Categorical and Dialectical Abolitionism

We need to have a difficult conversation about prison abolitionist responses to police violence. Many abolitionists have responded to the Chauvin conviction by opposing any calls to imprison or punish him. This response is something I find politically and ethically unconvincing.

Yes, prisons are a nightmare and the bane of a just society. Yes, they eviscerate social relations and exacerbate structural violence, foreclose futures, and denigrate human dignity, and in the U.S do so in service of a larger system of white supremacy. Yes, retribution is a shallow conception of justice that fails to mend wrongs. And yet, what is to be done — right now — with your Derek Chauvins, your Darren Wilsons, your Daniel Pantaleos?

What could adequate restorative justice even begin to look like for these killer cops, or in response to everyday police violence more generally? You can’t have true restoration where grossly inequitable relations of power and violence persist. We have seen what that looks like, especially when the Restorative Justice Industry becomes an adjunct of policing itself… it becomes a restoration of status quo violence. Most abolitionists would, of course, not be satisfied with this liberal prescription, and instead call for transformative justice, as they should. Transformative approaches to justice would partially resolve the problem by dismantling policing and punishment as we know it, and by building an equitable society free from structural violence in order to eliminate root causes of other social violence. But what do we do in this moment, right now, in response to this agent of the state murdering yet another Black person?

This is speculation on my part, but there seem to be two logics of abolitionism right now: categorical and dialectical. These aren’t substantially oppositional to each other in most regards, but their differences are clearer in cases like Chauvin’s.

For categorical abolitionists, it seems like punishment and the policing and prison systems are first and foremost unjust processes, and these processes must be opposed and interrupted at every step and in every domain in which they spread. The way to oppose them is by ethically rejecting them in categorical terms, and strategically by demanding a different set of processes and conditions that can obviate them and reduce their scope. In their categorical opposition to punishment, policing, and prisons as unjust processes, it makes sense to maintain this even when evaluating responses to police brutality. The logic of prefiguration is important for this approach.

For dialectical abolitionists, it seems like the policing and prison systems are first and foremost forces of domination and control in service of racial and class hierarchies. Opposing these forces can entail prefiguration practices, such as with transformative and restorative justice. But dialectical abolitionists may still support prosecuting and jailing killer cops and do so on abolitionist grounds. Significantly, doing so can function as an expression of collective power from people mobilizing in the streets against the domination and violence exercised through and by the police and prison system. It can show people that they can win, however limited a victory, in the terrain of struggle over white supremacy.

By extension, such pushbacks can serve as platforms to constrain what the police in particular can get away with, shifting political and discursive boundaries. It is only after continuous rioting and organizing throughout 2020 (and years before) that the gratuitousness of the murder of George Floyd resulted in murder convictions instead of involuntary manslaughter, or a promotion. As George Ciccariello-Maher said about this issue, showing up in court to condemn one of their own is the last thing police want to do, and is already a sign of their strategic weakness and defensiveness. Prisons were designed to contain the poor and the marginal, not the police who were designed to do the same. Demanding the imprisonment of police undermines the political functions of both.

The path forward is not a clear one, and there are legitimate worries and criticisms. While condemning Chauvin is a defensive maneuver by police who would normally protect their own at all costs, this can be deployed by police defenders to demonstrate that “the system works” and that policing itself is not problematic. This was the overt argument of the prosecution in Chauvin’s case, that this is about this cop, not all cops. The momentum could be picked up to advance calls to defund the police but could also be derailed into useless or harmful reforms that preserve these systems. Empirically, we do not know how this will bear out, and we should have humility about this.

Ultimately, though, collective efforts to challenge and prosecute the police are putting them on the retreat. They don’t want it. They are losing, lashing out, abandoning the job in droves, feeling the eyes that are on them, and feeling their impunity slip away. The courts are offering the worst ones up in defensive self-preservation, and this is a symptom of the criminal justice system’s weakness, rather than its integrity. While some will condemn the prosecution of killer cops on the grounds of categorical configuration, to me this seems like the time to keep pushing. We’re at a point where we’ll have to make the road by walking, learn, and be willing to adjust course together along the way.

1 Comment

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One response to “Categorical and Dialectical Abolitionism

  1. Paul

    In addition to prosecutions of police, another fulcrum is the outsize power of police unions. There should be some way to overcome that, especially where so many legitimate unions are hurting.


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