Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:06)
Welcome to the Radical Imagination podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. In this episode, we revisit police abolition, a topic we focus on in one of our first episodes late last year, and we take a closer look at where these efforts stand today. Not long ago, most Americans would have dismissed calls to abolish the police as anarchism and lawlessness, but that changed drastically earlier this year.
Media clip: (00:38)
The outrage in Minneapolis is mounting. Even after four officers were fired. Crowds of protesters clash with police overnight. Their fury fueled by that viral video showing the final moment...
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:50)
The murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis inspired a new wave of this historic mass protests, building on an already existing movement that grew louder in 2014, after a white police officer killed 18 year old, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. This time there were protests in most major cities across the U S and the world demanding justice and reviving calls for police abolition, an idea that less than a year ago was deemed impossible and absurd, and is now a feasible solution for state and local governments. To talk more about where these efforts stand today, we're joined by Derecka Purnell. She's a human rights lawyer, writer and organizer based in Washington, DC. Derecka, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Derecka Purnell: (01:37)
Thank you. Thank you, so much for having me Angela.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:40)
Earlier this year, you wrote an op-ed that was published in the Atlantic, titled, "How I Became a Police Abolitionist."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:47)
In it, you highlighted that most victims of police violence survive, and you bring up George Floyd and discuss what might've happened had he survived the confrontation with police. Can you talk more about that?
Derecka Purnell: (02:00)
Usually when police kill someone and there is an uprising that follows afterwards, the person who is killed becomes an hashtag. And in the essay I wrote yesterday, I say that, 'Cops are anonymous conductors of the victims of hashtag train and they're full of involuntary passengers.' And so what happens with this hashtag is that it galvanizes, you know, momentum online and momentum offline. There's just this movement, but for most people who are victims of police violence, they actually don't die. Oftentimes they get shot. Oftentimes they are, you know, hurt or experiencing some level of assault. It's the, the range is so much broader than actual deaths. And so what's unfortunate is that when people call or demand for justice or that actually obscuring as the role of police, which is if George Floyd had been on that concrete and instead of dying, just would've lived to be taken, to be arrested and prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to prison over the use of a counterfeit $20 bill, that is the bare minimum of justice in this country for black people. So we have to ask ourselves, are we against police killings? Are we against police violence? Because if we're against police violence, we should be trying to stop those encounters. More importantly, we should ask, why are people in this country living on counterfeit transactions of $20 or less? We have to ask these deeper fundamental questions because ultimately it's those unfortunate circumstances of oppression and dispossession that then informs a police encounter.
Media clip: (03:49)
Wisconsin's governor has sent more than 100 national guard troops to Kenosha. A curfew is also in effect there following violent protests after police shot a black man in the back several times tonight. He's in stable condition. Two officers have been placed on administrative leave and a warning. What you're about to see is disturbing.
Derecka Purnell: (04:11)
We're looking at this uprising that's happening right now, over Jacob Blake. And he's one of the few victims of police violence who has gained so much visibility and momentum, and he survived. And I'm shocked that he's survived. And so is that justice that Jacob Blake survived, while apparently he pulled up to break up a fight that was happening on the street and then went to try to return to his kids and was almost killed. The police help us to start a conversation, but it's definitely not where we end the conversation.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (04:46)
Let's talk about your life growing up in st. Louis, what do you remember about life there and how did it help shape your work around these issues of police abolition?
Derecka Purnell: (04:58)
So I grew up at the edge of South St. Louis right near the downtown area. And I remember so many summers riding my bike, being outside, playing in the water hole. So my neighborhood was about half African American, half East African refugee. There was significant and massive police presence in my neighborhood. We would often call the police cause it felt like a cutoff is so many problems that we had. The first person who I greeted on my first day of sixth grade was a police officer, as I went through a metal detector. I've seen different levels of police violence in schools and neighborhoods. And so one time when I was on a bus, I saw a group of boys arguing, and one of them pulled out a gun and I watched in horror, just so nervous about what could happen. This would be my second time witnessing a shooting of this nature. And so I just was so scared. So I called the police on the school bus and he said, you know, 'Where are you?' And I told them where I was and he said, 'What race are the boys? Are they black? Are they black?' And I was just, I just hung up the phone. I just hung up the phone. It felt like there was no way for people to really practice safety. There is no way for people to figure out how to resolve these sort of problems without calling the police.
