Becoming Abolitionists - Wonderful in a Way - but Also Perplexing

 Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, And The Pursuit of Freedom - by: Derecka Purnell - is an enigma.   The author presents a powerful case for the necessity of what she calls "Abolitionist" change, a radical remaking of our country.   At the same time, she  doesn't clearly explain realistically how it may be potentially possible.   She also out omits serious discussion of how the forces of oppression are effective, and effective strategies to confront them.  Nevertheless, the book has a lot of great insights and examples showing what Black and other oppressed people are up against.

Purnell expands upon talking of what Black People face in bringing in important areas such as toxic waste, climate change, sexism/sexual assault, homo/trans phobias and disability rights issues, as well as most importantly talking significantly about classism and capitalism.   All of this is in a context of how the police are systemically oppressing those who lack power.

Quotes useful for understanding her premises include:

"Why do people kill people?" could be more useful for our brainstorming and I asked if we could start there.   They agreed.  In small groups, they wrote lists of reasons why people kill people kill people on giant Post-it notes. Gang Violence. Mental health.  Racism.  Rage and jealousy.  Homophobia.  Transphobia.  Retaliation.  The Police.  Killing someone before they kill you. Access to guns.   Stress.  Passion.  Robberies and carjackings gone bad.  Self-defense.  Accidents.  Bystanders. Cheating.  Protection.  (p.139)

Rather than proactive, community -based investments in employment, education, housing, and conflict mediation that prevents people from surviving in ways that are criminalized, governments invest in reactive policing and prosecution that imprison poor and working-class people. (p.145)

But if we are asking , "why do people kill people," we have to explore the relationship between mass killings, militarism, policing, and patriotism. (p.158-9)

Boys weren't just touching anymore;  it was professors and politicians who'd hug to long, compliment incessantly, or offered me hotel rooms when I'd post online that I was traveling somewhere. (p.171)

Until 2012, the federal policy regarding rape required women to resist, physically, to the utmost of their ability to demonstrate that she did not consent to the encounter. (p.173)

According to the University of Michigan, "as many as 40% of women with disabilities experience sexual assault or physical violence in their lifetimes and more than 90% of all people with development disabilities will experience sexual assault."   Most of the people who caused harm were not strangers. (p.175)

While men account for nearly all arrests for sexual violence, they also constitute victims and survivors.  A third of men have experienced sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by a partner over the course of their lives...  (p.176)

While sexual violence usually occurs within race, this is not true for Native American women.  Most of the people who violate them are white:  86 percent of reported cases of rape or sexual assault are by non-Native men (p.181-2)

A few months later, I took Geuce to get his first manicure so that we could relax after a hard week.  When we arrived, the nail technician initially refused the manicure and pedicure for him. ...  Somehow under capitalism and patriarchy, a man can be a nail tech but a boy cannot get a manicure. (p.183)

When asked, "what about the rapists," I also cannot help but to think about the cops who cause sexual violence.  Between social movements, political education, and legal study, I became increasingly convinced that police cannot stop sexual violence, and more, that they are a source of sexual violence. (p.185)

Former police chief (note Oakland) Norm Stamper wrote in his memoir:

"In my first year I rode with a cop who spent half the shift trying to pick up nurses in the ER, carhops at Oscar's, or women who'd called the police to report a prowler... As a former cop explained, "They knew the DAs.  They knew the judges.  They know the safe houses. They knew how to testify in court.  They knew how to make her look like a nut... (p.186)

Community members wanted the police to stop ticketing, harassing, and jailing poor, Black people.  The DOJ wanted FPD to do it constitutionally.  ... "Not only is the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, insufficient to protect black people from police abuse, it actually aids and abets the abusers." (242) (p.204)

Disabled people are excluded from the labor market (and forced out of schools), not because they cannot work, but because capitalists  are not interested in, and are not minimally required to, pay for the costs of accommodations. (p.215)

As of 2021, more than one million children in the United States have lead poisoning and 800 million globally, about a third of all children.(328).   

