Abolition of police and prisons

I’ve been participating in Zoom discussions of the Quaker Abolition Network, initiated by Mackenzie Barton-Rowledge and Jed Walsh. The following is from an article they wrote for Western Friend.

Mackenzie: Let’s start with: What does being a police and prison abolitionist mean to you?
Jed: The way I think about abolition is first, rejecting the idea that anyone belongs in prison and that police make us safe. The second, and larger, part of abolition is the process of figuring out how to build a society that doesn’t require police or prisons.
Mackenzie: Yes! The next layer of complexity, in my opinion, is looking at systems of control and oppression. Who ends up in jail and prison? Under what circumstances do the police use violence?
As you start exploring these questions, it becomes painfully clear that police and prisons exist to maintain the white supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist status quo.

Abolish the Police by Mackenzie Barton-Rowledge and Jed Walsh, Western Friend, November December, 2020

So if we abolish the police, what’s the alternative? Who do we call? As someone who grew up calling 911, I also shared this concern. I learned this: Just because I did not know an answer didn’t mean that one did not exist. I had to study and join an organization, not just ask questions on social media. I read Rachel Herzing, a co-director of the Center for Political Education, who explains that creating small networks of support for different types of emergencies can make us safer than we are now, and reduce our reliance on police. The Oakland Power Projects trains residents to build alternatives to police by helping residents prevent and respond to harm. San Francisco Mayor London Breed just announced that trained, unarmed professionals will respond to many emergency calls, and Los Angeles city-council members are demanding a similar model. This is the right idea. Rather than thinking of abolition as just getting rid of police, I think about it as an invitation to create and support lots of different answers to the problem of harm in society, and, most exciting, as an opportunity to reduce and eliminate harm in the first place.

How I Became a Police Abolitionist. When people dismiss abolitionists for not caring about victims or safety, they tend to forget that we are those victims, those survivors of violence by Derecka Purnell, Human rights lawyer, The Atlantic, JULY 6, 2020

This is how Abolitionist Futures for social + transformative justice against prisons + policing, answers the question, why abolition?

  • The criminal justice system is violent and harmful
  • The criminal justice system does not reduce social harm
  • We can build a world based on social justice, not criminal justice

After several meetings of the Quaker Abolition Network, we realized we didn’t have a clear idea of how to define and implement the idea of abolition. That will be the purpose of our next meeting.

Purpose: Exploring what it means to continuously co-create a collaborative Quaker network working for abolition in the various spaces/communities/identities we inhabit. Goal is to collect input from folks in attendance to work toward greater clarity in what/who this network is, what it will do, and how it will do it.


  1. Transcript of an interview with Angela Davis and Betita Martinez on coalition building, networks, alliances, and more.
  2. This “Continuum of Collaboration” chart that provides a springboard for thinking about the various ways this group might take shape and/or change over time.

Queries to accompany the reading and our time together:

  1. How do we build a network that can take decisive action but also grow and change and split like an amoeba over time?
  2. How can we build unity of purpose while respecting and acknowledging that different communities have different assets and needs?

The following relates to how I see the answers to those two queries. One of the goals of Mutual Aid communities is to help new Mutual Aid groups form. Each Mutual Aid community can have a different focus. Some for food, some for shelter, some related to police and prisons. Some Mutual Aid communities embody several different projects.

Building unity of purpose and acknowledging different needs is what Mutual Aid is about. A fundamental principle of Mutual Aid is the work is done with the people affected. The work is done locally.

It is important related to building community that Mutual Aid groups have a flat, or horizontal hierarchy. That is crucial to empowering the participation of all who come together to do the work in their local communities. This intentional model avoids many of the problems in organizing. Avoids a vertical hierarchy that creates harmful power dynamics.

Another important part of Mutual Aid is how it creates excitement/fulfillment for those involved as they work on immediate solutions to problems. We had to move to sign up sheets for Mutual Aid projects in Des Moines because too many people were showing up.

Following is from my friend Ronnie James when he spoke at a Black Lives Matter teach in last summer. Ronnie is an Indigenous organizer and deeply involved in our Des Moines Mutual Aid community.

What we have is each other. We can and need to take care of each other. We may have limited power on the political stage, a stage they built, but we have the power of numbers.

Those numbers represent unlimited amounts of talents and skills each community can utilize to replace the systems that fail us.  The recent past shows us that mutual aid is not only a tool of survival, but also a tool of revolution. The more we take care of each other, the less they can fracture a community with their ways of war. Organized groups like The American Indian Movement and the Black Panther Party for Self Defense showed that we can build not only aggressive security forces for our communities, but they also built many programs that directly responded to the general wellbeing of their communities. This tradition began long before them and continues to this day. Look into the Zapatistas in Southern so-called Mexico for a current and effective example.

These people’s security forces, or the “policing of the police” not only helps to minimize the abuse and trauma they can inflict on us, but it begins to shift the power balance from them to us.

Mutual Aid programs that help our most marginalized or other events that work to maintain our spirits result in stronger communities. A strong community is less vulnerable to police intrusion. 99% of our conflicts can be solved by those affected by them, but only with the support of those around them. Anytime we call on the police to mediate our problems, we are risking ourselves or a loved one from being hurt or worse.

The more we replace the police with organized community response to conflict, the safer we will be. Another powerful benefit is the removal of power from those that take their orders from those that have no interest in your well being, at least past it being useful to amass and increase wealth.

Many communities work to train amongst themselves mental and physical health workers, conflict mediators, and anything else we need, despite the state and it’s soldiers insistence that they are the sole “authority” of these skills, and always with the implied threat of violence.

As we work toward this, and this summer has proven des moines has the heart, desire, and skills to do so, we still have to deal with what’s in front of us.

We each have skills and resources we can utilize towards the abolition project. Some of us can use the halls of the system to make short term change there, others have skills that produce food, provide medical care, or care for our precious youth, some are skilled in the more confrontational tactics needed. Once we envision that world our ancestors want for us, finding our role is natural.

If we are to survive, and more importantly, thrive, we know what we will have to do.

All Power To The People.

Ronnie James

Regarding abolition, I think it is instructive to see that our Mutual Aid (DMMA) community has become so closely connected with Des Moines Black Liberation (DMBL). To the point that it seems the two communities are practically one. The following is what Patrick, with Des Moines Mutual Aid said during a press conference October 13, 2020, when Des Moines Black Liberation declared a Black State of Emergency in Iowa #BlackEmergencyIA

Hi, I’m Patrick Stahl with Des Moines Mutual Aid.

Des Moines Mutual Aid is a collective that does outreach for homeless folks in our community, houseless folks in our community. We also assist BLM with their rent relief fund, and most of the work we’ve done is running the bail fund for the protests over the summer. In the course of that work, we have witnessed firsthand the violence that is done upon people of color, Black people specifically, by the white supremacist forces of the state – in this state, in this city, in this county. There is absolutely a state of emergency for people of color and Black people in Iowa. The state of emergency has been a long time coming. We will support – DMMA will absolutely support any and all efforts of this community – BLM, and the people of color community more generally- to keep themselves safe. Power to the people.

mutual aid is the new economy. mutual aid is community. it is making sure your elderly neighbor down the street has a ride to their doctor’s appointment. mutual aid is making sure the children in your neighborhood have dinner, or a warm coat for the upcoming winter. mutual aid is planting community gardens.

capitalism has violated the communities of marginalized folks. capitalism is about the value of people, property and the people who own property. those who have wealth and property control the decisions that are made. the government comes second to capitalism when it comes to power.

in the name of liberation, capitalism must be reversed and dismantled. meaning that capitalistic practices must be reprogrammed with mutual aid practices.

Des Moines Black Liberation

May be an image of text that says 'DES MOINES BLM Teach-In: The Police State and Why We Must Resist Saturday, August 22 5:30-7 pm Evelyn K Davis Park FRESH FRUIT AND PRODUCE PROVIDED WITH DES MOINES MUTUAL AID'

This entry was posted in abolition, Black Lives, civil disobedience, Des Moines Black Lives Matter, Des Moines Mutual Aid, Mutual Aid, police, prison, race, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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