What happens when you want justice but support police abolition?
Conversations about abolishing the police have entered the mainstream in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. But for abolitionists seeking justice in 2021, the prison system presents a complex conflict of interests.
The man who wanted me dead could potentially go to prison. I don’t want him to. The first thing I asked the Met Police officer who took my statement after they apprehended the man who sent me horrific death and rape threats was, “What’s his race?”
Abuse is par for the course as a journalist of colour. I’m constantly told to “fuck off back to Shitskinstan”, that I should be gassed to death, that you’ll also find my details on is.a.c***.com. There’s an 18-minute long YouTube video lambasting me and my work, and many far-right websites know me as the race-baiting reporter.
But this message, sent in response to an opinion piece I’d written about how Muslim grooming gangs are weaponised to perpetuate Islamophobia, stood out among the rest. It fell into my inbox during the first lockdown when we were confined to our homes, purported to be the safest place at the time. He claimed to have shared my address online. I had no choice but to report the emails to the police.
The officer was unable to share the details of the suspect, but it was important to me. I needed to know who I was potentially sending to the clutches of the prison industrial complex, because Britain is not innocent when it comes to police brutality.
You see, I have no faith in police or prisons. They’re both inherently flawed and aren’t necessarily deterrents for crime. Just how rehabilitary are prisons when many ex-prisoners go on to re-offend, or seldom find ways to reintegrate back into society after serving time?
Besides, the keyboard warrior’s imprisonment was not going to heal me of the damage done: the PTSD response to hearing the doorbell ringing during those early days of lockdown, or opening packages sent to me; the paranoia over whether the smashed window in my car was the work of a troll or just a random incident. In this way, many victims are left in the lurch, even after justice has ostensibly been served.
The conflicted reality of wanting justice when confined by the parameters of a carceral system was perhaps most evident when Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd on all counts. Abolitionists had to contend with this limited view of justice, with many pointing out that a more appropriate descriptor of the outcome was accountability. Chauvin is a rare example of a white cop being convicted for killing a Black person, so this accountability is significant, but for many, the verdict did not feel like justice.
For abolitionists, a just world would not have let George Floyd die at the hands of police in the first place. It would disband racist, violent police forces, end superfluous carceration, and dismantle surveillance states that reinforce negative prophecies, such as the UK’s counter-extremism strategy Prevent.
But when you say you want to abolish the police, people often imagine the Blip scene in Avengers: Infinity Wars, in which half of the world’s inhabitants disappear. If we got rid of police departments en masse in this way, the world would not instantly be a safer place, as we wouldn’t have set up safer alternatives (on a mainstream level, at least – there are nascent and decade-old community-based models of safety around the world, including the United Friends and Families campaign, 4Front, and Account Hackney).
Much more needs to be done to execute an abolitionist future that seeks to invest in communities and qualified individuals who can appropriately deal with victims. That means detectives who tread sensitively in sexual assault cases (currently, victims are being failed, with rape convictions at an all-time low), mental health first aiders who have victims’ interests at the forefront, counsellor support and de-escalation experts where needed. If someone is experiencing domestic violence, for example, they would be able to call a crisis prevention specialist who can meet them in a safe place and take them away from their abuser. Abolition would also require trained, unarmed urgent responders, mental health specialists, trauma-informed crisis prevention teams, community activists and more.
Some of the most common lines of resistance by carceral enthusiasts are “what about the rapists and murderers?” and ‘“what if you were a victim?” This framing makes victims of such crimes sound abstract, as if abolitionists aren’t also subject to sexual assault and violence. And let’s not even get into the ways police enforce violence against women, Sarah Everard being a high-profile example.
Recently, we’ve seen activist Sasha Johnson, who was shot in the head for reasons unrelated to her activism, derided for aligning herself with BLM, who popularised the concept of defunding or abolishing police. “Would she want the police to investigate her case?” trolls asked. What they ignore is that the wide-scale goals of abolition have not yet been implemented. Living in this extremely limited world, we are without much option but to rely on the police, who may not even come to a satisfactory conclusion.
The reason we think of the police as a natural arbiter of justice is because of what they represent. They’re a placebo. As the legal scholar Michelle Alexander explains in the New York Times, police and prisons are something when the current alternative is nothing. If the options are prison or restorative justice for offenders, economic investment, trauma and grief counselling, and more, the option that’s more likely to prevent reoffending and improve victims’ wellbeing makes the most sense. If I was given the choice between sending my abusers (not just the one being investigated) to prison, or weeding out abuse at its root by ensuring violence isn’t repeated, rehabilitating perpetrators and offering them appropriate treatments, while compensating me for my losses and counselling me back to sound mental health, then I would always choose the latter.
If we’re able to understand criminality as a symptom of lack – whether that’s money, resources, access to healthcare, or love and understanding – then, by extension, we might be able to reconsider policing as a whole. If we can invest all that is lacking into our communities and believe in our inherent humanity, that will be the biggest threat to not just white supremacy, but also the very game of capitalism and inequality.