Episode 127: Democratic Leadership’s Predictable Scapegoating of ‘Defund the Police’

Citations Needed | December 16, 2020 | Transcript

Theatrics from Democratic Congressmembers, kneeling for eight minutes and forty-six seconds and wearing kente stoles in the U.S. Capitol, as they announced new police-reform legislation in June 2020.


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: Right. This will be the final episode of Citations Needed for the year 2020. We will take a short break and be back after the holidays, after the new year in January. So thank you, everyone, for your continued support, for your continued listenership, for sharing the show, talking to your friends and family about it, it really is so incredibly appreciated. We cannot extend enough gratitude for that. So we wish everyone a wonderful end of this year, hopefully next year will be slightly different than this year, but in the meantime, thank you all again.

“Sen. Mark Warner said progressives’ calls to “defund the police” were in part to blame for Democratic losses in the House in a cycle when the party was expected to gain seats,” The Hill tells us. “How ’defund the police’ sabotaged Democrats on Election Day,” writes Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune. “‘Defund the police’ is killing our party, and we’ve got to stop it,” said South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn. In the wake of the Democrats’ disappointing Congressional showing in last month’s elections, centrist Democrats and their media mouthpieces were quick to blame Black Lives Matter and the defund the police movement for their own subpar results.

Adam: There’s only one problem with this: there is no empirical basis for this claim in any of the above comments or reports. No studies, no evidence, not even acadectoal is ever provided. Before the printer ink was dry on the ballots, centrist democrats who lost or underperformed — or made a career out of defending those that do — rushed to blame the so-called “defund the police” movement, highlighting right-wing attack ads featuring the label. After some initial goodwill immediately following the global outpouring of protests after the horrific police murder of George Floyd, the mainstream Democratic Party line has reverted back to it’s old playbook of blaming the left and Black activists for offending or alienating a nebulous cohort of moderate white voters.

Nima: As the economy crashed and the world was turned upside down in Spring of 2020, Democratic leaders like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi had a chance to lobby for robust social welfare programs, guaranteed income, mortgage and rent cancellation and single payer healthcare, all to get us through this once-in-a-century crisis, the disastrous implications of which will extend well beyond the introduction of any vaccine. Instead, however, these Democratic leaders lowered expectations, blaming Donald Trump for their own unforced ideological limitations, scolding the public for dining out and the one good thing that Democrats achieved — the extension of unemployment benefits — they almost never publicly took credit for.

Adam: The result was a once in a generation opportunity blown, a possible left-wing shock doctrine that was crippled by unmovable austerity ideology. So when the elections came around and the Democrats underperformed, who was to blame? It can’t be Democratic leadership blowing the COVID response and it can’t be the security state-curated centrist tofu candidates who lost or barely won. It has to, once again, be those pesky far left activists because Democratic Party leadership cannot fail, they can only be failed, a scapegoat was needed.

On this week’s episode we will discuss why the defund the police and the broader abolitionist movement cause has become that scapegoat, the long history of concern trolling Black activism and blaming them for right-wing backlash and we will detail how activists are now on the defensive as Democrats, having exploited the broader sentiment of the George Floyd protests for Get Out The Vote fodder, are now seek to lower expectations, purge Black Lives Matter of its truly radical elements, and go back to business as usual.

Nima: Later in the show we’ll be joined by Derecka Purnell, human rights lawyer, writer, and organizer. She is currently a columnist at The Guardian and her new book, Abolition: An Invitation, will be published next Fall.

[Begin Clip]

Derecka Purnell: The level of inconsistency that Black people have with police departments is a function, a consequence of, you know, capitalism and white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy, right? I hear people, they want to be safe, they want to know that if something goes wrong, I can call someone and get relief. Unfortunately, especially in neighborhoods that have been divested from and neighborhoods where the government has been responsible for subordinate housing, dilapidated schools, food apartheid, but there is the one thing that is consistently funded, and that is the police and so now you’re asking groups of black people who bore the brunt of austerity measures to let go of the one thing that they should be able to call and then to tell them, ‘Look, you deserve police like white communities deserve police, you deserve to be treated fairly like white people are treated fairly,’ and so now the terrain is such that it’s a question of equality. It’s a question of fairness. It’s a question of service. But Black people have been saying fuck the police long before we have been saying defund the police. If you would prefer that we go back to that slogan that I’m all on board.

[End Clip]

Nima: Almost immediately after the early November election of 2020, we heard that a lot of the Democratic Party mainstream politicians, especially those who barely got reelected to their posts, were really angry about a few things. On a Democratic Party call with Congress members on Thursday, November 5, so not two days after election day proper, and still two days before the presidential race was called convincingly for Joe Biden, we heard the breaking news that Abigail Spanberger, a congress member from Virginia, was really upset about what had been going on during the campaign. So Spanberger on this call, said this, quote:

“The number one concern in things that people brought to me in my [district] that I barely re-won, was defunding the police. And I’ve heard from colleagues who have said ‘Oh, it’s the language of the streets. We should respect that.’ We’re in Congress. We are professionals. We are supposed to talk about things in the way where we mean what we’re talking about. If we don’t mean we should defund the police, we shouldn’t say that.

“We want to talk about funding social services, and ensuring good engagement in community policing, let’s talk about what we are for. And we need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. Because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of it.”

End quote.

Adam: Now, this was a common refrain, because again, you got to put it in context. The Democrats were supposed to win, they didn’t win. A lot of these corporate-backed and national security state-backed, former CIA, former Army, former Navy candidates who are created in the kind of neoliberal blob factory, they underperformed, many of them lost and so there needs to be a reason and notice how the people responsible for underperforming and lost here are never saying, ‘I take stock in this.’

Nima: right. ‘I was not a great candidate.’

Adam: This was like when the football or basketball team loses, it’s like, no one’s gonna say it’s my fault, it’s always someone else, it’s the general manager, it’s the coach, it’s this player, it’s somehow never their fault.

Nima: And just last week on Tuesday, December 8, 2020, President-elect Joe Biden held a virtual call with a group of civil rights leaders, who strongly urged him to take immediate action to expand civil rights. On the call, Biden said this about demands to defund the police:

[Begin Clip]

Joe Biden: “I don’t think we should make that a big issue going into, before January 5th, when the election takes place down in Georgia. But I also don’t think we should get too far ahead ourselves on dealing with police reform in that, because they’ve already labeled us as being ‘defund the police.’ Anything we put forward in terms of the organizational structure to change policing — which I promise you, will occur. Promise you. Just think to yourself and give me advice as to whether you think we should do that before January 5th, because that’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police. We’re not. We’re talking about holding them accountable. I just raise it with you to think about. How much do we push between now and January 5 — we need those two seats — about police reform. But I guarantee you, there will be a full-blown commission. I guarantee you it’s a major, major, major element. And as Reverend Al said, I was a pain in the ass to everybody except him when we did the commission before and I don’t think we went far enough. We can go very far. It matters how we do it.

[End Clip]

Nima: Oh thank god, a commission.

Adam: So like, you know, this is all very self serving and of course they’re going to want the media to think that and so basically what you saw is you saw that the people who are leading it, who were supposed to overperform, specifically Nancy Pelosi has been in charge of the party now for going on, you know, almost 20 years —

Nima: Not to mention Robby Mook, who is also actually in charge of reelecting Democratic congress people.

Adam: So they can’t blame themselves and Robby Mook, same thing, right? There was always some other boogeyman responsible for the 2016 election lost. So then it seems like the most popular thing you can blame is white backlash to Black radicals. What’s important to understand, and what we’re going to try to do our best to convey starkly here is that this is not new. This is a common trope when Democrats lose or white sort of establishment figures are challenged, the first thing they want to do, typically it’s communists or some foreign element, but then right next on the hit list, if not before, is Black radicals being too mouthy or uppity or sort of wanting too much too fast and then the inevitable backlash from that is then therefore blamed on their choice of language, on whether or not it’s the right time, whether or not they’re moving too quickly. So we want to jump into some of those historical examples.

From 1964 to 1968/69, there were some before, some after, but that was really the peak time there was anti-racist uprisings throughout the country. They called them riots, called them mobs, but they were a common occurrence because of the failures of the civil rights movement to bring material gains to the Black communities and the white backlash to the civil rights movement, and the frequency of police violence visited upon Black communities. This was a typical line, and this is how William F. Buckley Jr. cut his teeth as well as a syndicated columnist was Democrats are not adequately condemning the riots enough and that the lack of adequately condemning the riots is going to cost Johnson the election in ‘64, and then the midterms in ‘66. So this is an article in The Cumberland News by David Lawrence from July of 1966 with the headline, “Failure To Stop Mobs Will Cost Democrats Votes.”

“President Johnson had an opportunity in his televised news conference Wednesday to speak out against the riots and disturbances that have been happening in the big cities and to denounce the instigators of such tragic occurrences. But he preferred generalities and exhorted the people to be peaceful. He did not heed the pleas of those members of Congress who think the time has come for the President to recognize that the ‘demonstrations’ have incited violence in many parts of the country and in the civil-rights movement has gone to extremes.

“In the President’s own cabinet, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development has excused the riots in Cleveland and said that ‘if the average white American put himself in the shoes of the average Black American, he would be just as angry, just as prone to violence as the Negro is today.’”

And so there was a similar kind of, we’ve talked about this before, the official denouncement command, which again no one can ever really satisfy, Johnson couldn’t even satisfy it if he wanted to, but we’re not adequately condemning riots, right? And the riots themselves would cause Democratic voters. Now the Republicans did pick up seats in 1966. There’s a lot of debate as to why, it was generated partially by white backlash, but there’s no indication that white backlash would not have existed after the civil rights passing in 1964/1965 with or without social unrest.

Nima: So you see this also in an earlier piece from April 23, 1964, written by Drew Pearson, in the Alabama Journal, which was published in Montgomery, Alabama, there’s an article headlined, “Negro Extremists Aid Wallace,” obviously talking about George Wallace, and it begins this way, Drew Pearson, writing from Chicago at the time, quote:

“Recommended reading for Dick Gregory, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem, the white and Negro extremists of ACT and the Brooklyn bolters from CORE: ‘The South During Reconstruction,’ by E.M. Coulter.

“This is the tragic story of how Negro extremists after the Civil War blew their tremendous resevoir of goodwill in the North by excesses in the South. In less than a decade the highhanded methods of Negro politicians and white carpet-baggers turned sour the deep sympathy felt for the Negro during and immedicately after the Civil War. It killed the spirit of racial cooperation and set back Negro progress by half a century.”

Now, of course, this reading of history is absurd. It was not “Negro extremists” of course who squandered the “good will” of their former oppressors by demanding the most basic equality — it was the backlash to Reconstruction that saw poll taxes, Black Codes, segregation and an epidemic of lynching. Yet Pearson then continues to say this about the current state of things 100 years later, so now this is in 1964, quote:

“The pro-Wallacites are unreasonable and unfair. But having witnessed extremism and frustration on one side, they are indulging in extremism and frustration on the other. And they have one important advantage — the fact that the United States is 90 percent white.

“During recent weeks I have visited some of the major Northern cities — New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore — and I can report that anti-Negro sentiment has increased and hardened almost overnight.

“In Cleveland it was changed by the Negro youths who went berserk and smashed store windows after the bulldozer killing of a white preacher. It was further hardened by the dumping of garbage, trash, and human excrement from Negro windows on Cleveland police as they tried to stop the rioting. Cleveland was a city of great racial understanding. It isn’t anymore.

“In Chicago, the white population has seen Mayor Richard Daley, the best executive that city has had in years and a champion of racial rights, booed and shouted down at Soldiers Field by Negroes unwilling to give him a chance to be heard.

“In New York the threats of water-wasting and traffic-stalling by Negro-white extremists, even though renounced by responsible Negro organizations, have played into the hands of both the unthinking and the racially biased.

“The Negro has waited a long time. He has every right to be impatient. He is entitled to more understanding from his Northern neighbors. Nevertheless, human nature being human nature, and ninety percent of this nation being white, the unfortunate, inescapable fact is that the great reservoir of Northern goodwill for the Negro is evaporating. Already this is hurting passage of a strong civil rights bill.”

Adam: He was a well known Washington columnist close with President Johnson, sort of the liberal centrist set, so this was kind of the initial sort of a version of that, which is like ‘Black extremists have gone too far, it’s time and they’re responsible for the Wallacites.’ The implication being is that if it wasn’t for Black extremists, there would be no white reaction, which is sort of taken for granted in a lot of circles. You see this a lot with trans rights, too, right? If you don’t, if trans activists would stop asking for equality —

Nima: Right, ‘Stop being so loud about it.’

Adam: Trump wouldn’t win in 2016. So it’s not quite clear what timeframe they want people to want rights on but there’s this Hulk-like white moderate, who would constantly have to tiptoe around lest he be, you know, he’s activated and becomes this racist, which he otherwise wouldn’t be.

Nima: It’s only because he’s hearing about injustice that is then going to, you know, stiffen the resolve to be against it. Otherwise, you’d be all for it, but it’s that you brought it up.

Adam: Yeah and another thing people say is, ‘Oh, well defund the police isn’t popular,’ which really depends on how you poll the question of the slogan itself, but one thing that’s important to know is that majoritarian appeals historically have been used to concern troll various forms of activism, because the way activism works is you’re trying to change the status quo, you’re not trying to wedge yourself to it. It’s like the old George Bernard Shaw, quote, quote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Which is another way of saying that if we went around and looked at polls, we wouldn’t really change anything. The point is to convince people, and this was par for course in the 1960s. There was, you know, there’s David Sirota over at Jacobin comprised a number of polls showing the unpopularity of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, this is from Gallup, 1961, quote:

“Americans were asked whether tactics such as ‘sit-ins’ and demonstrations by the civil rights movement had helped or hurt the chances of racial integration in the South. More than half, 57 percent, said such demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience had hurt chances of integration.”

1963, this is from the Cornell University’s Roper Center, quote:

“A Gallup poll found that 78 percent of white people would leave their neighborhood if many Black families moved in. When it comes to MLK’s march on Washington, 60 percent had an unfavorable view of the march.”

In 1964 Gallup found, quote:

“Less than a year after [Dr King’s] march, Americans were even more convinced that mass demonstrations harmed the cause, with 74 percent saying they felt these actions were detrimental to achieving racial equality and just 16 percent saying they were helping it.”

Nima: This continued the same year 1964 The New York Times reported this, quote:

“A majority of white New Yorkers questioned here in the last month in a survey by the New York Times said they believed the Negro civil rights movement had gone too far. While denying any deep-seated prejudice against Negroes, a large number of those questioned used the same terms to express their feelings. They spoke of Negroes’ receiving ‘everything on a silver platter’ and of ‘reverse discrimination’ against whites. More than one‐fourth of those who were interviewed said they had become more opposed to Negro aims during the last few months.”

And additionally, the next year 1965, Cornell’s Roper Center found this, quote:

“In the midst of the Cold War, a plurality of Americans believed that civil rights organizations had been infiltrated by communists, with almost a fifth of the country unsure as to whether or not they had been compromised.” End quote.

So you see here, obviously, that the public opinion, status quo sentiment, the common sense of the prevailing dominant culture, is that advocating for being an activist, for agitating for a radical change in that status quo is going to poll badly.

Adam: Well, it really depends how you ask it though. That’s the thing, too, is that so many of these people that, you know, we’ll talk about this with our guest, but they say, you know, ’60 percent or 80 percent of African Americans support funding the police,’ and it’s like, well, because you’re not presenting what comes in its stead. When you don’t present an alternative or frame it as defunding and refunding something else or however you want to frame it, like, and some people will say, ‘Oh, well, that’s the problem with the slogan defund the police, it doesn’t say what you’re giving people,’ but that’s obviously bullshit because, you know, at first they said Black Lives Matter, right? And they still do, of course, that’s the general banner of the movement, but Black Lives Matter was so vague, Citibank and Nestle and the NBA can say Black Lives Matter. What does that really mean? So you donate to some college fund, which is, by the way, a racist implication because it implies that the problem with Black oppression is that they’re not educated enough versus white people not giving them reparations and rights and the justice system that works on their behalf. But setting that aside, Black Lives Matter is criticized for being vague and they say, ‘Okay, well abolish the police.’ ‘Well, that’s too radical.’ ‘Okay, so defund the police,’ which is to say, stop giving them money, because every reform that they lobby for somehow ends up with more money and resources for the police and so defund the police is a specific policy agenda, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, no, that’s too divisive.’ So it sort of doesn’t really matter what people propose. The point is to just shut up and go home and then, of course, blaming that, therefore, for white backlash or electoral losses, is a way of codifying the sentiment that we have to run poll tests on every single political slogan or demand to make sure it doesn’t offend more than 40 percent of the population lest we lose some election that’s six months from now, which is always the most important election ever, by the way, of all time, ever.

