The author of this piece on police abolition, someone I know very well, said I could post this
but not to include their name. I hope the references to quakerism don't
detract from the narrative. It's intent is definitely not to proselytize.
sitting around in silence (lol) ). PS - it appears some of the hyperlinks
from the pdf did not transfer in my copy/text of the plain text.
you then by private message or email.
Testimony on Police Terror and Abolition
In light of this incident, I feel led to share why I feel a deep spiritual calling to abolition and truly believe it is our path towards universal freedom and dignity. I write from a place of deep love, rooted in a belief that one day we will live in a world where these conversations are no longer needed. My only request is that my testimony is heard by Friends with open hearts and minds. A key tenet of abolition is that conflict and confrontation are inevitable human experiences—but that we can lean into them and find deeper community than we would if we were to try and push them down or turn away. So in this spirit, I invite Friends to lean into what I am sure will be an uncomfortable read.
No more than 10 hours before we gathered to worship on August 30th, I was on BLM Plaza wearing a helmet, construction goggles, and respirator. These are not this summer’s hot new accessories; these are common protective measures that protesters use to provide some relief from Riot Control Agents (RCAs) used by police officers on publicly assembled crowds. “Flashbangs,” rubber bullets, and pepper spray are the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) RCAs of choice. MPD has two varieties of pepper spray—much stronger than commercial grade—and it is their most frequently deployed RCA. Officers are equipped with personal canisters, which they carry daily. These bottles have a range of up to ten feet, though MPD officers have frequently been caught on camera spraying people directly in the face, at point-blank range. Riot police often have larger canisters of pepper spray, which need to be held on top of their shoulders and have a broader range. When MPD uses this pepper spray, they often spray so liberally that it forms clouds which waft down streets for several blocks. These weapons are designed to incite fear and panic, and use “less-than-lethal” force to clear assembled crowds.
At the same time as they are deploying these RCAs, riot police are wearing military-grade helmets (with face shields, or gas masks when they use tear gas), riot shields, and full-body armor. I feel it is also important to explain what “assaulting a police officer” means in the District of Columbia, since this is a common charge leveraged against protesters to excuse this use of force. In DC, “assault on an officer” includes: “resisting, opposing, impeding, intimidating, or interfering with an officer.” Essentially: if MPD thinks that you aren’t listening to them, or don’t like something you say, they can and will arrest you for assault. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding this incredibly disturbing. This is just one example of the special rights we afford police officers in this country. Imagine if you could press assault charges against anyone who did not listen to you! Please let me assure you: the only difference between you and those injured or arrested by police officers that night is that you were not there. Police officers deploy RCAs indiscriminately and do not check to see who is in the crowd before they pull the trigger. The streets become a hunting ground and if they can grab you, or trap you in a kettle, that’s the end of it.
Working as a street medic that night, I ran through chaotic crowds of terrified protesters who had been hit with rubber bullets and shrapnel from flashbangs. We treated a man who could not walk after a piece of shrapnel lodged itself into his ankle. The police line in front of us continued to advance and less than a minute later fired a second flashbang which landed no more than two yards from where this man was on the ground. I treated a man who was hit in the chest with a rubber bullet, which struck him with such force that he was unable to walk and had to be assisted as he limped out of the crowd. I saw many others suffering from similar injuries after being hit by RCAs, as well as many who injured themselves while fleeing from the scene. RCAs are designed to incite panic and rapidly clear crowds, which results in crowd-crush injuries on top of the injuries caused by the weapons themselves. Over the course of this summer, MPD’s use of RCAs on protesters has resulted in countless injuries to the eyes and head, broken bones,
and no doubt an immense deal of emotional trauma. Across the country, these “less-than-lethal” weapons have, in some rare instances, proved to be lethal and more often have caused the loss of eyes or maimed victims. So I ask you to consider: all of those images coming out of Portland? The now-infamous clearing of Lafayette Park so Trump could hold a bible in front of a church? Those scenes are no longer making the news, but they are still happening, and they are happening a short drive away from where you live.
Because a rhetoric of victim-blaming has become so saturated within our discussions of police violence, I feel additionally burdened to defend of the character of these victims, despite the fact that there is no excuse to use militarized, violent force on an unarmed crowd of human beings, ever. I hope that because I am speaking to fellow Quakers, this message is already understood. There has been a narrative of “outside agitators” or “violent opportunists” pushed to excuse the police reaction to protests across the country. Not once in all the time I have been protesting in DC have I seen anything more violent than a flare-style firework shot off or a small trashcan fire. None of these actions result in bodily harm. For every firework or knocked-over trashcan I have seen in DC this summer, I have seen a multitude of “peaceful,” productive, and bridging interactions between protesters and those they encounter. And I can tell you with knowledge from my own eyes: not one single protester was attempting to destroy property or attack police officers that night. Were people outraged and upset? Yelling and screaming? Of course. But I can’t consider that an unreasonable reaction to being advanced on by an armed and unpredictably violent group. If we want to speak about “violence,” I cannot even begin to list the ways in which BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), poor people, LGBTQ people, and those with physical or mental disabilities endure quotidian acts of violence under the capitalist-police-state. We must expand our understanding of violence beyond the simple acts of physical harm which are easy to witness and condemn. In First Day school I was taught endlessly about pacifism but never about the ways in which racism or sexism inflict multitudes of invisible violence in day-to-day life. We will never be able to heal the harms caused by systematic violence if we refuse to see and understand the circumstances which create them.
Beyond this reality, it shocks me to the core to see the false equivalences drawn by police apologists between property damage or “rioting” and the deployment of military-like force on crowds of assembled people. Do we think the police know who they are shooting at when they fire off those bullets? Do we think they can clearly see “Oh, that’s the guy that threw an empty plastic water bottle at my fully-armored body, I am going to shoot this rubber bullet directly at him, and surely I will not hit any of the twenty people he is standing next to.” Do we think that they can control who chemical weapons will hit once they have been deployed? If we were to see any other group use this level of force with this degree of disregard for human safety, would we not label them a terrorist group? What is a terrorist if not someone who intentionally sows fear and panic in large groups of people through use of violent force?
Quakers have a long history of condemning US military violence on foreign soil—how have we become not only ignorant to, but complacent with the same tactics being used in our own streets? These action gain a layer of irony when we remember that just this June, DC City Council passed a piece of police reform legislation which placed “a ban on the use of chemical irritants or rubber bullets on peaceful protesters.” Meaning MPD’s actions since this June are not only profoundly immoral, they are illegal. Who do you call when the police are breaking the law? This is why abolitionists continue to argue that no reform measure is sufficient to curb an inherently violent institution. If you feel comfortable, here are some links to videos taken from BLM Plaza the night of August 29th. Please note that this is just one intense piece of the ongoing
violence MPD enacts on the citizens of DC. Protesters have been kettled—a police tactic condemned by the ACLU as unconstitutional—and unlawfully arrested in actions related to the BLM Uprising.
The violence did not stop just because Trump and the media stopped paying attention to DC. If you are more interested in the moral bankruptcies of the MPD, please look into the history of the current chief of police, Peter Newsham. As more information comes out about the 41 protesters kettled by MPD earlier this month, the Trump-appointed US attorney in DC has admitted that arrests took place “without any articulable facts linking criminal conduct to each individual arrested… Simply put, we cannot charge crimes on the basis of mere presence or guilt by association.” Of the people arrested by MPD this past weekend, “Prosecutors pursued charges against just one of 19 people arrested, saying it was the one case that met the ‘minimal threshold’ of evidence.” When asked why he chose to chase down a Portland Snack van, smash the window with his baton, and yank the driver to the ground to be arrested, Lt. Bagshaw simply had “no comment.” This was just one of many unlawful arrests that resulted in no charges. With a 1-59 record, one has to wonder if MPD is arresting people they genuinely believe are breaking the law, or simply anyone who they can get their hands on.
To now back up from this specific experience—to those who may say, “Yes, what happened to those protesters was terrible, but we surely cannot condemn all police officers for the actions of the one to two hundred who were on scene that night,” I wish to explain why I stand by my labeling of the police as a state-sponsored terrorist organization, and why abolition is the only measure which will end this reign of terror.
On a spiritual level: I believe wholeheartedly that the institution of policing is entirely irreconcilable with every single value that Quakers hold dear. My dedication to police abolition—and subsequent condemnation of policing in any form, on any level—is entirely rooted in my spiritual values as a Quaker. Modern-day policing, as we know it in America, was born from slave patrols in the South and gangs hired to attack unionized workers in the North. Policing is not and has never been about helping or protecting citizens. Policing, from its inception, is an institution tasked with maintaining “Law and Order” and we should never allow ourselves to confuse what is “lawful” with what is moral and just. Quakers proudly teach young Friends about our long history as abolitionists and suffragists; have we forgotten that in their time, these activists were often arrested as criminals? How often do we proudly share George Fox’s arrest history? The police have certainly never been a friend to Friends.
