26 Jan Live Interview: Police ‘Defunding’ That Never Was and Abolitionism as a Long-Term Social Project
Citations Needed | January 26, 2022 | Transcript
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Nima: That is right. Tonight for this first live interview of 2022, Adam, we are joined by Derecka Purnell, lawyer, writer, organizer and author of the new book Becoming Abolitionists: Police Protests and the Pursuit of Freedom out now from Astra House. Everyone should go pick that up. Derecka, welcome back to Citations Needed. Congratulations on the book. When we last spoke to you, you were still, I think, in the process of writing it or maybe hadn’t even started, but were thinking of it, but welcome back. Happy New Year, despite, you know, everything.
Derecka Purnell: Yes, of course. Thank you so much for having me. I think the last time I was on, I was still debating on the title and ultimately abandoned that one. So now this book is officially called Becoming Abolitionists. So thank you for celebrating, I really appreciate it.
Adam: Yeah, it’s so good to have you back. So much has changed since we last talked, there has been so much reaction, obviously, and I mean that both in terms of the traditional sense of the word and the right-wing sense of the word. I want to start by the title, Becoming Abolitionists is not just a personal journey, but it’s also a sort of ongoing way in which one shreds a certain way of looking at the world and kind of adopts a new world, and that’s why you framed it that way. You start the book, I think, with a very useful entry point into talking about how we view abolition, which is calling 9–1–1. A simple act that seems simple, but of course, comes with a certain amount of gravity, and what I mean by that is, and you’ve talked about this a lot, how in many ways calling the police is, the word you use is placebo, and you reference Michelle Alexander who said, quote, “Calling the police felt like something, and something feels like everything when your other option is nothing.” So I want to talk about that as a starting place why you decided to start with the idea of calling 9–1–1 as a kind of intervention into the myriad crises which you lay out very, very, very wonderfully in the opening of the book and talk about why that’s a useful tool to sort of examine the broader idea of abolition.
Derecka Purnell: Of course, of course. So when I wrote the introduction, and actually, it’s just an extended version of the Atlantic article I wrote in 2020? What year is it? July 2020, “How I became a police abolitionist,” and I was trying to think well, what do I feel right now? What am I experiencing right now? And at the time of the article, there was significant pushback from black mayors who said, abolitionism is a white thing, and all these protests are happening in our cities, and you have white people who are coming from the suburbs, and then we have outside agitators, and they’re coming into black communities, and they’re telling me that you don’t need the police. They go home to South Orange and Maplewood, New Jersey, go to Medulla, Missouri or they go to I don’t even know the suburbs in California because everything feels like a suburb outside of LA. So they’re going back to these places after the protests in your hood, and I was frustrated with that story. I was frustrated with the presentation of abolition as this white, leftist, suburban, academic idea, and the people who actually have to suffer the consequences of the abolition society would be poor black people. And so that’s where the 9–1–1 story sort of comes from, like, well, you’re flattening who people perceive abolitionists to be and there are a lot of abolitionists who called 9–1–1 growing up, I said this earlier today, but you know, we didn’t come out the womb as abolitionists, we also didn’t come out of the womb committed to policing. We came out of the womb with unexamined ideas about police, about the carceral society, and we were conditioned to see police as normal, and so when you’re growing up in a neighborhood that’s economically divested there’s a lot of racism, displacement, dispossession the police are the primary resource option, and so there’s a fire, there’s a dispute, a lot of times you do call 9–1–1 because you’re trying to figure out how do we stop the fire? How do we stop what’s happening right now immediately? And when the police came, ultimately, they couldn’t solve the problem that was at the heart of the issue. If people are fighting over who’s paying the electric bill, the police are not going to show up and pay anyone’s bills, right? They’re going to show up, if they show up, they’re going to show up and say, ‘Hey, this is a domestic violence situation someone has to leave,’ that doesn’t get anyone a raise, that doesn’t give workers any power, that doesn’t remove power usually from the man in the relationship who’s probably a breadwinner. None of that changes, the patriarchy doesn’t change, the dynamics don’t change. The only thing that changes is that temporary moment where people are probably not actively fighting in front of a cop and that’s not sustainable.
