In the Journals

In the Journals – Police Abolition

Allegory of Justice (Sanctity of the Law) by The Metropolitan Museum of Art via PICRYL

Welcome back to In the Journals! This ongoing series aims to bridge conversations that are often siloed by discipline, geographical region, language, and race. One of our goals is to make sure that the diverse voices currently reporting their research on policing, crime, law, security, and punishment are presented here. We are continuing our catch-up and also reaching back further to develop article collections around different questions and themes, with this post highlighting articles on police abolition both historically and in this present moment.

The theme for this post is timely with the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, many of which are calling not for reform of the institution of police, but the abolishment of police entirely. In recognition of abolitionist movements seeking to see the end of the criminal justice system entirely, not only the end of policing, this post contains articles addressing the abolition of the penal institution as well. This articles featured here are from 2020 and 2019, and with some reaching back further to include prevalent articles from 2006, 2000, and1994.

May 2020’s issue of Radical History Review, “Policing, Justice, and the Radical Imagination,” included several articles focused on police abolition and alternatives to policing. The entire issue is certainly worth a read if you feel so inclined, however for the purposes of this post, only a couple of the articles have been included here. In their introduction to the issue, titled “Worlds without Police,” the editors Amy Chazkel, Monica Kim and A. Naomi Paik highlight the global demonstrations of policing power and brutality throughout 2019. They touch on police brutality and the rise of the 2013 Black Lives Matter movement globally, which included the rallying cry of “I can’t breathe,” following Eric Garner’s death – a mirror of what is being seen again now with George Floyd’s death and subsequent protests. The editors introduce the “radical” idea of police abolition and reallocation of public resources to more appropriate community services, which they say is not a result of the excessive violence inflicted by police, but comes from an understanding that the problem is the police force as an institution itself. Before providing an overview of the articles included in the issue, they comment on the inadequacy of reform, as institutional problems hinder police ability to ensure public safety, and indicate that our inability to see a world without police stems from the institution’s embeddedness and naturalization in society, despite the reality of their poor and often harmful performance. The issue itself seeks not to reach back historically to “premodern” worlds without police, but to highlight more recent spaces and worlds without formal institutions of law enforcement.

The same issue included the article, “React or Be Killed: The History of Policing and the Struggle against Anti-Black Violence in Salvador, Brazil,” based on an interview conducted by Amy Chazkel with Andreia Beatriz Silva dos Santos and Fábio Nascimento-Mandingo, two members of the political organization Reaja ou Será Morto(a) (React or Be Killed), regarding worlds without police. The interview facilitated by Chazkel is based on the idea of worlds without police, with dos Santos, a family doctor researching the health of Afro-Brazilians, and Nascimento-Mandingo, a historian in Afro-Brazilian cultural history, bringing historical insights to the idea of abolition in Brazil. Neither participant believes in a utopian imagining of harmonious and peaceful worlds without police, and they instead draw on Brazil’s history of policing and imprisonment to understand how a world might be lived without police. Together, they recount the creation of Brazil’s police force as intended to quell the Black revolts against slavery and fight against quilombos (runaway slave communities), in order to maintain white supremacy. While they agree that abolition is necessary as Black lives remain the target of the police and prison institutions, they indicate that “abolition” comes from a different historical moment that is entirely separate from this one, and remains linked with white liberal ideologies. As with the abolition of slavery, the conceptualization of a world without police cannot just mean the end of policing – abolition needs to resolve other systemic problems and factors beyond policing as an institution.

In April 2019’s issue of the Harvard Law Review, Patrisse Cullors published the article, “Abolition and Reparations: Histories of Resistance, Transformative Justice, and Accountability.” Cullors’ article provides historical context on abolition, arguing that Black political struggles against institutions of oppression need to be grounded in a framework and praxis of abolition in order to effectively challenge and undermine these systems. Similar to dos Santos and Nascimento-Mandingo, Cullors indicates abolition’s twofold goal of demolishing “oppressive systems, institutions, and practices, but also to repair histories of harm… and incorporate reparative justice into our vision of society and community building.” Cullors utilizes personal experiences with the U.S. criminal justice system and as a Black Lives Matter organizer to ground her understanding of the importance of police and prison abolition and its alternatives, including having first responders trained in restorative justice, healing, and antiracist practices to attend calls. Abolition to Cullors goes beyond the institutions of national police or prisons; it includes the abolition of Border Patrol, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and the abolition of the U.S. military and wars both in the U.S. and abroad. Abolition places community, families, and healing at the center of society. Abolition is personal and individual just as much as it is collective, community-based, state-based, national, and even global.

