In Canada, the struggle for working-class unity to build some form of revolutionary socialism and the struggle for an anti-racist and anti-colonial movement for abolition are one and the same. If the abolition of prisons and police also means the abolition of capitalism, how do revolutionaries make abolition part and parcel of the working-class struggle, rather than an issue-based struggle or a struggle based on identity? While activists have been working with labour organizations, this tension between working-class struggle and abolition came to a head this year during the Ottawa take-over by anti-vaccine truckers.
In February 2022, many people on the revolutionary Left were stunned by the weeks-long occupation of Parliament Hill in Ottawa by the so-called “Freedom Convoy”—mockingly dubbed the #FluTruxKlan. There were hot takes about the Left’s inability to politicize government responses to the pandemic and how easily right-wing reactionaries co-opted working-class grievances. Some expressed jealousy, admiration, or shock at how issues impacting a small group of workers 1 could take over an entire downtown for weeks and quickly raise over 10 million dollars. 2 Under the guise of pro-worker rhetoric and Trumpian arguments about the so-called “treason” of the Trudeau Liberals, anti-vaccine mandate protesters were able to park their trucks and trailers and set up food kitchens, a children’s bouncy castle, saunas, and hot tubs—effectively establishing themselves in the Canadian capital for three weeks. The convoy also inspired two disruptive blockades of Canada-US border crossings: one in Coutts, Alberta, and another in Windsor, Ontario.
Mostly immovable without the cooperation of their operators, semi-trucks proved to be an effective protest tool, enabling the protestors to lock down central Ottawa and torment residents with continuous honking. Convoy participants spread fear throughout the downtown area, targeting and harassing mask-wearers and anyone they could hurl racist and sexist comments at, while partying every weekend under the tacitly-approving gaze of the police. Activists in Ottawa mobilized to organize several counter-demonstrations against the convoy, but along with the debates and tension around safety and tactics, there was also tension around residents demanding police to “do their job,” with some protests being held at Ottawa Police headquarters demanding they remove the trucker convoy. 3
What distinguished these protests from other occupations and blockades was the utter lack of police response, especially in the early days. The success of the anti-mandate protests is directly linked to the way police, at every level, enabled them. Whether or not some on the Left might be envious of their success is not really the issue. No matter what tactics some want to replicate, the revolutionary Left will never be afforded the level of compliance and support from police that the “Freedom Convoy” received.
The call for police to “do their job” was reminiscent of a call heard after the G20 protests in 2010 when speakers at the prison defence demanded that police focus on activists who had engaged in crime rather than conduct mass arrests. Ten years later, however, there were mixed feelings among liberals and social democrats about demanding police action, due in part to the strength of the Defund the Police movement, particularly in Ottawa with “defundOPS” (Ottawa Police Services).
The call from some residents and mainstream media for police to “do their jobs” and clear the protestors provided another opportunity to showcase the discrepancy between police response to protests from the Left and Right. Police narratives throughout the convoy occupation bemoaned alleged safety concerns and a supposed lack of resources. For the Left, this notion was laughable: police never “lack resources” when they are directed to violently crush blockades by land defenders in Wet’suwet’en or at Fairy Creek, or when they are tasked with protecting the hate speech of Zionists and right-wing extremists. Yet, this mainstream refrain paved the way for the Trudeau government to declare a state of emergency, granting local, municipal, and federal police unprecedented powers. This state of emergency, which essentially overrode the civil liberties of all, was not needed but was met with little opposition or response from the Left.
When police operations began in Ottawa, these events took place in full view of the mainstream media. Former police chiefs were trotted out to give colourful commentary on network television, praising the restraint and professionalism of the police. Frequent reference was made to the Toronto G20 protests and the supposed lessons learned about violent tactics like mass arrest and kettling. Patience, and even compassion, were on national display as the police spent a weekend constructing a spectacle that was equal parts enforcement operation and media product.