Adam: Right, because I think that’s so much of the reaction to the quote-unquote “defund,” of course, it never really was not really adopted by much of anyone, and again, so much has changed since we talked and we predicted much of this, I think on that episode about over a year ago, is this idea that, yeah, it’s this pie in the sky, sort of overly romantic vision and I want to sort of maybe begin as follow up by asking about that criticism. Obviously, since we’ve talked, there’s been an uptick in homicides, crime itself has actually gone down, but homicides are up quite a bit in most major cities. Again, this gets blamed on defund even though —
Nima: Nothing’s been defunded.
Adam: And the ones that got more money still had high murder rates.
Derecka Purnell: Yes.
Adam: Which proves the point, but of course, in the public consciousness, this doesn’t matter at all, and you see this idea that working class people of color, and of course, it varies, it’s, you know, different polls show different things, and I don’t I don’t ever think one should try to sort of essentialize any group of people holding one position, because in many ways, it doesn’t even matter, right? You would still have your own position, regardless of whether or not whatever poll shows.
Derecka Purnell: Of course.
Adam: And that there’s the suspender slap and real talk people in the Democrats who are just going to try to solve the problem now and deal with the other stuff later, but again, I think it’s so fitting that your book opens up with this menagerie of violence, from environmental causes to cancer, to asthma, to the chemical agents in the air across the street from the school you went to et cetera. All the stuff in St. Louis.
Nima: The rotting warplanes.
Derecka Purnell: Yeah, it’s ridiculous, it’s still there right now.
Adam: Right, and it’s like, okay, so we have this intervention of police, and that all the empirical stuff to the contrary doesn’t really matter. So how have you, in the last year, kind of seen that? I have found it, to be quite honest, not to be too solipsistic, but I found it very sad and very kind of depressing. How have you found the shift in the narrative? There was obviously that 10-minute window in 2020 where a couple elite publications acted like they cared about these issues and then they stopped caring. Aside from I know, you’ve gotten some book stuff, but how have you found the shift in the narrative back to this ’90s reactionary consensus from the top down? CNN, not even on MSNBC as much, but your CNN, in your New York Times, how have you found that shift and do you think that it’s something that can be overcome in the short term?
Derecka Purnell: Yeah. So what I feel most immediately is when I heard the statistics about the peaking of homicides in some cities where there are already large police departments with budgets, I think you spoke to that already. It’s like, well, if police could stop, well, why aren’t murders decreasing in Chicago and St. Louis and Puerto Rico? These are some of the largest police departments, have the most police per capita, you would think that there will be a correlation in the size, but I love American common sense. Police are the only profession where you continue to fail to do your job and get more money.
Derecka Purnell: That’s so true. So true. So, well crime is up, we need more money, crime is down and we need more money to keep it down.
Adam: Yeah, it’s a win-win.
Derecka Purnell: Literally it’s a brilliant strategy. People talk about defunding as a campaign slogan, that is a brilliant fundraising campaign. If crime is up, we need more money. If crime is down, we need more money. It’s literally a lose-lose either way. The other thing that comes to mind is that if we look at homicides in particular, alongside other sorts of violence we’re experiencing right now, and it’s so, so sad that everything is up, theft is up, suicides are up, overdoses are up, we are in a pandemic where people feel completely abandoned by their government, and I’m honestly shocked that it’s not worse. I think if there had not been the kind of robust mutual aid that we’ve seen in our communities, our hardest hit communities, who for a long time either relied on a $600 payment or $1,200 from the government to figure out rent and bills and food and peace and clean air and space, I’m honestly shocked and so I’m so proud of the work that’s happened to make sure that people’s needs are being met. We’ve seen increases in street violence, people are trying to figure out how do we solve this crisis, but the larger pandemic crisis, how we all solve the classic crises of capitalism, of our climate, all this stuff that’s happening, so it’s just it’s so sad that homicides have increased, and unfortunately, its increased the same reason that all these other factors in our society increased, we see this level of uncertainty and fear, it creates tension and people are fighting over resources, people are fighting to control each other, people are looking for sources of power, and so it’s like, yeah, and what’s so sad when you have a negligence of the government that can lead to nearly 900,000 people, you can’t call the police on anyone, right? You can’t call the police on our policymakers for making sure that more people die. So I think it’s an unfair comparison, but at the same time, like I said, I’m shocked that the numbers are not higher, given the level of despair that we’ve had to struggle through for the last few years.
Nima: You’ve written that, and this is part of your own education about abolition, your journey toward abolition, that the concept itself can be scary for many people, right? Because there’s the expectation that state sanctioned or state run or state-controlled safety or protection is thereby removed, but not necessarily replaced. But you also note that this isn’t just about a one to one, replacement of policing with another singular force to fill the void like the bag of sand that Indiana Jones uses to switch the golden idol, right? It’s not a one to one. But instead, Derecka, you explain that there must be many different kinds of replacements, maybe even a wholesale do-over. Can you talk to us about rethinking what public safety even means, of how repair and restoration can work, and how none of these things were ever and will never be the work of police?
Derecka Purnell: Yes, yes, of course. So when we think about the reasons why people kill people, and I talk about this in the book, the police simply can’t solve that, right? If we have people who are killing people for petty arguments, I had two friends killed last summer, one was Marshall. Marshall got into an argument with a guy over a parking spot at a Sonic and that escalated to Marshall being killed. Three months later, I found out about my friend Ebony King’s little brother, Alan. Alan had a dispute with his next-door neighbor, he asked her to please sweep up the grass clippings. The guys who cut her grass got into an argument with Alan and then they killed him. So when we look at the kinds of homicides that happen, so many of them happen over trivial fights that escalate because someone feels like their manhood is being threatened, or people are killing each other over competition over resources, you’re threatening my property, you’re threatening my space. Another major reason why people kill each other is usually a man trying to control a woman’s sexuality, who she sleeps with, whether she leaves a relationship, whether she takes the children, if she likes someone, if someone likes her, if she’s queer, and so these major reasons that underlie homicides, police not only cannot stop them, they contribute to that, they contribute to the culture of toxic masculinity, they contribute to the control over women, they contribute to the control over private property that leads to this level of violence, and so it’s until we actually have a deep conversation and commitment to eradicating the root causes of these sorts of violence, we’re going to continue to pour money into a system that perpetuates it and that’s what my fear is, right? Another thing he said is that people when they hear abolition, they’re afraid that they’re not going to be left with anything and that’s true. That’s real. I mean, that’s sort of the conversations that we have to make sure that we’re having with people and I think that’s on the work of organizers to say that, you know, so the kinds of conversations that I have in black communities in St. Louis, or in Baltimore, or in New York, I say, yeah, abolition does sound scary, and unfortunately for us, we’re not going to be alive to see the total abolition of the prison industrial complex, I’m not going to be here to see nearly a million cops disappear overnight, or to see the end of 18,000 law enforcement agencies, I’m not going to be here to see that. But what I am going to be here to do is commit to undermining their legitimacy and their power and that’s the work that we need to do today. In terms of short-term responses to harm, we have to be committed to prevention, accountability and supporting survivors and the families of survivors of harm. That is something we can commit to right now, over time, it’s very tangible, it’s very concrete. How do we prevent harm? Well, we don’t prevent harm by continuing to fund the police. We prevent harm by examining why it happens. That’s what we need to do in a lot of different areas, but people are typically consumed with homicides and sexual violence, because they’re so interpersonal, and people want to make sure that their bodies are safe, their wives are safe. So well, let’s focus there, right? But we shouldn’t pretend that just because we don’t know answers, right now that they don’t exist. We need the same level of funding and energy to be committed to figuring out what they are and people are doing that all over.
Adam: Yeah, because the hacky metaphor we used on the show a few times is that somebody is drowning, and they’re being thrown barbed wire, and it’s the only thing keeping them alive, and we come along and see just hey, maybe there’s something better than barbed wire and they say, ‘Oh, you want him to drown.’ Because it’s the only option they’re given, right?
Derecka Purnell: Yes.
Adam: And so this is the thing that makes it difficult because you have this kind of normative question of like what ought to exist, and you have a political establishment that has a lot of well-paid people who are there to say, ‘Sorry, the barbed wire is what it is, it’s always going to be barbed wire, you’re not realistic, we’re going to provide a better barbed wire, we’re going to take off some of the spokes on the barbed wire by 5 percent and we’re going to reform the barbed wire, but the barbed wire is all you ever going to fucking get and that’s all it’s ever going to be, it’s the way it is.’
Nima: ‘And then we’re going to means test who gets the barbed wire.’