I know that Herndon Friends Meeting and BYM have been on a rocky road towards anti-racist work in the past few years. I am profoundly grateful for the energy and dedication put towards this cause. I am sorry to say that I may be pushing further down this road, to the point of great discomfort, when I affirm: Friends simply cannot be both anti-racist and pro-police. It is impossible to claim a dedication to anti-racism in one breath while defending one of the most blatantly racist institutions at work in America with the other.
I believe that most mainstream, neo-liberal opposition to police abolition and the concept “All Cops Are Bastards (or Bad)” (ACAB) is sourced and maintained from an enormous cultural fiction about who police actually are, and what they actually do. The amount of “copaganga” which has saturated our cultural conscious has created a collective fiction so pervasive that we are more willing to believe in the police on TV than the police on our streets. The feel-good TV cop tells us a great story about “good and evil” and “heroes” who “protect” innocents from scary “criminals.” This is a great fiction to live in! Who doesn’t want to live in such a world? But this model comes a tremendous cost. It flattens all of us into “good” or “bad,” it hides from us the
Testimony on Police Terror and Abolition
greater contexts which create “criminals” in the first place. Simply put: this “good cop” fiction actually stops us from truly seeing the Light in others. My hope is that by sharing some more information about policing, abolition, and “ACAB,” I can give voice to a narrative which has been systematically silenced in the mainstream, neo-liberal discourses. And I would be tremendously grateful if you lent me your ear.
Firstly: When speaking about police violence, reform, or abolition, it is not honest nor realistic to speak about police officers in the individual sense. Policing is a job, those who become officers do so with a full awareness of the duties of their job. The job requirements of police officers are universal: they are tasked with upholding the law. Despite being individuals, police officers function as small cogs in one enormous machine—and make this choice willingly. This is where the phrase “ACAB” becomes misunderstood. The first half: “All Cops” is in reference to the profession of police officers, not the individuals who make the choice to don that uniform. This is a commonly misunderstood but simple assertion that a person is not their occupation. It is the same logic as honoring the Light in those who choose to take on military professions while simultaneously believing that no one should have the job of invading a foreign country. To continue this line of logic: police are the militant occupiers of the streets of the United States. It should not be a “radical” statement to affirm that this career should simply not exist.
Just as I value the lives of victims of police violence, I value the lives of the individuals who become police officers. The phrase “All Lives Matter” has become an anti-Black dog whistle, but I must affirm that I do value all human life. It is the police officer’s profession which I find disturbing. It truly distresses me to consider the soul-crushing consequences of committing yourself to a system which requires you to uphold unjust laws and brutalize others with complete impunity. I believe that most police officers are well-intentioned people who have bought into the fictions of their profession and refuse to see the greater system that they are complicit in—or have a naïve hope that they as individuals have the power to somehow “change” a centuries-old institution. At worst, I believe some police officers take the job specifically because they understand that this system will allow (and encourage) them to power-trip, violate, and harm others. I believe in abolition because there is no humanity in an institution that encourages some to take up arms against their neighbors and enforce the laws of a white supremacist state. I encourage anyone interested in the psychological toll of policing on the officers themselves to read “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop.” This self-described “former bastard” concludes:
“To any cops who made it this far down, is this really the world you want to live in? Aren’t you tired of the trauma? Aren’t you tired of the soul sickness inherent to the badge? Aren’t you tired of looking the other way when your partners break the law? Are you really willing to kill the next George Floyd, the next Breonna Taylor, the next Tamir Rice? How confident are you that your next use of force will be something you’re proud of? I’m writing this for you too: it’s wrong what our training did to us, it’s wrong that they hardened our hearts to our communities, and it’s wrong to pretend this is normal.
Look, I wouldn’t have been able to hear any of this for much of my life. You reading this now may not be able to hear this yet either. But do me this one favor: just think about it. Just turn it over in your mind for a couple minutes. “Yes, And” me for a minute. Look around you and think about the kind of world you want to live in. Is it one where an all-powerful stranger with a gun keeps you and your neighbors in line with the fear of death,
or can you picture a world where, as a community, we embrace our most vulnerable, meet their needs, heal their wounds, honor their dignity, and make them family instead of desperate outsiders? If you take only three things away from this essay, I hope the third is this: you and your community don’t need bastards to thrive.”
