What does ‘abolish’ mean?

A response to a recent article on why YDSA shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the notion of a socialist approach to the institution of policing.

I read comrades Sonia, Ruy, and Zachary’s recent response to my first article with great interest. While it is an enlightening read, they fail to grasp the importance of the major assumption that I put forward in the original article: most Americans do not want to abolish the police.

The truth of the matter is that many racist institutions and laws, such as the racist and criminal 1994 crime bill, have support from black community leaders. And, in the case of the crime bill specifically, others gave the bill “tacit approval.” This August, at the height of the protests demanding justice for George Floyd, a Gallup poll of BIPOC Americans found that a majority of black Americans — 61% — do not want to reduce the police presence in their communities. A greater number of black Americans want more police than fewer.

The same poll found that the same is true of Latino/Latinx Americans. This is not to defend the criminal and racist 1994 crime bill, but rather to demonstrate that there are a large portion of black and brown Americans who see our demands for police abolition as intrusive when they have worked for decades for police that will actually protect their communities rather than treat them like occupied Palestine. As I write this, my city has recently seen 37 people shot, of which five have died in one weekend — almost all of this violence happening in poor, BIPOC, communities. While the grieving mothers and fathers will readily agree that the only way to end this violence is an end to the economic warfare being waged against young men of color by white America, they will also tell you that they just want the violence to stop and many see police who are actually from the community as the solution.

When Y/DSA members go to these communities with the message of abolition, we alienate many of our black and brown brothers and sisters whom we seek to aid in their liberation. What does “abolish the police” mean? Neither Sonia, Ruy, and Zachary, nor a single national DSA body, have articulated a clear definition. I cannot stress the danger in attaching a reading list to our political program. 

As an aside, compare “abolish the police” to Y/DSA’s most popular political position, Medicare for All. When canvassing, just the name Medicare for All explained the basics of the program: everyone will receive government healthcare. Medicare for All is a program where the goal is readily apparent.  Compare this to “abolish the police,” which is needlessly radical and vague. Even the name needs to be explained to someone who is just being introduced to the position, assuming they are not immediately scared away by the demand. “Abolish the police” weakens our political position, we need to abolish it.

It is also deeply ironic to see Lenin and Trotsky’s statements on “bodies of armed men” and community defense used as arguments against socialist policing, as if police who are directly elected (and recallable) to the working class can would constitute such a body.  These statements could be powerful if they were not undercut by the two revolutionaries’ creation of the infamous Cheka (the Soviet Union’s first secret police, established in 1917). And while I am partial to Trotsky’s arguments, I must admit that his idea brings to mind the recent Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone/Occupied Protest (CHAZ/OP) shooting which saw a 16-year-old black teenager shot dead, and his 14-year-old friend critically injured. The CHAZ/OP is a failure we should not seek to replicate.

I cannot respond to all of Sonia, Ruy, and Zachary’s arguments but I have tried my best to clarify the main point that they seem to have missed. My goal is not to discredit the good work of comrades struggling against injustice in their local chapters. Rather, I want to ask what do we mean when we say “abolish the police”? It has become dogma, not to be questioned but also not understood by most. If our national position is to abolish the police, it is incumbent upon our members to explain what that means to anyone and everyone. We must learn to think critically about our national positions and work to improve them in the interest of working-class liberation. I thank our comrades for the immense interest they have shown in my article and I hope more YDSA members will be so inspired to join the debate.

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Andrew P. is a member of Bloomington-Normal DSA and YDSA at Illinois State University.  He researches modern European history between 1789 and 1949 and plans to eventually pursue a Ph.D. in interwar financial history.