We Have Already Stopped Calling The Cops

What we can learn about police abolition from domestic violence activists.

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By Aviva Stahl

It was the late ’90s when writer, activist, and educator Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, then living in Toronto, found themselves in an impossible situation. Their partner, who I’ll call “T,” had become physically abusive, but calling the police wasn’t an option. To begin, T was their immigration sponsor in Canada, and they worried that calling the cops might put their status in jeopardy. Then, there was the fact that both of them were working-class people of color, and that T had already spent time in prison. “Even in a situation where I was in harm’s way, I was like, ‘I still love and care for my partner, and I don’t actually think that calling the cops is going to help either of us find safety,’” Piepzna-Samarasinha says. Instead, they started researching other ways they might deal with what was happening. “I needed to figure out a way for creating safety for myself that didn’t rely on the police.”

In the weeks since George Floyd was killed, sustained protests against racism and state violence — the largest many of us have seen in our lifetimes — have brought to the fore a conversation previously relegated to left-wing activists: that the only way to truly make our communities safer is to defund and, one day, completely abolish the police. Activists have largely rejected proposed reforms such as creating additional oversight or altering the rules for officers’ use of force, and, for the first time, many Americans are considering what their lives might look like if police departments were disbanded en masse. It's logical for them to wonder: What about violence perpetrated by other civilians? What if somebody tries to harm me?

It’s important to remember that, for many of us, the most dangerous place isn’t a dark alley or a street corner. The majority of women murdered in the United States (and across the globe) are killed in their own homes, at the hands of an intimate partner or family member. When it comes to this most endemic form of violence, we’ve largely already stopped calling the cops. From 2010 to 2018, 57% of those killed by a partner in NYC — all of whom had almost undoubtedly experienced previous instances of violence — had never reported domestic violence to the NYPD.

For many feminist abolitionists, the realization the police weren’t the answer to the violence they witnessed and experienced was just the beginning of their political journey.

When police do respond, there’s no promise they’ll help: In 2012, Marissa Alexander, a Black Floridian woman, was sentenced to 20 years for firing a warning shot at her abusive, estranged husband, an incident in which no one was harmed. (After an appellate court ordered a new trial, she accepted a plea deal that capped her sentence at the three years she had already served.) In the last few years, countless other survivors have been arrested for defending themselves after enduring years of violence, including Aylaliya Birru, Tomiekia Johnson, and Chrystul Kizer. “[Gender-based violence] survivors who are Black, brown, immigrant, poor, trans, queer, disabled… [or otherwise marginalized] lack the luxury of believing” that cops or prisons will keep them safe, explained Colleen McCormack-Maitland, who campaigns on behalf of criminalized survivors with the group Survived and Punished.

Despite having 911 at our fingertips for generations, the very place in the world women should feel the safest — our own homes — is still the most dangerous. For Piepzna-Samarasinha and many other feminist abolitionists, the realization the police weren’t the answer to the violence they witnessed and experienced was just the beginning of their political journey. The next step was allowing the possibility that they could build effective alternatives themselves. From implementing early-education programs to help prevent violence to devising ways to intervene when abuse is occurring to establishing processes so that a perpetrator can be held to account, feminist abolitionists have spent the last few decades creating the infrastructure for the world they dream of – one in which the end of misogynistic violence and the end of the police go hand in hand.

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To understand why activists say American police will never protect and serve Black people, it helps to look back to the institution’s origins in slave patrols. But even if you expect to be treated well by the police, you might hesitate to call the cops on the people you know or love. We might depend on the person perpetrating the harm for our survival. We might be fearful that other people in our families or communities won’t believe us. We might simply not want to see the person doing harm in handcuffs or behind bars. Drawing on data collected in a self-reported national crime victimization survey from 2006 to 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that nearly half of nonfatal domestic violence incidents (44%) are not reported to the police. The vast majority (an estimated 70%) of victims of child sexual abuse opt not to report their experiences to the cops. Trans and nonbinary people experience intimate partner violence and sexual assault at rates that far exceed their cisgender peers, but when surveyed, nearly one in two trans people said they wouldn’t feel comfortable seeking assistance from the police.

Violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum; we are embedded in each other’s lives in a way the police will never be. What would it mean to see these existing connections as the strongest possible protection against present or future violence?

That’s the idea behind pod-mapping, a process for determining whom one might rely on if they’ve experienced abuse, witnessed someone they loved being harmed, or were called to account for violence they had committed. The practice comes from the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (BATJC), an Oakland community working to build and support transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse (CSA). As co-founder Mia Mingus explains, pods create a tangible, concrete network through which people can prevent CSA or interrupt harm that may be ongoing: “If you see your friend treating their child in humiliating, unsupportive ways, have conversations with them. If you hear your friend using misogynistic language, intervene.” If someone agrees to be in another person’s pod, that constitutes a commitment to build trust, show up when asked for and hold the person accountable for their behavior.

Having conversations about the harm a friend could be committing through their parenting is awkward and difficult — it’s something we’ve been encouraged not to do, says Mingus. Instead of taking an active role safeguarding our own children and the kids in our extended families and communities, we’ve ceded that responsibility to the police. Building a world without cops means reconceptualizing who we entrust to guarantee our collective safety. “That means it’s us,” Mingus says.

We are embedded in each other’s lives in a way the police will never be. What would it mean to see these existing connections as the strongest possible protection against present or future violence?

In the many years since their abusive relationship ended, Piepzna-Samarasinha has written and organized extensively on these issues, becoming a leading voice on how queer people and leftists can foster safer relationships and communities, including by not relying on the cops. In the book Beyond Survival, published this year, Piepzna-Samarasinha and their co-editor sought to capture the diverse ways transformative justice has and can manifest in our everyday lives, a few examples of which have been explored in this article. A previous book they co-edited, The Revolution Starts at Home, examined how social justice activists have sought to confront intimate partner violence happening in their own communities.

