This was also published in the Oak Park newspaper Wednesday Journal.
This week, Derek Chauvin was found guilty for the murder of George Floyd. As many have argued, this is not justice, just a small measure of accountability. True justice means changing the system so that these murders stop happening. So that people like George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and Adam Toledo will not be killed by police, and so that many others will not suffer daily degradation through the legal system.
True justice means dramatically changing the structure of policing — defunding or abolishing the police. And I fully support defunding: reducing the funds that our municipalities allocate to police and policing. We have far too many police, too many laws, and too much criminalization of people who could be better supported through social services.
But honestly, the idea of police abolition scares me. I want to support it. I want to believe that we can create a world in which destructive behaviors are met by supportive actions and accountability is achieved through community relationships rather than punishment. Thinkers and leaders who have been advocating for prison abolition for years, those like Mariame Kaba, have articulated this vision, and it certainly speaks to me.
But I must admit that I am frightened. Society has told me over and over again, in so many ways, that I need protection. Television and films, political campaigns, how we talk with one another — all of these explain that I must be afraid, and that I need the police to protect me. I need this protection for my physical property and my home, yes, but also for my bodily safety and that of my family. If there were no police, wouldn’t criminals run rampant? Wouldn’t they take my things, trash my home, and injure, rape, and murder those I love? There is no way to answer those questions unless we actually abolish police. But I have called on police two times in my life, and I think those experiences can inform how I think and feel about policing and abolition.
When I was 14 years old I started attending high school in Milwaukee. I was running with my high school cross country team during practice one day. One other freshman and I were running slowly and we got separated from the rest of the team and as we ran through the park, a group of three or four men approached us and stole our running shoes. One man hit me in the head. My friend and I ran back to the school in our socks and our coach called the police.
When I was 32 and the principal of a Chicago high school, I was leaving school and went to go home on the El. I went up the back stairs to catch the train, and at the same time a man came down. He pulled a gun, asked for my wallet, and took off. I called the police on my cell phone.
In each of these cases, the police showed up, took my information and… nothing. I didn’t get my stuff back. I didn’t get uninjured or less scared. The police, of course, couldn’t go back in time to prevent my property loss, my injury, or my fear. So what was their purpose? And although these were just two incidents, I see them as indicative of something larger — many people I know have never had to call police, those who have called could only do so after the fact, and most of those have had no redress of the injury for which they called police.
I know there are many people who believe that we need police and policing…that our society depends on them for its basic functioning. And I know their arguments. They say that if we had no police, I would have been mugged more than twice in my life, or that something worse would have happened to me. And I certainly want to acknowledge that my experience is that of a middle-class white man who has lived much of his life in the suburbs. I do not have the experiences of Black and Latinx people living here in Oak Park or in Chicago. I know that the experiences and beliefs of those communities vary widely as well, and that some people in those communities feel a strong reliance on police.
In the end, there is no way to no way to know what a society without police would look like until we enact it. But I do know that the times when I truly believe in my decisions are those times when I refuse to allow fear to dictate to me. Choices always bring up some fear — the fear of the unknown, the fear of loss. When I allow fear to sway my decisions, I do selfish and shortsighted things. When I acknowledge fear and decide to choose hope or happiness or bravery, I am better for it.
When I imagine a world without police, I imagine that I will feel fear. But I would accept some increase in my fear if it means we can create a world where my Black and Latinx neighbors do not live in constant fear that they or their family members might be gunned down by police, where they don’t walk around worried that the police might stop and frisk them looking for petty crimes, where they worry about family members who have lost their rights because they are or have been incarcerated.
Could I call myself a police abolitionist? I don’t know. But I know what I would choose in spite of fear. I know what I would choose if I were living bravely and truthfully.
Right now, I must learn more by reading, listening to podcasts, writing, and thinking. But if I believe in my soul that we must create a world centered on community and healing rather than fear and punishment, I must also act. Follow the lead of young Black and Latinx activists who are imagining this new world. Vote, protest, advocate.
In the future, I want to be able to look back and recognize that I have been doing the hard work of building an antiracist society based not in fear, but in hope and community. Regardless of what I call myself, what matters is the work that I do to contribute to the new world that is growing.
Please follow this blog by subscribing at the bottom of this page. And please follow me on Twitter and Instagram: