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The Long History of Defunding the Police

September 24th, 2020     by Maighdlin Mahoney     Comments

Illustration by Saul Freedman-Lawson

Anyone heard the phrase “Defund the Police” lately? Over the last few months, we’ve been hearing the call to defund the police more and more, especially in the protests following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. And in Canada, following the police involvement in the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet. But many of us have never heard this phrase before, and have never thought about the police as something that could be ‘defunded’. We might be wondering, what does that even mean? Often, when an idea rapidly gains more attention – like the way that “defunding the police” has become a lot more visible over the last few months – it’s easy to assume that the idea itself is brand new. If we think that the concept of defunding the police was just thought up, we might understandably feel a little wary of it or wonder if there’s a plan for a world without police.

Well, the great news is that the idea of defunding the police is totally not new! Many folx have spent a lot of time thinking about what it might look like. In fact, defunding the police is really only one piece in a decades old (even centuries old) movement to get rid of police and prisons entirely – this movement is called prison abolition. Prison abolition aims to create a world without police, prisons, and surveillance, while also creating lasting alternatives for ensuring justice and safety for everyone .

Now, if the term “abolition” is ringing a bell, then it’s doing its job. Not only does prison abolitionist thinking have a long history, it’s really all about history. Prison and police abolitionists use the term abolition because it makes important connections between prisons, histories of slavery and anti-Blackness, and histories of settler colonialism and Indigenous displacement. Understanding how modern prisons are deeply connected to these histories gives us a much better idea of why racism is so pervasive in policing, and how defunding the police and prison abolition could lead to a more just and equitable system. So, exactly what are these connections, and what do they reveal about our current system of policing and prisons?

Most prominently, the term ‘abolition’ calls to mind the history of slavery – it asks us to think of prison abolition as the unfinished work of abolishing slavery. This connection between the enslavement of black people and our current prison systems reveals a lot about how racism operates in policing. The main idea is that while the specific institutions that police Black people have changed, the ideas behind them have largely remained the same from the slave trade all the way to modern prisons. For instance, modern police disproportionately target Black people because there is a prevalent, racist association between Black folx and crime. This association actually comes from the era of slavery. In Canada in the 17th century, slave owners put ads in local newspapers seeking their ‘fugitive’ slaves – enslaved black people who had run away – and asking for them to be returned if seen. These ads did two things. Firstly, they encouraged the over-surveillance and hyper-suspicion of Black people in public spaces. White folx were constantly assessing if Black people were runaway slaves, and therefore not ‘legally’ free. Secondly, these ads connected Black freedom with criminality – planting the idea that any Black person who wanted autonomy over their own body and their own choices was inherently criminal. These ads told people that Black freedom was dangerous. These slavery-era ideas about Black people and Black freedom persist in modern policing, where Black folx are disproportionally suspected, arrested and imprisoned for perceived criminal activities. Beginning with Black folx being forcefully brought to North America, the logic behind slavery told us that Black folx needed to be watched, controlled, and shackled – and modern policing exhibits those exact same racist ideas.

This is why Canadian poet and prison abolitionist El Jones has called modern prisons “slavery’s afterlife” – but she also calls prisons “the new residential schools”. This is because another history that is important to understanding prison abolition is the history of settler colonialism. Settlercolonialism refers to the ongoing process of Europeans arriving in North America and stealing the land from Indigenous peoples while also attempting to completely eliminate Indigenous folx through genocide. This process views Indigenous peoples as ‘in the way’ of European settlers and their exploitation of the land, and it continues to dispossess Indigenous peoples to this day. When Europeans started forcefully confining Indigenous folx on reserves and in the notoriously abusive residential schools, this was all a part of settler colonial thinking that was trying to get Indigenous folx ‘out of the way’. In fact, when the RCMP was founded they played a really important role in confining Indigenous folx to these small pieces of land – and yes, those are the same RCMP that we have today.

In Canada, Indigenous folx are arrested and incarcerated at even higher rates than Black folx. Confining Indigenous folx to prisons is an extension of residential schools and reserves. The logic of settler-colonialism in modern prisons becomes even more clear when we look at how Indigenous land defenders are criminalized. When Indigenous folx are arrested for defending their land – like we saw with Land Defenders of the Wet’suwet’en territory or the Six Nations Land Defenders of 1492 Land Back Lane earlier this year – the underlying idea is still that Indigenous ownership of land is ‘in the way’, and that Indigenous folx need to be arrested and confined so that their land can be more easily exploited.

Alright, so all of this history is invoked when we use the term “prison abolition”, but what is the history of prison abolition itself? Well, back in 2003, political activist, academic and author Angela Davis wrote a book that instigated contemporary conversations about prison abolition, called Are Prisons Obsolete? This book reminded readers that modern prisons and police have not always existed, and so they are not inherently necessary, and certainly not impossible to get rid of. It also began explicitly asking the question, what might a world without prisons look like?

Angela Davis also made it clear that Prison Abolition is not the same as prison reform. While reforms might be necessary and life-saving in some instances, a focus on prison reform is too narrow to really solve the problems of modern police and prisons. In other words, it doesn’t deal with the systems that allow racism to persist in modern policing – like the anti-black ideas and anti-Indigenous ideas we’ve been talking about. Since prison reform doesn’t acknowledge that these problems go way beyond police and prisons, reforms are never really going to solve them. Abolition, on the other hand, is committed to looking at the ways that modern prisons are really just one example of how these issues exist in our world. They emphasize that taking on these issues requires completely changing how we think about justice and safety.

Since then, a lot of folx have been thinking about and advocating for prison abolition. While American scholars and educators like Angela Davis have been instrumental, Canada also has a rich history of important prison and police abolitionist thought. For instance, El Jones is a Canadian poet and prison abolitionist whose work focuses on prison justice and reminds us that while some folx are in chains, none of us are truly free. She highlights the voices of prisoners themselves, both in her writing for the Halifax Examiner and in her radio show Black Power Hour. Black, feminist writer and educator Robyn Maynard has also contributed to prison abolitionist thought in Canada with her book Policing Black Lives, a comprehensive history of state violence against Black folx in Canada. Her book importantly reminds us that anti-black policing in Canada has always been prevalent – dispelling the myth of Canada as a ‘safe haven’ for Black folx. Events like the Prisoner Justice Film Festival – co-founded by prison abolitionists Syrus Marcus Ware and Giselle Dias – have also been taking place in Toronto and London since the early 2000s, highlighting the injustices towards Indigenous and Black folx within the Canadian prison system.

All this history of folx thinking about prison and police abolition means that there are a lot of really concrete ideas about how we might get there and what it might look like! Defunding the police is only the first step in a process of gradually eliminating police and prisons altogether, building up a system that emphasizes justice and reparations over revenge and punishment, and prioritizing community problem solving. Check out for a really clear and concise idea of what the rest of those steps could look like!

Knowing this history of police and prison abolition reminds us that while some people might want us to believe that defunding the police is a new ‘trend’, it really has a long history. It addresses the racist ideas that enslaved Black folx and colonized Indigenous land, and shows us how these ideas persist in our modern prisons and police. Most importantly, this kind of knowledge is a necessary part of starting to support movements to defunding the police! A clearer understanding of the history behind prison abolition makes us better able to advocate for it. And this has only been the smallest introduction! There is so much out there to read about prison abolition and defunding the police. Below, you can find some recommended reading that can help give you an idea of where to start!

Recommended Reading:

  • Abolitionist Future’s Reading List []
  • Policing Black Lives, by Robyn Maynard
  • Are Prisons Obsolete?, by Angela Davis
  • The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
  • Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada, edited by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson, and Syrus Marcus Ware
  • “What The Prison-Abolition Movement Wants”, by Kim Kelly
  • “A Condensed History of Canada’s Colonial Cops” by M. Gouldhawke
  • 8toAbolition -

About the author: Maighdlin Mahoney (she/her) is a writer with a background in theatre creation, production, and performance. As a writer, her interest is in writing non-fiction and fiction that interrogate the stories we tell about our pasts and ourselves, as well as the effect that these stories have on how we understand our world and one another. She was a co-producer, co-creator, and actor in Nasty, a feminist exploration of history, which appeared in the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival and the 2018 Feminist Fuck It Fest. She is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto, where she received an Honours Bachelor Degree with a double major in English Literature and History.

Tags: anti-black racism, anti-racism, history, police, prison abolition, recommended reading, settler colonialism, violence

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