Jun 07 | On Abolition

This morning I woke up to read my email and found a message from my Archbishop encouraging us to take a pledge put out by our governor general. The pledge is called #DifferentTogether, and details can be found here.

It’s a very nice sentiment. Pretty much no one would have a problem with signing this.

Which is kind of the problem.

While this pledge does at least address racism in the last line, it’s, for lack of a better word, completely toothless. It doesn’t provide us with a way forward or prescribe any action on how to actually stand against racism. I recognize that if it did, it would be a much longer image that’s difficult to read on your phone and so their social media campaign wouldn’t work as well. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe solving racism is a little more complicated than posting a picture on your Facebook profile (and don’t even get me started on the racism and hate that Facebook deliberately propagates and encourages to flourish).

Pretty words are just that: pretty words.

But that’s not even my biggest problem.

My biggest problem is that the worldwide protests and uprisings in the wake of the horrific murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people at the hands of the police, are not *just* about racism. Quite specifically they are about police violence. And this pledge in no way addresses that.

Storytime: My white skin and my generally anxious and cautious disposition has meant that I have had little to no interactions with police over the course of my life. I therefore didn’t have to form much of an opinion about them or their role in society. It’s a great privilege when your identity isn’t politicized or suspect.

My attitude started to change slowly after the rise of Black Lives Matter, but I still didn’t really see policing as anything other than in need of a tremendous amount of reform.

Then, about six years ago, I read The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America by Mark Lewis Taylor. I thought it would be about the death penalty specifically, and the hypocrisy of nominally pro-life evangelicals who supported it. I have always been anti-capital punishment, and I looked to this book to help me formulate a more coherent Christian stance on that position.

While I did find that, what I also discovered was that the book was actually a book about prison abolition.

I hadn’t encountered this notion before, and was deeply intrigued, but very skeptical at the beginning.

By the time I closed the book, I was a believer.

It didn’t take long for me to encounter thinkers who advocated for abolition of the police either, and since I’d been primed, I began to consider that as well.

What changed me the most there was not a particular book or resource, but marginalized voices. I shut my mouth and started listening. I started watching the interactions between land and water protectors and police, especially at Standing Rock and more recently at Wet’suwet’en.

I also learned about the history of policing in North America, and how they were built not to help, but to control. Control slaves and Black bodies. Control property and Indigenous bodies. To protect property and order, not lives.

I’m also a bit of a true crime buff, and over the years have done a lot of reading and podcast listening about serial killers. Almost every serial killer with a high body count that I’ve learned about has only managed that high body count because they preyed on a population that the police didn’t really care about. Robert Pickton. Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer. Jeffrey Dahmer. Bruce MacArthur. Ted Bundy – him less so, but if you want to pop a blood vessel try listening to the way the judge in his trial spoke to him after he was convicted of multiple murders.

What I saw confirmed everything that I had heard about the true purpose of police and prisons. They are not institutions that desire community wholeness and flourishing, though individual members within the groups may do. They are institutions that were built to exert control and order at all costs. Those who challenge that order – consciously through direct action or unconsciously through the way they look or their economic status or orientation or gender identity – will be suppressed, and with violence if they could get away with it.

On a smaller scale, I also saw how the police were actively harmful in situations having to do with persons who were marginalized not just because of the colour of their skin, but because of mental illness. I heard firsthand accounts of terrible abuse and apathy, of horrible tragedies that occurred because armed police went barrelling in without adequate training. Conversations with friends about times they’ve called police and times they would generally call the police but don’t have led me to realize that they haven’t really been helpful to the people I’ve spoken to. I’m sure some people have had good experiences with them, but the majority that I’ve heard about could at the very least have been better solved with someone else – a mental health worker, for example.

Finally, during protests against the pipeline with the Tsleil-Waututh nation and other Indigenous groups and allies, again I saw problematic behaviour by police, and even had my own deeply odd encounter with them. I won’t get into that here because it was pretty unremarkable, but if you’d like details I can give them to you. Suffice to say that it proved to me that police should not be trusted, and that my collar and even my skin colour could not save me if I decided to stand against their attempts to maintain their understanding of order.

I am still new in this position. I haven’t done much formal research, although I have seen a few studies. Quite frankly I’m more interested in what marginalized voices have to say on matters like these, so I’ve just been listening on the sidelines, and I follow a lot of abolitionist accounts on Twitter, most of them headed by racialized people. Because the vast majority of abolitionists are from marginalized communities. Go figure. In Canada, the highest percentage of incarcerated people are Indigenous people. It took me far too long to understand that that is not an accident, and it is not because Indigenous people are more prone to crime or violence. The RCMP in particular was literally created to control those populations (funny, as I type this I can hear my husband explaining this very fact to my father-in-law on their weekly phone call in the next room).

