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Abolition Requires Struggle

A police car near the site of Atlanta's proposed Cop City
Cheney Orr/AFP via Getty Images

What a time it is to be a prison abolitionist! Millions of people filled the streets during the 2020 uprisings, forcing a national conversation around defunding and abolishing the police. The abolitionist lexicon broke into the mainstream. Suddenly everyone had—and had to have—an opinion on the movement.

The newly invigorated abolitionist movement has faced swift pushback, counterinsurgency, and co-optation. Almost as soon as the push to defund the police took off, corporate media and Democratic politicians alike began pronouncing it dead—as they have continued to do in the years since. (For a dead movement, it should be noted, abolition takes up quite a bit of space in the commentariat’s minds—at what point do continual declarations of a movement’s death actually confirm its vitality?)

Elsewhere, the forces of cooptation descended quickly, as those who built reputations on reform worked to capitalize on the moment’s revolutionary energy and rebrand—if not reorient—their work as abolitionist. The organization Campaign Zero released its #8Can’tWait platform at the height of the uprisings, drawing quick rebuke from abolitionists who pointed out the lackluster and even harmful proposals that failed to meet the moment. Around the same time, the much-celebrated Equal Justice Initiative released a (now-deleted) report rehashing a spate of ineffective 2010 reform proposals to transform police into “guardians”—in direct opposition to abolitionist calls to do away with policing altogether and build something new in its place.

But while some have been busy attempting to co-opt the movement and others have been pronouncing it dead, another group is determined to tell us why it should be dead. I’m not referring to the usual suspects who decried the abolition movement from the center, but rather the growing chorus of self-proclaimed leftists and reformers issuing statements, think pieces, and books outlining their opposition to abolition.

There are the socialist Harvard professors Christopher Lewis and Adaner Usmani, who have made the mind-bending argument that actually, police violence is caused by under-policing, and the solution is adding half a million cops to the world’s largest police force. Their theory was quickly taken down by Alec Karakatsanis, just as similarly contrarian arguments made by Usmani and fellow “police state socialist” John Clegg were dismantled by David Stein and Jack Norton. There’s the slightly better-faith New York University law professor Rachel Barkow, who recently released a 66-page treatise identifying the supposed pitfalls of abolition, and Jon Ben-Menachem’s rebuttal. There’s former New York Times columnist and Marshall Project co-founder Bill Keller, who has written most recently about his preference for reform over abolition in The New York Review (despite being previously refuted by Ruth Wilson Gilmore and James Kilgore). And then there are the more subtle currents within this trend, such as the approach of Yale legal scholar Tracey Meares, who has somewhat puzzlingly argued for abolishing policing “as we know it” in order to transform it into “a kind of policing that we all can enjoy”—a call discredited by those such as Derecka Purnell and India Thusi.

The most recent entry into this growing school of thought is Harvard philosopher Tommie Shelby’s The Idea of Prison Abolition, a 230-page book from Princeton University Press whose acknowledgments—mentioning Lewis, Usmani, and Meares, among others—raise suspicions that we are witnessing an organized effort to undermine the abolitionist project from the center left.

Beginning as the prestigious Carl G. Hempel lecture series at Princeton University in 2018, The Idea of Prison Abolition is a relatively boring entry into the growing body of anti-abolitionist literature, one whose philosophical gloss is strained under the weight of un-interrogated assumptions, overstated claims, and academic detachment. Ultimately, Shelby’s book provides excellent evidence not for his claims, but rather for a different argument altogether: that you cannot meaningfully engage abolitionist thought without engaging abolitionist struggle.

The Idea of Prison Abolition asks two overarching questions: First, can the practice of imprisonment be justified despite current structural injustices? Second, could the use of imprisonment ever be justified in a just social order? In other words, is incarceration OK now, given structural injustices, and if not, could it ever be OK?