Even when some labour organizations began to organize counter-protests in Toronto, organizers cooperated with Toronto police by sending them march routes in advance, moving the date of the rally to avoid conflict with the anti-mandate protests, and during the speeches, thanking them for their assistance. It is not a secret that movements to force labour organizations to adopt abolitionist policies and engage in more abolitionist organizing have been met with a great deal of failure. In many union organizations, aspects of the police, border services, and prison guards remain within the house of labour despite the racist foundation that continually upholds acts of violence against workers of colour.
Today, after calls to defund the police have entered the mainstream vocabulary, how do we take advantage of these tensions to strengthen public consciousness and education around abolition and grow a culture and politics of refusal and non-compliance in our labour movements? In what follows, we explore the tensions of ongoing police compliance in our movements, especially given the danger experienced by many activists targeted by racial profiling or from heavily-policed communities. We must identify and challenge the “security creep” in our movements and continue to forefront abolitionist approaches to social change. Rather than looking to the state for security, grassroots movements need to draw power from our radical histories of abolition as a form of community empowerment and justice. This includes long histories of fighting the police, local police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), from Indigenous communities, to radical elements of the labour movement, to Black activists researching and educating others about the role of slavery and racial profiling of Black people in Canada (the mainstream Canadian narrative having always proclaimed Canada to be a “safe haven” for Black people).
What is clear is that racism continues to be a barrier to working-class unity and solidarity. Any strategies and organizing against capitalism need to address racism and colonialism, including how state power works to uphold these relationships. Central to this work is understanding power structures and institutional violence that enable racism to continue in policing, borders, prisons, and the military. By taking the disproportionate rates of incarceration, deportation, racial profiling, and actual killing of Black and brown workers seriously, abolition must be central to the anti-racist strategy of working-class movements.
For us, the challenge is two-fold: to keep taking advantage of the tensions as they emerge to make clear connections between the police and security apparatus and white supremacist, colonial goals, and at the same time, to talk about abolition as a central aspect of working-class struggle. Currently, the police enforcement of racism and colonialism relies on narratives that claim they are keeping some working-class people safe from the more “dangerous” elements of society (Black people and Indigenous people). Our fight for abolition not only means exposing this lie but also linking it to the abolition of capitalism that exacerbates and profits from colonialism and racism and muddles working-class resistance. The image of the “working-class taxpayer” has always been a white settler—never Black, Indigenous or people of colour who also rely on selling their labour for wages.
While a great deal of the narratives and politics of police abolition come from the US, there remains a Canadian romanticization of the RCMP and the other elements of the security apparatus that are often ignored, such as Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), police guards in prisons, and the Canadian army abroad. While some local police services are targeted for scrutiny, such as in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Vancouver, Canadian histories and media coverage have always been quite generous to the police as an institution. The Left needs to reinvigorate the labour movement, connecting the demands of working-class people to the struggles of our most vulnerable communities. The fight for police abolition has the potential to build class solidarity. The labour movement must reckon with its complicity in state violence and work to reclaim the language of the working class before the fascist Right can co-opt more mass movements.
A Short History of Canadian Policing
While abolition may be an unfamiliar concept for folks outside of leftist circles, the importance of grasping the problem of prisons and policing at the root remains as important now as ever. While abolition has been used to specifically target police or prisons, it must also extend to the abolition of capitalism by targeting racist, violent security apparatuses, including borders and the military. Abolition, as a historical praxis, compels us to remember the origins of policing: that is, its connection to settler colonialism, slavery, and the attempt to construct a social order based on systems of dispossession. Some of the earliest forms of policing in North America were linked to the development of British colonial settlements in what would become the United States. 4 These early settlement towns were founded on violence and colonization carried out by settler militias and later policed by slave patrols. 5 However, the modern institution of policing as we know it today did not emerge until the mid-nineteenth century during the rise of industrial capitalism.
According to Mark Neocleous, modern institutions of policing are integral to the very fabrication of social order: policing shapes and orders civil society. 6 The working class did not appear ready-made for capital. Rather, new techniques of policing helped fabricate relations of market dependence by rendering alternatives to the wage relation illegal. 7 This process was not limited to Europe. As Todd Gordon explains, “like in Britain, the Canadian state criminalized a range of street-based working-class activities that were carried out either for pleasure or as an alternative to gainful employment”: public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, gaming, sex work, and begging being common targets. 8 It is in this sense that the creation of a criminal class has historically been important to the making of the working class.
