This article appears in VICE Magazine’s Unthinkable Ideas issue, which explores revolutionary ideas that could alter our world completely.
Earlier this year, as spring turned to summer, cities and towns across the United States burned with an idea, sparked by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade and built on the deaths of others like Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Kalief Browder. It was the idea of abolition.
Having spent the months prior huddled against a deadly pandemic, people took to the streets to mourn, rage, and demand a different kind of world. In Minneapolis, in the first days of the uprising, they burned down a police precinct known as a “playground for rogue cops” and began housing people living on the street in an empty hotel. In Seattle, they created a cop-free “autonomous” zone. In New York, where I live, the police attacked protestors indiscriminately; some ran, others fought back. Every night, more people came out—one could hardly step outside without stumbling into a march. The masses were on the move, looking for the way forward.
Much of what was built during the uprising has already proven fragile. The Minneapolis city council’s commitment to dismantle the police department has been reduced to piecemeal reforms. Armored police cleared out Seattle’s autonomous zone after it began to deteriorate amid infighting and several instances of gun violence. A similar encampment established adjacent to New York’s City Hall to demand dramatic redistribution of the NYPD’s funding resisted several police incursions, only to quickly evaporate after the city council passed a budget that barely registered its demands. This was not a revolutionary moment, even if for a fleeting instant it may have felt so. But neither was all of this activity for naught. It is in just such moments that a revolutionary idea can begin to take root. The idea, today, is: What would a world without police or prisons look like?
This is not a new idea; in fact, it is precisely its maturity that made its proliferation possible. In the United States, Black Marxist feminists like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore have been studying and developing the abolitionist framework for decades, drawing from the work of Quaker radicals like Fay Honey Knopp and Norwegian sociologists like Thomas Mathiesen. While today the abolitionist movement’s political demands often focus on defunding police departments and other law enforcement agencies or dismantling existing prisons and opposing the construction of new ones, the abolitionist framework is in fact much more expansive, examining the key function that repressive institutions like the police and prisons serve in the wider organization of society. Many U.S. abolitionists, for example, would argue that mass incarceration has played a crucial role in the rise of neoliberalism—the globalized economic order of austerity, privatization, and financialization that has taken hold since the 1970s. In this context, as Davis puts it, the prison has become “a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited.”
While police brutality and unjust imprisonment are far from uniquely American problems, the rates at which people in the United States suffer police violence and are incarcerated are extreme outliers. Many more people in the U.S. die at the hands of the police than in other wealthy democracies, and more people are incarcerated in prisons and jails than anywhere else in the world—not only in terms of total numbers but also per capita. Thanks to various Obama-era reform efforts, those overall numbers have begun to wane, and the racially disproportionate makeup of the prison population has changed, though in neither case by much. An important distinction between liberal reform efforts and the more radical abolitionist perspective is that the latter would not see a racially proportionate prison population as any great victory.
Still, endogenous abolitionist movements have been building all over the world, even if policing and incarceration in other countries look different from in the United States. This is all to the good: if abolitionists in the U.S. want to succeed, Gilmore said recently, their abolitionism must be international. “It has to stretch across borders so that we can consolidate our strength, our experience, and our vision for a better world.”
Abolitionists in Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Palestine, and South Africa echoed this sentiment. “It should never be enough to just get abolition in the United States. It should never be enough just to get it in the United Kingdom, or any other individual country,” Ani Kayode Somtochukwu, a Nigerian #EndSARS activist, told me. Likewise, for Yara Hawari, a senior analyst for Al Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, internationalism means that “when we fight for abolitionism somewhere, we’re fighting for it everywhere.” Even as these abolitionists struggle against the forces of oppression and exploitation in their own countries (and grapple with their particular histories), each understands themselves to be part of an emerging global movement.
“The British police carry guns more than they used to,” Sid Harring, author of Policing a Class Society and White Man’s Law, told me. (According to a U.K. Home Office report on police use of firearms statistics, this is likely thanks to an anti-terror program launched in 2016.) “European police have become more Americanized. Australian police are very much like the American police. Canadian police are much more volatile than Canadians want to let on.”
“There are cultural differences in policing around the world,” Harring said. “But the basic outline is much more like the United States than many countries want to admit.”
