By Ariama C. Long and Tandy Lau
Just as the fight for freedom for Black Americans did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation or passage of the Civil Rights Act, the fight for abolition continues to the present day—but in a different form.
According to Dominique Jean-Louis, chief historian at the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), the original abolitionists were people who were against chattel slavery of African people and their descendants in the U.S. Inherent to abolition, she said, is a wish to the end of an oppressive system, coupled with steps toward freedom. Contemporary forms of abolition movements have an understanding and vision of how a social problem affects more systems, institutions, and people and then a plan to address it, since at its core, it’s understood that not everyone has a guaranteed baseline of freedom.
Today’s abolitionism pivots away from modern-day slavery—now an illegal and underground practice usually tied to human trafficking—to address new inequities in American power structures, namely the carceral system; in other words, policing and prisons.
Abolition’s New York Roots
The state of New York abolished slavery in 1827, the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t passed until 1865, and Brooklyn joined the City of New York in 1898. Before that, Brooklyn was technically its own city with mostly slave owners and farmers of Dutch descent who had usurped land from the Lenape tribes that settled there.
In the years building up to the Civil War, free Blacks in New York were vulnerable to being kidnapped and sold into slavery elsewhere. Brooklyn had enclaves of free African liberationists in the neighborhood of Weeksville, now Crown Heights. In 1834, a giant anti-abolition riot broke out in Manhattan, forcing many more “affluent” white abolitionists to flee to Brooklyn and join the cause, according to Jean-Louis. Abolitionists of either race in the 18th and 19th century were vilified and faced dire consequences for their beliefs.
Jean-Louis said “Pursuit of Freedom,” the BPL exhibit exploring Brooklyn’s abolitionist movement, defined an abolitionist as a “radical activist” who called for the immediate end to slavery, as well as political and legal equality for Black Americans victimized by colonization. A radical, she said, is someone who addresses a problem at the root and has a creative mind. Many of the famous abolitionists of the time were writers, poets, and artists, such as Frederick Douglass or William Lloyd Garrison.
The historical society at the library ultimately decided that an abolitionist was a “multi-pronged” person—someone who believed that slavery should end and envisioned the kinds of freedom a person can have after such a system ends.
“I think that in contemporary movements, we have the benefit of learning from history and many of the movements we now see as abolitionist throughout history have that commitment,” she continued.
Modern Abolitionists Come to the Forefront
Robert Saleem Holbrook, who directs Pittsburgh’s Abolitionist Law Center, said the modern practice of abolition is rooted in dismantling oppressive institutions like policing and prisons. But he’s quick to tie those issues with the same broader struggle of abolitionists throughout American history.
“It is not just about police or prison—that’s a misnomer, because that implies that police and prisons are the only problem within American society or an anomaly,” said Holbrook. “Abolition is about the abolishment of the social contract that has governed the United States since its founding, which is a contract based on exploitation, discrimination, [and the] failure to provide human rights to people of color [and] Indigenous populations.
“Abolition is not just about abolishing police and prisons as if those are two anomalies within American society. It’s about dismantling the entire white supremacist project.”
The contemporary movement comes in all shapes and sizes, according to Holbrook: There are “envisioning abolitionists,” who conceive how an alternative society would function post-abolition, and “dismantling abolitionist projects,” which Holbrook said his work is part of.
“We seek to dismantle the vestiges of white supremacy, of injustice, [and] of abuses of the carceral state,” he said. “Abolishment is the long-term project, but in the immediate [moment], we seek to erode them and diminish their harmful impacts on our communities [by] freeing people from prison.”
The Abolitionist Law Center, a public interest legal firm, challenges wrongful convictions and battles solitary confinement as a way to weaken the American “punishment” system. Yet those decarceration strategies are not exclusive to abolition.
Reform Is Not Enough for Today’s Abolitionists
To be clear, abolitionists are absolutists. Seemingly every interpretation of the practice opposes reform as a long-term goal. Prison abolitionists are ultimately not aiming to reduce the prison population or speed up the trial system—they want it completely gone. Police abolitionists aren’t advocating for better department training and replacing guns with tasers; they want the entire system to be dissolved. Yet the short-term steps taken to achieve abolition—like working through the legal system to overturn wrongful convictions—overlaps extensively with reform.