Derecka Purnell: (06:36)
As we got older, we just needed more resources to take care of our basic needs, to help pay bills at home, to help make sure that we can groom ourselves and look nice. And I just saw unfortunately, so many of my friends enter into activities that came with considerable risk of violence. But that was the only way they could have protections from other territorial issues or from police or from people who are in that house who were stressed out and then really know how to have an outlet or there weren't really options for them. And every year on Facebook, I watched the R.I.P status' scroll of someone who I went to high school with, who has been killed, who has been murdered. What we actually needed was resources. What we actually needed was for the police to not show up and cause further harm. What we actually needed was jobs and better educational opportunities and more recreation and healthcare. We needed so much more than what the options were on the table. And it's so unfortunate in that neighborhood so much has remained the same.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (07:42)
For many people out there reform is still more realistic than defunding or replacing the police. In your op ed, you wrote about reforms that make police 'polite managers of inequality'. That's a big challenging concept. Could you say more about that?
Derecka Purnell: (07:58)
Police make about 10 million arrests every single year. Most of the people who are rearrested have incomes of less than $10,000. So police are actually managers of inequality. They serve as an entry point to the conversation about what kind of society that we want to live in. But when people are demanding that we abolish the police, it's not simply about people who have badges or people have guns. They're also talking about abolishing the conditions that empower police. Abolish the conditions that police go in and are sent to manage. So in St. Louis where you and I are both from, last winter, the year before last, the police were sent out to spray the concrete downtown during blizzarding winter, in order to freeze over the concrete so homeless people wouldn't congregate or sleep there. If we decide to train those police officers, their job is still to move homelessness from one part of the city to another part of the city. They can be diverse and do that. We can hire more cops to do that. We can hire more women cops. We can hire more Black cops. We can give them body cameras. But at the end of the day, they're still moving homeless people from one part of the city to another. And so if reforms seem realistic, they seem realistic because there are things you can check off of a box. It's like, yes, did we do a body camera? Yes we did. Can we put black people in this police department? Yes we can. But it doesn't get to the heart of the problem, which is that there are people that are unhoused and there is no amount of police reform or police training or police diversity that can get to the heart of that problem.
Derecka Purnell: (09:50)
You know, police come out of slave patrols. They come out of a history where they've been sent to break up labor organizing. Their origins are racist and classist. They maintain historically class exploitation. Not one police officer, it doesn't matter how nice you are. The job is the issue. And so I think what abolitionists is trying to do is ask, 'Why would we keep trying to reform a system? If a reform is to make better, if we want to make police better, we should ask what do they do?' If they primarily manage inequality that we want them to do that better. Or do we want to undermine equality? Because the answers are not the same.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (10:32)
One of the things that we know is that Black abolitionists have condemned the role of police in prisons for more than a century now. And the murder of Michael Brown in 2014 was a bit of a turning point because it connected the struggle for abolition to a stark statement about what we need when it put Black Lives Matter, right there in front of everybody to have to grapple with, think about, talk about. But how have police abolition efforts evolved since the more recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rashad Brooks, and the mass protests that have followed?
Derecka Purnell: (11:16)
When Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, I was in St. Louis picking up my furniture to drive to law school, because I was supposed to start a law school that summer. And I was deeply pushed and deeply politicized around police violence from that summer. So that's Trayvon Martin, 2012. It's Jordan Davis in 2013. In 2014 Dan Wilson murders, Michael Brown
Media clip: (11:44)
Unarmed African American teenager was shot and killed by police in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. On the streets of Ferguson, Missouri outrage, and anger...'No Justice, No Peace'...protestors of different ages and races demanding answers in the shooting death of 18 year old Michael Brown at the hands of a policeman.
Derecka Purnell: (12:09)
And hearing how organized is demanding that Darren Wilson is indicted, convicted and sent to jail. That was the number one demands shouted out from New York City to Los Angeles, from Dallas to Detroit. We have what three years of movement to demand that these killers are arrested. If we fast forward, it's 2020, George Ford is killed. The uprisings happened all over again.
Media clip: (12:41)
Tonight, more calls for racial equality and police accountability as protesters march into a third weekend of demonstrations. In Philadelphia, thousands took to the streets...
Derecka Purnell: (12:51)
This time, they happen at a significantly larger scale. The New York Times ran something early this summer that said that Black Lives Matter may be the largest protest in America's history. But the number one demand that's in the streets is not simply arrest the people who killed George Floyd. The number one demand is to defund the police. They're calling to undermine the system. They're calling to undermine the prison industrial complex. They're calling to take resources away from prosecutors and from police officers and from prisons. And they're putting out much more transformational demands that get to the root causes of harm. I think it's a remarkable shift and in a time where people probably assume that if you're an abolitionist, you've always been an abolitionist. Your mama, probably an abolitionist. She came out running. That is not the case. What's the remarkable is that there's been such a deep political shift. The only thing that has been consistent is our commitment to be free. I feel lucky that I get to be alive in this particular moment when this is happening.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (14:05)
In the past, you've also talked about the culture of glorifying police and policing, and the fact that many Americans still believe that perhaps there are just a few bad apples within the departments that are otherwise prepared to do the right thing.
Derecka Purnell: (14:21)
If we take the most diverse, most well-trained most resource, most polite cops, and we took them to any community. And we say, what's the purpose of your position right now in this community. It's not up to that individual cop to decide because that police officer is being sent by his chief, you know, by her mayor, by the business community. They're still being sent to go do a job. And that job is ultimately to manage inequality, especially in places where there are high levels of inequality. That's why a lot of places with lower levels of inequality, there's fewer police. And so it's, what is the purpose of the position. Are they there to resolve conflict? Police are not the best people at resolving conflict. Often, especially if you're black, especially if you're poor, especially if you have a disability, the police will often escalate. It will escalate harm.
Derecka Purnell: (15:21)
And so the notion that there are just a few bad apples, just seems to not take a critical approach, to understanding the actual power and function of police. There were people who use similar arguments to preserve slavery. They had to pass laws to figure out how to tame or temper some of that especially brutal slave masters. And so we have to make a decision if we're going to keep looking at all of these incidents within this broader unjust institution, to try to salvage it. Or we actually gonna take a step back and call into question, the reason this institution exists, the reason it's always existed, and the reason it will continue to exist in the future. If we don't stop it, if we don't continue to undermine it. It's going to continue to maintain a racist system of inequality. It's going to continue to partner with ice, to help with deportations. There's going to be continuous complaints of excessive force. The second most common complaint against police officers is sexual misconduct. All of that violence is concentrated in this institution and we're going to continue to see it unless we undermine that. Coming up on Radical Imagination, we continue the conversation about police abolition with human rights, lawyer writer and activist. Derecka Purnell. Stay with us, more when we come back.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (17:06)
And we're back, it is clear that understanding the conversation of abolish the police is an evolution for nearly everyone, and getting to the point where people begin to understand it's not just bad apples, it's the system. It goes back to historically how to police come about and what has it continued to do? And your notion of managing inequality is an important insight in terms of what it does, but many people, even as they get to the point where they're opening up in terms of their understanding, continue to get stuck on this issue of, 'What do I do in an emergency'?
Derecka Purnell: (17:47)
Yes, of course, that was the number one question that I had. Abolition is not just a destination. It's also a journey. And it's up to all of us to figure out how do we respond to emergencies? Even when people ask me, 'What about the murderers'? I often say 'Which murderers?' Because not all people who kill people, kill them for the same reasons. You know, if someone kills people because they're homophobic, for example, how do we start moving towards a culture that's not only less transphobic, but maybe also trans affirming. How do we respond to this level of harm? What are people who are vulnerable to this kind of harm? What do they seek as justice? Here's one thing that the police can't do. The police can't stop people from being transphobic. The police can't stop people from being misogynist. Police can't stop people from being homophobic. Police can't stop people from killing other people accidentally. Usually by the time the police show up, the murder has already happened.
Derecka Purnell: (18:54)
You want to prevent these emergencies? Then we want to have a cultural shift. Do we want to make sure that women and people who are victims of domestic violence and misogyny have a safe place to go? We want faster police response time to emergencies, when we could be working towards the society where more people just live and can go to school, you know, without worrying about whether someone's going to come in and kill them, because that's the society that I want.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (19:25)
Are some of the solutions that you and other abolitionists are bringing forth today to reimagine a society without police.
Derecka Purnell: (19:32)
Oh, so many solutions, right? So a big demand that's come out of all of these protests has been to defund the police and to invest in recreational, health, employment, educational opportunities, and resources for people in their neighborhoods and their communities. There's a popular saying that budgets are moral documents. And so people are forcing elected officials to sit down at the table and create a document that reflects the morals of the people who are taken to the streets. And I think that's so important. So defunding the police is a step in a broadest staircase towards abolition. Because the other side of abolition is also building, it's building the society that we need for people to thrive -- which means that they need jobs, the opportunities, and the possibilities are endless. I know the Movement for Black Lives just recently released The Breathe Act. It's a piece of federal legislation that seeks to undermine all of the ways that the federal government sponsors and invest that carceral violence through states and through giving money to police departments. But they're also demanding tons of resources to put our communities in a place where they thrive.
