Clergy with arms linked leading a protest march


Investing in a World That Is Not Yet

Members of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia lead a march on the street where Walter Wallace Jr. was killed, calling for an end to police violence. Emma Lee/WHYY

By Marc Lamont Hill

Last November, Walter Wallace Jr. was having a mental health episode in West Philadelphia. The police arrived at the scene and, seeing Wallace was carrying a knife, killed him. There are many questions we can ask about this incident. But how can we think about it beyond the level of individual interaction? That is, what are the forces, circumstances, and logic that create a situation where an officer is forced to make the choice of whether or not to shoot? How did we get into a situation where, when Walter Wallace’s mother saw her son having a mental health episode, the only place she could call for relief was an armed police force? She didn’t want the police. She wanted an ambulance. She wanted support for her son. How did this happen? How did we get here? And how do we get out?

This is where abolition comes in. Abolition is not just about saying we want a world without prisons, although we do. Abolition is not just about saying we want a world without police, although we do. Abolition is also an affirmative vision of the world we want to see.

When people ask me about abolition, I don’t start by saying: What does the world look like with nobody in prison? What does the world look like with a dismantled structure? What does the world look like with no police officers? These are the wrong questions. Instead, I begin by asking: What would the world look like if everyone’s needs were being met? What would the world look like if our needs were being met? What would the world look like if Walter Wallace had access to mental health resources and to institutions that would invest in him rather than contain, blame, and criminalize him? If medical addictions were treated rather than criminalized?

This has to be the place where we begin. If we start with these questions, then we can begin to imagine the role of policing differently. We can begin to imagine a world where the police officer is no longer the one called to the scene because we don’t have a drug caseworker or a social worker or because money wasn’t put into treatment or mental health. If the only tool we have is a hammer, then everything will look like a nail. Right now policing has become the catchall solution to every problem. Policing has become the hammer. In order to get out of this view, we have to tap into the radical act of reimagining.

And we have to think about this in the global context—in the context of so-called deadly exchanges, such as police exchange programs between the United States and Israel. It’s important to note that it’s not that Israel is teaching cops how to shoot Black people. America has known how to shoot and kill Black people long before Israel was founded in 1948. Rather, when we examine these deadly exchanges, we should view them as collaboration between two countries that are ostensible democracies but that are also increasingly authoritarian. We should view them as supporting the rise of the security state, the counterterrorism approach to policing.

From the vantage point of the Israeli state, Palestinians are seen as less than citizens. Whether they’re inside the state of Israel or in the West Bank, Gaza, or elsewhere, they’re seen as outside threats, and they are treated with a counterterrorism approach. When we look at the protests in Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, we see Black protestors being treated in the same way—not as citizens but as outside threats. They, too, are met with a counterterrorism approach.

With these examples in mind, what does it mean to treat civilians with a counterterrorism approach? What does it mean to have a security state, where security becomes the pretext for the deprivation of human rights? Policing is bound up in systems of authoritarianism as well as in systems of capital. It serves to protect property, and specifically the property of those who are valued by society—the privileged, the powerful, the bourgeoisie.

We have to reimagine policing, and we have to reimagine these relationships. And we have to reimagine what resistance looks like—if the threat is global, then the resistance must be. But it must begin with an abolitionist imagination.

When Howard Thurman writes about the scandal of the cross, he says that Jesus was being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, facing an unjust death sentence by the Roman government because of his radical politics. We could look at that moment on the cross as a site of death, as a site of tragedy. But the point is that we can’t linger in the space of death. Thurman points to the resurrection and says that it’s a reminder of the boundless possibilities for life that could emerge out of apparent impossibility. We should never scale down our aspirations to the level of the facts of our present situation.

Instead, Thurman urges all of us to acknowledge the grim realities of the present without being hostage to them: as Jesus was not a prisoner of the event of the cross, we are not destined to be prisoners of the events of our individual or collective lives. Jesus didn’t let death have the last word. And we cannot let the current social arrangement have the last word. We can imagine new possibilities, new formations, new realities, new social worlds, new selves.

And that’s what the abolitionist world is about: deploying the radical imagination in such a way as to imagine a world beyond this moment—a radical freedom dream that says that we don’t need police or prisons, because we will invest in such a way that they will no longer be necessary. They’re not going to go away magically. We have to invest in the world that is not yet. And that’s our path forward.

This is an edited version of a presentation delivered at the Global Militarization of Police panel at the Fifth Annual Black Religion, Spirituality, and Culture Conference on February 12, 2021.

Marc Lamont Hill is the Steve Charles Professor of Media, Cities, and Solutions at Temple University. An award-winning journalist, he has worked on campaigns to end the death penalty, abolish prisons, and release political prisoners around the world. His most recent books include Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics (The New Press, 2021) and We Still Here: Pandemic, Policing, Protest, and Possibility (Haymarket Books, 2020).

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