White supremacy and colonialism were central in the emergence of modern policing. Similar to the US, in the mid-nineteenth century Canada was experimenting with different policing organizations to protect its new borders and pave the way for further settlement into Indigenous lands. Afraid of US expansion westward and the threat of Métis and Indigenous rebellion, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald created the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in 1873 to violently quell any challenge to British Canadian rule. Following the 1885 Northwest Rebellion led by Louis Riel, Métis and Indigenous peoples became subject to harsher and more restrictive policies overseen by the Department of Indian Affairs and enforced by the NWMP. Jeffrey Monaghan explains,
In the post-rebellion period, the NWMP was central to the enforcement of pass laws, the containment strategies of the reserves, the dispersal (and non-dispersal) of rations and equipment based on compliant behaviour (despite treaty obligations), and the frontline enforcement of law and order. As the frontier became increasingly conditioned for White settlement, criminal law became an important disciplinary tool to establish sovereign, settler authority. 9
Today, the NWMP is known as the RCMP, Canada’s national police force.
Popular histories of the RCMP, often written by former cops, have worked hard to portray the “Mountie” as a benevolent figure central to Canadian identity. The RCMP has been depicted in postcards, novels, movies, and television, and the iconic red uniform was even licensed to Disney from 1995–2000 in an attempt by the Force to massage and control its image. 10 Leftist historians have also worked hard to debunk these ideological projects by exposing the RCMP’s role in enforcing the residential school system, putting down labour struggles, and enabling the internment of foreign nationals during both world wars.
In their 1973 Unauthorized History of the RCMP, historians Lorne and Caroline Brown cite the various ways the RCMP specifically targeted working-class movements and strikes, from the first Canadian Pacific Railway strike in 1883, to the 1919 General Strike in Winnipeg, to the killing of three miners during the Estevan Riot in 1931. 11 They also write the history of the RCMP in Cold War surveillance over groups such as the National Farmers Union, the Socialist Party of Canada, the Communist Party of Canada, and even spying on Tommy Douglas of the New Democratic Party (NDP). From 1948 to 1983, Operation PROFUNC 12 enabled the RCMP to extensively surveil communist and social democratic organizations, as well as student groups, queer organizations, and elements of the women’s movement. The program even included planned internment camps should a communist uprising happen in Canada. 13 Yet other disclosures from COINTELPRO in the US reveal the interconnection between the FBI and RCMP in surveilling and infiltrating the burgeoning Black Power movement of the late 60s. Interestingly, as Andrea Conte reveals in his article “Administrative Sabotage,” disclosures of police action are far more accessible in the US than in Canada, which has a markedly unresponsive and slow process for filing access to information requests. 14
Beyond the secretive inner workings of the RCMP, it is perhaps more illustrative to simply review the force’s overt actions over the decades. As Todd Gordon explains in Imperialist Canada, controlling Indigenous peoples as the “threat from within” has been a central focus of Canada’s various policing and military organizations. 15 From the Oka Crisis in 1990 to the military offensive at Gustafsen Lake in BC in 1995 with the Ts’Peten Defenders, Canadian security forces have long struggled to contain Indigenous protest and to secure stable access to resources. There is also the general racism of the police force where everyday acts of police violence and incarceration continue to oppress Indigenous peoples. Indigenous people are vastly overrepresented in the prison system, 16 underserved by the police, and actively subjected to abuse. From the police terror of the Saskatoon “starlight tours” in the 1990s, to the harassment of Colten Boushie’s family following his murder, to the Winnipeg police murder of 16-year-old Eishia Hudson, 17 the state’s use of force is levelled against Indigenous communities as a tool of colonialism.