I believe that policing is harmful to both citizens and the individuals who choose to become police officers. I believe that policing not only denies, but spits in the face of Inner Light within every single person who comes into contact with law enforcement institutions. One of my greatest hopes is that those who decide to become officers are able to guide themselves into new careers—ones which does not require them to regularly turn against their own humanity.
This is why I cannot entertain the individualized, “not all cops” model. It is a rhetorical smokescreen that distracts from the reality that all officers—regardless of personal intent—are the upholders of an unjust legal system. So with every piece of copaganda I see, I ask myself: did this act require that the officer “go rogue” and bend the rules of their job? If the answer is yes: they are not “good” at their job! And: “Is being a police officer actually necessary to this act?” Meaning: an officer is doing community outreach or helping someone with a broken-down car. Do any of these tasks require a gun, a taser, pepper spray, handcuffs, and a license to kill? I’m going to say: “Not at all!” Therefore, I put forward this assertion: the world needs those individual acts of good, but the world does not need police officers to do them. Subscribing to the individualized model is an inadequate and unrealistic analysis of how law enforcement functions in the United States. It is one of the largest roadblocks to creating the genuine change which we all deeply desire. This brings me to the second half of ACAB: Not only are cops unnecessary, they cause additional harm in their communities as agents of state violence.
The second half of ACAB: “Are Bastards.” There is great misconception that the job of police officers is to protect us—this is absolutely false. In fact, a Supreme Court ruling in 2005 found that “police did not have a constitutional duty to protect a person from harm.” Police are tasked with enforcing the law, which is entirely separate from acts of caretaking. “Are Bastards” refers to the fact that police officers are stewards of a bastardized system of “justice,” which serves the interests of the white and ruling classes through the exploitation of poor people and people of color. A common chant directed at police by BLM protesters is: “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” I encourage Friends to take time to reflect on this “query.” Who do the police actually protect? Whose interests do they serve? Amy Cooper surely knows the answer to this question. Landlords who send police officers to throw tenants out on the streets know the answer to this question. Kyle Rittenhouse—an aspiring police officer—knows the answer to this question. It’s time for us to reject the “he’s just doing his job” line and instead start demanding a new model, one that speaks to all of our needs and all of our humanity.
To those who ask “Well, what about violent crime?” My answer is twofold: In our current system, do police actually stop violent crime, or merely respond to it? Secondly: When police do respond to violent crime, how often do those responses create results that we might consider “just” or advantageous to victimized parties? Our current “criminal justice” system is purely punitive and provides little support to victims beyond locking up their abusers—if they are even found “guilty” at all. Quakers have a long history of speaking out against the death penalty and solitary confinement. Why don’t we direct more energy to ending the systems which place people in contact with these environments to begin with? The United States has more prisoners per capita than any other country in the world. This is not by accident. The 13th Amendment never ended slavery, it simply moved prison-plantations to where most cannot see
them. Why are we not looking into systems of transformative justice and preventative measures against crime? The decriminalization of drugs, instituting a universal income, investing in public education, and universal healthcare would do far more to prevent crime than police officers ever could. “Crime” is neither inevitable nor unpredictable. It is the manifestation of deep pain inflicted on our most marginalized members of society. Martin Luthor King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” speaks to some of these issues, as well as addressing how respectability politics prevent us from accessing more equitable models: “First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather "nonviolently" in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice.”
“Are Bastards” is a response to the endless narratives of victim-blaming and self-victimization put forward by police officers and apologists. “Bastard” is a word purposefully chosen to pose a direct challenge to the near Sainthood status granted to police officers in our cultural discourses. “Bastards” is a refusal to be fooled by the respectability politics which are foundational to maintaining liberal support for oppressive systems.
Because the fiction of the “good, hero cop” who protects the public from the “bad, scary criminal” is so deeply engrained in our collective conscious, we allow police officers to get away with a litany of abuses we would never tolerate from other people. Narratives are spun that blame victims for their own murder: “If he had just complied… If he hadn’t moved his hands so quickly…” etc. In reality, police officers are far from the innocent crusaders for the public good that we want to believe they are. Multiple studies have shown that police officers commit acts of domestic abuse at two to four times the rate of the general population. School Resource Officers (SROs) have done nothing to curb school shootings. Instead, they’ve solidified the school-to-prison pipeline by arresting students for behavior violations that previously would have resulted
in school suspensions—with police on site, students are thrust into the criminal justice system before they have a chance to graduate. Simple, seemingly innocuous charges such as traffic tickets or loitering charges are used to trap people in a permanent state of poverty, and often target homeless people who have no resources to defend themselves in court. Why have we settled for a system that additionally burdens those who are in greatest need of help?
