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How I Became a Police Abolitionist

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When people dismiss abolitionists for not caring about victims or safety, they tend to forget that we are those victims, those survivors of violence.
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Hulton Archive / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic
We called 911 for almost everything except snitching.
Nosebleeds, gunshot wounds, asthma attacks, allergic reactions. Police accompanied the paramedics.
Our neighborhood made us sick. A Praxair industrial gas-storage facility was at one end of my block. A junkyard with exposed military airplane and helicopter parts was at the other. The fish-seasoning plant in our backyard did not smell as bad as the yeast from the Budweiser factory nearby. Car honks and fumes from Interstate 70 crept through my childhood bedroom window, where, if I stood on my toes, I could see the St. Louis arch.
Environmental toxins degraded our health, and often conspired with other violence that pervaded our neighborhood. Employment opportunities were rare, and my friends and I turned to making money under the table. I was scared of selling drugs, so I gambled. Brown-skinned boys I liked aged out of recreational activities, and, without alternatives, into blue bandanas. Their territorial disputes led to violence and 911 calls. Grown-ups fought too, stressed from working hard yet never having enough bill money or gas money or food money or day-care money. Call 911.
When people dismiss abolitionists for not caring about victims or safety, they tend to forget that we are those victims, those survivors of violence.
The first shooting I witnessed was by a cop. I was 12. He was angry that his cousin skipped a sign-in sheet at my neighborhood recreation center. I was teaching my sister how to shoot free throws when the officer stormed in alongside the court, drew his weapon, and shot the boy in the arm. My sister and I hid in the locker room for hours afterward. The officer was back at work the following week.
Like the boy at the rec center, most victims of police violence survive. No hashtags or protests or fires for the wounded, assaulted, and intimidated. I often wonder, What if Derek Chauvin had kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for seven minutes and 46 seconds instead of eight? Maybe Floyd would have lived to be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for allegedly attempting to use a counterfeit $20 bill. Is that justice? This, for me, is why we need police abolition. Police manage inequality by keeping the dispossessed from the owners, the Black from the white, the homeless from the housed, the beggars from the employed. Reforms make police polite managers of inequality. Abolition makes police and inequality obsolete.
[Annie Lowrey: Defund the police]
“Police abolition” initially repulsed me. The idea seemed white and utopic. I’d seen too much sexual violence and buried too many friends to consider getting rid of police in St. Louis, let alone the nation. But in reality, the police were a placebo. Calling them felt like something, as the legal scholar Michelle Alexander explains, and something feels like everything when your other option is nothing.
Police couldn’t do what we really needed. They could not heal relationships or provide jobs. We were afraid every time we called. When the cops arrived, I was silenced, threatened with detention, or removed from my home. Fifteen years later, my old neighborhood still lacks quality food, employment, schools, health care, and air—all of which increases the risk of violence and the reliance on police. Yet I feared letting go; I thought we needed them.
Until the Ferguson, Missouri, cop Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. Brown had a funeral. Wilson had a wedding. Most police officers just continue to live their lives after filling the streets with blood and bone.
I drove from Ferguson to law-school orientation two weeks after Brown’s death. I met, studied, and struggled alongside students and movement lawyers who explained the power and the purpose of the prison-industrial complex through an abolitionist framework. Black abolitionists have condemned the role of prisons and police for centuries, even before W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction. They imagined and built responses to harm rooted in community and accountability. In recent decades, abolitionists have developed alternatives to 911, created support systems for victims of domestic violence, prevented new jail construction, reduced police budgets, and shielded undocumented immigrants from deportation. Abolition, I learned, was a bigger idea than firing cops and closing prisons; it included eliminating the reasons people think they need cops and prisons in the first place.

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