parrot police narratives and mewl about good cops, as if the reality of good cops changed the larger reality of a broken system. In big cities, reformist Mayors come in and then are instantly broken by the police unions, who threaten to withhold services if anyone sniffs at their prerogatives.

The Breaking Point

What has happened is what has happened around the world for nearly all of history. The powerful need protection. They grant a license for violence to a small protected caste. That caste accumulates more power, usually by its license for violence, but also by its ever-present threat to turn that violence against the powerful or back away and let anarchy bloom.

They become insular. They become an institution unto themselves. They become unaccountable. And they expand the scope of their targets, until everyone is a potential target. Some much more than others; some are ever the targets, and live their entire lives in the shadow of this violence, their possibilities mutated and warped by the reality of fate. Others keep their heads down and thank the violent gang for stopping the other violent gangs, pretending that because the system works for them, the system works.

It doesn’t, of course. There was never really a social contract with America’s police, because from the beginning they were granted the right to commit unchecked violence. The system was set up to allow them to do whatever they wanted against runaway slaves, immigrants, fieldworkers, union organizers, Blacks trying to vote, Black people driving a car anywhere, Black people just standing on the corner. They were granted these rights and left unobserved, because that’s how our system worked. America’s inherent racism ensured that there never was anything to check the violent rights of police. After all, they were just using it to protect us against them.

What happened could have been predictable to anyone who knew the slow tide of history. The police became so powerful that resistance is impossible. And so the social contract is completely broken. There is no oversight, no accountability, no scrutiny. Those given the power of life-and-death demand it with no strings attached. They demand obedience. They demand passivity. They were granted it so long that any attempt to rein it in even a little bit spins them into convulsions of murderous violence — the crunch of the baton, the hot choking gas, the flying bullets, the rageful beatings, the gleeful stompings.

In other countries, when people resist their warlords we see it as bravery. Here, it is decried by Presidents demanding that citizens remain peaceful while cops are allowed to rampage behind body armor. That’s more than a broken social contract. That’s a society completely broken and failed. It’s one where the powerful can kill the powerless without hesitation. It’s just another country, collapsed under the terrible weight of its own violence.

The Agony of Possibility: The 2021 White Sox

What’s pictured above, courtesy of @SoxShowdown, is the exact moment where every possibility converges, and all but one are eliminated at the speed of sound: an obliterating burst and the instant gasping awe of the crowd. And that, in its heart, is baseball.

On this Opening Day for the White Sox (and, I guess, all of baseball), I’ve been thinking about how I treat the game. It’s a weird dualism. I certainly know that every game is a long series of events, and every season is a long series of games. Baseball is the art of accretion and accumulation. You can rarely (though not never) point to one thing and say this is where everything changed. Barring injury, and without any narrative-confirming retrospect, there is rarely a moment where you say “everything from here on out is different.”

I know that. But I never believe it when I am watching the game.

If Tim Anderson starts out with a 3-1 count leading off today, I will already be giddy about the patience of the team and how they are balancing a mature approach with their frantic enthusiasm. A loss makes me ready to write off the season. This goes on all year. A couple of hits in the top of the 7th during a desultory 5-1 loss in the middle of a losing streak has me calculating the comeback, the turn around, filling the calendar with wins toward the playoffs, looking October-ward even while the pitch that ends with a routine 6-4-3 inning killer is screaming toward reality.

But it’s that moment! It’s that moment that the pitch is thrown that matters more than anything. Baseball, more than any sport, lives in the liminal. It lives in the instant of possibility. This is true in a way that can be maddening and frustrating for people who, for understandable reasons, aren’t fans. In every play in football, something happens. That might be a 2-yard carry which brings up 4th and 8, but something happened. There was potential energy that turned into kinetic, even if, as is the case in every goddamn Bears game, it dissipates. And it can do so predictably. There is a certain inevitability to football, a grinding certainty, even when it occasionally chances us with frightening beauty.

In baseball though, when the pitch leaves there is no possible way to know what is going to happen. It could be a triple or a triple play, a pop up or a screaming homerun, a bolt that whispers along the line, a foul ball, or a routine grounder. Or, nothing. Just a ball. Just another pitch where nothing happens.

But of course, it is not nothing. There’s never nothing that happens in baseball. Pitch counts go up. At-bats change. Postures move slightly. It’s not much — we’re not going to say that this is a game of Go, where every move reshapes the universe — but nor is not nothing. And what it does is close the realm of possibility, for that at-bat, that game, this season, just a tiny little bit, the same way that every street down which you want takes away the possibilities of what you’ll see at that moment on any other street. You have something, but it can no longer be anything.

This season, more than maybe any other in recent Sox memory, is filled with the giddy terror of the possible.

  • The rotation could be very good and trending toward unreal. One superstar, two solid to excellent, and a 4th starter — Cease — who if he hits even the midrange of his projections could make this a fearsome lineup.
  • The bullpen is ridiculous. Get a lead and close the goddamn door
  • Even without Eloy, and even with, for now, Billy Hamilton getting at-bats, this team will score some runs.
  • And holy gods, are they fun. Again, losing Eloy takes out a lot of dingers, and a whole lot of goofy joy, but this is still a team that you will enjoy watching

And yet…it’s not hard to read the above and not feel a little bit of panic. Some players who should not be getting a lot of at-bats will. A guy like Leury Garcia is awesome to have, and any team would be lucky to have someone so versatile, but more than 200, 250PAs and something has gone wrong.

There are clearly depth issues, as well as the normal Sox plan of hoping that everything goes exactly to plan, which it already hasn’t, which shows how a lot of the season depends on wishcasting. That kind of sucks. And we still don’t know how Tony La Russa is going to play out. Will he enable this team, or stifle it? My guess is really neither, but I generally think a manager, on the whole, is more likely to do harm than to elevate their team.

And yet…hellfire, it’s Opening Day. There are literally endless possibilities. This team could be a contender, and should give us something fun to watch. They can be there, day after day, as the spring lazes into summer and shudders into fall. They can be there as the days move on by, each one lasting more than a hundred years, each one disappearing before you got a hold of it. Each one so distinct in the moment and then blurring into memory. Each day eventually faded.

But not every day disappears. Not every moment fades. There are things that last. There are moments where a pitch turns around and you know in your heart that it is leaving the park before the sound even fully reaches your mind, when you are out of your seat making an involuntary gasp, when you jump off your couch or grab the fan next to you, when everything that was possible becomes this one thing, this concrete joy, when it all converges, and you know that it could only have happened this way.

And even if that’s not true — nothing is determined, and an eyelash of difference in the swing would have left you in your seat, unaware that you were so close to joy — that doesn’t matter. It happened. Things happen in this game. To be aware of any possibility is to embrace the chance of all possibilities, no matter what street you walk down. The moment is endless.