Nima: Always.

Adam: And so you have to sort of wait and then maybe we’ll get around to maybe doing some good thing later.

Nima: Now, mainstream liberal media has been doing this for a long time and I know we say that a lot, we say this is nothing new and like we just did we go back 50, 60 years, we read headlines and editorials and columns and the same kind of tropes narratives from media in the 1960s — but you know what? — it’s also way older than that. So if we look 100 years before the ’60s, we land in 1860 and you know what the news of the day in 1860 was? Abolition. And you know how The Economist and The New York Times were writing about abolition? They were not particularly in favor of it.

Adam: So The Economist in November 1860, upon the election of Abraham Lincoln, who they supported as being framed as a reasonable moderate, who opposed the radical elements of his party, which by the way, it was virtually the same thing they said about Joseph Biden in their endorsement of him rather in his election this year. Of course, there are differences, before you send us an angry tweet, there are obviously differences. There are differences in the slavery abolition movement and the prison abolition movement, but there are many parallels and the counter narratives themselves have many parallels. So we want to go over those, if you’ll indulge us.

In November 1860, The Economist wrote, quote:

“It would be a great mistake to suppose that Mr Abraham Lincoln is an extreme man. His views seem to us to fall far short of what may fairly be termed even a statesmanlike Anti-Slavery creed. Few in England have the smallest sympathy with the extreme party of Abolition, — those who maintain that to hold a serf for a single day in slavery after you have the power to release him is a deadly sin, — that Washington and Jefferson deserve infamy for holding slaves themselves, and admitting any compromise on the subject into the Constitution of the United States. This kind of fanaticism is a species of political insanity. The statesman will believe that the order of the most imperfect Government is better than anarchy, especially if it contain within it principles by which it may be gradually purified and improved.”

And so basically, the argument was that Mr. Lincoln’s moderation would prevent conflict, and that through some nebulous process eventually slaves would be freed, which was a very common sentiment at the time. The New York Times argued this in various editorials around the same time 1859, 1860 and their condemnation of the raid on Harper’s Ferry by John Brown, The New York Times referred to him as, quote, “a wild and absurd freak,” and then blame abolitionists from the North for the South’s reassertion of slavery as quote-unquote “state’s rights,” because it offended their Southern pride, which is basically the argument they make.

Nima: In that editorial about Harper’s Ferry and John Brown, The New York Times editorial board insists that northern abolitionists would be better to, quote, “do nothing,” end quote. In this particular perspective, they repeated often at the time, and no more perfectly, this is like maybe the uber New York Times editorial piece of all time, this is the one that is actually all of them, it is the most liberal thing maybe I’ve ever read.

Adam: So keep in mind that The New York Times, like The Economist, roughly the same line, which was common for northern white liberals, which is that, ‘Of course we all oppose slavery, it’s very gauche, it’s very primitive, but there has to be a super long time table,’ which mysteriously never comes and by the way, does not conflict with the capital interest of the North who were heavily invested in slavery and the UK, who were heavily invested in slavery at the time, especially the cotton industry. So you don’t want to disrupt the capital order, right? And sometimes this is framed in terms of what’s politically feasible, but really, what you don’t want to do is you don’t want to upset business as usual.

Nima: And so the business as usual, for The New York Times, is writing things like this from Wednesday January 19, 1859, it’s headlined, “The Abolition of Slavery,” and in it the editorial board of The New York Times in 1859, writes about a new plan that they like from a so-called “philanthropist” about how best to address the “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery. I’m going to read basically the whole article because — wow, it’s a doozy. It begins like this, quote:

“Mr. Elihu Burritt, who used to be widely known as the ‘Learned Blacksmith,’ is a gentleman of excellent intentions. Like most men in Free States he is opposed to Slavery, regrets its existence, and ardently desires to abolish it. But, unlike other Abolitionists, he seeks to accomplish this end by persuasion rather than by force. He hopes to bring it about with the friendly concurrence of the slaveholders at the South. Then he does not denounce, however much he may dislike their practices. He does not ignore their personal interest in what they have learned to regard as so large a portion of their property. Slaveholding is, in his view, an immense evil, yet he has no such epithets as thief and robber to cast in the faces of the masters. On the contrary, he seeks their cooperation in the stupendous undertaking he has in view. Nor does he ask their aid for nothing. He requires that the slaves be set free gradually but surely, and proposes to share the loss with those men who own them. In short, his plan is to pay a sum not exceeding $250 for each of the four million slaves. This tax is, of course, not expected to be raised at once. Mr. Burritt’s idea is to realize eventually, from the public lands of the United States, eight hundred to one thousand millions of dollars, with which sum to compensate the South.”

So, at this point in the article, what we know so far is that this quote-unquote “philanthropist” wants to pay plantation owners, slave owning southerners for the loss of their quote-unquote “property.” How is that going to be raised? “For the public lands of the United States,” I wonder whose lands those are? I guess they’re just public.

Adam: Yeah and so The New York Times likes the idea in principle, but it says it’s not realistic, and they say the general sentiment is correct.

Nima: And then they go on this way, quote:

“In one respect Mr. Burritt’s movements will do harm. They invoke national action upon what is and must remain a local evil. If experience proves anything, it proves that the Abolition movement has retarded emancipation, and increased the evil it sought to remedy. Until the active crusade of Northern and British Abolition was commenced, the public mind in the Southern States was far from having taken on that tone of defiant, resolute hostility to emancipation which it has since assumed. The thoughtful minds of the South were beginning to consider the relation of Slavery to the social and political well-being of the communities where it exists, and to study the possibility of remedy for what was almost universally felt to be an evil. How greatly all this is changed, every day’s observation suffices to show, — and the change has been perfectly natural and inevitable. The clamor and pressure of Abolition was a hostile movement, menacing to the peace, and offensive to the pride, of Southern States. It was resented and resisted as such, and thousands of men who had previously been friendly to emancipation were compelled, when they found themselves beset by this new peril, to abandon their ground, or at all events forego all open efforts for its maintenance. Instead of being left to work out their own social problems for themselves, the Southern States found themselves compelled to assume the attitude of self-defence. And from that time to this they have found it perfectly easy to stifle every attempt to discuss the Slavery question upon its merits at home, by connecting it, however unjustly, in the public mind with this hostile crusade from without. Emancipation in Missouri would be a very easy matter but for this unfortunate feature of the movement.”

Adam: And so here, is in addition to the outside agitator trope, that the South was sort of on a natural course to free the slaves, but the abolitionist movement caused the reaction to it, right? So this is like what we saw with the ‘George Wallace wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for racial demonstrations throughout the US in the ‘60s,’ just as we would say, you know, ‘Trump wouldn’t exist or the right-wing reaction to defund the police wouldn’t exist if they just were nicer about it.’ Again, there are differences, but there are many parallels. So basically, you blame those trying to change the world faster or quicker, which is to say that there’s real time suffering going on, we have to liberate people now, not 20, 30 years from now, that they’re then blamed for the chauvinism and the right-wing currents of the reaction to that, without any indication of the fact that the system is defending and justifying slavery in the South existed for centuries. They didn’t need abolitionists to tell them that which may seem obvious to the listener today, but The New York Times is fully convinced that through some kind of apriori spiritual revelation, the South was going to come to terms with the evils of slavery. They don’t say when exactly, it’s sort of like end times Christianity.

Nima: No, and it doesn’t really matter, but the biggest problem is that now it’s being addressed by abolitionists, who through their activism have now made southerners have to react. Right? In self defense.

Adam: Jim Neureckas described The New York Times editorial board in our show as being “the far left-wing of the capitalist Wall Street class,” which I think is a good way to, to this day, I mean, their tone in politics have really not changed at all in 150, 160 years, which is to say, you need to look progressive like you’re opposing slavery, but those that are actually working to stop it are always to be punched. They’re always punching left.

Nima: And they’re always extreme and they’re always radical and they’re always to be denounced and to be feared.

Adam: Yeah and what their solution is is not clear like there’s no actual solution here offered other than some religious like belief that the South will one day wake up and realize slavery is evil.

Nima: But here is The New York Times editorial board’s prescription for what should happen in 1859, quote:

“The very best thing that could possibly be done towards the abolition of Slavery would be for the North to stop talking about it.”

And they italicize this.

