Defund the Police: Reclaim our imaginations

24 July 2020 – Michal Osterweil

Notes on Pandemic VII
June 21, 2020                                                                                                         

 For anyone having a hard time with the notion “defund” or “abolish” the police, I want to invite you to do a quickish exercise. First get settled. Take two to three deep breaths. Feel your feet on the ground and your bottom supported. Make sure you feel your body, especially the lower half. If you need to, pat your thighs, squeeze your arms. Feel yourself in your body. From this place, I want you to imagine what a safe and loving community looks and feels like. Let your imagination go wild, but make it real, feel it.  Sometimes it helps to think about a time when you felt completely safe, completely taken care of. I would imagine people thinking of parks, libraries, maybe public gardens, public art. I don’t want to constrain your imagination, but I want to hazard a guess: I would be quite surprised if many people thought of the police—particularly armed police. However, when confronted with the abolitionist message, many people tighten up—they revert back to their fear —but what about all the crime? What about the violent people that are out there!? Surely, we NEED police.

I want to lovingly push against this. I hear you, but I want to suggest that our reptilian brains that always look for and from the negative, need not be the operating system we move from right now. In fact, one of the things I mentioned in my last post was that to me abolition is one of the most beautiful visions of social change because its call is so transformative and holistic. Abolition asks us to create a world in which we don’t need prisons. This is not naïve it means that abolitionists recognize that EVERYTHING has to change:  

Abolition is actually a phenomenal social change project precisely because it recognizes that in order to get to that possibility, we need to radically rethink our economy, our notions of justice, and so many of the tenets of liberal capitalist modernity, as well as centering a new world on love, kindness, forgiveness, healing and other principles not often included in political discourse.

The sad and painful fact of the matter is that most people who become abusers were abused. This is why demands for Justice, though beautiful are complicated. Our dominant model of justice is punitive and retributive. However, this is itself very tricky, and why I again I think that speaking in terms of healing—healing justice, as Patrice Cullors of Black Lives Matter calls it— might be more apt.

Abolition—the movement and idea that has been at the heart of so many of the demands for defunding the police—is one of the few political movements and positions that honestly tries to deal with this reality. Calling for the end of prisons NOT because bad and horrible stuff we call crime doesn’t happen. The leaders of abolition are mostly people of color who bear the brunt of violence in this country. But rather, because they understand that to truly create public safety, and a world with less crime, we need a different model of justice, different models of power.  We need to put an end to cycles of trauma and abuse. Abolitionists recognize that people who hurt others usually have been hurt themselves. This means that cruel punishment, isolation, dehumanization, does nothing to actually create a safer society, rather it perpetuates cycles of crime and pain. Similarly, the ways officers  are trained to police protestors, the unhoused, drug addicts, and those who commit crimes as enemies, rather than as community members needing different kinds of help/support, creates a different kind of violence and trauma, largely on and in the hearts and bodies of the police and all those who feel they must defend them.  

 So many of us, constrained (perhaps traumatized) by the stranglehold on our imagination of what is even possible—a stranglehold that is part and parcel of the culture of whiteness (and ontological dualism)—can’t even recognize that we have lost the capacity to imagine and create new systems. This inability stems on the one hand from the Enlightenment and Modernist Legacy of thinking in universalist terms about solutions—i.e. that there is one right way for things to be. But I also believe it stems from our disembodiment, our disconnection from our very selves—as well as from our communities, our places, land, nature.  As we cultivate a more holistic inhabiting of our bodies, I believe we will regain our capacity to both imagine and to act in ways that will make the point about feeling the need for police moot. (More on why the body soon!)

Reclaiming our Imagination and Our Agency

We cannot say what new structures will replace the ones we live with yet, because once we have torn shit down, we will inevitably see more and see differently and feel a new sense of wanting and being and becoming. What we want after “the break” will be different from what we think we want before the break and both are necessarily different from the desire that issues from being in the break. (Jack Halberstam)[1]

 In my mind one of the deepest illnesses of whiteness and Western Capitalist Modernity has been the elimination of our ability to imagine (and remember) other ways of doing things.  This is why I often cite the wisdom of the Zapatistas, one the most important social movements of the last 30 years, a movement comprised of poor indigenous peasants from the Southeast of Mexico, who say among many other things:

“To change this world, that’s too hard, maybe impossible, Let’s build a new one : a world where many worlds fit.”

The carceral state, the fact of policing, these are not age-old or inevitable. Many societies have organized their justice systems differently and thrived. Police as we know them today arose with the express need to control certain populations—i.e. paupers/vagrants, slaves and Others deemed trouble by those in power.

Perhaps more importantly, while certainly crime exists, when we criticize or reject the possibility of defunding or abolishing police or prisons because of the fear about those cases which really need it, we are robbing ourselves of a more beautiful possibility of co-creating something anew, together. Certainly, there will be issues, mistakes, unforeseen problems, but that is true a million times over of the current system. Let’s not dismiss a beautiful idea because we can’t yet see how every single part will work. Let’s fully inhabit our bodies and our hearts, our neighborhoods and our communities and work to imagine and build worlds otherwise. Cultivating and caring for our children, our environment, supporting each-other and those who most need it. Once we have started to re-imagine and then re-allocate resources to life-sustaining practices, I think we will also be able to deal collectively with the once in a not so frequent case of a truly violent person.

This is the work that is here for us to do. Remembering that it starts concretely in our individual and collective bodies, in our communities, in simply reigniting our capacities to imagine and to feel our innate power to co-create safe communities, helps me feel less daunted, and quite excited, by the task at hand.

 * These short essays are part of a larger blog/web project I am working on that I hope to launch by the end of the summer. I am very interested and open to feedback! And will keep you posted on when the website itself is up! 

Feel free to email me at mosterweil [ a t ] gmail }dot{ com with any questions/comments or to get added to my email list.