What are we talking about when we talk about “a police-free future?”

a photo of lupine flowers, along with the quote "abolition is about presence, not absence. It's about building life-affirming institutions." - Ruth Wilson Gilmore

This document (posted June 2020) does not speak for the whole movement, or even all organizers here in Minneapolis. Please be wary of sharing content that claims to. These are simply some thoughts, talking points, and stories that have been useful to us as we’ve had discussions with people in our community about abolition.

Over the past two weeks, our “Building a Police-Free Future: Frequently-Asked Questions” zine has been shared tens of thousands of times. That zine is a great first step, but it’s also only 1000 words long! We know people still have questions, especially when it comes to some of the more immediate, down-to-earth concerns about abolition. 

Of course, the easy answer here is “read Angela Davis, read Mariame Kaba, read Ruth Wilson Gilmore, read all the books and articles on our Resources page.” Abolition is a big concept, and there is no answer we can give you right now that wraps it all up in one easy soundbite. But we still want to provide some concrete examples, and each point below is followed by yet another recommended reading.

We (and so many others in this movement) don’t want to just rebrand cops, or privatize cops, or make cops “nicer.” The goal is a city without police, and defunding police is one tool we have to reach that goal. But what does that mean in practice? Here are ten points to keep in mind:

1. Invest in prevention, not punishment.

Whether you agree with abolition or not, it isn’t hard to see that police are a massive draw on the wealth and resources of our communities. As council member Jeremiah Ellison said, “Our police have been bankrupting our city for years. Consistently and absolutely gutting taxpayers of money.” To be clear, the abolitionist argument is not an austerity argument; the divest-in-police-and-invest-in-community framework isn’t just about “saving money.” But for people just learning about this work for the first time, it’s important to see the relationship between what our communities invest in, and what then gets left out. Josie Duffy Rice, speaking on the Daily Show, put it like this: “we are funding the back end of social ills, instead of the front end of addressing them.” There are smarter ways to structure our budgets.

2. What does “investing in prevention” look like in practice?

Some of this is big picture, like making significant, long-term changes to how our city budget addresses affordable housing, youth programs, mental health services, addiction treatment options, jobs programs, education, etc. But there are also some really concrete, specific examples of what that “prevention, not punishment” approach can look like:

3. Many people already live in a world without police (pt. 1).

If you grew up in a well-off, predominantly white suburb, how often did you interact with cops? Communities with lots of good jobs, strong schools, economies, and social safety nets are already, in some ways, living in a world without police. Of course, while that’s a useful entry point into a larger conversation about what truly keeps communities safe, it isn’t the full story: there’s so much more to say here about gentrification, redlining, white flight, and how one function of policing is to keep Black, Indigenous, and people of color out of these communities, but check out the readings.

4. Many people already live in a world without police (pt. 2).

We want to make sure everyone has someone to call on for help. It’s critical to note, though, that for many of us, especially those of us living in under-resourced, Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities, the police have never been helpful. In fact, they’ve been a major source of harm and violence. Millions of us already live in a world where we don’t even think about calling on the police for help; it isn’t some kind of far-future fantasy. 

5. Public safety is bigger than policing.

Abolitionists want everyone to be safe. We’re just acknowledging that there are other ways to think about “safety” than armed paramilitary forces with a proven track record of racism, brutality, and a focus on responding to harm after it’s happened rather than de-escalating or preventing it in the first place. We need to explore those “other ways,” lift up current practices for building safe communities without police, and innovate some new ones too.

6. We’re abolishing the police, not abolishing “help.”

Even before 2020, there was work happening in Minneapolis to rethink how 911 works, and who gets routed where as “first responders.” We want to continue that work. A world without police will still have 911. It will still have firefighters and EMTs. And across the US, there are hundreds of programs and initiatives that “help” people without police being the first point of contact. Check out programs like COPE in Minneapolis, CAHOOTS in Eugene, our own (ongoing) list of places to call when you’re in crisis, and this fact sheet that Reclaim the Block recently released. Some of these programs need more support; other programs have yet to be built.

7. Abolition is a process, not a “Thanos snap” where all the cops just instantly disappear.

As our FAQ resource says: “Police abolition work is not about snapping our fingers and magically defunding every department in the world instantly. Rather, we’re talking about a gradual process of strategically reallocating resources, funding, and responsibility away from police and toward community-based models of safety, support, and prevention.”

