The Everyday Black Life of Abolition

Photo: Accompong Maroon Festival, (Jamaican Information Service)

The summer of 2020 has seen extraordinary uprisings against policing in the United States. An estimated 15 to 26 million people took to the streets in June, braving the summer heat while wearing masks to combat the spread of coronavirus alongside the ongoing pandemic of anti-Black police violence. Protestors cried out against the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by US police officers in the months leading up to the summer, and confronted state violence and capitalism by destroying police property and looting stores [See In Defense of Looting by Vicky Osterweil (Bold Type Books, 2020)]. The summer ran hot with revolutionary calls to defund the police and address intersecting forms of routine racial violence that shorten Black lives. The revolutionary fever of these protests reflected and generated growing recognition of the impossibility of police reform to end police violence, and the need for investments in real public safety nets like affordable and quality housing, health care, and public services.

The rallying call to defund the police encompasses the need to cut police department budgets until the budgets reach zero, and until police no longer exist. While this demand has been answered with some affirmative responses—most notably by the Minneapolis City Council which pledged to dismantle the city’s police department following George Floyd’s murder—others have argued that defunding the police simply means moving some money around and deprioritizing but not eliminating police budgets. Such watered down explanations of defunding the police center on the perceived need to continue investing in reforms like civilian oversight boards, increased diversity on police forces, police-community collaborations, and use of force continuums. Such reforms have consistently failed to reduce police violence, and instead require further investments in policing through additional training and other resources. Nevertheless, they have been recycled time and time again, appearing on commission and task force reports ranging from the 1968 Kerner Commission Report to Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, created by an executive order signed by Trump in 2019, is similarly tasked with making recommendations regarding police-community relations, police officer recruitment and training, and establishing best practices for law enforcement. The persistent failures of reforms to eliminate police violence necessitate that we divest from policing and ground our ongoing struggles in the long, expansive history and praxis of abolition.

Police abolition is built upon historical struggles to abolish slavery, incarceration, and other forms of racial violence. Police abolitionists work to end policing through a process of developing and investing in completely different infrastructures that holistically support the safety and well-being of everyone. Police abolition extends beyond simple one-to-one alternatives to policing. It encompasses methods to transform the conditions in which violence takes place and to decriminalize acts that have been deemed criminal in our social order. As abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore succinctly puts it: “Abolition requires that we change one thing: everything.” The work of police abolition is carried out by organizing collectives like Critical Resistance, INCITE!, BYP100, and Black Lives Matter. It is also practiced by everyday people like Black folk who replace policing with care and accountability in their daily lives. The long history of this latter practice, what I like to call an ‘everyday Black life of abolition’, provides critical lessons for how we as a society can turn away from policing.

Some of the earliest examples of the everyday Black life of abolition come from maroon societies. Maroons developed a range of tactics to evade and confront slave patrols, forerunners of modern police who helped maintain slavery by assisting slave owners in capturing and punishing enslaved Black people. In the Gullah Coast region of the United States—which spans from Charleston, South Carolina to Kingsland, Georgia—maroons developed tactics to throw sheriffs’ hounds off their scent such as creating false trails, rubbing wild onions or turnips on the soles of their shoes, kicking their shoes against skunks’ bottoms, and using household goods such as red or black pepper, pine oil, turpentine, kerosene, and gasoline to destroy hounds’ sense of smell.1 These methods for “losing the hounds” continued to be used in the region up until at least 1915 by fugitives from the law who sought to avoid police capture by retreating to the swamps, forests, or offshore islands that had once sheltered maroons.2 As an alternative to formal justice systems that buttressed slave society, maroons in the Americas developed their own justice systems. For example, the Djuka and Matawai maroons of Suriname governed themselves with their own laws and settled the majority of their societal disputes without referring to Suriname authorities. The Matawais used communal councils, consisting of elders, to adjudicate cases in which community norms were violated.3 These maroon justice systems continued to operate at least through the twentieth century, over a century after slavery was abolished in Suriname in 1863.4 Just as slave patrols operated as the forerunners of modern police, maroons anticipated modern refusals of policing.

