A protestor lets a Chicago Police officer know how he feels during the national "Day of Protest" on May 30 | Photo by Darius Griffin/The TRiiBE

Since the May 26, 2020, uprising in Minneapolis that sparked nationwide civil unrest in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, progressive ideals such as community control of policing and removal of police officers from schools have begun to permeate the mainstream. These subjects have become the topic of social media threads, think pieces, and news segments, but these progressive topics are baby steps in the direction of a more radical movement: abolition.

The question of what abolition means today has as clear cut an answer as it did in the 19th century, when an article like this would’ve featured the voices of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, when it literally meant ending the institution of slavery and freeing Black folks. The contemporary abolition movement has simply replaced chattel slavery with police and prisons. 

The chant “No justice, no peace! Defund the police!” has become a mainstay in protests across the country, and the unencrypted demand to remove resources from the police therein has its roots in a larger movement toward the abolishment of police and prisons. In Chicago, the police department has a nearly $1.8 billion budget — and now, it’s the largest U.S. city where the mayor and other leaders haven’t pledged to decrease its police budget.

In speaking with numerous abolitionists doing work in Chicago, the overarching idea is that society is endangered, not protected, by the current system which 2019 mayoral candidate Amara Enyia describes as “retributive rather than restorative.” 

“[Reform] smothers in the sense that it only half addresses the systemic problem of police violence against communities they are sworn to protect,” she explained to me in a conversation on June 17. 

During her campaign, Enyia was in favor of the federally monitored consent decree that the city entered into in January 2017, and advocated for a shift in police training practices. On June 15, she penned an essay in Injustice Watch where she was in favor of the demand to defund the Chicago Police Department (CPD). We spoke two days before citywide celebrations of Juneteenth about why the current punitive system of justice needs to be overhauled.

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“[Reform] muddies the idea of total abolition and has people saying things like ‘when they say abolish the police what they actually mean is.’ No. [Abolitionists] said what they said.”

One of many battles being fought by abolitionists is the struggle to remove police officers from schools. In Chicago, a proposal for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to terminate the $33 million contract with CPD was voted down in a 4-3 vote by the CPS Board on June 24. 

“We’re spending tens of millions [of dollars] making sure there are police officers in the schools. Meanwhile many of these schools don’t have access to libraries, nurses, or counselors,” Enyia said. “These are the things that build stronger, more resilient kids. It’s a concrete example of where we could take money that we’re spending on policing and direct it towards resources that benefit the community.”

The effort to remove CPD from CPS schools is a blitz against the School-to-Prison Pipeline (SPP). The SPP is an analysis of the education system that has discovered that the increasing commonality of zero tolerance policies in schools, and students being arrested by officers, has contributed to the disproportionate incarceration of Black kids. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Black students are three to four times more likely to be suspended or expelled, and nearly three times more likely to end up in juvenile detention. According to CPS data for the 2018-2019 school year, misconduct from Black kids was almost twice as likely to result in a suspension than misconduct from white kids.

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Reform isn’t enough for Enyia and other abolitionists, because they believe the system inherently works to the detriment of Black people. Black youth have been targets of specific CPD initiatives including an order to crack down on teens posted up on “drug corners” during 4th of July weekend this year.

“If you take a look at the origins of policing in America you’ll find that it stems directly from slavery where it began as a tool to terrorize Black and indigenous people,” Enyia said.

In order to completely understand what abolition is, it is essential to understand that the abolition of police and prisons are inseparable from each other within the abolitionist framework. 

West Side artist and self-proclaimed “raptivist,” Bella Bahhs, was confronted with the terrors of the prison industrial complex at an early age, when both her parents were incarcerated. 

“This system saw it fitting to take my parents from me, so I grew up feeling like this wasn’t the just way for us to be governed,” she said. 

Bahhs took the stage at a Juneteenth celebration thrown by abolitionist artist organization LetUsBreathe Collective. She began with a speech, chronicling the history of Juneteenth, abolition, and the responsibility of descendants of that struggle for freedom to fight against the use of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s clause that allows slavery only as a punishment for a crime.

“People often operate under this assumption that Black people are inherently violent and criminal, and without police, everything will devolve into chaos,” Bahhs said. “I believe that Black people are perfectly capable of governing [their] own communities, and enforcing accountability amongst ourselves in a restorative way.” 

Bahhs pictures this as more than simply an amendment to the current law of the land — rather the creation of an entirely new Black American nation. And according to Enyia, the idea of defending the police and reallocating resources to other social welfare programs has already been proven viable. 

“I think that picturing the idea of police abolition through a strictly American lens is limiting,” said Enyia who holds a law degree in international affairs from the University of Illinois College of Law. 

“We have the benefit of looking at the issue of policing from a global perspective,” she said. “I look at examples of places where police don’t receive such exorbitant amounts of funding.” 

Take Sweden, for example, where mental health professionals have been deployed without police accompaniment. Scotland has seen a 60% decrease in homicides since they began treating violence as a public health issue.

When you consider those examples, Bahhs’ idea doesn’t seem too far-fetched. 

“I believe Black people and Indigenous people are owed reparations in the form of money, land, and essential resources,” Bahhs said. “Within this nation we can build a framework that emphasizes restorative justice by investing in education, providing jobs and basic necessities.”

So what then of societal infractions? How do abolitionists plan to deal with the inevitable scenario in which one individual wrongs another? Bahhs explains a system in which these situations are rectified in a way that teaches and truly reforms, and accountability is up to the community to decide. 

Enyia gives the example of block club monitoring, and how the existing infrastructure of local block clubs can be propped up to give neighbors the ability to protect their own communities. Abolition, like most movements, is not monolithic, and that diversity of thought shouldn’t necessarily count against the movement, according to organizer Destiny Harris, a poet, Howard University sophomore, and abolitionist from the West Side of Chicago. 

“Because the system we are currently under is by no means perfect,” she said. 

Harris began fighting for police divestment in 2017 in support of #NoCopAcademy, a campaign to block the construction of a new $95 million police and fire department training facility in West Humboldt Park. 

“Even though I was fighting for the defunding of police back then, it wasn’t until recently that I began to consider myself an abolitionist. I just didn’t have the thought to put a name to it,” she said.

Harris lists organizations like Assata’s Daughters, and Good Kids Mad City, as organizations whose work she has gleaned education from. 

“Most of my education on the subject of abolition comes from lived experiences,” said Harris. “Yes I’ve studied the word of folks like Angela Davis, and Fred Hampton, but we also confront the system in our daily lives, and that’s been the main thing informing my activism.” 

In Harris’ opinion, the actions we are witnessing from protesters, petitioners, and activists now is exactly what needs to happen to push the movement closer to its goal of abolishing police and prisons. 

“We just have to keep the fight going on the ground,” Harris said. “The people at the forefront of this movement— who are mostly Black women and queer folks— are doing a great job of keeping the battle going.”

Matt Harvey is a staff writer for The TRiiBE: matt@thetriibe.com