Can Abolition Work in an Age of Right-Wing Extremism?

Punishment can radicalize and further alienate people, while social policy and grassroots community building can defuse potential violence.

Riot police at the U.S. Capitol
Shay Horse / NurPhoto / Getty

In response to law enforcement’s hands-off approach to the storming of the Capitol on January 6, some on the left have demanded harsher policing of right-wing extremism to match the often-brutal treatment of Black Lives Matter and leftist protest. That is, the very people who supported police reform or outright defunding over the summer seemed to want a crackdown. Skeptics of defunding were quick to point out the apparent contradiction, and they took the opportunity to dismiss the abolitionist position altogether. As the writer Matthew Yglesias mockingly tweeted, “Clearly the answer to yesterday’s failures is to defund the Capitol Police and instead hire a squad of social service providers to tackle the real root causes of the violence.”

But what Yglesias finds absurd, we find imperative. Thinking in terms of root causes and nonpunitive interventions is never ridiculous, even when the target is right-wing extremism.

As a sociologist and an anthropologist who study social control in the United States, we know that punishment can radicalize and further alienate people, while social policy and grassroots community building can defuse potential violence. The abolitionist philosophy is precisely what is missing from the current conversation.

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.

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.”

Abolitionists prioritize such interventions because they work, and because the combination of harsh policing and incarceration often backfires. A significant body of social-scientific evidence shows that labeling and vilifying social groups entrenches identities, generates self-fulfilling prophecies, and offers people fewer life possibilities. Put simply, making a population into a targeted category consistently aids in creating more-extremist individuals and groups.

In a major 2013 study on the negative effects of carceral punishment on Chicago youth, economists found that children punished in correctional facilities were significantly more likely to be re-incarcerated by age 25 than those who were sent, for example, to in-school detention for the same offense. Since Chicago has a random-judge-selection system, the study was able to isolate the negative effects of harshness of punishment. Abolitionists would push this insight further by seeking fully nonpunitive accountability models, such as restorative-justice education systems, to more effectively reduce harm for the student and the school.

Considering such dynamics in how we approach right-wing extremists is common sense. We already know that when people are incarcerated, they affiliate along racial lines. This happens officially, because prisons are internally segregated by race, and unofficially, because many incarcerated people join race-based gangs. Rounding up and incarcerating “pop” white supremacists may simply form a bridge to their joining the Aryan Nations. This danger is all the more likely given Joe Biden’s recent proposal of new domestic-terrorism laws. Much as the War on Terror’s military interventions radicalized a new generation of combatants, the rollout of a War on White Terror might simply create new and more-radicalized white supremacists.

But abolitionists’ fears go beyond the creation of more right-wing extremists. Abolitionists also fear the consequences of expanded policing for Black, brown, undocumented, and poor communities. Although a Biden administration may, in this moment, keep attention on right-wing white supremacy as the dangerous Other in our midst (though we have our doubts), a future administration may depict peaceful BLM protesters, antiwar and anti-capitalist activists, environmental organizers, and the like as extremists who require surveillance and confinement. Expanded police powers to combat right-wing extremists could well be turned back on already targeted communities.

The palpable differences in how police treated the Capitol rioters versus BLM protesters are maddening, but that’s not all. They also reveal a deep structural rift that will not be repaired through the same old policy initiatives, especially ones that ramp up policing and imprisonment. Fighting right-wing extremism is not simply about force—it is a long-term battle over culture, meaning, and belonging. Responding to the right-wing dangers knocking at our door does not demand a dismissal of the abolitionist perspective—on the contrary, this alternative vision of strong communities and constructive interventions will be essential to keeping us safe in the long run.