No modern grassroots uprising is complete without a robust social media component, and the racial insurgency that has followed George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers has been no exception. In the weeks of anti-police brutality actions that have followed Floyd’s killing, Instagram timelines have been flooded with anti-racist resources and graphics calling for systemic overhaul — and some posts are highlighting the fault lines among activists on whether the way forward is through reform or abolition.
The central tension of police abolition vs reform comes down to a single question: Is the work of activists to create safer, more community-friendly versions of the same systems that have already claimed and destroyed countless black lives, or is it to reimagine them from the ground up?
In the now-viral “8 Can’t Wait” campaign unveiled by Campaign Zero, the police reform collective formed by Black Lives Matter activists including Deray McKesson and Brittany Packnett, eight tidy squares call for reform policies to be universally adopted by law enforcement in every American city that would ostensibly help to protect black lives.
The policies in question include banning the use of chokeholds and strangleholds, requiring police to utilise deescalation tactics and prohibiting officers from shooting at moving vehicles. The graphic has been shared widely online, in part due to its simplicity and accessibility, but it has also served as a flashpoint for a larger conversation among activists: Should the goal be to reform the American police force, or to abolish the current system as we know it?
Seemingly in response, a second campaign has cropped up in response to the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign — one that decries it as “dangerous and irresponsible, offering a slate of reforms that have already been tried and failed, that mislead a public newly invigorated to the possibilities of police and prison abolition, and that do not reflect the needs of criminalised communities.” The result is the “#8toAbolition” campaign, which utilises the same visual format as “8 Can’t Wait” to instead advocate for eight reforms more firmly rooted in the work of abolition organisers — things like defunding the police, investing in affordable housing, and removing police officers from schools.
Despite being a relative misnomer, the word “defund” has sparked pushback among some who question what American society would look like if police departments no longer existed. Who would you call if you were robbed? What would happen in instances of sexual assault? The answer, abolitionists say, is to ask yourself what the existing system is doing to safeguard against the problem in question — and whether a better system might be possible to imagine. For example, rather than having a 9-1-1 call result in police response, abolitionists reimagine specific response and safety systems tailored to emergencies. And, this starts with recognising the flaws in our current approach.
“Has the current approach ended rape and murder?” the activist and organiser Mariame Kaba asked in a 2017 interview with the Next System Project. “The vast majority of rapists never see the inside of a courtroom, let alone get convicted and end up in prison. In fact, they end up becoming President. So the system you feel so attached to and that you seem invested in preserving is not delivering what you say you want, which is presumably safety and an end to violence.”
In response to similar questions about the plan to deal with rape survivors if police abolition where enacted, New York-based activist Leila Raven recently pointed out on Twitter that not only are police not trained to handle instances of gender-based violence, but they are also frequently the perpetrators of such crimes.
“We have spent decades pouring resources into a system that has made the problem worse, and we have neglected *real* solutions that could prevent + address gendered violence, like skills based education in schools on healthy relationships, consent + boundaries,” Raven wrote.
Reacting to a separate point raised about an already-beleaguered Baltimore Police Department struggling with a 30% close rate on criminal cases even with its existing funding, Josie Duffy Rice, the president of The Appeal and host of the podcast Criminal Justice in America, said that that was the point: “Baltimore is spending way too much money on policing to solve only 30% of murders.”
“The fact is that policing in America is brutal and racist and classist, but right now it is also ineffective,” she added. “We do not need to spend more money to make it more effective. We’ve tried that.”