by Karyn Pomerantz, 11-17-2020
Public attention to issues of incarceration and policing have grown in recent years. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow revealed stark inequities in US prisons and jails, building on the long-time work of abolitionists, such as Angela Davis and Ruth Gilmore Wilson of Critical Resistance, Mariame Kaba of Project Nia, and many others. The horrifying murders of black people, the impact of Covid-19 in jails and prisons, and the persistent organizing by public health activists pushed the American Public Health Association (APHA) in October 2020 to approve a policy to abolish prisons, release imprisoned people for health and humane reasons, and reallocate funds for community mental health, jobs, and housing. To surprised supporters, the governing body passed Advancing Public Health Interventions to Address the Harms of the Carceral System with a 92% vote after a hearing where more than 50 people lined up virtually to speak on it. This vote followed the 2018 policy affirming law enforcement violence as a public health crisis that took three years to overcome opposition. The persistent and dedicated authors of the End Police Violence Collective wrote and steered both resolutions to passage (see https://endingpoliceviolence.org). Many national and local organizations have applied its action steps in campaigns across the US.
On the local level, public health and education activists in Prince George’s County, MD organized a campaign to abolish police presence in the schools by removing School Resource Officers (SROs), armed police funded by the Police Department, from the schools to prevent physical and psychological abuse, arrests, and contact with police.
These policies are labeled as abolitionist, a strategy to eliminate repressive and typically racist practices, like policing, to create a more just and equitable world. Citing abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the APHA resolution defines abolition as “a process of changing the social and economic conditions that lead to harm and of ensuring that people have what they need to thrive and be well, thereby eliminating the need for jails, prisons, detention centers, and policing.”
This article discusses the APHA policy and SRO removal campaign to fight racist carceral policies at the national and local levels, the potential for abolition under capitalism, and the replacement of punishment with restorative justice.
The Campaign to Remove School Resource Officers in Prince George’s Co., MD
The elimination of School Resource Officers and police departments, prisons, and other forms of imprisonment has gained popular support in recent years after decades of organizing. Governments in Oakland, Denver, and Seattle have voted to remove SROs, and students in NYC and Chicago (with support from the Chicago Teachers’ Union) are demanding their elimination as well.
A recent petition, signed by thousands in Prince George’s County, calls on residents to oppose SROs because the program does not enhance safety as claimed and increases students’ chances of entering the school to prison pipeline. It reads that “increased policing in schools is shown to create a tense learning environment characterized by intimidation, suspicion, and punishment, where students not only feel unsafe but are criminalized at a significantly higher rate. This is especially detrimental to the health of Black and Brown students who are disproportionately targeted by SROs.”
Data reveal the severe inequities of SRO presence:
Higher proportions of students who are black, brown, and have disabilities are disciplined, including suspensions, arrests, and referrals to law enforcement agencies, labeling them with criminal records that follow them through life. For example, in Maryland:
- Black students make up 55% of students but had 87% of school arrests and nearly 80% of suspensions (Maryland Department of Education).
- 11% of PGCPS students in 2019 received Special Education services but made up 20% of school arrests and 24% of suspensions (Maryland Department of Education) and approximately 60% suffer seclusion or involuntary confinement, and 75% experience physical restraint.
- One-third (1/3) of arrested students were prosecuted by the Department of Juvenile Services (Maryland Office of the Public Defender, June 2020).
- Black boys get suspended three times more than their white peers (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot (School Discipline), March 21, 2014).
Prince George’s County Fights Back
Mount Rainier Organizing for Racial Equality (MORE), a local neighborhood group, formed in 2020 to protest police brutality and related problems. It organized a campaign against the SROs that included educators, parents, students, and public health activists. They rallied, created a petition and website, testified at community and school board meetings, and pressured Board members to support resolutions to abolish the program. They presented public health, student, and policy perspectives in a virtual town hall to present the common fallacies of SROs. While the School Board voted to keep SROs by a narrow margin, the Board will revive the resolution early in 2021. With two new members sympathetic to removing cops from schools, MORE is hopeful that it can succeed.
SROs do not provide the kind of support they claim to offer. They cannot prevent mass school shootings as intended; they create more risky contact between youth and police. Even with the removal of SROs, we need to ensure that children have real support, such as school personnel trained in mental health promotion, violence de-escalation, and student enhancing staff, including librarians, nurses, social workers, arts educators, and education counselors. In a working-class high school, two teachers volunteered for hours to prepare students for college, successfully enrolling 69 students in college, including several in Ivy League universities. We should not have to depend on volunteers to do this work.
SRO removal does not eliminate other forms of policing young people outside of school in neighborhoods over-surveilled by police who use arrests and harassment to maintain control. These SRO and policing policies will not reduce interpersonal violence among youth that is fueled by poverty, disrespect, bullying, and turf wars, in a group dealing with a 50% unemployment rate before Covid.
