If you do not quite grasp how the occupied zone in downtown Seattle, known as CHOP — formerly known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) — relates to George Floyd’s death, social media calls to “defund the police“, HBO’s decision to pull “Gone with the Wind” and recent flashpoints around historic statues and monuments, you are not alone.
The denizens of CHOP not only wish to dispense with law enforcement but prisons and even courts. Objectives include drug decriminalization, disbandment of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), dismantling of immigration courts, and the legalization of undocumented migration (“open borders“). Media has grappled with how to cover this latest chapter. Some reporters have described CHOP as a “commune“, others as a “street festival” — both of which have drawn the ire of participants, many of whom identify as activists.
Mainstream media has been slow — reluctant, even — to connect the dots between academia, social justice advocacy, legal system reformers and street activism. The backstory is long — decades long — and controversial. Broadly put, the scenes unfolding on our streets reflect less the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent approach to Civil Rights — although his actions have since been interpreted through an “anti-Capitalist” lens — and more the revolutionary roots of Black Liberation.*
“The new history of slavery seeks to obliterate the economic and moral distinction between slavery and capitalism, and between the South and the North, by showing them to have been all part of a single system”, Nicholas Lemann for The New Yorker writes, in “Is Capitalism Racist?“.
Criminal justice reform is, perhaps, the most widely recognized facet of contemporary Abolitionism. Proponents of “defund the police” do not merely wish to redirect law enforcement funds into community programs. To them, law enforcement is a manifestation of white supremacy — irrevocably illegitimate.
Prof. Willem De Haan, a University of Amsterdam criminologist, writes “Abolitionism emerged as an anti-prison movement when, at the end of the 1960s, a destructuring impulse took hold of thinking about the social control of deviance and crime…. Crime’ is a social construction, to be analysed as a myth…. As a myth, crime serves to maintain political power relations … Abolitionists do not share the current belief in the criminal law’s capacity for crime control. They radically deny the utility of punishment and claim that there can be no valid justification for it…. They discard criminal justice as an absurd idea.”
While it may be tempting to dismiss modern Abolitionism as a product of a radical fringe, it is anything but. Its analytical framework rests upon Critical Race Theory, which explicitly promotes activism as a goal. CRT has made inroads into numerous fields of study within academia over the past two decades: criminal justice, feminism, African American studies, critical whiteness studies, political science, economics and American studies, among others. CRT, in a nutshell, evaluates the world through a hierarchal lens comprised of white oppressors and non-white victims. On the heels of Black Lives Matter, which was founded in 2013 to counter police brutality, activists within various movements have found common cause. To cite one of the better known examples, philanthropists and presidents, alike, have called for an end to mass incarceration in recent years.
“The broadening bipartisan consensus on the need for criminal justice reform offers promise to build on this trend, and we intend to exploit it” [p. 31], documents a U.S. Programs board meeting of the Open Society Foundation, a George Soros-backed nonprofit that supports many similarly-aligned interests. “The path to ending mass incarceration requires fundamentally changing laws that inappropriately criminalize certain conduct …. We believe continued support of a group of key partners working nationally is essential to maintain the broad call for substantial reform, but recognize that most reform activity must take place at the state level. … Our strategy includes efforts to […] correct the public perception of crime survivors … and shift the culture of prosecution” [p.32]. Crime victims, the board wrote in 2015, have a “disproportionate influence” on criminal justice [p.33].
“This is what we have been waiting for”, says Angela Davis, author, activist, self-described Communist, onetime prisoner and longtime University of California Santa Cruz college professor, of Black Lives Matter. “All of this is connected and I think that is a moment when there is so much promise, so much potential. Of course we never know what the outcome is going to be, we can never predict the consequences of the work that we do. But as I always like to say, we have to act as if it is possible to build a revolution and to radically transform the world.”
If we can right the wrongs of oppressors past by radically transforming our present legal, political and economic systems, some would argue not only that the benefit outweighs the risk — but that it is a moral imperative.
