on the phrase: Abolish the police!

Abolish the police! opens vistas of a radically different world. Such prophetic visions are important in the midst of social movements.

Abolish the police! sends a message of conviction and solidarity and indicates a rejection of compromise. Such rhetorical moves can help keep a movement coherent.

Abolish the police! prompts a discussion of possible alternatives, including public safety by unarmed citizen groups. Even if the actual recipe includes policing, these alternatives are valuable to consider.

Abolish the police! is a strong opening position in a negotiation with a police union. It basically says: “We would rather do without you than settle for the status quo, so how far are you willing to move?”

Abolish the police! means changing the responsibilities of the police and moving funds from one governmental department to another–a classic example of policy reform. Note that policing uses a total of about 6% of local budgets, so shifting half of their money from police to other purposes would mean changing 3% of a city’s budget. Christy E. Lopez writes that this “is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds,” but it does mean literally abolishing that “aspect” of policing that involves “the unjustified white control over the bodies and lives of black people.”

Abolish the police! will be understood as: “No more police at all” (not even in your bourgeois neighborhood where the police are generally helpful). It will thus be used in advocacy against police reform, whether successfully or not.

Abolish the police! serves as a label for radical ideas, giving moderate politicians cover for incremental change. “I’m not for abolishing the police–some of my best friends are police officers–but we should definitely assign mental health crises and traffic patrol to a civilian agency.”

During mass movements and tumultuous moments in history, phrases suddenly spread from smaller groups to the society at large and are used in many contradictory ways, promoted by both their supporters and their opponents: “No taxation without representation!” “All power to the Soviets!” “Hell, no, we won’t go!”

There is no point in thinking, “This slogan will be misunderstood and will cause a backlash.” The messaging is not really under anyone’s control. I think the most important move is to try to create spaces within a movement for relatively wide-ranging conversations. In this case, those who literally want to abolish the police should continually exchange ideas with those who want to reform the police. This discussion need not include people who deny white supremacy; it need not represent the whole population demographically. But it should bring together different streams of thought to generate the best ideas as circumstances evolve.

(By the way, although my information is entirely anecdotal, I do think such conversations are happening right now.)

See also: the value of diversity and discussion within social movements; insights on police reform from Elinor Ostrom and social choice theory; practical lessons from classic cases of civil disobedience; Habermas with a Whiff of Tear Gas: Nonviolent Campaigns and Deliberation in an Era of Authoritarianism; Why Civil Resistance Works; and notes on Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.