“What differentiates an abolitionist from a police reformer is that a police reformer typically thinks that we just need the police to enforce the law in a more professional and less biased manner,” said Brooklyn College Professor Alex Vitale.
“An abolitionist says no, the professional unbiased implementation of the law is still unjust because our legal system was designed to enable systems of inequality and exploitation. The abolitionist looks to reduce the power and scope of those institutions in every way we possibly can. One step at a time,” Vitale said.
“It’s an analysis that leads to a process—a process of attempting to whittle down that institution and at the same time, build up justice, security, [and] safety in ways that don’t come with all those negative collateral consequences.”
Vitale, the author of The End of Policing, is, unsurprisingly, a police abolitionist. His book exploded in popularity thanks to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s criticism of the work at a confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Vitale sees policing as inherently detrimental, with significant downsides even when it’s working at an optimal level.
There’s debate among abolitionists about how the world looks without police, according to Vitale. Transformative justice—championed by abolitionists Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie—emphasizes on autonomous community-building where public safety is addressed on a hyperlocal, interpersonal level. Think mutual aid programs and neighborhood call sheets.
Other police abolitionists want direct transformation of the state, wielding political power to replace cops with redistributive policies and social programs that uplift those in “high crime” communities rather than criminalize them.
But can the positions co-exist? Vitale supports transformative justice efforts, but is a direct proponent of a state-centered solution in what he calls a “dual-power strategy.” Still, he’s aware it can employ reformist strategies like violence prevention offices and replacing police with social workers in mental health responses.
“We have to be careful that in pursuing the model that I propose, we don’t replace armed police with repressive social work programs,” he said. “We need to be careful about the reforms—the interim steps that we take—but there’s no way to not do this in an incremental manner. We have to have institution-building. We have to have political skills-building. We have to have political education.
“We have to create community power, and that means you have to organize around steps that you can take right now. The challenge is to try to take steps that aren’t…re-legitimating those institutions through superficial reforms,” Vitale added.
A World Without Prisons or Police?
What does transformative justice look like in practice? Former Minnesota NAACP President and Hamline University Professor Jason Sole provides a glimpse. He was shot at age 20 and the bullets were intended to kill. Others were hurt in response. More than two decades later, the metal screws are still in Sole’s leg, but the beef is gone between him and his alleged shooters, all without law enforcement involvement. Yet he’s clear that the process is not blind forgiveness.
“There wasn’t [any] police that could help us,” said Sole. “We had to sit down [and] it took us nine to 10 years to do this. But when we did, we said, ‘Hey, man, we can’t do this forever. How do we co-exist?’ Over time, it came to the point where I don’t mind seeing [them], I don’t mind [them] around my kids. I’m not triggered by anything now from them, so I know transformative justice.”
Sole and his fellow abolitionists in St. Paul, Minn., have quietly cut into police approaches to “harm,” the term he uses as an alternative to crime. Each Friday and Saturday, they respond to calls from Minnesotans who want to report a crime but not involve law enforcement. Sole leverages connections of his wife—who he jokes is related to half of St. Paul—with the local community to build a network for transformative justice. He said police officers, who are often strangers, cannot resolve conflicts as effectively and compassionately.
Yusef Salaam, a staunch criminal justice activist currently running for City Council in his native home of Harlem in New York City, was 15 years old when he and his young friends were wrongfully tried and convicted in the Central Park Jogger rape case of a white woman in 1989. Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise became collectively known as the Central Park Five. They spent between seven and 13 years behind bars until their sentences were overturned in 2002, after which they were dubbed the Exonerated Five. A sixth young adult, Steven Lopez, was coerced to plead guilty to charges that night and considers himself a “forgotten” member of the Exonerated “Six.”
While collecting signatures to get his name on the ballot, Salaam considered the question of whether the city should abolish or reform prisons. Instead of discussing his own experience, he spoke about Kalief Browder, another young Black teen, who spent three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial for a low-level crime and committed suicide after his release from jail. Other countries, Salaam said, have criminal and legal systems that humanize even the worst offenders, but the U.S. system is, at its base, punitive.
“They let him go. No more adjudication. You’re free. Jay Z and team made a film about him,” said Salaam. “But when the people go away, when the lights go off, you got to turn off the trauma and you can’t turn off the trauma.”