Adam: And if you sort of follow up and say, well, there has to be, you know, a more robust system, because the thing is, I struggle with these questions a lot, as we all do, and I keep coming back to the same idea, which is that if you don’t actually have robust social interventions, and safety nets, this stuff is always going to fall on the police. That’s why the police exist in many ways, obviously, they enforce capital, but in many ways they’re there to kind of clean up the logical externalities, for want of a better term, of a system that just leaves poor people to fuck off and die. Not to sort of have sympathy with the devil here, I’m not saying necessarily that we should, our heart should bleed for that, but it is true that they sort of mop up the failures of the liberal state, and so as an entry point, like you sort of talk to someone abolition curious, for want of a better term, and your book does, I think, a really good job of doing this, and I want you to sort of expand on that. How do you sort of enter that question of, okay, how do we transition from a barbed wire to maybe a better option that doesn’t just continue to cause pain while barely keeping us just above the water line? To butcher that metaphor.
Derecka Purnell: Yeah, well, I think it depends on the person who’s asking, I think that unfortunately, a lot of people assume that, because people are asking these questions on, you know, in podcasts, or on social media, or in even my book that this is where the answers are and it’s not. These are not where the answers lie. These are very high overview conversations about what abolition is, and it’s an introductory conversation, which is why I always encourage people to get organized, find an organization, find a community to grapple with these questions, right? Because my answer is, on a show where we have an hour to talk about decades worth of research and experimentation and dreaming it’s just honestly insufficient. So great introductory part, but you need much more than that, and so this is why I have 17 jobs, it’s very important for me to continue to write and think and be engaged publicly, to help push the conversation where I can. But the bulk of where I ask these questions are actually other organizers, right? So when people ask me on a panel, what about the murders? My answers to them are not the same sort of answers that I’m grappling with with organizers because we’re trying to actually come up with the solution. We’re trying to present the alternative, right? So then we go into a community, we go into St. Louis, for example, and there’s a community there where the homicide rate is high, the clearance rate for arrests of people committing homicides are low, and they want to be safe, and they say, ‘Well, what about the murderers?’ It’s like, well, let’s figure that out. What can we do right now to respond to what you’re concerned about, right? Should we have more street violence interrupters programs? Should we figure out how to have more investments in this community? Should we, you know, slow down prosecution, because we know when the prosecutor charges people with gun charges it leaves them more precarious when they come out of jail than when they go back in. So we take these levels, we examine all the issues that are on the table, they try to figure out solutions, and we experiment with them, and that’s what’s so important. You know, earlier you said when you poll poor working-class communities or working-class communities of color on whether they want the police or not, we see, yeah, 60 to 70 percent would say, ‘Yeah, we want better interactions with cops,’ and what’s interesting about those framings, because we’ve also survey a lot of black communities, they’re much more socialistic, socialism polls higher with black communities. I don’t see The New York Times running that headline, right? I don’t see the same sort of energy, making sure there’s local control over education, but it comes to the police, so it’s on me and other people who are committed to organizing to work in those communities to say, well, let’s figure out the problem and figure out the solution, and that takes time, right? It’s not being evangelistic and trying to convert people to become abolitionists so they can join your movement, what you’re trying to do is solve problems and find where there is common ground and use that to change minds and more importantly, change policy and shift power.
Adam: Yeah, I want to hold on to one thing you said real quick. You talked about the ways in which the carceral system actually does perpetuate what we traditionally call criminality. This is one of the things that shocked me as a sort of, again, credulous, I’m always sort of an incredulous white guy going, ‘wow.’ Just take for example, pretrial detention. There were several studies, I think University of Pennsylvania, I wrote about it before, but basically showed that it does two things. Number one, it makes people lose their job, which heavily correlates with further criminality and it makes them drop out of school which heavily furthers criminality, and two, they meet people in jail when they’re there for several weeks who involve them in further criminality. So, this is what a lot of the cash bail reform people have been saying for years is that cash bail actually causes crime. I mean, this sort of, even in the traditional sense of crime, right?
Derecka Purnell: Yeah, well, ‘criminality,’ it scares me so much. I prefer ‘arrestability.’ Yes, I must prefer arrestability. Yes.
Adam: Whatever bourgeois concept of crime they happen to adopt, even by their own standards, it perpetuates it.
Derecka Purnell: Yes.
Adam: And they just don’t care. They’re like, whatever. And it’s like, no, you don’t understand. If you take someone’s job away for three months, and they drop out of school, I can show you a thousand studies that says they’re more likely to go rob or murder someone, I mean, and they don’t even care.
Derecka Purnell: Well, they do care. I think they absolutely care. I don’t, I don’t take police and people who get fancy degrees from Ivy League schools who come up with these theories of broken windows policing, I don’t take them to not care, to not know, I think they know. But in order for them to actually change the system, they will lose a lot of power, and so it’s like, well, what are our options? Well, we can choose to make sure that people are easily exploitable, and therefore easily arrestable, and we can have a well-paid group, a well-resourced group of people who are tasked with enforcing the inequality, because we get to live comfortably and they don’t, and so I think they care a lot. I think they care about preserving power and economic exploitation.
