More than a Slogan: Derecka Purnell Champions Meaningful Commitment to Abolition and Social Justice

Though some may fear the insecurity of a society without police, Purnell challenges readers to consider measures that will foster both peace and justice.

By Kevin Anderson

Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom, by Derecka Purnell. Astra Publishing, 2021. 320p bibl index, 9781662600517 $28.00, 9781662601668 $18.00, 9781662600524 $16.99

Ed. Note: Choice considers racial justice a cornerstone of its mandate to support academic study. Accordingly, Choice is highlighting select racial justice titles through the creation of long-form reviews such as the one featured here. Though the scope of these reviews will be broader than those applied to our standard 190-word reviews, many of the guidelines regarding what to focus on will remain the same, with additional consideration for how the text under review sheds light on racist systems and racial inequities or proposes means of dismantling them. Our intent is to feature important works on racial justice that will be of use to undergraduates and faculty researching racism and racial inequalities from new perspectives.

Book cover of "Becoming Abolitionists"

How do Americans create a secure, equal society in which citizens can be protected from crime, violence, and the other negative aspects of life? Purnell, a human rights lawyer, writer, and organizer who earned her JD from Harvard Law School, asks this much larger question in Becoming Abolitionists. She begins with an analysis of policing in minority communities and the rise of Black Lives Matter as a modern political movement before pushing the conversation further into a thought-provoking, nuanced argument for a new society. In service to her argument, she explores and elevates all elements of life—housing, education, good jobs, mental and physical health care, and economic empowerment—as essential to peace in the twenty-first century.

The book opens with an autobiographical note in which the author poses a fundamental question: why do people call the police? She answers that growing up in her St. Louis, Missouri, neighborhood, the police were called for everything—“nosebleeds, gunshot wounds, asthma attacks, allergic reactions” (p. 1). This simple fact forms the foundation of her argument, which ponders why police are the first responders to nearly every crisis. How often do they face problems they are not trained for and are often ill equipped to handle?

This default assumption that the police are essential to resolve all community disruptions is both understandable and problematic. The book probes this further by questioning whether Americans can trust the police to address non-criminal problems, such as health inequalities or joblessness, and if the police should be a solution to problems caused by capitalism. The economic dislocation of people and businesses in communities created by white flight and neoliberal development policies sets in motion a cascading set of problems that citizens react to by seeking order rather than justice. By analyzing the larger forces that create and perpetuate crime and inequality, Purnell enables readers to reassess the role of policing in American society.

The book’s analytical development follows the author’s life from growing up in St. Louis to college; her time as a public school teacher in Kansas City, Missouri; and eventually law school at Harvard, where her activism and intellectual growth converged into a new perspective on the role of policing in American society. As Purnell encounters numerous challenges in her life, from the daily struggle to simply have a stable home to the constant police interactions she witnesses among her friends and family, readers observe the evolution of her thinking as she begins to examine the role of the police in the community with greater nuance. As her ideas evolve, her analysis deepens, and she moves from thinking of those harmed by police to exploring the connections between law enforcement and those who benefit from its presence. As she notes early in the book:

The people who chose the police were the same people who drafted the Constitution, who started the wars, who owned slaves, who possessed property, who had the most to lose if oppressed people ever decided to revolt: wealthy white men. And rather than unifying and organizing against the concentrated wealth of this class, the rest of us have been tricked into demanding that the police protect us, too. They cannot.

(p. 10)

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killings of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, and especially Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is often understood as a passionate, grassroots response to police brutality. Purnell argues that these events inspired her and others in the movement to seek a deeper understanding of why the police are often the first on the ground to handle problems. This means understanding the role of the police in relation to the dominant social, economic, and political ideals in the United States. Once Americans address the myriad forces that structure police operations, the limits of criminal justice reform become clear, including the fact that significant changes will be constrained by the traditions of patriarchy, the assumptions of racism, and the imperatives of capitalism. This broader approach stands in stark contrast to the mainstream criticism of abolitionists’ arguments as emotional reactions to police misconduct. This sentiment was most notably summed up by former President Barack Obama when he called on activists to avoid what he termed “snappy slogans,” such as “defund the police” in 2020.

The problem with police reform, Purnell argues, is that police are trained to maintain and protect the status quo in society, leaving untouched forces that create and perpetuate inequality. The need for a group empowered to enforce peace rather than justice fundamentally limits the possibility of creating policies that can end the evolving set of problems that stem from policing. Aggressive law enforcement is not simply a matter of how to deal with people breaking the law; what happens when police confront people with mental illness? Police may be called to respond to someone acting out, but if that person is impaired, will police officers be the most effective responders in that situation? Should police be the first responders to domestic disputes? How do they enforce eviction actions? Should traditional police training address such problems? Can police reform programs create viable answers to these questions?

Still others may wonder, what about the murderers and rapists? One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is Purnell’s discussion of the counter argument—what will happen if policing is successfully abolished? The fear of chaos and violence in a society without some mechanism for enforcement is often cited to reign in the almost utopic ideal of police abolition. The author does not avoid this and in fact admits that a force to handle violent crime is necessary. She does however pose a provocative rejoinder of her own, urging readers to consider how safe they feel in the present.

State and local government funding for police has steadily increased over time, and federal programs have allocated military equipment to local police, equipping these departments with tanks, flashbang grenades, and semiautomatic and automatic rifles. However, murder and other violent crimes continue to occur at alarming rates. Do traditional methods of social control appear to be working? Can a new approach based on broader considerations for social justice be a more effective form of establishing and maintaining peace in communities? Chapters that apply this broader social justice lens to dealing with issues of crime, sex, and disability generate insights into the limits of reform and the need for a more complex set of solutions to social problems that currently rely on traditional police tactics to resolve.

Returning to the author’s personal story, Purnell recounts how she began to better understand the possibilities of reform and the larger implications of abolition in a global context after traveling to South Africa, England, and Australia. These trips allowed her to see the impact that protest movements against police misconduct had in other nations, illuminating the connections between police reform movements in the United States and the global definition of human rights. Considering such connections leads one to contemplate what the standard by which all citizens are treated should be and whether state police reform can achieve that goal.

Purnell argues that only a revolution of values and priorities can make police abolition a realistic and effective option.

What would a comprehensive program to address social, cultural, and political ills look like? Purnell argues that only a revolution of values and priorities can make police abolition a realistic and effective option. She notes that “historically, it has been possible to be abolitionist while also being capitalist, ableist, patriarchal, and colonialist. More than ever, we need dynamic abolitionisms that depart from all forms of oppression, and for each generation to decide their own fight and future” (p. 271).

Purnell proposes several policies as essential to the birth of a new world in which safety is the default status for all citizens, and government is the engine that makes this a reality. These include neighborhood councils, universal childcare, art and meditation programs, conflict resolution workshops, health care clinics, and green teams as part of a comprehensive effort to revive communities and build a better world. Do citizens have the imagination and political will to work toward these goals?

This book’s ultimate strength lies in how it illustrates the evolution of an idea. The author moves with ease between the personal and the political, from community activist to conscious academic, and from reform to revolution. The argument builds from trying to solve one problem to understanding the interconnected nature of politics and policy, producing a provocative, incisive work that forces readers to consider abolition as a viable policy alternative with rewards that could serve a wider and deeper conception of the common good. Through activism, reflection, and legal training, Purnell challenges her audience to envision a world in which the stability of community, thought to be the core reason society needs police, can be the catalyst for a new, peaceful society.

Summing Up: Recommended. All levels.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Law & Society, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – Political Science – U.S. Politics

Kevin Anderson is professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri.