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“Becoming Abolitionists”: Derecka Purnell on Why Police Reform Is Not Enough to Protect Black Lives

StoryOctober 06, 2021
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Derecka Purnell draws from her experience as a human rights lawyer in her new book, published this month, “Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom,” to argue that police reform is an inadequate compromise to calls for abolition. Since the murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville in 2020, many states have passed laws aimed at reforming police, but congressional talks at the federal level have broken down. Purnell reflects upon her personal journey as a Black woman who believed in police reform before pivoting to abolition, saying, “I became a part of social movements who pushed me to think more critically … about building a world without violence and how to reduce our reliance on police.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to the evolving discussion about abolishing police and the prison-industrial complex amidst the disproportionate rates of police killings and incarceration of Black people. A new study published Thursday in the medical journal The Lancet estimates the federal database known as the National Vital Statistics System failed to count more than half the deaths from police violence over nearly 40 years. Researchers from the University of Washington also found Black people were killed by police at a rate three-and-a-half times higher than white people.

This comes after a series of police killings of African Americans last year prompted a racial reckoning, including George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville. Many states have since passed laws aimed at reforming police, but efforts to pass a federal law to overhaul policing failed to pass the Senate, and bipartisan talks over police reform broke down last month.

For more, we’re joined by Derecka Purnell, human rights lawyer, columnist for The Guardian, author of the new book, published Tuesday, Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom.

Derecka, welcome back to Democracy Now! You are a —


AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Congratulations on this book.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re a Black woman, a Black mother of two Black sons. You were a advocate for police reform, but you are now what you would call a police or prison abolitionist. Explain your journey.

DERECKA PURNELL: Of course. So, like lots of people who grow up in the United States, I had just unexamined commitments to using and relying on police in my neighborhoods, in my community, because they were the institution that was the most well-resourced, right? So, I had a ton of ranges of experience with police. And even throughout those horrible encounters, they were often the only option to respond to harm and to respond to violence. And so the book details that sort of early experiences.

And then, what happened was I became part of social movements who pushed me to think more critically and more beautifully, more creatively about building a world without violence — right? — how to reduce our reliance on police and to reduce the reasons why people need them. The book also kind of describes a political journey of a generation, in which I believe I’m a part of, who went from fighting for George Zimmerman’s arrest and imprisonment in the wake of killing and murdering, rather, Trayvon Martin back in 2012 to become a generation who is leading, I would say, the call to abolish the entire carceral state. So, it documents that political journey of a generation, as well as my personal political journey of becoming an abolitionist.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Derecka, you talk in your book about how your experiences in South Africa contributed to your becoming an abolitionist. Could you explain how and why?

DERECKA PURNELL: Yes, of course. So, in two thousand, I think, '15, 2016, the student movement that was called, and still is called, Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall, they were pushing and fighting for a 0% increase in their tuition. And just to see the amount of repression that they received from the South African government, from the South African university presidents, I mean, sending in Black, armed private police to attack them, brutalizing them because they were demanding free education, an end to colonization of the university and the entire country, really — to see them fight for the end of contractual labor so that their parents and janitorial workers and dining service workers could get benefits from the university, to watch them be met with so much repression from Black police, it was — honestly, just it clicked, like, “Oh yeah.” Diversity is not salvific force. It's not enough to hire more Black cops, more women cops, more queer cops. That’s ultimately not the problem with policing. Police are sent in to ultimately manage inequality and to stop people who are fighting for progressive change.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how do you respond to those political leaders, white as well as African American, who say that the abolitionist movement is not realistic, that the majority of people in the Black and Brown communities still want policing to protect them?

DERECKA PURNELL: Well, I would say that I have lots of things to say to those people, especially the Black ones who are dismissive of abolition as an outside agitator call to action, which is completely not true. The tradition of people fighting for police and prison abolition, it’s rooted in Black feminists like Mariame Kaba, Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Rachel Herzing. So, I would just, one, just try to clarify what we mean when we say abolition.

The second thing that I would say is that, well, they’re very excited to point to those statistics about Black people who would like to continue to use police in their neighborhoods, but when we look at Black people who are also demanding more resources for education, more jobs in their community, universal healthcare, those political leaders are usually not interested in using statistical support for Black communities for those progressive causes. And so, what happens is that there’s a devaluing and a divestment in all the other resources that Black and Brown people, working-class people demand in their neighborhoods. And then they hurl, they hold up one specific statistic that they’re willing to pay for in order to call it public safety, when, actually, I imagine, if we ask Black people and Brown people and people all over the country, “Well, would you rather have more police or universal daycare? Would you rather have more police or education that’s properly funded and culturally important?” — and when you start asking more nuanced questions, the answers shift in our communities. And I think that we should ask more nuanced questions.

AMY GOODMAN: Derecka, you are a rape survivor. And people often bring up this type of violence when discussing the need for police and public safety. If you could talk about your argument that police are not the way to repair this harm and get justice in the aftermath of sexual assault and sexual violence?

DERECKA PURNELL: Yes, of course. So, not only are they not the solution, police contribute to sexual violence. After police brutality, sexual misconduct is the second most reported complaint against cops. And then, the people that they arrest, regardless of the reason of arrest, they put them in jails and in prisons, and they make them vulnerable to sexual violence by people who work in jails and prisons. And so, police perpetuate sexual violence. They’re a site of sexual violence.

And then, in the few cases where they actually do go and may arrest someone, you have usually women who are fighting to get their rape tests — their rape kits tested. And thousands — 20,000, 30,000 — of rape kits are just sitting untested all across the United States.

Now, what’s so unfortunate is that police, in addition to not them — I’m sorry. In addition to them not being the solution, it’s so frustrating because the people who are most vulnerable to sexual violence are vulnerable to people who they live and share their homes with. They’re vulnerable to sexual violence from their neighbors, the people who they’re employed by, people who work in faith institutions. And so, police are a part, they’re a manifestation of the culture that’s sexually violent. And if we want to reduce our reliance on policing, we also have to reduce the amount of rape culture that’s so prevalent in the United States.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you comment on what’s been happening in Congress and in terms of legislation around police abuse and police reform? Clearly, there was a lot of expectation last year and into the beginning of this year that there would be substantive change, but so much of it has fizzled out in terms of the refusal of Congress to be able to reach some kind of a real, new legislation. What do you think needs to be done by those who are advocating abolition or systemic reform?

DERECKA PURNELL: Well, the first thing that I would want to say is just my deepest sympathies to the family of George Floyd, who was given so many promises by Joe Biden, by other congressional leaders that they would achieve police reform in the name of the person that they love. And it’s honestly heartbreaking to see, to watch politicians use families of victims of police violence to champion legislation that wouldn’t have even saved the lives of the person that they lost. So, I first just and I am always just so sad that families are used in this way to push an ineffective political agenda, right?

So, the George Floyd Act was touted by President Biden and other congressional leaders as an attempt to eradicate bias in policing. But the issue is that George Floyd was initially stopped by Derek Chauvin over an alleged use of a counterfeit $20 bill. Congress had the opportunity to give people more resources during an unprecedented pandemic, where unemployment rates were through the roof. We were facing a massive eviction crisis. Food insecurity was at its peak, right? So, instead of giving people resources and giving us more stipends, making sure that we were protected if we lost our jobs, lost our homes, lost our healthcare — instead, they chose to invest in police. And when someone called the cops on George Floyd, he was met with the level of brutality that police regularly and routinely employ in poor Black communities. And the idea that you could just pass one act to train police to better encounter people who may be breaking the law to survive is just woefully insufficient.

So, abolition are interested in reducing the reasons why people need police, in addition to reducing the carceral state, which means, at the national level, fighting for sweeping legislation that makes sure that people have not just food security or housing security but quality investments in those institutions, as well. It’s why we fight for student debt cancellation. It’s why we fight for universal healthcare. It’s why we fight for universal child care and daycare, so that people who are in vulnerable situations, they can go to work, they can go to school, they can choose to have work that gives them dignity and excitement, right? Like, that’s the kind of work that we’re fighting for. And I believe that is well within our reach.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to chapter eight of your book. It’s about the climate. It’s titled “We Only Want the Earth.” On the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in August, Hurricane Ida left thousands without power, many stranded in Louisiana in its aftermath. I want to turn to a clip of the New Orleans police chief, Shaun Ferguson, at a news conference for emergency preparations.

