Voices and Viewpoints

We are Done Talking About Reform: Abolition as a Pathway for Systemic and Radical Change

by Colvin T. Georges, Jr. / Mar 30, 2021

Police brutality has been a controversial topic in American society for decades. Protected by institutions of law enforcement and inadequate reform efforts—systemic racism and white supremacy have claimed the lives of countless Black bodies.

The American legal system demonstrates an utter lack of respect and justice for the Black community through its failure to hold police officers accountable for their irreparable actions. Case in point, one year later – #JusticeforBreonna is still a trending topic on social media platforms. The officers who murdered Breonna Taylor as she slept have yet to be arrested. Activists, civil rights attorneys, and critical race scholars demand that the officers who took this Black woman’s life to be arrested, charged, and convicted for their crimes (Justice for Breonna, n.d.). Until then, justice will not be served, and America will once again reveal its hidden truth that Black lives do not matter.

Black Lives MatterIncidents like this where white police officers get away with murdering Black people are one of several reasons why organizations like the Black Lives Matter Global Network, founded in 2013, were developed along with the need for abolition. This blog highlights a discussion with Ms. Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. In partnership with the Department of Asian American Studies, the Department of Gender & Women’s Studies, and the Student Cultural Programming Fee—the Center for Advanced Study (CAS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign invited Cullors to share details about her current work and perspectives on policing in America, defunding the police, abolition, and strategies for radical and systemic change as part of their Abolition Series.

Policing in America

"I Can't Breathe" signPatrisse Cullors contends that police officers are dangerous for Black and Brown communities, especially low-income and underserved areas. She notes multiple police reform efforts that were established to build trust and transparency between law enforcement and disadvantaged communities. These reform efforts included but were not limited to increased hiring of Black and Brown police officers, increased police presence in underserved areas, additional training for officers, and the use of body cameras. None of these reform efforts fared well for Black and Brown communities, as evidenced by George Floyd's killing in 2020. The police officers who interacted with George Floyd wore body cameras, and the outcome was still fatal. On camera, we heard Floyd say, "I can't breathe," and in response, the white police officer who knelt on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds say, “It takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to say that” (ABC7, 2020, 4:00; Levenson, 2021). Body cameras, increased police presentence, additional training, etc. did not save George Floyd’s life.

The number of Black people killed at the hands of law enforcement officers is increasing. According to Statista Research Department (2021), in 2019, there were 999 fatal police shootings, in 2020—1,004, and in the first two months of 2021, 132 civilians were shot, and 16 of which were Black. “The rate of fatal police shootings among Black Americans was much higher than that for any other ethnicity, standing at 35 fatal shootings per million of the population as of February 2021” (Statista Research Department, 2021, para. 1). This data is disturbing and supports the need for Patrisse Cullors’s ongoing work to abolish the police. She states that the current law enforcement system is terrible for most people and encourages listeners to explore better ways to live as a society—a place where Black and Brown communities do not have to live in fear because of their skin color.

Defunding the Police and Abolition

Cullors fully supports defundintg the police (reducing and/or restructuring funds) as a first step toward abolition of the chronic militarized police-state routinely found in hypersurveiled communities of color. She defines abolition as the permanent removal of police, prisons, surveillance, and courts. Cullors believes that the current reform efforts noted earlier, (e.g., hiring of Black and Brown police officers, additional training, and the use of body cameras) only increase police presence and budgets. These methods do not protect or save Black and Brown lives.

Cullors adopts a non-reformist reform agenda, where she advocates for a decrease in police power, particularly through monetary budgets. She calls for dollars to be redistributed to low-income and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. More specifically, she advocates for decreasing police funding and increasing mental health resources for impoverished communities. In this way, if someone demonstrates a clear need for psychological support—police officers will not be called and instead a licensed mental health professional will be notified. These changes to budget allocations should occur across the nation, ultimately leading to abolition (i.e., eliminating police forces). She believes abolition to be a critical need if America is ever to heal from the scars of racism.

Strategies for Radical and Systemic Change

The discussion with Patrisse Cullors provided listeners with an opportunity to “reflect on the ways that systems of oppression have shaped our society in general, and this institution in particular [law enforcement]” (Center for Advanced Study, 2021, 3:24). A goal of the program sought ways “to challenge [everyone] to create new relationships and systems that will support reciprocity, dignity, and liberation for all people” (Center for Advanced Study, 2021, 3:31). Cullors recognizes that abolition will not happen tomorrow but believes that we can chip away at the police, prisons, courts, and surveillance states through radical and systemic change. She states that we as a community need to:

  1. Shape radical policy
  2. Work at the local level
  3. Get involved in national politics
  4. Think critically about how we challenge the decisions made by elected officials
  5. Be intentional about what we are willing and not willing to negotiate

Don't give upAccording to the Center for Advanced Study (2021), the United States is the most incarcerated country, with more than 2.3 million confined to cages. Cullors problematizes this through her scholarship and active work as an abolitionist. She encourages fellow activists never to give up, even when being told “no” by people in power. Cullors shares a personal story where she mentioned that for 10 years, she was told that through her movement at the local level in Los Angeles, her team would never be able to stop the development of jails. However, until December of 2017, Cullors's team not only stopped the construction of two jails from being built but was also successful at passing legislation to defund the police. Specifically, her team was able to get a tax initiative passed where dollars were reallocated to developing alternatives to incarceration. They were able to create a new infrastructure after being told that they could not for a decade. Cullors encourages listeners to never stop fighting for change because it will come. Activists must continue working to dismantle and abolish all systems of oppression and white supremacy if we are ever to achieve equality.

 

Resources

Provided below are several resources mentioned throughout the discussion with Patrisse Cullors to guide and support listeners on their journeys toward an abolitionist future:

  1. Gilmore, W. R. (2021). Change Everything: Racial capitalism and the case for abolition. Haymarket Books.
  2. Kaba, M. (2021). We do this ‘til we free us: Abolitionist organizing and transforming justice. Haymarket Books.
  3. Roberts, D. (2019). Abolition constitutionalism. Harvard Law Review, 133(1), 3-122.
  4. We Rise. (2018, May 18). Ep. 5 Mia Mingus of the Bay Area transformative justice collective [Video]. YouTube.
  5. Color of Change. (2021).
  6. Set for release October 5, 2021 – 12 Steps for Changing Yourself and the World: An Abolitionist’s Handbook By: Patrisse Cullors

References

ABC7. (2020, August 12). George Floyd case: New body cam video reveals conversations between Floyd, Minneapolis officers. 

Center for Advanced Study. (2021, February 18). #BlackLivesMatter: From the frontlines of criminal justice reform [Video]. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Justice for Breonna. (n.d.). Fight for Breonna.

Levenson, E. (2021, March 29). Former officer knelt on George Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds - - not the infamous 8:46. CNN.

Statista Research Department. (2021). Number of people shot to death by the police in the United States from 2017 to 2021, by race.
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