Long before the internet caught wind of him, Henry Earl was already a local legend. By the time the Charleston Gazette dubbed him a “cult-status hero” and Newsweek called him the “town drunk,” Earl was already known around Lexington, Kentucky, as James Brown. He liked to dance, and he’d do a few moves in exchange for a couple bucks, money which he’d usually promptly spend on alcohol.
Earl was born in the Jim Crow South and adopted at age seven. Drinking was a habit he picked up as a teenager after his mother died, one he never could quite shake. By age 19 he was homeless, and by 20 he’d been arrested for the first time. That was back in 1970. Over the next several decades, Earl was arrested more than 1,500 times, almost always for alcohol intoxication. This is how he became known as the World’s Most Arrested Man. Over the years, he spent a total of more than 16 years in jail, usually in couple-day spurts. He was never once charged with violence or theft. “I like to drink,” he said once. “Alcoholic, that’s what I am. Every police knows me on the force. They see me drunk; they pick me up; I get five days.”
Interest in Earl peaked a few years back, with websites dedicated to his mug shots that amusedly tracked his arrests. Late-night TV cracked jokes at his expense. National outlets ran stories on him. Around town, people called him harmless and happy, a “lovable loser.” But there were times Earl saw it differently. “It’s a sad life, it ain’t worth a dog,” he said in 2003, tearing up. “I got more sense than some people think I do. I’ve seen what it’s doing. It is ruining my life.”
Last year Attorney General William Barr addressed the Fraternal Order of Police’s biennial conference. “[W]hat stands between chaos and carnage on the one hand, and the civilized and tranquil society we all yearn for,” Barr told his audience “is the thin blue line of law enforcement.” Barr is a right-wing Republican who has for years advocated for a harsher and more robust police state. But his proclamation reflected a deeply held idea in American politics—that police are essential to an ordered and just country. Barr’s worldview is time-honored and bipartisan. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden might not be the same politician he was when he championed the 1994 crime bill, but his belief in the necessity of American policing—Biden proposes to pump $300 million in federal dollars to the police—has not changed. And it’s not just politicians who proselytize the necessity of policing. Boilerplate TV procedurals, true-crime podcasts, and the evening news sell us a world where the police, beleaguered and badgered, are ultimately all that stands between those of us who wish to live in society and the others who would choose savagery.
This is a myth. Despite much reporting of a spike in murder this year, the long-term trend still shows the murder rate hovering roughly in the same place it was in the 1960s, half of what it was in 1980. And while procedurals may paint a picture of cops chasing serial killers weekly, the actual face of police is more mundane. In June, the New York Times culled available data and estimated that police spend roughly 4 percent of their time addressing “violent crime.” Most of their time is spent dealing with noncriminal matters. And yet no matter the call—the loud party next door, the permit for a parade, the expired car tags, the escort for a funeral procession, the elderly welfare check, the frolickers barbecuing in the park, the schoolyard fight, the opioid overdose, the homeless person outside in the cold, the stray dog—the state’s answer is to respond with armed agents blessed with the near unimpeachable right to kill. The impact is not theoretical. After James Smith noticed the door of his neighbor’s home was open and the lights were on, Smith called the police, hoping an officer would conduct “a wellness check” on his neighbor. Instead, Officer Aaron Dean shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson in her own home as she played video games with her young nephew. Smith was left to draw a grim conclusion. “We don’t have a relationship with the police because we don’t trust the police,” Smith recently told the BBC.
Even the impact of policing on violent crime is debatable. “We are fighting an unrelenting, never-ending fight against criminal predators in our society,” Barr claimed at the FOP conference in New Orleans. But the “never-ending fight” in the very city in which Barr was speaking is not going well. New Orleans has the fourth highest murder rate in the nation but clears only 35 percent of homicide cases. In 2018, the city’s police cleared only 2 percent of all rapes. The country at large isn’t much better. Last year, the Washington Post launched an investigation into murder clearance rates in 50 cities over the course of 10 years. The results were bracing. “Despite a nationwide drop in violence to historic lows,” the Post reported, “34 of the 50 cities have a lower homicide arrest rate than a decade ago.” In St. Louis, during the period the Post studied, it calculated that 54 percent of all homicides resulted in no arrest. In Baltimore, during the period it studied, the Post calculated that only 35 percent of all homicides resulted in an arrest. In Chicago the rate was 26 percent. The “line” isn’t just thin and blue—it’s porous and arbitrary.
