Photo credit: Jamelle Bouie
This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Gimbel, V. N., & Muhammad, C. (2019). Are police obsolete? Cardozo Law Review, 40, 1453-1543.
- The mainstream response to urban violence—namely militarized police and mass incarceration—not only fails to address its root causes (including poverty, failing schools, mass incarceration and family breakdown, and violence-related trauma—all informed by racism) but also actually exacerbates many of them, itself reinforcing cycles of violence.
- Two prominent non-police anti-violence models—the public health and community empowerment models—“hold promise… as community-centered replacements for, or alternatives to, the use or threat of police violence and incarceration as the primary means to control and reduce criminal violence.”
- The public health approach of Cure Violence reframes violence as a communicable disease, treating those “infected” as people in need of proper care; it has drastically reduced violence in its areas of operation through the work of its local-level “violence interrupters” who 1) “detect and interrupt potentially violent conflicts”; 2) mentor those at risk of violence; and 3) “[m]obilize the community to change norms.”
- The community empowerment approach of Project Emancipation Now (PEN) stems violence by supporting incarcerated individuals to leave gangs, become engaged in activism, and find work in grassroots community organizations so that when they leave prison they return to their communities as activists contributing to social change, both as a form of reparation and as a renewed source of purpose and connection.
- Although some form of alliance with state institutions may be necessary on a pragmatic level to move these community anti-violence projects forward, these should be rooted in the “Black radical tradition” of resistance and community autonomy in order to avoid co-optation and stay focused on dismantling systemic racism, along with other root causes of violence.
- The concept of abolition democracy provides an effective frame for these community-based anti-violence initiatives, highlighting how they can empower marginalized communities of color and transform the conditions that otherwise perpetuate cycles of violence in them, effectively “displac[ing] punitive policing, imprisonment, and the racial caste system they impose.”
Presciently informing a debate that has now made its way into the political mainstream, authors V. Noah Gimbel and Craig Muhammad begin their research with a bold question: Are the police necessary, or are they—might they be made—obsolete? In response, and in an effort to consider alternatives, they first examine how traditional policing and incarceration are ill-equipped to address the root causes of urban violence, actually reinforcing these, and then explore two prominent non-police anti-violence models that can be seen as fulfilling the presumed public safety function of police. They argue that these models “hold promise… as community-centered replacements for, or alternatives to, the use or threat of police violence and incarceration as the primary means to control and reduce criminal violence.” Additionally, if grounded in abolition democracy, these anti-violence efforts can be part of a broader struggle empowering communities to create change that addresses the root causes of violence.
Abolition democracy: “the project of building up radical community-powered institutions to supplant oppressive social structures inherited from the legacy of chattel slavery.”
Although the idea was conceived by W.E.B. DuBois, Angela Davis built on it in her argument for the abolition of prisons, which entails “the creation of an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete.” According to Davis, “DuBois argued that the abolition of slavery was accomplished only in the negative sense”; new community-controlled institutions were needed “to achieve the comprehensive abolition of slavery,” as the legacy of slavery was inscribed in numerous U.S. institutions—today especially visible in the criminal justice system.
DuBois, W.E.B. (1998 ). Black reconstruction in America: 1860-1880. New York: The Free Press.
Davis, A. (2005). Abolition democracy: Beyond empire, prisons, and torture. New York: Seven Stories Press.
Before examining the non-police anti-violence efforts at the center of their research, the authors identify root causes of and primary actors responsible for “cyclical urban violence,” especially gun violence, as this is the kind of violence most often used to justify control of Black communities in the form of aggressive policing and mass incarceration. A few root causes stand out to them: poverty, failing schools, mass incarceration and family breakdown, and violence-related trauma, all of which generate “the frustration, anxiety, and hopelessness that breeds violence, crime, and gang activity.” The authors emphasize how racism underlies all of these: “the causes of violence are not accidentally prevalent in Black communities” but rather are the product of systemic racism that manifests in inequitable resource distribution and law enforcement policies.
Next, by identifying the key actors responsible for this violence—street gangs but also militarized police and prisons and jails—the authors draw attention to the way in which the mainstream response to urban violence not only fails to address its root causes but also actually exacerbates many of them, itself reinforcing cycles of violence. In particular, the presence of militarized police, intended to deter violence, actually produces violence both “atmospherically,” through young people’s daily “degradation” and exposure to “deadly weapons,” and more proactively, through the role police play intentionally or unintentionally in sparking retaliatory cycles between and within street gangs. Meanwhile, prisons and jails, also meant to deter violence, play their own part in exacerbating violence as “initiation centers for gangs.”