Adam: They outwardly act like they don’t care. Yeah, clearly they —
Derecka Purnell: Yeah, I think they care deeply, you know, even lawyers, I think about lawyers, even a few, not a ton, but I know even a few public defenders, there are people who are committed to this machine, because it keeps them paid, you have been trained your entire life that you’re going to go in and save people or rescue them from the system or you’re going to go in and become a lawyer and prosecute people to keep people safe and now you have a movement that’s challenging the idea that the system is even capable, and it’s like, whoa, whoa, let’s continue to fix it because now you have $100,000 worth of debt from a law school, and now your profession is being called into question. I think these people care, I just think they care about the wrong things, and they don’t want to lose power.
Nima: So you actually bringing up lawyers brings me to a question I’ve been meaning to ask you, Derecka, you went to law school, you write about this a lot in the book, of course, now, we, the kind of, you know, societal “we” have been trained over centuries to think about, to care deeply about how law and order as being this kind of fundamental, neutral code or a state of being. So considering what you’re just talking about, how far do you think that just better lawyering, doing law better, whether it’s so-called progressive prosecutors or sending a couple more killer cops to prison now and then, how far can that actually take us in this fight? Is there a tension or a contradiction in trying to use the law to try and change the law? So in other words, does a choice fundamentally have to be made between say, mitigation and abolition or between activist litigation and actual liberation?
Derecka Purnell: I think it depends on what you’re trying to do. I think about things very concretely. I know lawyers who are doing incredible work. I know lawyers who are doing terrible work. I know lawyers who think they’re doing good work, but they’re actually just maintaining the system, right? And they all invoke the same language, right? They all say we’re doing this for social justice, we’re all doing this for social change. What matters, though, is the actual labor, what’s manifesting from the kind of lawyering they’re doing? Are they closing prisons? Are they getting people out of prison? Are they attacking the system? Are they trying to undermine it? Or are they fighting for more constitutional law? Or are they saying, you know, we want police to do this, but constitutionally, it’s like, well, the constitution is at odds with justice, the kinds of justice that is actually going to reduce economic exploitation, racism, xenophobia, these are things that we’re fighting for, the reduction of harmful systems and practices in our country in this world, and the constitution unfortunately perpetuates that, and so I think that it really depends on the kind of lawyer, and I think that’s true of anything. I identify as a Christian most days, and I hear pastors invoke, you know, Jesus and the Bible for all sorts of causes, and if you asked me, ‘Do you think that you can be a person of faith and do justice work?’ I think it depends on what kind of justice work you’re doing. I think it depends. If you’re telling the truth, like Jeremiah Wright, probably, you know, if you’re perpetuating the same narratives that we need to be included into America’s empire, absolutely not. So, I actually think that we measure, we measure your actual work against our goals for liberation, we don’t say become a progressive prosecutor, even I think progressive prosecutions I’ve seen more of, but I don’t think that’s the goal of becoming a type of lawyer. I think the goal is to fight for liberation. If you choose to be a lawyer, then you should work with organizers to figure out what that means for you.
Adam: Yeah, I think the idea of, one thing we’ve talked a lot about is this idea that the law and the way in which lawyers, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this firsthand, obviously, the way that these kind of professional norms and ostensibly value neutral norms, right, have perpetuated the system and what they do is they alleviate guilt, I guess for want of a better term, I know that something you write about, something that you’ve witnessed, because it’s the sausage machine, anyone has ever spent five minutes in a courthouse on like an average day in Chicago or St. Louis or wherever it’s fascinating how just a sausage machine just goes through five years, two years, six months, two years, boom, boom, boom. Can you talk about, to build off Nima’s question, the mystique of the lawyer and how they sort of partake in this system and especially, of course, more on the prosecution side, but how it kind of all just seems natural and normal and value-neutral because of these professional norms?
Derecka Purnell: Yes, yes, of course. I mean, being a lawyer sounds cool. At least it can be, stuff as in Latin, you get to wear a robe, you can say you’re Esquire, there’s all these cool little things that, well, let me say this, people think that you’re a real lawyer if you go to court, if you don’t go to court, then you’re not even a real lawyer to most people. Even my mom, I remember my first job out of law school, I was like, yeah, mom working to, you know, reduce police violence in St. Louis, and hopefully we can abolish them, and she was like, ‘Okay, but what are you gonna become like a real lawyer? Like, how long are you going to do that for?’
