† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, and author of The School-to- Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline and Racialized Double Standards, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice and Considering Hate, is co-founder of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
#Abolition Would Be Easier Than This…
by nancy a heitzeg
One of the frequent rejoinders directed towards the prison abolition movement goes something like this:
“But is seems so impossible! Where we would start? How could people ever be persuaded? Isn’t it easier to fix the existing system?”
Well, no. Currently, activist energy and attention is constantly spiraled into never-ending battles over the most minor “reforms”. Most of these are never achieved to any satisfaction, or worse still, if they are implemented, it is later revealed that they are Trojan Horses which serve to both entrench and expand the long reach of the prison industrial complex. We have said so repeatedly elsewhere, and the examples are manifold.
Abolition would actually be easier than this.
The latest local example of this involves the debate over police use of body-cameras. The first mistake, of course, is to buy the notion that body cameras are a mechanism for “holding police accountable”, which in the wake of the Jamar Clark shooting became an unquestioned narrative in #ReleasetheTapes. As if we did not see Eric Garner dead from that banned choke-hold a trillion times with no relief. Any card-carrying member of the local NAACP and ACLU should also carry with them at all times a laminated copy of Prison Culture’s quick guide to Police “Reforms” You Should Always Oppose:
“1. Are the proposed reforms allocating more money to the police? If yes, then you should oppose them.
2. Are the proposed reforms advocating for MORE police and policing (under euphemistic terms like ‘community policing’ run out of regular police districts)? If yes, then you should oppose them.
3. Are the proposed reforms primarily technology-focused? If yes, then you should oppose them because:
a. It means more money to the police.
b. Said technology is more likely to be turned against the public than it is to be used against cops.
c. Police violence won’t end through technological advances (no matter what someone is selling you).
4. Are the proposed ‘reforms’ focused on individual dialogues with individual cops? And will these ‘dialogues’ be funded with tax dollars? I am never against dialogue. It’s good to talk with people. These conversations, however, should not be funded by tax payer money. That money is better spent elsewhere. Additionally, violence is endemic to U.S. policing itself. There are some nice individual people who work in police departments. I’ve met some of them. But individual dialogue projects reinforce the “bad apples” theory of oppressive policing. This is not a problem of individually terrible officers rather it is a problem of a corrupt and oppressive policing system built on controlling & managing the marginalized while protecting property.”
Once the bait and the hook have been totally swallowed, then activists have committed to hours, days. weeks, months, sometimes years of attention to the so-called “reforms”. In the case of body cameras in Minnesota, that entails fights on the state and local levels to ensure meaningful policy governing the use of both equipment and footage. So develop model policy, spend hours in legislative testimony and this is what you get:
“This bill attempts to balance the privacy rights of the public to access information,” Rep. Tony Cornish (R) said. He introduced the bill, which would be one of the most restrictive body camera laws in the country for a vote on the House floor, where the bill was debated for over three hours on Monday night.
It would only allow the public to see body cam footage if it was taken in a public place and police use of force resulted in someone receiving “substantial bodily harm.” The bill states police would also be able to redact parts of the video that offends “common sensibilities.” Some people, like data privacy expert Rich Neumeister say its police who would determine what “substantial bodily harm” and “common sensibilities” mean. Neumeister said provisions like allowing officers to review body camera video before writing their official reports is unfair because the people they encounter aren’t allowed to do the same.”
So let’s advocate for “reforms” that pretty much give Taser – the #1 supplier of body cams- millions of dollars ( the City of Minneapolis alone has invested $4 million) and gives police departments additional tools for your surveillance. All this with no historical memory of the decades old deja vu claim that police officers carrying Tasers would surely decrease civilian shooting deaths at their hands. All this with zero guarantees of increased police accountability or any realistic hopes of clear public access to footage. And when it seems like this might not be working out, then summon the people again to spend more hours. days, months, more to demand the Governor veto the bill. Yeah, the one on body cam policy which you just lobbied for.
“Individual police departments get to make up a lot of their own rules, including when the cameras have to be rolling, what consequences cops will face if they’re not, and who’s gonna be in charge of collecting, withholding, and editing that footage.
The bill’s on its way to the governor’s desk, but a whole lot of people aren’t happy about it. They include some of Minnesota’s strongest advocates for body cameras, such as the NAACP and the ACLU….
The ACLU has already begun a petition for Gov. Mark Dayton to veto the bill.”
Multiply then, this scenario times a million locales and issues — the amount of human, social and actual capital expended for naught will make your head spin. It is clearly unsustainable, and yet they would have you do this forever. Let’s be brutally honest too about the interests served here. Unless you are part of The Machine, the non-profit industrial complex, or the celebrity activist click-bait circuit, there is nothing but exhaustion here for you.
So tell me again how unrealistic Abolition is. And I will say — and i hope someday you say it too :
Abolition would be easier than this..