Since the murders of five police officers in Dallas, TX and three more in Baton Rouge, LA over the recent days, their has been renewed condemnation of the Black Lives Matter Movement as violent and hate-driven. This, in turn, has led to a renewed outpouring of apologist rhetoric from Black community members, journalists and leaders. The chorus is, “The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t anti-police—it’s anti-police brutality.”
Though some praised President Obama for his claiming support for Black Lives Matter while speaking at the memorial of the five slain Dallas officers, his speech actively contributed to these narratives. His remarks were a real-time sanitizing of the current radical movement for Black lives, in exactly the way empire-penned mythologies of the Civil Rights Movement have erased its dangerous demands and militant tactics:
We know that the overwhelming majority of police officers do an incredibly hard and dangerous job fairly and professionally. They are deserving of our respect and not our scorn. And when anyone, no matter how good their intentions may be, paints all police as biased or bigoted, we undermine those officers we depend on for our safety. And as for those who use rhetoric suggesting harm to police, even if they don’t act on it themselves—well, they not only make the jobs of police officers even more dangerous, but they do a disservice to the very cause of justice that they claim to promote.
Forget that the president has never made it to the memorial of an unarmed Black civilian killed by law enforcement. Forget the fact that police deaths remain historically low, while the extrajudicial killings of Black people are currently four times higher than at the height of Jim Crow. Forget that there are numerous bills emerging across the country attempting to criminalize dissent to racist policing as a hate crime—rhetoric which Obama has encouraged. There is a larger problem with the president’s consistent inability to do anything more than pay lip service to the value of Black life.
The shaming assumption at the heart of the president’s words is this: Black people who stand up against racist policing—a system steeped in slavery and class stratification—are responsible for any violence that befalls law enforcement. This is immoral, the assumption goes, because it means innocent police officers are caught in the crossfire sparked by a few bad cops.
From this perspective, the problem is merely police brutality—the violent tendencies of a few individual officers. To suggest anything larger—anything historic or systemic—is to attack those who defend our rights and keep us safe.
In a public statement made in support of Black Lives Matter, Palestinian-American artist and activist Leila Abdelrazaq underlined the staunchly abolitionist rhetoric at the core of the movement, drawing connections between the fact that Palestinians are universally expected to answer for the violent actions of individuals in ways that the Israeli state never is. At the root, she argues, is the demand that the oppressed demonstrate their humanity, legitimize their right to defend their lives—a demand which is never made of the oppressor:
…It reminds me of all the times we as Palestinians have been forced to jump through hoops to prove to and reassure everyone, amidst our struggle for basic human rights, “We aren’t anti-Semitic! We promise!” in order for people to even consider that our lives are worth protecting. As if the Israelis who kill us on the daily and are forgiven have ever been forced to prove that they aren’t anti-Palestinian. As if the cops who kill Black people and are excused and given fat paychecks have ever been forced to prove they aren’t anti-Black. Because the value of the lives of the oppressed is always contingent on our ability to love our oppressor. Yet the oppressor’s life is always valuable, no matter what.
Abdelrazaq illuminates the fallacy of guilt as it is attempted to be yoked on an entire community, an entire movement: Isolated acts of violence against police can discredit the struggle for Black Lives, while repeated, perpetual acts of violence against Black communities over the course of centuries do nothing to discredit the police system, and the U.S. nation state itself.
Whenever we use the phrase “police brutality” we are implying that the issues presently facing Black communities are isolated instances of violence perpetrated by biased individuals. This approach derails us from the deeper truth: That policing itself is brutality.
The actions of individual officers—like their political values, their prejudices, etc.—are irrelevant. The role of law enforcement is to keep in place a social and economic structure dependent on the exploitation of Black people, poor people, immigrant people, queer people, and which is utterly unconcerned with our deaths. What we must finally comprehend is that police who murder us, are—in fact—just doing their jobs.
