Practicing Abolition, Creating Community

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2 As an educator who spends a great deal of time talking with people from all walks of life about prison abolition, I encounter many recurring questions and concerns about how a police- and prison-free future could ever actually come to fruition:

These common questions often betray a lack of understanding about the true reasons these systems were created in the first place (their outgrowth from chattel slavery, indigenous genocide, and their regular quashing of workers’ rebellions), as well as the violence they currently inflict (from criminalizing survivors, to police themselves disproportionately being culprits of genderbased violence).

Yet, in some even more significant ways, they also reveal a fundamental struggle to imagine a different world, one where there are structures in place that can prevent harm from happening on the front end, and where harm is responded to differently when it does still inevitably occur.


Rather than solely focusing on the violence the police and prison systems regularly inflict—the same forms of violence many of us incorrectly assume they exist to address — I try to reframe the discussion entirely. I ask the folks with whom I’m in dialogue to first imagine what we want our community to tangibly look like, and then to envision what steps could help us arrive there. I start small:


I picture myself knowing all of my neighbors’ faces; I picture myself having relationships with each of them, even if they are not all perfect ones;

I picture lots of green space and native plants for pollinators; I picture young people being able to play safely outside;

I picture an abundance of food, much of it growing in mine and my neighbors’ yards;

I picture residents of my street coming together to cook, to pick up trash and weed the various plots, to dance and double dutch, to watch each other's children, to play cards and dominoes; I picture a public school, a library, a counseling center, all of which are well-funded and within walking distance.

5 There are no police in my vision. This isn’t merely because, under the ideal conditions I’m envisioning, they no longer exist. It’s because there is a plethora of resources reinforcing strong relationships.

There is an actual community with all the material conditions in place—housing, mental healthcare, food, education—to lessen the likelihood of harm, and provide accountability and support when community members mistreat one another.

I ask next: What are concrete steps you can take today to make these visions a reality?

6 For my own vision, these could be things as simple as sitting on my front steps and introducing myself to passersby; scheduling a neighborhood clean-up and inviting everyone I know; hosting an outdoor game night; knocking on doors and asking if any neighbors would be interested in pooling resources to throw a small block party.

Once I feel some meaningful relationships are in place, I might be ready to make some bigger asks: Creating a phone tree that neighbors can agree to call when there’s a disturbance on the street, so that police don’t get involved; hosting meetings in my own home on how to lower the police presence on our block; inviting neighbors to join in with grassroots campaigns for removing police officers from schools and defunding the local department, reallocating those funds towards resources that are aligned with our radical vision for the street.


In identifying steps toward achieving my original vision, there is a need both to build stronger relationships that can create safety and accountability in their own right, but equally to solidify a collective commitment to a police- and prisonfree neighborhood—a commitment that must ultimately be shared by every member of the community, not by me alone.

The final question I ask is: What is currently blocking you from taking these steps? What is keeping you from building the type of connections that could make this vision a reality?

I find that this question often reveals where the largest gaps in our community exist—in terms of both relationships and material resources. These are the voids we are regularly encouraged to look to the police and prison system to fill.


For myself, I might have neighbors who speak a language that I don’t; I may have a neighbor I can’t communicate with because they have a mental illness, making it so that we are not always occupying the same reality together; I may have a neighbor who harasses me or makes transphobic comments about my gender presentation when I leave the house dressed a particular way. A “community policing” response to addressing these barriers might be something like hiring more multilingual police officers to serve the diverse community. A more standard carceral approach might involve institutionalizing the person struggling with mental illness, or stationing an officer in front of my building to protect me from my transphobic neighbor.

In each of these so-called 'solutions”, my lack of relationship with my neighbors is replaced by the police and prison system. Instead of our community being provided with actual resources that could strengthen or heal our bonds, we are offered the illusion of resources in the form of surveillance and incarceration.

9 My non-English speaking neighbors are unlikely to appreciate state actors being introduced to address a simple language barrier, especially if they are undocumented, Muslim, or Black. It’s ludicrous to lock up someone with mental illness, or to spend more money training police to deal with mental health crises, at the same time that our city is shuttering free mental health clinics, and eliminating counseling positions at our local schools. And a police officer in front of my building is just as likely to profile and target me as a Black, femme, gender-nonconforming person, as they are my harasser.

By clearly naming these barriers, we haven’t identified a need for policing, but the exact opposite. When organizers demand the defunding and abolishing of police, we are simultaneously envisioning alternate investments being made into the actual resources that keep our communities safe, and strengthen our connections with one another: Multilingual education for youth and adults, community-led deescalation teams, free mental healthcare, trans and queer curriculum in schools and after school programs, mentorship programs, affordable housing, and so much more.


It’s the lack of these resources that keep my neighbors and I from building stronger relationships with one another, not a lack of policing.

As my colleague Derecka Purnell insists, abolition isn’t just about not relying on police and prisons.

It demands that we fundamentally

commit to fighting against these systems, confronting their violence head-on, and raising demands that ultimately threaten their existence.


Not calling the police is a great first step. Signing petitions and writing our elected officials to defund police and prisons and reinvest in social services helps, too. But nothing worthwhile is done alone. For our most radical visions for our neighborhoods to be realized, it will take new relationships, shared commitments, and collective resistance.

For our communities to have access to the resources they deserve, abolition must become a part of every action we take, and every bond we forge.

Written by Benji Hart


illustrated by Emma Li


January 2022

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