For abolitionists, internationalism is not a platitude, but a political and practical necessity. Reflecting on a years-long campaign to end Urban Shield, a militarized SWAT training program run by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office that attracted police departments and paramilitary units from around the world, Mohamed Shehk emphasized the importance of internationalism in coalition building. “It’s not just that our cops look like soldiers and we wanted this program to end because we don’t want our police militarized,” Shehk, national campaigns director at Critical Resistance, the grassroots abolitionist organization cofounded by Davis, Gilmore, and others, said. “We pointed out the ways that this program not only oppressed communities here but transferred U.S. practices of policing into other countries and how those were used to repress communities abroad, and also how the U.S. police were learning from other countries.” In doing so, Critical Resistance was able to build a more diverse and resilient coalition that ultimately succeeded in shutting down the Urban Shield program.
“From the very first, there has been a circular, or mutually constitutive, role between police and prison systems in the U.S. itself and its counterinsurgency practices overseas,” Laleh Khalili, author of Sinews of War and Trade, wrote in an email. This “circular movement” can be seen most clearly in the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, she continued, “where overseas forms of counterinsurgency has been complemented by a massively bulked up internal carceral system. This carceral system of course covers everything from the regular prison system to the migrant detention centres, to counterterrorism detention internally.” The effect of this, Khalili added, has been “a convergence in racialized practices of violence, forms of torture, and the kind of disappearances of prisoners we have seen for example in Chicago,” referring to the thousands of people—the vast majority of whom were Black—interrogated and in some cases detained without any recordkeeping at the Chicago Police Department’s infamous Homan Square facility.
Recognizing such convergences is what brought Shehk, who is Palestinian, to the abolitionist struggle in the first place. “At a relatively young age,” he told me, “I began to see the ways that the policing and imprisonment system in Israel, that was used primarily to repress the Palestinian population, was actually not that different from the way that policing and imprisonment in the United States are used to repress and control black, indigenous, brown, lower-class communities.” According to the prisoners rights association Addameer, more than 800,000 Palestinians, or about 20 percent of the population in the occupied territories, have been arrested since the occupation began in 1967. By this estimate, approximately 40 percent of Palestinian men in the territories have been arrested at least once. “Most of us, especially Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, will have a family member or a close friend who’s been incarcerated at some point,” Hawari, the policy analyst, told me. “If Israel wants you, they will take you.”
“It’s phenomenal to experience life without checkpoints,” she would think when visiting England before the COVID-19 pandemic restricted everyone’s travel. “Really, the West Bank and Gaza themselves are prisons,” Hawari added—an assessment underscored by the pandemic itself. The 13-year-long blockade on the Gaza Strip imposed by both Israel and Egypt has had “a devastating impact on the health and wellbeing of residents in Gaza,” The Lancet reported this fall, leaving some two million poverty-stricken people living in cramped quarters with insufficient water, electricity, and medical supplies: there are only 87 intensive care unit beds with ventilators for all of Gaza, for example.
But for the abolitionist, the issue here is not simply a moral objection to human suffering. To date, Israel has received at least $142.3 billion in military and economic assistance from the United States. “Israel uses that money for its oppression of Palestinians through military force, but it also uses that money to develop new weapons—technologies that then get tested on the Palestinian population,” Shehk said. “Then they get exported back to the United States and all over the world as ‘battleground tested.’” Israeli firm Elbit Systems, for example, has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to supply surveillance technology along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“There were no prisons in this country when my ancestors were in charge of it. Those wars of conquest—part of how they were fought was with prisons, was with cops.”
Long has it been so: for decades, the Israeli government secretly cooperated with South Africa (along with a slew of other oppressive right-wing regimes), trading military technology to the apartheid regime in exchange for raw materials including the uranium needed to develop nuclear weapons, which Israel in turn offered to sell to South Africa. While South Africa has since democratized, policing there remains shockingly brutal; according to the investigative outlet Viewfinder, South African police kill an average of one person every day. “South Africa is a country that loves protesting—from the state of our schools, the state of our roads, to broad economic policy,” Sohela Surajpal, a graduate student studying human rights and democratization at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights, said. “We’re also a country that loves to deploy the police to handle those protests, so it’s very common to see on the news that the police are shooting rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, and even live ammunition at protesters.”
“They’re deployed during strikes and workers’ movements, protests, popular movements, often intervening during peaceful protests and through intimidation, through their own violence, turning them violent,” Surajpal said. In one particularly infamous incident, in 2012, South African police opened fire on striking workers at a platinum mine in Marikana: 34 were killed. The current president, Cyril Ramaphosa—an anti-apartheid union activist who would go on to make hundreds of millions of dollars thanks to the controversial post-apartheid Black Economic Empowerment program—sat on the board of directors of the company that owned the mine when the massacre took place. Many still hold him responsible.