Nima: ‘Like a TV lawyer? When are you gonna become a TV lawyer? That walks around the courtroom.’
Derecka Purnell: Law and Order, yes.
Nima: That makes someone break down on the stand.
Adam: It’s Matlock.
Derecka Purnell: Yes. And then I started going to court, I started going to court and I was working with a group in Ferguson called The Ferguson Collaborative and I was there representing them and trying to get changes in this consent decree, this is a consent decree that people fought for, people cried for, organized for, this is what Obama said, Eric Holder to Ferguson said, ‘We’re going to open up a patterns and practices investigation to the Ferguson Police Department, we’re going to fight for community and constitutional policing,’ and people cheered, people were so happy, and then you watch the implementation process when the cameras leave, you say, ‘Oh, look at all of these provisions that ultimately give more power to the police,’ and here you are this new lawyer trying to figure out how to make sure the community gets more power, and so it can be really sexy to say, ‘Yeah, I work for the Department of Justice,’ I wasn’t working for the Department of Justice I was working for the Advancement Project, but it can be really sexy to hear someone say, ‘I am a Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice,’ or ‘I’m doing this work,’ and it’s like, no, you’re a legal department, you’re not in the Department of Justice. You are a legal department and you are tasked with enforcing the legal wishes of this administration. So call it justice. It’s just honestly an abomination. Because I’m watching the community say, ‘Hey, is it okay if we speak at every trial instead of every other trial, instead of every other hearing?’ And the judge, the liberal judge says, ‘No, the Department of Justice opposes it. No, no, no, come talk to us, don’t go on the record at every hearing to say how the police are not complying with the consent decree,’ right? You see the Black lawyer representing the Ferguson Police Department. He says, ‘Look, Ferguson has made so much progress in diversity. They hired me, I’m Black,’ and I’m not making that up, that was almost a direct quote, you can look at the transcripts from 2017, right? This is the person who’s representing the Ferguson Police Department, right, then you have the community who are caught in between, who are trying to use the legal consent decree to make changes, and they’re being discouraged by that and say, ‘Just call us instead, have personal conversations, but we actually don’t give you any power, and we actually want to take action on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, we all go back into the streets again, and we’re actually, we’re going to do books and badges programs, we’ll do community-based rallies, but if you want to change our use of force policy so we won’t be able to hit you over the head with the baton, we’re gonna fight you on that in court.’ So that’s what it means to be a progressive lawyer trying to make change for the community and getting resistance from a “progressive,” quote-unquote, DOJ, a liberal judge, and a Black lawyer representing the Ferguson Police Department.
Adam: Yeah, it’s counterinsurgency stuff.
Nima: Yes, exactly.
Derecka Purnell: Oh, man, through and through. Yeah, Dillon Rodriguez would be very proud of you for invoking that.
Nima: So to shift gears just a bit, your book covers hundreds of years of history from the establishment and evolution of policing —
Derecka Purnell: It is doing the most, it does way too much, I don’t know what I’m doing.
Nima: But all the way up to the 2020 uprisings, our current pandemic, and you really do such a service at connecting the work of abolition to freedom movements around the world, which I think is not often done. I think you’ve done a bunch of interviews about this book, Derecka, but very few people ask you about Palestine. You can talk about Ferguson, but once you start to broaden the scope, it gets a little like, ‘Oh, wait, hold on, all that’s connected too?’ So in your book you write about Phil Agnew of Dream Defenders and his trip to Brazil and to Palestine, you write about your own experiences from South Africa to Cambridge, and you write this quote, “Robust movements for socialism, decolonization, disability justice and Earth justice are equally or perhaps more important than a singular movement for abolition.” End quote. So how do you see abolition as part of a more holistic movement for liberation as a whole?
