Increased police technology, increased training and “community policing” tend to actually expand instead of decreasing policing.
“The entire system of policing, surveillance and imprisonment is violent and grounded in white supremacy, and abolishing it is the only viable end goal.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured authors are Maya Schenwarand Victoria Law. Schenwar is the editor-in-chief of Truthout. Law is a freelance journalist and co-founder of NYC Books Through Bars. Their book is Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law: We’re in an incredibly inspiring moment, when so many people — particularly young, Black abolitionists — are rising up against the violence of policing. While many protesters are issuing bold demands, such as defunding and disbanding police departments, many mainstream pundits and politicians are responding with lukewarm statements and proposals. These mainstream proposals for reform often include elements like increased police technology, increased training, and “community policing,” all of which tend to actually expand instead of decreasing policing.
Our book shows that the entire system of policing, surveillance and imprisonment is violent and grounded in white supremacy, and abolishing it is the only viable end goal. We particularly highlight the words and actions of Black feminist abolitionist organizers who’ve been advocating for abolition for decades and rejecting meager and counterproductive reforms.
Recently, some people have been questioning the idea of defunding the police, wondering whether it might mean simply spending less money on communities. In actuality, spending money on the police is not supporting communities, but instead diverts money from much-needed resources and supports that enable people to meet their needs and stay safe. In the last chapter of our book, we highlight dynamic and effective ways that people are currently practicing abolition by building new systems, fortifying their communities, finding innovative ways to deal with harm and violence, and meeting people’s needs.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
On the surface, some of these popularly proposed reforms appear to address a problematic issue, such as the explosion of mass incarceration. In reality, however, these proposals simply shift the shapes of incarceration, surveillance and control into other forms. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, electronic monitoring (EM) became a popular alternative to jails. While shifting from COVID-filled jail cells to EM allows people to avoid high risks of exposure, the shift doesn’t challenge the underlying roots of racialized surveillance and control. Instead, it extends surveillance and control into our communities, an extension that will remain with us long after the pandemic has passed.
In the wake of protests sparked by the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and so many other Black people, we have seen demands for defunding the police. At the same time, we have also seen demands for more community policing—fueled by the (mistaken) idea that if police officers patrol the same community and get to know the people in that community, they will be less likely to brutalize them. But Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, was hired as part of a Community Oriented Policing grant. Being part of community-oriented policing didn’t stop him from killing a child and brutalizing his 14-year-old sister in the minutes after.
We hope our book assists organizers and activists as they examine, critique and challenge these types of popular reforms and fight for changes that will truly tackle the underlying causes of criminalization and incarceration.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
We hope that readers will un-learn the idea that “alternatives” to incarceration, such as electronic monitoring, locked-down drug or mental health treatment centers, and community policing, are viable ways to move beyond prisons and police. In actuality, these measures bring prisons into our homes and communities, thus widening the carceral net.
At the same time, we hope that readers will also critically examine how prisons—and the carceral state—influence and are replicated by other institutions, such as child welfare agencies, foster care and schools.
We’re hoping to dismantle the ideology that there must always be something else—that people must be sentenced to a different punishment if they’re not sentenced to prison, as opposed to approaching the world through a completely different lens.
Policing and prisons were built on a foundation of white supremacy. Unless we uproot them and their foundation, we’re going to keep building different versions of the same institutions.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
They’re mostly sheroes: Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, Dorothy Roberts, Rachel Herzing, Mimi Kim… people who have devoted their lives to challenging the carceral state and imagining—and building—a completely different way of doing things.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
We interview organizers who have not only been imagining, but putting into practice, ways to promote individual and community safety without relying on policing and prisons. We want to illustrate ways in which groups and communities have organized their own safety—and to give readers a series of blueprints to envision and form models for safety without police, in their own neighborhoods and lives.
We want to help provide a picture of what demands like defunding and abolishing the police and prisons could look like in practice. During this exciting and courageous moment in history, we hope our book can serve as a helpful resource along the path to abolition.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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