But wouldn’t abolishing the police make things worse?

7 min readJun 8, 2020

Hurried notes from an abolitionist to the understandably skeptic ❤

If you know of community projects that are providing alternatives to the police, either in terms of harm prevention or alternative harm response, please fill this in so that we can collect a national map of these incredible projects, and direct funding to those who need or want it.

Can someone explain the argument for police abolition, rather than reform, to me?

Disclaimer — I am getting tagged in posts faster than I can respond, so I put this together at high speed. Please do send me notes for typos and corrections as it is not copy edited at all.

“Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, [..] the wage, & therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.”

-The University & the Undercommons

Police Reform: Technically you could do this, but it’s very hard and historically we have failed time and again. These individuals have been recruited in to a system that centers violence and brutality at it’s core. They are not trained in anything that we would want from a community care team (see image). Yes you could retrain and change the incentives, but it’s not the individual police men that we need to abolish, it’s the *institution*.

(To me) A.C.A.B. [“All cops are bastards”] doesn’t mean the individual human is a turd. It means that once you don that uniform and the norms, you perform the actions of a brutal and racist system. You become the arm of a racist and unjust system and there is not a ton you can do as an individual. Yes you can be a better and ethical cop, but you are surrounded by norms, language, incentives that undermine your own ethics.

Mural Wall Art that is close to my heart is by BiP [Believe in People] — a commentary on the violence that is both being policed and also being police. The damage done is on all sides of the brutality enacted by the institution.

Changing the ‘police’ as an institution — means the recruiting, the kinds of people that it targets and appeals to, the training, the language, the core values, the principles, the metrics of success, the means by which their jobs are deployed, their uniforms, they regulations.

[Image shows that by far, most police training is on firearms management & self defense, and barely any on community tactics, mediation, ethics]

Yes you can reform all of those things, but when reform needs to be so deep that the end project is unrecognizable from the starting point, you might as well call it a metamorphosis, a transformation, a revolution. The reason I am reticent to support reform as a long term strategy is that we all to often fall short of the end goal. I am down for reform in the short term, but not as a viable end point, just as harm reduction. I am not a smash it all down and hope something-else-magically-better-appears kind of person which I will address in the next point.

Can you reform burning man?

Imagine if I said — I want you to take the org and event that is Burning Man, and turn it into build a big 10 day silent sober conference on profit making / fascism /[insert some other principle that is orthogonal to those that exist now]. I want all the sessions to be run in Mandarin and I want everyone in professional attire at all times. And you have to do it with the people that are already in the org and all the current attendees. And you can only do it through reform.

You could, theoretically, spend the rest of your days, trying madly to persuade Burning Man org that they need to think more about profit making and abandon their principles and traditions, but even if you managed to reform them, the people that have been coming to BM for generations have expectations about what is going to happen there and it’s really hard to change that.

It would probably be easier in the end, to start a new event than try and change everything that exists in the current one.

The institution of the police is based on ‘fear’, fearing each other [crucially, specifically the fear of black / African American humans] and what we need must be based on care and compassion.

I am not suggesting that we abolish the police and do nothing else but this thought experiment is suppose to help you get at the enormity of the task, and why for some they feel abolition is the only way — in short — that you can’t reform the institution of the police or prisons — they, with all their values, have to be replaced.

Transformative Justices on the Streets

The point is not to abolish the police and let chaos rule. (The ‘abolish’ language used is the language of activists, and it serves a role, which in my opinion is to anchor us toward the utopian goal, and not settle for less. Reformist moves do the opposite, they almost always fall short of what we were aiming for.)

So leave behind the strong language for a second: The real point (for me at least) behind ‘abolish’ is to replace it with something better.

The goal is to get to the root causes of antisocial behavior and work there, deploy care where it is needed. People don’t generally want to be harmful creatures. Ok yes there are some people with psychologies that might render them extremely antisocial but that is just SO so rare. The vast majority of what we criminalize is poverty and trauma. More than half of police killings are of individuals with mental health issues or disabilities.

“The problem is not overpolicing, it is policing itself”. Our goal “should not be to improve how police function but to reduce its role in our lives.”

We could be putting our resources towards fixing those. Imagine if our police were replaced with community support — if the people patrolling our streets were not there to handcuff people, but there to solve the conditions that led to them breaking a car window, stealing a bike, selling drugs.

There are plenty of places with no police and no crime already

#1 Marinaleda in Southern Spain — have eliminated the need for police by ensuring that every resident of the 3000 person town has access to housing, income and the means to thrive.

#2 Cherán, in Michoacán, Mexico — removed the state police nearly a decade ago. Despite Michoacan being “one of Mexico’s bloodiest states — where severed heads have been rolled across dance floors and grenades have been lobbed into crowded plazas. In July, there were over 180 murders in the state — the highest number for nearly a decade. And in the communities around Cheran — not even 10km away — stories of kidnap, extortion and murder are commonplace.” — in the last year there have been no murders, kidnaps or disappearances.

#3 Rich neighborhoods across the globe: Mariame Kaba: “What is very puzzling to me is like sometimes our questions answer themselves, if we look right at the thing that is happening in front of our nose. People ask me all the time [what abolition looks like] and I’m always like, you know, there are groups of people who are living a type of abolition now. I want you to think of [affluent, white] neighborhoods in the Chicago area like Naperville where there are no cops to be found … anywhere. You actually have to call them to show up. They’re not posted outside anything. Their kid’s schools? No cops, no metal detectors. They have what they need. They have resources they need. The people are working. Talk about full employment! People have houses that are worth millions, they’re not struggling for healthcare. They’ve got housing, healthcare, jobs: all the things that we say we want in a society that would be transformed enough to make it so people won’t feel we need needing police, prisons, and surveillance. There are some communities already living that today.

You can have security without relationships but you cannot have safety — actual safety — without healthy relationships. The question is why for them and not for all of us or the rest of us? I think to some degree imagination is necessary … yes. But we don’t have to imagine that far into the future. It’s here. Right this minute. Right now. We should not act as though it’s some sort of fairy tale or some sort of impossibility. It is actually not impossible.” Towards the Horizon of Abolition


Please explain this to your skeptic friends. Then if you feel moved by this you can write to your city mayor and state governor today, and ask:

  1. Police be defunded, dismantled and disbanded
  2. No private police allowed to replace the vacuum

Funding can be redirected to non-violent /transformative alternatives and preventative measures.

A template letter for you to copy and paste and write to your mayor is here

Investing in alternatives

Transformative justice on the streets

#1 Examples of Harm Prevention
Mental Health care, access to housing, investing in education, especially for children.
Prevention of sexual assault and violence
Alternative Justices Project
Oakland Power Projects
Gangstas Makin’ Astronomical Community Changes
United Playaz

#2 Examples of alternative harm responses
Shelters for domestic violence victims, restorative justice projects, transformative justice
Alternative Justices Project
Bay Area Transformative Justice

If you know of community projects that are providing alternatives to the police, either in terms of harm prevention or alternative harm response, please fill this in so that we can collect a national map of these incredible projects, and direct funding to those who need or want it.