Jan 23, 2020

Fighting for Reforms Isn't Enough. It's Time We Reach for Prison Abolition.

Our communities cannot be safe within a system that fights harm with greater harm.
By Tanya Watkins / truthout.org
Fighting for Reforms Isn't Enough. It's Time We Reach for Prison Abolition.

It’s time to drastically reconsider what safety means to our communities.

Even as we fight to pass incremental reforms to the prison-industrial complex, we must do so through an unapologetic lens that rejects the idea that reformism is enough.

While we understand that these incremental reforms are the individual trees that get us closer to dismantling the system, we must be clear that the forest beyond those trees must be full-on abolition.

My experiences as a grassroots organizer have made this truth painfully clear to me.

As a former leader with the Chicago-based group Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) and community organizer, I was involved from start to finish in the campaign initiated in 2013 to expose the racist practices of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, headed up at the time by Anita Alvarez. Under her leadership, it was clear that there were thousands of people locked up in Cook County Jail simply because they were poor and Black.

Over the next two years, we flooded her office with requests for meetings. We organized more than 10 direct actions against her and the racist Chicago Police Department.

All the while we had no idea that the ground was swelling beneath our feet. A perfect and tragic storm was brewing. In 2014, a 17-year-old Black teenager had been brutally murdered on Chicago’s Southwest Side at the hands of police and there was a video.

In 2015, we organized a 1,000-person counter-conference and direct action where organizations from across the country convened against the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Many of our comrades took arrest as we called for the resignation of Alvarez.

And on November 24, 2015, as we stood outside her office to double down on our demands, that tape dropped. And it was more horrific then we could have ever imagined.

That night, quite naturally, there was an uproar. Thousands of young Black folks and allies took to the streets to demand justice and an end to their trauma.

Because of our immense pressure, Alvarez reluctantly charged Jason Van Dyke with murder on the next day. He was released on bail after five days with help from his supporters and Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police.

But it was too little, too late. Alvarez was not going quietly and we knew that her office would work diligently to protect a killer cop.

We knocked on more than 13,000 doors and had conversations with over 5,000 voters about their vision for criminal justice in Cook County.

With our partners in BlackRoots Alliance, we collectively registered nearly 30,000 voters.

And on March 15, 2016, a young Black lawyer who grew up in Chicago’s projects with a once drug-addicted mother was elected as Cook County’s first Black woman state’s attorney. One of the first of several progressive prosecutors to snatch seats around the country.

For many of us, we naively assumed our work was done. We assumed that the election of one progressive prosecutor would deliver us from evil and reverse the decades upon decades of systemic harm that had been handed down to us by the hands of police. What we quickly realized was how badly we were mistaken, as the names flashed across our social media feeds of the countless Black folks still being tortured and murdered by police.

This stark reality forced us to have even more conversations, to dig deeper into Chicago’s massive police problem. We found out three things:

  1. Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police was more powerful than we ever imagined and was determined to keep its stronghold on our city.
  2. White supremacy and white nationalism were embedded so deeply into the fabric of policing in this country that they had been virtually trained to kill Black people and terrorize our communities.
  3. There was no question that our relatively young organization had been asking questions that had already been asked by countless other decades-old Black-led organizations like the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (the Alliance). Yes, they had done the painstaking groundwork and had laid out a path to ease the grasp of policing around the necks of our people through the Civilian Police Accountability Council.

And thus began our love affair with folks like Frank Chapman and Joe Iosbaker, campaigns like Take on Hate, and groups such as the Arab American Action Network, our dear friends at Black Lives Matter Chicago, and the other radical freedom fighters that sit at the Chicago Alliance table. This love affair has catapulted our analysis around policing and forced us to start talking about prison abolition as a fully realized political trajectory for our work.

When I do this exercise with large groups, people often mention remembering their family, smelling food cooking in the kitchen, or hearing the voice of someone that they loved.

I’ve never met someone who did this exercise and imagined the police in it. Why? Because police don’t keep us safe. Beyond the historically racists ties of the police, even if we ignore the harmful actions of their union, we must at the very least recognize that no organization whose only real function is to catch people after they’ve committed a “crime” and whose very economic sustainability is dependent on there being community-based harm can actually be dedicated to the prevention of harm.

Harm is what literally feeds this system, so why would the institution of policing and incarceration ever be a body that we depend on to keep us safe? Police in our communities are not there to keep us safe, they are there to fucking bother us. They exist to agitate our communities to a place of fear and complacency. They have tricked us into believing that we heal from harm only by enacting equal or greater harm to those who have hurt us. They have tricked us into believing that cages and state-sanctioned violence rehabilitate people. They have forced us to abandon the idea that survivors are entitled to actual restitution and healing and must leave that on the table in exchange for paying for systems where people sit in prisons to provide free labor to multimillion-dollar corporations. They have bamboozled us into believing that these slave camps keep us safe, while we refuse to contend with the fact that as we pump more money into policing and detention, crime rates in our communities actually go up.

All while they force us to be afraid of that word … abolition. We don’t understand what a world could look like — not just one without prisons, but one where we wouldn’t need them. Prison abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing and surveillance, and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment. Prison abolition would not create a world devoid of accountability. It is, however, a worldview that prioritizes investment in the resources that actually keep us safe — as opposed to violent, oppressive means of punishment, which have proven to be ineffective in creating community safety.

But how do we get there? The only path forward is via community control of police. This political moment that brought us here today must put a period at the end of the sentence pertaining to the solution to police violence. We must recognize that the system will refuse to shrink itself, so we have to shrink it. And while we continue to chip away at that system, it is our responsibility to concurrently dream and design and build new ones. Let’s not leave the liberation of our communities in the hands of the people that hate us.

Copyright © Truthout. Reprinted with permission.

Tanya Watkins is executive director of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (also known as SOUL) and an executive board member of the BlackRoots Alliance, an organization dedicated to building independent, Black political power across Illinois. SOUL is a proud sponsor of the Conference to Refound the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

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