Derecka Purnell: Yes, yes. Well, you can thank Twitter for that quote in that paragraph and my impulse to explain that because I was watching in the uprising, so many people get on Twitter and, you know, put “abolitionist” in our bio or start, you know, we need to abolish the police, defund the police. Yeah, yeah. And then a little bit later, you’ll see them defend something quite militaristic or capitalistic, and I was like, oh, oh, people think that you can abolish police and prisons and leave capitalism intact, or leave imperialism intact, or continue to dispossess people or start wars or pollute the Earth. But no, no, no, no, no, like the police are not policing prisons, entire carceral state, they’re not in isolation of all these other systems of oppression, actually they are integral to it, they help maintain it, policing, militarism, the private sector’s involvement through the prison industrial, the military industrial complexes, what they do is that they help to protect all of these other systems that lead to so much exploitation, and so I was nervous that people would, you know, identify as abolitionists alone, and not really start making these connections between policing in the US and policing abroad, especially since so much of the policing that happens is exported, or as a result of colonization. And then more importantly, the resistance to policing has also been an internationalist effort, and so if we just don’t think outside the country, we can forget that, oh, yeah, we have a policing system in the US partially because people were uprising in the Caribbean, and they were overthrowing, you know, the slave patrols that were in place, and the US started getting nervous, and so they instituted a system of policing, because they didn’t want the resistance and the revolts and the rebellions that Black people were doing there. So we also learned how to have a lot of the rebellions here, from people who are in Barbados, right? That is amazing to me, you know, how South Africa, you know, Nelson Mandela was a huge supporter of Palestinian Liberation, because they knew that the State of Israel had been training the Apartheid government in repressing Black South Africans. And so this is, especially with the South African police force, they were explicitly trained to be a part of a global repressive regime and so if we don’t make the global connections about the repression of fear then we’re not going to make the global connections about the resistance and so we just have to be in constant struggle and study and learn what we can about how to be supportive and make these connections.
Adam: Speaking of trying to hold on to capitalism while gesturing towards abolition, or abolitionist language, I feel like we’d be a little remiss if we didn’t bring up the nonprofit complex a little bit as someone who himself has worked for a nonprofit, funded by whatever guilty, Bay Area millionaires, whose money dried up pretty quick the second crime went up 1 percent — actually have the I have the Yeti mug here from the Justice Collaborative who I used to work for. So I say this with full humility, knowing that I’ve been part of that machine as well, and of course, everyone thinks they can work within the machine and you like to think you can, and you know, we don’t have to name names here or talk shit about anyone in particular but I guess I’m curious how you view the nonprofit world in this space. I know that there are some who do really good work, there are some who are horrible, and are counterinsurgency, and I guess each person makes that distinction. How do you kind of navigate that world? How do you feel about the emergence of these kinds of criminal justice reform nonprofits? Obviously, again, I know this is a spectrum, but I sort of curious what your thoughts are on how they kind of magically show up and channel everything into voting for Democrats every two years?
Derecka Purnell: Oh, Jesus, oh, my gosh.
Nima: Can you believe that’s the solution?
Derecka Purnell: That is the solution. We go dig Fannie Lou Hamer up from the grave and say, ‘This is what they want you to do.’ Yes. What do I say about that? Well, the first thing I’ll say is that I think the best versions of our nonprofits are accountable and responsive directly to political membership-based organizations. Unfortunately, there’s so few examples of that. There’s this incredible anthology called The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, and it was written by a group of Black women multiracial, abolitionist, radical leftists, and they were organizing some conference, they got all this love, all this support, and then I think they actually put out a statement that was in solidarity with Palestinian Liberation, and their funding got revoked, and they were shocked. They’re like, ‘Wait, we were all just on the same Black retreat together, what happened?’ And this funder pulled the money because they issued the statement, I’m 99 percent sure it was a statement for Palestinian Liberation. I don’t know what else would get you your funding removed that quickly, but I’m almost certain that it was and they said, ‘Oh, this is when we realized that even though we had made friends with these people, we went on retreats with these people, we spent time with them, they’re excited about our projects, at any moment, they can withdraw and withhold their funding, and so they are used for a different philanthropic model, as long as we have nonprofits, as long as we have philanthropy, as long as what Ruthie Wilson Gilmore says she says, ‘Philanthropy is the private allocation of stolen social wages.’
Derecka Purnell: This is a quote that I love. Ruthie is just amazing. But as long as we have that model, how should we relate to it? More than they push for is that we should have independent political organizations and movements at our membership base and then we should have, if we’re going to have a nonprofit to, raise money and do all this stuff, it should be accountable to the political organization, and not just a board of directors who, you know, want to show up for a dinner every now and then who isn’t really invested in the organization, but actually an independent group that you’re responsible and that you’re accountable to, and then you’ll have paid staff who goes and executes the will of a membership. I think that’s the best version. But again, that is not the model. That’s just not the model of nonprofit that we have today, we have strong executive leadership, who becomes the face of the organization, who drives the mission of the organization, who primarily fundraises on behalf of the organization, and claims the wins of any movement as their own.