SHAUN FERGUSON: We are prepared to assist whatever recovery efforts we will have to assist with after this, but also anti-looting. We will not permit, we will not allow any looting throughout this process. And we will be out there to enforce that. So, as I’m asking and begging and pleading with you, please hunker down now, as we will have to hunker down at some point in time ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the New Orleans police chief. If you can respond to what he said? Talk about the issue of the climate and how it relates to abolition, and also what we’ve seen along the border, you know, the whipping of Haitians in Del Rio, Texas.

DERECKA PURNELL: Of course. Well, as our climate continues to heat because of global capitalism, one thing that’s going to happen is that there’s going to be a continuing of mass displacement of Black, Brown people from all over the world. And once that displacement happens, the police are going to be the number one response to punish them, to whip them even, to incarcerate them. And so, abolition and climate change are indispensable conversations that we have to have alongside each other.

I learned from Critical Resistance that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the city was just absolutely devastated by a hurricane, the very first thing that was built was a jail. And it was a jail that was used to arrest people. When we think about the jails that are in Puerto Rico, where are they positioned? Right? They’re positioned at the periphery of the island. So, when there are hurricanes that happen, they’re immediately flooded. We have people who are incarcerated who suffer a massive flooding, you know, are vulnerable to drowning, disease, vermin. If you look at any of the historical shifts and patterns of people who are migrating and emigrating to the U.S., who are fleeting — fleeing, rather, climate catastrophe, they are met with Border Patrol and ICE. And so, the police are going to be the default response to mitigate the impacts of climate change and environmental racism.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the aftermath of the Michael Brown killing back in 2014, arguably a key flashpoint in the development of the Black Lives Matter movement. Seven years later, what do you make of whatever reforms or changes occurred in Ferguson and with the Ferguson Police Department?

DERECKA PURNELL: Well, there’s an organization right now who’s still fighting to put pressure on the Ferguson Police Department to implement many of the very weak reforms that came as a result of the consent decree that was put into place under the Obama administration. So, seven years, you have people in Ferguson who are still fighting to eliminate cases of people who have outstanding warrants from nearly a decade ago.

We have a few Black elected officials in Ferguson now, which I think could be a step forward, because many of them are trying to figure out how to reduce the level of violence. But police are still there to serve the purpose of policing. They’re still enforcing evictions. They’re still taking in people who live in that community. They’re doing it maybe more nicely. Maybe more Brown people are doing it. But, essentially, the day-to-day function of the Ferguson Police Department is the same.

And so, it’s not that we just have to fight the unconstitutional policing that’s taking place in the country. As we see in Ferguson, much of that policing is completely constitutional. And I just am grateful that long after the cameras have left, that there are people in that neighborhood — people in those neighborhoods who are fighting to continue to limit the power that the Ferguson Police Department has.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re all speaking here in New York. It’s clear the next mayor will be Eric Adams, a former police officer, who really has rejected the idea of prison, police abolition. Very simply, in the last seconds we have, your response, Derecka?

DERECKA PURNELL: Oh, of course he does. Black political officials, Black people running for office, they get to do this. They get to say, “I’m Black, and I’m a part of law enforcement. I understand both sides.” And unfortunately, they just create more legitimacy for the police to do very bad things to harmful people. So I would just ask people to not be fooled by Black people who say they understand both sides, because there is no both sides. There is a system of oppression, where people have the power to kill, to incarcerate, to arrest. And there are people who are vulnerable to it. And the people have to resist that.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there.

DERECKA PURNELL: [inaudible] Yes, OK. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: But I want to thank you so much, Derecka Purnell, author of the new book Becoming Abolitionists.

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