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The spray-painted words “abolish police” on a Los Angeles sidewalk.
More than 1,000 people gathered to protest the death of George Floyd and call for “abolishing the police” in downtown Los Angeles on June 5, 2020.
Jay L. Clendenin /Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

What the public is getting right — and wrong — about police abolition

Yes, the movement calls for a complete end to policing. No, it’s not a political fad.

The idea of police abolition reached the mainstream this year after the police killings of Black Americans like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. People gathered in the streets in numbers never before seen, chanting humanitarian pleas of “Black lives matter” and solutions like “defund” and “abolish the police.” The deaths, whether caught on camera or not, sparked a collective rage against the police and systemic racism that is still burning.

For people long familiar with the terrors of policing, the widespread calls for reform (with efforts like banning no-knock warrants and requiring the immediate release of body camera footage after a police shooting) felt like some relief. But the more progressive calls for defunding (moving resources away from police officers to alternative first-responder services and community programs) and abolition (straight-up doing away with the entire prison industrial complex) have inspired a way forward.

Abolition of the prison industrial complex has existed as a movement for decades. Activists have long argued that locking people in cages and relentlessly funding the police are not the answers to society’s problems. However, when the recent protests erupted, skeptics called police abolition extreme and impossible. Now, five months later, doubters have cast it off as a political fad, an idea that’s gimmicky and fleeting. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement has also dropped since June, polls show, though the movement remains strong with Black supporters.

But the calls for abolition seem quieter because protests, and the social justice movement in general, are no longer making headlines because the media is focused on the impending election. Activists who have rallied around cases like Taylor’s, though, are still making demands in an effort to seek justice from a system that some argue is rotten to its core, and Black people are still being killed by police — from Walter Wallace in Philadelphia to Karon Hylton in Washington, DC.

As people continue to protest, they are coming to terms with demands that are at odds: If the prison industrial complex must be abolished, why call for anyone’s incarceration — even the incarceration of the officers who shot Taylor or Wallace?

So where do we go from here? How can abolition continue to capture the broader imagination, and how can the public come to terms with the idea of a future with no police and no prisons?

Rachel Herzing, a longtime prison industrial complex abolitionist and executive director of the Center for Political Education, an group that supports progressive social movements, believes that the fight for abolition is incompatible with police reform efforts and demands that “killer cops” be prosecuted and locked up in cages. Moreover, Herzing dismisses the idea that abolition is a passing trend.

“We can remind ourselves that our movements do not spring from the ideas of some social media ‘influencer’ and are not tied to a slogan on a t-shirt, but have deep roots in decades, even centuries, of grassroots organizing,” Herzing told me.

I talked to Herzing about the wave of attention that abolition has gotten in 2020 and why she says that the abolitionist imagination is far from limited. According to Herzing, activists must continue to fight for the future they wish to have. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Fabiola Cineas

Can you talk a little bit about what it means to abolish the police? Are there some key points that you think people are getting right or wrong?

Rachel Herzing

What most people are getting right is the bottom line. Most people understand the abolition of policing, for instance, to be about the elimination of the police. I think Donald Trump gets that right. That is ultimately the goal of abolishing policing: to eliminate the use of it.

But I think what people are getting wrong inside of that is that this is an on-and-off spigot of what currently exists. The way that that sometimes gets articulated is, if there’s no cops then there’s chaos, like there’s some kind of one-to-one correlation. There’s only one option.

People also sometimes think that it’s possible to achieve the goal of policing abolition while still building up the institution of policing. So there are people who are like, “Yeah, I’m an abolitionist! And what that means is cops should get more training.” But if you invest more resources into the institution of policing, it’s impossible to eliminate.

Or the idea that you can use criminal prosecution to bring some kind of remedy to policing. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how the prison industrial complex works. But some people want to cling on to that because it’s the only thing that we ever get offered; we just don’t get offered anything besides cops in cages.

And in general, cops are all we ever get offered as solutions. There’s a cat in a tree: cop. There’s a murder down the street: cop. And these things are not equivalent. The idea that we can live without that is very, very hard for people to understand, not because it’s complicated, but because there are so many constraints placed on our ability to even think beyond that. Those constraints include training we get as kids, such as, “Don’t talk to strangers,” but, “Look for a cop.” Or we bring Officer Friendly into elementary schools. Or every piece of media that you film needs to have some kind of cop attached to it in some way. Or the normalization of cops at the mall or in your school. We’re up against a lot to shift that. And it’s possible to shift that, but I do think that it’s one of the things that makes thinking about abolitionist politics challenging.

