Hope is a discipline. Imagination is a practice.
– Walidah Imarisha
Last month, Obama inspired a renewed flurry of think pieces and arguments with his comments that “defund the police” is nothing but a “snappy slogan” which serves only to alienate potential allies rather than bring about needed police reforms. In the ensuing blowback, a video of Vice President Kamala Harris resurfaced in which she arrogantly mocks the demand to “build more schools, less jails” and declares that we, as abolitionists, do not really mean what we say when we argue police have no place in public safety. In the UK, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer has been similarly dismissive of “defund the police,” calling it “nonsense,” and framing calls for abolition as an American issue with no place in the very different — presumably less racist — UK context.
The condescending dismissals of abolitionist demands by the ruling class should come as no surprise, but it has been dismaying to see how much of the self-declared left has been equally taken in by these arguments. In December, a new Jacobin podcast launched with NYU sociologist and Catalyst Journal editor Vivek Chibber slammed calls to defund the police as a concession to austerity politics that does not “really mean what it says” and supposedly exemplifies a problem on the left to “admit that crime exists.”
Illustrating a wider problem with the DSA’s approach to abolition, their Philadelphia chapter initially put out an equally uninformed analysis — for which they have since apologized — calling to address the roots of police brutality with “legislation such as the Workplace Democracy Act and a federal jobs guarantee.” Perhaps the most prominent example is the stubborn insistence of the reformist AFL-CIO that collective bargaining is the way to address police violence, despite police unions’ long and violent history of exceptionalism within the labor movement, and ongoing pressure from smaller unions for the labor federation to cut all ties with its law enforcement arm.
As numerous abolitionists have explained in detail, “defund the police” is an extremely literal demand, and is part of a continuum of abolitionist steps that work to erode material support and legitimacy of policing with an end goal of its total abolition. How we imagine and build collective safety without police and the carceral state is the practice of abolition.
“Defund the police” is not a catchphrase birthed in the ivory tower, groundless theory currently on loan from academia, macho performative radicalism or vapid snappy sloganeering. Abolitionism is a generations-long movement towards life grounded in the Black radical tradition. It has been built by the embodied knowledge of those in struggle and lead by the people and communities most impacted by racial capitalism and the carceral state. That this is not clear to so many who espouse beliefs in liberatory politics is cause for concern.
As an artist and someone who thinks a great deal about how the words and symbols we use shape our collective imagination, I believe the reluctance by self-declared leftists to embrace “defund the police” points to much deeper issues in our organizing: an insidious capitalist imaginary that I refer to here as “NGO-logics.”
The tendency to turn to “NGO-logics” cuts across our movements. In this way of thinking, the horizon of our organizing and collective imagination is narrowed to one of public relations and political lobbying. Instead of building collective power and networks of care ourselves, NGO-logics seeks to sell the idea of “justice” to politicians, funders and the relatively more powerful in the marketplace of ideas.
NGO-logics locate the power to change our circumstances as existing somewhere else — with political and party elites, funders, boards, benevolent wealthy philanthropists or business owners. NGO-logics make us think that our audience for slogans like “defund the police” are powerful elites who might be convinced to grant us concessions by the morality of our arguments alone, or liberals and other progressive “concerned citizens” who might be made allies by cautious and clever wordsmithing.
This type of thinking uncritically conflates popularity with power. It places the powerful and their concerns at the center of all of its tactics. Because those acting from NGO-logics lack the goal of building collective power, they often uphold token aesthetic gestures and performative acts as symbolic victories, rather than organizing towards substantive structural change that would shift the balance of power. It is a logic that champions bureaucratic, individualized solutions like implicit bias training, “which appeals to researchers, funders, and the general public alike because it offers an easy way to address racism without casting blame or leveling inconvenient institutional critiques.”
NGO-logics reproduce a strangely prevalent tendency on the left that sees morally grounded requests from a highlighted position of weakness as more desirable than materially based demands from a position of collectively organized power. This has become especially apparent recently. In the ongoing pandemic, essential workers are often depicted with a preference for imagery that elicits sympathy and performative acts of solidarity, rather than a focus on an unprecedented opportunity for exercising collective power.
The prevalence of NGO-logics is both a cause and an effect of eroded class consciousness and faltering radical imagination. One result of this interaction is that a clear demand such as “defund the police” is dismissed as performative aesthetics by the ruling class and self-professed leftists alike. Class consciousness is not just a recognition of the common grievances of the working class, it is an acknowledgment of our collective power and our willingness to use it. This is exactly what “defund the police” means and what abolitionists demand.
One of the most revolutionary potentials of abolitionist demands is the audience they call into being. In her incisive takedown of Jacobin’s reactionary podcast on “defund the police” as a slogan, Rawan Abdelbaki notes that it should be obvious that “no amount of slick sloganeering will make radical demands palatable to ruling classes.” We are not politely requesting concessions from those who would leave the legitimacy of the carceral state intact, we are addressing one another in order to build power. As Andrew Lee writes, “it is we who must enact the abolition. What appears a request for redress is in fact a call to arms.”
While the state might ultimately implement specific policy towards abolition, they will not do so because we ask them politely and work within their channels. Change happens because our power to organize independently from the state eventually makes it impossible for them to ignore us. Ray Valentine breaks down an excellent current example of this, looking at how the recent eviction moratorium was won by autonomous tenant organizers in the context of broader anti-police rebellion. As he points out, “so far the places with the strongest anti-eviction policies are hot spots of tenant organizing, like Washington, DC and New York, or for riots, like Minneapolis, Washington, and Oregon.” The Obamas, Harrises and Starmers of the world may be used to being the center of attention, but let us be explicit in our audience here: “defund the police” is not addressed to them.
Abolitionism is as much about the end goal of strong communities that make police obsolete as it is about the process of getting there: through the building of relationships and institutions that prioritize collective care. “Defund the police” requires us to rethink our assumptions about how power functions in our societies and what it means to keep each other safe. This rethinking is something we do together, grounded in our everyday relationships and commitment to our communities. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, abolition is about presence, not absence. It is a practice and a call to build what she calls “life-affirming institutions” which take seriously the fact that none of us are disposable.
It is clear that any practice that refuses to accept the disposability of certain populations can never be in the interests of capital or the ruling classes. When the left parrots the cynical talking points of elites to argue that defunding the police is undesirable because the demand is naive or because abolitionists “don’t believe in crime,” we are not only falsely identifying our interests with those of our oppressors, we are reproducing their disdain and contempt for our class.
Trusting that our communities are capable of working together through the complex conversations and organizing that abolition requires demands a radical imagination and deep solidarity. “Defund the police” requires not that we believe in the persuasive power of slogans alone, but in our own capacity to hold space for and engage with the questions that they raise. There are so many ways this work is already happening, and so many more we can help to build.
Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.
— Gloria Anzaldúa, “La conciencia de la mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness”
In reorienting our thinking from NGO-logics to building collective power, the symbols and slogans we use create and shape our ideas of what is possible. This makes it all the more unfortunate to see so much contemporary leftist imagery reproducing NGO-logics, and all the more crucial that we find ways to move beyond it. While using opposing visual strategies, both the imaginary of the guillotine and the “downtrodden worker” trope reproduce NGO-logics by encouraging us to see powerful existing structures as our only means of finding justice. Following NGO-logics, to gain power we must be either aspiring rulers who take over the machinery of our oppressors, or pleading special interest groups that inspire sympathy in the already powerful.
As labor organizers Nick Driedger and Marianne Garneau illustrate, in stark contrast to historical depictions of workers as a powerful and threatening majority, contemporary labor unions have often turned to painting workers as a discriminated against, beleaguered and overworked minority. Such campaigns unwittingly invert the visual strategies of Franz Seiwert and the Cologne Progressives, a radical artist group involved with German council communism in the early 1930s who strategically individualized workers to show their powerlessness while depicting them in organized groups to emphasize their class power. As Garneau and Driedger write, these images undermine class consciousness by “training ‘concerned citizens’ to sympathize with workers as some kind of mistreated minority, rather than seeing themselves as workers who are part of the same struggle.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the guillotine has emerged on the left as a popular symbol of class consciousness and righteous rage, appearing everywhere from Jeff Bezos’ house to colonized Puerto Rico and protests across France. However, it is not only its recent deployment by Trump supporters on January 6 that should lead us to question the guillotine’s potential as a revolutionary symbol. As Crimethinc argues, the fundamental conservatism of the guillotine as a symbol of revolutionary praxis is that it “represents the idea that the violence of the state could be a good thing, if only the right people were in charge.”
To dismiss the guillotine’s colonial and counter-revolutionary history as separate from its speculative power and “cultural afterlife” in today’s movements is a dangerous underestimation of how symbols work in shaping our collective imagination. Like critics of “defund the police,” Tim Bruno’s defense of the guillotine in ROAR rests on the arguments that meanings change, symbols do not constitute praxis and “sometimes people do not mean exactly what they say.” Bruno reads the guillotine simply as the expression of an increasingly militant imagination that should be encouraged.