Lead poisoning does not manifest neutrally.  Black children and Mexican American children have the highest rates of lead exposure.  Almost 67 percent of Black children born between 1987 and 2000 were raised in high-poverty neighborhoods compared to 6 percent of white children; these communities are likely to have significant lead exposure. (p.255-6)

For men and many of my peers, our abolitionist fight and future is committed to decolonization, disability justice, Earth justice, and socialism.  All of these require mass political education, a commitment to understand and debate these issues with people who we love and organize within our communities.

Through abolition study and praxis, we explore and understand why millions of people in the U.S. call the cops every year and how to begin reducing our reliance on them for help.  ...  Calls for "violent crime" constitute 4 percent or less of calls to cops.  This is true in cities with the highest homicide rates.  (p.271)

Robust movements for socialism, decolonization, disability justice, and Earth justice are equally or perhaps more important than a singular movement for abolition.  Capitalism creates concentrated poverty, especially for people who are Black, Indigenous, disabled, women, migrants or young.  This exploitation makes people less safe. (p.273)

The author concludes her book talking about ways of working cooperatively at the local level in various ways.

The author doesn't deal with what will be done with people who are violent - killing, raping and similar.   Obviously, this area can be dealt with - elsewhere.  The fact that it is not a large part of policing, doesn't negate that it remains an issue.   Positive (limited) policing will remain a necessity.

I find this book both incredibly good, and also a little frustrating.    Other authors have dealt with a lot of parts of the key issues raised in this book.   Resma Menakem in "My Grandmother's Hands"  (see: ) deals effectively with trauma as it relates to white people and the police (particularly).   Alicia Garza in "The Purpose of Power"  (see: ) talks extensively of how to organize effectively on racism related issues.   Heather McGhee in "The Sum of Us" (see: talks about coalition building between white working class and Black people.   Richard Rothstein in "The Color of Law" (see: talks of how the federal and state governments created segregation in housing and education and how we need to dismantle it.

Other examples can be added to the above in terms of what is not talked about related to solving the core systemic issues related to Abolitionism.   Purnell could have taken this book into the "incredible"  with another brief chapter referencing "the bigger picture" and how it can be dealt with.  Her core ideas are excellent!

How we can deal the entire concept of abolitionism in contrast to "reform".   Purnell points out effectively how liberal ideas that do not deal with the systemic issues are most commonly either token often making a bad situation worse.   

The author basically ignores the necessity that one always has in pushing for "the ideal", while coping with compromise as better than nothing at all.   Where one says "we need it all", generally the alternative is failure.   Finding common ground and compromise is necessary, while still working for the desired radical end result.   This is obviously most important in dealing with police, the military and private security forces.

Similarly, Purnell doesn't deal deeply with the core issues of the multiple "isms".   One areas relates to discussing how we cope with opposing forces such as the power interests (such as the super-wealthy) playing us off against each other.  We also need to deal with the general white (often male) basic comfort and satisfaction with the status quo.   Upper-middle class white people like me don't need to be active or even support moves for positive change.   We aren't hurt most of the time.

Resistance in such areas is multi-faceted - divide and conquer - as well as dealing with white people resisting the increasing change we have as we become a "minority-majority" country.   We need to cope with labels  - "socialism", "Black Lives Matter" and similar - replacing:  "communists", "welfare queens" and "filthy hippies" of many decades ago.

Organizing white men seems particularly important, while white women obviously are also significant.   Moving from a "charity" focus to a focus on "mutual aid" - as well as "justice" in various areas is important.   Coalition building is critically important!

Radical change today would be Very Scary!   The forces of reaction - Republicans - being the prime, visible part of this - would be much more likely to "take over" currently.

In the end, whether things will seem more "radical" or more "liberal" and not a fascist, racist, sexist, ableist, classist society will depend greatly upon what many of us do (or don't do) in the coming months and years.    

While the 2022 and 2024 elections seem paramount now, things go way, way beyond that.  With election losses, disaster(s) will become much more likely.  With election "successes", the forces of the status quo - with all its limitations will remain.


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