Protesters rally in Malcolm X Park before taking to the streets to call for justice in the killing of Walter Wallace Jr. at the hands of Philadelphia police, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 2020.
Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Fabiola Cineas

What do you say to people who recognize that there’s a problem with policing but say the problem is that we don’t have enough police? Or they say that we just need to make sure that the police receive training so that interactions with people are positive, or that we just need community policing?

Rachel Herzing

My gut reaction to that is that those kinds of responses fundamentally misunderstand the nature of policing or what policing is meant to do. Policing is meant to contain and control the people who pose the greatest threat to the power structure. And so, if you understand what the nature of policing is, and again, if you have political goals that believe that containment and control of people seeking a reorganization of power is an affirmative thing, then you will want training. You will want there to be more cops. You will want them to be better equipped to do that.

If you are not in support of that — if you think people should be able to fight for their own liberation and their self-determination and that women, femmes, and gender non-conforming people should be able to express their gender identities as they see fit rather than as what the legalized norms are, and that young people should be able to socialize in groups outside of their houses, and that Black people should be able to walk down the street without being harassed by state agents — then you cannot invest anything additional in policing because it just gives it more weapons to do more of those things, because that is what it is set up to do.

Fabiola Cineas

With all of this in mind, there were two very prominent social justice calls heard this summer on the streets and in social media: “arrest the cops who shot Breonna Taylor” and “abolish the police.” Can you help me unpack how the former clashes with, or even contradicts, the latter?

Rachel Herzing

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of groups call for the arrest and prosecution of cops who kill community members. And, generally speaking, the way that I interpret those calls is related to some of the stuff that we were just talking about — which is that even though the system demonstrates itself over and over and over just to be completely rotten to the core and completely harmful, there is some amount of recuperation of that system that people want to do because we get so indoctrinated into believing that that is the remedy for everything.

I see it as kind of a combination of things that happen frequently when these kinds of demands get made. One, using the system against itself really just has some very serious limitations baked into it. Two, even when people get what they want, they’re dissatisfied because the thing is not set up to do what they’re asking it to do.

For instance, where I live in Oakland, California, Oscar Grant was murdered by BART Officer Johannes Mehserle. The demand was for him to get charged, and he got charged. And then the demand was for him to be extradited back from Nevada where he fled to. So he got extradited. And then the demand was for him to be prosecuted. He got prosecuted. And then the demand was for him to be found guilty, and he was found guilty. Then it was for him to do time, and he did time. Every single step of the criminal punishment system that was demanded to be used as a remedy was used and theoretically to the effect people wanted it to be. But because that system is often referenced out of vengeance as much as anything else, people were just completely dissatisfied, “Well, he didn’t get enough time.” You got what you asked for, and it wasn’t sufficient anyway.

The system is not set up to actually acknowledge harm done. People think that somebody getting charged is going to make them feel this acknowledgment that the person shouldn’t have been killed. And that’s not what the system is set up to do.

In typical criminal proceedings, you accept a punishment of guilt, but you don’t have to do any public acknowledgement of what you did and frequently no apology for what you did. And there aren’t pieces built in to do repair or to do healing or set things up so that it won’t just happen again.

Fabiola Cineas

Do you have anything you’d say to activists on ways to bridge the gap in terms of the thinking about abolition and justice?

Rachel Herzing

One of the things that I would say up front is, to stay in it. If the last set of demands that you made didn’t bring you satisfaction, what would have felt more satisfying? Figure out what would have felt like a win and what would have felt like justice and then fight for that the next time. And if that’s not satisfying, then put that test to yourself again. But stay in it and keep fighting. That’s the first and most important thing.

Then there are some straightforward things that we can do when we’re campaigning or when we’re dealing with the loved ones of people who have been murdered by cops or other state agents. It’s to say, what do you actually want? And take some time with that and think about it in its full expansiveness.

For example, if someone says, “I want this cop to go to prison,” we need to inquire after that. We need to ask why and what does that do? And if the answer is, “I want somebody to pay for what happened,” which is a pretty common sentiment, then I think we can also ask some different questions. If somebody is locked in a cage, how does that repay you? How does that put a different kind of value on your person’s life? And, without shaming or denigrating anybody, we can also ask whether there are other things that might also do that so that they remember that it’s not this on-off switch that I talked about before — either the prison industrial complex and nothing or the prison industrial complex or chaos.

