Want to Abolish the Police? The First Step Is Putting Them Under Democratic Control.

Abolition is part of a broader struggle for democracy.

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò

A protester holds an Abolish the Police banner in Irving Square Park in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This arti­cle is a response to Com­mu­ni­ty Con­trol Won’t Fix What’s Wrong with Cops” by Carl Williams and Chris­t­ian Williams.

We need com­mu­ni­ty con­trol over the police to abol­ish the police — because the police state won’t dis­man­tle itself.

Com­mu­ni­ty con­trol over police is an unfin­ished project begun by the Black Pan­ther Par­ty. Fifty years ago, the par­ty worked in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia across San Fran­cis­co, Oak­land, Rich­mond and Berke­ley to try and win com­mu­ni­ty con­trol through bal­lot ini­tia­tives (though the ini­tia­tives failed). They even held a major Com­mu­ni­ty Con­trol of the Police Con­fer­ence in Chica­go in 1973, fea­tur­ing Fan­nie Lou Hamer and Bob­by Rush. Today, that work is con­tin­ued by orga­niz­ers like Jazmine and groups like Chica­go Alliance Against Racist and Polit­i­cal Repres­sion and Pan-African Com­mu­ni­ty Action (PACA), of which I am a member. 

The idea behind com­mu­ni­ty con­trol is sim­ple: We oppose state vio­lence itself along with what enables state vio­lence — the fact that dis­in­ter­est­ed elites and out­siders con­trol what hap­pens in our com­mu­ni­ties. Com­mu­ni­ty con­trol over police is the only demand that address­es both the symp­toms and the disease.

Carl and Chris­t­ian argue that polic­ing is fun­da­men­tal­ly tied to white suprema­cy and there­fore unre­formable. It’s true; the police are white suprema­cist. But so is the gov­ern­ment that polic­ing defends, the same gov­ern­ment that abo­li­tion­ists are peti­tion­ing to make change. In the absence of com­mu­ni­ty con­trol, the demand to abol­ish police is func­tion­al­ly a request for the state to reor­ga­nize itself and reshuf­fle its resources — but the pow­er­ful stay pow­er­ful and the dis­em­pow­ered stay dis­em­pow­ered. The ques­tion is not whether to abol­ish, then, but who we can trust to do the abolition.

Mas­sive net­works of insti­tu­tions, across juris­dic­tions, com­bine to incen­tivize and sta­bi­lize polic­ing as we know it, from pros­e­cu­tors to pris­ons to leg­is­la­tures. Many of these insti­tu­tions oper­ate most pow­er­ful­ly after the point of arrest. Com­mu­ni­ty con­trol inter­venes, sur­gi­cal­ly: By tak­ing pub­lic con­trol over the police who han­dle the bulk of arrests, we act before oth­er parts of the sys­tem can get involved. With­out com­mu­ni­ty con­trol, abo­li­tion just means ask­ing a larg­er set of white suprema­cist insti­tu­tions to restruc­ture a small­er set. Instead, we are ask­ing our neighbors.

One dif­fer­ence in PACA’s pro­pos­al is that com­mu­ni­ty con­trol boards would be staffed by res­i­dents select­ed at ran­dom and rotat­ed through tem­po­rary terms of ser­vice. This process would actu­al­ly elim­i­nate elec­tions while being more demo­c­ra­t­ic (sim­i­lar to the jury duty sys­tem), pre­vent­ing elites from recap­tur­ing police con­trol through cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions. Putting com­mu­ni­ties in the driver’s seat— whether or not they choose to abol­ish police — cre­ates a fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent pow­er struc­ture than the cur­rent author­i­tar­i­an chain of command. 

Carl and Chris­t­ian are con­fus­ing the ideas of com­mu­ni­ty polic­ing and civil­ian over­sight (both, essen­tial­ly, pub­lic rela­tions strate­gies) with actu­al com­mu­ni­ty con­trol over police. Oth­er than the word com­mu­ni­ty,” the con­cepts are unre­lat­ed. Those first ideas change only what the pow­er struc­ture looks like; the lat­ter flips the pow­er struc­ture upside down, putting the com­mu­ni­ty in charge. The rul­ing class des­per­ate­ly wants us not to notice the difference. 

We do not need police offi­cers and police depart­ments. We do need com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty and the pow­er to design and pro­tect alter­na­tive ways to achieve it. If a com­mu­ni­ty con­trols its police depart­ment and its resources, then noth­ing stops the com­mu­ni­ty from fir­ing every offi­cer, hir­ing EMTs and tutors in their place, and direct­ing resources toward mutu­al aid projects. That turn of events is rather obvi­ous­ly abo­li­tion­ist in effect, whether or not the word police” ever changes (though per­haps com­mu­ni­ty con­trol over pub­lic safe­ty” is a more apt phrase).

Com­mu­ni­ty con­trol over police is just one ver­sion of a broad­er com­mit­ment to com­mu­ni­ty con­trol and self-deter­mi­na­tion. The Black Pan­ther Par­ty, for exam­ple, also orga­nized for com­mu­ni­ty con­trol over hous­ing, edu­ca­tion and land. The ulti­mate goal, as Jazmine puts it: that every action, pol­i­cy and bud­get must be sub­ject to the will of the peo­ple.” If that’s not abo­li­tion­ist, I don’t know what is.

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