Note: The essay below is also available to be printed as a zine with additional artwork included. Download PDF here.
“The news of my death is greatly exaggerated.”
“Move along, people! It’s over! Nothing to see here! Police abolition? Cute idea but it’s time to get serious!” You can tell when a movement has struck a nerve because the mouthpieces of the system start loudly proclaiming that it’s over. According to these pundits the movement to abolish, defund or otherwise dismantle the police state has run its (well-intentioned but naive) course and it’s time for “moderate” voices to take charge. This happens, predictably, at the stage of the social movement cycle that the police abolition movement is now entering. It will not be the last time they declare the movement dead, and it won’t be the last time they’re wrong. As someone who’s been part of peoples’ movements for five plus decades I’ve heard it a lot. It gets to be background noise.
Movements do go through stages. They don’t play out exactly the same every time but there is a basic rhythm and it can be helpful to know something of how it works. The 2020 uprising was of such a huge scale that it’s a given most of the folks participating were doing so for the first time. That makes it all the more important to have this conversation. In Minneapolis, where I live, some major movement campaigns – a ballot initiative and a political race – were recently defeated by the city’s elite. In their wake there’s been a lot of “where-do-we-go-from-here” talk among activists. For the record, I don’t have a blueprint. My purpose isn’t to offer a strategic plan, policy proposals or an organizing strategy, important as those are. What I want to talk about, though, is just as important. Revolutionary elder Grace Lee Boggs would often ask “what time is it on the clock of the world?” Let’s talk about where we are on the clock of the police abolition movement and how that intersects with the internal logic of the police system itself.
The police lynching of George Floyd made Minneapolis the flash-point – and briefly, the epicenter – of the insurrection it ignited. Several years of education groundwork carried out by local organizers had raised the politics of police abolition in the activist community and it spread quickly in the streets during the uprising. A lineup of police trials ensured that the city would remain a reference point – though by no means the pace-setter – within the national movement. The cities that rose up in protest or rebellion during this time each did so based on local conditions, community histories and tactical choices. Each inspired by, and learning from, each other. Much of what follows will apply specifically to the Minneapolis experience though some will be relevant more broadly.
“Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories.”
Amilcar Cabral, African revolutionary leader
There’s no sugar-coating it. Police abolition is going to be a long struggle. The police system has been the ultimate enforcer of racial class control since the decline of the Ku Klux Klan a century ago. The violence, surveillance and harassment targeting dark bodies and peoples’ movements aren’t the result of poor training or bad apples but are the fulfillment of its mission. This is what makes the police unreformable. With wealth getting concentrated in ever fewer hands, this police function will become even more, not less, essential to the system.
The overall trend in the police universe is toward bigger budgets, more inter-agency coordination and more advanced surveillance and weapons technology. This is why the reemergence of the abolition movement in the twenty-first century is seen as a threat. The conservative efforts to criminalize our movement and the liberal ones to reform it away, are both strategies to contain that threat.
At this stage our movement is able to defeat or slow particular police projects and impose some limited restrictions on them but does not yet have the power to blunt their overall thrust. This is important to recognize. Many, perhaps most, of the reforms being announced with great fanfare by politicians at all levels of government will be reversed as soon as it is convenient to do so. We can also expect the sentences of some recently convicted cops to be commuted to time served – or even pardoned away – by sympathetic governors, on the excuse that they couldn’t get a fair trial at a time of “anti-police hysteria.”
This will be disappointing to anyone hoping for rapid change, but wishful thinking isn’t how we win. Policing as a system is highly resilient. The current blizzard of investigations, commissions, advisory boards and tepid reforms (like the pretend ban on no-knock raids in Minneapolis) are all part of its survival blueprint. They will produce lists of recommendations and possible ‘consent decrees’ (where the feds take over a police department for period). All this will keep the reformers quite busy for the next year or two but will leave no meaningful trace in the end. I believe that these strategies – that have effectively protected the police in the past – will backfire this time. We’ll come back to that.
“After a year or two, the high hopes of instant victory in the movement take-off stage inevitably turn into despair as some activists begin to believe that their movement is failing. It has not achieved its goals and, in their eyes, it has not had any ‘real’ victories.”
Bill Moyer, movement organizer
In his Movement Action Plan, Bill Moyer1 breaks down the arc of a mass movement into eight stages. He calls stage four the “Take Off” phase. A trigger event sets off mass protests that spread quickly; the exposed problem is placed firmly in the public agenda; as the movement grows 40% of the public comes to oppose current policies and conditions. (Does this ring a bell, anyone?)
