Police and Prisons, What Are They Good For?

Issue 264

Matt Wasserman Jun 9, 2021

Last summer’s protests put police and prison abolition on the progressive agenda. Yet it remains difficult to imagine a world without police and prisons. As a society, we have no institutional way to deal with violence or harm other than calling 911 and locking people in cages.

To be sure, most police work has little to do with responding to — let alone preventing — violent crime. We’ve all formed our ideas of what cops do from pro-carceral propaganda like Law and Order. But recent empirical studies have found that officers spend just four percent of their time dealing with violent crime. As anyone who’s ever done a ride-along can attest, most of their shift is spent dealing with non-criminal matters such as noise complaints and traffic enforcement or simply driving around looking for something to do.

What’s more, in many cases the police are the source of violence rather than its solution. From stop and frisks to the murders of Eric Garner and George Floyd, state violence is pervasive in certain neighborhoods. It’s not hard to draw a straight line from policing’s origins in slave patrols to the activity of plain-clothes cops patrolling East New York.

Nonetheless, when po-lice and prisons are the only solution on offer to street violence, people are understandably loath to abandon them. The current mayoral race illustrates the point. As shootings and homicides have risen during the pandemic, after 30 years of steady declines in the national and local crime rate, the issue of ‘public safety’ has become increasingly salient. And ‘defund the police’ does not appear to be the response a lot of voters are looking to hear. In the words of veteran abolitionist intellectual and organizer Mariame Kaba, “we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems and caging people that many can’t imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm.”

In We Do This Til We Free Us, a new collection of essays and interviews, Kaba attempts to navigate out of this trap. Kaba compellingly argues that while police and prisons may slake our punitive impulses, they offer only the illusion of security, not real public safety. Putting someone in prison gets them off the streets, but it hardly rehabilitates them—indeed, even short stints in jail can make people more likely to commit future offenses. Nor does the criminal punishment system provide meaningful accountability or reparations to the victims of violence.

Kaba advocates instead for collective liberation and what she calls “transformative justice.” By this she means community responses to violence that “build support and more safety for the person harmed, figure out how the broader context was set up for this harm to happen, and how that context can be changed so that this harm is less likely to happen again.”

In so doing, she steadfastly refuses to conflate retribution with justice. While it’s hard not to feel on some level that Harvey Weinstein — or Derek Chauvin — is getting his just deserts, Kaba doesn’t think prison is the answer for anyone. This is not to say that she is indifferent to the experience of survivors or unsympathetic to the goals of #MeToo. But her focus is on uprooting the conditions that lead to violence and “complicating narratives that are too easy, these really simple narratives around perfect victims who are assaulted by evil monsters.” As she points out, quoting Danielle Sered, “no one enters violence for the first time by committing it.”

It’s easy for all this to feel like pie in the sky. Kaba is right, of course, that putting people in prisons that concentrate the risk of sexual assault is a flawed answer to sexual violence and that the police serve as a system of social control for communities of color. But that does not address the issues of immediate harm and violence. If you are in danger, the only option the state provides us is to call the police. And when someone commits acts of violence, the only response we have on tap is warehousing them in prisons. While investment in community organizations and social services holds the promise of reducing future violence, it does not solve the issue of what to do with people who have already committed or are presently committing acts of harm.

In her new book, Mariame Kaba refuses to conflate retribution with justice.

What would we do without police or prisons? As Kaba acknowledges, it would be a disaster if we simply got rid of them tomorrow without first creating alternative ways to address harm or redistributing resources. But there are still immediate steps we should take toward abolition. One of the most practical parts of her book is the taxonomy she sets up between non-reformist reforms and reforms that only reinforce the power of the police and surveillance state. She opposes body-worn cameras or hiring more cops to carry out so-called ‘community policing.’ But she supports immediate steps such as hiring social workers to respond to mental health crises in lieu of cops or diverting money from the police to social services.

As the pushback to defund demonstrates, a left poli- tics that doesn’t take the reality of violent crime seriously is likely to flounder if and when crime rates rise again.

Indeed, there is a social justice argument for doing so as well as a practical one. The cost of both street violence and state violence is borne disproportionately by poor Black and Brown people.

But this needn’t mean reflexively backing the blue. While criminologists disagree on why crime rates plummeted over the past 30 years, few think that policing or prisons are responsible for most of the drop. Sociologist Patrick Sharkey’s work, for instance, suggests that the growth in community organizations played a significant role in making cities safer. And when the NYPD was hit by a “blue flu” in 2014, cutting back on “proactive policing” and arrests to protest de Blasio, crime continued to drop. It is unclear how far we can go toward abolition, at least absent fully automated luxury communism. Still, it seems evident that we can redirect some resources from the carceral state to communities without conceding the issue of public safety.

Ultimately, as Kaba freely admits, abolishing prisons and the police would require a wholesale sociopolitical transformation. It’s a transformation that may not be possible. Even if we radically reduced inequality and provided for the material needs of everyone, some degree of interpersonal violence would likely remain a stubborn reality. But regardless of whether abolition is thought of as a destination or a goal we can only asymptotically approach, Kaba’s clear-eyed commitment to it is inspiring. Without resorting to sloganeering or downplaying the reality of interpersonal violence, she models in word and deed an abolitionist praxis.

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us
By Mariame Kaba
Haymarket Books, 2021

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