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You might be an abolitionist, too

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You might be an abolitionist, too

Jul 28, 2022 | 6:30 am ET
By Quentin Young
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You might be an abolitionist, too
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The visitors parking lot of the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, a state prison within the Colorado Department of Corrections, seen Feb. 6, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

The most interesting aspect of the most interesting Colorado House primary race last month is that the candidate who won is an abolitionist.

Media accounts of her candidacy and win dutifully mentioned this self-described attribute, and some clarified that the abolition in question relates to police and criminal justice. But given that the candidate, Elisabeth Epps, is a Denver Democrat running in solid-blue House District 6 and will almost certainly win November’s general election, the meaning of her abolitionism and the implications of an abolitionist sitting in the General Assembly is worth closer examination.

In many respects modern abolitionism is related to the original abolitionism, the movement to end slavery, but today it focuses on forms of law enforcement and incarceration.

Critical Resistance, a grassroots abolitionist organization with chapters in New York, California and Oregon, identifies the target of its efforts as the “prison industrial complex,” or PIC.

“PIC abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment,” the group says on its website.

The prison system is not improvable, because the control it exerts over people is exactly the point, the group says.

“More policing and imprisonment will not make us safer,” it says. “Instead, we know that things like food, housing, and freedom are what create healthy, stable neighborhoods and communities.”

The word 'abolition' centers the tear-it-down impulse of the movement, but there's also a build-it-up side.

This is the key point. The word “abolition” centers the tear-it-down impulse of the movement, but there’s also a build-it-up side. While eliminating police and prisons is indeed an eventual objective for many abolitionists, it is inseparable from another goal — to create a community in which police and prisons are essentially obsolete. 

Full realization of that ideal might in practice be unattainable, but the right reforms would point society in its direction, and it’s this quality of the movement that law-and-order advocates have a harder time dismissing.

The online resource 8toAbolition, for example, suggests eight components of an abolitionist movement. Some of them relate to defunding the police and depopulating prisons. But others are the flip-side of such reforms, such as assuring adequate and equitable housing, health care and education for every member of the community.

American policing traces its roots to 18th century slave patrols, and racism has remained an undeniably persistent feature of U.S. crime-and-punishment systems. Modern policing began in 1909 when the Berkeley, California, police chief began to militarize his department, wrote Jill Lepore in the The New Yorker. This style of law enforcement, which spread to other jurisdictions, “criminalized Blackness.”

“Police patrolled Black neighborhoods and arrested Black people disproportionately; prosecutors indicted Black people disproportionately; juries found Black people guilty disproportionately; judges gave Black people disproportionately long sentences; and, then, after all this, social scientists, observing the number of Black people in jail, decided that, as a matter of biology, Black people were disproportionately inclined to criminality,” Lepore wrote.

These patterns remain in place around the country, including Colorado. And there’s the modern-day crisis of police shootings — police kill Black people at two times the rate they kill white people. Beyond racism, there’s the unconscionable volume of total imprisoned Americans. The U.S. incarcerates people at a greater rate than any country in the world. Colorado in 2021 had an incarceration rate of 614 people per 100,000 — greater than the rate in such repressive countries as China, Iran and Russia.

Champions of law enforcement often respond to any suggestion that resources should be redirected from police as if it were a call for anarchy. But abolitionists want the same thing police chiefs say they want — safe communities — and some jurisdictions have already found success with alternatives to at least some aspects of the prison industrial complex.

Camden, N.J., literally abolished its police department. A new one was created in its place, and, while some aspects of the endeavor were vexed, progressive reforms that were integral to the department’s new culture, such as an emphasis on community trust and deescalation techniques, are widely seen as a triumph.

In the wake of the George Floyd racial justice protests in 2020, many American cities benefited when they redirected funds from police departments to human services. Last year, for example, Austin, Texas, reduced its general fund allocation to police from 40% to 26% and spent the savings on such community-boosting items as services for people experiencing homelessness, food access, substance abuse programs, and workforce development.

In 2020, Denver launched a Support Team Assisted Response, or STAR, program, which provides for a mental health professional to pair with or replace police response on some low-level emergency calls. The initiative is viewed as so successful that Sen. Michael Bennet introduced a bill in Congress that would help other cities pay for such a program.

Yet sloganeers have the upper hand. It’s difficult to recount the racist underpinnings of prisons but easy to malign leftists as being “soft on crime.” Such fearmongering is effective. The Denver police budget dipped slightly in 2021, but in 2022 it’s higher than ever. After some initial support for the defund movement in 2020, by 2021 fewer than 1 in 5 Americans supported its goals.

But the movement’s opponents almost invariably misunderstand it (unwittingly or otherwise). It’s not that abolitionists want fewer prisons and more crime. Less need for prisons is the point. Nobody of good faith could be in favor of prisons for their own sake, and considering that any purported justification for them is by definition regrettable, everyone should be an abolitionist. 

Maybe Epps will help more Coloradans recognize and embrace their own abolitionist values.