When it comes to use of fatal force, we oftentimes excuse these “accidents” from police officers as inevitable side effects of a stressful and dangerous job. In reality, policing is no more dangerous than many other high-risk or labor-intensive occupations. Farm workers, loggers, truckers, sanitation workers, pilots and construction workers regularly clock more on-the-job fatalities per capita, per year, than police officers. To make matters worse, these “accidental” incidents are often not true accidents, but the result of training that encourages officers to self-victimize in the face of nonexistent threats. We tell officers they are here to “Protect and Serve,” but in the same breath remind them “Anyone could be out to get you. Shoot first because if you don’t, they will.” How can someone be expected to form positive relationships with the same people they are trained to approach with fear and suspicion? The kinds of healthy and fulfilling social communities we want to foster cannot be built on the assumption of malintent hammered into police officers. Instead of excusing police officers as a group, why are we not encouraging them to exit their profession, just as we encourage and assist citizens in registering as conscientious objectors? And to invoke another popular issue among Friends: If you are passionate about ending gun violence and not speaking out against police shootings, you are completely overlooking one of the largest sources of gun violence in this country.
There were no “two sides” to slave patrols in the past, and there are no “two sides” to state-sanctioned murder today. This is why I refuse to entertain notions of police “reform” or excuses put forward by those who are unable to see that we are treating the symptoms of a profoundly sick system as if they are isolated and unpredictable incidents. It is hard to forget the image of Derrick Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. But it seems we have all quickly forgotten the three other officers who stood by and watched their coworker kill a man in cold blood. How have we become so seduced by the feel-good myth of the “good cop” who “protects and serves” that we continue to hold onto that fiction as we watch police officers commit murder after murder after murder? Exactly how many people have to die before we admit that this violence is not “a few bad apples” but instead the natural result of a nation built on slavery and genocide? We are choosing to hold onto these comfortable fictions and our fellow citizens are continuing to pay for it with their lives. “All Cops Are Bastards (Bad)” is certainly not a polite phrase, but I cannot be bothered to care about being rude in the face of a system that drops bodies like garbage every single day. The inflammatory nature of “ACAB” is a direct response to the insidious tactics of respectability politics, which push the “negative peace” described by Dr. King, dissuading us from looking into deeper, uglier truths. When someone has fallen asleep in a burning house, you do not carefully nudge them awake. This is why I say: the United States is on fire, has been on fire, and All Cops Are Bastards.
Despite the perceived “rudeness” or “militancy” of abolitionist activists, my abolitionist convictions are rooted in a deep love and hope for humanity. One of my favorite protest chants is “We are unstoppable / Another world is possible.” My condemnation of policing and my belief in abolition is buttressed by the deep faith that another world truly is possible. We do need to live in a world where police violence is normalized and accepted. We do not have to keep trying reform after reform, hoping this time we’ve “fixed” a system that was never broken. We can imagine another world, one in which no one is able to kill with impunity. We can come together
to create public safety systems that work without body counts. I believe that there is a Light and darkness within all people. I believe that “crime” is not inevitable but a symptom of a society that does not care for and love its people. I believe that transformative justice is possible. I believe that we are not irrevocably chained to the carceral systems that prevent us all from forming deep spiritual connections across boundaries of race and class. We can access this world together, but it requires the uncomfortable work of recognizing policing for what it is and refusing to excuse and support that system. Another world is possible, and that world does not include police officers. A belief in police abolition is, at its core, a belief that there is more Light, love, and compassion in humanity than we are currently accessing. Every single person and I mean every single person, deserves better than the system we’re currently living in. I understand that Friends may never want to sign off on “ACAB.” That’s not my ask—that’s my personal framework. My single request is that Friends take a long look at policing and ask if this is really an institution which we want to continue to try and protect. It is my greatest hope that Quakers reflect on our long history as abolitionists, realize that this movement is still very alive, and that it is calling desperately for our energy and support.
If you have finished this, I truly thank you for your time and energy. If you are interested in more information about the United States police-prison system, the history of policing, and the current abolition movement, please look into the resources below.
The Thirteenth, a documentary which explores how the United States never truly emerged from our slave economy, which is the reason why we have the most incarcerated people per capita in the world.
The End of Policing, a book by Alex S. Vitale.
Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis.
Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?