Under capitalism, bosses don’t need a fully employed workforce with high educational attainment to run the economy. They can speed up their workers and pay them poorly knowing there are many others, the “reserved army of the unemployed,” to replace them if they complain or wear out. They are not willing to spend on what they consider “non-essential” social needs, such as paid sick leave or childcare that would make working easier. Instead, they hand off these responsibilities to families, especially women. They make it clear that black lives along with many others are expendable, what the author Marc Lamont Hill labels “disposable culture.”
APHA Votes For Abolition!
The APHA represents approximately 50,000 national and affiliate public health workers primarily in the US. It adopts member initiated policies to steer the organization in its advocacy effort while being careful not to rock the boat and jeopardize a “seat at the table,” usually with the Democratic Party. Representatives of APHA sections vote on the policies each year; any member can offer a resolution for consideration, but it needs clearance from the Joint Policy Committee. The Committee’s initial reaction rejected the proposed statement because there were too many references (!) and other trivial stylistic objections.
Because the resolution was a “late breaker,” it will return for a confirmatory vote next year. Members of APHA and other groups should support this resolution, use it to discuss public health approaches to incarceration and punishment, and ensure that we fight for its implementation.
The resolution offers evidence for the effectiveness of prison abolition, critiqued alternative methods, such as home monitoring, and recommended action steps, including the following:
“To move towards the abolition of jails, prisons, and detention centers and to build in their stead just and equitable systems that advance public health and well-being, APHA urges federal, state, tribal, territorial, and municipal governments and agencies to:
- Immediately and urgently safely reduce the number of people incarcerated in jails, prisons, and detention centers, regardless of conviction, especially in light of pressing concerns related to COVID-19 transmission,
- Immediately and urgently develop, implement, and support existing community-based programming interventions, including by using emergency funding, to address the medical and social needs of people who have been harmed by the criminal legal system, including those transitioning from incarceration, particularly those being released in response to COVID-19,
- Re-allocate funding from the construction of new jails and prisons to the societal determinants of health, including affordable, quality, and accessible housing, healthcare, employment, education, and transportation,
- Remove policies and practices that restrict access to stable employment and housing for formerly incarcerated people, including immediately investing in housing for quarantine purposes after release from carceral settings,
- Meet patient rights requirements to be in the least restrictive environment for care, by redirecting funding and referrals from jails, prisons, and involuntary and/or court-mandated inpatient psychiatric institutions to inclusive, community-based living and support programs for people with mental illness and substance use disorder,
- End the practice of cash bail and pretrial incarceration,
- Develop, implement, and support non-carceral measures to ensure accountability, safety, and well-being (e.g., programs based in restorative and transformative justice),
- Decriminalize activities shaped by the experience of marginalization, like substance use and possession, houselessness, and sex work,
- Restore voting rights for all formerly or currently incarcerated people to ensure their basic democratic right to participate in elections.
Strengths of the Abolition Paradigm
Abolition of carceral punishment extends to all who are arrested and held in detention, including those caged in ICE facilities. Many people do not have the money for bail, and many on home detention return to jail because they cannot pay for the equipment or need to violate the stringent rules they must observe. Abolition also decriminalizes survival transactions, such as drug sales and sex work, and eliminates incarceration and other forms of state violence.
Abolitionists, led by black women, have worked for decades to promote decarceration and the elimination of all forms of state violence, including policing, prisons, deportations, wars, and embargoes waged to steal resources and secure markets. The abolition movement promotes a positive vision of society that removes the causes and incidences of crime. It aspires to replace oppression through policing with a humane society that would include health care and the necessities of well-being, such as housing, jobs, education, and the arts.
Therefore, it addresses the structural aspects of capitalism, such as its fundamental drive for profit that mandates racism and sexism, weakening our class and damage our personal relationships..
The Covid-19 pandemic and its accompanying economic and medical disasters generate an urgency to revolt and imagine a different world. These disasters have exposed the huge inequalities of capitalism that allows millions of workers to die from disease, homelessness, and unemployment while a small cartel of industrial and financial titans reap billions.
Problems with Abolition: Restorative Justice, Human Rights or Class Struggle Paradigms?
While people can usually support the release of people charged or convicted of non-violent crimes or have no funds to bail out, many question how governments should deal with people who rape or murder, cops who kill, and those with severe, uncontrolled mental illness.
Abolitionists respond that restorative justice should replace imprisonment. This practice brings together the person harmed with the one responsible for the harm. In mediated sessions, they describe their feelings and situations to enable accountability, acceptance, and empathy. The restorative justice approach between people of similar status and power (or lack of it), such as two workers or students, can be useful and fair. In this situation, restorative justice may prevent retaliation and change the behaviors of the person doing harm.
However, restorative justice cannot really restore justice when there are major differences in class and power, such as a corporation or military force and their working class targets. Will a CEO restore the stolen wages from an exploited worker without a fight? Will the US stop funding the bombing of Yemen because of mediation with Yemeni people? Will ICE stop rounding up immigrants and restore freedom to those detained? Of course not; we don’t expect this, but these would be rational expectations for restorative justice. For example, the Truth and Reconciliation campaign in South Africa mediated between the apartheid enforcers and the public oppressed by their laws and violence. Did this process create more housing and jobs for South African workers? No, the color of government changed and repression eased, but the owners of industry and the mechanisms of ruling did not change. Homelessness and unemployment continue to oppress South African workers.