Shelby’s basic thesis is this: many of the ideas that animate the prison abolition movement are at least somewhat compelling, but ultimately, “incarceration has legitimate and socially necessary uses, including as punishment, and so prisons are not inherently unjust.” Shelby is most convinced by the need for prisons as a form of crime control, particularly of what is considered serious, violent crime, and believes that “under the right circumstances and in conjunction with other less harmful practices, incarceration can be worth its attendant risk and costs. In Shelby’s view, prisons can and should be used to protect the vulnerable from serious harm, arguing that “the public owes the disincentive of imprisonment to people who are vulnerable to victimization.” Shelby calls for a drastic reduction of the incarcerated population, increased services and restorative measures, and what he considers significant reforms to the criminal legal system, but does not believe in doing away with prisons altogether. Ultimately, Shelby insists, abolitionists should direct their ire “not at incarceration as such, but at background structural injustices in society, inhumane prison conditions, and inadequate public efforts to enable former prisoners to rejoin society on equal terms.” 

Shelby engages primarily with the writings of Angela Davis and the tools of philosophic inquiry, insisting that he is not making a case against abolition, but rather probing “what can be gained, philosophically and practically, from taking abolitionist ideas seriously.” The book’s intended audience is the undecided—those who are “still considering whether to insist that the practice of imprisonment can and should be improved or commit to fighting for abolition. At a book launch party, he added a second audience: committed abolitionists he hopes will consider the flaws he identifies in abolitionist thinking. (Which is to say, despite the book’s rather neutral framing, Shelby is indeed trying to convince us of something).

Across chapters, Shelby takes up these questions by assessing what he understands to be Davis’s central abolitionist arguments: that prisons should be abolished because they are inherently dehumanizing, grew out of slavery, perpetuate racism, are fundamentally tied up in private profit-seeking, and fail to control crime. For each of these, Shelby sees merits that should push us to drastically reduce incarceration and pursue reforms—but none, in Shelby’s read, justify an abolitionist stance. To take one example, Shelby is sympathetic to what he considers are all of the unjust reasons someone might end up “wrongfully” incarcerated and forced to labor, but ultimately believes that it is justifiable for those who have committed what he considers serious harm: “someone convicted of a serious crime (unlike, say, a chattel slave) has been judged to have committed a grave wrong, and prison labor is the penalty for the transgression.”

Ultimately, Shelby concludes, prison abolition can be a valuable framework for ethical reflection, but abolitionists should shift their focus from prisons to the redress of “systemic injustices that too often lead to crime and to the imprisonment of the oppressed.” As Shelby concludes the book (with a line suggested by Chris Lewis, the advocate of hiring half a million additional police officers), “Don’t abolish the prison; abolish the ghetto.”

The Idea of Prison Abolition’s main argument is built around the problem of crime and the prison’s presumed ability to control it. Crime is Shelby’s recurring measuring stick for assessing abolitionist arguments. Without prisons, how would we control crime? Is it fair to impose prison time as punishment for serious crime? Are there less punishing ways of controlling crime? Can social programs be used in tandem with prisons to even more effectively control crime? “What we really need to know,” Shelby tells us, “is whether there is an achievable and cost-effective prison system that would prevent more crime than any non-carceral alternative.” 

Shelby’s insistence on crime as the appropriate category of analysis, unfortunately, sets the book up to fail before it begins.

Let’s start with the obvious: Shelby’s core anti-abolition conviction—that prisons are needed to control serious crime—is not just an unoriginal argument, but has actually long been a bedrock justification for U.S. industrialized punishment. Shelby is not proposing a new or different function for prisons down the line, but rather simply describing the existing mainstream understanding of imprisonment. Protecting good from bad, innocent from evil, has always been a rhetorical driver of mass criminalization. When was the last time you saw a proposal for a new criminal law that didn’t include a claim of keeping “us” safe from the dangerous bad people? Shelby chooses to draw his line of what’s really violent and worth human caging around offenses like murder, rape, and aggravated assault. Others choose to include far more offenses, with the same rationale. What binds them is an ostensible commitment to using the tools of state-organized harm to criminalize our way out of problems of violence—an approach that has dominated U.S. policy for over half a century, and yielded us mass incarceration.

