What We Mean When We Say Abolish the Police

The movement to abolish police is just another step in our long-game goal of dismantling the entire prison industrial complex.

[Photo: A Black man holds his fist up at a police brutality protest, a sign in the background says 'NYPD KILLS'.']
As protests against police brutality continue, calls to "abolish the police" are growing louder. Bryan R. Smith/AFP for Getty Images

For more anti-racism resources, check out our guide, Racial Justice Is Reproductive Justice.

If you consume any form of U.S. media, pro-police propaganda is inevitable. From the 24-hour marathons of cop shows on television, to the growing popularity of “true crime” podcasts, people seem to be obsessed with the idea that the police keep us safe.

This belief is why instances of police violence can feel so shocking to people who don’t live in fear of the cops daily. Recognizing the harm that police inflict on society daily—through rampant sexual misconduct, racist practices of surveillance, and police brutality and killings—abolitionists like myself have been yelling that we need to abolish police. At this moment, it feels like more people than ever before are listening.

What does it mean to “abolish the police”?

As with calls to defund the police, the movement to abolish police is just another step in our long-game goal of dismantling the entire prison industrial complex. While some supporters of prison reform may want to defund only to start over with a more diverse and better-trained version, abolitionists are organizing for a world without policing.

Police officers are just one deadly part of a system that takes away people’s agency and safety under the guise of providing “accountability.” As abolitionists, we work toward accountability with ourselves and our community every day. We believe in people’s ability to rectify harm, in an environment that recognizes that the society that we live in often facilitates and creates the conditions for harm to occur. We also push back on the idea of “legality,” recognizing that just because something is illegal does not make it inherently unethical, and instead realize that the framework for criminality in the United States is steeped in anti-Blackness.

Who will we call instead?

Our community. The abolition of policing will require us to transform our relationships with each other and build community with people we previously felt disconnected from. This requires vulnerability and honesty, and also being intentional about identifying who we can call before harm happens. Working with our neighbors to make sure we keep each other safe, finding solidarity with our broader community through mutual aid projects, and learning about and appreciating each other’s cultures are just some of the ways we can work to create a police-free world.

We are fighting for community-based restorative justice so people can heal the hurt that has taken place between them interpersonally. We are also working to radically shift the conditions that harm occurs through transformative justice as well.

What about the murderers?

One of the things the prison industrial complex (and military industrial complex) does is it redefines who gets to be deemed human. This means that people are able to reason away the deaths of incarcerated people, victims of police violence, and victims of the U.S. imperialism—but are against prison abolition because of murderers.

Abolitionists believe in accountability, and as a central part of accountability, we also believe in people’s ability to change. Through transformative justice, we hope to build a world where instances of physical violence decrease because people’s basic needs are met, and they are able to spend time pouring into their community and using skills they’ve learned to manage conflict.

What about sexual harm?

While this is commonly used as a “gotcha” point against abolitionists, people have long theorized what a world without police will look like with respect to physical violence and sexual harm. Much of the work to address sexual harm is in fact led by survivors like myself, who do not want to see carceral feminism (the belief that harsher prison sentences will help solve gendered or sexual violence) gain traction under the guise of protecting us from harm.

Groups like INCITE! a network of feminists of color who organize to end state, community, and domestic violence, are notable for creating toolkits around these issues. Survived and Punished, my political home, comprises of people who are working to broaden our analysis around how sexual violence intertwines with the prison industrial complex. As organizers, we raise awareness about the fact that people who are survivors of sexual harm are often criminalized and incarcerated because of the same laws that are supposedly in place to protect them. Black women, trans people, immigrants, and people with disabilities fear going to the police because they know that doing so will open them up to more potential harm.

An uncomfortable fact for most people to grapple with is that there is no way to end sexual violence without ending the carceral state and abolishing the jobs of those who work within it—especially police officers. Many police officers have been caught using their power to coerce and threaten people into sex through undercover “stings” to arrest and endanger sex workers. They also are responsible for violence within their homes. People who are in prison are sexually assaulted daily through strip searches, violations of privacy, medical trauma, and a lack of access to menstrual products.

Black women, trans people, immigrants, and people with disabilities fear going to the police because they know that doing so will open them up to more potential harm.

This is also not a secret. Because of anti-Blackness and the pro-cop propaganda we are fed daily, when someone we dislike is sent to prison, many people allude to the fact that people within prisons will be assaulted with comments like “don’t drop the soap.” Not only does this further the idea that sexual assault is a “punishment” for people who are “bad,” it shows that people are not as actively committed to stopping sexual violence as they think they are.

We don’t stop sexual violence and murder through sentencing people to a system where there is more violence created, and we aren’t helping anyone when we pretend that abusive people are just scary characters lurking in the dark. We end sexual violence by getting to its roots and understanding that we have a culture that fosters sexual harm. We can work to fight against this culture by understanding that most people experience violence from people they know personally, and they also do not end up reporting.

Through restorative justice, groups like Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective and Ahimsa Collective are working to handle sexual harm within the community without calling the cops. Books like Beyond Survival and The Revolution Starts at Home propose alternatives to handling sexual harm within communities. Everyday people are working for ways to foster accountability without relying on the cops, and we need as much creativity as possible.

How realistic is this?

As activist and scholar Angela Davis and others have pointed out, abolitionists working to end chattel slavery in the United States in the 19th century had no reason to believe that slavery would ever end. However, through working together and creating tools within their community, they were able to make the impossible possible.

Abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “abolition is not absence, it is presence.” The presence I envision when organizing is not the presence of fear around police violence, it is the presence of my friends, loved ones, and comrades working to build a better world where none of us are disposable.