We (and so many others in this movement) don’t want to just rebrand cops, or privatize cops, or make cops “nicer.” The goal is a city without police, and defunding police is one tool we have to reach that goal. But what does that mean in practice? Here are 10 points to keep in mind:
1. Invest in prevention, not punishment.
Whether you agree with abolition or not, it isn’t hard to see that police are a massive draw on the wealth and resources of our communities. As council member Jeremiah Ellison said, “Our police have been bankrupting our city for years. Consistently and absolutely gutting taxpayers of money.” There are smarter ways to structure our budgets.
2. What does “investing in prevention” look like in practice?
Some of this is big picture, like making significant, long-term changes to how our city budget addresses affordable housing, youth programs, mental health services, addiction treatment options, jobs programs, education, etc. But there are also some really concrete, specific examples of what that “prevention, not punishment” approach can look like:
• Minneapolis’ Group Violence Intervention initiative has “helped de-escalate tension between groups on the north side without involving Minneapolis police.”
• Minnesota activists have called for comprehensive sex ed in schools that includes curricula on consent, bodily autonomy, and healthy relationships as a way to prevent gender-based violence.
• Minneapolis youth have organized to shift SRO (school resource officer) budgets into things like restorative justice trainings, school counselors, and more.
3. Many people already live in a world without police (pt. 1).
If you grew up in a well-off, predominantly white suburb, how often did you interact with cops? Communities with lots of good jobs, strong schools, economies, and social safety nets are already, in some ways, living in a world without police (of course, there’s so much more to say here about gentrification, redlining, white flight, and how one function of policing is to keep Black, Indigenous, and people of color out of these communities, but check out the readings on our website).
4. Many people already live in a world without police (pt. 2).
We want to make sure everyone has someone to call on for help. It’s critical to note, though, that for many of us, especially those of us living in under-resourced, Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities, the police have never been helpful. In fact, they’ve been a major source of harm and violence. Millions of us already live in a world where we don’t even think about calling on the police for help; it isn’t some kind of far-future fantasy.
5. Public safety is bigger than policing.
Abolitionists want everyone to be safe. We’re just acknowledging that there are other ways to think about “safety” than armed paramilitary forces with a proven track record of racism, brutality, and a focus on responding to harm after it’s happened rather than de-escalating or preventing it in the first place. We need to explore those “other ways,” lift up current practices for building safe communities without police, and innovate some new ones too.
6. We’re abolishing the police, not abolishing “help.”
Even before 2020, there was work happening in Minneapolis to rethink how 911 works, and who gets routed where as “first responders.” We want to continue that work. A world without police will still have 911. It will still have firefighters and EMTs. And across the U.S., there are hundreds of programs and initiatives that “help” people without police being the first point of contact. Check out programs like COPE in Minneapolis, CAHOOTS in Eugene, and our own (ongoing) list of places to call when you’re in crisis.
7. Abolition is a process, not a “Thanos snap” where all the cops just instantly disappear.
Yes, different activists will have different perspectives on this point, and we challenge people to understand why someone might call for a particular police department’s instant, total dissolution. But whether a community’s specific demand is to defund a department all at once, or gradually over time, the idea of abolition being a process remains the same. It will take time and effort to build the institutions and services we need, to continue to make connections between policing, prisons, immigration policy, and beyond, and to make sure we’re not replicating the logic of prisons and punishment in our own solutions.
8. “But what about violent crimes? Who will we call?”
Prevention efforts will reduce the number of violent crimes. They won’t stop them all, though. A bigger takeaway here is that however you respond to the “what about violent crimes?” question, it doesn’t make sense to structure our entire, multi-billion dollar social safety apparatus around that relatively rare class of behaviors.
9. This new world won’t be perfect. But we have to see how imperfect the current world is.
Will a focus on prevention magically stop all harm? Of course not. But we have to ask: how much harm is our current system stopping? How many murders, or sexual assaults, do police currently “solve,” much less prevent? Here in Minnesota, we had a whole multi-part series in our local paper on “how Minnesota’s criminal justice system has failed victims of sexual assault,” and lots of people have already seen the graphic depicting how, when it comes to sexual violence, “the vast majority of perpetrators will not go to jail or prison.” Redirecting resources into prevention efforts won’t solve all of our problems, but it’s a common sense step we can and should take that will have a real impact on people’s lives.
10. “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” -Ruth Wilson Gilmore
That’s a quote we return to often, especially when we’re feeling uncertain. A police-free future isn’t something that just happens to us; it’s something we build, together.