Having established the inadequacy and even counter-productiveness of traditional policing and incarceration in mitigating urban violence, the authors turn to their examination of two non-police anti-violence models that they argue can constitute “viable alternatives”: public health and grassroots community empowerment approaches.
The public health approach reframes violence as a communicable disease, thereby shifting how those engaged in it are characterized: rather than seeing them as moral failures, this approach treats those “infected” (both victims and perpetrators) as people in need of proper care. Cure Violence, the organization most closely associated with the public health approach, with sites across the U.S. and in eight countries, has drastically reduced shootings where its model has been implemented. At the center of its work are its teams of local-level “violence interrupters,” all of whom come from the communities they serve, functioning as “credible messengers” who build trust with those at risk for involvement in violence. They engage in three core activities: 1) “detect[ing] and interrupt[ing] potentially violent conflicts”; 2) mentoring those at risk of violence; and 3) “[m]obiliz[ing] the community to change norms,” most visibly through community demonstrations immediately after shootings.
According to the authors, although Cure Violence has been effective at reducing violence, it does not address underlying socio-economic conditions that give rise to violence in the first place. Project Emancipation Now (PEN), the community empowerment model considered here, aims to stem violence both by engaging currently and recently incarcerated people and by encouraging “grassroots political organizing and community empowerment” to address these root causes of violence. Co-founded by co-author Craig Muhammad in 2013 in the Maryland prison system, PEN supports incarcerated individuals to leave gangs, become engaged in activism, and find work in grassroots community organizations so that when they leave prison they return to their communities as activists contributing to social change, in effect repairing some of the harm they caused and finding a new sense of purpose and connection.
The authors conclude their research by reflecting on whether these non-police anti-violence efforts are best understood as supplemental to the police or as a more radical alternative, seeking to supplant the police and “dismantl[e] the American carceral state.” This question first emerges in the authors’ identification of a tension that sometimes surfaces in these initiatives between community legitimacy and “institutional funding and oversight,” especially as concerns state uneasiness about the “employment of ex-offenders” and/or community mistrust of any coordination with police. They argue that, although some form of alliance with state institutions may be necessary on a pragmatic level to move these anti-violence projects forward, these projects should be rooted in the “Black radical tradition” in order to avoid co-optation and “permanent adjunct status to police forces” and to stay focused on dismantling systemic racism, along with other root causes of violence. In other words, beyond demonstrating their public safety capacities, these efforts must also “call for an end to the project of oppressive social control that police exercise” and to the “marginalization and criminalization of communities of color.” In short, what is needed is to frame these anti-violence efforts in terms of abolition democracy, whereby the building up of community-based anti-violence solutions empowers marginalized communities of color and transforms the conditions that otherwise perpetuate cycles of violence within them, effectively “displac[ing] punitive policing, imprisonment, and the racial caste system they impose.”
Black radical tradition: a tradition of resistance in the Black community characterized by an analysis that emphasizes the connection between the American slavery and European imperialism worldwide—namely, the dynamics and legacy of racist exploitation—as well as Black Americans’ exclusion from the “mainstream liberal American project.” This analysis then informs two key resistance strategies of the Black radical tradition: linking to global human rights and anti-colonial struggles and organizing for community power and autonomy. The tradition is closely associated with Malcolm X and, later, the Black Panther Party, among others.
Recent calls to defund the police have been energized with revolutionary fervor in some circles and met with skepticism, if not disdain, in others. Where any of us might find ourselves along this spectrum may have quite a bit to do with our own daily (or non-daily) experience of police: Do we see them and experience them as an institution that keeps us safe or as an institution that threatens us? For this policy proposal to gain traction, especially among those skeptics who are lucky and privileged enough to see the police as providers of public safety—but really for all of us, as we all have a stake in creating and living in safe communities—the question about who would take on the presumed public safety function of the police must be addressed. Who will intervene to prevent or control violence and protect the public from other violent actors, and how? This is the most pressing question regarding calls to defund police, as it is least evident to most people how this function can be fulfilled by anyone else, as police are the only actors formally allowed to carry firearms in the supposed interest of public safety—and therefore presumably the only actors equipped to respond to situations of actual or imminent violence.
By clearly explicating two effective unarmed anti-violence models, this research helps the public grasp the feasibility of calls to defund police. As past issues of the Peace Science Digest indicate, these models represent only two of many efforts worldwide to demilitarize community security and protection. For instance, research on unarmed civilian protection (UCP) provides insight into this question of how unarmed actors could possibly provide immediate protection in the face of violence, usually from the perspective of civilians in the midst of civil war. As research has shown, unarmed civilians—both international teams and local community members—have developed vigorous approaches to preventing and protecting people from violence in the context of both civil wars and urban violence, as noted here.
Beyond highlighting alternatives to armed security, the distinctive contribution of the present research is to broaden the horizon of such efforts to include a commitment to more fundamental societal transformation. Its grounding in the Black radical tradition reminds us that the racist violence that has recently broken through the mainstream public consciousness in the U.S. is not incidental but rather reaches down to the very foundations of policing and incarceration in the U.S., requiring the wholesale replacement of these institutions. At the same time, the abolitionist lens employed clarifies that the work before us is to invest in and build new institutions and practices from the ground up that can in effect make the old ones unnecessary by addressing the root causes of violence. This way of thinking about it makes what is a radical project appear more pragmatic to those who might otherwise imagine—and fear—the immediate closing of police stations, jails, and prisons with nothing to replace them. In other words, abolishing the police and prison system as we know them is not some utopian pipe-dream; it is work that is already underway in communities across the U.S.
Publicizing a functional equivalent to the public safety role of policing is important to this more radical enterprise, as doing so takes away a central purpose that has enabled police to establish an overwhelming presence—what has become an oppressive, violent presence—in so many communities of color. The more the general public is aware of the fact that effective unarmed approaches to violence prevention and interruption exist, the less government officials will be able to justify the unique position of police as armed actors, their overbearing presence, and especially their excessive militarization. That lack of justification can then open the door to massive shifts in funding from police departments to other (drastically underfunded) city agencies and community organizations better trained and equipped to respond to the full range of situations to which police are currently called to respond. To see how the presence of weapons can fatally escalate a situation, and the difference such a shift in funding and emphasis could make, we need look no further than the recent police killing of Rayshard Brooks who had been sleeping in his car in a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta. Had (unarmed) social workers checked in on him instead, making sure he had a safe place to sleep, he would still be alive today. For him and so many others, it is incumbent upon all of us—community activists, policy-makers, and regular citizens alike—to take on the work of dismantling the racist institutions that not only daily oppress but also threaten the lives of such a huge number of our neighbors and fellow citizens. It is time instead to envision—and devote significant resources towards—institutions that will lift up Black communities and all communities of color and make them more secure by addressing, rather than reinforcing, the root causes of violence. In short, just as we peace advocates would urge the U.S. government and other governments around the world to shift resources away from military spending and towards spending on nonviolent conflict strategies and development (in the form of education, job creation, health care, environmental sustainability/justice, food security, and so on), so too must we insist on the same for our local municipalities, moving away from armed policing that criminalizes our Black and brown communities and towards approaches that address everyone’s human needs first. [MW]
Dukmasova, M. (2016, August 25). Abolish the police? Organizers say it’s less crazy than it sounds. Chicago Reader. Retrieved June 24, 2020, from https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/police-abolitionist-movement-alternatives-cops-chicago/Content?oid=23289710
Shanti Sena Network and Nonviolence International. (2020). Alternative community security: Initiatives and stories. Retrieved on July 6, 2020, from https://mettacenter.org/alternative-community-security-initiatives-and-stories/
Bazelon, E. (2020, June 21). Police reform is necessary, but how do we do it? The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved on July 10, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/13/magazine/police-reform.html
Danner, C. (2020, June 18). Everything we know about the killing of Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta police. New York Magazine. Retrieved on July 10, 2020, from https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/what-we-know-about-the-killing-of-rayshard-brooks.html
Peace Science Digest. (2018, November 12). Assessing armed and unarmed approaches to peacekeeping. Retrieved on July 6, 2020, from https://peacesciencedigest.org/assessing-armed-and-unarmed-approaches-to-peacekeeping/?highlight=unarmed%20civilian%20peacekeeping
Peace Science Digest. (2016, April 4). Civil resistance during civil war. Retrieved on July 6, 2020, from https://peacesciencedigest.org/civil-resistance-civil-war/?highlight=colombia
Peace Science Digest. (2018, February 28). Self-protection strategies in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Retrieved on July 6, 2020, from https://peacesciencedigest.org/self-protection-strategies-eastern-democratic-republic-congo/?highlight=civilian%20protection
Peace Science Digest. (2018, April 27). Christian Peacemaker Teams’ protection and solidarity work in Israel/Palestine. Retrieved on July 6, 2020, from https://peacesciencedigest.org/christian-peacemaker-teams-protection-and-solidarity-work-in-israel-palestine/?highlight=civilian%20protection
Cure Violence: https://cvg.org/
Project Emancipation Now: https://honablewholcombe.wixsite.com/projectemancipation
13th (directed by Ava DuVernay): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krfcq5pF8u8
Key Words: police, racism, violence prevention, unarmed civilian protection (UCP), security, Cure Violence, Project Emancipation Now