What do we do if we create a revolutionary, equitable society that is attacked by the capitalists as happened in the USSR during the 1920s or the US attempts to kill Castro in the 1960s?? Do we offer restorative justice to counter-revolutionaries, the CIA and its assassins?
What do we advocate now when killer cops get away with murder and are released from jail, like Derek Chauvin who suffocated George Floyd? Or the long list of cops never indicted for the murders of Tyrone West and Archie Elliott?? Many families of murdered children demand that we “put killer cops in cell blocks!”
Again, we have to distinguish between a human rights approach that reveals and condemns oppression but doesn’t try to change its root causes. On the other hand, a class approach fights to eliminate the sources of oppression and its repressive mechanisms, like prisons and SROs. It struggles over what group of people controls society: the mass majority of working people or the miniscule number of capitalists?
We live in a two-class society where the ruling class controls nearly all the wealth, the armed might, and the institutions of society. Their interests are directly opposed to those of the rest of us: they want to maximize profits and control resources. To do that they have to exploit the labor of the rest of workers and keep us in line. That’s what police and prisons are all about. The rulers really don’t care about women being abused, or individuals being robbed or killed unless the disorder keeps things from running smoothly. They need us to be docile and willing to work for low wages, fight wars, accept layoffs or lack of health care, poor housing and education. They need to keep us fooled about the source of our problems through racist and nationalist divisions. They need the police primarily to protect their property and their safety, both by controlling crime, controlling unrest, and creating intimidation.
The worse conditions become the more they will need the police. As long as there is poverty and inequality there will be crime. People’s means to earn enough for a tolerable life is denied to many, and so some turn to crime to survive. Alienation, racism, and sexism also promote crime – which nearly always involves acts by the poor against other poor people or sometimes slightly better off workers. Robbery from the poor by the rich, the crime on which society is based, is not illegal –it is lauded.
Once workers take power, the world’s capitalists with all their military forces mobilize to retake control. We need to be willing to constrain their ability to do so, whether that is offering them work, secluding and disarming them, or ending their ability to hurt our class.
Problems with the Abolition Paradigm: Can Abolition Work Under Capitalism?
Is abolition possible under capitalism? No! Let’s be real about the need for a revolutionary movement to overthrow it. While many abolitionists identify as socialists or communists, their calls for transforming society are vague and abstract. For example, Critical Resistance admirably calls for the following but never calls for a revolutionary movement to dismantle capitalism:
“We must remain committed to our resistance and our fight to abolish the prison industrial complex. We have made incredible gains under such harrowing conditions – strengthening and resourcing mutual aid networks and practices, shifting the political terrain around policing, and pushing for the mass release of our folks inside cages. Just as we’ve done under a neoconservative fascist regime the last four years, we will continue to shrink the repressive violence of the state–while dreaming, creating, and building upon resources and infrastructure that bring life, self-determination, and power to the people.
Now more than ever we must continue to push our demands even farther and harder. Our current projects for liberation also need to be rooted in a rigorous practice and struggle of solidarity and internationalism. In this time of political instability, there is much yet to be determined, and it is imperative that we double down on our work of building a movement to dismantle the cages, walls and cops that stand in the way of freedom (http://criticalresistance.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/CR_Abolish-Policing-Toolkit_2020.pdf).
Thus to demand abolishing the police under capitalism obscures the basic necessity for force in an antagonistic two class society. While we may demand and even win some reforms, we should be explaining this basic fact of society. In a society run in the interests of us all, there would be no need for crime and much less of it.
Therefore, we need to organize a strong, united, revolutionary working class movement with the goal to overthrow capitalism. Then and only then will workers have the power to terminate policing and racism.
APHA Latebreaker Resolution, Advancing Public Health Interventions to Address the Harms of the Carceral System, https://www.apha.org
Critical Resistance, https://criticalresistance.org
Project NIA, Mariame Kaba, https://project-nia.org/mission-history
SROs, School Resource Officers:
Mt. Rainier Mobilizing for Racial Equality
Talking points in favor of eliminating SROs from schools:
“Get cops out of schools: A fact sheet”
ACLU report “Cops and No Counselors: How the Lack of Mental Health Staff is Harming Students” https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/030419-acluschooldisciplinereport.pdf
“Do Police Officers In Schools Really Make Them Safer?” https://www.npr.org/2018/03/08/591753884/do-police-officers-in-schools-really-make-them-safer
“Beyond law enforcement, SROs also serve as educators, emergency managers, and informal counselors” (DOJ propaganda): https://cops.usdoj.gov/supportingsafeschools
“In times of racial, community unrest with police, schools need quality SRO programs now more than ever”: https://www.schoolsecurity.org/2020/06/in-times-of-racial-community-unreset-with-police-schools-need-quality-school-resource-officer-sro-police-programs/