What is less clear to the Abolitionist occupiers of CHOP, and their ideological luminaries in academia and activism, is this: What comes next?
Cultural revolutions, historically, come not just with ideals but bloodshed. Even if reform prevails over revolution, social upheaval is all but assured. The evidence is mounting: Take, as an example, the rising momentum in favor of pretrial release, cashless bail and sentencing reform. If the rate at which our legal system changes is faster than the rate at which alternatives are in place — mental health services, diversionary programs, drug treatment and similar — it is all but inevitable that intractable social problems, once largely papered over by our overcrowded prisons, will accumulate, instead, on American streets. Already, this trend is evident. Early release from prison, to untreated, decriminalized drug addiction and/or few job prospects, can serve to increase homelessness, which in turn lends itself to public health crisis. The ensuing blight precipitates a vicious cycle of declining property values, “white flight” (re-segregation), falling tax revenues, waning economic development and, ultimately, shortchanged public schools. A hasty attempt to empty the prison system, in this manner, is all but certain to set in motion a death spiral that will make it that much more difficult to advance the cause of social justice and racial equality in the years to come.
Good intentions are not enough. We cannot afford to underestimate the downstream impacts of top-down change.
Perhaps the most tragic of these unintended downstream consequences is the loss of morale suffered by communities into which repeat offenders are released. A recent New York City incident provides a foreshadowing: while passing on the street, a man cold-cocks a 92-year-old women, causing her to tumble to the ground where she strikes her head on a fire hydrant. The assailant is alleged to have committed 103 prior offenses, some of which were sexual offenses, with only a “desk ticket” (citation) to show for his latest run-ins with police.
While the notion that prisons are ill suited to deal with institutional racism, class disadvantage, drug addiction and mental health issues is true, replacing one broken system with another — to the extent our best solutions hinge upon a patchwork of unproven or underfunded alternatives — may backfire. A rough transition is bound to temper enthusiasm for reform, which may give rise to public calls in the years to come for a return to “tough on crime” policing.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Altering the criminal justice side of the “coin” faster than we implement broad and effective community services for at-risk populations, on the flip side of the coin, is the gotcha of Abolitionism. Redistribution of wealth, another goal of Abolition, is presumably the means by which these thorny problems are solved, but — beyond the fact that a shift from capitalism to revolutionary socialism faces steep resistance — activists’ “no pain, no gain” approach may very well define an entire generation of youth, who are condemned to grow up in communities thrust into turmoil for the sake of an unassailable ideal — a pretext to a messy, if not narcissistic, social experiment.
Abolitionists have no answer to a cruel paradox: Because we have failed to come far enough in pursuit of a more perfect union, things must get worse before they get better — if they get better.
The desire for social change must be weighed against its real-world consequences. No matter how many felony offenses are reclassified as misdemeanors for the sake of reducing incarceration rates or improving on-the-books crime statistics, violence is still violence and crime victims are still crime victims. The philanthropist-backed ACLU goal to reduce prison populations by 50 percent threatens to reverse over 25 years of reductions in violent crime, induce employers, large and small, to vacate blighted, less profitable communities, erode job prospects — which is itself a risk factor for rising crime — and, perhaps most ironically, undermine efforts to redistribute dwindling tax-revenues to social services, jobs programs and healthcare. This is why the “What comes next?” question must be answered — not after every conceivable historic American figure is scrubbed from our public spaces but before — in a manner that non-authoritarian political adherents of any stripe should embrace: openly, honestly and collectively.
Rather than place our hopes in an army of nonprofits — or hold out for a ne’re-to-be-realized Marxist-socialist nirvana! — activists would be better served to petition their billionaire benefactors, who collectively own more wealth than 4.6 billion of earth’s ~7 billion citizens, for direct investment into under-served communities by which to achieve the greatest amount of good with the least amount of harm in the shortest period of time!
Righting the wrongs of structural inequality and institutionalized racism is a righteous goal. And yet its success will be limited by the fallout: people who should be in jail, instead return to the streets, speeding up the rate not only with which they are free to re-offend but to encounter police — in sometimes deadly ways. Abolitionism in recent years has begun to see more success than anything by which to replace the function of the criminal justice system as we know it, however broken that system may indeed be.
Simply breaking off the other end of the “pipe” — the criminal justice system — in what sociologists call the school-to-prison pipeline, is to treat symptoms rather than causes.
Do we need prison population reductions? Yes. And yet mass incarceration is but a symptom. The “disease” is what goes on every day in our communities: schools that fail to produce students who are prepared for living-wage jobs and the administrators, politicians and disempowered parents who fail to hold them accountable. The nexus between racism, poverty, addiction and crime within urban America is an insidious one in which a parent, rather than science fairs and soccer practices, is instead resigned to gang violence and truancy. Above all, however, this illness is linked to fatherless homes, a leading risk factor for early encounters with the criminal justice system, particularly among males. Criminal justice system encounters make it difficult for individuals who have been incarcerated to turn their lives around, making it that much more difficult to find and keep jobs. As such, one might logically expect to see broad-based investments in better education, mental healthcare services and drug treatment programs, alongside job training and placement programs, for those who have been incarcerated. Instead, even as nonprofits turn out study after study on the barriers facing the incarcerated, the broader success of this effort thus far lies in legal system reform — success that outpaces effective community services and interventions.
The order in which social justice goals are pursued and achieved is paramount. Cart-before-the-horse transformation, which in practice lowers public safety, are certain to set the stage for public backlash. Success on the legal front, minus robust efforts to improve quality of life measures within disadvantaged communities, succeed, chiefly, in “burden-shifting” from prisons to communities.
There is no practical way around it: When “prison problems” are externalized, support for prison reform, let alone the more ambitious goals of Abolition, will wane. Burden-shifting threatens to accelerate social, psychological and economic harms — a knockout punch to public morale. An uncontrolled descent into lost community investment, poor economic development, declining property tax revenues, program cuts and underfunded schools threatens to conspire, if not by design by default, to oppress the next generation — in which case minority youth, and urban America more broadly, will disproportionately bear the brunt.
Noble intentions on the part of social justice advocates, Abolitionist or otherwise, are not enough. We cannot erase, burn, bargain, buy or lobby our way out of human suffering — be it physical, psychological or spiritual — any more than we can rewrite an unjust past. By now, the fallacy of a Big Philanthropy-meets-Big Activism “formula” for change should be clear: Top-down change is slow. It favors an endless parade of “middlemen” who staff think tanks and nonprofits in effort to parlay academic theory into “re-imagined” public policy. Such broadly-coordinated efforts are bound to engender public skepticism, if not opposition, on political grounds.
As conversations about race are conflated in the public mind with radical political agendas promoted by CRT proponents, Black Liberation adherents, Abolitionists and others, it places communities of color in a tough spot — one in which their struggles are appropriated for purposes they may not fully appreciate or endorse, yet are forced by the unseen hand of Big Philanthropy to “own” as a race-based political identity. This is why a simpler and more transparent version of change is called for: If we sincerely care about those who have the smallest voices, who are neither privileged nor criminal, the tangled web of political activist “causes” will be de-cluttered in favor direct-investment into disadvantaged communities — to change lives, not merely laws; to invest in opportunity today, not merely the public policies of tomorrow.
We cannot change our racial identities. We cannot change our history. We cannot change the reality that no matter what structural solution we may imagine, the results will only be as just as the people who pull the levers of power — no matter what we may call that system of policing or government. Governments, by their very definition, operate by imposing rules — and yet they have little influence upon whether hearts and minds will change to favor a more just and equitable world. When we sweep back the curtain on the Abolition debate, the reconciling we must do as a people is more spiritual than it is political. And so, in the midst of these emotionally-charged times, we must reclaim a simple truth: A good deed is apolitical. Do the right thing for yourself, your family, your neighbor, your community, your country. It may seem too small of an effort to count but it does: Change begins with us.
It is indeed time to demand a better world — this time from the inside out and the ground up.
* “We are trained Marxists” | The Real News