On June 16, the Urban League of Louisiana hosted a two-hour, three-panel webinar with the title “Police Reform? Let’s Talk About It.” The cast of Black Louisianans invited to talk about the possibility of police reform included a range of state and local politicians, CEOs, and non-profiteers. About halfway into the event, the moderator called on karen “kg” marshall, Executive Director of Rethink, a New Orleans youth organization. “We need specific reforms,” the moderator said. “What are you hearing, from your constituents… from everyday people?”
“We work specifically with Black young people in New Orleans,” marshall said. “We talk to young people and their families about this, and we’ve heard, without a doubt, with no equivocation, that folks want abolition.”
Abolishing the police: a startling idea, the first time one hears it. A lot of the systems in modern society run on fear. Advertisements play on our anxieties. We are told to fear one another, to fear strangers, to fear change. We’re told we can’t resolve our own problems, that we need experts, technologies, and the intervention of the State. We’re told we need police.
I know people who, in the aftermath of the 2005 federal levee failures, experienced a New Orleans without police and didn’t like it. But in the words of Mariame Kaba, a prominent organizer against criminalization, “You can’t just focus on what you don’t want, you have to focus also on what you do want. The world you want to live in is also a positive project of creating new things.”
In a blockbuster June 12 opinion piece for The New York Times, Kaba lays out a definitive argument for police abolition. “We are not abandoning our communities to violence,” she writes. “We don’t want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete.”
That’s the transformative goal of police abolition, and the imaginative challenge of a New Orleans without police: a New Orleans where we finally address the underlying problems, both systemic and interpersonal, that we for so long and so unsuccessfully have attempted to suppress or address via cops.
When you look at an institution like Angola Penitentiary, a former slave plantation that transitioned seamlessly into a prison, the continuity between slavery and the modern-day criminal justice system is clear. It’s clear when you see the six-pointed “runaway slave patrol” badge that morphed into the modern-day sheriff’s star. Especially in New Orleans, a city whose wealth derived from being the country’s biggest slave market, it’s impossible to disentangle American police and prisons from white supremacy.
Even those who look askance at today’s Movement for Black Lives generally agree (in public) that slavery was a moral abhorrence, but slavery in the United States wasn’t just a blip. Spanish colonists brought enslaved Africans to St. Augustine almost 200 years before the Declaration of Independence. Even before America existed, slavery was a fundamental American institution. The largest global economies in human history, spanning generations, were built from and relied on it.
I invoke this past because I think it’s important to confront just how difficult it must have been, a few centuries back, to take seriously the idea of ending slavery. Abolishing slavery entirely would have seemed a very crazy, very unrealistic prospect even to many who considered it evil.
As the scholar Derecka Purnell wrote a few years ago, “[A]bolition required more than just disappearing enslaved people from plantations. Society had to eliminate its reliance on forced and brutal labor… Overseers, plantation owners, and slave importers had to become obsolete. Amendments were added to the Constitution. Capital was shifted. The formerly enslaved had to find labor, shelter, and protection.”
To imagine a world very different from the one we know is difficult, but as we’ve been reminded these last few weeks, when enough people decide it’s time things change, change occurs, no matter what the rich and powerful might want. Anything can be done; the primary obstacle is our own limited sense of what’s possible.
I spoke with feminist scholar and activist Shana griffin, a New Orleans native who’s been involved in local work around policing, prison, and abolition with groups like INCITE! and Critical Resistance, long before abolition’s current moment of mainstreaming. “Imagining a New Orleans without police,” she said, “requires us to think differently about not just the law enforcement but the very fabric of the institutions that we often rely on for resources and support.”
Beyond police departments, the ideology of policing is interwoven into everyday life. “We’re talking about prisons, punishment, surveillance and the technologies associated with that, as well as other community-based institutions that are invested in policing: mental health institutions, hospitals, schools.”
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a geographer and one of the foundational scholars of prison and police abolition, makes a similar point in an interview with The Intercept. While many public agencies have absorbed policing functions, “at the same time, many of the agencies of organized violence, such as jails and prisons and police, are absorbing social work functions, mental health care functions, things that they actually can’t do.”
griffin also noted that the killers of Ahmaud Arbery, like the man who killed Trayvon Martin, weren’t police officers. The ideology of policing means that non-police feel “deputized,” formally or otherwise, to engage in violent policing practices. “Abolition requires a shift in how we think about ‘public safety,'” griffin said. “Public safety is not the presence of police and carceral institutions. For abolitionists, public safety is permanently affordable and safe housing, communities and environments free of toxic exposure and polluting industries, sustainable livelihoods, quality education, mental health resources—universal, non-coercive health care services, and community of accountability and transformative justice practices when harm occurs.”
Many of the people I talked to and read regarding police abolition addressed the notion of public safety. In the New Orleans 2020 budget, “Public Safety” is the category that uses 62% of our city’s General Fund, the discretionary spending pool that our property and sales taxes go into. It’s not all NOPD, but NOPD is the bulk of it. $194,000,000 is budgeted for NOPD this year, and 90% of that dizzyingly deep money-trough is drawn from the General Fund.
We’re all taught from an early age that what we as individuals spend our money on reflects—or really, comprises—who we are. If you extend that logic to what our alleged democracy spends our taxpayer money on, New Orleans’ city budget paints an unflattering picture of our community’s priorities and preoccupations.
In contrast to the 62% “Public Safety” expenditure, 3% of the General Fund is allocated for “Children and Families.” As public finance guru (and Lens alum) Kelsey Foster said in an illuminating June 15th budget teach-in about city spending, “Budgets are moral documents.”
The $194 million that goes to NOPD is separate from the $53 million we give to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s office (i.e. the prison), the $7.1 million we give the DA’s office, the $6.9 million we give the criminal court system, and the $750,000 we begrudge the Orleans Public Defenders office.
