Micah Herskind | First published at Defector | 2/15/23
What a time it is to be a prison abolitionist! Millions of people filled the streets during the 2020 uprisings, forcing a national conversation around defunding and abolishing the police. The abolitionist lexicon broke into the mainstream. Suddenly everyone had—and had to have—an opinion on the movement.
The newly invigorated abolitionist movement has faced swift pushback, counterinsurgency, and co-optation. Almost as soon as the push to defund the police took off, corporate media and Democratic politicians alike began pronouncing it dead—as they have continued to do in the years since. (For a dead movement, it should be noted, abolition takes up quite a bit of space in the commentariat’s minds—at what point do continual declarations of a movement’s death actually confirm its vitality?)
Elsewhere, the forces of cooptation descended quickly, as those who built reputations on reform worked to capitalize on the moment’s revolutionary energy and rebrand—if not reorient—their work as abolitionist. The organization Campaign Zero released its #8Can’tWait platform at the height of the uprisings, drawing quick rebuke from abolitionists who pointed out the lackluster and even harmful proposals that failed to meet the moment. Around the same time, the much-celebrated Equal Justice Initiative released a (now-deleted) report rehashing a spate of ineffective 2010 reform proposals to transform police into “guardians”—in direct opposition to abolitionist calls to do away with policing altogether and build something new in its place.
But while some have been busy attempting to co-opt the movement and others have been pronouncing it dead, another group is determined to tell us why it should be dead. I’m not referring to the usual suspects who decried the abolition movement from the center, but rather the growing chorus of self-proclaimed leftists and reformers issuing statements, think pieces, and books outlining their opposition to abolition.
There are the socialist Harvard professors Christopher Lewis and Adaner Usmani, who have made the mind-bending argument that actually, police violence is caused by under-policing, and the solution is adding half a million cops to the world’s largest police force. Their theory was quickly taken down by Alec Karakatsanis, just as similarly contrarian arguments made by Usmani and fellow “police state socialist” John Clegg were dismantled by David Stein and Jack Norton. There’s the slightly better-faith New York University law professor Rachel Barkow, who recently released a 66-page treatise identifying the supposed pitfalls of abolition, and Jon Ben-Menachem’s rebuttal. There’s former New York Times columnist and Marshall Project co-founder Bill Keller, who has written most recently about his preference for reform over abolition in The New York Review (despite being previously refuted by Ruth Wilson Gilmore and James Kilgore). And then there are the more subtle currents within this trend, such as the approach of Yale legal scholar Tracey Meares, who has somewhat puzzlingly argued for abolishing policing “as we know it” in order to transform it into “a kind of policing that we all can enjoy”—a call discredited by those such as Derecka Purnell and India Thusi.
The most recent entry into this growing school of thought is Harvard philosopher Tommie Shelby’s The Idea of Prison Abolition, a 230-page book from Princeton University Press whose acknowledgments—mentioning Lewis, Usmani, and Meares, among others—raise suspicions that we are witnessing an organized effort to undermine the abolitionist project from the center left.
Beginning as the prestigious Carl G. Hempel lecture series at Princeton University in 2018, The Idea of Prison Abolition is a relatively boring entry into the growing body of anti-abolitionist literature, one whose philosophical gloss is strained under the weight of un-interrogated assumptions, overstated claims, and academic detachment. Ultimately, Shelby’s book provides excellent evidence not for his claims, but rather for a different argument altogether: that you cannot meaningfully engage abolitionist thought without engaging abolitionist struggle.
Read the rest of the piece at Defector.
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