The police are a contradiction. On the one hand, governments, detective shows on television and cops themselves claim that they protect the innocent from predators and criminals. On the other, we are confronted with constant news of police misconduct. In South Africa, police officers have massacred miners, killed children and assaulted unarmed demonstrators; an officer has been recorded dragging a naked man out of a shack; some have been caught selling guns to gangs; others reportedly act callously to victims of sexual abuse.
But, as American lawyer and campaigner Derecka Purnell points out in her new book, Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protest and the Pursuit of Freedom (Penguin, 2021), rather than restraining police violence and ensuring accountability, reform efforts often legitimate state abuses. When the Minneapolis police publicly killed George Floyd in 2020, the chokehold the officer used was a so-called non-lethal form of crowd control.
The voices coming out of the wave of protests and rioting across the United States sparked by Floyd’s brazen murder went beyond calls for individual justice. Demonstrators wanted the police defunded and even abolished in that country, saying that the problem is not individual bad apples or poor training, but the entire police institution, along with the linked criminal justice and prison systems.
Punishment and violence
Purnell says that even if Floyd had survived, he would still have likely received a draconian prison sentence for a non-violent misdemeanour – he was arrested for allegedly passing on a counterfeit bill. He would have been punished by a system set up to penalise Black and impoverished people, while showing remarkable tolerance for the crimes of the powerful.
Consider how in South Africa, people such as Nateniel Julies and Dumisani Joxo have been killed for showing “disrespect” to the security forces, but Jacob Zuma’s allies are able to instigate mass violence without facing repercussions. Or how, despite the findings of the Zondo commission, delinquents in the government or in companies such as Bain are unlikely to face any real punishment for the corruption that has affected millions.
Purnell’s book, which mixes personal biography, political analysis and historical reflection, explores both the contradictions of state power and the question of how society can protect itself from violence, harm and predation.
Raised in St Louis, Missouri, she experienced from an early age how impoverished communities live with environmental and economic instability. In lieu of social safety networks, people in trouble often call 911, leading to situations where armed officers intervene in domestic situations in which they lack the training to be effective. In the US, and elsewhere, militarised police officers are often deployed not to fight crime, but to manage the social fallout of the state’s abandonment of the impoverished.
Purnell recounts attending schools where the police were used to remind the impoverished that they were seen as a dangerous and despised underclass. She watched as friends and classmates got involved in the drug trade to survive, locking them into a cycle of violence and prison. She writes about how military recruitment officers take advantage of the lack of opportunities for working-class people, who then become part of the armed forces fighting imperial wars. The book also explores how her own life has been haunted by violence – she was stalked by an ex-boyfriend and her younger sister’s boyfriend was murdered.
A new perspective
Purnell’s talents took her to Harvard law school. While working on campaigns against police violence, she first encountered “abolition”, the idea that police and prisons are not mechanisms for social safety, but rather reproduce class, racial and gender hierarchies.
She initially treated this with scepticism, seeing it as a slogan that failed to address the real harms and dangers people face daily. If you abolish the police – no matter how compromised or inadequate it is – who would you call when faced with theft, assault or murder?
But along her journey as a scholar and social activist, she developed a different perspective. Police reform, even when it is well intentioned, is often used as a public relations tool. In the early 2010s, the Black Lives Matter movement organised against racialised police killings, forcing the government to adopt a new language of inclusivity and community policing. But rather than stopping arbitary state murders, these reforms merely amounted to more Black officers using the same tactics as their white counterparts.
Purnell’s attitude to the criminal justice system was further complicated by working as a public defender for a legal rights clinic. There she met clients who had attacked people and stolen from them, and who were often sexist and xenophobic. But they were also victims of the system. “I’m sure whatever landed them in court likely arose from material, economic and sociopolitical causes and related to their behaviour towards me and others. That did not mean I had to accept or tolerate it. I rejected it. But I also rejected the powers that the police, prosecutors, probation officers and judges had over them.”
Such experiences, along with travelling to countries like South Africa during the height of the Fees Must Fall protests, made her gravitate to movements against mass incarceration and police violence, which seem designed to uphold property and power more than to make society safe. This is evident in the problem of domestic violence. When the police intervene, their only option is to use violence against the perpetrators. But research shows there are more effective ways to protect people, such as increasing economic interdependence and educating men so they reject toxic patriarchal indoctrination.
Freeing the future
Street-level police violence and killings do not occur in a vacuum. As “shoot to kill” demagogues such as Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte show, it is connected to xenophobia, miltarism and a fascist mentality of “might is right”. Armed state officers often escalate situations rather than resolve conflicts. Police abolition is then not an abstract concept, but an urgent response to a world in crisis.
Historian Robin DG Kelly, who appears in the book during a student teach-in, agrees with the rationale behind abolition, which is based on an assessment of the history and sociology of the police. It concludes that deeper social and economic interventions are needed to protect us from crime and harm. Similarly, the rationale behind the call to defund the police is that increasing support for social programmes is better for the public than using money on weapons and surveillance.
Along with recent texts such as A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete (Verso, 2021) by Geo Maher and Ziyanda Stuurman’s Can We Be Safe? The Future of Policing in South Africa (NB Publishers, 2021), this book suggests that a free society is rooted in peace-building, consent and cooperation as opposed to the rule of the gun and the jackboot. The ideas behind abolition, which address questions of harm reduction, conflict resolution, self-defence and protection against the state and social violence, are a shifting horizon and emancipatory ideal towards which to work.
This will only become more important in the years ahead as democratic and egalitarian alternatives for a viable and peaceful society work to erode the kleptocratic power systems that wreck the planet and diminish humanity. And this is especially urgent in South Africa, where a culture of capital accumulation and dirty politics creates a cycle of violence to which the police only add.
Correction, 1 February 2022: This article mistakenly stated that Purnell’s sister had been murdered.