In my own work, I point toward additional historical and ongoing Black definitions and practices of community beyond policing. I argue that Black community-based safety measures evidence ways to replace policing, and the threat of police violence, as an everyday tool of social control. Some of these alternative safety measures were practiced, for example, by Black people who established over forty Black communities in Montgomery County, Maryland between the late eighteenth century and the late nineteenth century. Some of the earliest residents had escaped or were emancipated from slavery, and a number of these communities such as Lincoln Park and Ken-Gar have survived as multi-generational Black enclaves. In these Black communities, many residents secure their safety through non-police mechanisms such as community services, cooperative living, and relationship-building. They practice transformative justice through community-level forms of conflict resolution, and they directly challenge police intervention in their communities. A key example of local Black residents turning away from policing is a resident-led conversion of a police substation in Lincoln Park into a tutoring and mentoring space for community youth in 2012. While Black people in the United States exhibit varying and conflicting views and approaches toward policing, including supporting many “tough-on-crime measures” throughout the past six decades [See Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)], Black communities provide a wealth of thoughtful and imaginative approaches for how to prevent, overcome and heal from violence in ways that do not always or solely rely on police.

As police across the globe continue to inflict systematic violence on Black communities, we can look toward the everyday life of abolition animating the Black diaspora. Many large-scale practices of abolition continue to take place in Black geographies tied to the lineage of marronage. In the town of Accompong in western Jamaica, where maroons gained partial independence in 1739, there were no police until a police post was established in 2017. The town, known as “the safest place in the country”, primarily maintains safety through community governance. Likewise, San Basilio de Palenque in Colombia, where the earliest residents secured their independence from slavery in 1603, has no police and is known for having no crime. Groups of residents manage community matters and the Cimarrona Guard (La Guardia Cimarrona) protects the community from outside threats through dialogue and conflict resolution. These ongoing geographies of marronage show how Black practices of safety and security that developed to structure liberation from slavery have been maintained and retooled to support ongoing freedom from state violence.

Moreover, residents of heavily policed Black urban spaces—seemingly impossible sites of police abolition—illuminate everyday pathways toward a world with no police. For example, Black organizers working with the 4Front Project in London have established youth-led, community-based transformative justice practices to process and heal from harm while combating the violence of the UK criminal justice system. Likewise, the Black-led Anti Police-Terror Project in Sacramento works to fight policing using non-police responses to domestic violence, substance use, and mental health emergencies. The everyday Black life of abolition in cities also encompasses the formation of non-police spaces that foster Black joy and healing. In Minneapolis and Washington, DC, for example, Black Joy Sundays hosted by the Minneapolis-based Black Visions Collective and Black Lives Matter DC routinely transform public parks into safe and affirming spaces provisionally dedicated to Black people. These Black spaces that fulfill human needs within urban centers of policing form workable openings toward the ultimate goal of police abolition.

Black geographies across the globe demonstrate that the abolition of policing is not just possible, but also already has roots in existing practices of community-building, care, and accountability that refuse, disrupt, and elude policing. The lineage of police abolition extending from the era of slavery continues to shape daily Black life and placemaking, as well as cross-racial radical organizing beyond policing. In the current reckoning with policing’s violent past and impossible future, we must attend to and extend the everyday Black life of abolition to build a world free of police.

  1. Hodges, H. Eugene. 1971. “How to Lose the Hounds: Technology of the Gullah Coast Renegade.” In The Not So Solid South: Anthropological Studies in a Regional Subculture, edited by J. Kenneth Morland, 66–73. Southern Anthropological Society Proceedings 4. Athens, GA: Southern Anthropological Society.
  2.  Ibid.
  3.  Green, Edward C. 1977. “Social Control in Tribal Afro-America.” Anthropological Quarterly 50 (3): 107.
  4.  Köbben, A.J.F. 1969. “Law at the Village Level: The Cottica Djuka of Surinam.” In Law in Culture and Society, edited by Laura Nader, 117–40. Chicago, IL: Aldine.; Green, 1977.
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Celeste Winston

Celeste Winston is Assistant Professor of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University. She received her PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences in 2019 from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.