Abolish the police? Organizers say it’s less crazy than it sounds.
Grassroots groups around Chicago are already putting abolitionist ideas into practice.
Until that moment on Fox News, Jessica Disu hadn’t considered herself a police abolitionist. But on July 11, she was on national television, surrounded by 29 other people convened by Megyn Kelly to discuss the recent killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and several Dallas police officers.
“I was under the impression that it would be a robust and productive conversation, even though it was Fox News,” says 27-year-old Disu, who identifies herself as a “humanitarian rap artist and peace activist” and is involved with various organizations serving youth on the south side. She prepared her message before going on the show: “It should be against the law for an officer to shoot a civilian,” she says. “That was what my message was supposed to be.”
“Our police is not working—we need to replace it with something new. It’s more than a repair. We need something new.”
—Activist Jessica Disu
Disu was seated in the front row, wearing a green dress, black blazer, and gold hoop earrings, her braids pulled up in a bun. Next to her was Ron Hosko, a former assistant director of the FBI. Also present at the forum: several retired NYPD officers, a “conservative voter,” a black pastor from Baltimore active with Black Lives Matter, a black pastor from Los Angeles who said Black Lives Matter was “worse than the KKK,” a civil rights attorney, a civil rights movement leader, a white woman who referred to Newt Gingrich’s “beautifully” spoken comments on race relations, a black Trump supporter, a “Second Amendment advocate,” and several unidentified others.
The discussion quickly turned raucous, with panelists shouting over each other as Kelly called on participants to answer polemical questions in quick succession. Disu sat quietly, occasionally rolling her eyes, scoffing, laughing, or nodding in agreement. “A lot of my buttons were triggered and pressed,” she recalls. “This felt so comical to me—it felt like a minstrel show.”
But then people began accusing Black Lives Matter activists of calling for the death of cops, and Disu couldn’t hold her tongue
“This is the reason our young people are hopeless in America,” she began, as other panelists bickered around her. She explained that her activism in Chicago focuses on intracommunity violence. “Here’s a solution,” Disu said firmly. “We need to abolish the police.”
“Abolish the police?” came Kelly’s incredulous response, as a clamor of boos and protests rose from the forum.
“Demilitarize the police, disarm the police,” Disu pushed on, undeterred by the yelling. “We need to come up with community solutions for transformative justice.”
“Can we all agree that a loss of a life is tragic?” she asked the forum, attempting to explain her vision.
“Who’s gonna protect the community if we abolish the police?” Kelly asked, a this-must-be-a-joke smile spreading across her face.
“The police in this country began as a slave patrol,” Disu managed to squeeze in before being engulfed by the noise.
“I’ve never been called a nigger in my life, until this time,” Disu says. “I’ve been called a ‘stupid nigger’ by white people across this country, a lot of hate mail—everything short of death threats.”
Nevertheless, she stands by what she said. In light of relentless police violence against black people, she says it’s clear that “our police is not working—we need to replace it with something new,” she says. “It’s more than a repair. We need something new.”
Now that she’s become an inadvertent national spokesperson for an idea she only recently began espousing, Disu says abolition has come to be the only way forward that makes sense to her.
“I’m sure when someone first said, ‘We have to abolish slavery,’ it was like, whoa, that’s the stupidest idea, we’re making all of this money off of free labor, and you’re saying abolish? Like, that sounds ridiculous.”
But Disu isn’t alone in her embrace of the idea. Though Black Lives Matter and other groups have been vocally campaigning for police reform since 2014, the tone (and the banners) of demonstrations in Chicago this summer have become explicitly abolitionist.
On July 15, Assata’s Daughters, a black feminist group often described as a radical version of the Girl Scouts, led an #AbolitionChiNow march across Bronzeville. On July 20, the #LetUsBreathe Collective, formed in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, launched an occupation of an empty lot across the street from CPD’s Homan Square facility in North Lawndale. The collective dubbed it “Freedom Square,” publicized it as an experiment in “imagining a world without police,” and called for the city to put its $1.4 billion police budget to other uses. Following the fatal police shooting of Paul O’Neal on July 28, young people made explicit calls for police abolition in front of CPD headquarters. And on August 7, several black teen girls organized a march for abolition that drew hundreds of supporters to the Loop.
It seems the city finds itself at the epicenter of a growing movement imagining and building a world without cops. And some grassroots groups, tired of waiting for top-down change from the very agencies they protest, have taken it upon themselves to start building the abolitionist society they want to live in.
The idea of police abolition can’t be understood separately from the wider prison abolition movement, the intellectual seeds of which were sown by radical feminists in the 60s and 70s, including academic and early Black Panther Party member Angela Davis. Davis was herself incarcerated for 16 months while on trial for allegedly aiding a violent 1970 takeover of a California courtroom that ended with the death of a judge. Davis was acquitted in 1972, and later joined the faculty at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the 90s.