He calls stage five “Perception of Failure.” People see their goals unachieved; see powerholders unchanged; numbers are down at demonstrations. It seems as though the movement has ended. Many have feelings of hopelessness and burnout. Many don’t know what to do. Out of disappointment, people might become hyper-critical of each other or conclude that change is not achievable.
The emotional toll this takes can be rough. To have experienced, perhaps for the first time in one’s life, the power of collective rage set free; streets thundering with the roar of a thousand voices joined as one; the sweet honey of creative solidarity and mutual care. And then… Then to be left wondering where it all went. And here come the pundits, smugly announcing that it’s all over.
I know the feeling. When a police death squad murdered Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in the winter of 1969, people across Chicago came out in protest. We walked out of elementary and high schools, joining others from across the city in a river of angry and grieving humanity; lifting up Chairman Fred’s tattered banner of liberation and hope. Two years later, revolutionary prison leader George Jackson is gunned down by San Quentin guards. And the streets…. they’re empty. Where was everyone? There I was, a fifteen-year-old kid with a lonely spray can, scrawling “George Lives” on the walls of an endless city. It didn’t feel like much.
I understand it better today. But one rarely does in real-time. It makes a difference knowing where we are in the cycle of struggle. An eagle’s view of the landscape keeps us from getting lost in the weeds.
Spoiler alert: Moyer’s sixth stage is called “Majority Public Opinion.” Stage seven is “Success.”
“Then you get back in, straighten the wheel, and begin to rock the car back and forth, and back and forth. Things are much better if you have some helping hands. It’s a collective cultural event in Canada to help push each other out of snowbanks!”
Rob “Mags” Magwood, Canadian Director of SEND International.
Pushing cars out of snowbanks is something Minnesotans understand. It also works as a metaphor for movement building. As “Mags” describes it, you build up momentum by rocking the car back and forth. The first push is rarely enough. That push, though, will supply useful information. How deep in are you? Do you need to adjust the steering wheel? Maybe you should shovel, throw sand in front of the tires, get more help. You’ll need to coordinate so that everyone is rocking together. Each push rocks it a little farther. Eventually, with a last big shove, you get over and out!
There is a major difference. When you’re pushing a car you usually don’t have sworn enemies trying to push it back. Either way, it’s about learning, rocking and staying together.
“In every battle there are at least two battles:
what happened and what people think happened.”
Jeff Crosby, IUE-CWA local 201 pres. GE plant, Lynn, MA
The battle over “what people think happened” is full on. In Minneapolis there was a ballot campaign to amend the City Charter (essentially its constitution) to replace the police with a holistic public safety department2. Yes 4 Mpls, a coalition of over sixty community, labor and faith groups came together to put it on the ballot and mobilize support. Despite having little time to prepare, a well-financed opposition and multiple legal roadblocks thrown in their way, they managed to garner 44% of the popular vote! In the mainstream media version of “what happened,” the measure was “decisively rejected.” In reality it was an astonishing achievement. Not bad for a first push! At the same time, had the amendment passed it would have probably been “pre-empted” by hastily-passed state legislation. That’s the ebb and flow of struggle.
The pro-cop forces – backed by the mayor, the corporate elite and real estate interests – promised that new reforms, implemented by the popular Black police chief, would be enough to reverse the department’s violent, racist legacy. (The chief resigned once the votes were counted.) Gatekeeper politicians stoked community fears of street crime, arguing for even more policing. One group (which included Don Samuels, currently running to unseat Congress member Ilhan Omar), sued the city, demanding more police be hired. They were bankrolled by a law firm known for its support of anti-union and white supremacist causes (especially targeting the teaching of “Critical Race Theory” and other non-white versions of history – a stance which dovetails with police supporters’ need to keep the real history of policing buried).
“Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children…”
Reform is the default setting for people everywhere. As it should be. It makes sense to figure out if something can be fixed before taking on a risky struggle to change it. People join movements for radical change – whether it’s to overthrow a colonial regime or abolish a police system – when reforms are shown to have failed. The job of the gatekeepers is to keep people from making that leap. “Gatekeeper” refers to professionals within BIPOC communities who are recognized as leaders by the media and power structure. They often advocate for the community against abuse by the system but will just as fiercely defend the system against challenges. Their status depends on maintaining good relations with both. They’re often placed at the front of the effort to push the people’s car back into the snowbank.