Robyn Maynard provides a recent study of the impact of state violence and policing on Black Canadians, writing that “state violence against Black persons in Canada has, by and large, remained insulated by a wall of silence and gone largely unrecognized by much of the public. . .” 18 From slavery, to bondage, to segregation, Maynard recounts how policing emerged to contain and surveil Black populations as part of the settler-colonial project, accomplished through the racialization of crime and the increase of racial profiling and “carding” that occurred in larger cities. The emergence of the Black Lives Matter and No PRIDE In Policing movements in Canada responded to police violence and murder against Black people including D’Andre Campbell, Olando Brown, Abdirahman Abdi, and Andrew Loku, as well as the violent beating of Dafonte Miller, pushing for people to criticize the seemingly “normal” presence of police in our communities and drawing attention to the reality of ongoing harassment and fear of increased policing.
Finally, we must acknowledge how the police and military apparatus target massive protests against global finance and private capital, from the RCMP attacking protesters at the 1997 APEC summit, to the FTAA protests in 2001, to the 2010 Toronto G20. Most recently, police overstep and violence was on full display when the Toronto Police Service, in conjunction with private security, forcibly evicted the residents of homeless encampments across the city. What is clear is that when there is a direct confrontation with private capital or Canada’s role in oppression, the police, military, and security forces are close at hand and well-financed to act in the interests of the state. Not only will they continually act against revolutionary and working-class movements, but their foundation, built on racism and colonialism, means that they will support or at least tolerate openly fascist movements. As Geo Maher argues: “The police aren’t being invaded by anti-democratic fascists; they are the fascists, and are busily training new recruits for the far right every day.” 19
Fight the Pig Ideology
Despite the proven track record of police misconduct and abuse, police organizations wield a tremendous amount of influence in society. While we explored the direct coercive aspects of policing above, there remains an equally powerful ideological element: police and other violent institutions are constantly working to produce consent. Whether it is the media portrayals of the military engaged in “humanitarian work” or local police engaged in “community relations” or their presence in schools ostensibly to teach kids about safety, dominant institutions are constantly working to build and maintain mainstream buy-in, despite the ongoing cracks and fissures in the façade of their legitimacy. Not only is the Mountie an icon of Canadiana, but the ideology of policing—the notion that society is chaotic and needs protectors—permeates every facet of social life. From everyday encounters with security and policing, to narrative saturation in television programs like COPS, Law & Order, or Border Security, and the mass appeal of superhero films, “copaganda” is everywhere. As a cultural aspect of abolition, the Left needs to expose the structural violence these images obscure. The challenge, as Gramsci might say, is to turn the people’s “common sense” around policing toward the “good sense” of abolition.
Importantly, we need to challenge the myth that police constitute a “thin blue line” that serve and protect the public from lawless violence. As Monaghan writes, the police circulate a deeply conservative worldview based on the notion that they form “the only social instrument that protects deserving citizens—itself a racialized construction based on norms of whiteness—against violent and predatory others.” 20 This is a foundational fiction central to the ideological work of the police: “To Serve and Protect” is emblazoned on their vehicles, stitched into their uniforms, and frequently parroted in news media. In fact, the police and their PR representatives are platformed frequently in the media as the primary, if not the only, sources in daily crime reporting. This perspective of policing is mainstream to such a degree that even leftist organizations have adopted their rhetoric and sought their inclusion (for example, the recent #MeToo movement, which elevated a form of carceral feminism that sought the involvement of the police and courts to solve sexual harassment and violence).
As Ryan Hayes explains, while police unions are not members of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), “unions affiliated with the CLC have members involved in many aspects of policing and the prison industrial complex—from the RCMP to jail guards, immigration enforcement agents, and transit cops.” 21 In fact, the CLC and other unions have openly advocated for the inclusion of police in the house of labour, including the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which organized 1,300 RCMP telecom operators and intercept monitor analysts in 2018. This prompted a rank-and-file campaign to get “Cops Out of CUPE” by bringing motions to the convention floor in 2018 and 2019. While these motions have so far failed, we must learn from the nature of these mobilizations and failures. When motions are on the floor that challenge police, otherwise dull conventions turn into impassioned debates, with some union members arguing emphatically in favour of the police There is also an assumption that motions to remove cops, prison guards, or border service officers from unions come from the more “elite” elements of the union movement: radical education workers in universities that are out of touch with the real working class of Canada.
