A few weeks ago, Derek Chauvin was found guilty for the murder of George Floyd. As many have argued, this is not justice, just a small measure of accountability. True justice means changing the system so that these murders stop happening — so that people like George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and Adam Toledo will not be killed by police, and so that many others will not suffer daily degradation through the legal system.
True justice means dramatically changing the structure of policing — defunding or abolishing the police. And I fully support defunding: reducing the funds that our municipalities allocate to police and policing. We have far too many police, too many laws, and too much criminalization of people who could be better supported through social services.
But honestly, the idea of police abolition scares me. I want to support it. I want to believe that we can create a world in which destructive behaviors are met by supportive actions and accountability is achieved through community relationships rather than punishment, as described in the work of Mariame Kaba and other scholars of abolition. At the same time, I must admit I am frightened. Society has told me over and over again, in so many ways, that I need protection.
In actuality, I have called on police two times in my life, and I think those experiences can inform how I think and feel about policing and abolition.
When I was 14 years old, I started attending high school in Milwaukee, and I was running with my high school cross country team during practice one day. One other freshman and I were running slowly, we got separated from the rest of the team, and as we ran through the park, a group of three or four men approached us and stole our running shoes. One man hit me in the head. My friend and I ran back to the school in our socks, and our coach called the police.
When I was 32 and the principal of a Chicago high school, I was leaving school to go home on the el. I went up the back stairs to catch the train, and at the same time a man came down. He pulled a gun, asked for my wallet, and took off. I called the police on my cellphone.
In each of these cases, the police showed up, took my information and … nothing. I didn’t get my stuff back. I didn’t get uninjured or less scared. The police, of course, couldn’t go back in time to prevent my property loss, my injury, or my fear.
I know there are many people who believe that we need police and policing … that our society depends on them for its basic functioning. And I know their arguments. They say that if we had no police, I would have been mugged more than twice in my life, or that something worse would have happened to me. And I certainly want to acknowledge that my experience is that of a middle-class white man who has lived much of his life in the suburbs. I do not have the experiences of Black and Latinx people living here in Oak Park or in Chicago. I know that the experiences and beliefs of those communities vary widely as well, and that some people in those communities feel a strong reliance on police.
And when I imagine a world without police, I imagine that I will feel fear. But I would accept some increase in my fear if it means we can create a world where my Black and Latinx neighbors do not live in terror that they or their family members might be gunned down by police, where they don’t walk around worried that the police might stop and frisk them, looking for petty crimes, where they don’t worry about family members who have lost their rights because they are or have been incarcerated.
One day, will I call myself a police abolitionist? I don’t know. But I know what I would choose in spite of fear. I know that, if I were living bravely and truthfully, I would choose abolition.
Jim Schwartz is an Oak Park resident, an educator, and a blogger at Entwining.org.