Reaching back to March 2006, Domício Proença Júnior and Jacqueline Muniz’s article ‘“Stop or I’ll Call the Police!’: The Idea of Police, or the Effects of Police Encounters Over Time,” was published in The British Journal of Criminology. The article is heavily theory-based, arguing that the “idea of police,” defined as a state’s citizens’ belief that police are working to ensure their safety and will help them when called, is required to ensure the upholding of laws in democratic societies, but that the idea of police loses its credibility when the police neglect to fulfill their expected tasks, specifically when they misuse force and power, are found to be corrupt, or go on strike. One of two cases that Proença Júnior and Muniz analyze to apply this theory, which they reconstructed from newspaper and magazine sources, is the 1997 police strike in Brazil following the increase of some but not all police salaries. The authors indicate that the complete strike of the police in Pernambuco and closure of emergency response services led to chaos, disorder, and an increase in crime, supporting the authors’ theory that the idea of police ability to uphold safety is necessary to maintain order. As mentioned by several of the other scholars included here, however, ‘abolition’ is not simply the removal of police officers or the police as an institution, it must also involve the implementation of other and better equipped services to fulfill the “idea of police” that Proença Júnior and Muniz identify.

Fall 2000’s issue of Social Justice included Angela Davis and Dylan Rodríguez’s article, “The Challenge of Prison Abolition: A Conversation.” Similar to Amy Chazkel’s interview with Andreia Beatriz Silva dos Santos and Fábio Nascimento-Mandingo, Davis and Rodríguez’s article is in conversation format, with Rodríguez interviewing Davis on her personal and professional experience with prison abolition. For Rodríguez, prison abolition is the only answer to the mass containment and effective elimination of large numbers of poor, black people from U.S. society; and for Davis, it is the only way to stop the prison industry from continuing to expand and repress marginalized populations. They speak on the strengths and weaknesses of the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) as an abolitionist movement, including its overwhelmingly white and faith-centred homogeneity and lack of recognition of racial aspects of incarceration, penal systems and abolition. Like police abolitionists, Davis argues that abolition of the penal system requires a shift of addressing social problems with other an better-suited means than prison, and shifting resources to community support services like education, health care, housing, and rehabilitation. Rodríguez asks the important question, “Why have we come to associate community safety and personal security with the degree to which the state exercises violence through policing and criminal justice?”, and Davis indicates that we need a new vocabulary to replace current language that separates crime from punishment, and identifies how punishment is “linked to poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia.”

While the “In the Journals” roundup feature is intended to include recently published journal articles, a theme like abolition requires the inclusion of canonical sources, to understand how social order was maintained prior to the institution of police. Virginia Hunter’s book, Policing Athens: Social Control in the Attic Lawsuits, 420-320 B.C., published in 1994 by Princeton University Press, included the chapter “Policing Athens: Private Initiative and Its Limits.” With no police force or an army available for large-scale policing, Athens’ methods of law enforcement and social control have been the subject of many scholars, and something that Hunter seeks to understand through analyzing the historical Attic lawsuits. Through a deep analysis of the lawsuits, Hunter identifies that all organs of government and ordinary citizens policed and investigated when extraordinary policing measures were required, but more ordinary situations were handled by citizens themselves and didn’t require the intervention of authorities. In several of the cases, which included a violent attempted theft of a prostitute, an investigation into a man’s free status, an investigation into a woman’s free status and justice for stolen property, and the recovery of stolen state goods, among others, bystanders actively took sides and intervened to quell the situations. In Athens, even official decrees or court decisions required individuals and bystanders to act on their own for reparations – every individual was an agent of law enforcement themselves. Acting in what Hunter terms “private initiative,” individuals were responsible for investigation into their own case being brought forward, including bringing witnesses, researching and submitting applicable laws and decrees; apprehension of the criminal or offender involved in their case with the right to use force if necessary, and with the help of any willing friends, family or bystanders; and preparing and presenting the case themselves in court to a jury. What Athens’ social control hinged on was each individual’s responsibility to ensure the safety of and justice for their own society.

As always, we welcome your feedback. If you have any suggestions for journals we should be keeping tabs on for this feature, or if you want to call our attention to a specific issue or article, send an email to with the words “In the Journals” in the subject line.

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