“Ten years of absolute silence would do more than fifty of turmoil and hostility, towards a peaceful removal of the evil. It is quite possible that the Abolition crusade may force a bloody and violent termination of the system, but this no sane man desires: and any other solution of the problem is infinitely retarded by the incessant intermedddling of parties who have neither responsibility nor power in regard to the subject. The great necessity is to let the South alone, — to leave them leisure to think of their own affairs, — to throw upon them the necessity of studying their own condition and of looking into their own future. So long as we engross their thoughts by alarming their fears, they have neither time nor inclination to examine the question except from this single point of view.

“Emancipation, whenever it comes, must be the work of the Slave States themselves. They must adopt it from a conviction of its necessity to their own well-being.”

Adam: I love the throwaway clause of “whenever it comes,” it’s like, ‘Oh okay, hey man, take your time, Take your time. No rush. Whenever you get around to it is cool.

Nima: Yeah, ‘Hey, it’s a victimless evil, am I right?’

Adam: “Whenever it comes.” That is the most New York Times clause, “Emancipation, whenever it comes.” That’s a lot being said in that clause.

Nima: It’s really important, that’s the important part.

Adam: “Whenever it comes” is the issue at hand! We need it to happen now because there are slaves today, right now, it’s bad to be a slave.


“It will not come as an isolated act, — complete at once and by itself, — but as a result from other acts, — as the effect of separate and preparatory causes. Whenever a disposition to consider the subject at all shall be allowed fair play in the Southern States, it will lead first to the melioration of the condition of slaves, and thus to their preparation for freedom whenever that shall come.”

Adam: By the way, this was a common concern troll against abolition. This was very common, it was probably the most common if you read tracks, especially from slaveholders themselves is that Blacks were not ready to be free. They didn’t have the tools.

Nima: Right. Enslaved human beings were not ready to be civilized.

Adam: Right. They were doing them a favor by enslaving them.


“Laws to prevent the separation of families, — to limit the sale of slaves on execution for debt, — to give them the right now enjoyed by the slaves of Cuba purchasing their own freedom, — to connect them permanently with the soil as in the old predial system of Europe, would soon press themselves, by their obvious justice and humanity, upon the attention of Southern legislators and prepare the way — in the public mind as well as in the condition of affairs — for the ultimate removal of Slavery itself. This is the way in which Slavery has been abolished everywhere, except in the West India islands, and the result of that exceptional experiment has been such as to warn other nations against it.”

So just as an aside when they say “except in the West India islands,” what they mean is the slave revolt in Haiti, where slave owners were rightly killed by the people that they had subjugated and enslaved for so long and The New York Times is really worried about that. So they don’t want that to happen.

Adam: They definitely don’t want that.

Nima: And they continue with this, quote:

“No system of immediate and total abolition — either with or without compensation — can ever commend itself to the sober judgement of our people. For political purposes, or in the exercise of an eager but uninformed philanthropy, such projects may be proposed and pressed upon public attention. But they are all visionary and absurd, and can lead to no desirable results.

“In thus indicating what ought to be done, we must not be understood as saying what is likely to be done. Though, in our judgement, silence on the part of the North concerning Slavery would be the best conceivable policy, there is not one chance in ten thousand that it will be adopted. It is hostile to the strongest impulses of active minds.”

And the editorial board reaches the ultimate conclusion here, quote:

“The Slavery question will continue to be discussed in the North; — Abolitionists will continue to denounce, menace and alarm the South; — the Southern people will always find their attention completely engrossed by this resistance against invasion from without, and will give no steady, intelligent, dispassionate thought to the necessities of their own position; — and Emancipation, if it ever comes under such circumstances, will come like a thief in the night — without warning or preparation — the result of some bloody catastrophe, and do more harm than good to everybody concerned.”

End quote.

Adam: This is quite an amazing editorial. It’s a great, it’s an amazing peek into the kind of, I don’t want to say liberal mind, that is probably not very generous, but a sort of, there was a progressive ethos going back hundreds of years of the most important thing was to maintain order, and that there was some evil that presented itself, the goal was to do this kind of smooth transition away from evil to good, but you’re never supposed to upend the order of things.

Nima: Yeah, there’s this real fear of something happening suddenly.

Adam: I mean, but again, the fact that both The Economist and The New York Times editorial boards endorsed the idea that abolitionists themselves are to blame for Southern reactionary responses to the slavery question is, I think, pretty insightful, because that’s, that is a trope that has been with us ever since and it’s around today, that activists are the ones responsible for reactionary-ism.

Nima: And that they themselves are the threats, not the system that they are trying to overthrow.

Adam: Or to the extent to which the system is a threat it’s a agency free historical inertia that there’s no real party is responsible for, like you notice that there’s no sort of, the moral condemnation is not reserved for those who have slaves, they’re viewed as being trapped in the system. The moral condemnation is for these northern carpetbagger, abolitionists and it’s very insightful because we see this all the time, we talked about this all the time in the show that inertia, the current of history, the sort of condition we inherited is viewed as being amoral or morally neutral, without moral agents. Whereas those who wish to change it are viewed as being subversives or being ideologues, whereas the slaveholders are not really presented as an ideological fanatic or radical, right? They’re just sort of caught in the mix. The institution of slavery itself is not presented as radical.

Nima: Right.

Adam: And indeed, abolition is the radical position, which is true in a strict sense but these are terms loaded with normative baggage and they’re basically saying that these radical extremists are unrealistic and are just going to provoke the South into being more pro-slavery, which, of course, is absurd. I mean, in a scenario where there was no abolitionist movement, it’s not like the South was ever going to get around to freeing their own slaves.

Nima: And what is more pro-slavery, they already had millions of human beings enslaved. So it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, you know, I was on my way, to setting everyone free and then I heard about John Brown, you know what, now, now, I’m not gonna do that, I was gonna do it, but now I’m not gonna do it. It’s not because I don’t think I’m an evil person, I definitely am an evil person, but now I’m just kind of on the defensive.’

Adam: I mean, I’ve referenced this book before, but if you get a chance, I really recommend reading the book The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832, because it has a lot of original documents, where slave owners are hand wringing about their owning of slaves and they always come up with some process critique or process reason why they can’t just free them. They’re in debt, they can’t afford it, it’s not politically viable, their neighbors will condemn them, there’s always sort of a reason and there’s a cottage industry of excuse making for why we don’t move things faster and there’s a huge market for that. I want to stress again that I know the abolition of slavery and the prison abolition movement today, they do obviously have differences, but there’s not many differences with the response from the kind of liberal status quo maintenance class, which is a combination of, ‘I agree with the goal, not the tactics. This is going to provoke white reactionary-ism. This is too extreme.’ Whereas the fact that 2.2, 2.3 million people wake up every day in an American carceral system disproportionately Black, disproportionately brown in cages at a rate five times what any other country is, and a war on drugs which we know was racialized from the beginning, we know its creators in the Nixon administration admit that it was about putting Black people and leftists in jail. We know that our carceral system is a classist, racist, moral, abomination, designed to suffocate with what is viewed by the ruling class as surplus populations like we know all this. And yet we’re on this reform track of what I guess is like 200 years that eventually we’ll sort of get around to getting to the global norm of having a prison population of, proportionate-wise, 300,00- 400,000 people.

Nima: Well, right, when police and prison wardens realize for themselves that they would be better off with fewer incarcerated people. It’s always incumbent on the oppressors to wake up one day and be magnanimous rather than being forced to do something that is less horrible. Hence why you see in The New York Times, and this could be yesterday, or it could be January 1859, ‘Stop talking about it,’ right? ‘Leave them alone. Silence is better than agitation.’

Adam: Put a slogan on the back of a jersey in the NBA, or put it in white or yellow paint on the sidewalk, and then let’s all move on. I mean, there is so much to be gained by kind of looking busy and looking like you support goals but there’s always something wrong with the tactics, the tactics are never quite right because that’s how you make sure nothing changes, which is the sort of goal of liberalism in many ways. It’s just it’s to maintain the basic outline of society to the extent to which you get pressure from the bottom up to change things, you do the bare fucking minimum you can do to maintain the basic outline and basic power structure that exists.

Nima: To talk more about this. We’re now going to be joined by Derecka Purnell, human rights lawyer, writer, and organizer. She is currently a columnist at The Guardian and her new book, Abolition: An Invitation, will be published next year. Derecka will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Derecka Purnell. Derecka, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Derecka Purnell: Of course, thank you so much for the invitation.