It is the job of artists and cultural workers to distill intelligible stories and symbols from the infinite complexity of our struggles. As an artist, I cannot agree with Bruno that, “there is nothing preordaining about the symbols that radicals use.” As Gloria Anzaldúa understood, our art, our stories and our symbols powerfully shape our imaginations, and with them, our praxis. A lack of personal experience with repressive state violence does not, as Bruno suggests, open the symbols of that violence up to new liberatory interpretations in different contexts, unless we are willing to pointedly ignore the experiences of those whom state violence has always targeted. The limited gesture towards the radicalism of a symbol like the guillotine is not an argument in its favor, but rather an argument for more expansive imagery that can embody even greater transformative demands.
My criticism of the guillotine is not an attempt to police or prescribe the appropriate expressions of our righteous anger, or call for civility and patience with the ruling class — militancy is both welcome and necessary. Depicting moments of liberatory violence does not have to be mutually exclusive with building life affirming institutions and relationships. As Walidah Imarisha writes, “Every successful movement for social change has used a diversity of tactics and strategies…When we are rooted in a shared vision and shared principles and values, there is space for all our imaginings.”
From the visual culture of the Black Panther Party or Zapatismo’s “poetics of resistance,” to Palestinian slingshots, the anticolonial work of Gord Hill and Indigenous Action, or depictions of slave revolts and the slaying of colonizers, we need not exclude the potential of violence from below from our radical imagination. Our rage is more than justified, but we should also be vigilant of liberal capitalism’s tendency to twist an avenging imaginary that would transform power into mere revenge fantasies that imagine the master’s tools might be used as our own.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs asks,
What if abolition is something that grows? What if abolition isn’t a shattering thing, not a crashing thing, not a wrecking ball event? What if abolition is something that sprouts out of the wet places in our eyes, the broken places in our skin, the waiting places in our palms, the tremble holding in my mouth when I turn to you? What if abolition is something that grows? What if abolishing the prison industrial complex is the fruit of our diligent gardening, building and deepening of a movement to respond to the violence of the state and the violence of our communities with sustainable, transformative love?
Perhaps the diligent gardening of sitting in workplace organizing meetings, talking to our neighbors about the tenants union, building mutual aid projects or grieving together in this time of immense loss does not yet capture our imagination like the guillotine, but maybe changing that is also part of imagining the impossible.
It should give us pause that while the AFL-CIO may be happy to hop on the #choppyboi bandwagon, they remain unwilling to discuss taking any concrete action towards defunding the police or removing police unions from their ranks. As abolitionists, we mean what we say. The violence of the state can never keep us safe, regardless of who is in charge of it. We need symbols that shape our radical imagination and build collective power for structural change, not Twitter hot takes that reproduce that state violence. We can do better than the guillotine.
In contrast to those traditional stories that begin with ‘Once upon a time…’ Zapatista stories begin with ‘There will be a time…’
— Subcomandante Galeano
As author and radical Meridel le Seur knew, “it’s no longer any good to get the grants.” Le Seur credits the Industrial Workers of the World with teaching her that culture was not only part of the struggle, but that struggle was the source of culture: “you could only be a poet or an artist if you were a worker, a revolutionary.” It is time to reclaim that knowledge.
“Defund the police” and the abolitionist imaginary shows a way out of the NGO-logic trap, by insisting that we are a powerful majority, capable of both organizing our own lives and keeping each other safe outside of the logics of the carceral state. Contemporary abolitionist imagery is often inspired by the interconnected web of relationships found in the natural world and Afrofuturist classics like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, creating symbols and narratives that highlight the importance of relation and community in shaping change. In the novel, Lauren Olamina uses violence when necessary, but it is her condition of “hyperempathy,” which causes her to share both the pain and pleasure of anyone she is in contact with, that is a source of her transformational philosophy of change. These are visions of collective power that rely neither on imagining ourselves in the position of our oppressors, nor on moral pleading addressed to the ruling class — this is the radical imagination we need to cultivate.
Imagining a world without police and prisons demands much more of us than guillotines and street fights. Imagining abolition means reimagining safety as transformative healing justice, land return, reparations, accessible healthcare, adequate housing, a healthy environment, abundant community-led services and much shorter days of meaningful, dignified work. As Saidiya Hartman argues, “what is required is a remaking of the social order, and nothing short of that is going to make a difference.” This is the radical abolitionist imaginary embodied in the slogan “defund the police,” and it is the tradition that abolitionist artists and storytellers are carrying forward.
In this unfolding moment of intense struggle, our focus should be on building our collective power inspired by visions that articulate our radical abolitionist imaginary. “Defund the police” is an excellent slogan for that imaginary, both in its explicit clarity as a demand and for the horizon of possibility it opens as a first step on the road to abolition. As the Zapatistas have long known, together we make the road by walking. Let’s go.