One argument for policing holds that while police may not solve much violent crime, their very presence helps ensure safety. In a survey of research, the National Institute of Justice concludes that “hot spot policing” was “associated with reductions in violent crime relative to control areas.” What is “hot spot policing”? According to the survey, it includes “order maintenance and drug enforcement crackdowns, increased gun searches and seizures and zero tolerance policing.” This isn’t just a list of policing tactics; it’s a list of prerequisites for the present moment. For “order maintenance,” Eric Garner was suffocated on a New York sidewalk. For “drug enforcement crackdowns,” Breonna Taylor was killed in her own home. For “gun search and seizure,” the Black neighborhoods of New York endured Stop and Frisk. For “zero tolerance policing,” George Floyd was choked on a Minneapolis street.
It would be at least honest if we said that enduring arbitrary harassing, beating, tasing, and strangulation by the state was the price of being “associated with reduction in violent crime relative to control areas.” That we don’t say this, and that we only imply it for certain classes of people, exposes the assumptions built into American policing. It’s those assumptions that, on the one hand, allow Henry Earl to be arrested more than a thousand times, and on the other offer a sporting chance for anyone who’d like to try their hand at murder or rape. Policing accomplishes this dubious feat by imposing costs on innocent people who happen to live in proximity to crime, and others who simply happen to resemble in skin color those we think of as criminal. This is a system begging for reform, and the best way to reform an institution as compromised as American policing is by abolishing it.
It is impossible to imagine American policing without the institution foundational to America itself—enslavement. Indeed, from colonial times up through the Civil War, the largest police force in the country wasn’t primarily found in the early towns or the bustling metropolises, but in the slave societies of the South, where to be a white man was to be deputized. Enslavement, where the enslaver is both the maker and enforcer of law, was the first experience of policing for Black people. But through the invention of slave patrols, militias charged with enforcing the law against the enslaved, the policing powers were expanded. “All white persons were permitted and in some regards required to exercise a police power over slaves,” the white supremacist historian U.B. Phillips noted. In many states, white people were not only allowed but required to whip, capture, and jail enslaved people they encountered. They had a mandate to “prevent all caballings amongst negros [sic], by dispersing of them when drumming or playing,” meaning they could punish any enslaved people for simply interacting with each other. The patrollers operated, as one of their number put it, “without warrant and at my own discretion.” The shadows of American policing are here—in the prisons, we find the absolute mastery once enjoyed by the planter class; in the wide discrepancy granted the slave patrol, one sees the echoes of broken windows policing; and the bodies of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery reflect the extension of police powers far beyond official police.
Slave patrols were born of the propertied interests of white people seeking to maximally exploit Black labor, an endeavor that did not fade with emancipation. In many ways, it was reinforced. Planters may no longer have owned their labor force, but that didn’t stop them from seeking out means of preventing the formerly enslaved from freely selling their labor. Policing was key to this effort, which saw control lost through slavery regained through a panoply of laws that threatened arrest for everything from not having an annual work contract to “malicious mischief” and criminalized “persons who led idle or disorderly lives.” Depending on the state, the arresting officers could consist of urban police, militias drawn from former Confederate soldiers, or merely any white man. While there was a brief reprieve during Reconstruction, after federal troops departed the South in 1877, white Southerners employed policing to ensure a permanent and pliable source of labor. When Blacks tried to go north for jobs during the Great Migration, “the South resorted to coercion and interception worthy of the Soviet Union,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Suns. “In Brookhaven, Mississippi, authorities stopped a train with 50 colored migrants on it and sidetracked it for three days. In Albany, Georgia, the police tore up tickets of colored passengers as they stood, waiting to board, dashing their hopes of escape. A minister in South Carolina, having seen his parishioners off, was arrested at the station on the charge of helping colored people get out.”