Adam: Oh, I like that move. That’s a good move. I like that.
Derecka Purnell: That’s what happens, and so if there’s a victory, if everyone’s victory, if there’s a loss, we’re gonna continue to fight it. And so I don’t think that’s the best of our tradition. I think that we can do more. Yeah, I worked for a nonprofit that I love very, very dearly. But yeah, we have to just make sure that as long as we have it, we have to entertain it. But we’re not going to nonprofit our way towards liberation and the rise of the nonprofit industrial complex has also created a lot of paid positions for people who will otherwise be political members of organizations who would probably engage in more riskier tactics for freedom and so we have to think about it still —
Adam: It’s almost like that’s the point.
Derecka Purnell: Some would argue, but then we have some people who just put the Black Panthers on the back of their website and say, we’re in the same tradition. So it’s complicated, you know, it’s complicated, and I think people are trying to figure out what we can do right now.
Nima: You write about the process through which you found the vocabulary to match the vision of abolition, and I think when discussing or describing abolition, the term ‘imagination’ is used a lot. What kind of world are we imagining and how can we create it? How do you see imagination as crucial to the work of abolition and how do you or potentially people coming to the movement, curious about it, even critical of it, how can there be the, you know, a way to avoid feeling that imagination keeps the work in the realm of, you know, even the most righteous fantasy, instead of an inevitable reality?
Derecka Purnell: Yeah, I love that question because I hate being asked about imagination, but it was the number one question that I’m asked, especially with abolition. I have a very — how do I describe it? — I see imagination that’s quite neutral. I think that we can imagine the most beautiful utopian world, and then you have oppressors who imagine oppressive regimes, oppressive tactics, the police were a thing of someone’s imagination, they were made real impossible and funded, and so sometimes I find myself eager to defend imagination to say that this is something we have to fight for that the left or progressive, we don’t have a monopoly on this thing called imagination. We don’t have a monopoly on dreaming and building a different world, we have to fight and contest for that world, right? Because whatever it’s being imagined to further repress us, tear gas us, put us in cages, take our wealth, we have to resist that and imagine something else, right? And so the tangible way that I think about being responsive to that is telling people to join organizations, or join collectives who are interested in doing that imagination together, and who are committed to figuring out if and where it can be built. That is, to me what I’m most excited about. Sometimes I’m a little bit nervous, it depends on the audience who I’m in conversation with, they want to do imaginative exercises, because it’s cathartic in some sense. We could just get together, we could just dream, and abolition is not going to get here just if we dream. That’s not enough. That’s not enough. It’s a great start. We should get in the habit, we should write these things down, we should talk about it, you know, whatever we need to do to communicate and express it. I think it’s most powerful when it’s done together and I think it’s done at its absolute best when it’s done towards a project and that doesn’t mean you need to come up with an entire answer to what an abolitionist world is going to look like and then go execute it. But even in your community, your neighborhood, your organization, your place of faith, your family, what is going to push that community, that institution closer to implementing and manifesting an abolitionist practice and ethic? That is what is important to me to take that step further. We dreamed of this thing, and now we have it. That I think is just so indispensable, and that’s the kind of tradition of people that I tried to be. I see people who dreamed about freedom of slavery and we needed people to dream of freedom, we also needed people to resist, revolt and run away, and so that longer tradition of dreaming and acting is what I try to be in.
Adam: Well, I don’t act, I’m just a commentator. No.
Derecka Purnell: (Laughs.)
Adam: Come on now.
Nima: Well, I think that is an absolutely wonderful place to leave it. Derecka we cannot thank you enough for joining us tonight on Citations Needed. Of course, we’re speaking with Derecka Purnell, lawyer, writer, organizer, author of the book Becoming Abolitionist: Police Protests and the Pursuit of Freedom out now from Astra House. Buy it, buy it, buy it. Derecka, always such a pleasure to talk to you, this was wonderful. Thank you for joining us on Citations Needed.
Derecka Purnell: Of course, of course. Thank you both for having me so much.
Nima: And that will also do it for this live interview. So thank you, everyone, for listening. Of course you can follow our show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. We will be back soon with full length episodes. 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, again, we’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed live interview was recorded with a virtual audience on Tuesday, January 11, 2022 and released on Wednesday, January 26, 2022.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.