Abolition across the Atlantic

Why are South Africans not in the streets against police brutality like Americans are? It has less to do with the internet or middle classes. South Africans are captured by punitive logics. Break that.

Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington DC, June 6, 2020. Image credit Geoff Livingston via Flickr CC.

On Thursday May 28th, the Minneapolis Police Department’s (MPD) 3rd Precinct was engulfed in flames. Set ablaze by protestors enraged by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, its torching marked a new chapter in the struggle against state violence in the US. Transmitted in real-time to audiences around the globe via social media, the vision of the burning building was a clear message to those in power: if you refuse to reform the system, we will destroy it ourselves.

Given the intensity of the past two weeks, it is easy to forget that the ongoing uprisings are not simply organic outbursts, but the result of decades of organizing. The brutality of police in the United States has long provoked enduring resentment and resistance in poor and racialized communities. But until the emergence of Black Lives Matter in 2013, this fury lacked national political attention. Even then, the movement struggled to translate its prominence in the discourse into durable reforms. It has remained profoundly constrained by a Democratic Party, cowed by police and prison guard unions, and stifled by a white liberal consensus that is uncomfortable with violent or even militant protest. These structural constraints have made sure that the movement for black lives has mostly only been able to extract vacuous statements of support from Democratic politicians and ineffectual reforms. The movement has not been able to ensure the conviction of killer cops—let alone deep structural changes to the criminal punishment system.

That moment, however, seems to be over. The burning of the 3rd Precinct and nation-wide protests that followed have not only forced the prosecution of Floyd’s killers, but brought the question of police abolition fully into the American mainstream for the first time. This profound, and in many ways stunning shift towards abolition comes in part because the movement has shifted its tactics. Formed originally around affirmative slogans like “Black Lives Matter,” protestors have moved firmly towards the denunciatory—“Fuck the Police,” “Fuck 12,” and “ACAB.” The latter is short for “All Cops Are Bastards.” Moreover, the clowning of opportunist and erstwhile BLM “leader” DeRay Mckesson’s policy platform, signals there is little appetite for what abolitionists call “reformist reforms”—those policies that entrench or expand the power of policing. While it is too early to know if abolition becomes the vision of the whole movement, the turn to militancy signals, at the very least, a growing abolitionist instinct.

But what is most extraordinary about the current moment is not so much the shift within the movement, but its broader acceptance outside of the movement. According to a recent Monmouth Poll, 54% of Americans believe the protest, including the burning of the 3rd Precinct, was at least partially justified. In Minneapolis, the school board and the University of Minnesota cut ties with the police department before the city council committed to disbanding the MPD Monday. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti committed to cutting up to $150 million from the LAPD’s budget to be redirected to jobs, health initiatives, and “peace centers.” Under the white-hot pressure of the moment, municipalities across the country are considering similar steps.

One should be careful to note these actions, though welcome, do not add up to abolition. Abolition is a far more capacious project that requires not only the end of institutions like the police and prisons, and of the systems that undergird and require them, but their replacement with relations of mutual care and accountability. Moreover, it remains to be seen if this incipient progress will be stymied by a spineless Democratic Party or crushed by a fascist Republican Party. Let us hope that it is not. The escalating health, economic, and political catastrophes are plunging the US into a full-blown crisis of legitimation. Without an ideological fig leaf to cover its predation, the ruling class will rely ever more heavily on the police to maintain the line between themselves and the masses. Seen from this vantage, abolition looks very much like the last best hope, not only for left politics, but for American democracy itself.

Compared to South Africa, that fellow settler colony on the other end of the Atlantic, the contrast could not be starker, as William Shoki points out in his excellent recent piece. While the country’s security forces have killed at least 12 people since the beginning of the pandemic lockdown, there is little outrage over police violence in South Africa. This is shocking, not only because South African police kill three times as many people per capita than their American counterparts, but also because South Africa, unlike the US, has a rich history of broad militancy against the police and security forces. Why then are South Africans not also in the streets?

Shoki offers two answers: one proximate—that recent police violence in South Africa was not captured on video and therefore could not become a media spectacle—and one ultimate—that South Africans, particularly those in the middle class, approach police violence with a distinctly American perspective that emphasizes its racial character and obscures its class character. These are compelling, but I believe only partial answers.

Let’s begin with the first. It is undoubtedly the case that the capture and circulation of the murder of George Floyd played an important, inciting role. But images themselves, however grotesque the content may be, are not sufficient to provoke an uprising. It has taken decades of organizing and movement-building not only to get people in the streets, but to structure the public’s very affective reactions to police violence. As philosopher Judith Butler observed about the Rodney King trial, the ideological construction of criminality weighed so heavily on the minds of white jurors while watching the footage, instead of seeing King being savagely beaten by the cops, they saw King as the source of danger. Rolling back that subjectification takes work, work that is clearly not being done in South Africa. After all, it is simply not the case that South Africans do not have widely-circulated images of police violence. Quite the contrary, as I have written previously, police departments have taken to posting images of “criminals” on Twitter who they themselves have shot dead. South Africa does not lack for spectacles of police violence; it lacks a civic culture that questions who becomes “a criminal” and under what conditions.

This brings me to Shoki’s second point on class and American cultural hegemony in South Africa. It is without question that a race-reductionist analysis of police violence allows some in the black middle and upper classes to, by curious alchemy, turn the suffering of black Americans into self-promotion. Look no further than South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new “Black Friday anti-racism” campaign for corroboration. But in making this critique, we should not lose track of the ideological diversity within the US struggle against state violence. Specifically, it is important to remember that abolition as a tradition emerges not from BLM, but from the work of black socialist women like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Beth Richie. And while there may be some misguided souls that think that abolition, as Shoki writes, means “reimagining policing as a public good,” there is no self-respecting abolitionist who would agree. Those at the core of the tradition have always been forthrightly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. Wilson Gilmore puts it plainly: “Abolition has to be green (environmentalist), and in order to be green, it has to be red (anti-capitalist), and in order to be red, it has to be international.”

Given the superficiality of Twitter, it is not surprising that middle class South Africans have taken up the American struggle in its most sanitized form. This speaks less to American culture hegemony per se than how South Africans’ imaginations—middle and working class alike—have long been so thoroughly captured by punitive logics. When I called for consideration of prison and police abolition in South Africa in September, it was mostly out of despair. At the time, the discourse around policing was dominated by ultra-reactionaries who believe that the police in the country are not violent enough, think-tankers who lauded Police Minister Bheki Cele’s “maximum crackdown,” and liberal NGOs, who fight against sexual violence in prisons with terrifyingly inhumane slogans like “rape is not part of the penalty.” The fact that there is now a sense that the country has a problem with police violence is reason for cautious optimism.

Those interested in cultivating this sensibility into a movement could do worse than abolition. It is natural for those unfamiliar with it to be skeptical of it, but those on the left will recognize themselves in abolition. In many ways, abolitionists put Mao’s maxim—“from the masses, to the masses”—in practice better than anyone else in the US. Drawing on the rage of poor people and black people as an archive, abolitionists have transformed it into a vision of the future, and worked to bring it into being. The rage in the streets today is not knee-jerk or inchoate; abolitionists have helped nurture it into an uprising. Let’s hope it wins and crosses the Atlantic soon.

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