Then and there a new movement for prison abolition began to gain traction, led in large part by queer women of color. In 1998 Davis coined the term prison industrial complex—a nod to the concept of the military-industrial complex popularized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961.
“[The work of maintaining incarceration], which used to be the primary province of government, is now also performed by private corporations, whose links to government in the field of what is euphemistically called ‘corrections’ resonate dangerously with the military industrial complex,” Davis wrote in a famous 1998 article in the magazine Colorlines. “The prison industrial system materially and morally impoverishes its inhabitants and devours the social wealth needed to address the very problems that have led to spiraling numbers of prisoners.”
“You can’t just focus on what you don’t want, you have to focus also on what you do want.”
—Organizer Mariame Kaba
In 1997, Davis cofounded Critical Resistance, an organization that has since worked to dismantle the prison industrial complex. The group helped serve as a model for other abolitionist groups, including Incite!, founded in Santa Cruz in 2000 by radical feminists of color. These groups sought to bring attention to drug addiction, mental illness, and other social problems underlying mass incarceration through conferences and grassroots organizing. It has been gradual, painstaking work, they say, aimed at building community institutions whose presence they hope will one day make the police unnecessary.
Mariame Kaba came to Chicago for graduate school in 1995 and eventually joined the local chapter of Incite! Raised in New York in the 80s by her Guinean father and Senegalese mother, Kaba grew up in what she has called a “collectivist” and “black nationalist framework.”
In Chicago nearly all current efforts at police and prison abolition can be traced back to Kaba. Her students and those influenced by her work are leading many prominent organizations at the forefront of police protests, such as Black Youth Project 100, Black Lives Matter Chicago, and Assata’s Daughters. Her insistence that she isn’t central to the movement is as constant as her students’ attribution of her work as the inspiration for their own.
“I remember hearing this word ‘abolition’ and thinking it sounded absurd,” says Page May, a cofounder of Assata’s Daughters who first learned about abolition at Kaba’s teach-ins. “But I would just go to everything that Mariame ran . . . everyone knew her and respected her, even if they didn’t agree with her politics. And you couldn’t work in the city around prisons or police without knowing her.”
Kaba summarized her views in a recent interview with the AirGo podcast: “For me prison abolition is two things: It’s the complete and utter dismantling of prison and policing and surveillance as they currently exist within our culture. And it’s also the building up of new ways of intersecting and new ways of relating with each other.”
When Kaba first arrived in Chicago, “there were no abolitionist organizations at that time in the city,” she says. But by the early 2000s, Incite! began to convene national conferences that brought together organizers and intellectuals—including Davis and many other movement mothers—to ponder putting abolitionist ideas into practice. Kaba also began working with young people involved with gangs and the criminal justice system in Rogers Park, and in 2009 founded Project Nia, a group dedicated to ending youth incarceration.
“I had this notion of trying to create an explicitly abolitionist organization that would test that idea in a community setting,” Kaba explains.
That’s because Kaba, who recently moved back to New York after more than 25 years in Chicago, insists that abolition is not about destruction and anarchy—it’s about building alternatives.
“You can’t just focus on what you don’t want, you have to focus also on what you do want,” she says. “The world you want to live in is also a positive project of creating new things.”
For an example of one of these alternatives in action, look no further than the basement of a Rogers Park church. On a recent Wednesday night, 20 or so people—young, old, queer, straight, black, white, Latinx, Asian—are sitting in a circle. Strings of Christmas lights, paper lanterns, and candles give the room a yellow glow. And in the center of the circle there’s a cluster of “talking pieces”—a chunk of driftwood, a green foam Hulk fist, a paper flower—objects that have some powerful symbolic meaning for people in the group. One is passed around continuously to designate the speaker of the moment.
For nearly three hours, the people assembled share stories of times they’ve been hurt and those of times they’ve hurt others: A thin, black teen recalls being made fun of by a neighbor for appearing weak; an aging white woman talks about feeling excluded from her daughter’s life now that she has moved out; a young white man expresses regret at having been rude to customer service reps on the phone; a tall, curvy black woman tears up as she discusses being objectified by men. The vibe is not unlike group therapy, only no one here is “the expert.” (The church asked not to be named because its meetings are already at capacity.)
This is a peace circle—a style of community meeting practiced by indigenous peoples around the world (including some Native Americans) for centuries. The practice draws on the abolitionist notion that premodern methods of conflict resolution provide valuable alternatives to today’s overreliance on police and prisons. The organizers argue that plenty of cultures successfully addressed harm and practiced nonviolent conflict resolution before the invention of policing in
This particular peace circle is a descendant of similar gatherings organized by Circles & Ciphers, a Project Nia leadership training and conflict resolution program for young men who’ve been in prison, jail, or a gang. Circles & Ciphers members also run peace circles to mediate violent situations, such as fights and shootings, but attendance at those is reserved for those affected—victims and perpetrators, their families and friends, and anyone else who might be directly impacted by the incident.
Circles & Ciphers began in 2010 as a space for teen boys living in a state-funded group home in Rogers Park.
“This narrative was being circulated that [the] group home was this blight on the community,” says Ethan Ucker, a Circles & Ciphers cofounder. “The police were being called in spades and coming out to deal with issues that were happening in the house.”
But the voices of the boys living in the house, many of whom were also caught up in the juvenile justice system, were conspicuously missing from neighborhood conversations about them, Ucker says. With Kaba’s help, Ucker and fellow organizer Emmanuel Andre started monthly peace circles with the boys on the second floor of a Clark Street storefront. It was a safe space for them to discuss their conflicts with the community and with each other.
“What we started to see was that the space helped guys to process things that were going on, improve their relationships among their peers, and also improve their relationships to some of the staff who manned the home,” Ucker says. “It doesn’t mean there weren’t conflicts; it just means there were other kinds of practices to address conflict when it
Eventually, the community pressured the state contractor to close the home. (A spokesperson for the group that ran it wouldn’t comment on the reasons for its closure, but said complaints against such facilities aren’t unusual.) Some of the boys ended up in prison. However, some of the boys from the group went on to form their own peace circles, and today there are half a dozen or so held at schools, churches, and community centers around Rogers Park and elsewhere in the city.
Ucker and other volunteer facilitators also make themselves available to help resolve conflicts for neighbors and friends seeking alternatives to calling the cops.
“There’s another infrastructure here, there’s another system here,” Ucker says, contrasting peace circles to policing. “But it can respond just as effectively to harm.”
Some people call this approach “restorative justice,” where the desires of the people harmed are prioritized alongside accountability for those responsible.
Ucker illustrates the idea with an anecdote:
“There was a robbery at this store in the community. One of the people at the store whose stuff was taken said, ‘Look, I don’t want to call the cops. Is there anything we can do? . . . They found on Facebook that this young person was selling their stuff, and that young person happened to go to a school where we’d done some circles, so I knew a teacher at the school and could say, ‘Hey, this is where we’re at.’ ”
Eventually, he says, robber and robbed were brought back together.
“That young person ended up returning what he had that hadn’t been sold, and then working at the shop in restitution for everything else,” Ucker says. “Then it turned out he really liked working there, and after this agreement was over, he continued to go there and volunteer. There was a relationship built there.”
You may be thinking right about now: But what do I do if someone breaks into my house? Or if someone attacks me? How could peace circles possibly solve Chicago’s rampant gun violence problem?
Kaba says these kinds of skeptical questions are normal.
“The options when harm comes to you in this country are what?” she asks. “Call the police and get somebody from the outside involved in your process, or figure it out on your own. Doing nothing is not a good option for a lot of people . . . you shouldn’t have to choose between going to the state or doing nothing.”
Kaba and other abolitionists aren’t trying to talk people out of calling the cops in an emergency, she says. Instead, she asks communities to regularly gather and talk through alternatives to calling the police, even if they don’t yet exist.
“People in Naperville are living abolition right now. The cops are not in their schools, they’re not on every street corner.”
—Organizer Mariame Kaba
She and other organizers also point out that abolition on a larger scale is visible all around if one knows what to look for. Kaba says individually most of us practice abolition regularly, every time we address a conflict without involving the police. In many places community-wide abolition is also in plain sight.
“People in Naperville are living abolition right now,” Kaba says. “The cops are not in their schools, they’re not on every street corner.”
And not all incarnations of abolition in Chicago intentionally conceive of themselves as such.
It’s a sunny Tuesday afternoon and Tamar Manasseh is setting up a barbecue like she does every day, across from a liquor store on the corner of 75th and Stewart in Englewood. This intersection has been a hot spot of violence for years, and after another deadly shooting here last July, Manasseh decided it was time to intervene. For more than a year now she and a group of mothers have been carving out a small world without police, on what was once one of the most violent corners of the neighborhood.
“It’s about cop watching, it’s about people watching, but more than anything it’s about being seen, being a presence in the community,” Manasseh says of her daily barbecues. Around 5 PM hot dogs are ready, and kids stream over and line up with paper plates. A group of men wait patiently until all the children have been served before approaching. Seventy-five to 100 people come every day, “and they come in shifts,” Manasseh says.
Manasseh calls her organization Mothers Against Senseless Killings. And although there have consistently been between one and three shootings in the vicinity of the intersection every summer since 2010, according to data compiled by DNAinfo, neighborhood residents have noted a palpable easing of tensions on the block, especially when the “army of moms” is around.
“Nobody wants to come through here shooting if they see 50 kids outside waiting to eat dinner,” Manasseh says. Her own 17-year-old son is there too, tossing beanbags with younger children. “People always say, ‘It’s not like it used to be around here.’ ”
“The only reason I know that we don’t necessarily need the police is because of what I do every day.”
—MASK founder Tamar Manasseh
Jermaine Kelly, 22, was born and raised on the block and has been coming out to help Manasseh with her cookouts since last year. “Her presence definitely makes a big difference in our neighborhood—how we approach situations, how we approach each other,” he says. “Bad situations get diffused very easily.”
According to Kelly, even gang tensions have eased with Manasseh on patrol.
“We have our set of gangbangers here, but their opposition, their rival gangs, don’t even ride past when she’s here,” he says. “It brings us back to the question: Which is better, to be loved or to be feared? And right now love is winning,” Kelly says.
Over the last year Manasseh has devoted her life to this work, even quitting her day job as a real estate agent. MASK now has about 30 members and branches in Hyde Park and on Staten Island in New York. She doesn’t see herself as a police abolitionist per se, but thinks of her work in the context of her Jewish faith.
“There’s this Jewish principle called tikkun olam: it’s repairing the world, and everybody has to do their part,” Manasseh explains. “This is my part.” Next year she’ll be ordained as a rabbi.
Like Kaba, she stresses the importance of relationships. “If you build community, the violence stops,” she says. “If you know your neighbors, you’re far less likely to shoot them or rob them.”
As a new song comes on her booming car stereo—and Manasseh yells for someone to skip it because it has lyrics inappropriate for kids—she recalls an unsettling recent event.
“We almost had an incident where a guy pulled a gun out here a few weeks ago. If we hadn’t been here that would have ended so badly,” she says. “We were able to diffuse the situation, no police had to come.” Instead, she explains, a group of men talked down the one with the gun.
“There were so many people committed to stopping it from happening,” she says.
According to Kelly, MASK’s presence in the neighborhood also eases some of the stress caused by the police. He says he has been stopped and frisked by officers many times, especially when he’s with a group of other black, male friends. Police ask about guns and drugs, he says, “until they unzip our book bags and see basketballs, gym shorts.” Normally on this corner, the cops “might jump out and harass us, search us,” he says. “But when [Manasseh’s] here, they just ride past.”
Just then a police SUV cruises by with the windows open, but the blond female officer at the wheel doesn’t turn her head toward the corner or acknowledge Manasseh. “We’re just trying to stay out of each other’s way,” she says.
Manasseh is encouraged by other initiatives such as Freedom Square, but insists that to make a difference participants must be in it for the long haul. “Stay the course, that’s all I can say. Consistency is the key to change,” she says. “You have to be more committed to changing things than everybody else is to keeping things the same. That’s what I’ve learned. Consistency is the absolute key to everything.”
As calls to abolish police have intensified in Chicago, CPD and the Fraternal Order of Police (the officers’ union) have stayed mum on the matter, uninterested, it seems, in engaging in that particular conversation or trying to justify their institutional existence to this degree. When the Reader tried to contact FOP president Dean Angelo Sr. for comment, his assistant laughed, saying, “I doubt he’ll want to comment on something so stupid.” Minutes later she called back to confirm that Angelo would not be speaking about the issue. The police department didn’t respond to requests for comment.
But an idea that still strikes many if not most in the mainstream as absurd is slowly gaining traction even within the world of criminal justice.
“The closer you get to it, and the more you work on it, the more you realize that the system is not fixable the way it is,” says attorney Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, which has litigated civil rights lawsuits on behalf of Illinois prisoners for years. Mills knows Kaba and says her work has been influential in legal circles; after much heated discussion, prison abolition was adopted as a platform of the National Lawyers Guild last year.
Some people may be put off by the word “abolition” itself, Mills says, but he argues that many social causes actually fall under its umbrella. He points out that abolitionists in Chicago have championed reinvestment in community mental health care, and were behind the creation of the Community Bond Fund, which collects donations for bail bonds for people in pretrial detention at the Cook County Jail. The initiative has been endorsed by the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice and many legal aid groups.
“I think that you have to view it as a strategy and a goal rather than something that can be implemented tomorrow,” Mills says of abolition. “When I listen to the abolitionists, what I hear is that it is possible to build a world without prisons or policing.”
And, Mills adds, this world is closer than a distant sci-fi future.
“Germany and Norway have a different philosophy,” he says. “The reason people commit crimes is because they’ve become disconnected from social networks.” In the Norwegian model, “the role of prison is to rebuild those networks,” he says.
But Kaba warns that America will need much more than just a tweaking of the way prisons operate—the abolitionist project in the city and the country will require much farther-reaching social transformation in the way we think about crime, punishment, property, and how we relate to one another.
“Abolition is not about changing one thing,” she says. “It’s about changing everything, together.”
–Originally published on Chicago Reader