Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom
WE CALLED 911 for almost everything—except snitching. Nosebleeds, gunshot wounds, asthma attacks, allergic reactions. Police accompanied the paramedics.
Our neighborhood was making us sick. From 1990 until 2006, my family moved among four apartments in a modest complex called Hickory Square. It was located at the edge of the Gate District between Jefferson and Ohio in St. Louis. A Praxair industrial gas–storage facility was at one end of my block. I had no idea what it was until one year, gas tanks exploded one by one. Grown-ups panicked that the explosions were another 9/11. Scorching asphalt burned our feet as we fled because there wasn’t enough time to put on shoes. Buildings and cars immediately caught fire and shrapnel pierced the trees and the houses. Nine thousand pounds of propane exploded and burned that day. Minnie Cooper died from an asthma attack related to the noxious fumes. The Black mother of three was only thirty-two.1
At the other end of my block, there was a junkyard with military airplane parts in full view. The owner of the lot collected the parts as a hobby, and had at least twenty-six US and Russian war craft machines. Each one ranged in value between ten thousand dollars and seventy-five thousand dollars, and shipping costs could be as high as thirty thousand dollars. One man’s treasure came at the cost of exposing poisonous particles to children in the neighborhood every day. His lot still sits directly across the street from my middle school’s playground.
The fish-seasoning plant in our backyard did not smell. The yeast from the nearby Anheuser-Busch factory did. Car honks and fumes from Interstate 64 filtered through my childhood bedroom window, from where, if I stood on my toes, I could see the St. Louis Gateway Arch.
All these environmental toxins that degraded our health often conspired with other forms of violence that pervaded our neighborhood. Employment opportunities were rare, and my friends and I turned to making money under the table. I was scared of selling drugs, so I gambled. Brown-skinned boys I liked aged out of recreational activities, and, without work, into blue bandannas. Their territorial disputes led to violence and more 911 calls. Grown-ups fought too, stressed from working hard yet never having enough bill money or gas money or food money or day-care money. Call 911.
When people come across police abolition for the first time, they tend to dismiss abolitionists for not caring about neighborhood safety or the victims of violence. They tend to forget that often we are those victims, those survivors of violence, too.
THE FIRST SHOOTING I witnessed was by a uniformed security guard. I was thirteen years old. He was employed by Global Security Services, a company founded by a former Missouri police chief who was later convicted of homicide. The former chief managed to secure multi-million-dollar contracts in an embezzlement scheme to provide armed private officers at almost all of St. Louis’s city-owned properties—including my public neighborhood recreation center. The armed guards replaced the city police. I was teaching my sister, Courtnie, who was nine, how to shoot free throws at the rec center when the guard stormed in alongside the court, drew his weapon, and shot his cousin in the arm. Courtnie and I hid in the locker room for hours afterward. I thought the guard was angry that his cousin skipped a sign-in sheet, but the victim only told the police the shooting had started as an argument over “something stupid.”2
Like the boy at the rec center who was shot by the private guard, most victims of law enforcement violence survive. No hashtags or protests or fires for the wounded, assaulted, and intimidated.
In 2020, Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin pinned George Floyd to the concrete as he hollered that he could not breathe. Floyd screamed. He screamed for his mother. He screamed for his breath. For his life. Until he died nine minutes later. Calls for “justice” quickly ensued. I often wonder, What if the cop who killed George Floyd had kneeled on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds instead of nine minutes? Floyd would have lived to be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for allegedly attempting to use a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. Is that justice? I did not think so. Too often, the public calls for justice when Black people are killed by the police and ignore the daily injustice if the victims would have lived.
I was surprised by what followed next. Unlike the “Black Lives Matter” calls six years prior, protesters were shouting “Defund the police!” Abolition was entering into the mainstream.
Initially, the notion of “police abolition” repulsed me. The idea seemed like it was created by white activists who did not know the violence that I knew, that I have felt. At the time, I considered abolition to be, pejoratively, “utopic.” I’d seen too much sexual violence and had buried too many friends to consider getting rid of the police in St. Louis, let alone across the nation. I still lose people to violence. Sapphire. John. Greg. Brieana. Monti. Korie. Christopher. Jarrell. Sometimes, I reread our text messages to laugh again. And cry.
But over time, I came to realize that, in reality, the police were a placebo. Calling them felt like something, as the legal scholar Michelle Alexander explains, and something feels like everything when your other option is nothing. Police couldn’t do what we really needed. They could not heal relationships or provide jobs. They did not interrupt violence; they escalated it. We were usually afraid when we called. When the cops arrived, I was silenced, threatened with detention, or removed from my home. Today, more than fifteen years later, St. Louis has more police per capita than most cities in the US. My old neighborhood still lacks quality food, employment, schools, health care, and air—all of which increases the risk of violence and our reliance on police. And instead of improving the quality of the neighborhood, St. Louis, which has the highest rate of killings by police among the largest cities in the US, spends more money on police.3
Yet I feared letting go; I thought we needed them. I thought they just needed to be reformed. Until August 9, 2014, when police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown had a funeral.