There is an overwhelming concern in our current political climate not for the mental health of police officers (which I actually think is a worthwhile discussion) but for their morale. Yet the realization that you are a cog in a larger machine that was built expressly to protect certain citizens by isolating and neutralizing others should be demoralizing.
Black people struggling for their lives cannot be blamed for this realization. To call us scornful is to protect the obsolete systems that have always caused us the most harm.
We cannot be intimidated by guilt, tossed from the mouths of the representatives of the very systems that feel no guilt, no internal conflict as they starve and dismantle Black communities. We must recommit and stay grounded in a message and an inalienable value of police abolition. And, yes, when we say ‘abolition’, we mean all police.
‘Abolition’ is still a word I see members of my community and of the movement shy away from. Sometimes it is deemed inaccessible or academic—a concern I can understand. More often it is thought too radical. At best it is a dream, but not a realistic one. A world without police cannot be achieved any time soon. Why scare off potential supporters with overly-aggressive language?
Yet, what I feel frightens us most about the idea of abolition is that we ourselves are not totally clear on what we mean when we say it, nor are we confident in the vision of a world without police.
I worked for two years at a drop-in program for trans and queer homeless youth. It was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had, particularly because of the intense emotional labor it required, and the real threats of physical violence that came with the territory.
The young people in our program were overwhelmingly Black, trans and gender nonconforming, poor, and highly targeted for harassment and violence by local law enforcement. As a core value, the program only called police under the most dire circumstances. This meant conflict, violence prevention and intervention were handled almost exclusively by staff and youth together, with the goal of transformative accountability, resulting with as few people as possible being asked to leave the space.
I loved the community I was introduced to through this program, and saw the real ways in which addressing violence without police helped to prevent further violence in the forms of beatings, harassment, jail time, etc. Yet what I also learned was that not calling police did not stop violence altogether. Mental health crises, depression, drama, transphobia, sexual violence, unemployment, substance use and more all resulted in fairly regular conflicts and instances of serious physical fights.
Here is the most crucial value of abolition still lacking from so many of our tactics and conversations, both within and beyond Black communities: Abolition does not—and cannot—mean the mere removal of the police and prison systems. This alone does not address the centuries of violence whose trauma we still carry in our psyches and bodies, nor does it account for poverty, misogyny, racism, and all the other systemic struggles that terrorize us every day.
Abolition means, fundamentally, the returning of resources, not their revoking. Taking away police and prisons is meaningless if they are not replaced with the resources that prevent violence—housing, healthcare, mental health services, public education, nutritious food, transportation, etc. When we say ‘abolition’, we are talking about taking back the resources that have been extracted from our communities and funneled towards their militarization. We are talking about reclaiming them, and channeling them into the options and opportunities that make our communities healthier, happier and stronger.
This is the safety we seek. Police and prisons have nothing to do with it.
Yesterday, in chorus with a host of actions carried out around the nation, Black Youth Project 100 and the #LetUsBreathe Collective shut down Homan Square in Chicago, an off-the-books detention site where thousands of Chicagoans—a majority of them Black—have been illegally held, harassed and tortured by Chicago police without access to lawyers or family. The message of activists was clear: We don’t need no cops; Fund Black Futures; When guns and cages are replaced with schools and clean water, with gardens and community centers, with homes and families unscathed by incarceration, only then can we be free.
To confront the violent nation state is to call out its tactics, not adopt them. Unlike the U.S. government, we do not tolerate murder in the ways that this country tolerates our murders daily. But we are deeply, fervently, anti-police. Accountability for Black death does not look like more death, more incarceration, but instead must be the disarming, defunding and disbanding of the orders that kill us.
When we say abolition, we mean a permanent end to the police and prison systems, a clear divestment from weapons manufacturers and the business of war. We mean a world without police, without jails, with no more genocide of poor, Black and Brown people anywhere on this planet.
This cannot be sanitized. And in the wake of unspeakable violence, this has not changed.