Adam: So, in contrast to last summer, where I think for about five minutes, the media sort of was willing to indulge notions of defund the police or abolish the police. Now, we’ve sort of moved into the backlash to the backlash, where I think it’s fair to say that the mainstream liberal consensus now is that this is a wacky harebrained idea that is somehow harming the Democratic Party. President Obama recently said that it was a snappy slogan, but it was going to alienate people. Obviously, you have your high profile concern trolls who said that it damaged the Democratic Party and of course, you had Conservative members of the Democratic Party who claim the defund the police slogan or movement or whatever you want to call it, wish to call it, that it harmed them. Now, as far as I know, there’s been no empirical basis for this claim. This is just an assertion and a somewhat self serving one that has been made. I want to start off by kind of establishing the sort of empirical basis for this framing. Is this something that you’ve seen any evidence for at all? We looked, I haven’t seen it. It seems like a bunch of ex-CIA, ex-DoD Democrats and counties in Virginia just sort of claimed it and then before I knew it, it became conventional wisdom. So can we sort of straighten out the fact set here before we begin?

Derecka Purnell: I also have not seen any empirical evidence to suggest that people were not voting for politicians because of defund the police. I don’t even know any of the people who are claiming that they lost ran on it. So I haven’t seen that no.

Adam: Okay, good, because it’s one of those things where things start to take on a life of their own and it seems like a fairly convenient scapegoat for the Democrats, especially Democratic leadership. This was a sentiment echoed by Nancy Pelosi. Now, the economy, obviously freefalled, tanked in March and April of this year, the Democrats were very slow to move to the extent they moved it at all, the UI was good, but took basically no credit for it. So come the elections in November, everyone turns around and says, ‘Well, shit, we need to scapegoat,’ Democratic leadership cannot fail, they can only be failed and I guess the Russians weren’t going to work this time, the Chinese weren’t really a good fit, the sort of usual suspects weren’t really there. So you can’t say the Democratic Party failed. So I think it seems like on the hit list next is the sort of George Soros-funded Black activist trope. I want to start by talking about how you view that scapegoatism of defund the police in recent weeks and how does it make you feel as someone who’s written about this quite a bit and how does it make your relationship with the Democratic Party feel, I guess, for lack of a better word?

Dereck Purnell

Derecka Purnell: So, one thing that I wrote earlier this year was that Black Americans are in an abusive relationship with the Democratic Party and this is sort of what I mean, right? So President Barack Obama has spent the bulk of his presidency criticizing, condemning protesters and not what is usually the underlying cause of the protests in the first place. So he’s more frustrated with the “slogan” as he calls it, defund the police, more than he is concerned with actual police killings, right? So he is giving feedback to a movement on a PR approach to a problem that’s one of violence, one that he supports and so in his column, I’m actually going to read a part of it, he says:

“If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan, like ‘defund the police.’ But, you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it.”

So here, President Obama is making assumptions that the people are saying defund the police believe as he does, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system. So President Obama is a Harvard Law grad before that, went to Columbia, he taught several law schools, he’s a constitutional scholar, he’s made an appointment to the Supreme Court and what he’s doing here is quite interesting. He’s saying that if we believe as he does, that, we should be able to reform the criminal justice system, so that its not biased, it seems that he’s actually not sending that message to people who are saying defund the police, because people who are saying defund the police precisely because they do not believe as he does, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system. So it’s either that he’s refusing to read the literature, he’s refusing to acknowledge the politics of abolition, the politics of defunding the police, he’s refusing to acknowledge and accept the frustration of people who have been trying different types of reforms, at least since he was president in 2014, the Ferguson uprising and so instead, he’s saying, ‘Hey, if you’re on my side, and you believe that we should be able to reform the police, then this slogan doesn’t work.’ But what President Obama fails to understand is that the people are not on his side. They’re not about reforming the criminal legal system, because they don’t believe that it’s going to treat everybody fairly and it’s not going to treat everyone fairly, because it was not created to do that and so if he wants to treat George Floyd better as he’s being arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill, and people are saying defund the police, because we don’t think that that should be the case, then we do not agree with President Obama. We do not believe as he does.

Nima: Yeah, you know, I love that the PR critique comes from Obama who ran on hope and change and that really it is just a messaging issue, right?

Derecka Purnell: Yes and what’s the new one? Build back better. What?

Nima: (Chuckles.) Yeah.

Derecka Purnell: Build what back better?What are you talking about?

Nima: Really inspiring. So, you know, meanwhile, messaging and the way that language is used winds up being incredibly important. We talk about this a lot on the show, for instance, high profile critics of the defund the police movement, but also terminology, who shall remain nameless here, cite certain polls time and again, showing that roughly 80 percent of African Americans in the country want more police in their neighborhoods. Now, of course, this is kind of a push poll that they often refer to, questions asked in certain manipulative ways, other polls can show abstract support for police or defunding police is seen in a positive light, depending on really how you phrase these questions, in fact, defund the police itself is really a liberal compromise to the call for abolition, abolish police.

Derecka Purnell: Absolutely.

Nima: However, more coherent arguments linking defunding with abolition get very little mainstream airtime. As someone who has written about this, has thought about this, is writing a book about this, I’d love to kind of hear from you how not only these push polls use kind of a circular logic to maintain status quo, but really, how we can advocate for a different kind of vision and one that you have written and thought a lot about.

Derecka Purnell: Yeah, you know, I love this question. This is usually my gotcha question when I’m at panels, you know, usually someone who’s very interested in reforming the police, or someone who’s actually the former police officer will say, ‘Hey, most Black people, they don’t want less police, they want more police in their neighborhoods,’ and I try to tell them that for lots of Black people, police are kind of like Hot Pockets and if you ever have been in an unfortunate enough situation, and eaten a Hot Pocket, you know that once you put it in the microwave, it’s usually boiling hot at the end and it’s frozen in the center. It’s inconsistent. There’s no level of consistency in our relationship to this terrible, disgusting food. And so in Black neighborhoods, what happens is that the police are always there, they’re always surveilling you, they’re at the end of your corners, their lights are always flashing, they have shotspotters, they have cameras, it’s hot, it’s always going to happen and then when Black people and people who live in poor neighborhoods call the police, their response time is slow, their response time is slow, they’re absent, nowhere to be found, right? So the level of inconsistency that Black people have with police departments is a function, a consequence of, you know, capitalism and white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy, right? I hear people want to be safe. They want to know that if something goes wrong, I can call someone and get relief, unfortunately, especially in neighborhoods that have been divested from and neighborhoods where the government has been responsible for subordinate housing, dilapidated schools, food apartheid, there is the one thing that is consistently funded, and that is the police and so now you’re asking groups of Black people who actually bore the brunt of austerity measures to let go of the one thing that they should be able to call and then to tell them, ‘Look, you deserve police like white communities deserve police, you deserve to be treated fairly like white people are treated fairly,’ and so now the terrain is such that it’s a question of equality, it’s a question of fairness, it’s a question of service, but Black people have been saying fuck the police long before we have been saying defund the police, and if you would prefer that we go back to that slogan then I’m all on board.

Adam: I mean, it’s a similar extortion racket when we talk about pulling troops out, to put it in an imperial context, we talk about pulling troops out of Afghanistan, you know, the Brookings Institute will rush to say, well, 45–50 percent of Afghans polled in this region say they want American troops to stay or, you know, South Koreans want American troops to stay, well, you know, it’s an extortion racket, it’s because they don’t have any other option. And so like, if you come in and you create these sort of quasi colonial apparatuses, as we have with police departments, who create a protection racket, of course people are going to take that over nothing and this gets, I think, to the core central, it’s a huge vector of concern trolling but I think it’s a huge vector of genuine confusion or lack of clarity on the part of people who maybe are in good faith who don’t necessarily understand what abolitionists argue.

Derecka Purnell: Yeah of course.

Adam: So I want to sort of pivot from the extortion racket, to the what replaces it question, when your piece in The Atlantic touches on quite clearly, which is you write quote:

“Rather than thinking of abolition as just getting rid of police, I think about it as an invitation to create and support lots of different answers to the problem of harm in society, and, most exciting, as an opportunity to reduce and eliminate harm in the first place.”

This is not just a hippie dippie pie in the sky stuff. There are people who’ve done this and do do this in other societies that do to a great extent do this as well. Let’s talk about what that alternative version is. Let’s bring people to Jesus here.