He does advocate for closing Rikers Island, but beyond that, he is firmly in the reform camp for prison and policing systems. He believes prisons and police are necessary but are not designed to aid the community as they exist today.
“We need to have systems that work. That’s what really matters,” said Salaam. “We know that crime exists.”
The Politics of Reality
This is where absolutists and reformers seem to hit a major fork in the road: the practical implementation versus the ideal. The AmNews asked several Black politicians in the city where they fall on the spectrum.
Former Assemblymember and New York County Democratic Committee Leader Keith L.T. Wright, 67, served District 70 in Harlem from 1993 to 2017, and advocated for criminal justice reforms during his time in office. He remains active in and politically connected to the community. He said most people don’t understand what the term abolition really means, especially when it came to the “Abolish the Police” chants that were more prevalent after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020.
“Abolishing the police would create absolute mayhem and wreak havoc on every community, I don’t care what community. We’re a society that has laws and rules and regulations,” said Wright. “Now, certainly the police in the Black and brown communities have had a lot of problems. I’ve always maintained that police have to be trained differently.”
He definitely considers himself a reformist and proposed legislation to that end while in office, such as ending racial profiling and testing cops after they’ve fired their weapons. He still received immense pushback, he said. He doesn’t think it’s easy to reform or abolish a system because of entities with vested interests that benefit financially from things staying the same.
“I remember I got surrounded by a bunch of police officers in the hallways of the Capitol, and they…put their coats back and put their hands on their hips and lifted their guns, all of them showing me their guns,” said Wright. “Trying to intimidate me into not introducing this bill to test officers for drugs and alcohol.”
Wright had introduced a police reform bill after the shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999. Diallo was shot by the NYPD in the Bronx 41 times after they mistook his motion to pull out his wallet for drawing a gun.
Wright believes that police now are much more “afraid” to arrest and police citizens, but that rhetoric doesn’t match up to the numbers. According to NYPD crime statistics from March 2023, crime arrests are at a 24-year high throughout every borough. The biggest uptick in arrests began four years ago, according to the NYPD.
Senator Zellnor Y. Myrie, a fairly outspoken advocate and legislator, echoed Salaam’s sentiment about the need for reform instead of abolition. During the 2020 racial reckoning and the deluge of protesters who hit the streets, Myrie stood with people in his Brooklyn district. He witnessed people manhandled by police and himself was zip-tied and pepper-sprayed before he was recognized by officers as an elected official.
In his outrage, Myrie went on to sponsor 10 separate police reform bills that passed. He said that it is the job of elected officials to “honestly look at the systems” in place and determine what has to be strengthened, changed, and dismantled and replaced with something better.
“The injustices and disparities we see all around us—in housing, in healthcare, in the criminal legal system—didn’t just happen,” said Myrie. “They are the expected outcomes of systems that were built long ago and have been upheld for generations. Those systems aren’t broken—they are functioning as they were designed.”
The Past Inspires Today’s Abolitionists
Holbrook is aware of how idealistic, if not quixotic, abolitionists sound. “We understand this is not going to be an overnight process,” he said. “A lot of people look at abolitionists as some wide-eyed, naïve people who will just open all of the prison cells and let everyone out. We believe in accountability. When I served 27 years in prison, I was guilty of my offense. I had to go back in front of my community [and] accept that accountability.”
Formerly incarcerated abolitionists like Holbrook and Sole see their work built on the shoulders of past movements like the Pursuit of Freedom and beyond.
“I don’t think the [movements are] separated—it’s just the chains started looking differently,” said Sole. “In the past, they had you on a farm—overseers telling you what to do. When I was in prison, I got 12 and a half cents an hour. I had to realize it was slavery. How could I go in and out of cages and I’ve never even been arrested for anything violent?”
“Abolition is always under the soil. You just had incidents that drench the soil: Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, [even] Donald Trump [and] Trumpism,” said Holbrook. “We go back to the Black Panthers. We go back to the Revolutionary Action Movement. We go back to the African Blood Brotherhood [for African Liberation and Redemption] in the 1920s.
“Abolition has always been in the soil of Black America.”
Ariama C. Long and Tandy Lau are Report for America corps members and write about politics and public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep them writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.