One of the more controversial demands that came out of the Black Lives Matter protests last year was that those in power should “defund the police”. The broad principle is that money should be divested from policing and diverted towards programmes that make communities safer. That includes, among other things, housing, healthcare and youth support services. What underpins this demand is the belief that by the time the police get involved in a situation, it is too late. They end up violently suppressing the symptoms of social breakdown rather than treating the disease. Reducing policing in order to decrease crime sounds counterintuitive, but a new book by Derecka Purnell largely succeeds in explaining why “abolition”, as she puts it, makes sense.
Becoming Abolitionists is half polemic, half memoir. During her impoverished childhood in a neighbourhood of St Louis beset by violence and environmental hazards, Purnell and her family “called 911 for everything except snitching”. Paramedics who arrived to treat conditions from asthma to gunshot wounds were invariably accompanied by police.
In these kinds of communities there are no safety nets. People are precariously employed or on meagre benefits, sick from the pollutants released by the factories that surround them and at the mercy of corrupt landlords. Boys deal drugs for money and fight over territory. Parents work long hours and fight with each other at the end of the day. When these conflicts reach boiling point, there is only one place to turn: the emergency services.
Purnell recalls that it was rarely a solution, and her lived experience lends credibility. “When people come across police abolition for the first time,” she writes, “they tend to dismiss abolitionists for not caring about neighbourhood safety or the victims of violence. They tend to forget that often we are those victims, those survivors of violence.”
In addition to drawing on her own life, Purnell makes the case for abolition from a historical standpoint. She argues that the modern model of western policing in general, and US policing in particular, was developed in order to protect the haves from the have nots – to catch runaway slaves, prevent unionisation and impede the enfranchisement of poor white people and liberated black people. She draws convincing parallels between the past and the present to demonstrate that today’s policing systems are vestiges of this oppressive framework, having evolved to uphold capitalism and maintain the status quo. From pepper-spraying Occupy Wall Street protesters to indiscriminately teargassing Black Lives Matter marches, police responses, Purnell argues, are designed to be excessive and indiscriminate – a hammer to which everything looks like a nail.
She supplements this long view with a study of how policing actually fails those it is meant to protect. This is where Purnell really comes into her own. She has a degree from Harvard Law School and, at only 31, more than a decade of community activism and organisation under her belt. As she tells the stories of the people and cases she has encountered, the reader is introduced to a whole range of charities, voluntary organisations and student networks that provide support for vulnerable communities. The richness of her activist networks suggests there is a huge grassroots movement that, if properly enabled, could help solve problems before police intervention becomes necessary.
Despite the promise of that alternative model many remain unconvinced. Purnell does not shy away from the “gotcha” questions that are so often used to discredit her position. “What about the murderers?” a woman asks her. “Which murderers?” Purnell replies. In her vision of a post-abolition world, the way to police murder is to focus on preventing it. People mostly do bad things as a result of being failed at some point. “By disaggregating homicides into digestible social problems,” Purnell argues, one can “eradicate the root causes”.
This may seem utopian and abstract, but Purnell makes it tangible by backing it up with data on the routes to offending. She also sets out what needs to be implemented to block those routes – proper healthcare provision, mental health support, free childcare and mediation committees. Her approach to those who offend, from violent criminals to women who abandon their children, is a compassionate one. It is an empathy that can only come from someone who has seen too many people driven into homelessness, poverty and early orphanhood by a system that excludes them, then punishes them for it.
With its personal, historical and legal facets, Becoming Abolitionists can sometimes read like three different books in one, crowding each other out. At times Purnell is a little girl, having grown up before her time, battling the odds, trying to summon back all the lives she lost to police violence or corporate negligence. At others she’s an academic, soberly going over the evidence, and then a lawyer, advocating passionately for her defendant. She is in such command of her material, however, that even if you disagree with her, you are compelled to listen.
• Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom by Derecka Purnell is published by Verso (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.