Justice cannot be served until the police system—and the prison, court, and all associated systems—are abolished, according to panelists at a July 8 webinar hosted by Emory University’s Justice Involvement Coalition and Candler School of Theology. The webinar hinged on an assumption that “reforms never work” and that the state’s use of coercion for addressing crime is illegitimate.
Panelists were pulled from United Methodist-affiliated Emory University and, although labeled as “experts,” comprised of only one faculty member and one staff member. The rest were students.
Dr. Chanel Craft Tanner, Director of the Center for Women at Emory University, explained that defunding the police started as a feminist movement, but gained traction only after men called attention to their victimization. She argued that abolishing the police benefits everyone, and the most productive step towards this end is “defunding the institutions that oppress.”
Does this sound utopian? Abolitionists are often accused of naivety, but faculty member Dr. Michael Leo Owens addressed this dismissal by arguing that, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Black people would not dream of freedom but were freed. So, he asked, why shouldn’t we dream of a world that “doesn’t rely on brutality to solve its problems?”
However, this argument forces a faith dilemma on the Christian: the God who created everyone in his image and therefore despises racism was mistaken when he gave the sword’s authority to the State. A deity who is mistaken in one thing could be mistaken in anything, thus the Christian should not take the panelist’s proposal lightly.
That said, panelists observed that a majority of police calls are for non-violent offenses that other professionals could address. For example, Tanner said that police are called for fights between middle-schoolers, even though a school principal previously dealt with such skirmishes. In contrast, when a black man with schizophrenia wandered around Tanner’s community, people did not know who to call other than the police although he was not a threat.
Empowering local communities to handle these kinds of instances seems like a reasonable reform given that over 70 percent of Americans want to reduce the prison population by limiting sentence times. Narrowing the police officer’s job description down to violent-related cases makes sense from many angles. But again, these are merely reforms. The panelists would not stop here.
For panelists, abolition is the chief-end of every reform. If it is possible to abolish policing without devolving into anarchy, the panelists still risk sky-rocketing crime. Historic data attests that crime increases as police legitimacy decreases. Even if the panelists are accurate in their description of the police system as “only protecting special interests” that “do not serve this general notion of public safety,” the solution would rest in reforming and promoting police legitimacy, not further disenfranchising the public. While we may never peg the exact causal relationship between “white supremacy” and police brutality, we can look at any number of historical examples to see the direct relationship between state police illegitimacy and crime.
Furthermore, Emory graduate student Darrin Sims noted that we have broadened “the way we define crime” in order to increase policing of marginalized communities. The Drug War supports this claim, but the larger crime trends do not. Between 1993 and 2018, FBI data shows a decrease in violent crime of 51 percent. If the definition of crime and police responsibilities keep broadening but the rates keep falling, then the future of violent crime in America seems to have a positive forecast.
But arguments against police abolition, Sims and Tanner claim, stem from people’s personal relationships with cops, investment in the court and prison system, or their inability to “decolonize their minds.” This is an extremely generalized and uncharitable take on the millions of Americans who simply feel safe because of the law enforcement and feel unsafe with prospect of following an unclear plan towards police abolition.
Arguably, the “concrete steps” the panelists outline towards police abolition simply repackage coercion. The panelists argued that one “cannot call the police on the police,” so there must be another support network people can contact. This seems like a fair reform. But once police are abolished, who will call the community safety officials on the community safety officials? Reform leaves room for checks and balances. Abolition does not.
Owns closed with the claim that “our country has a high tolerance for violence” which must be corrected. After IRD’s research into forced organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners in China or genocide in Nigeria, this statement was almost absurd. Yes, there is evil in our country and the impulse to violence exists. But the fact that we can discuss abolishing the police without getting arrested or killed for our “ideological problems” is an unprecedented privilege. We can recognize the blessings of our country while still pushing for justice.
Ultimately, there is room for reform and Christians ought to be the first to protect the vulnerable. The construction of just systems, however, stems from the humbling and realistic perspective that everyone is fallen, including those in local communities. Completely de-legitimizing the states’ right of the sword will do nothing to eradicate the fallibleness of our authorities and civilians. Indeed, de-legitimizing the state will lead to more instability and more crime.