NABG Newsletter Issue 19: Reform v Abolition: What does it mean?

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There is a lot happening right now, both in communities but also online. As the #BlackGirls2020 team has been scrolling through our social feeds, we’ve seen a lot of terms being used that might be new to folks. Reform, abolition, divest, defund…what does it all mean and how are they different? We wanted to take the time in this newsletter to provide definitions, context, and expand upon these terms. While the language may be new to many, these terms and ideas are not new — in fact Black women and femmes have been building this movement for many years, and we do not want their labor to be ignored.

Coming to Terms with the Terminology

Abolition: The belief that a system or practice is obsolete so therefore should be dismantled or abolished in its totality. Critical Resistance offers that an abolitionist vision requires us to build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal. For information about abolition, utilize this #8toAbilition resource (an updated version from the original #8CantWait campaign) to learn more about police and prison abolition. Abolition is sustained work to remove oppressive structures and create new restorative, community-driven, and well-funded support systems and networks.

Reform: To make changes in order to improve an existing condition, policy, practice or system. Many of you may have seen the #8CantWait campaign on Instagram, which offered eight steps to reduce police violence. This is an example of reform, and also demonstrates that reform is not the answer to every issue. Reducing police violence should not be the goal, ending police violence (i.e. ending police) must be the goal.

Defund: An action to interrupt or stop the continuation of receiving money. The call to defund the police is to redirect the money that would go to the police budget to other entities and agencies, such as the Department of Education or Department of Youth and Community Development.

Divest: Removing money, power, and resources within one system, in order to invest it elsewhere. Divesting from the police means not only redirecting money from the policing budget, but also all systems of surveillance disproportionately used in Black and Latinx communities and schools.

Systems of policing and mass incarceration, such as the Prison Industrial Complex, are not broken; they are operating exactly as they were intended to — removing Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and poor people from society and keeping them in a cycle of poverty and neglect. Therefore, reform is not enough. We cannot reform something that is not broken and the roots of which are grounded in racism.

The roots of American policing are deeply racist. The police forces that we are currently reckoning with across our nation evolved from slave patrols founded in 1706. These groups of white men were tasked with capturing enslaved people when they attempted to seek freedom and return them to their owners, as well as quelling slave revolts. In the centuries that followed, the violence enacted on Black and low-income communities by local and state policing proved that reform was not the solution. An establishment built on the history of captures and deaths of Black people will never be a just establishment, and abolitionists such as Angela Davis, Mariame Kaba, Andrea Ritchie, and Claudia Jones have been speaking out about this for decades.

Abolition Has Been Needed

The push for police free schools — which is also a movement organized and brought to life by Black women and femmes — is a step towards abolition. The Alliance for Education Justice provides this vision for police-free schools: “Dismantling school policing infrastructure, culture, and practice; ending school militarization and surveillance; and building a new liberatory education system.” Abolition is creationism — we need to create healing systems.

We have evidence that reform does not work, but instead just removes focus from addressing the root issue. The introduction of body cameras have not stopped cops from murdering Black people, and just this week, the New York Senate passed a law criminalizing the use of chokeholds by police, despite the fact that this was already a banned practice. Police are regularly not held accountable to the law. Slavery was reimagined into Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws, and mass incarceration. Reforms prolong the process of abolition, because we cannot progress as a society when we have systems and establishments meant to terrorize Black, Indigenous, and Latinx populations.

We do not need cops. We need money to go to our communities in the forms of social programming, job development, education, restorative justice work, housing, addressing food deserts, and to countless other areas of society that have been neglected in order to fund a militarized police force. We must dismantle police by removing its financial power. As is the lived experience of Black, Latinx and low-income communities, safety is not cops. We know that safety is when people have the resources they need to care for their communities.

More Resources to Hone Your Abolitionist Lens:

People of all identities who are new to this work are seeking education and resources. We want to make sure we are looking after ourselves, taking care of our mental health and our emotions. You do not need to extend yourselves to educate white people and non-Black POC on these issues when the resources exist. We encourage you to care for yourself. Practice boundaries and invest time and intention in self-love. These are both are already revolutionary acts.

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