Welcome to the Radical Imagination podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host Angela Glover Blackwell. Today we look into a controversial idea that's been around for awhile but is still widely misunderstood. Police abolition. When people hear this term, they often equate it with destruction, anarky, doing away with the police force tomorrow -- but what is police abolition really about? In recent decades, media coverage and smartphones, have made it easier for people to expose questionable police behavior, which in many communities has often proven harmful and even fatal, especially if you're young, male, Black, or Latino.
(news clip): (00:48)
"...Entered in the wrong apartment, and then shot and killed a Black man inside the apartment." "...Fired by two officers, the suspect was shot and killed and we now know that he did not have a weapon."
What is reform, even in an option to improve a policing system that originated in part with slave patrols, or is the solution starting from scratch. To talk more about this, we're joined by Jessica Disu, aka FM Supreme. She is a humanitarian hip hop artist, and an activist. She also works closely with youth to promote peace and healing in Chicago neighborhoods that are severely impacted by violence and she became famous, by accident, when she called for abolishing the police on national TV in 2016.
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"We need to abolish the police period."
She joins us today from a studio in Chicago.
Jessica, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Thank you so much Angela for having me. I understand that you were actually born and raised in Chicago, is that right? Yes ma'am, I was born on the West Side. It's an African American and Puerto Rican community. What was it like growing up in Chicago? You know, I was in foster care from eight years old to 12 years old and when my mother fought, you know, the state of Illinois legally and won back legal rights of my siblings and I, we moved back to the North Side and yeah, I was able to have access to mentors and better resources on the North Side.
Is it that experience that you think led you to get involved with youth as you got older?
Oh, most definitely. My first mentors, I would visit there actual community gathering space, sometimes after school at the park. And there they would have, you know, pictures of Fred Hampton.
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"...Oh, revolutionary. And you are going to have to keep on seeing them."
Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, "...any kind of revolutionary thrust us lies in the principles and the goals that you're striving for, not in the way you reach them."
I began to read about these people and me being blessed to have mentors who cared about me, who nurtured my growth and development through poetry, through spoken word, through performance, through slam, through activism -- I feel it's my calling to serve African American youth and women.
You describe yourself as a humanitarian rap artist. Can you tell us why you refer to yourself that way?
I've been rapping since I was 10 years old; I'm 30. And since the beginning I've been telling my story. I've been telling stories to relate to others. I'll talk about different things from, you know, Troy Davis being executed by the death penalty in 1999 in Savannah, Georgia to Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old young boy who was killed in Cleveland, Ohio for having a toy gun at a park. And so I was very, very active in the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Black Youth Project 100, I understand you were a cofounder of that as well. Yes, so I was blessed to be a co-founding member of Black Youth Project 100 in 2013, and so there's about five adults who invited about 100 Black leaders and it happened to fall on the weekend of the Zimmerman verdict.
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"State of Florida versus George Zimmerman. We, the jury find George Zimmerman not guilty."
I remember like it was yesterday when we all, um, gathered into the main room and we held hands as we watched the Zimmerman verdict continue to be read, that he was not guilty, that he was acquitted of all charges. No one was held accountable for the murder of his young black boy, Trayvon Martin. And so it was in that moment that we decided to transform my pain into power and um, some of us decided to go downtown Chicago, where all the visuals normally happen when justice happens, and protest and hold a visual, hold a rally.
When do you remember first coming across that phrase of police abolition and do you remember how you reacted to it when you first heard it?
Honestly, I don't recall directly hearing about police abolition. I remember hearing about prison abolition and I remember thinking it was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard because the first thing I thought was where do you send the rapists and the pedophiles and the murderers. You know I was molested and raped when I was 10 years old when I was in foster care. What does transformative justice look like when there are a lot of people, a lot of men in our communities who are doing this every day? I don't believe in incarceration anymore, so I've long have changed. But when I first heard about it, kind of off the deep end, really radical, and the first person I ever heard speak about prison abolition is a brother from Chicago, activist and organizer named Ethan van Leer. I met Ethan in Ferguson. He's from Chicago, he is a young brother and we introduced ourselves to each other and he's like, you know, I'm ethos, I'm an abolitionist. And I remember looking at him and it was like ... I had never in my entire life heard a person say that they were an abolitionist and this was 2015 and this was before it was cool. It was not in nobody's bio. And when we talk about, you know, our identities and how we identify as activists, he's the only one was saying that and it was just like, I found it funny to be honest. Like, Oh, okay, because I didn't realize that he was already there mentally. He was already like, look, this system has to be radically restructured. I think that, you know, like most people, when you hear something so radical, you kind of turn your ear to it.
You know, we fear what we don't understand.
What was the process that took you from, huh? What on earth could that be about to actually embracing it, assuming that you have embraced it.
I have embraced it. And I embraced police abolition now, but I will get back to that fateful day In July 2016, when I was interviewed on Fox News.
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"...We are watching the crowds grow at this candlelight vigil in Dallas. And we saw provocative headlines..".
The cops in Baton Rouge had just killed, um, Alton Sterling.
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"Police officer screaming profanities and threatening to kill Alton Sterling. They had just murdered Philando Castile in the car.
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"The horror seen by millions on Facebook. The police officer involved now charged with manslaughter."
With so much chaos and police officers in Dallas were shot. And so I was invited to a conversation on Fox News under the premise that they wanted someone to speak about peace, and because I'm the founder of the Chicago International Youth Peace Movement, that I would be a person in the conversation to kind of bring both sides, you know, Black Lives Matter and whomever else.
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"...Alright. So we're going to go to Jessica...Jessica in the front is part of Black Lives Matter." "Black Lives Matter has never called for the shooting or violence against anyone."
So when I said we need to abolish the police period, I was completely fed up with the conversation.
So what I've been hearing here, this is the reason why our young people are hopeless in America. Our young people are hopeless because you have all these adults here who are not listening to our young people and they talk about Black on Black crime in Chicago. I'm from Chicago. When I'm trying to say is we need to abolish the police period..."
It was completely unscripted. I had never before that moment ever thought anything like that before. But seriously, it literally was so passionate and when I said it as it was happening and it was on live television, I could not believe that I said abolish and not demilitarize, because my talking point was we need to demilitarize the police. We need to disarm the police. We need to come up with community solutions, or transformative justice not abolish because now I have to defend that. I'm fully cognizant, and fully believe that if I would've said this statement in 1955 or 1965 that I would have got killed for that. That thank God for my ancestors for surviving that and in 2016 I can say something like, we need to abolish the police and they didn't come and take me out of my mother's house, whoever's house, and make it public lynching from me saying something like that. I became a poster child of something that I wasn't even fully sure what it meant. What does it fully mean to abolish the police? It taught me to go deeper.
Is that what you did?
That's exactly what I did.
You jumped in front of it and then you decided to educate yourself.
How can you say something that you don't fully know what it means but say it so passionately. White America was so upset with me. I got so many messages of hate, but I also got some messages of people really trying to understand.... And I was like, if they hate me so much, if I'm such a dumb Black girl, why are you really trying to understand? I had to watch the clip over and over and I realized that even though I didn't try to say that on Fox News, there's nothing I could do to take it back because this is out there, it is viral, and I don't take it back. Me and my comrades in Chicago, they started doing different things around abolition after that moment, they just completely had my back. Everyone became an abolitionist and at that moment that I felt like I was crucified because again, one morning, no one cares what I say and the next minute everybody cares what I say. And so for me it encouraged me to go deeper into my soul. Who am I being called to be? Because now I've made myself an enemy, a direct enemy of the police, and I've never been arrested. The police have never killed anybody in my family.
So you don't take it back. You learn. I want you to step back now cause that was three years ago. That was three years ago. In three years, how has your knowledge about police abolition deepened? What have you learned and why do you now think that this is the way we need to frame and pursue safe communities.
In the three years since that moment, I've educated myself. There's a book called "The End of Policing," by Alex Vitale. He teaches at Brooklyn College in New York City and it talks about how fundamentally this system of policing is archaic, It does not work for anyone, and doing the projects with Let us Breathe -- where they held a protest outside of Homan Square, they called it Freedom Square.
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"...This place is called Freedom Square. We feed, we give games and art and safety to our young people and to our community.
And it was an abolition project that summer, in 2016, and the whole idea of that summer was how do we imagine a world without policing? What does that look like?
So what does it look like?
It looks like being a village keeper. I mean really, like the golden rule of treating people how you want to be treated--It's like how do we get there? And so I can't speak for someone else's vision, right, of police abolition, but I can speak for mine, right? For me it looks like a radical transformation, a restructing of police and it's not saying that we completely get rid of the government's right to enforce the law and to make sure there is peace in our communities. To be realistic, when I say we need abolish the police. Yes, we don't need these crooked cops in our communities. Yes, we don't need bias cops. We don't need people who are not here to serve and protect. We need peace officers. Police officers are people, so how do we get to the humanist of that officer? And so now in 2019, Angela, I'm more about bridging the gap. You know, I was in Inglewood and I had a situation where I didn't have anyone to call at 3:00 a.m. in the morning. I'm getting kicked out of my friend's house and I have 25 bags worth of groceries. I'm supposed to be cooking with the people on skid row. Who do you call at 3:00 a.m. in the morning, who's going to come, that you hope they come, but the police -- and the police came and I had a conversation with three officers of the Inglewood Police Department and I let them know that I couldn't believe that I called them but I had no one else to call cause all my family's in Chicago and I told them I went viral for saying we need to abolish the police just a couple years ago and he said, of course we don't agree with that statement.
I said, well your officers, and they went on to say that it was -- that they knew what it was like. It was one White cop who was quiet. There was a mixed cop and there was a Black cop and the mixed cop talked the most and began to say that his mother was a Black Panther and that to this day when he goes to family cookouts, that they look at him a certain way because he's a law enforcer. He's like, well, he does thing that we should be able to have some type of conversations. I said, but look, I didn't expect you three to help me. And then I told them to leave. They wouldn't even leave. And then he's like, you don't even know where you're at. I'm like, y'all can leave now after, you know, I ordered my Uber. They were like, no, we're not going to leave you here because you are one of the worst blocks in Inglewood and its 3 a.m. in the morning, and you have bags of groceries, ma'am...we're not going to leave you. We're going to wait with you. And they waited with me, and that's what serving and protecting is all about. And so we don't see enough of that. Right.
You were describing what the group felt when they heard about George Zimmerman's acquittal and you talked about turning pain in the power. I'm so convinced that all of us who are working to try to create a better world are tapping the best that we have in order to do it and that has to get to power. I think each of us has a superpower. What's your superpower?
My superpower is the ability to make something out of nothing, to make something appear out of nothing that was there because we're creative. It's in our DNA. We're born to create.
I have so enjoyed talking to you.
Thank you. Thank you so much.
Jessica Disu is a hip hop artist and activist based in Chicago.
Coming up on Radical Imagination. We speak with co-director of the Center for Political Education Rachel Herzing, about where police abolition efforts stand today and how to move forward. Stay with us.
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And we're back. We now continue the conversation about police abolition, a concept which isn't easy to wrap your head around. To help us understand what such a radical and challenging task entails, we're joined by Rachael Herzing. She's the co-director of the Center for Political Education and the co-founder of Oakland-based Critical Resistance. Rachel, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Thank you so much for having me, Angela.
First, some context. What is it about policing that leads us to think that we have to focus on abolition?
I always think about policing within the context of what I call the prison industrial complex. And by that, you know, I really mean the relationship between governmental and private interests that use imprisonment, policing, surveillance, sentencing, as remedies to what I think are primarily social, political, and economic inequities or inequalities. And my sense is that the things that harm us the most and are most harmful to the most vulnerable among us are often wrapped up in that system of surveillance, wrapped up in that system of policing, wrapped up in that system of imprisonment. And so, to my mind, one of the surest ways to eliminate the violence of policing is to reduce opportunities for contact with law enforcement and you know, to its logical conclusion, a world free of policing would be a safer world.
How far back does the idea go?
You know, I'm not an historian of abolition. Um, I think that there are some misunderstandings that attach it to, you know, post Michael Brown or post Ferguson uprising. In my own experience, my contact with concepts of the abolition of policing go back, you know, to the early two thousands and so when, um, I was part of a group of people that was planning Critical Resistance East, which was a conference that was held in New York 2001, part of what we were offering was a conceptualization that the entirety of the prison industrial complex should be abolished. And that included thinking about law enforcement policing.
It does feel from what you've said and from what I've read, that prison abolition actually emerged as a more fully developed idea. And police abolition has been a little more recent.
I would say today there still is not a movement for the abolition of policing. Whereas I do feel there is a movement for the abolition of imprisonment. Right. And I think the movement history, you know, around imprisonment dates back, you know, closer I think to the 60s.
I was looking into it as I have been trying to understand this conversation more and realizing that something that I had always heard, that police actually started to catch runaway slaves. And it turns out that that's true for the South, that the South developed policing around slave patrols, but in the Southwest, in Texas, it was really a whole different thing. The Texas Rangers where there to try to protect the colonialists, then try to get rid of the native population, and then try to make a safe space for those who were the intruders in that the emergence of police was aimed at controlling those who were vulnerable, who were viewed as other, who people felt they needed to control for economic purposes. That history is not well known.
I think that's a really important point and I think it highlights, you know, something that some of us say about the prison industrial complex frequently, which is that it works as it should because it is meant to contain and control and eliminate very specific segments of the population and sometimes it catches other people up in it, but it also does what it's designed to do very, very well, which is primarily containment and control.
What do you think it will take for people to be able to be in this conversation without getting hysterical?
I do think that there has to be a shift in the role and a shift in the nature of kind of how communities relate to policing, for people to not, you know, be wildly hysterical. There's a lot that happens in our culture and in our society to convince us that absent cops, there's going to be rivers of blood in the streets. You know, we saw for instance, in New York when the cops decided they weren't going to enforce broken windows policing.
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"Now at five. There's a big crack down in the NYPD broken window style policing. It doesn't necessarily lead to a drop in felony crimes, that's according to an eye-opening report by Mayor de Blasio's official NYPD watchdog."
The crime rate didn't go up and there wasn't complete chaos in the streets and people wildly stabbing each other. It was kind of business as usual.
Let's move to what some of the community organizations are doing.
You know, I had the pleasure of working with um, organizations and some neighborhood groups through a project I did a few years ago to help people think about alternatives to calling 911and you know, one of those practices is to map the neighborhood to figure out who's around, and then to understand when are they around and what kind of skills do they have, and what kind of resources are available to you that you might not know that you have. So neighbors are doing those kinds of things. Organizations are developing the skills and the policies and procedures to, you know, develop no call policies. I know the Berkeley Free Clinic has excelled at this for many years and they do not allow law enforcement in their space and they have, you know, practices among the staff, a protocol that they use if law enforcement comes so that they can be respectful and maintain the peace in the clinic, but that also they can maintain their principles about not having law enforcement in there.
And then I think there are other things, like I was mentioning earlier that might not be about the elimination of policing altogether. Interesting strategies to try to figure out how to deal legitimate and how to defang, you know, some of the most violent parts of policing. So for instance, the Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles has for years now been advocating for 1 percent of the law enforcement budget and the city and county to go to after school programming for young people, job training, counseling, you know the kinds of supports that young people would need to avoid contact with law enforcement. And I think that campaigns like that are really, really tremendous because they're about really rearticulating what our priorities are. Do we prioritize containment and control or do we prioritize health and well-being of young people?
I like the program that you mentioned called Care Not Cops in Portland. Tell us about that.
Yeah, Critical Resistance Portland has a campaign called Care Not Cops that's really focused on trying to shift who responds to mental health crises in particular, but health crises in general. And to say that it's inappropriate for law enforcement to be first responders in those kinds of situations and to get the city of Portland to put resources into actually having first responders available who could deal with mental health crises, who are not law enforcement.
The police abolition movement is probably very much on to something. Certainly it seems that the recent years have brought squarely into our attention, into sharp relief, that we have a serious problem in this country. That there are too many people who fear, for good reason, the police. And if the police is supposed to be there for safety, they are failing in those communities. And we need to have a conversation about safety, well-being, and have the resources to really put what people will tell you they need in order to feel safe.
Well I think there are plenty of people who probably would say, sure, yeah I do want the cops. And I don't think, you know, asking the community what they want means that we always have to agree either. I can think that people's lives would be dramatically better if they didn't have to worry about being policed and they might disagree with me, but then we can have a conversation about that. Whereas, you know, if all that people think is that they either have nothing and fear or they have cops, you know, they'll probably pick not fear. Right. And so I think part of what we need to do as organizers is to really get in that in between place and really talk to people about the fact that it's not either nothing and fear or police, that there's a whole spectrum of other kinds of ways that people can deal with harm and safety and fear without relying on containment and control as the primary mechanism.
One of the things that you were discussing with Jessica that I thought was really key and we talked about a little bit, is really understanding your political frame to advocate for the abolition of policing, I think requires you to be obligated to a certain set of politics and I would always prefer that people are confident and knowledgeable about what it is they're proposing. Sometimes they don't have a choice like Jessica was describing. It could sprung on you and then you do the good work of trying to figure out, well, why did I say that? Why do I think that? Do I still think that? Right? But if you're going to put out abolition as a position, I really, really encourage people to understand what that means. I don't know, that kind of commitment to being rigorous in our politics and consistent as much as we can be, I think is really key and I think helps us grow our movement.
One of the things I like to ask the guests on Radical imagination is about their superpower. I think that people who work in for change bring a lot of power to what it is they're doing. What's your superpower?
I think my super power is a firm belief that transformation is possible.
I feel it. I feel that coming from you. Thank you very much for being here Rachel.
Thank you so much for having me.
Rachel Herzing is the co-director of the Center for Political Education in Oakland.
Reflecting on the conversation about police abolition, three things stand out. One, people need to know the history of policing, the history of our systems and institutions sheds light on their original purpose and it prompts us to ask: Is that purpose consistent with what we want and need now? Secondly, we must develop a narrative that allows people to envision a society that doesn't try to police its way to safety. Safety isn't about mass criminalization. It's about trust, relationships, cultural respect, and opportunities for all. It's about nurturing the talents of young people and investing in strong communities. Thirdly, as Rachel Herzing pointed out, police reform activists must be deliberate and strategic. If abolition is the ultimate goal, community policing may sound like a step forward, but it isn't. If it further intrenches an oppressive institution in our neighborhoods and in our lives, imagine how much better off we'd be if we invested instead in neighborhood services, jobs, youth activities, and fair systems designed by communities to promote safety and healing and ensure justice.
Radical Imagination was produced by the Futuro Studios for PolicyLink. The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andrés Caballero, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, and Jeanne Montalvo. The PolicyLink team includes Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian, Anand Subramanian, and Milly Hawk Daniel. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Suguira. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time and in the meantime, you can find us firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember to subscribe and share.
Next time on Radical Imagination, we sit down with Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs to talk about the city's universal basic income initiative. "The biggest issue we face in this city is poverty. So what is a policy that we can do to really address poverty... That's next on Radical Imagination.