There’s been much discussion about what organizers and protesters “really mean” by their demands to defund the police and abolish police and prisons, as those ideas enter the mainstream discourse.
One troubling pattern is emerging in these discussions among commentators and academics who identify with criminal legal system reform. Instead of openly debating the demands of demonstrators and organizers on their own terms, or admitting they disagree or think they’re infeasible, many are appropriating and coopting elements of the demands they find palatable, while redefining the elements they don’t. For the latter, they claim that people taking the streets aren’t saying what they actually mean, and proceed to offer what they think is a more reasonable interpretation.
Social epidemiologists have a responsibility not to decenter and erase the 30-plus years of brilliant, sophisticated scholarship and organizing that the mostly Black-women-led abolition movement has done to prepare us for this moment. When they, and the protesters and organizers on the ground in Minneapolis and across the country, say “defund the police,” they really mean defund, and when they say “abolish the police” (and prison!) they really mean abolish. And they have mountains of scholarly and popular literature enumerating what they mean in rich detail, which includes concrete, pragmatic, and proven alternative investments.
Sadly, at the very moment when white and/or well-off people least affected by state violence should be stepping back, listening, doing the reading, and amplifying the work of Black scholars, organizers, activists, and movement leaders, they’re centering white liberal subjectivity and pragmatism as normative and “objective,” and engaging in the sort of whitewashing and gaslighting that helps to reproduce white supremacy.
With this in mind, here is some required listening for social epidemiologists: This new two-part podcast interview with Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a founder of the abolition movement and prolific scholar, is essential. In the words of the interviewer, Rutgers journalism Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika, “In addition to concrete lessons for organizers, Ruth Wilson Gilmore makes PROFOUND interventions in at least five different academic disciplines (geography, social work, ecology, criminology, economics, women’s studies etc.).” I would absolutely add public health to that list.
– Seth J. Prins, PhD MPH, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Sociomedical Sciences
Podcast on the The Intercept
And here are spotify links:
Finally, here are some excellent compendia of readings, interviews, and other resources on abolition and transformative justice: