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The Appeal Podcast Episode 7: What Abolitionists Mean When They Talk About Abolition

With William C. Anderson, journalist and co-author of As Black As Resistance.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

We didn’t always have police and prisons as we know them today—in fact, they’re fairly recent inventions. Abolitionists like William C. Anderson ask us to radically rethink the necessity of police, and our practice of throwing people in cages. Anderson traces the origins of modern punishment from slavery to debt peonage to Jim Crow to the co-called War on Drugs.

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Adam Johnson: Hi, welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Thanks for joining us. You can follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod and on Facebook at The Appeal Podcast and make sure to subscribe on iTunes if you can. So one of the most difficult things for abolitionist and prison reform advocates is to rewire the human brain to envision a world without police or prisons or at the very least, these institutions massively reimagined in reduced. Our guest today, William C. Anderson, journalist and co-author of As Black As Resistance, grapples with these questions in a unique and probing way. He joins us today to explain how we can’t really talk about police or police reform without discussing the corollary problems of austerity and runaway capitalism.

[Begin Clip]

William C. Anderson: If you were putting the resources and investing into the communities in the first place, the problems that you’re supposedly solving with the police, which are not actually being solved with the police, would be lessened. You know, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue. Put the resources into the community, like give people what they need, stop, you know, allowing corporations to amass these astronomical amounts of wealth.

[End Clip]

Adam: William, thank you so much for coming on.

William C. Anderson: Hey, thanks for having me.

Adam: You wrote a piece for The Appeal called “Responses to Violence Must Move Beyond Policing.” I find this topic super interesting because I think it gets to the axiomatic core of what we talk about when we talk about abolition or when we talk about reform. I want to talk first about how you think the average person, and let’s be clear here, I think the average kind of proverbial middle class white person views the police in society versus what their actual function is, and uh, there’s a common joke on Twitter that white people view 911 like customer service. Obviously that’s radically different than how police function for a lot of communities in this country. Can we talk about that gap between how your kind of average, quote unquote “average” sort of white person who the police department effectively is kind of built a serve views police versus how they actually function in society?

William C. Anderson: Well, that’s really interesting that you asked that because there’s actually a quote by Frank Wilderson, um, where he talks about white people being deputized and being basically manifestations of the police in I guess civilian life even though they’re not necessarily actually police as their form of employment, it’s more so that whiteness or white supremacy and being in a white supremacist society often gives white people an authority to dictate to people like what they can and cannot do and to oppress the existence of other people who are not white around them. This has a special relationship to black people, particularly, in the sense that being in this state of perpetual anti-blackness around us and experiencing anti-blackness constantly we are treated as if we’re supposed to be subservient and we’re supposed to just follow the orders of, of white folks. So you see this play out a lot of times, you know, you’re seeing all these calls being made to the police-

Adam: Right.

William C. Anderson: Over these really trivial things like, you know, the little girl selling water or you know, a black person just minding their own business barbecuing. We see these events happening in the news and there’s kind of this reaction, uh, to it now where people are acting like this is a new thing and we see this oftentimes. Folks react to things that have been happening for a very, very, very long time as if they’re new. When Black Lives Matter was first, you know, making headlines, folks were like, ‘Oh, you know, this person from the past, this black leader was a lot like BLM or, you know, duh, duh, duh.’ They were like trying to make BLM into something that was like so exceptional when the core points of that movement were exactly the same as many, many movements that had come before. And instead of drawing the connection between the past and to BLM, it was more like they were trying to make BLM something that maybe was more significant than the past. And it’s like, so people do this a lot of times and they’re doing it with, um, the police being, uh, used by white folks as this force to harm black people. But that is the origin of the police. And it’s not just black folks; it is a lot of folks.

Adam: Right. The only difference is the ubiquity of smart phones with cameras, right? That’s the sort of thing that changed.

William C. Anderson: Right, right. That’s had a huge influence, that’s had a huge influence. And so we’re seeing things now in this very, uh, unfortunately regular way and we’re digesting it constantly because it’s, it’s being shown to us and folks are seeing it a lot more closely and they may not have the opportunity to be able to ignore it in the same way. So, you know, white people have a different relationship with the police for sure than I do. And I know that there’s even black folks who feel that, uh, the police serve a special purpose that we shouldn’t mess with or disturb. And there’s white folks who feel that way too. But it all boils down to the origins of what the police are for. And that is to do what they’re doing. That is to harm people, that is to carry out the agenda of the state, you know, and, and oppress people. That’s, that’s what they’ve always done.

Adam: To your sort of people who listen to this who are maybe are kind of, uh, your, your proverbial well intentioned liberal who thinks police needs reform but not necessarily abolition or any kind of meaningful restructuring or rethinking, to what extent do the origins of police are they by definition going to be racist and oppressive and do you feel like efforts to kind of make a kinder, gentler machine gun hand, to paraphrase Neil Young, are they, are they even worth it or do you think it sort of just rotten to it’s core? And the follow up question to that, which I think this straw man I’ve created will also ask is what do you replace it with? Um, you know, who, who am I supposed to call when I’m under siege, if I can’t call a, you know, Jack Bauer or Detective McClane or the kind of image of a cop we have in our head.

William C. Anderson: Uh huh. Um, I mean the origins of the police with the constables that were used against native people with fugitive slave laws, xenophobic policies with Jim Crow, with the black codes, those are all prime examples of the origins of the police and what they have been used for and what they were meant for and what they are still utilized to do in this country. I think that, uh, if we’re being honest, the police are, yes; they are rotten to their core. Um, unfortunately people are really used to the idea of having the police. So a lot of times people who are even very, very oppressed and harmed by policing and who have communities that suffer under policing feel that the police are absolutely necessary and that’s something real that we have to deal with because people don’t necessarily, um, have an alternative in mind. So I think that we have to work on, I’ve been, I’ve been describing it as de-legitimizing the police. I wrote a piece for Rewire.News where I talked about delegitimizing the police and essentially what I’m saying when I say “delegitimize the police” is that we have to work on making the police something that doesn’t have the amount of legitimacy that it has in people’s imaginations. So working to actually take away this idea that people have in their minds that they need the police and showing people that we don’t actually need the police because we know that the police are not out here simply being heroic and solving crime and fixing the world and making the world a better place. We know that the police are out here framing people. We know the police are out here murdering people. We know that the police are not solving crime, that uh, you know, we can think about clearance rates and see that, you know, the police are not even actually failing to serve the communities that, you know, are, are actually, um, affected the most by crime. Right? And so, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s pretty apparent that the police are not living up to what they’re supposed to actually be doing in many instances. So we have to kind of use these examples to show people the police are not really doing what you imagine that they’re doing, um, a large majority of the time. And we can take it from there to kind of inform people if they’re not already aware, ‘Hey, this is, uh, this is, uh, something that we need to kind of get out of our heads that the police are necessary.’ And that’s a process. This is all a process. I think when, you know, when people think about abolitionists as you know, being kind of ridiculous, that they think that we are saying, ‘Hey, you know, snap, snap, let’s make the police all go away in one fell swoop.’ But there’s a process that has to happen here of abolishing policing in this country. It’s not just about like simply saying, you know, this sweeping thing is going to happen in an instant. It’s a process of showing people that the police aren’t necessary and making sure that communities have the resources they need so that the problems that police are supposed to be solving aren’t actually even, you know, as prevalent anymore. Because if the communities that the police are supposed to be serving the most, that have the most crime or that have the most disturbances and issues, if those communities had the resources that they needed in the first place, then we would be seeing a completely different society. But unfortunately we live in a society where, you know, we have, um, corporations like Amazon that have enough money to end poverty in the United States, if not the entire world. Um, they’re making so much in profits and that money, where is it going? It’s going into some CEO like, like Jeff Bezos, like its going into his pockets, its going into the pockets of people who are very elite and who, um, who squander all this money and who, who just constantly accumulate. It is not going back into the communities and the people and the workers who are serving these corporations and who make this society function with their labor. So if we started changing this conversation into what it really needs to be, which is that capitalism is a problem, white supremacy is a problem, you know, and I’ll be even more specific that racial capitalism is a problem, that if that were the case, then you know, we could convince more people to give up this idea of the police and delegitimize them, delegitimize the police in their minds and their hearts.

Adam: Right? So some super big ideas there I want to drill down a little bit and just as a point of reference Jeff Bezos is presently worth $142 billion, uh, which is greater than twenty three African countries’ GDPs combined. And this goes into the next thing you write about, which is you really can’t address the issue of police or even police reform or police abolition without addressing what you call racial capitalism, which is the kind of, um, essentially racist nature of capitalism as we see it. Now that may be a bit unsettling or kind of highly contentious for some of our, more, for lack of a better word, neo-liberal or pro-capitalists listeners. Um, can we talk about how one cannot divorce our system of capitalism from the sort of racist enterprises as we see it, namely the police?

William C. Anderson: Yeah, I mean the, um, the way that we think about capitalism today absolutely has to have an understanding of race and racism and white supremacy of, of anti-blackness. It has to have these, these major factors and the accumulation that the United States needed to get to the point that it’s at today. I mean the enslaved Africans, their labor, was the driving force that created the empire that we know today is the United States. That’s free labor. The reason that the United States was able to build capital and build power with such speed was because of just how genocidal the settler process was here and because of the extreme nature of, of transatlantic slavery and how brutal it was with regard to extracting labor, it’s absolutely necessary. You can’t think about how the United States got to this point without recognizing that. Especially when you think about the labor of black women to reproduce the labor force, uh, the free labor force as we know it today. So it’s absolutely crucial to recognize that fact. And you know, I mean, it’s pretty simple. You just have to recognize that, you know, this, this country’s not that old and in order for it to get to where it’s at now so quickly, you know, slavery was absolutely, you know, a driving force.

Adam: You really can’t overstate the importance of free labor in building economies. Like, you know, I visited the Jefferson Library and there were some people I was with who were like, wow, he, you know, he read so many books and I’m like, well, he didn’t work.

William C. Anderson: Right.

Adam: I mean, now I don’t want to be glib about it, but like, you know, it’s easy to read a lot of books when you literally don’t work. Uh, when you just sit around and manage your, you know, your, your scores and hundreds of slaves. Um, you know, so much of this country is built on, on either exceedingly cheap immigrant labor or, or free or free labor of, of slaves. And of course that is the sort of backbone and what you argue is that the police are inextricably linked to that history in terms of effectively managing the white supremacist, capitalist frameworks because that’s their kind of primary function. So I want to talk about the corollary necessity of austerity. You write a lot about austerity rhetoric.

William C. Anderson: Mhmm.

Adam: Okay. So, so in your piece you talk about how austerity rhetoric is very favorable to policing and austerity, the austerity fetish that is in our country, it is increasingly in Europe, goes hand in hand with, with, with what Professor Stephanie Kollmann at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law calls the quote “scarcity logic.” Um, and she says it’s always been used to “simultaneously starve police misconduct investigations and invest in suppression squads and surveillance activities.” What does she mean by this? When we talk about how austerity and police go hand in hand, what are we talking about?

William C. Anderson: It’s basically a recognition of how the communities that are most in need are starved. They’re intentionally starved and at the same time told that there are not enough resources for them. There is not enough to give to them to meet their needs that they very well deserve. It’s this use of um, the police in this really, really terrible way that it’s like a big circle, you know, it’s like you have on one hand the austerity saying we don’t have enough like we already have to take from the resources that communities need. Maybe some people might, you know, describe that as taking away from people’s human rights at the same token saying that there’s not enough money, reinvesting, constantly reinvesting into police. And so there’s like this circle that happens where at the time that you’re starving communities and you’re intentionally strickening resources from communities and saying that there’s not enough, you’re reinvesting into the police. So again, it goes back to what I was saying earlier about communities not having enough resources and not having their needs met and, and creating more problems, uh, through not allowing the resources that communities need to get to them. And then saying that there is money for the police and that we have to put more into the police at the same time. So it’s like, it’s a very purposeful connection that’s happening there because again, if you were putting the resources and investing into the communities in the first place, the problems that you’re supposedly solving with the police, which are not actually being solved with the police, would be lessened. You know, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue, put the resources into the community, like give people what they need, stop, you know, allowing corporations to amass these astronomical amounts of wealth and have an actual system where people, you know, have to pay taxes, like just do normal stuff. Like corporations are not even paying taxes in this country.

Adam: Yeah.

William C. Anderson: And it’s like, then they say like, “Oh, we don’t have enough money for communities that have a high crime rates.’ What? Yes, you do, you have enough money. Like at the very least, we could be demanding that corporations pay taxes.

Adam: Yeah. We saw this in Chicago, starkly of course with the, uh, with the police academy. They, the cop academy as it’s known.

William C. Anderson: Right.

Adam: $95 million dollar new police training facility while Rahm Emanuel has shut down over fifty schools. And that really just drives home the priorities here, which is, which is not about providing even the most basic services. It’s about managing and containing and ghettoizing.

