Leaving the Cops Behind in 2015
By Hira Mahmood , Muna Mire , Isabelle Nastasia , Victor Casillas Valle and Queen Arsem-O'Malley
We write to you as dispossessed queer youth and youth of color from Atlanta, Boston, Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Oakland. Over the past several months we have taken part in a national uprising against police violence and the killing of Black people in the streets of the United States. There are some for whom this is, indeed, an uprising against the police and the State. Regardless of which camp you fall into, on this New Year’s Day, we want to speak to this generation and all those facing systemic violence at the hands of the State. We struggle with you and are building with you to leave the cops behind as we move into 2015.
The Movement Moment
Since the trial and verdict claiming George Zimmerman ‘not guilty’ in 2013, the tensions in the U.S. around racist policing continue to swell as we recall more stolen Black lives, from Islan Nettles, to Mike Brown, to Eric Garner, to Darrien Hunt, and 7-year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was murdered in her sleep by a police officer in her Detroit home during a police raid.
Trans women of color — especially Black trans women — are systematically targeted by the police, their existence criminalized as health, employment and educational institutions are foreclosed to them. We evoke the names of 21-year-old Deshawnda Sanchez who was murdered in Los Angeles, Tiffany Edwards of Ohio who was found shot to death, and Zoraida Reyes of Orange Co. who was found dead in a dumpster behind a Dairy Queen. As this burgeoning movement against police violence pushes forward a new orientation of Black political struggle, we might be witnessing the melding of old Black nationalist calls of a ‘love Black/live Black/buy Black’ and an affirmation that all Black lives along the gender spectrum matter, including ‘Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black undocumented folks, folks with records, women.’ Moreover, this articulation of the movement is coming directly from queer Black women.
Origins of Policing
To understand the nature of an institution, it is useful to understand its history. Police in early colonial America began as forces to protect white settlers from Native peoples, and in many southern areas, police began as slave patrols claiming that freed Black people were the most dangerous threat to white life. As resistance and uprisings amongst enslaved peoples swelled, slave patrols were formed to capture, punish, and return runaway slaves. Of course, slave patrols did not limit themselves to capturing and brutalizing slaves — they captured Native peoples as well by enforcing early identification laws. Thus, from their earliest iteration, police in America were designed to oppress and criminalize non-white populations. In the 1800s, local politicians would hire police to keep themselves them in power, as the police would supposedly “encourage” citizens to vote for the politician they were hired by — just as politicians use police today to maintain a hierarchy of power and to ensure the status quo remains in tact.
By the end of WWII, many Black people fled to the west coast from the south. In an efforts to quell rioting and resistance, the Oakland Police Department heavily recruited officers from the south to utilize their white supremacist sentiments and repressive police tactics.
Reforms in the early 20th century attempted to professionalize the police, which also meant an increased emphasis on crime control — a move that would come to define the relationship between police forces and civilian populations. In the last 50 years, U.S. border patrol and police forces have become increasingly militarized, growing rapidly into an army of occupation.
Reviewing this brutal history, we can clearly see plain as day that this system isn’t broken, it was built this way. We can see that the police’s role is to protect property and the State as well as punish and control Black bodies. This role has not changed historically even if the faces of police officers sometimes do.
A World Without Cops in Our Lifetime
As our friends at Mask Magazine articulated, a world where Black lives matter and a world without police is not a new world, but “a collision of many”. We’ve already seen conversations of police abolition over reform enter into the mainstream — with publications like Rolling Stone coming out in support of community alternatives to policing. But how do we actualize a world without police in our lifetime?
The road map has been laid out for us. We can make additions and edits to these abolitionist cartographies along the way. Last year, our writers laid out some of these ideas in “We Beliebe Another World is Possible.” In case you missed it, here’s a refresher: the models are out there, let’s invest in them. We can look to groups like the Audre Lorde Project’s Safe Outside the System as “small scale examples of prefigurative institutions that are building alternatives to the current system of punishment” and learn from models of direct material support to those affected by the prison system including Black & Pink and the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project. It’s important to note that many communities do not call the police, even in most emergency situations like domestic violence, out of fear of retaliation – these are the communities where alternatives to policing abound. While naysayers to police and prison abolition ask in unison: what do we do with the rapists and murderers? You know, the dangerous ones? Mimicking the vigorous gestures of many before us, we will continue to point fingers at the police, bankers and border patrol as those who cause the most harm in this country, and globally.
We wish to follow the lead of the communities already living and breathing resistance to gendered and sexual violence without calling the cops. We just need to listen to them and follow suit. Like local organizers in Oakland with the BlackOut Collective said: strong communities make police obsolete. We must follow the bread crumbs of projects like Prison Culture who told us which prison reforms we should always oppose.
We must revisit the works of elders like Assata Shakur whose name is resurfacing as President Obama claims to be resuming a diplomatic relationship with Cuba where she is currently living in exile. Significantly, Shakur has called herself a “twenty-first century slave.” Her articulation draws a direct connection between the underground railroad and routes for escaped slaves seeking freedom, and jailbreaks from the U.S. prison system. This connection is not a stretch as prisons are a legal-form of slavery under the U.S. Constitution and thrive off the continued subjugation of Black lives under the guise of post-racialism and the continued implementation of moves such as the war on drugs.
Let’s stop reinventing the wheel, and instead spend time scaling-up and distributing the tools and resources generated by folks who do the thankless (and paycheck-less) work of prisoner solidarity organizing every single day. Most people scratch their heads at terms like “restorative justice” and “transformative justice” but respond best to concrete examples that have been proven work and are implementable. Honestly, we don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all answer to “if not prisons then, what?” We find comfort in knowing that the history of resistance to punitive structures, and models of accountability and justice pre-date our contrarian questions by literally hundreds of years.
Reclaiming the stolen parts of our imaginations and dreaming beyond police and prisons is full-time creative, intellectual and emotional labor. But we will not settle for weak reforms. We see decriminalization, decarceration, defunding police, closing detention centers and prisons, supporting individual acts and organized resistance on the inside, and the building of alternatives on the outside, all as a part of a larger strategy for the world we want. In the short-term, we want to make the headlines read “hundreds pulled back from the arms of police on the streets” and have it not just refer to activists; “mass bail fund and legal fees raised” and have it not just open to those deemed political by our organizing committees. This is within our collective grasp.
Our New Year’s resolution is re-committing our work to center those most affected by violence, calling out bullshit reforms that expand the power of the police, challenging notions of innocence that deem anybody in our world disposable and worthy of imprisonment, and continuously bringing police and prison abolition into day-to-day conversation in our homes and in the streets.
Will you join us?