Currently, Piepzna-Samarasinha consults with the Seattle-based group API Chaya, an organization that supports Asian and Pacific Islander survivors of gender-based violence and human trafficking. They also run “Natural Helpers,” a program to train community members — everyone from hair stylists and faith leaders to business owners and day care providers — to recognize the warning signs and dynamics of abuse so they can assist those in need. The program serves as a reminder that you don’t need a degree in social work to understand and intervene in violence that’s happening in your community. “We know way more than we think we do about how to support survivors and perpetrators,” they tell Bustle.

As Piepzna-Samarasinha and other activists readily admit, taking on the responsibility of addressing interpersonal violence isn’t easy. “It’s very unrealistic to think that people are voluntarily going to say, ‘I sexually abused this person!’ [or] ‘I’m beating up my partner and now I’m going to change!’” says Sonya Shah, an associate professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Shah has been involved in restorative/transformative justice work over a decade, including as the founder of The Ahimsa Collective, a group that facilitates conversations between those who have committed child sexual abuse and those who have experienced it. She says there are plenty of ways communities have sought to push a person who’s done harm to a place of contemplation without subjecting them to punitive measures or extended isolation. In the Ojibway community of Hollow Water, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, parents and other family members who perpetrate sexual harm spend years in a community healing and sentencing circle, working to take responsibility for their conduct until they’re able to be formally reunited with their children.

Funding from the police could be used to support programs in the United States that have been created elsewhere, for example an initiative in Germany designed to provide confidential support to people with professed attractions to children — enabling them to access therapy knowing nothing they disclose will be reported to the police, as long as they don’t have an active prosecution against them. According to Shah, one of the greatest barriers in preventing violence and abuse, especially in the United States, is that people who commit harm have nowhere to go to understand or prevent their bad behavior. “In the bigger scheme, if we want to prevent [harm] from happening, we have to build our capacity to hear things that are really painful and hard,” she says.

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The Safe Bar Collective, a program launched in 2016 by the D.C.-based Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), trains member businesses to identify, respond to, and intervene in sexual and racial harassment so that patrons and workers can be safe. “Too often in our conception, we’re thinking about what survivors need after violence occurs,” says CASS former Interim Director Alicia Sanchez Gill. “But we also have to be thinking about how to transform the entire culture so we’re in a community where sexual violence is no longer tolerated.”

Behind Gill’s and many other transformative justice activists’ work is a refusal to accept that sexual assault, familial abuse, and intimate partner violence are inevitable. We understand that comprehensive sex and health education is key to stemming the spread of HIV/AIDS, preventing unwanted teen pregnancies, and getting the coronavirus pandemic under control. What would it mean if young people, and especially young women, were given practical skills for protecting themselves and troubleshooting violence so they could be as safe as possible in the present or down the line?

Before Sikivu Hutchinson founded the Women’s Leadership Project in South L.A., there was nothing local “that addressed intimate partner violence, sexual violence, sexual harassment in a manner that was culturally responsive or sensitive to the social capital of African American girls.” In addition to gaining practical skills, participants explore the construction of Black and Latinx femininity and the ways in which misogynoir impacts their own lives. They meet and engage with Black feminist thinkers like Aishah Shahidah Simmons, talk about the erasure of gender-based violence in parts of the hip-hop world (including the 2015 N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton), and launch campaigns in high schools where sexual harassment isn’t being taken seriously.

“My parents had to work multiple jobs. How could they be present [to keep me safe from abuse]? We need resources to keep kids safe, housing and health care for all.”

Hutchinson sees WLP as an integral outlet for the mental health of the young women participants, but she’s been unable to expand the program to more than a handful of schools due to funding restrictions and a lack of buy-in from the public school district. “In my mind, if we’re talking about defunding and dismantling the police, the vacuum that creates is a generative one,” she says, that will allow for more culturally responsible programming for youth of color, the kind of interventions on issues of self-esteem and well-being that white youth rely on all the time.

The call to defund the police may indeed allow money to shift toward new initiatives, but as always, the devil is in the details. Scholars like Kristin Bumiller have tracked the ways in which contemporary movements against sexual and domestic violence have actually contributed to the criminalization of poor people and communities of color. Men of color’s supposed threat to white women has been a foundational myth of white supremacy, as has the erasure of the violence done to women of color by white men. Initiatives that do not recognize these histories and patterns risk recreating them.

“Funneling and diverting resources from policing into community-based programs is exactly what we should be doing in this moment,” says Gill. She cautions against using money previously earmarked for the police to fund government actors who have also caused lasting harm to people and families of color, for example social workers employed by child protective services. Moreover, says Gill, survivors don’t just need community intervention — they need material resources. “My parents had to work multiple jobs. How could they be present [to keep me safe from abuse]? For many of us who have experienced CSA, all of these other circumstances played into what happened. We need resources to keep kids safe, housing and health care for all.”

Piepzna-Samarasinha says funds ought to be redistributed in a manner that recognizes the many initiatives that operate outside of nonprofit organizations or other formal institutions. “A lot of the time, the most important transformative work is being done by people who can’t even access the state or are criminalized by it,” they say. Sex workers, for example, have sought to cultivate their collective safety by creating bad date lists or facilitating sex worker-led peer support groups There’s a significant risk redistributed funds might just end up in the hands of the best networked, least marginalized groups, notes Piepzna-Samarasinha.

They hope people will learn from the abolitionist feminists who have been doing this for years, and that we won’t diminish our demands to defund and abolish the new police.

“I hope that we don’t stop believing that we don’t actually need them,” they said, before quoting the words of June Jordan. “‘We are the ones we have been waiting for.’”