Wilson had a wedding. Most police officers just continue to live their lives after filling the streets with blood and bone.4
On that day in August, I threw a conference for high school girls in Kansas City, where I had been organizing, attending college, and teaching middle school. This was a part of my farewell tour of the place I had called home for six years. Harvard Law School was on my horizon; I planned to become an education lawyer, and, one day, superintendent of a school district or, possibly, Secretary of Education. After the conference, my hometown, St. Louis, was next. In high school, I had rented a room in my aunt’s basement down the street from West Florissant and Chambers. She, like everyone in my family except my mother, lived in “the county.” St. Louis City, where I grew up, is independent of St. Louis County, and Black people migrated to north county fleeing the violence and school districts in the city. My furniture was being held in the bright orange Public Storage in the county, on West Florissant—the street where the Ferguson Uprising exploded.
For weeks I protested in Ferguson. We chanted, “Indict! Convict! Send those killer cops to jail! The whole damn system is guilty as hell!” Tanks rolled in, regardless of the crowd size and hype. I was a new mom, breastfeeding my six-month-old, and I learned on the streets that tear gas was not only noxious, but could possibly cause miscarriages. Somehow, I escaped tear gas for a year; I was terrified the chemicals would pass through my breast milk to my child.5
I drove from Ferguson to law school after Brown’s death. I met, studied with, and struggled alongside students and movement lawyers who explained the power and the purpose of the prison industrial complex through an abolitionist framework. Mass incarceration, I learned, was a manifestation of a much larger, interwoven set of structures of oppression that we had to dismantle.
In Ferguson, I started to understand why we need police abolition rather than reform. Police manage inequality by keeping the dispossessed from the owners, the Black from the white, the homeless from the housed, the beggars from the employed. Reforms only make police polite managers of inequality. Abolition makes police and inequality obsolete.
My journey toward abolition is not mine alone. I’m an elder in what Elizabeth Alexander describes as the “Trayvon generation,” the young people who have watched the deaths of Black people go viral, the youth who were born again in the streets under clouds that rained smoke, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Alexander writes that when her sons were young, her love was an armor that sufficiently protected them, but as they aged, she grew to fear for their lives. I’m older than her children, as are many of my peers who organized in the wake of Trayvon’s killing. I witnessed activists of this generation organize to send Trayon’s killer to prison, like I did, evolve into critical thinkers and budding revolutionaries who organized to close prisons and end policing altogether. The evolution was not linear and remains messy—as birthing ideas and relationships can be. This aligns with what it means to be a “generation.” Fear, love, and possibility provide the armor for our generation. Most importantly, this generation, our generation, has been in deep love, study, and struggle with all generations to forge abolitionist futures.6
IN THIS BOOK, I share how the lessons from these generations have pushed me toward understanding police abolition, which is just one part of abolishing the prison industrial complex and key to a more just world. This journey has been made possible through radical Black and multiracial social movements, here in the US and abroad. By radical, I mean the people, plans, and practices within democratic traditions of activism that examine how power is arranged in society, and committing to eradicating exploitation where we find it. The commitment is key. James Baldwin wrote that “People can cry much easier than they can change.” We need people to commit to changing, and the traditions that inspire these changes are vast. Consequently, Becoming Abolitionists is full of time travel and world travel, from the 1500s to the 2020s, from St. Louis to Soweto.7
Policing is among the vestiges of slavery, colonialism, and genocide, tailored in America to suppress slave revolts, catch runaways, and repress labor organizing. After slavery, police imprisoned Black people, immigrants, and poor white people under a convict-leasing system for plantation and business owners. During the Jim Crow era, cops enforced segregation and joined lynch mobs that grew strange fruit from southern trees. During the civil rights movement, police beat the hell out of Black preachers, activists, and students who marched for equality wearing their Sunday best. Cops were the foot soldiers for Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs and Joe Biden’s 1994 crime bill. Police departments pepper-sprayed Occupy Wall Street protesters without provocation and indiscriminately tear-gassed Black Lives Matter activists for years—including me, twice. Most Black people I know trust the police—they trust them to be exactly what they have always been: violent.8
Black people, including Black slavery abolitionists, have tried different routes to stop police violence. They have resisted the role of prisons and police for centuries by physical force, flight, hiding, and the courts. They even tried becoming police officers to protect Black communities from racist mobs and white police officers. Believing that they were entitled to equal protection under the law, they tried, usually to no avail, to reform the patrol and the police.
In recent decades, Black prison industrial complex abolitionists have developed alternatives to 911, created support systems for victims of domestic violence, prevented the construction of new jails, called for the reduction of police budgets, and shielded undocumented immigrants from deportation. They have imagined and built responses to harm rooted in community and accountability. Abolition, I have learned, is a bigger idea than firing cops and closing prisons; it includes eliminating the reasons people think they need cops and prisons in the first place.
After each video of a police killing goes viral, popular reforms go on tour: banning chokeholds, investing in community policing, diversifying departments—none of which would have saved Floyd or most other police victims. Princeton professor Naomi Murakawa wrote to me in an email:
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