What changed my mind on these things most deeply were not scientific facts, although they abound if you can find them. Luminaries like Angela Davis have been proposing abolition of both prisons and police for forty years, with a large amount of research to back them up. If you’d like to learn more, you can read The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale, which is free on Verso here.

For some people, this is an incredibly radical and ridiculous position, but the fact is that it’s actually not that radical. What brought me to this position and keeps me there is a much longer conversation that would happen much better face-to-face over lunch than it would on Facebook. But in the last few weeks, it’s become clear to me that I need to be much more up front about it to be the change I want to see in the world. Police and prisons are, at best, a relic, and we need something new. As the world lurches toward more widespread fascism, we can see clearly that these institutions will always be, at their heart, inherently fascist, pitting marginalized peoples against one another and dividing them in order to better exert control.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have watched countless videos of blatant police violence.

I have watched journalists and street medics tear-gassed and cuffed and thrown down. Omar Jimenez, a CNN reporter working in Minneapolis, was literally cuffed and dragged off in the middle of giving a live broadcast, along with two or three members of his crew.

I saw Martin Gugino, a seventy-five year old activist in Buffalo, shoved to the ground by police, hitting his head. As blood poured from his ear (clearly visible on the video), a cop tries to break formation to help him, and is roughly yanked back into line by another officer. Later, the police lied about how the injury was sustained. They claimed he fell. They changed their tune when the video came out and rage followed.

I saw a man stopped at a traffic light in his car exit to yell at the cops for shooting pepper balls and tear gas at cars on the road so close to his pregnant wife, riding with him, and then have to duck as his car was deliberately pummeled with six or seven fresh rounds.

Most horrible of all, the thing that led me to write this post in fact, were photos and video footage of a ten-year-old Black girl maced in the face by a cop in Seattle. Protestors pour milk on her eyes as she screams in pain. Commenters on Twitter snarled, “Who brings a child to a protest?!”

Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that it’s become clear that she and her parent were actually just walking to the store.

Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that I’ve been to many, many demonstrations that had children and I never saw any of them maced in the face by a cop.

Maybe if you’re a police officer, you shouldn’t mace a child in the face.

Police officers are people, not wild dogs. Not tornadoes or earthquakes. They can make decisions about what they do, and they can choose not to mace a little girl in the fucking face.

Maybe if you’re his superior officers, you shouldn’t then send SEVEN POLICE CARS and multiple officers to the home of Evan Hreha, the man who posted that video on Facebook, to arrest him. They claim they went to arrest him because he was suspected of using a laser pointer at the protest. Of course there’s no evidence to support that suspicion, and even if there were, really? Seven police cars?

But it shouldn’t have taken that video to make me “come out” as an abolitionist. I should have done it a long time ago.

I’m not sure how to end this, other than to say I don’t think I’ve ever been as angry in my life as I’ve been in the last couple of weeks. Police across the continent and beyond have responded to charges of violence by being as violent and vicious as possible. By proving protestors 100% correct.

You’ll notice they did not respond this way when crushed against state legislator buildings by armed and screaming anti-lockdown CHUDs wanting haircuts.

As one podcaster I follow mentioned, it’s not that these cities are rioting.

It’s the police that are rioting.

My only hope is that they are being this way because they know they’re going to lose. They know people are talking. I am watching people shift their entire belief structures in real time.

The road to complete abolition is very long and arduous. But the uprisings are teaching us that sustained public pressure is a necessity for lasting change.

I stand with these protestors, and I stand with abolitionists. I have a duty to do so. My great-grandfather was a British abolitionist during the days of chattel slavery. As many, many Black activists see the carceral state as the living ancestor of chattel slavery, then I’m merely following in his footsteps. I pledge to do more to support that position with the toolkits I’ve found.

I pray you will hold me to that pledge, and I invite you to check out the resources on prison and police abolition.

Christianity must be antifascist or risk its soul

I’m not asking that you change your mind. I’m just asking that you look into the facts, so you can make an informed opinion.

Stay strong, everyone.

2 comments so far to “On Abolition”

  1. Chris Elton says:

    Thank you for this food for thought, Clare, particularly for Trinity Sunday when I am reading your words. I will hold you in my prayers & silence my dear as you make this journey in courage & commitment. Blessings, C.

leave a reply