Then we can say, how would you want your loved one’s memory to be honored? What would be a good honoring of that? Is there some way that the person who took their life can be put to work on some of that labor? Can they be made to make a public apology?

I’m a survivor of harm myself, and I’ve worked with people in the anti-violence movement for many years. And honestly, most people just want some acknowledgement that something messed up happened to them. And they want somebody to take accountability, to take responsibility for the fact that they were hurt. And I’m not saying necessarily that that’s sufficient. But I think that’s a good start.

A lot of tools out of reparations can help us think about acknowledgement, repair, and then the kind of transformation that needs to happen to prevent future instances. Those kinds of basic elements of a reparations framework — the acknowledgement of harm, some restoration and repair, a return to a previous state if not an improved state, some guarantees of non-repetition — all of those tools are readily available to us today. And we could put those to work.

The truth is that every single way that we feel is not necessarily the best remedy for the harm that we face. We need help sometimes to distinguish between what would feel really good in a visceral way right now and what ultimately is the kind of change that I want to see in the world.

Fabiola Cineas

As a survivor of harm, what to you is justice?

Rachel Herzing

Justice is such a tricky concept. I’m not trying to be evasive. It’s a really, really hard one. I may be more interested in self-determination than I am in justice. I’m more interested in people being able to have a say over their own affairs, people being able to have a role in determining the course of their own lives, people having access to the kinds of resources that make those things possible for being able to participate in the economy, being able to have enough of an education to be able to relate to people in society well, being able to feed yourself, being able to have safe permanent shelter — all of the things that allow us to live healthy, well, lives. That’s more interesting. Because justice is like balancing something I need against something you need. And I’m more interested in: What do all of us need?

Fabiola Cineas

I’ve watched people this summer somewhat dip their toe into this discussion and then kind of stop engaging when they arrive at the questions of, “What do we do with rapists? Won’t we still have murderers? What do we do with them?” People seemed eager to get to what they’ve framed as this sort of “gotcha” moment in the abolitionist imagination. So what is your response to folks who ask these questions and see it as a dead end?

Rachel Herzing

I think asking what do we replace it with is the wrong question. And again, it misunderstands what the thing is. If you want to know what a better response to addressing harm caused by rapists and murderers is, then it’s not like, “What are you going to do instead?” It’s like, “What are you trying to transform?” Are you trying to make it so people don’t murder each other again? Are you trying to make it so that this one person is incapacitated indefinitely? What is the goal of the thing? And I think if the goal of the thing is that we don’t want anybody murdered again and we don’t want anybody else to be raped, then the job ahead of us isn’t to figure out how to incapacitate somebody better. The job ahead of us is to figure out what are the conditions that lead to murder and rape.

And then people are sometimes like, “That’s not practical! That’s far down the line!” Well, sure, in the bigger picture, I guess it is. But there’s also really practical stuff in the here and now that we can do to reduce the likelihood that people will be murdered or raped without putting armed agents of the state out to forcibly make something happen. We can do that by ensuring that there are safe pedestrian passages for people and things are lit. We can do that by helping people understand how to have escorts, like your friend will walk you from the train or somebody knows where you are. We can do that by ensuring that people have enough and that people have a place to live. And that people are not desperate.

So how do we reduce people’s desperation? Building a different kind of jail doesn’t reduce people’s desperation. Putting a different weapon in the hand of a cop doesn’t reduce the desperation. Making all of the cops Black doesn’t reduce desperation. We need to go to work in answering the actual questions that are being asked of us rather than applying the same answer to every single question regardless of what it is because that’s what we have. We’re not trying to replace that with another catch-all single answer to every single question. What we’re trying to do is to take seriously what the questions are and then what the appropriate responses are as well.

Fabiola Cineas

Is there a specific “plan” or ”roadmap” for abolition, specific steps that abolitionists suggest the country take to reach an end to the prison industrial complex? Also, are there any policies that federal or local government can and should enact today to move toward abolition?

Rachel Herzing

While many people want to be told the exact steps to take to reach abolition, this desire misses the point. First, prison industrial complex abolition rejects the idea that the various and multifaceted problems that create harm can all be addressed with a single set of remedies. If a one-size-fits-all approach were effective, then the prison industrial complex would probably not generate more problems than it can address.