In these spaces, the middle-class aspirations of the labour movement are laid bare. Unionized workers with relative stability and privilege identify with the police as allies in the fight for, and defence of, the so-called middle class. Despite the labour movement’s commitment to anti-racism and anti-colonialism, many within it rely on reformist proposals to lessen the violence of police and security institutions rather than signing onto abolition. Here it is important to challenge the notion that police are workers. While policing is a job, employees of the prison industrial complex do not generate value, at least not value for the good of the people. On the contrary, policing works against the interests of the working class to uphold the power of capital. The police are the muscle of our oppressors, no matter how “sensitivity trained” or polite they may appear. Their ultimate function in society is to maintain “order,” that is, to maintain the dominance of the ruling class. If this dominance is not felt by a privileged sub-section of the labour movement, this is a reflection of labour’s detachment from the most vulnerable communities in our society, both in terms of organizing priorities as well as in terms of the geography of policing.
As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez quipped during the George Floyd uprising, it’s not hard to imagine a world of defunded police: it already exists in the suburbs. Spaces of affluent middle-class seclusion have the resources to invest in and fund their communities, and they aren’t policed in the same way that poor and working-class communities are. The people who face the brunt of social-service erosion and police violence lack the resources afforded to stable unionized workers. The deployment of policing is classed, and class is racialized.
It is important here to recognize the ongoing abolitionist work being done to challenge this geographic and social abuse by the police, as well as the ideological support for the police that often bleeds into other institutions, like social work or education, where workers take on roles to punish and criminalize other people. Building working-class solidarity means engaging in consciousness-raising in order to defeat the ideologies of policing. No One Is Illegal (NOII)–Toronto has fought and won Sanctuary City status for Toronto, and worked directly with social-service providers and state-based institutions to develop effective “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policies regarding immigration status. In working to achieve access without fear for our undocumented comrades, NOII has directly engaged with the service providers, many of whom are unionized public employees, to raise consciousness around the racialization of immigration and the carceral impacts of working with the CBSA. Importantly, these campaigns have highlighted our power of refusal as workers: refusal to cooperate with the police and refusal to abandon our neighbours. 22
One of the challenges of building abolitionist politics is to include the incarcerated in the fold of the working class. “Criminality,” as an ideological construction pushed by the police, is often portrayed as an ever-present attack on working-class people. This obscures the way capitalism produces so-called criminality through calculated abandonment and disposability. Abolitionists must challenge the ideological role that the “criminal” plays in the consciousness of the working class and expose it as the scapegoat it is. There will always be crime in societies with an unequal division of wealth. For Angela Davis, we must see the revolutionary potential of prisoners and see crime as an act of resistance. As she wrote in 1971:
. . .[W]hen so many Black, Chicano and Puerto Rican men and women are jobless as a consequence of the internal dynamic of the capitalist system, the role of the unemployed, which includes the lumpenproletariat, in revolutionary struggle must be given serious thought. . ..In the context of class exploitation and national oppression, it should be clear that numerous individuals are compelled to resort to criminal acts, not as a result of conscious choice—implying other alternatives—but because society has objectively reduced their possibilities of subsistence and survival to this level. This recognition should signal the urgent need to organize the unemployed and lumpenproletariat. . . .” 23
To make abolition a reality, the Left needs to expand these refusals and connect the demands of the working class with the demands of abolition. Our biggest power as workers is our power to withdraw our labour, our power to strike. Raising worker consciousness means addressing the thorny issue of police collaboration within the Left and demanding we move beyond using punishment and exclusion in our movements. We must challenge the ideology of policing in our organizing spaces and build working-class community power that uplifts the most vulnerable (including the unemployed) among us, rather than abandon them to the prison industrial complex.