What Shelby believes might be a recalibration for imprisonment—focusing only on “serious crime”—is actually a dominant rhetorical driver of carceral expansion efforts across the country. And its results are not only harsher penalties for the types of offenses Shelby describes, but also the widening of the net of criminal punishment for those with “lower level” offenses—a dynamic documented by those such as Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law, Christopher Seeds, Jessica Eaglin, Katherine Beckett, Marie Gottschalk, and John Pfaff. In short, Shelby’s call to train the prison’s weaponry on serious crime is not an exit strategy from, but rather a pillar of, mass incarceration. 

Shelby occasionally references empirical studies to support his argument that prisons are needed to control violent crime, but the bulk of his argument plays out in untethered thought experiments. For example, Shelby acknowledges the complicated nature of discerning prison and policing’s deterrent impact, and notes that many people refrain from crime for a variety of reasons—but that regardless, “the concern remains that giving up on the general deterrence that prisons seem to provide could encourage or enable harmful wrongdoing among the otherwise law-abiding.” Elsewhere, Shelby uses a similar shoot-from-the-hip philosophical method, arguing that if “inexcusable harmful wrongdoing” doesn’t have consequences, “many who commit such acts are likely to repeat them; and others, noticing that these acts have been undertaken without negative consequences, will be encouraged to engage in similar acts themselves.” 

This is not so much a novel philosophical contribution as it is a regurgitation of the deterrence framework, one of several traditional justifications for imprisonment. Just as importantly, this is a rather facile view of why and how violent harm happens—less of a theory of how we can promote public safety than a standard repetition of copaganda that tells us life beyond cages is impossible. Do people violently harm each other only after a cost-benefit analysis of how much time they will spend in prison? Do people feel encouraged to violently harm others when they see someone go unpunished for violent harm? On the flip side, millions are already locked up across the country, and yet there is still quite a bit of violence present in our society. Perhaps there are other reasons that people hurt each other, detached from how many years in a cage others receive for similar acts.

Novelty of argument and soundness of method aside, the core problem of The Idea of Prison Abolition is a much more fundamental one: Shelby’s uninterrogated and persistent focus on crime as the appropriate category of analysis, despite abolitionist thought that troubles the perceived relationship between crime and the prison altogether. Shelby’s insistence that incarceration’s basic function is crime control—that “the enforcement of criminal law is best understood as a public means for preventing and controlling crime”—reflects a failure to engage with a core abolitionist critique: that “crime” is a political construct, that the prison’s relationship to crime is not one of preventing harm but rather one of facilitating social control, and that we should focus our efforts not on ending crime but on preventing and responding to harm.

Saying that crime is politically constructed is not to say that many criminalized acts are not also deeply harmful, but rather that most forms of harm are not criminalized—and many are actually codified in the law. As the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance explains, “actions become crimes only after they have been culturally and legally defined as crimes.” As Karakatsanis has documented, crime is an expansive and fluid legal category guided not by debate on how to provide health and wellness for all, but rather through processes dominated by the powerful. Even the act of murder—framed as the most self-evidently wrong, evil act that we would all of course agree should be a crime—is quite fluid. Killing on the street is criminal when it’s between civilians (unless you’re, for example, Kyle Rittenhouse); it is justified as necessary for public safety when it’s done by a cop; it’s celebrated as national security when it’s done by a soldier overseas; and it rarely even registers as killing when it happens in workplaces with consistently unsafe conditions. A focus on crime draws our attention to the first example; an abolitionist framework highlights all four, and looks at how the latter three and their foundational infrastructures of violence at home and abroad contribute to the first.

In general, crime as a legal category places a spotlight on a limited scope of individual actor-level behavior. I won’t rehash the many historical explanations for the rise of the U.S.’s vast penal infrastructure that detach mass criminalization from crime—for example, Naomi Murakawa’s argument that “the United States did not face a crime problem that was racialized; it faced a race problem that was criminalized,” or Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s California case study arguing that the prison boom was a spatial fix to multiple crises of state capacity and capital that was altogether detached from crime. Even if Shelby disagrees with these analyses, one might expect some sort of historical engagement with the relationship between imprisonment and crime in a book that relies so heavily on their presumed linkages. 

