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The revolutionary potential of abolitionist demands

Popular demands to abolish the police are not directed at the state, but rather a revolutionary call upon the people to complete the abolition together.

Originally published by Roarmag. Written by Andrew Lee.

The most recent cycle of revolts against anti-Blackness and policing in the United States carried over a slogan from the protests in the wake of Trayvon Martin murder in 2012: “Black Lives Matter!” Alongside it, a new demand was voiced: “Abolish the police!” A statement of fact followed by a statement of intent.

Almost immediately, the white liberal ally crowd began explaining to each other that no, despite the apparent clarity of its three constituent words, “abolish the police” did not actually call for police abolition. In the words of Emily VanDerWerff, a TV critic at Vox, “abolish the police” in fact means, “sweeping police reform is our goal.”

Part of this confusion stems from a rival slogan, “defund the police.” To defund an institution 100 percent is de facto abolition. To defund that same institution by 30 percent is no abolition at all. Proponents of defunding clamored to clarify they meant the latter, while abolitionists specified that rending police obsolete and extinct was precisely what they proposed.

And into the melee bumbled the Philadelphia chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, who issued an incredible pronouncement that the real way to truly “reckon with the roots of police violence” was the passage of the Workplace Democracy Act and a federal jobs guarantee. The statement was roundly and rightfully denounced from all corners for its imbecilic, tone-deaf class reductionism, but the basic impulse to channel rebellion into actionable reforms goes beyond one sad DSA chapter.

To divert a riot into a reform, its adherents tell us, is no retreat, for these reforms are not reforms at all. Just as abolition is said to not truly mean abolition, these reforms — labor law changes, nationalized health care, the platform of Sanders or whoever takes on his mantle next —are in fact, we are told, “non-reformist” because of their social-democratic content.

One way to read the last decade of struggle in the United States is that our movements have been thinking through a problem of strategy, cogitating with meetings and assemblies and placards and bricks around the question: what is the use of demands?

The Occupy movement militated to demand nothing, believing that any demands would legitimize the state. After Occupy, a hundred banal demands bloomed from this silence. Black Lives Matter, too, started not with a demand but rage and sorrow and the simple judgment contained in its name, though, as with Occupy, a number of concrete petitions blossomed in its wake.

Today, a revanchist left wing of the Democratic Party makes its demands clear in the form of candidates and platforms and ads while its social democratic sector claims that expansion of the imperial welfare state is not mere reformism but instead the creeping socialism of “non-reformist reforms.”

We will trace these lines of thought and practice, leaving with the provocative conclusion that “Abolish the police!” is itself a “non-reformist reform,” perhaps the only true one left in American discourse. Far from being a weakness, that is what in fact gives it its revolutionary potential.

Occupy Everything

The recent passing of American anarchist David Graeber provoked reminiscence and reckoning concerning Occupy Wall Street, of which he was an early and vocal member. Tracing Occupy’s rejection of concrete demands to the legacy of classical anarchism, David Taylor wrote, “The refusal to make decisions or hold the movement accountable to votes; the refusal to take up demands; and the attempt to execute a daring escape from the capitalism production process by sheer force of will – can all be traced directly back to Bakunin [and] Proudhon.”

The Declaration of the New York General Assembly, the movement’s first public document, contains no requests to be fulfilled or rejected by politicians but rather a list of common grievances, à la the American Declaration of Independence, followed by an exhortation upon the reader to “occupy public space… and generate solutions accessible to everyone.” The slogan borne was not a wish but a somewhat aspirational fact: “We are the 99%.”

To think of one’s neighbors and community members rather than the president or mayor as the (potential) political actors worth addressing led to a vision of the encampments as spaces not of protest but of prefiguration. Those of us in the camps were not asking anyone for anything but rather building it ourselves: a space where housing and food were decommodified, where the police were not welcome, where (in theory at least) the only decisions made over our lives were made by all of us, with each other, together.

The instantiation of these ideals proved transformative for many; the failures to see them fully through provided some of the time’s most bitter disappointments. And the lack of stated demands with which the movement might be bought off boxed the political class into a corner, who resorted to forcibly clearing the camps in a coordinated display of police violence one November night.

The immediate predecessor of this practice was the West Coast campus occupations against tuition hikes in the preceding years. As the title of a 2010 zine from Evergreen State College put it, “We occupy everything because everything is ours. We demand nothing because they have nothing to give us.”

Reformist non-reformism

The raid on the Occupy camps marked the end of its prefigurative project. Afterwards, a number of post-Occupy groups attempted to once more solidify support around extremely legible demands. Student debt erasure, foreclosure defense, public banking, wealth taxes: all were promoted as Occupy’s actual implicit demand to the post-Occupy milieu, a reform-minded cacophony that overpowered the original movement’s strategic silence.

Some went from refusing to negotiate with any politician to scheming to elect one of their own. One of them, Charles Lencher, went from Occupy’s TechOps working group to co-founding People for Bernie Sanders.

“Sanders’ rise in this election season is inconceivable without Occupy Wall Street having elevated the conversation around inequality and the way that the 1% are ravaging this country,” he said. “You just can’t imagine one without the other.” It is indeed hard to imagine Sanders without Occupy. Can we imagine Occupy without Sanders?

The passage from prefiguration to demands to actual electioneering is sometimes papered over by the term “non-reformist reforms.” Coined by French philosopher Andre Gorz, it is taken by some to mean we have “jettisoned the reform/revolution dichotomy” entirely. To determine if a reform is non-reformist, Gus Speth suggests we investigate such criteria as “Does the initiative promote limiting the market to what it does well?” and “Does the initiative strengthen children and families rather than weaken them?”

The impulse behind these interpretations seems to be what we might call the Political Compass Strategy of Social Change. If we are at the center of the compass, a jump to the far left edge would require revolution, a miniscule step in that direction is just a reformist reform, and a non-reformist reform a larger, moderately-sized step. This view sees the non-reformism of a given reform as something inherent in it due to its social democratic nature. It is a profoundly anti-strategic perspective—a social democracy may be farther to the left than the contemporary US, but how, precisely, would Medicare for All then bring a classless society closer after its implementation? The Political Compass Strategists have no answer.

Gorz himself, in contrast, was quite clear that in his conception that a reform was non-reformist — or, in his words, revolutionary — only insofar as it mobilized an autonomous, revolutionary workers movement that pointed towards a socialist society. “The struggle for partial autonomous powers and their exercise,” he wrote, “should present socialism to the masses as a living reality already at work, a reality which attacks capitalism from within and which struggles for its own free development.”

To think that a reform could be revolutionary because of its inherent content, rather than its ability to mobilize revolutionaries, he argued, is illusory. “If the strategy of intermediate goals is trapped by this illusion, it will fully deserve the labels of reformist and social-democrat which its critics give it.” The vast majority of those who deploy this concept in the contemporary United States are trapped in exactly this way.

To Demand Everything

The intervening years between Occupy and Bernie featured some of the most significant mass rebellions in the United States to date, including the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests. Like Occupy, they did not highlight proposals but simple statements. In one case, that almost none of us fit into that one percent who truly benefit from financial speculation; in the other, the significance of Black life. If the flames of Ferguson contained in part a mere appeal to Washington, they contained much more, besides. This brings us to the chant that has grown the past months through the rebirth of BLM street militancy: abolish the police.

Based on what we have seen, we can propose a typology of political slogans.

  1. Demands, like “tax the rich” or “defund the police” or “build the wall.” They are not only addressed to politicians, they are necessarily addressed to them, for only the political class may set tax policy or determine local budgets or enter into negotiations with the Mexican state to compel it to fund hostile architecture on its northern border. The problem with demands is that they leave the legitimacy of the state intact, and with it all of the exploitative, extractive systems that prop it up.
  2. Pure statements, such as “We are the 99%” or “Black Lives Matter.” The power of these utterances is that (radical) action is held to follow from their self-evident truth. The dilemma is that their openness lets anyone define what follows from them, and with things as they are, this often opens the door to encroaching reformism.
  3. Anti-demands, like “burn it down” or the Argentinian refrain, “que se vayan todos” (“all of them must go”). While demands may only be fulfilled by politicians, anti-demands can only be fulfilled by the rest of us, because the politicians will never set fire to their workplaces or legislate that they themselves must all leave. They are the political version of the exhortation “save water,” which does not propose that legislators pass a water tax but rather encourages each of us to turn off the faucet after use. The issue with anti-demands is that thinking of ourselves as protagonists rather than supplicants or petitioners in any mode but that of the consumer is deeply counter-intuitive to most. Speaking a political anti-demand often requires an already-existing autonomous radical    tradition combined with an urgent, deeply felt crisis: in the case of Occupy, the remnants of the American alter-globalization movement revitalized amidst the Great Recession.

On its face, “abolish the police,” like “defund the police,” seems to be of the first category, having the familiar, recognizable structure of the political demand: naming a state agency and proposing a change — in this case, total elimination. Demanding, of course, is the mode in which the citizens of liberal democracy are trained to express political preferences, and demands are therefore the easiest of the three kinds of statements to mobilize behind. Though our liberal friends may find its implications unreasonable, it does not seem incoherent to yell for police abolition at City Hall: the state authorizes the police, it may just as well de-authorize them if it so chooses.

But perhaps that is not true. Part of what makes the state a state is its ability to impose coercive domestic force: a state that abolished the police would cease to be a state, and abolition would be its final enforceable act. This differentiates police abolition not only from defunding law enforcement but also abolition of, say, the US Department of Education.

The government will not legislate itself out of existence. Moreover, it has been pointed out that destroying state power under capitalism entails moving beyond capitalism as well. To demand the impossible seems like a fool’s errand, unless we reconsider the subject to whom “abolish the police” is addressed.

A call to arms

If abolition may not be fulfilled by the state, to abolish the police is not a task for the mayor but a task for us. It is necessarily us, the people in the street and the bystanders who may join us, encouraging each other to complete the abolition together. Just as the Occupy movement called not upon the president but upon us to occupy everything, it is we who must enact the abolition. What appears a request for redress is in fact a call to arms.

Abolition therefore goes beyond the elimination of one governmental sector, inherently encompassing the entirety of state and economic relations which uphold and are upheld by policing. Police abolition also surpasses its negative dimensions by implying the positive act of creating non-carceral practices to deal with the interpersonal harms we are taught make policing inevitable.

“Instead of calling the police every time there is a conflict in our neighborhoods,” says prison abolition group Critical Resistance, “we can establish community forums and mediation practices to deal with harm or conflict.” When we yell “abolish the police” at a demonstration, we are calling upon each other to build all of this. We begin as supplicants, we end as protagonists, healers and militants. We begin with a demand; we end with work to do.

Occupy’s lack of demands allowed reformism to appropriate its legacy. “Abolish the police” has the structure of a plea for reform but cannot be reduced to reformism without wild violence to the plain meanings of words. “Abolish the police!” is a Trojan horse, an anti-demand wearing a demand’s clothing, an apparent petition upon the powerful that immediately unfolds into its negation, a revolutionary “reform” that has drawn thousands upon thousands into the streets, pointing to a new world from the ashes of the downtown Minneapolis Target.

The movement in the streets — radicalization, militancy, the creation of new ways of being with each other and against capital and whiteness and the state — is reflected in the conceptual movement contained within its slogan.

If we are to speak of non-reformist reforms in contemporary America, it should not be of fiddling with the corporate tax rate but of the Black youth on the frontlines of the fight that brought their cities to a halt. Not of healthcare and welfare but of healing and war. To demand abolition is to demand nothing and everything, as well.

Andrew Lee is a troublemaker in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Perspectives on Anarchist TheoryThe Progressive, Plan A Magazine and Organizing Upgrade.



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