Derecka Purnell: How I became a police abolitionist
First, we should clear up some misunderstandings. Abolitionists do seek to create a future world in which police and prisons are obsolete, but such long-range commitments do not preclude practical harm-reduction efforts or collaboration with less radical allies. Abolitionists work for incremental improvements, especially interventions that set the stage for more radical change.
Abolitionists, for example, would back the immediate aim of removing white-supremacist cops, understanding that it is better to have police officers who are not sympathetic to, or supportive of, racist insurrection. An abolitionist perspective would highlight, however, the limitations of simple personnel overhauls. Hiring more Black and brown officers, for example, does not change the War on Drugs’ disproportionate attention to poor and racially segregated neighborhoods. Instead, it might serve to further legitimize police presence. Similarly, the removal of racist cops might help stifle the next Capitol riot, but this is only a single and long-overdue step in the wider remaking of public-safety forces.
More generally, abolitionists would endorse a broad analytical scope for diagnosing the problem, and for designing interventions. As the abolitionist police scholar Alex Vitale recently noted on NPR, focusing exclusively on individual insurrectionists and local police departments will do little to weaken right-wing extremism around the country.
Addressing root causes of the attempted coup means actively working to transform the political and economic conditions that have allowed ethno-nationalist and scapegoating ideologies to fester. Granted, such ideologies are not reducible to economic desperation, even if many of them are shaped by it. And many of the currently radicalized may be too deeply entrenched for structural change to impact their understanding of the world. Passing Medicare for All will not keep insurrectionists from storming state capitols during the Biden administration.
But abolitionists have long been trying to design root-cause-informed immediate interventions. A wealth of research on gun violence, and the experience of grassroots organizations, shows that targeting those at risk of violence can stop retribution from flowing through entire social networks. Nonprofits or government agencies should identify people and regions primed for right-wing violence and then intervene on the ground with counseling and political education, cash stipends predicated on non-offending, and violence-interrupting mentors.
Mychal Denzel Smith: Incremental change is a moral failure
De-radicalization programs like Life After Hate offer a complementary example of root-cause-informed interventions. These programs, in which ex–white supremacists help current adherents leave extremist groups, have found success by meeting the human needs for meaning and community. As the ex–white supremacist turned de-radicalizer Shannon Martinez said, “I needed an explanation for why the world seemed like a threatening and brutal place for me … I wanted to believe in something that felt like it mattered and was part of something bigger.”