All this is to say: crime as a concept does hefty political work. Crime is a political construct that is by the state, and for the state . Crime rates affirm the state as the legitimate arbiter of harm, erase the state’s tracks as a source of harm itself, and license the state to inflict harm in the name of ending harm. As Todd Clear has written, “The point is so obvious that it is generally ignored: punishment, in the classic sense, involves a government’s organized infliction of harm upon a citizen.”

In contrast to crime, harm is a far broader metric, encompassing “both something one person does to hurt another — from yelling at your partner to killing another person — and the effect of oppression or violence carried out by the state. Importantly, these kinds of harm are linked.” Abolitionists don’t propose that we ignore the types of violent harm that Shelby is concerned with. Instead, abolitionists work to prevent and end them while attending to the systemic conditions that give rise to so much interpersonal harm, while recognizing that over a half decade of ever-growing criminal punishment infrastructure have failed to prevent—and have actually exacerbated—violent harm. For these reasons, as Mariame Kaba has noted, harm is our metric of analysis, whether that harm is labeled as criminal or not. 

Despite the deep abolitionist commitment to confronting all forms of harm, Shelby writes: “It is disappointing that the problem of serious crime is so often dismissed, barely mentioned, or downplayed in abolitionist writings ... Once the problem is confronted forthrightly and without the benefit of a conciliatory ending, the regrettable need for prisons becomes harder to deny.” This might seem sensible on the surface, but falls apart under scrutiny. Most obviously, the very real problem of violence that Shelby describes is happening now, in a country with the world’s largest penal infrastructure. If prisons were the solution to violent harm, might we not expect violent harm to be mostly eradicated or rare?

Shelby’s claim that serious harm is absent from abolitionist thought also leads one to wonder how many abolitionists Shelby has actually read. Surely not Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, the collection of essays documenting how abolitionists are practically intervening in harm outside of the state. Shelby must have also missed the Creative Interventions Toolkit, the 576-page resource published in 2012 that offers a wealth of community-based violence intervention strategies. In fact, anti-violence work has long been foundational to abolitionist organizing. The INCITE! network, a pillar of abolitionist organizing, was founded in 2000 specifically “to address violence against women of color in all its forms,” including both interpersonal and systemic. It is an opposition to all forms of violence and harm—both interpersonal and state-based—that has long motivated abolitionist efforts across the world.

Even the example that Shelby offers to drive home the need for prisons and policing as serious crime control ultimately makes an abolitionist argument. Shelby tells the story of Cynthia Glover, a Black grandmother in New Orleans who has lost five close family members to gun violence, and whose only remaining son Alfred is currently serving a 10-year sentence for “possession of a firearm by a felon.” Shelby speculates: “If some of the individuals who killed or wounded her children had faced punitive incarceration, even if only as a realistic threat, her life might not have been filled with so much unspeakable loss.” In other words: if more Black people had been caged, fewer Black people would have been killed.

It’s a good thing we don’t rely on Harvard philosophers for our source of imagination. Perhaps most plainly, the harrowing story Shelby tells all occurred in one of the biggest police states in the world. Ms. Glover’s tragic experience makes an excellent argument that New Orlean’s highly funded police (receiving a quarter of the city’s total budget in 2018) has completely failed to keep her family safe. And for many others in New Orleans, the police have been a source of the serious violence Shelby is concerned with—one recent investigation just showed that New Orleans residents filed complaints of sexual or intimate violence committed by a New Orleans police officer every 10 days. How much money and authority is Shelby willing to give the cops before contending with the reality that their role seems detached altogether from creating genuine public safety? Shelby’s evaluation of why imprisonment could have benefitted Ms. Glover’s family is based on his fantasy of what police and prisons ought to one day do, rather than engagement with anything they actually do.

Shelby’s best argument in the book—and where he comes closest to focusing on harm rather than crime—is also his least original: that we must “fundamentally change the social conditions” that give rise to incarceration in the first place. While he posits this in opposition to abolition (“don’t abolish the prison; abolish the ghetto”)—working to “change everything” is precisely what abolitionists are doing. Regurgitating an abolitionist mantra as an anti-abolitionist alternative does not make it so.

If we both agree that “the ghetto” must be abolished, my question to Tommie Shelby is: how? What is the pathway to abolishing “the ghetto” that does not run directly through carceral power? As Cheryl Rivera has written, “There is no resistance to capitalism that has not been met with batons.” Police actively construct and maintain the conditions for capital accumulation and exploitation, as the contributors to Violent Order: Essays on the Nature of Police make clear. Or as Murakawa has crystallized more recently, “Organized abandonment means that financially strapped cities rely on policing to contain austerity’s carnage.” Policing is central to the creation, maintenance, and reproduction of concentrated and racialized urban poverty.

While Shelby gets at this at some points in the book—for example, noting the role of prisons in repressing social movements in the first chapter—it is mostly posed as a historical phenomenon. Any deeper analysis of what maintains “the ghetto” today is completely missing. And to be clear, Shelby might disagree with this analysis of the links between policing, prisons, poverty, and crime, but he offers no such arguments—just a flattening, snappy one-liner that positions a key abolitionist goal as oppositional to the abolitionist movement, without concern for how we might arrive at the future he suggests.

This is perhaps the best segue to the other fundamental flaw of The Idea of Prison Abolition: its complete disengagement from the question “how” renders its analysis of “what” completely irrelevant.

In retrospect, the first red flag was the title. The Idea of Prison Abolition announces its disinterest in movements, material conditions, or real-life impact of prisons from the jump. “It is a book about ideas,” Shelby notes in the introduction—not “a commentary on the activities of the abolitionist movement.” To Shelby’s credit, he’s honest about his philosophical detachment, noting that it would “not be entirely unfair to describe [him] as part of the academic industrial complex that many black radicals ostensibly oppose.”

But of course, explanation is not justification. Rather than validating Shelby’s approach, these admissions make a compelling case to put the book down altogether. 

Shelby’s line of inquiry frames abolitionist ideas as separate from abolitionist struggle—as an abstract set of theories that we might assess on paper before deciding whether to apply in practice. This explicitly detached, “philosophical” approach caricatures the rich history of abolitionist organizing and intellectual engagement into a stale blueprint that may or may not be implemented wholesale. In other words, an assessment of the case for abolition that is agnostic to levers of power is not actually an assessment of abolition at all.

Realizing this might have saved Shelby some unfortunate moments. Indeed, no one makes a better case, even accidentally, for the need to account for power, movements, and the actual mechanisms of social change than Shelby himself—in ways that are at times shortsighted, and at times comically inane. 

In one of the rare moments where Shelby wades into real-life programmatic proposals, he suggests “the possibility of a nonprofit private organization administering and perhaps owning a prison facility.” Lest we believe that Shelby has conversed with even one abolitionist in real life, he writes sentences like, “Limited private nonprofit prison administration is, in principle, consistent with the fundamental aims of prison abolitionists.”

Where to even begin with such proposals? Besides the fact that the vast majority of punishment is already not-for-profit, there is already a broad network of nonprofit agencies involved with incarceration—and abolitionists place these agencies squarely within the critique of the prison industrial complex. To take one recent high profile example, nonprofits in New York City partnered to propose a new “gender-expansive” jail. Abolitionists quickly pointed out that “this plan, like other efforts to repackage incarceration as humane and progressive, does not chart us away from the prison-industrial complex.” Whether staffed by nonprofits or not, the concept of “trauma-informed jailing” and jails as humane service providers is a driver of jail-building efforts across the country. What Shelby frames as a novel pathway out of mass incarceration is well-trodden ground for the forces of punishment.

To his credit, Shelby acknowledges that his proposal might not be feasible, and that his main goal is “merely to establish that ... the temporary, nonprofit privatization of central prison functions is morally defensible under nonideal conditions.” But again, does admitting that your theorizing has no real-world value justify the theorizing?