It also doesn’t include “Office of Homeland Security,” a single line on a single page that accounts for $9.8 million of our discretionary spending. There’s no elaboration or further breakdown of that anywhere in our city’s nearly 800-page public budget document. This murky slice of skunkwork includes surveillance initiatives like the controversial city crime cameras; a significant portion of it ends up in the hands of third-party private contractors.
The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) is a grassroots advocacy group made up of locals and preexisting New Orleans criminal-justice organizations. It originally convened in 20041the original print version of this story erroneously stated that OPPRC was formed “four years ago”; ANTIGRAVITY regrets the error. for the purpose of reducing the number of people incarcerated in OPP, a field on which it’s won some victories. More recently, OPPRC has responded to shifts in the local and national conversation around policing by embracing a platform called “8 to Abolition.” To quote 8toabolition.com, this platform’s goal “is not to create better, friendlier, or more community-oriented police or prisons. Instead, we hope to build toward a society without police or prisons, where communities are equipped to provide for their safety and wellbeing.”
Sade Dumas, Executive Director of OPPRC, explains, “One piece of the #8toAbolition platform is to defund the police and reallocate those funds into the community, into things that will actually keep us safe. Eviction court just reopened, in the midst of a pandemic. A lot of people are at risk of becoming houseless. Putting ‘public safety’ money into housing or early childhood education is what builds a safer community.”
By contrast, many so-called reforms to policing entail spending even more money on police. “We’re in a period now where people are demanding reforms,” Angela Davis, one of the key figures in prison and police abolition, told the BBC in 2018. “The problem is that reforms have often rendered the institution itself more permanent and ultimately more repressive, more racist.”
In a must-read June 24 piece titled “Accept Nothing Less Than Police Abolition,” carceral researcher Lydia Pelot-Hobbs provides a top-to-bottom accounting of post-Katrina NOPD reform efforts, technological innovations, and cross-agency partnerships, and why they aren’t the answer. She concludes, “policing—no matter how refined with regulations, or data, or ‘best practices’—is a racial state project premised on the criminality, and thus disposability, of black life… community oversight boards, or body cameras, or anti-bias training, or charging killer cops—or whatever the reform of the week might be—cannot and will not make us free.”
Entertainment media relentlessly tells us stories about what police do, but those stories don’t match up with what police do in real life. Per a June 19 investigation in The New York Times by Jeff Asher and Ben Horwitz, “serious violent crimes,”—meaning homicide, robbery, rape, and aggravated assault—made up only 1% of all of the NOPD’s calls for service this year.
Of course, those more sensational crimes are more time-consuming than writing someone a seatbelt ticket, but Asher and Horwitz found that in New Orleans so far this year, police officers have spent only 4% of their total on-duty time responding to serious violent crimes. While New Orleans is plagued by gun violence, only .7%—less than one hundredth—of all police time has been spent on homicides and nonfatal shootings.
Except in the rarest, most serendipitous of cases, police don’t intervene to prevent murder or rape; they only come afterwards, to (in theory) locate the guilty party and feed them into the gears of jail. One line of thinking is that our fear of the police, our fear of punishment, dissuades criminality, but the evidence doesn’t support that. As Shana griffin notes, “Crime rates don’t correlate to incarceration rates; crime rates correlate to economic instability and insecurity.”
The (strongly pro-police) scholar David Bayley wrote in his 1994 book Police for the Future, “The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it. Yet the police pretend that they are society’s best defense against crime and continually argue that if they are given more resources, especially personnel, they will be able to protect communities against crime. This is a myth.”
There has been much hue and cry in New Orleans over the numbers of NOPD officers, including astroturfed public pressure campaigns to increase hiring, with the explicit promise that more police would make a safer New Orleans, or at least a safer French Quarter. We now have more police per capita than Minneapolis (a city lately in the news), but according to Bayley’s research, “[r]epeated analysis has consistently failed to find any connection between the number of police officers and crime rates.”
For examples of what a New Orleans oriented away from state violence and towards mutual aid might look like, I called on John Clark, Loyola Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and a fifth-generation New Orleanian. He suggested that rather than relying on the centralized power of the government to mediate our interactions or resolve disputes, our communities, neighborhoods, and even individual city blocks could work together in a more participatory fashion.
“I’d like to see people make their own decisions,” Clark said, “by devolving power down to the grassroots level.” He cited the Sarvodaya movement, a stateless subcontinental network of self-sufficient village communities; the Swiss Canton system, a federation of direct democracies in which policies were traditionally decided by all the people rather than by representatives; and the local assemblies used in Rojava, which draw on anarchist ideology for a network model of decentralized, pluralistic popular power. “There are real examples; these things have been realized historically.”
“The Black Panthers basically created an intentional community in Oakland,” Clark said. “People lived together, they had educational programs, they had medical programs and meal programs. They had a vision of community control. There’s a lot to learn from them.” In New Orleans, he said, “there should be a lot of experimentation to find out what can be democratic and participatory and also work, since what exists now is a complete failure.”
Can we imagine a New Orleans where decisions are made not by the government or a wealthy few but instead by community members at the hyperlocal level? In the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Abolition is deliberately everything-ist. It’s about the entirety of human-environmental relations.” So-called wild or unrealistic ideas, put into practice, become historical inevitabilities. Transformational change is always within our grasp; as the youth in the streets have shown us, those who act, decide.
“The way our society is structured,” Shana griffin said, “when people don’t feel safe the first thing they think of is to call the police. That is the primary answer or response as an individual: I’m calling the cops. But when we engage in collective community building and organizing, that question shifts from ‘What can I do?’ to ‘What can we do?’ …and we can reimagine a completely different world.”
illustrations by Kallie Tiffau