Activists want to abolish prisons, police

I wrote an article earlier this week about CR10, the 10th-anniversary conference that the Oakland-based, anti-prison activist group Critical Resistance is holding tomorrow through Sunday in Oakland. Today, the like-minded Justice Policy Institute has rolled out a new report, “Moving Target,” detailing what it calls the continued expansion and adaptation of the prison-industrial complex — which it defines as the relationship between government and private interests that use imprisonment, policing, and surveillance as a solution to social, political, and economic problems — despite activists’ efforts.

The report says polling shows 65 percent of people support addressing the underlying causes of harm in our communities — such as poverty and inadequate housing, healthcare, education and job opportunities — over purely punitive sentencing, yet policing, immigration enforcement, surveillance and incarceration keep growing in scope and cost.

“The system seems intent on targeting and imprisoning poor people and people of color regardless of whether crime is going up or down,” CR10 conference coordinator Rachel Herzing said in a news release.

Author, longtime activist and UC Santa Cruz professor Angela Davis, who helped launch Critical Resistance, says the report underscores the continued need for the organization.

“A gathering of thousands of people from around the country — and other parts of the globe — to envision and build a world without imprisonment, policing, and other forms of control and abuse is a mark of both the immense strength and the absolute necessity of our collective work,” Davis said in a news release. “We’ll know we’ve done our job when all of the resources that currently are wasted on promoting violence and constructing prisons are used to create true safety and build healthy communities for everyone.”

Several readers have reacted negatively to my article, expressing everything from doubt to scorn while asking what Critical Resistance’s alternatives to police and prisons would be. From Critical Resistance’s FAQ:

QUESTION: If prisons and policing aren’t the answers, then what?

The answer lies in developing systems of harm prevention and when harm still occurs, because it will, systems of accountability and ways to address the causes of the harm that do not rely on the failed, back end response of locking someone up.

Even the most horrendous forms of harm do not happen without a reason. Awareness of why harm occurred is the first step in preventing future harms. For example, we know that people who commit acts of harm often have been harmed themselves in the past. We also can not see individual acts of harm in isolation, as disconnected with the larger the world, the social and economic conditions that lead to harm.

Abolition does not mean that we don’t hold people accountable for their actions. But punishment creates the opposite of accountability — a sense of social isolation instead of responsibility to others. If anything, punishment makes future harm more likely since it encourages people to lash out. People who have seriously harmed another need appropriate forms of support, supervision and social and economic resources.

We don’t claim to have all the answers. In reality, we know that the dominance of prisons as an response to harm has kept many alternatives from developing. But we also do know that alternatives exist. In post-apartheid South Africa, for example, rather than try, punish and potentially imprison those who had done harm to others under apartheid, the new government set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission heard testimony of people who took responsibility for their actions and were held accountable without imprisonment. While the system may not have functioned perfectly, it does provide an alternative model for even horrendous offenses such as the genocide that occurred under apartheid.

What do you think — visionary activism or empty rhetoric?

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.