Derecka Purnell: (20:59)
I've heard people continue the call for reparations, which I think is very, very important. I think that we have to also eliminate the conditions in which people who receive those reparations. Because if, if reparations just means that you're going to have some expedited entry into wealth, but you can still get exploited. Then we have to think about the policies and the laws and the cultural practices that accompany reparations, that are people who are Native and people who are Black just deserve in this country. There's so many organizations who have been pushing, demanding that we fundamentally change the relationships between employers and workers, between teachers and students, You know, the Advancement Project has been organizing for maybe 20 years to get cops out of schools. And now we're starting to see significant momentum of cops leaving elementary and middle and high schools, but also college campuses. And so people are doing so many cool and exciting pieces of work to really break down the carceral state. But they're also doing the work to resource what's on the other side.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (22:13)
What about some of the work, this focused on reducing neighborhood violence?
Derecka Purnell: (22:18)
There are organizers who are also straightened violence, interrupters doing the work to put together ceasefire truces between rival territorial gang members. I think that work is really important. I think the gun buyback programs are really important. I think that again, we have to get to the heart of why people feel compelled to join organizations where they're at risk for violence. There was an organization in Puerto Rico [name] and they do street violence interruption, Puerto Rico with significantly more resources than most people here on the mainland. And they do it without police and they're able to stop murders. And so we have to obviously put out the fires of real community based harm, but we also have to shift the conditions upon which that harm happens.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (23:19)
As an activists, as a lawyer, as somebody who's on the front lines. Are you hopeful?
Derecka Purnell: (23:25)
Yeah. I'm so hopeful. I am. Whenever people are resisting, it gives me a lot of hope. So abolition is not some point in the future where all of the cops have been abolished. All the prisons have been closed. There is always abolitionist practices in the making. There always has been. There are people who are intentionally working to resolve conflict without police, without prisons, without the carceral state. I think it's Ejeris Dixon who I heard say that, 'Abolition is not only a destination, but also a journey.' And so for me, in my own personal experience, I'm always journeying with the set of politics around, 'Is this possible?' And it's more than just, 'Is it possible'. It's well, 'It's already here'. And so many different places. How do we get more of it?
Angela Glover Blackwell: (24:20)
I'm learning as I'm listening to you. And I find that people who believe as you believe and see that hope in the very change process, bring a superpower to their work. What's your superpower?
Derecka Purnell: (24:34)
What's my superpower? Wow. So my six year old, we've been talking about capitalism between prayers and bedtime every night. And it's so funny, like listen to his six year old self trying to understand like, who are workers and who owns the means of productions and why we should be on the side of the workers and why they shouldn't have their money stolen? But, um, I asked him what was my superpower? And he said that it was reading. And I think it's true. I, I really do try to be a student of social movements. And I learned so much when I read Cedric Robinson's "Black Movements in America". And I said, wow, like we did all of this, like with other people, with ourselves, we tried to forge new identities and communities spaces and institutions! And it's through reading and learning about that stuff that I felt most empowered.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (25:34)
Derecka, thank you for speaking with us.
Derecka Purnell: (25:37)
Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (25:40)
Derecka Purnell is a human rights lawyer, writer, and organizer based in Washington, DC. It is thrilling to see so many people embracing police and prison abolition, but it's important to understand that today's movement connects to the rich history of abolition. That history begins with slavery, but it doesn't end when slavery ended. Black leaders and great thinkers like WB Dubois have always known. We wouldn't be free until we abolished all the institutions of oppression, enslavement, and a mindset of white supremacy, a mindset that devalues Black lives. Derecka shows us how police uphold and enforce that mindset. She provides a powerful frame that links today's efforts to achieve liberation to the struggles, courage, and wisdom of our ancestors.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (26:53)
Angela Glover Blackwell: (21:21)
Radical Imagination was produced by the Futuro Studios for PolicyLink. The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andrés Caballero, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, Julia Caruso, Leah Shaw, Lita Hollowell, and Sam Burnett. The PolicyLink team includes Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian, and Milly Hawk Daniel. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Suguira. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time, and in the meantime, you can find us online at radicalimagination.us. Remember to subscribe and share.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (27:54)
Next time on Radical Imagination, 'Transforming the Criminal Legal System'.
Media clip: (27:58)
There are tremendous opportunities for putting the justice back in the criminal justice system.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (28:04)
Next on Radical Imagination.