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About a week ago, the NYPD had millions of liberal New Yorkers scratching their heads when they announced a “virtual work stoppage” in apparent protest of Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s alleged lack of support for the Boys in Blue. This came after not only weeks of protests against police terror in New York and across America, but also the senseless murders of two police officers in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Though DeBlasio condemned the murders outright, the police and their union are arguing that his show of support for protesters incited the murders, despite having been committed by a man who had a history of mental illness and shot his own girlfriend in the stomach that very same morning. The police have used this opportunity to literally turn their backs on the mayor as he approached the funerals for the fallen officers. It should be noted that the police union is also currently arbitrating with the city for higher pay.
And so, the police have decided that in addition to the symbolic act of turning their backs on the mayor, they will also stop arresting people for low level crimes (e.g. “quality of life” crimes like open container summonses, public urination, and even parking tickets), resulting in a staggering 66% drop in arrests—and likely an equivalent drop in ticket revenue for the city. The union urged officers not to make arrests unless “absolutely necessary,” leaving most of us wondering what in the hell they were doing before (okay, okay. We knew. It’s just kind of nice to hear them finally admit it). In a bizarre, twilight zone situation, the police have actually practiced civil disobedience and temporarily halted the racist, classist, “broken windows” policing practices that have been the ire of civilian protesters since their introduction. Yeah you heard that right, and it is having benefits for everybody, especially low-income workers and the homeless. Furthermore, the sense of relative serenity in low-income neighborhoods is a welcome change of pace from the constant and looming police presence that has become normalized in these areas.
The incidental benefits of this work stoppage are a bit of a relief, but they are also an opportunity to implement community-based alternatives to policing. Because while we are celebrating the ability to double-park our cars without fear of being ticketed or towed, we are also turning our backs on the millions of incarcerated people who are being brutalized behind closed doors. We are turning our backs on people of color, women and queers who will undoubtedly still bear the brunt of arrests that are being made. Instead, we can forge ahead and create the world we want to live in.
In a the first of a series of video discussions with activists Dean Spade and Reina Gossett, Gossett discusses ways to “prefigure the world you want to live in” through a prison abolitionist lens:
Abolition to me means a number of things. It means preventing harm, intervening on harm, having processes for repairing harm and violence, and also having an aim towards transforming communities, and transforming relationships so that the harm that people have experienced, they’re not re-enacting onto another person.
Abolition means that no one is disposable, no one is expendable. We are not exiling people or punishing people in order to solve our problems. There is a logic in the prison system of policing that kicking someone out of the community and punishing someone is a way to solve people’s problems, but we’re seeing time and time again that that doesn’t work.
Yes, broken windows policing is one of the worst, most racist things to happen to the police and prison system. But even without broken windows, we are left with a prison system that unfairly mishandles people’s lives, especially Black and brown lives. With an eye toward dismantling the current system, there are viable alternatives to involving the police. Many of these focus on low-level offenses, which is a great place to start when looking towards dismantling the entire violent prison system.
In late December, Mike Ludwig of truth-out.org suggested we enter the New Year by resolving not to call the police. For the very same reason that many POCs in poor neighborhoods already choose not to call the cops, Ludwig urged readers to consider how we define safety: “Do we feel unsafe in working-class neighborhoods, or around people with certain styles of dress or colors of skin? What prejudices ground this fear?” He implored readers to think about exactly upon whom we call the cops, and whether they will be treated fairly by the police in a country where police kill one black person every 28 hours. Ludwig makes an important caveat: “Violence is the most serious challenge. If you feel that your safety is threatened, and the best option to avoid being harmed is calling the police, you should do it. Resolving not to call the police is not a rule, just a way to think outside the box. Rules are for the cops, not for us.” Basically, if there is a way to resolve the issue at hand without putting oneself in danger, why not try that option first? As Ludwig points out, many communities are already testing transformative and restorative justice projects that we can use as models during this little policing hiatus.
In Buffalo, NY, local churches, mosques, synagogues and community centers are testing out “peace hubs” in an effort to circumvent police interactions with young offenders. Community conflicts are brought to these peace hubs, and resolved on an interpersonal level. Rod Watson of The Buffalo News thinks it could level the playing field for underprivileged and marginalized youth:
In some ways, it’s a throwback to the days when, if a kid did something wrong, he got chastised twice: first by the neighbor who caught him, then again when he got home. The community wasn’t afraid of its young people and cared enough about them – all of them, not just relatives – to intervene early enough to keep them on track.
If successful, the peace hubs could again give city kids the type of guidance and support suburban kids routinely get to keep them out of the prison pipeline when they do stupid things.
Other organizations like Young New Yorkers aim to both keep young POCs out of prison and engage them on an artistic level that brings their skills back into the community:
Young New Yorkers is a restorative justice, arts program for 16- and 17-year-olds who have open criminal cases. The criminal court gives eligible defendants the option to participate in Young New Yorkers rather than do jail time, community service and have a lifelong criminal record…
A series of six intensive, hands-on workshops prepares the participants to design a public art installation that expresses a positive social message of their choice. Local artists join each workshop and assist the participants in weekly art projects. The weekly artworks and the final installation design are then presented to the public at the Young New Yorkers Finale. The Finale allows the participants to experience themselves as worthy, creative contributors to their communities, rather than as undeserving and irredeemable criminal actors.
Young New Yorkers intervenes after a young person has already interacted with the police, but it is important to have community intervention solutions at every level of the process. The running themes here are empowerment and responsibility to your community, and reducing the harm and violence of mass incarceration. When young people of color are shown that they can make a difference in their communities and in their own lives, prison doesn’t seem like such an inevitable outcome, and commitment to creating justice without police in our communities is a tangible action towards dismantling the prison industrial complex. In addition to fighting for reforms within the prison system, we can keep people out of prison in the first place. We can literally be the change we wish to see in the world.