Secondly, prison industrial complex abolition is more properly thought of as a methodology than a destination, so in this case, abolition would be the process of moving in a direction rather than the map itself. That said, people are taking steps every day to advance these politics, so I don’t want to give the impression it’s all abstract, either.

People are trying to starve the system of the human beings it feeds on. They do that by advocating for people to be released so they are not exposed to the novel coronavirus because of the dangerous conditions inside prisons, jails, detention centers, and other locked institutions. They also do that by advocating for people’s sentences to be commuted, by expanding the grounds through which people can be eligible for release, or by advocating for compassionate release for elderly and infirm imprisoned people. Or they reject sentencing formulas, surveillance, and policing practices that drive people into cages to begin with. People are trying to prevent the use of cages. They do that by preventing the construction of new prisons and jails or the expansion of existing locked institutions. People are also fighting for the closure of existing prisons and jails. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The policy pathways are endless — we just need to remember to fight for those policies in ways that drive us toward abolition of the PIC rather than its reform as our end goal. Organizers, activists, and advocates are offering many concrete policy recommendations across this country right now that could lead to prison industrial complex abolition. Policymakers just have to pay attention.

Fabiola Cineas

When people speak of abolition, they think about it as a far-off thing. And I often hear, “in the meantime” or “in the interim” as we work our way toward abolition, we still need to deal with the system we are in now. So what can people who are moving into this space be doing “on the road to” abolition? Or should we not think of abolition on a timeline in this way?

Rachel Herzing

I think that there is no “in the time being.” The time is now. We fight for what we want now. We can’t say, “When abolition comes, I’ll meet you there. I’m gonna do this other thing over here for now.” Whatever we want, we have to make.

I don’t know who those people who are waiting think are going to do those things. We make our own history. If you really want an abolitionist future, you need to work for an abolitionist future. It can’t be like, “I’m just gonna use all of this criminal punishment apparatus over here. And then one day, abolition is gonna fall out of the sky, and then I’ll be ready.” No, we make those conditions that make abolition possible.

Fabiola Cineas

So let’s say the goals are achieved, the powers that be say the police are done, everyone gets out of prison, prisons and jails are no more. Where do we go from there?

Rachel Herzing

We figure out how to live with each other. I’m not trying to be flip about that. There’s this idea that we’re not ready for our own liberation, and I just reject that idea. I’m not so naive to think that nobody might ever hurt anybody again. But if we really attend to the kinds of things that fuel people, and we really deal with those and think about how we want to be in relationship to each other and the world around us, then I think that actually will be reduced.

We might also have to develop better skills of dealing with each other. We might have to build better skills for disagreeing with each other, for managing people’s expectations when they’re not met, their desires when they don’t get what they want. And it’s hard. What we’re talking about is making pretty substantial changes to how most of our social structures are set up and how we think about relating to other people. And that will take practice and us trying and failing and having the space and time to try again. All of that is everyday work. We’ll have to keep doing that work.

But that’s also not a barrier of the abolitionist’s imagination. The fact that all of that stuff isn’t already in place isn’t a barrier. The prison industrial complex gets hundreds of years of untold failures that have really caused a lot of harm. It’s irresponsible to suggest that abolitionists have to have a 100 percent fully realized blueprint. We need to know what we want, and we need to actually work in that direction.

Fabiola Cineas

Some critics have taken to calling movements like defunding the police, prison abolition, and abolishing ICE political fads. What is your response to this?

Rachel Herzing

When I hear people talking about serious political movements as fads, my sense is that they are trying to discredit those movements, which, in turn, makes me wonder if their desire to discredit them comes from feeling threatened.

I think for those of us who are inside the movements you mentioned, we can’t be put off or discouraged by people who try to minimize our political visions and organizing. We can remind ourselves that our movements do not spring from the ideas of some social media “influencer” and are not tied to a slogan on a t-shirt, but have deep roots in decades, even centuries, of grassroots organizing. Our movements spring from a genealogy of struggle that includes fights for the abolition of enslavement, anti-lynching campaigns, fights for sovereignty, civil rights, and workers’ rights. Someone would need to have a seriously messed up idea of history to imagine any of those struggles as mere fads. We need to take our politics seriously enough to not be distracted by people’s petty, illegitimate insults and remember that we’re actually fighting for our lives.

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