More broadly, to the extent that any of Shelby’s proposals are good ones, he has no plan for how to get there—and no acknowledgment that abolitionists are generally the ones already fighting for these changes. Indeed, most of Shelby’s examples of what we need instead of abolition are things that abolitionists are fighting for on the way to abolition

For example, Shelby proposes limiting the range of offenses for which police can make arrests, prohibiting arrest quotas, reducing the circumstances under which police are called to a scene, investing more in social and mental health supports, and reducing direct interaction between police officers and Black communities. Many of these are good ideas. But does Shelby know or care that historically, even minor attempts to rein in police power have been met with fierce resistance, “blue flu” sickouts, and police-as-victim narratives? At what point should the history of police reform, and the police response to the slightest restrictions on their authority, inform our theory? Police are powerful and organized political actors, and a power-neutral plan for “reforming” them is not going to get us anywhere. In fact, it is more often than not abolitionists—not reformers—who are taking on these fights, out of an awareness of the acute need to dismantle police power altogether. 

Reading The Idea of Prison Abolition, you’d get the idea that abolitionists are simply writing emails to “the authorities” asking that they abolish prisons, or that abolitionists will reject any measure that does not immediately cause all prison walls to crumble. In reality, abolitionists are engaging at the municipal, state, and federal levels to stop prison expansion, close down jails, support people inside prisons, redirect resources to communities, build non-police alternatives, repeal harmful laws, free people from incarceration, and so much more. Every. Single. Day. Ignoring this reality is how you end up with a book like The Idea of Prison Abolition.

There’s something to be said about Shelby’s choice to assess the case for abolition almost solely through engagement with Angela Davis’s work. Other abolitionists are occasionally cited, but rarely engaged. Davis is a pillar of abolitionist thought, to be sure, but as a deeply collaborative and generous thinker, I wonder how she would feel about being made the face of abolition, and the sole thinker on whom one’s support for abolition rises or falls. 

Additionally, it’s Davis’s earlier work, most of which are short books or collections of interviews and speeches, that Shelby cites most heavily. While abolition has deep historical roots that are too often overlooked, there has also been an explosion in abolitionist thinking, organizing, and debate in recent years. Writing a book about abolition that mostly sidesteps the past decade of abolitionist thought and struggle is genuinely bizarre. At most, Shelby might conclude that he disagrees with his understanding of Davis’s support for abolition. But to so severely limit the terms of engagement, but not the conclusion from the engagement, smacks of bad faith.

The puzzle of why Shelby chose to write this book in the way he did, though, is less interesting than why he chose to write it at all—and more broadly, why any of those within the growing trend of anti-abolitionist writing do so.

Maybe most obviously: if we are to take Shelby and his ilk of lefty anti-abolitionists at their word—that they genuinely desire radical change to the system—we have to wonder whether it makes sense to attack abolition. Anyone with even a modest reform agenda who assesses the current political landscape and decides that the best use of their intellectual energy is to challenge abolition would seem to possess that agenda in name only.

It’s not abolitionists who are rolling back even the most milquetoast reforms. Modest bail reforms in New York, Georgia, and Illinois immediately came under attack, facing the threat or reality of rollbacks. Atlanta Democrats recently reversed their 2019 promise to close the mostly empty city jail, choosing instead to expand it. At the same time, they are working to destroy hundreds of acres of forest land to build a $90 million police militarization facility. Counties across the country are proposing new or expanded jails. Police budgets are being expanded across the board. States and the federal government are attempting to site new prisons. Many legislatures are increasing criminal penalties and rolling back reforms won in the 2010s. In other words, reformers face a far greater threat from state and corporate actors than they do from abolitionists.

The reality is that, if taken at his word, Shelby should be an ally in this fight. Our endgames would seem similar enough that we have plenty to collaborate on before the infighting begins. Indeed, one doesn’t need to be an abolitionist to work toward the drastic reduction in scale and scope of incarceration and policing. We need many people in the fight, and there’s so much important work we can do together without being in full alignment. As Mariame Kaba wrote in The New York Times, “Regardless of your view on police power—whether you want to get rid of the police or simply to make them less violent—here’s an immediate demand we can all make: Cut the number of police in half and cut their budget in half.” 

Shelby’s words would indicate he agrees; his choice to write an anti-abolition book with his platform, at this time, with these stakes, would indicate otherwise.

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