For more than a century, activists in the United States have tried to reform the police. From community policing initiatives to increasing diversity, none of it has stopped the police from killing about three people a day. Millions of people continue to protest police violence because these “solutions” do not match the problem: the police cannot be reformed.
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In Becoming Abolitionists, Purnell draws from her experiences as a lawyer, writer, and organizer initially skeptical about police abolition. She saw too much sexual violence and buried too many friends to consider getting rid of police in her hometown of St. Louis, let alone the nation. But the police were a placebo. Calling them felt like something, and something feels like everything when the other option seems like nothing.
Purnell details how multi-racial social movements rooted in rebellion, risk-taking, and revolutionary love pushed her and a generation of activists toward abolition. The book travels across geography and time, and offers lessons that activists have learned from Ferguson to South Africa, from Reconstruction to contemporary protests against police shootings.
Here, Purnell argues that police can not be reformed and invites readers to envision new systems that work to address the root causes of violence. Becoming Abolitionists shows that abolition is not solely about getting rid of police, but a commitment to create and support different answers to the problem of harm in society, and, most excitingly, an opportunity to reduce and eliminate harm in the first place.
“One of the most perceptive and passionate thinkers of any generation, Derecka Purnell has written a genuinely revolutionary text for our times—one that resists easy answers or solutions and never shies from the hard questions. Beginning in St. Louis, the world that nurtured and launched her on this journey, Purnell takes us all over the globe, across five centuries of history and hundreds of illuminating encounters. She courageously confronts all of the ways freedom is arrested, not just by the state but by the hidden chains of economy, by our patriarchal and ableist culture, by our indifference toward the planet, and by each other. She proves that abolition is not an event or a utopian dreamstate, but rather a journey of assembly struggling to create new worlds of freedom as we fight the unfree world we inhabit. Beautifully written, passionate, honest, Becoming Abolitionists charts a journey we all must take if we plan to survive, let alone live together.”
— Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
Derecka Purnell is a human rights lawyer, researcher, and author of Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom. She works to end police and prison violence by providing legal assistance, research, and training in community based organizations through an abolitionist framework. As a Skadden Fellow, she helped to build the Justice Project at Advancement Project’s National Office, which focused on consent decrees, police and prosecutor accountability, and jail closures. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Purnell co-created the COVID19 Policing Project at the Community Resource Hub for Safety Accountability. The project tracks police arrests, harassment, citations and other enforcement through public health orders related to the pandemic. She is currently a columnist at The Guardian and a Scholar-in-Residence at Columbia Law School.
Lisa Snowden is Editor-in-Chief and cofounder of Baltimore Beat. Previously, she was an editor at Baltimore City Paper, Baltimore Sun, and The Real News Network. Her work has also appeared in Essence, Washington Post, Baltimore Magazine, and many other publications. Lisa’s recent work has included overseeing The Real News Network‘s Battleground Baltimore vertical, curating/hosting the inaugural episode of “Pass The Mic” on WYPR’s On The Record, and reporting on BLISS Meadows for Audubon Magazine.
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