Derecka Purnell: So if you don’t mind, I would love to go back to this President Obama quote, because it’s so good and it just shows the complete mismatch in what reform offers versus what abolition offers. So here he has this quote, he says, “But if instead [of defund the police] you say, ‘let’s say reform the police department so that everyone’s being treated fairly…if there was a homeless guy, maybe we can send a mental health worker there, instead of an armed unit that can end up resulting in a tragedy.’” So President Obama’s response to a homeless person is sending a mental health worker there. Now, there are people who are currently unhoused who experience mental health crises, but not everyone who is unhoused or live in some sort of economic and lives in precarious situations has a mental health problem. Why not give the homeless person somewhere to live? Why does that homeless person not only meet a cop, but a mental health worker? And so this is the logic of reform, it maintains the punitive logic responses from the state. And so if people are homeless, and police are patrolling and surveilling and harassing and arresting them, because of loitering, because they’re in front of someone’s private property, because they’re in a part of a community, a neighborhood, a business district where they’re undesired, the response then is to not make nicer cops move them from one part of the city to another, one immediate response is, well, why are people unhoused? Why are people living in concentrated poverty? People are living in concentrated poverty because there is concentrated wealth, and we permit the criminal accumulation of wealth in this country and so maybe an immediate response is figuring out how to make sure that people who are constantly harassed by the police, because of the protection of private property and capital, have places to live. Like how do we make sure people have places to live? And that’s what we’re concerned about, you know, we don’t need better cops, we need better housing, we need more housing options. We don’t just need affordable housing, we need all housing to be affordable. We need people who can’t just decide to live anywhere, because they’ve been able to exploit others and accumulate wealth, we need more people to have tons of options, right? And so I think that’s the world that abolitionists are fighting and working to create, like an immediate, it’s how are we building systems where we’re building alternatives to police? That’s one way to think of it. But it’s also calling into question what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney says, a kind of society that could have prisons, the kind of society that could have police, and so if police are primarily tasked with maintaining inequality, we have to create societies that are more fair. So people become homeless and unhoused for lots of different reasons and it’s up to us to take inventory of those reasons and in doing that, we can come up with better robust responses to solving the problem of homelessness, to reducing the likelihood that a cop is going to show up and escalate a problem, to not conflating homelessness with mental health. There are very specific nuanced responses to these issues and police happen to fall in this category of a one size fits all. So what I have loved, I have really loved people who are unhoused who are organizers or working with organizers who squat and take over private property. That’s one immediate, we saw it in Oakland this summer with the moms, we’ve seen examples in Florida, we saw it in Detroit. We see people go and actually just say ‘Oh, there are more vacant houses in this city, then there are homeless people, and we refuse that and we’re gonna fight to reclaim and make this property belong to the public.’ I think that’s beautiful. I think that there are cities that are experimenting with Housing First programs and their deep critiques of those for, I’ve heard different reasons, I think Housing First for people who are living in the streets who resort to living to the streets, were forced to live in the streets, I think that Housing First initiatives help to place them and give them somewhere to stay. I think that longer term, we have to ask about the rising costs of living because of gentrification, because of capitalism, because Amazon gets to move into your neighborhood or because Facebook gets expanded to your neighborhood and now all the cool kids want to live there, right? So it’s calling into question the kind of society that forces people at the bottom and that looks so many different ways, depending on the particular issue.

Adam: I mean, it’s because it’s, you know, a lot of the poll mongers are concerned trolls, X percent actually disagrees with the slogan, I find that framing, obviously, aside from being in bad faith, it’s based on a tautology, which is that activism by definition is designed to change people’s view of the world, which is, I think, the huge fallacy Obama makes in his whole theory of political change, which is, I think that theory of change is very convenient and it gets you half a million dollar speaking fees on Wall Street, but it’s a theory of change that says that you must sort of go where the winds blowing.

Nima: It is no surprise that in his new memoir, Promised Land, there is this quote talking about when he was much younger, of course, he says this quote, “I got into the habit of questioning my own assumptions, and this, I think, ultimately came in handy, not only because it prevented me from becoming insufferable, but because it inoculated me against the revolutionary formulas embraced by a lot of people on the left at the dawn of the Reagan era.” This idea of being proud of himself for what he says, “inoculating himself,” I mean, like literally to have a vaccine against revolution into him, right?

Adam: The left was as weak as it ever was in the beginning of the Reagan era.

Nima: And even that was too much, right?

Adam: Right. It’s such a weird, like, it’s not even the ’60s he’s referencing, he’s trying to graft on the ’60s onto the ’80s. It was Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross, it was a bunch of burned out boomers who never, who you know, were their biggest cause was saving the whales and stopping nuclear proliferation — but go ahead, sorry.

Nima: Well, no. Well, I guess it kind of leads me to my question, which is, defund the police or abolish the police or fuck the police, who do you think Derecka is the audience for that? Who should be, rather, the audience for that? I don’t think it’s necessarily the liberal consensus of saying that we need to come together or we need more body cams, or there needs to be anti-bias training, that’s just all pablum, who really is the audience for these, what Obama writes off as “snappy slogans,” but for these movement demands?

Derecka Purnell: Well, I’m gonna start a little bit earlier, because I really like where I think you both were going with the popularity of these slogans and these ideas. The other thing that happens is that usually when the progressive side wins, then that becomes the history of a country and so right now, we don’t think about the anti-slavery era as the anti-slavery era, we think about it as an abolitionist era. You learn about abolitionists, you don’t learn about people who are anti-slavery, even though there were people who wanted to end slavery for lots of different reasons. There were abolitionists who wanted to end slavery, but they weren’t for the full, equitable treatment of Black people. They didn’t want them to vote. They were beholden to capitalism. There are deep critiques of abolitionists and anti-slavery advocates, but at least when I learned about slavery, I only learned about the abolitionists. When I learned about the civil rights movement, I learned it through a lens that was polarizing. There is the white supremacists on one side, and then there were the civil rights activists on the other side and so what happens is then when we start telling this progressive story of the United States, it’s one of the people who are marginal and unpopular with the idea to force this country to do something else to begin with and I think that is what’s ultimately gonna happen 100 years from now, we may not live to see it, but that’s going to be a question of the United States at one point was the world’s greatest incarcerator: 2 million people. I mean, it’s going to be bananas. And then the heroes of that story are going to be the people who were fighting to eliminate caging and to eliminate police. So I think that’s what’s ultimately gonna happen and then in terms of, you know, who is the audience of defund the police, I think it’s all who’s willing to listen and engage faithfully. I think it completely makes sense for people to feel afraid, to feel suspicious, to feel cautious, to feel all of that when you hear “abolish the police,” and the reason I wrote that Atlantic article the way that I did, is because I felt that when I heard abolition, I said, oh, wait, cops are gonna disappear, all the prisons are gonna open, people are gonna get out what’s gonna happen? I had all of those same questions. So what happened is that I was a part of a movement, I had to engage in robust political education, I had to change the way I organized, I had to ask questions, I had to ask questions with people who took my questions is in good faith and not with just, weren’t intimidated that I was trying to undermine the politics and that took patience, and took discipline, that took lots of reading and studying struggle, and curiosity, it took risk. So I think the audience of defund the police is not necessarily just people on the left, I think what organizers, the least of traditions I’m a part of, we are trained to polarize the public around social justice issues. We’re told to make our revolution irresistible. We’re told to make our politics irresistible. So it could be, you know, people who are liberal, it could be people who are fence sitters. I don’t think my audience is Nancy Pelosi or President Barack Obama, but rather the public. It’s the people who are organizing who I train in Ferguson, in St. Louis, in Miami, it’s those people who are suspicious because police have been the consistently funding apparatus in their neighborhoods and so I think it depends on who’s saying defund the police, I think it depends on who’s being organized around it and I think it depends on whether you’re connected to an organization who’s willing to go through making sure people understand what the politics are. But I don’t think it’s just that, you know, this is not for liberals. I think it’s for people who are genuinely curious, because I was a deep liberal. When people push back on me for criticizing President Barack Obama, I think about how I voted for this man twice, I registered people, I did get out the vote rallies, I flew to his inauguration, I cried. It’s like, these are people who have been deeply politicized out of a liberal side of politics and committed to our freedom, much more than we’re committed to politicians and so I don’t think that is just for people on the left. I think it’s for people who are willing to listen and engage in the politics.

Adam: Yeah, because it seems like the appeal of the quote-unquote “radical” banner of abolish the police or defund the police, really born, at least from my perspective, as being from the utter lack of actual, concrete, meaningful reforms, post-Ferguson. So, I went to a lot of post-Eric Garner New York protests in 2014–2015 and then I went to one of the protests this summer in Chicago, and it was night and day. Maybe it’s that I’m getting old too. The Zoomers, the kids these days —

Derecka Purnell: The Zoomers? Is that what this generation is called?