Amilcar Cabral led the struggle against Portuguese occupation of his homeland. The movement for independence was very much about winning those real-life benefits described above. But that’s not how the people viewed it. Not at first. To them, freedom seemed a distant and hazy vision, the road to it teeming with risk and uncertainty. In Guinea Bissau there aren’t any snowbanks. But rocking a wagon out of the mud works on the same principle. Freedom movements always begin as minority movements, accumulating people, experience and analysis with each push of the wagon.
Keep these points in mind when you hear that a majority in the Minneapolis Black community didn’t vote for the charter change. 1) Movements start small and grow over time. 2) It takes persistent leadership with a clear message. 3) The gatekeepers you hear it from are personally invested in preventing change. 4) Challenging the MPD’s power can expose you to retaliation – especially in communities of color.
“The idea of a police-free future is neither naive nor unrealistic.
It is the only pragmatic solution to the challenge of a police system rooted in the era of slavery and Indian removal which
has defeated every reform effort thrown at it.”
Enough is Enough: A 150 Year Performance Review
of the Minneapolis Police Department,” MPD150
The police themselves, sadly, are the guarantee that the abolition movement will continue – and grow. The current flurry of reforms won’t put a stop to police killings, beatings, harassment and deception. They’ll either be weak, will be ignored or will get reversed. That’s business as usual. What makes this moment different from past reform moments is the political earthquake that has just shaken the nation. Don’t let it be minimized or erased. The idea that “more cops aren’t the solution” has entered the mainstream. And the police system nationwide is facing a crisis of recruitment and retention – with the MPD alone three hundred officers behind 2019 staffing levels.
Now, having made sweeping promises to fend off the demand for abolition, the police and their backers are on the spot to deliver. As time goes on they’ll be hard pressed to explain why their police are continuing to act as they always have. The movement, on the other hand, will have no trouble explaining.
“In order to see where we are going we not only must remember
where we have been, we must understand where we have been.”
The call to abolish the police spread quickly in the uprising, amplifying decades of work by abolitionist thinkers – primarily Black women – such as Angela Davis, Mariame Kaba and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and the lived experience of the Black Lives movement. In Minneapolis, the education/activist group MPD150 built on that legacy with the 2017 release of a report, “Enough is Enough: a 150 year performance review of the minneapolis police department.” This grassroots project challenged widely held beliefs about the police, their history and our dependence on them. Fifteen thousand copies of an expanded edition (including study and teaching guides) have been distributed in communities throughout the city.
Even so, many of the people that voted both for and against the Charter amendment had only a loose idea of what a “police-free” future might actually mean. In order for an idea to gain historical force, people’s support must not just be wide but also deep – so that communities themselves can take part in defining the future they want to live in. This becomes even more essential as the “copaganda” machine shifts into gear.
Alongside a bounty of new publications nationally, MPD150s Minneapolis-focused report has proven an effective political education and organizing tool. Another ten thousand copies sit ready to hit the streets to support the next wave of popular education. Feel free to come up with a plan, pick up a supply and do your part!3
“Without organization, ideas, after some initial
momentum, start losing their effect. They become routine, degenerate into conformity, and end up simply a memory.”
A flood of new organizing has come out of the pandemic and the uprising – including mutual aid centers, street medic teams, unhoused defense networks, alternative emergency response systems, transformative justice practices and many media, publishing and cultural projects. Others are tackling the police presence in schools, universities, parks and transit; challenging their influence over social service agencies, neighborhood associations and hospitals; opposing budget increases and new facilities; supporting and advocating for survivors and families; suing over injuries; and fulfilling the unending duty of responding to police outrages. When a large movement wave crashes into the shore it spreads out, churning up countless experiments, tactics and organizational forms as the sea gathers energy for the next wave. Organizing is not as visible as mass protests but it is at the heart of sustainable movements. It’s what turns energy into power.
“Justice and humanity are often overpowered. But they are persistent and eternal forces – and fearsome to contend with.”
The uprising of 2020 will be remembered as the turning point in history that it was. Its impacts will continue to spread, and the shifts in popular consciousness it set in motion won’t be easily contained with rubber bullets and tear gas. The most important thing is that we stay grounded, show up for each other and not let the smoke and mirrors confuse us. It’s far from over. —RLM
1 Not to be confused with political TV commentator Bill Moyers. “Movement Action Plan”: https://commonslibrary.org/resource-bill-moyers-movement-action-plan/
2 The ballot question left room for police to be a part of the proposed public safety department, and the campaign included both abolitionist and non-abolitionist elements.