Killing the police officer in our heads

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Killing the police officer in our heads

Sarah Lamble writes about replacing punishment with social justice in our everyday lives.



It can be difficult to think how to get from the world we are in now to a future of abolition. But abolition is not only an idea. It is about what we do now to make that future possible. It is an everyday practice, a political philosophy, and a way of life. We rely on prisons and the police perhaps because when see violence or a problem, it is difficult to know what ese we can do. Our answer is often to rely on the criminal justice system. This is why abolitionist work is not only about finding other ways to reduce and respond to harm. It is also about changing the way we think about only relying on violent authorities and threats of punishment to deal with social problems.

Everyday abolition is about changing the way our culture makes us think and behave in negative ways – in other words, how we kill the police officer in our heads. Mariame Kaba is an abolitionist organizer. She says, ‘When we try to change society, we must remember that we need to change ourselves.’

One of the biggest challenges is to change the idea that justice and punishment go together. In school, at home, at work and in popular culture they teach is that ‘justice’ needs punishment. This often means treating someone who caused harm with isolation, exclusion, stigma, and shaming. It can be taking a naughty child from school, stopping someone with a criminal record from using a housing service, ‘cancelling’ someone on social media who says something hurtful, or calling the police when a neighbour isn’t following Covid-19 rules. Many of us have learned to deal with social problems by asking an ‘authority’ to deal with it for us, or by punishing and sending away people who do harm. But punishment is very often is not the answer, it is not healing or changing what is needed to reduce harm. It often makes problems worse by increasing hurt and violence. A child taken away from school is likely to end up in prison. Someone with a criminal record is likely to end up homeless. The neighbour you call the police for is at risk of facing state brutality. These small everyday decisions we make in our lives can end up creating bigger problems. A better idea is to think about the causes of violence in our communities, support the people harmed, and find ways to repair situations.

This does not mean we must deny our feelings of anger or revenge. Especially when someone we care about is hurt, it is difficult not to act in a very angry way. But this is using one kind of violence as an answer to another kind of violence.

Punishment or compassion?

Across the world, local self-help groups start so people can support each other with basic needs – such as food and medicines. During Covid-19 they have been a lifeline. But some groups quickly change into neighbourhood surveillance, turning community support into community policing. There’s no point in getting rid of prisons and police if we then act like police and prison guards in our own communities.

An important everyday abolitionist practice is to support each other in working through feelings about punishment and to change them into ways that will reduce violence. We can start to change our ideas about punishment everyday – in our schools, homes, workplaces, neighbourhoods, and community centres. This can mean thinking again when we get into conflict and refusing to take part in cancel culture politics or public shaming on social media. Or it could be about encouraging a friend to think about a different response to calling the police to deal with their ‘problem’ neighbour. It could mean questioning policies at your school or workplace which use punishment to get people to behave in a certain way.

Another part of everyday abolition is recognizing that we ourselves will sometimes be the harm-doers and we too need to take responsibility and help the situation.

Working together

To help us in situations of harm and problems we also need to improve our collective skills. If we can train people in first aid and emergency resuscitation techniques, then we can also train people how to be safe as bystanders, to reduce violence and harm in situations. We can learn the early signs of abusive relationships and support each other to take action before things get worse.

When there is a problem, we can think about all the things we could do without relying on police or prisons or being like police ourselves.

We can also work together to resist increasing the powers of the police and prisons. There are many ways to get involved in local, regional, and global campaigns that move us closer to that abolitionist future. We can work together to change from criminal justice to social justice. We can work together to think again about ideas of what justice means.

Doing everyday abolition work needs ways of doing things at different levels. The LGBTQI+ group, Community United Against Violence, says that there is violence in ourselves, between people, and between institutions and individuals. We need to work at all three levels to make a world without prisons and police.

GenerationFive are transformative justice organizers. They want to end child sexual abuse within five generations. They say, ‘Meaningful change is only possible when we are willing to think about and take action to look at the gaps between the future we want and the way we are living now.’

Sarah Lamble is an organizer with Abolitionist Futures, a group working in Britain and Ireland to build a future without prisons, police, and punishment. She also teaches at Birkbeck, University of London.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)