Adam: That is what I’m told, I don’t know, is that right? I don’t know.

Nima: That’s what a Zoomer told him.

Adam: I think I pretty much dated myself. The reform bullshit we were fed, you know, that we had the Obama, you know, taskforce on this and that, we had the body cams, for some reason that was a big thing, even though that was all bullshit, beer summits, and then you look back and you’re like, you know, nothing really changed. The fundamental, you know, racial demographics are the same with respect to arrest and prison. There’s some little reforms, tweaks around the margins, prison populations have sort of been decreasing since 2008 for various reasons, but not by a lot, police murders are roughly steady and to the extent it is radical, I think radicalism is born from a frustration with failures of liberal reformism and it never feels like anyone understands that who goes back to the concern troll well or wants to do more racial bias training that like, at least from my perspective, and tell me if I’m wrong, the sort of romantic simplicity of defunding or abolishing is in trying to envision a world that’s radically different and is about reimagining how we perceive social safety net, social welfare, versus this idea that we can take a fundamentally rotten institution and pay enough anti-racist consultants to go sit down with a police benevolent association, I mean, you know what I mean, like it’s I don’t even know what the fuck reformers even want half the time, it’s sort of, you know, that’s six, seven years have gone by and nothing changed. So what are they? It’s like, it’s like Saudi Arabia’s reforms like we’ve been doing, we’ve been doing since the ’90s people have been writing articles about Saudi Arabia reforming and it never happens and so I think, at a certain point, you realize that the reform theater is the point.

Derecka Purnell: I think so. I think because the liberal establishment benefits from reform, the people, especially politicians, they have a lot of stuff. They’re on the other end of the inequality spectrum. They’re not the people at the bottom, they’re the people at the top. And they want to keep their stuff. I think it’s very simple. But police, at least I think it was the New York Police, the NYPD and their union, endorsed Donald Trump, endorsed Donald Trump and what do you have you have Democrats who still kind of crawling on the ground to give their support, approval of, affection, I don’t know, they’re kind of like a lost puppy. I’m not really sure. And so it’s, I think that the commitment to reform happens when you have politicians who are functioning as a lite-wing of the Republican Party. They’re like the moderate, they’re the far left-wing of the Republican Party and so what happens is that they are quite comfortable with the status quo, you know, this is the person who dropped so many bombs, so many drones, during his administration. He said, ‘Hey, maybe we should say reformed the police so people will know what you’re talking about.’ This is the person who at one point deported more people from this country than any other president. He’s just like, ‘Hey, maybe we should have a conversation so people will know what you’re talking about.’

Adam: Because it’s reform theater, right?

Derecka Purnell: Yeah, I think, I haven’t thought about it as reform theater, but there’s definitely a reform industrial complex, and a part of that industrial complex, all of the consultants that you mentioned, are people who I think most of the time actually do care about Black people. They care about, you know, poor people, they care about people who are immigrants, they care and I think that because they care, their actions are either misdirected or uninformed, or they’re doing what they’ve been taught to do, which is to make America great, to improve the systems that we already have. But they’re not taught or trained or politicized to call into question the institutions of America or the country itself. How do we continue to improve on its linear narrative of progress for this country and not taking a step back and say, do we deserve something better? Do we deserve something different? Is it enough to have anti-racist cops? What are they doing? What are anti-racist cops doing? It’s not about the people who occupy the position, the position is bad. The position maintains and manages inequality but if you don’t think that the position maintains inequality, if you think police grew organically from the ground to catch bad guys, and were not created, and compelled to catch people who are running away from plantations, or escaping capitalists who were using cops to repress labor uprisings, if you don’t have that history, if you’re not wedded to that history, if you’re not a part of a group that’s working to grapple with the vestiges of slavery that still manifest the practice of policing, then you’re probably going to start from what you know, and what you feel America tells you to do, which is to try to make things better.

Adam: Yeah, because I think a lot of people would say to that, they’d say, ‘Well, you know, every society on Earth, more or less, has some version of police.’ But what I what I think they don’t understand

Derecka Purnell: They also have some universal health care. So yeah.

Adam: Well I think the rejoinder to that, to me, at least has been that the nature of American police specifically and of course, there are Universalist critiques as well, that go beyond just the US, but it’s always been inextricably linked to the system of racist oppression and capitalism. And you’re right, the busting of labor, etcetera, that like it’s inextricably linked to it today, in a way that’s clear as day. I mean, look at the numbers, look at the racial outcomes, look at who the police answer to, it’s largely real estate interests and capital and other racist institutions. So it’s, I think, this idea that it’s just Andy Griffith in Mayberry, and he’s out there like, you know, on the street corner, twirling a nightstick, you know, saying hello to Mrs. Grandma or whatever, like, that’s just not the reality of the situation.

Derecka Purnell: Oh, my, I only want Andy Griffith from Matlock. I’m so sorry. I like know, but I like —

Nima: During the course of this interview Adam is getting older and older and the references keep —

Derecka Purnell: I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding.

Adam: Well, you know, it’s funny, I, I actually think Mayberry, actually I was watching an episode of Oprah Winfrey, where they had the one Black guy that was ever on The Andy Griffith Show come on her show. She was apparently a huge fan, but they never had Black people in Mayberry.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: The point I was making before I made another dated TV reference was that like, the very essential nature of American police is just not the vision I think a lot of people have and that’s because like you said, for the most part, it’s not who really interfaces with the business end of police violence, which is to say that 65 percent of the population is white.

Derecka Purnell: Yeah, and white people are also suffering. I think there are lots of white people in the country who are getting killed by police. I think that as much as movement organizers talk about Black lives not mattering in this country, white supremacy also requires white lives not to matter. When people say, you know, cops are killing white kids too and all this outrage. I’m outraged. I think it’s wrong. I’m not fighting for a world where there’s more proportionate police violence.

Nima: Right.

Derecka Purnell: I’m fighting for a world where white people aren’t getting killed too.

Adam: Yeah, you run into that sometimes where it’s like, is the solution to put more white people in jail to make sure their percentages are even? It’s like, wait, no, that’s right.

Nima: Let’s even that up, that’s to do with equality as opposed to equity.

Derecka Purnell: Exactly. So that’s what happens. White people have become the measuring stick for how we give freedom in this country. It’s like, well, if it’s proportional, it’s good. You know, if your interest rates match what white peoples have, then that’s great and it’s like, no, we shouldn’t have interest rates, school should be free, right? And so what happens is that this equality is equity, these sorts of liberal conversations, it obscures that better society that we should be fighting for. So yeah, some white people’s perceptions are skewed but I think lots of white people also know what’s up, you know, I think they also know what’s up. I think that’s why we probably have had the largest protests around this issue in the history of the United States.

Nima: You know, something that you brought up earlier that I kind of want to touch on is this idea of linear history, right? And I think what we’ve seen is that, on that linear history, Trump is seen as an aberration, right? And that now thank god, we can we can get some kind of relief and back to quote -unquote, “normal,” right? And so what kind of worries me is what we’re gonna see now, in the, you know, wake and still very much continuing uprisings, but under a Biden/Harris administration, Derecka, what are you kind of looking out for, what may be some kind of signposts to keep us on track in the coming term?

Derecka Purnell: Okay, well, I’m gonna answer a question you did not ask because I think it’s important to say really quickly.

Nima: Please.

Derecka Purnell: The Trumpism narrative impacts me so much, that I have to make myself conscious of using the term or the phrase and so there’s a section in the book where I’m describing in, I guess 2010, I went to a protest against Kris Kobach and Joe Arpaio, and it’s like an anti-immigration rally and I convinced a group of us, we decided to go into this rally and I’m like, just reliving this whole moment, get really emotional as I’m writing this section of the book and I talk about, you know, just being shocked at the level of racism here, and how, during the Pledge of Allegiance, I’m frozen, because I just can’t believe this is happening now. I was a JROTC kid, I have said the Pledge of Allegiance to a flag more times than I can ever count, and there’s a white woman behind me, grabbed me and said, ‘Put your hand over your heart,’ and I said,’ Don’t touch me.’ and then she says, ‘Aren’t you an American? Put your hand over your heart.’ We go back and forth and then she goes and gets a cop and like, tells the cop on me and the cop says, you know, ‘Ma’am, that’s unfortunate, but I can’t force her to do that,’ and in writing this story, I’m getting so emotional, because I want to call it a Trump rally in 2010 because that’s the image, that’s the language, those are the video clips I’m used to seeing and then, you know, someone gets on stage and says, ‘Look, there’s a bomb threat, there are unwanted guests here,’ and people start yelling and shouting at us and start pushing us out of this place, right? So the language that I use to have that is a Trump rally and this is something that happened in 2010. The idea that Trumpism is new or an aberration bothers me so much that I don’t even know when I realized that I am susceptible to believe in that narrative because at the time, I was like, what, how else can I describe this for people? And it’s like, no, Trump was not Trump then, like, Black rappers were still rapping about Trump in hip hop as like, you know, aspirational. So this is not Trumpism. This was Obama’s America in 2010 in Overland Park, Kansas.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, when I think about the history of this country, it’s like Trumpism is the history of this country.

