Six years ago, if you had asked Derecka Purnell what could be done about police brutality, she might have suggested body cameras, or more diversity within policing. Growing up in a community where folks would call 911 for everything from asthma attacks to gunshot wounds (everything except snitching, of course), the lawyer, writer and advocate has since shifted her position from one rooted in reform, to one focused on total abolition.
That journey from reformist to abolitionist is the subject of her first book Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom. In the book, she fleshes out her argument that brutality isn’t a bug in the system of policing, it’s a feature that was built into it to keep poor, racialized and “foreign” people disenfranchised.
Today, Purnell’s advocacy work is focused on why structures like policing and prisons can’t be tweaked or “fixed”. But for her, abolition isn’t just about taking away the institutions that give people an illusion that everyone is being kept safe when they’re actually not – it’s about building new structures that remove the need for these violent and oppressive systems to begin with.
You had initially rejected the idea of abolition, and you saw it as ‘utopic’. When did you change your mind?
There wasn’t one specific “aha” moment. Over time, I noticed a lot of reforms were getting adopted, and people continued to die. I was just very lucky to be around people – especially when I got to law school – who were thinking about police differently than what I had originally thought.
I was part of a student movement and in 2016 we started doing political education; we came up with a syllabus and started reading together. And once we started reading together, we were like, ‘Oh, OK, this is what abolition means. This is what it means to move for decolonization. This is what it means to be anti-capitalist.’
You were involved in the Ferguson uprisings in 2014, and have been present for many protests and demonstrations after that. As a Black woman and a mother to Black sons, how were you processing what you were seeing and experiencing?
One thing I do remember being vividly afraid of when the uprising happened, was being teargassed because I was still breastfeeding and I learned that teargas can get into your body, and it’s an abortifacient so it can make you miscarry. I didn’t want it to get into my milk, and I was so afraid of that happening. I thought: “What happens if I go to jail and I have milk in my breasts?” It was quite terrifying. And to know that what we were experiencing, people who were rising up in Palestine, for example, had experienced that on a much more regular basis, just gave me so much context for what it means to be under constant assault by law enforcement, by police. It was quite jarring.
In the book, you describe an encounter where a Black cop assaulted you. Do you feel a different kind of resentment when the violence is coming from one of your people?
I have experienced all kinds of abuse, violence, antagonism from people of all backgrounds. I’ve had Black cops show up and remove me from my mother’s house and take me to foster care. I’ve had Black social workers not take my report seriously, when I told them I was being abused in foster care. I’ve had Black judges keep me from my mother because she was poor. So I’ve experienced Black people at every single level of the criminal legal system and, yes, there was a lot of frustration, a lot of anger.
It’s actually quite sad that a lot of Black people enter the police academy or they enter the military because it’s the job that’s always hiring in our communities. So if you grew up poor and your options are the grave or the cage, being a cop doesn’t sound as bad, especially if you can be a productive member of your community. And so for me there’s some levels of resentment and maybe even some levels of sympathy.
Climate change is an issue that doesn’t get as much attention in mainstream conversations about abolition. But you dedicated an entire chapter in the book to it. Why?
The hotter that the Earth gets and the more unpredictable the weather gets, it’s going to continue to displace people – especially Black people, poor people, immigrants. And when I started looking historically, I noticed that police helped facilitate that displacement. They’re the people who round up people and put them in jail. They’re the people at the border with whips on top of horses, fighting to keep Haitian refugees from entering the country. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the very first thing that was built was a jail. And so that’s the carceral reality of the climate crisis. Police are going to be the ones to show up, and wrangle, arrest or kill people who are navigating the bodily consequences, the community consequences of climate change and environmental justice. So that’s why that chapter was dedicated to it.
Do you ever think back to those moments when you thought reform was the only answer and cringe a little bit?
I cringe so much! I published so many reform [articles] that I’m just like ‘Derecka you were so loud and so wrong, sis.’ I think for where I was at the time, I was earnest and I fought for the implementation of these demands. And then I started working on consent decrees, and policy, and use of force policies in police departments, and I was like, ‘Oh, wait, we’re tweaking the system, and it’s not even going to work.’
I’m also grateful that I’ve been pushed and challenged by movements for abolition, that have given me the space to change and evolve and have new ideas and reflect. I’m more interested in being free than being right. And I just realized that sticking to reform was not gonna be able to save anybody.
You also write about the fact that within the abolition movement, there aren’t always easy, straightforward answers to questions like ‘What about the murderers?’ and ‘What about the rapists?’ When did you stop feeling the need to have all those answers?
After I became a lawyer, I realized there’s three kinds of groups that I largely am in conversation with around abolition. The first group are people who are antagonistic to abolition. When they ask me “what about the murderers, what about sexual violence?” they aren’t really asking because they care about what I have to say. They’re trying to give me a gotcha question. So I had to realize ‘Derecka, I don’t think your time and interest is best served arguing with people who are committed to expanding the institution of police.’
And then there are people who ask me [these] questions who I consider to be skeptical or abolition-curious. [For them], police at least feel like something. [They’re thinking], ‘If you take away this one thing that I can just call on my phone, I’m not going to have anything.’ And so in those conversations, it’s so much easier for me to think about which community that I’m working with, and how they want to be safe. I try to explain to those people that abolition is not going to happen in their lifetime, but they can be part of a fight to build some of the changes we need now to make it happen eventually, one day.
And then the third group of people are abolitionists through and through. We know that abolition is not going to happen right now, but how do we get to a point where by the time we’ve prevented so much harm, so much violence, and there happens to be a murder, we can actually think about the best way to hold this person accountable.
For a person who is abolition-curious, are there any texts that you would recommend they read?
Before I recommend any text, the very first thing I think people should do is find their people. When you’re in a group of people and you’re reading for political education, you all get to decide what political education makes sense for the knowledge you want to learn, to prepare you for the fight that you want to fight.
I think that people should read Mariame Kaba; she wrote a book that came out earlier this year called We Do This ’Til We Free Us. Everyone should absolutely read Angela Davis’s work like Are Prisons Obsolete and Abolition Democracy, as well as Freedom Dreams by Robin DG Kelley, which is just canon.
If you can do political education with a group of people who are working on a campaign it also gives you an opportunity to figure out how your political education can actually be implemented in practice.
That is the goal of abolition – not for you just to get smarter or get more woke, it’s so that we can get more free.
Becoming Abolitionists Police, protests and the pursuit of freedom, published by Penguin Random House is out Tuesday 5 October 2021.