William C. Anderson: Right. And so that, that’s absolutely it. That’s part of the reason that racism and white supremacy become necessary to maintain all of this because in the minds of so many people in the society, they look at these communities, particularly black communities, and they say, ‘Well, they’re lazy, they’re stupid, they’re animals. Um, they’re, they’re predetermined to behave this way and, and to be criminals. And they lean towards criminality.’ Those sorts of, um, racist beliefs are exactly what reinforce the idea of policing. Because when you think that because someone is black, that they’re predetermined or they’re predestined to be a criminal or that they’re not someone who is capable of being good even, or being safe, then you don’t even think that if these people have resources and have the things that they need that they’ll still be able to do anything with them. Because you, when you think I’m an animal because I’m black, it doesn’t matter if I have the resources are not in your mind because you don’t even think that I’m a human. So it works hand in hand. It works absolutely hand in hand. So it’s not for me, it’s not about us appealing to white sensibilities or, or, or saying, you know, hey, or trying to convince white people or white society that we should have these things that we need as much as us pushing for our liberation and getting those things. Um, I’m not so much concerned with like, you know, trying to convince anyone of anything at this point. I just, I think that uh, black people and other folks who are oppressed in this society, I think that we have the capability to demand and, and, and take our liberation for ourselves through organizing.

Adam: So let’s talk about what those efforts have been. I know there, there are efforts in certain communities to have supplements or alternatives to the police, um, conflict resolution. So in the event that there’s, you know, let’s say domestic abuse or, or, um, someone stole something from someone that there are, instead of just mindlessly calling the police and having them show up and maybe shoot someone or put someone in a cage for five years, can we talk a little bit about what efforts are being done by these communities to come up with alternatives to police? Because I think that’s the first question people would ask, right? Which is all, ‘Well, what do you, what am I going to replace?’ People will do bad things, but um, we know what is out there that can sort of serve that social function?

William C. Anderson: Yeah, I mean there’s, you know, people talk about transformative and restorative justice and, and uh, and not calling the police. Trying to resolve issues in our communities on our own. And that is, um, that’s a very complicated conversation because, you know, I have to recognize that a lot of times I see men utilize the language of restorative and transformative justice at the expense of women who suffer things like domestic abuse, rape and, uh, all sorts of harassment at the hands of men in our communities and so it’s complicated because we don’t want to be pushing for something that is going to be transformative at the expense of the most oppressed folks in our communities, whether it’s queer folks, trans folks, women, whoever it might be. We have to, again, like I said, we have to do the work of delegitimizing the police hand in hand with, with, with the sorts of work, with this sort of work and this sort of effort like transformative and restorative justice because again, like that’s going to be us actually taking the, the idea of the police away and pushing for the resources that we need in our communities because that’s going to be part of that transformation. It’s not just, it’s not all just on us. It’s not just like, hey, and when I say it’s not all on us, I mean like it’s not completely a matter of us just changing our mind. It’s a matter of us also making sure that our communities are getting the resources we need so we see the environment change. So as much as, you know, we can make these, these efforts too, there also has to be a push to address the egregious violations of, of racial capitalism in the society that are constantly making sure that these problems persist in our communities. At the same time, you know, if, if people want to take these, these steps in their lives to show that the police aren’t necessary and like avoid interacting with the police in their daily lives that’s wonderful too. And so it’s, it’s a combination of different things that are needed, but addressing this system that we live under is such a huge part of this. And I don’t think that we can understate that.

Adam: Yeah, I guess I think that for some in the reform movement, it’s, it’s hard. You know, you always want to balance sort of fixing the things that can be fixed now with the broader critiques of the system. Um, you know, it’s the old cliché that you can envision the end of the world before you can envision the end of capitalism. Right? And, and it’s, and I feel like some, some, you know, there, there are always going to be people who sort of say, ‘well we need to work with what we have’ and um, and then we have this kind of goofy scenario where the Chicago police department partners with the Anti Defamation League to do racial sensitivity training, which is of course a kind of pro Israel lobby who trains Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank. Um, and the question is like there’s always this cutoff of like what reform is worth it and what reform is kind of just a red herring. And it’s, I and I don’t know, I don’t quite know the answer to that. I guess I’m curious what your thoughts are on that.

William C. Anderson: I mean, I think that we have to push against the idea that reform is even something that we should be viewing as a goal. I think that reform has a lot of the logics of liberalism kind of built into it. And I think that we just need to be telling people abolition is necessary. I mean folks like myself and others who are considered “radical” quote unquote by, uh, by some folks, by others. It’s, it’s unfortunate that like, these, these views like, you know, everybody should have healthcare or that education should be free or that we should live in a society free from police are considered radical because they’re actually normal, um, uh, views and they’re actually not that controversial in many places. So it’s really a testament to how, how backwards things are in the USA.

Adam: I think some people would view budget priorities to be radical in the moral sense, right, so even on a, on a national scale, forget Rahm’s $100 million police academy and cutting schools. You have, you know, we, we passed a defense budget for $719 billion dollars.

William C. Anderson: Right.

Adam: The increase alone over two years ago was $82 billion even adjusting for inflation. So that’s an increase, the budget increase alone of $82 billion could have paid for public school for every public college kid in the country, which is a total of $70 billion and we have $12 billion leftover to pay off everyone’s ATM surcharges.

William C. Anderson: Right.

Adam: Um, so, you know, that seems radical, you know, to me and I, and it’s hard to kind of, but it’s just the default setting and people view the default thing is the thing that’s sort of just a law of nature and it’s hard to kind of push back against that.

William C. Anderson: Yeah. It’s people, a lot of people are so invested in capitalism, uh, because they, they feel like they might be the CEO one day or they might be wealthy one day and they feel that because there’s this idea that maybe it’ll be me that gets to hoard capital or there’s also this idea that because I can go buy nice things, that this is a good system and I’m free.

Adam: Right.

William C. Anderson: People conflate the idea of freedom with consumption and they think that their ability to purchase goods, um, and to, you know, get a Mercedes or, or, um, get a flat screen TV or, you know, go buy nice food and have a really fancy dinner one night. They equate those things with freedom and because there’s this ignorance this pervasive ignorance in the USA about what the rest of the world is like. People think that a lot of other folks are, you know, living in these terrible conditions everywhere else where they don’t have the freedom to consume the way that we do. And so it’s definitely something in people’s minds where they defend this, this capitalist system in their heads under this imaginary freedom to consume and making that into something that is indicative of how great the society is rather.

Adam: Yeah. All right, well that’s, um, that was great. These are all super big questions that I think it’s always important to talk about them otherwise we get into the weeds of like, you know, talking about body cams or any, you know, so um, and I think, I think these kind of big questions of abolition or are they kind of have long been the driving force behind even what we, you know, even to the extent we even get like good reforms. I think the abolitions wing is always essential to keep the heat on otherwise we get complacent and self satisfied, so I really appreciate you providing that perspective. Thank you so much.

William C. Anderson: For sure.


Adam: I understand that you just wrote a book with Zoe Samudzi, and it covers many of these topics and, and much, much more. You want to talk about that before you go?

William C. Anderson: Yeah. So, um, the book that Zoe and I just wrote is called As Black As Resistance. Um, it just came out very recently and you know, some people are describing it as like a manifesto, but it’s an expansion of an article that we wrote for ROAR Magazine called “The Anarchism of Blackness.” And we’re basically talking about how, um, this, uh, state and uh, it’s oppressive anti-black logics, how it places blackness and situates blackness in a realm of anarchy. And we mean that in a few different ways. We really are, are talking about the extra state location that, that blackness has, how our citizenship is, um, is not considered valid because we’re black and how we are kind of primed for radical politics, should we choose to embrace it. And that could, that could very much look like anarchism. So it is, it’s a book that explores that in different ways. We talk about it with regard to self-defense, with regard to land and with regard to our movements and the future of our people going forward. And we’re also encouraging other people to, to think about how we talk about the anarchism of blackness in relation to black people and the USA and to think about it with regard to other groups who experienced similar conditions in the society. So it’s an easy book to read for the most part. Its doing pretty well. A lot of people are, are really appreciative of the text and we’re very grateful for that. And um, it’s, it’s published by AK Press and so you know, you can pick it up and hopefully join the conversation that we’re trying to have and join into some organizing too hopefully around the, the ideas that we’re putting out there, which we definitely want people to organize around.

Adam: Great. William Anderson, the book is called As Black As Resistance. Please check it out. Thanks so much for coming on.

William C. Anderson: Thanks for having me.

Adam: Thanks to our guest, William C. Anderson, journalist and author of As Black As Resistance. This has been The Appeal Podcast. I’m your host Adam Johnson. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams and executive producer Sarah Leonard. Thanks so much for joining us. We’ll see you next week.