Derecka Purnell: Yes.

Nima: More than anything else. That’s the ism. That’s the one that kind of brings all of this together and I think the kind of charade of ‘Thank god that’s over,’ is going to become really stark in the years ahead, you know, it’s incumbent, obviously, on activists and organizers and movements to keep that going. With that in mind, you know, who do you think we should be paying attention to? I know you’ve previously worked for the Advancement Project. I think they do amazing work. Who should we be paying attention to in these years to come? And then we can talk about your book a little more and let you go.

Derecka Purnell: Oh my gosh. So, absolutely, in terms of legal shops, absolutely Advancement Project, ArchCity Defenders in St. Louis, Community Justice Project in Miami, Amistad Law Project in Philly, the Abolition Law Collective. Yes, those organizations in terms of legal organizations, absolutely. But grassroots organizations, I always, always, always shout out Dream Defenders because they do incredible work in the entire state of Florida, ActionSTL in St. Louis, Ferguson Collaborative, BYP100, Sunrise. I’m really, really excited about DSA, I mean, the membership is exploding, but what’s also exciting about its membership is their commitment to deep political education. Survived + Punished, Assata’s Daughters, the KC Tenant organizing, like what’s happening in Kansas City. I lived in Kansas City for six years. I went to undergrad there, and the level of robust organizing that is happening now — just so, so, so excited. I’m jealous that it’s happening right now. So many organizations in the South. SONG, Southerners on New Ground. I will say definitely pay attention to who’s doing work out west, the Center for Political Education, Rachel Herzing. There’s so many people who are committed to changing and building and creating new types of societies and I think that they’re definitely not going to be complacent with Biden and Harris. Now, I’ve been told to not pay a lot of attention to the exit polls, because they’re skewed for all these different reasons, there needs to be more assessment, but the most exciting exit poll, even with an asterisk, is the one that said that 67 percent of people who voted for Joe Biden, voted for him as a vote against Donald Trump. I think that matters. I think there’s a lot of utility even if that skews, even if that’s off 17 points, and half of the who people voted for Joe Biden voted as a vote against Trump, I think there’s utility there, I don’t think that we’re gonna see some of the level of complacency that we are in fear of and if we do we just fight harder.

Adam: And all those groups, if you’re involved in any of those groups and you’re listening, be sure to run all your copy by Matt Yglesias to make sure it’s okay before you publish it.

Nima: (Laughs)

Derecka Purnell: Oh my, I didn’t know who this person was!

Nima: You’re lucky.

Adam: He’s been haunting our dreams for many, many years.

Derecka Purnell: I wasn’t really on Twitter, Twitter until like the last year, I will only come on for the BET awards and like fun Black moments, but then because I was working at Advancement Project, like no do Twitter, so I’m doing Twitter stuff and then I start realizing so many people are angry on Twitter, who no one knows outside of Twitter and he’s one of those people.

Adam: Well, I’m sort of one of those people too. So maybe, maybe I shouldn’t throw stones in a glass house.

Derecka Purnell: (Laughs.)

Adam: But, before you go, you have a book you’re working on, it’s coming out next Fall. I know it’s a little early to start pumping it up but you want to get people excited, do a little do a little teaser, one of those trailers before the trailer kind of things?

Derecka Purnell: Oh, my gosh, this is so much pressure. It’s my first time doing this. What do I say? What would Obama say? What would Obama say?

Nima: (Laughing.)

Derecka Purnell: So this book is based off the article that I wrote in The Atlantic called “How I Became a Police Abolitionist,” and I poured a lot of heart, blood, sweat, tears into this book because I tried to wrap so many lessons from people who I’ve organized with, who I’ve studied with, who I’ve struggled with and rallies out of politics and I try to mark my skepticism and my curiosity and all of these major moments of racial tragedy, how they influenced me to initially want to change police, want to reform them, want to improve them and then watching cop after cop kill someone. Cop after cop go through an arrest and then non indictment or they finally get a conviction and then no jail time or when they get a conviction, they go to jail, they’re out in a year and a half. And so this book really tries to show like my journey, how it has been influenced by the social movements that’s going on, and traces about a decade of my life as an organizer, as a writer, as a lawyer and trying to build something, a world that’s more just, more free, that’s more beautiful, and doing that in communion with other people. And so it’s called Abolition: An Invitation because I’m hoping to invite people to the struggle, to the movement, to that process of creating the world that we all deserve.

Nima: Well, I think, you know, on that amazing note of optimism, that’s a perfect place to leave it. We’ve, of course, been talking with Derecka Purnell, human rights lawyer, writer, organizer, currently a columnist at The Guardian, her new book, forthcoming, entitled Abolition: An Invitation, it’ll be published next Fall. Derecka, thank you again endlessly for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Derecka Purnell: Of course. Thank you so much, Adam and Nima, for having me.


Adam: Yeah, I look forward to the book. Hopefully we’ll have her back on when the book actually comes out. I think the approach of, you know, here’s this thing that you may find intuitively difficult, which is abolition or abolishing police or defunding the police, sort of hold your hand and walk through it and talk about it and talk about why it’s important, I think is a useful tact.

Nima: We believe in evolution here.

Adam: Well we believe in political persuasion, that’s what we do for a living, you have to and so like, if someone says defund the police, it is not popular, it doesn’t poll, or it sort of needs to be phrased differently, you say, ‘Okay, well, let’s explain to people why it means X, Y, and Z,’ and of course, there was one or two mainstream articles about that after the George Floyd protests took off, in The New York Times, in Atlantic, but then it just disappeared and then it went away and then it wasn’t really engaged with meaningfully because it was too messy or wasn’t on the Joseph Biden and midterm election strategy playbook. It was sort of indulged as a kind of novelty, then everyone sort of moved on and then you got the backlash and this institution that nominally everybody wants to reform, this racist, oppressive institution that nominally everyone opposes, there’s never any indication that resources have to be taken from it. It’s supposed to reform based on, again, kind of moral consciousness raising and better training and anti-racist consultants.

Nima: Right, or just the natural passing of time, or the eventual decision made within police departments, and by police chiefs, and mayors to just be better, right,? There’s no demand, there’s no forcible change, there’s no ‘You’re not going to get funding anymore, you’re not going to be expected to play the role of healthcare workers and social worker,’ those should be other things and that there don’t need to be these million, billion dollar budgets for this institution that was created initially to be safe controls. So, abolition can happen, defunding can happen, and there is a way to talk about it that I think Derekca was talking about it and the kind of changing of minds and I think that that’s, you know, to your point, Adam, that is what we talk about here, we believe it or not think change might just be possible.

Adam: Well, let’s just keep banning choke holds for the 87th time, because that works so well, or let’s change laws that they already break. I mean, that’s the thing with so much of this reform theater, is that we keep redoing the same laws and rules and guidelines, but if they were following the rules and guidelines, this wouldn’t be a problem in the first place plus the institution themselves on an existential level are required to be violent and racist. That’s their primary charge.

Nima: I mean, it’s the same as hand wringing about the world’s, you know, only remaining empire not following an international law. It’s like yeah, but also —

Adam: Yeah, you’re just naive about what its goal is and I think being realistic and being sober about what the purpose of police is, is an important first step to real reform, revolutionary reform, reform that’s meaningful, not reform theater.

Nima: Right. Well, that will do it for this episode and this year, 2020, of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your help through Patreon so incredibly appreciated. Thank you to everyone who chipped in to Patreon this year. Unbelievable gratitude to all of you, especially this year when things have been so difficult for so many. We cannot thank you all enough. And as always, an extra special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thank you everyone for listening and for your ongoing support. Happy Hanukkah. Merry Christmas. Happy holidays. Happy New Year. We’ll see you in 2021.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, December 9, 2020.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.