How to defund the police – strategies for abolition

The Black Lives Matter protests of the last few weeks have reignited the conversation on the long-existing tradition of police and prison abolition, although more so in the US. Jiaqi Kang reports on East London rs21’s meeting on abolition in the UK.

Protesters hold two banners reading 'Disband the Met, Shut detention centres, Black lives matter' and 'No justice, no peace, abolish the police'

The moment we’re currently living is electrifying: more people than ever before are taking on the call to defund and entirely abolish the prison-industrial complex (PIC), which includes the police. It has been heartening to see people from around the world coming together for Black lives in the weeks since George Floyd’s death: taking on the brutal violence of police regimes, and pushing mainstream discourse beyond mere suggestions of reform towards imagining a better future, one without police, without prisons, and without the ruthless exploitations of racial capitalism. 

The UK is, of course, not at all exempt from these conversations – this is not an ‘American’ issue. The crystallisation of modern police forces in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries come hand in hand with nation-building and imperialist projects, making violence against social ‘others’ an inherent element of the so-called Western liberal democracies of today. Not only is police and prison abolition urgent in every country, but we must also highlight the inherently trans- and international nature of such repression. For instance, Mathieu Rigouste has extensively demonstrated that contemporary French policing is a transferral of guerrilla methods used against native Algerians during the Algerian War for Independence (1954-1962) back into the metropole, specifically wielded to control and subjugate the ‘Others within’ – including Black and brown migrants from former colonies, as well as the poor – who are stigmatised as inherently criminal. In another example, Working Class History has discussed the 1967 anti-colonial, pro-communist riots in British Hong Kong’s pivotal role in expanding the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF); the police force’s success in quelling the riots earned them the ‘Royal’ title from Queen Elizabeth and inspired other countries’ riot control tactics. HKPF was founded 3 years after Hong Kong’s establishment as a colony to police the land, and, today, remains the same institution that has been accused of police brutality during the recent protests.

 It is extremely clear that the PIC is inextricably linked to global capitalism. Its abolition — and the liberation of those victimised by its systems — can only come with the overall abolition of capitalism, and therefore requires the support of anti-capitalists. How can we join this fight as UK residents, as socialists, and as people who care deeply about our communities?

To explore UK-based strategies for abolition, East London rs21 was joined by Kelsey from Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) and Hajera from Abolitionist Futures. (Hajera is also a member of Nijjor Manush, a campaigning group that aims to educate and empower the Bengali and Bangladeshi diaspora in the UK.)

The concept of policing

Abolition is a framework by which we can understand society as a whole, and, more importantly, seek change. Abolition asks questions like: is the system ‘broken’, or was it always built to be this cruel? Is policing an effective way to stop crime in our communities? Is the current judicial and prison system an effective way to address, rehabilitate and resolve harm done to our society? What is ‘crime’? What is ‘community’? What is ‘justice’? What is ‘harm’? What are ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘resolution’? Who commits crime: is crime committed by bad people? 

Abolition is a leap in the imagination, part of a process of decolonising our minds and reaching beyond the limits imposed upon our perspectives by capitalism and liberalism. We are not only trying to limit the scope of policing, but thinking about the society that we want to live in: a society that does not need police or prisons. As Hajera said, defunding the police is a tactic –– abolition is the horizon. Our end-goal, of course, is to build a better future and thoroughly revolutionise the way we interact with each other.

Thus, we also need to rethink the carceral attitudes that exist in our everyday spaces: how do we deal with harm inflicted by people who are our friends? How do we address harm in leftist activist spaces? Kelsey referenced Mariame Kaba, an American organiser against the PIC, who shows us that abolition is both structural and interpersonal: with transformative justice, we want to approach harm in a way that does not cause more harm. 

History of the police

The police’s role is to maintain the ruling classes’ position in the status quo. Part of this logic includes privileging property and wealth over human lives –– which we saw in June when far-right groups ‘defended’ London war memorials.

The inherently exploitative history of UK policing was highlighted in the discussion. This is important because, while abolitionist thought is deeply rooted in African-American radical struggles, the abolitionist project must not be limited to slave patrol and strikebreaker-descended US police. The precursor to the Metropolitan Police, founded with the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 introduced by Robert Peel, was the Peace Preservation Force (PPF) in Ireland, which Peel created in 1814 as Chief Secretary for Ireland at the time. The PPF was a semi-military group that was deployed in areas of the colony deemed to be in states of disturbance; it was integrated into the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the Irish Constabulary when the latter institutions were founded in 1836. Indeed, Peelian Principles of professional modern policing propagated across the British Empire: the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (founded 1873) modelled itself upon the Irish Constabulary; and Hajera mentioned that the British have trained Bangladeshi forces as a form of soft power since the 1970s. It is clear that the history of the police cannot be separated from the history of colonialism. 

Even after independence, post-colonies still remain tied to the Global North’s carceral capitalism. In 2018, Boris Johnson announced the intention to build a prison wing in a Nigerian prison, solely for the purposes of UK deportation. 

One discussion participant also mentioned Evgeny Pashukanis (1891-1937), a Soviet scholar whose General Theory of Law and Marxism (1924) showed that modern ideas of crime and punishment are symptoms of a capitalist framework: law serves and operates by the logic of commodity. 

It is important to see abolition not as something new or innovative, but rather as a continuation of struggles against slavery, white supremacy, and colonialism. In the group discussion, various participants noted that societies without our definition of police have existed and do exist. Umoja Village in Kenya was founded in 1990 as a sanctuary for Samburu women against patriarchal violence, and does not allow men. Kwanlin Dun, a Canadian First Nation, has devised an alternative force of four ‘safety officers’ who take on vital roles in a community previously neglected and aggressed by the RCMP. 

The impact of everyday policing in the UK

All branches of policing and the ‘judiciary’ system are bound together and interrelated; these institutions are central to how society is controlled in the UK today. Black and brown people disproportionately experience police violence every day: between April 2018-March 2019, there were 4 stop and searches for every 1000 white people but 38 stop and searches for every 1000 Black people. There is a narrative about the UK police being underfunded — even the Labour Party promised to put more resources into the police as part of their 2019 GE manifesto — but in actuality, the UK still spends more on police than the EU average

Recent years and the post-9/11 War on Terror have seen an increase in surveillance in the UK. Notably, the Prevent strategy has revealed a shift towards community self-policing, a reformist alternative to more overt, more controversial forms of social control. By making public sector employees such as teachers and doctors join in state policing efforts rather than fully dedicating themselves to serving the people, Prevent has made community members spy on each other and caused a breakdown in trust. As one discussion participant highlighted, Prevent’s impact is in its connections with the larger hostile environment policy that wreaks violence against migrants. Together, such policies work to define citizenship: who gets to be included and who must be excluded, and to what extent? Citizenship is not a fixed, stable category and can be taken away, as we have seen in Shamima Begum’s case. As Kelsey noted, criminalisation is dehumanisation: there is the attitude that violence in detention centres and jails can be overlooked because the prisoners are criminals and somehow ‘deserve’ to live in abject conditions. This criminal/innocent binary takes on many problematic forms, including an overemphasis on the innocence of Black people who are murdered by the police (such as Elijah McClain). Although the foregrounding of Elijah’s ‘sweetness’ was well-intentioned, we must practice a framework in which everyone deserves agency, humanity, and dignity.


In 2016, the Tory government announced an immense, £2.5 billion plan to add 10,000 new prison places in the UK, including building six new ‘mega-prisons’. The plans have evolved in recent years, including the June 2020 announcement of four new prisons whose rhetoric emphasised a post-COVID-19 financial boost. This is worrying when we consider the large numbers of newly unemployed and homeless populations that will be emerging in the short and long terms as a result of the pandemic; the government has decided to build prisons instead of housing, demonstrating that the ruling classes see marginalised populations as classes to be ‘managed’ through more imprisonment, rather than empowered and liberated. (Spontaneous enforced lockdowns for social housing buildings in Melbourne, Australia resembling prison situations are another example of the callous treatment of poor communities of colour; the pandemic is used as an excuse to further erode people’s rights.)

A small success for abolitionist campaigning within the prison expansion project, however, is that plans for the Port Talbot, South Wales prison were successfully overturned due to strong dissent from the local community. According to Kelsey, the Port Talbot campaign was composed of two main threads: firstly, Welsh locals protested that Welsh land was being used to build English prisons, treading on Welsh sovereignty and turning Wales into a contemporary ‘penal colony’; secondly, the increasing number of prisons being built in rural areas is justified as bringing more jobs, but many of these jobs are actually created for the prisoners inside the prison and not local workers. Kelsey highlighted that, in terms of strategies and tactics, struggles against the construction of new prisons are linked — and can learn from — environmentalist struggles against fracking and any campaign that seeks to prevent building. In Wales, there was not only a media appeal against the new prison but protesters sought to disrupt the construction process as much as possible in order to waste time and resources. This would act as a disincentive for private companies to invest in prison contracts. For instance, it was pointed out that the Port Talbot location had been designed as an industrial zone and could therefore not legally have a prison, as well as other environmental concerns. Finally, occupations and direct action are common tactics to halt construction and make the lives of corporations difficult.

Halting the building of new prisons is an effective first step towards abolition, especially because it can galvanise locals not normally involved in activism to join broad campaigns. In New York City, a reformist plan to close the notorious Rikers prison and build 4 new jails in the city, is facing significant opposition from No New Jails NYC who popularised the hashtag #NoNewJails. Advocates for the Manhattan Chinatown local community, where one of the new jails was planned, also stressed Chinatown’s unsuitability for a large jail while simultaneously supporting the closing of Rikers. The next step toward abolition would be to address those currently detained and #FreeThemAll: this slogan emerged during the COVID-19 crisis to demand the release of all prisoners from harsh conditions for the sake of public health, and its momentum can be carried toward a general abolitionist call to liberate and support all current prisoners. By focusing on specific, tangible, often highly local issues, communities can engage in abolitionist action together and build mass support. 

Today → Tomorrow

Several discussion participants expressed the concern that the ‘defund the police’ slogan has been coopted by more liberal and reformist groups, who seek to steer the conversation away from the revolutionary dismantling of global capitalism. Specifically, the simplification of abolition into the act of taking money and resources away from police institutions and towards funding social services like healthcare, mental health care, education, and housing overlooks the harm that these other services can cause. The nature of white supremacy and racial capitalism is its envelopment of every part of society –– all state apparatuses as we know them perpetuate harmful ideologies and practices and must be abolished too. 

Charlie of East London rs21 described reformist versus revolutionary approaches to policing as such: reformists see change as a fight, and any small victory is a gain of territory against the enemy. However, approaches that focus entirely on reducing budgets might miss the forest of capitalism for the trees: we must challenge the very idea and existence of the police in the first place. Abolitionist demands must constantly work to chip away at state power and resist hegemony. 

Abolition is both a moral and political framework. Dealing with sexual assault in our social circles highlights the complexities and contradictions of this work. As one discussion participant pointed out, patriarchal culture protects the assailant, so leftists’ instinct is to protect and support the survivor. However, we should be able to provide support systems for all parties and engage the assailant in a process of accountability and transformative justice. Everyone plays a part in the accountability process; we must work to address both immediate problems and work towards a revolutionary future.


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