In an interview with Kare11, council member Ellison said:

“Defunding MPD, by the time we’re ready to do that, we will have a fully formed new public safety strategy in place. There are things that we’re going to have to do in the next couple of weeks and months, right? We’ve got the budget coming up. We’ve got this huge budget shortfall because of coronavirus. We also have other public safety strategies that are not the police that we’ve sort of failed to fund but they do work. Those are things that we can kind of get putting our resources behind right away. But you’re right. The work of creating a whole new safety apparatus is going to take some time.”

Yes, different activists will have different perspectives on this point, and we challenge people to understand why someone might call for a particular police department’s instant, total dissolution. But whether a community’s specific demand is to defund a department all at once, or gradually over time, the idea of abolition being a process remains the same. It will take time and effort to build the institutions and services we need, to continue to make connections between policing, prisons, immigration policy, and beyond, and to make sure we’re not replicating the logic of prisons and punishment in our own solutions.

  • Further reading: check out the #8toAbolition platform, exploring “non-reformist reforms” in the tradition of Critical Resistance’s widely-shared chart.

8. “But what about violent crimes? Who will we call?”

Prevention efforts will reduce the number of violent crimes. They won’t stop them all, though. In our FAQ zine, we talk about how “in this long transition process, we may need a small, specialized class of public servants whose job it is to respond to violent crimes.” It’s important to note that that’s one option, and it’s an option that brings up as many questions as it answers. 

Different activists, thinkers, and communities will have different responses to these questions. How can we intervene humanely and safely in high-risk situations? How do we ensure that those people trained and entrusted to do this work during the transition process do not become “police” with a different name? How might different communities be empowered to decide for themselves what they need, whether that’s AIM patrols, community mutual aid efforts, transformative justice programs, and/or governmental solutions?

A bigger takeaway here is that however you respond to the “what about violent crimes?” question, it doesn’t make sense to structure our entire, multi-billion dollar social safety apparatus around that relatively rare class of behaviors. As a country, we don’t need to spend $80 billion on prisons to deal with the small handful of serial killers for whom restorative justice isn’t going to work. We don’t need to spend $100 billion on police because of the fact that prevention efforts (many of which we haven’t even tried yet) aren’t able to stop 100% of all harm that human beings inflict on each other.

9. This new world won’t be perfect. But we have to see how imperfect the current world is.

Will a focus on prevention magically stop all harm? Of course not. But we have to ask: how much harm is our current system stopping? How many murders, or sexual assaults, do police currently “solve,” much less prevent? Here in Minnesota, we had a whole multi-part series in our local paper on “how Minnesota’s criminal justice system has failed victims of sexual assault,” and lots of people have already seen the graphic depicting how, when it comes to sexual violence, “the vast majority of perpetrators will not go to jail or prison.” Redirecting resources into prevention efforts won’t solve all of our problems, but it’s a common sense step we can and should take that will have a real impact on people’s lives.

10. “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” -Ruth Wilson Gilmore

That’s a quote we return to often, especially when we’re feeling uncertain.

It’s true: there is some uncertainty ahead of us. As we’ve been saying, some of what we need to live in a police-free future, we already have; some we have to build. As Minneapolis considers its future, know that the question isn’t just “cops or no cops.” The question is a much deeper, more fundamental one about what we build in their place. That’s going to involve a lot of community meetings, budget hearings, and neighbors talking to neighbors. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to take constant community buy-in and pressure on elected leaders.

But all of the uncertainty ahead of us is still a better choice than the status quo. The status quo is a Black man calling out for his mother as a police officer kneels on his neck. The status quo is a seemingly never-ending list of names, hashtags, and lives cut short- not just by police violence, but by the ongoing violence of a system that cages millions of people and tears apart families. The status quo is the ongoing harassment and intimidation of communities going about their daily lives and simply existing. That’s the work ahead of us. A police-free future isn’t something that just happens to us; it’s something we build, together.

  • Further reading: check out our entire Resources page, including book recommendations, more articles, and a whole section featuring just writing from the past two weeks. There’s also the “alternatives” section of our report, featuring a few more specific programs and ideas. And as always, be sure to check out Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective to get plugged into this work in Minneapolis, as it happens.