From Defunding to Abolition
While there is a longer history of abolition of the police, the 2020 uprisings with the Movement for Black Lives saw a more unique call for defunding the police. It was with this call that activists could direct the politics of abolition to concrete campaigns directed at local, provincial, or national budgets. This often revealed the amount of resources spent to keep oppressive structures in place over community-based services.
As Maynard explains:
National spending on police operations has increased steadily since the mid 1990s, reaching $15.1 billion in 2017–18. A 2013 government report noted that the cost of policing nationally had more than doubled since 1997, “outpacing the increase in spending by all levels of government,” with police salaries increasing by 40 percent since 2000 (whereas most Canadians’ salaries increased by 11 percent). 24
The campaign to defund the police has raised awareness of the role of police budgets and challenged a sense of Canadian exceptionalism: the belief that Canadian state forces when it comes to military, security, or policing are not as extravagant as the US, and that Canada is a “peacekeeper” nation that does not perpetuate the same levels of police violence as in the US. The budgets of the police and military are generally not of concern to many Canadians. While it is true there is not as much integration with private prisons as there is in the US (although private corporations play a role and profit from our prison and immigration detention systems), there seems to be marked exceptionalism for Canada’s more violent state forces than for life-affirming institutions such as health care, education, and social services. While the government insists on market forces to govern other institutions that might assist people, the police and military are given bloated budgets despite the fact that “crime” has lowered across the country.
These high budgets, some accounting for 10 percent of entire municipal budgets, cannot be justified by the same market forces that dictate the funding of other public services. And here we see the strong integration of these forces and the government. While many state politicians directly support both military and police services and advocate for bloated budgets, the role of police unions has disproportionate influence over police budgets as well.
In response to the critique of police violence, police organizations have created programs to “bridge” with communities. They integrate themselves into grade schools, or promote “neighbourhood” programs where “kind police officers” walk around, playing basketball with the youth. This is all, however, transparently to reform their image in order to justify higher budget lines. Meanwhile, grassroots campaigns like Education Not Incarceration in Toronto have worked tirelessly to get cops out of the Toronto school board, and won. Much of this work involved dispelling police propaganda about the supposed “success” of the program by recentring the experiences of racialized students. 25 As organizer Gita Madan states, “This victory [to terminate the school board contract with police] indicates a paradigm shift in which system educators are finally acknowledging that programs and policies rooted in the hyper-surveillance of racialized youth and the securitization of schools do the exact opposite of creating safety, equity, and inclusion.” 26
Campaigns to defund the police have led to huge splits in more liberal and social democratic movements. 27 The leadership in the NDP have been reluctant to take a firm abolitionist perspective and as previously discussed, within organized labour, campaigns to remove cops from unions have led to divisive discussion and votes on convention floors. A barrier this movement faces is the conception that those paid to violently enforce unequal power relations in society––police, prison guards, border patrollers––are working class. Here, activists need to advance a clear and accessible understanding of exactly who constitutes the working class in society and why, not least to defend working-class communities that are continually brutalized by these institutions.
Exorbitant police budgets, consistent violence against racialized communities, and a complete lack of accountability provide easy avenues to publicize and mobilize against police power. Once again, the role of unions here is key. Because unions often advocate for more work and more projects to benefit their members, the inclusion of violent state forces into unions means that unions will be in the contradictory position of lobbying the state for more of those jobs on the one hand, while supporting campaigns against racialized police violence on the other.
Hayes writes that, “Unions shouldn’t be pushing to build new jails. We need to redirect our money from police, prisons, and pipelines to people and communities.” He continues:
We [in the labour movement] can’t justify our collusion with state security forces by uncritically parroting the slogan “all workers have the right to organize.” This blurring of lines depoliticizes what it means to be a worker. Rather than drooling over employment growth within the prison industrial complex, our job is to end it. We must imagine, organize, and build alternatives in a spirit of abolition that will make our labour movement ancestors and descendants proud. 28
The over-bloated and expansive organization of police forces is part of what Maher calls “the pig majority.” Moving beyond the borders of our community, the investment in policing (controlling the movement of people) has had both ideological and practical implications, underwriting Canadian imperialism in Afghanistan and Haiti. Maher points out that the “everyday” taken for granted forms of policing are foundational to policing in general. Whether it is administrative positions or the culture of policing where people volunteer to do the work of police, to police TV shows and racist media that lift up policing, Maher writes:
This expansive, amorphous pig majority comes into being long before violence occurs and continues to coalesce and expand after the body is cold. Its backbone is the self-deputized white majority that, with an effortlessness bordering on instinct, volunteers to police others, in part because it dreams police dreams and plays them out at home on wives and children, all while praying to a police god. 29
As Maher outlines in his book, this pig majority may seem overwhelming and difficult to fight, but the abolition movement has grown and continues to grow, posing a significant challenge to the police and prison system.
From Reform to Revolution: The Promise of Abolition
Although union conventions provide important spaces to organize, debate, and raise consciousness amongst organized union members, it is important to acknowledge that to make abolition central to working-class struggle it does not necessarily have to happen on a convention floor. The promise of abolition also comes in the form of various experiments of community struggle: formations of cop-watch, Indigenous-led street patrols found in both Winnipeg and Thunder Bay as a form of community self-defence; workshops on transformative justice that give workers tools for how to respond to harm without using carceral institutions and build community models to provide alternatives to policing; calls to remove police from PRIDE demonstrations, such as the campaign by Toronto-based No PRIDE in Policing, one of the largest grassroots queer movements to remove police from PRIDE events. Most of these experimental models have been developed or led by Black, Indigenous, and racialized women and trans folks.
While we build these spaces outside of union structures, it is vital that we begin to bring the politics of transformative justice into union spaces as well and bridge the liberatory sentiments of transformative justice to working-class struggle.
A coalition of anti-racist feminists began to call for police abolition in the mid 1990s through the creation of INCITE!, a coalition of women of colour to create feminist responses to harm without the need for carceral action. The 2004 compilation, The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex was a revolutionary book that refocused the fight against violence against women on the community rather than on state structures and non-profits. While there has been growing popularity around abolition and defunding the police in the past few years, we must review the significant work done by feminist writers such as Mariame Kaba, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and recently, the Creative Interventions Toolkit on providing revolutionaries with roadmaps for ending violence and creating processes of transformative justice.
With grassroots campaigns to defund the police, mainstream books on police abolition, organizing by Showing Up for Racial Justice, and intensive networks working on abolition, there has been a clear movement toward an interest in abolition. The politics of police abolition are exciting because of their foundation in the Black liberation and queer feminist politics that led to the first convening of INCITE!, where feminists continue to write and organize around community liberation from policing and experiment with transformational forms of resolution and accountability.
It needs to be said that the contradictions around this process and experimentation have led activists down winding roads of uncertainty and messiness. Indeed, when we are told every day that a neutral criminal system exists to arbitrate between harm and justice, creating alternatives to these state structures faces many limitations. There is great doubt that communities with little resources can meet the demands that state apparatuses address. However, it shows that communities can share in and have a sense of control over what justice looks like.
This brings us to a fundamental barrier that activists need to contend with: that even though abolition can provide a bridge between reform and revolution and theory and praxis, there is no way that communities can provide all the services of the state. That is why part of the revolutionary project needs to be building power. It is not enough to have small bubbles existing alongside the police, courts, and prisons. This is the reason why abolition as a socialist horizon is not only daunting, but also exciting. For every question we get about “who are you gonna call when you need help?”, we can have new ideas that help form a roadmap toward that horizon of abolition and socialism. In this work, we must forefront a multi-racial, feminist, queer movement that can resonate however we can. Abolition not only provides a methodology for understanding systems of power and oppression, but also a template for a different economic order. Just as the goals of communism and anarchism have been written off as unrealistic dreams, so has the demand for prison abolition. Upping the Anti editors are always excited to publish in the realm of the radical imagination not just as a mental exercise, but to really understand what kind of inspiring politics could lead to greater unity and collaboration to build a radical, anti-capitalist movement: the history and current iterations of police abolition offer real, substantial gains in bridging the debate between reform and revolution. *