“The role that the police very often play,” Surajpal told me, “is to protect land and the people who own the land, which is a tiny, wealthy minority in South Africa, from the popular masses.” High rates of murder and violent crime, in particular femicide, contribute to the perception that the South African police are necessary. “But what takes away from that perception … is a prevailing sense that police are horrible at their jobs,” Surajpal said. “This is an environment in which the police could claim that they are very important and useful and could frustrate efforts at abolition. But because they are also so obviously corrupt and inefficient, those claims don’t hold much water.”
Recently, Ayo Sogunro, a Nigerian lawyer and writer based in South Africa, watched as his friends took to the streets in what is popularly referred to as the #EndSARS movement. Initially focused on the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a notoriously violent and corrupt police unit, the movement expanded to incorporate a wider, proto-abolitionist critique as it spread across the country. “What we want goes beyond the superficial disbandment of the unit,” Sogunro told me. “It goes also into our belief that the ideology and the understanding of policing in Nigeria is highly problematic, and that unit is merely the most severe demonstration of that fundamental problem in our policing culture.”
While the most recent wave of the movement was activated by a SARS killing in early October, Ani Kayode Somtochukwu told me that anger at the Nigerian government has been growing over its acquiescence to Western institutions like the World Bank, which is reportedly holding up a $1.5 billion loan over demanded currency reforms. “When the British colonial masters came, they set up the police in such a way that it protected them from the Nigerian masses that they were imposing colonial domination over,” Somtochukwu said.
Decades after independence, the colonial order is still making itself felt. “The native bourgeoisie continued to facilitate profit extraction for Western oil companies, Western land developers, big agro businesses, and the rest,” he continued. “The police just continued to serve, to protect the master class—the only difference was that the members of that class changed.”
For activists and organizers like Somtochukwu and Sogunro, such conditions are ripe for an abolitionist movement. “The ordinary, average Nigerian on the street knows that this is not the case of a few bad eggs,” Sogunro said. “The elites need the police to be brutal; the police get away with being brutal because they have the backing of the elites: that is what the ordinary person on the street understands, and that is what the government is trying to pretend doesn’t exist.” That brutality was on full display two weeks in the demonstrations, when Nigerian police and the military killed at least a dozen protestors on a single day.
Even under British rule, colonialism did not take the same shape everywhere. Though marked indelibly by colonial rule, South Africa and Nigeria remain majority-Black countries; in places like New Zealand and Australia, on the other hand, white settlers were imported to obliterate and replace existing indigenous cultures. “There were no prisons in this country when my ancestors were in charge of it,” Emilie Rakete, a Māori woman and spokesperson for People Against Prisons Aotearoa, noted wryly. (Aotearoa is the Māori word for what is now commonly known in the English-speaking world as New Zealand.) “Those wars of conquest—part of how they were fought was with prisons, was with cops,” she continued. The early constabulary force in what would come to be called New Zealand was recruited from both the British army and also settler militiamen, in exchange for land taken from the Māori and distributed to white settlers by the New Zealand Company. “The abolitionist movement is really a continuation of that struggle, a part of the continuation of the fight against imperialism and against colonialism in this country.”
(Just as the United States names military hardware and operations after Native tribes, like the Apache and the Black Hawk, or Operation Geronimo, prisons in New Zealand are given a Māori name. “They’re all called, like, ‘the cloak of protection’ or ‘the staircase to enlightenment,’” Rakete told me. “But people get raped in there—that’s what happens in these places.”)
Meanwhile, in what would come to be called Australia, the first police were recruited from the best-behaved convicts in what was then a penal colony. “There’s always been two approaches,” said Amanda Porter, a senior fellow at Melbourne Law School descended from the Yuin nation. “There’s been the rules and the policing inside the colony, and then the rules and laws that apply outside of those boundaries.” Inside the colony were the night watch patrols and the water patrol; outside were the mounted police, the border police, and the native police. The latter three, Porter said, were completely unaccountable to anyone. “If you look at the remit and purpose of each of those institutions,” she continued, “their goal was literally to expand the colonial frontier and to defend it.”
“Australia was founded on these racist assumptions regarding Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal people,” said Robyn Oxley, a Tharawal and Yorta Yorta woman and criminologist at Western Sydney University. “Aboriginal people and Aboriginal culture per se was seen as inferior compared to British culture—as most indigenous populations are.”
“We were here for 68,000 plus years before white fellows came. We knew the land. We knew how to live off it, they didn’t,” she continued. “They needed to get rid of us.”
Today, according to government statistics, though Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up only 2 percent of Australia’s national population, they comprise 27 percent of the national prison population. At least 434 Aboriginal people have died in police custody since 1991, the Guardian found this summer. Charges in such cases are exceedingly rare; convictions even more so. “Even though the institutions have changed,” Porter said, “I think many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia would consider themselves outside of the colony.”
This dynamic is not unique to Australia and New Zealand: a third of prisoners in Canada are Indigenous, despite making up just 5 percent of the overall population; Native people in the United States are incarcerated at double the rate of white people nationwide, and as much as seven times the rate of white people in states with large Native populations. According to the Lakota Law Project, Native Americans are the racial group most likely to be killed by cops. “The police kill more Indians than Blacks proportionately. And they kill more whites than Blacks numerically, just not proportionately,” Policing a Class Society author Sid Harring said. Police violence “is aimed at poor people who act out: white, Black, Indian, or anything else. We just have them concentrated in different places.”
In any class-based society, Harring argued, there will inevitably be a group of people on the bottom, alienated and disassociated, impeding capitalist development. The institutions of police and prisons evolved to control this population. “If you’ve got a mental illness problem in your family right now, you would probably call the police. Most of these calls [come] from poor people,” he said. “But the problem is that we have killed our social services sector—defunded it—and made everything into the bailiwick of the police sector. Which is, they come with a gun, and they ‘fix’ the problem.” So too in New Zealand, where People Against Prisons Aotearoa found that as much as 87 percent of incarcerated people were unemployed at some point in the three months before their imprisonment. “At the same time that we can see that Māori are very overrepresented amongst who goes to prison,” Rakete said, “prison is objectively and observably a class institution. It’s one of the ways that we dispose of the population that’s not useful to capitalism.”
Even as centuries of European colonialism introduced a carceral logic to societies around the world where it did not previously exist, the particularly American innovations of recent decades cannot be ignored. Under the auspices of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, the United States has begun to export the practice of mass incarceration, incentivizing countries from Colombia to Niger to lock up swathes of their population in high-security prisons, many of which are built almost as copies of those in the U.S. According to BuzzFeed News, the State Department trained some 50,000 correctional officers around the world in the span of a decade—officers who would go on to train tens of thousands more. “Cops have become frontline U.S. diplomats,” Stuart Schrader, author of Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing, wrote recently. “Policing today is a triumph of globalization.”
Even setting aside the fact they have named as their immediate enemy the most violent and repressive arms of global capitalism, those who would set out to build an international (and internationalist) movement for abolition have a monumental task before them. “The prison industrial complex operates on many fronts and people are constantly needing to address very local issues,” Critical Resistance’s Mohamed Shehk said. When a city or state government proposes to add to a police department’s budget or begins plans to build new jails, abolitionists in there understandably will want to focus their energy on such an immediate concern. “That adds a bit of a struggle between prioritizing what’s happening in front of us or this larger issue,” he added. Rakete put it more bluntly: “My pigs are not your pigs,” she said. The size of the NYPD budget (more than $10 billion) isn’t going to persuade people in South Auckland to defund the police there.
Finding a way to link specific, local struggles to the wider global cause is the challenge that lies before abolitionists the world over. “Anywhere you go in the world, there’s going to be particularities,” Rakete said. “But I’m very wary of focusing so much on these particularities that we can’t find the common cause, the common kind of thing that unites all of these struggles, which is the fight against capitalism and the fight against U.S. imperialism.” She added: “The learning that we get from each other moves in these big arcs that spin right around the world, which is I think why abolitionist struggles are so inextinguishable at the moment.”
Similarly, for Hawari, the policy analyst, overemphasizing the plight of Palestinians can obscure the bigger picture. “Palestinians sometimes like to think that this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to people,” she said, laughing. But Palestine isn’t unique. “We have to de-exceptionalize Palestine,” she continued. “And if we de-exceptionalize Palestine, we also de-exceptionalize Israel.” Showing that the structures of oppression in a place like Palestine, however horrific, are not without precedent or disconnected from the wider “global trend to incarcerate, to warehouse people,” Hawari argued, makes solidarity possible.
“We don’t want to play the ‘who suffers more’ game,” she said. “If we all knew—the workers, the people of color, all the oppressed people of the world—if we knew how we were truly being oppressed, then it would be very difficult for them to contain us. But they are very good at hiding this.”
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