It is tempting to think the Northern police departments unsullied by white supremacy. The assumption would be wrong. Throughout the entirety of Jim Crow, Northern police often parroted their Southern counterparts. “From the moment the emigrants set foot in the North and West,” writes Wilkerson, “they were blamed for the troubles of the cities they fled to.” Indeed, police departments took the cue and regarded Blacks much as the broader society had—as outcasts and threats. In 1917, in East St. Louis, Illinois, white workers angered by Blacks brought in to replace them during a strike rioted and “fired shots into colored homes,” writes Wilkerson. “The police, charged with quelling the riot, in some cases joined in, as did some in the state militia.” In 1943, during the Detroit race riot, “Police openly sympathized with the white rioters,” writes historian Thomas J. Sugrue; “17 blacks were shot to death by the police, no whites were.” Ten years later, as Black families tried to integrate Chicago’s Trumbull Park Homes, they were granted minimal protection from the police who sympathized with the whites who terrorized the families. Still, the greatest indicator of the role law enforcement in the North played in suppressing their Black populations lay in the prison population. Even in an era of relatively low incarceration, the rate in the Northern cities stood at seven to one—exactly the same as today.
That the police were not concerned with neutrality nor “law enforcement” was always clear to Black people. In 1967, after a series of riots, President Lyndon Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to report on the riot’s origins and recommend a series of reforms. Read today, the report is bracing for a haunting quality—its timelessness. Just like the countless commissions that have followed it, the Kerner Commission found a police department with too many responsibilities, filling in for the defunding and decline of societal institutions. Just as today, the Kerner Commission found Black communities complaining of “stop and frisk” tactics. And then, as now, voices of authority blamed police violence on the inherent pathologies of the Black population instead of the learned brutality of the police. Among the commission’s recommendations: an intolerance for police brutality, “a clear and enforced policy…of law enforcement in ghetto areas as is the same as in other communities,” and eliminating a focus on smaller crimes such as “gambling or loitering” in favor of crimes that threaten “life and property.” After the report was published, it became a best seller, but Johnson quickly scuttled it, and the era of “law and order” commenced.
It is common to note, as the Kerner report does, that Black communities frequently complain of crime right alongside police brutality. This is not surprising. Black communities are on every level less safe than white communities. And yet it is curious the ease with which police, who never fail to note this safety gap, abandon these vulnerable neighborhoods. Calls for accountability are often met with indignance and threats to desert those most affected by crime. The practice of officers, at the slightest sign of public critique, calling in sick en masse and refusing to do their jobs has long been called “blue flu.”
At times, retaliation is even uglier. After becoming the New York City’s first Black mayor in 1990, David Dinkins angered the union by calling for police reform. The response was open defiance of the law. Police officers derided Dinkins as a “janitor” and a crack addict, drank openly, blocked traffic, and assaulted journalists. A photographer seeking the protection of a lieutenant after being assaulted by an officer was essentially told to flee. “I can’t protect you up here,” the lieutenant said. In 2011, after the NYPD was investigated for corruption, officers again rallied at the courthouse, blocking the cameras of journalists, mocking poor people by chanting “EBT” at people attempting to collect their benefits. In 2014, in the midst of a conflict with Mayor Bill de Blasio, the NYPD largely stopped policing, at the behest of the union.
This is all very strange behavior for a group which takes an oath “to serve and protect.” But policing is often revealed to be about something muddier. In June, the Times asked Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot her opinion on the effort to “defund the police.” Lightfoot, a former prosecutor, didn’t even bother to defend her department—probably because a department with a history of torture, black sites, framing innocent people, and child killing is not easily defensible. Instead Lightfoot seemingly deflected to the lack of opportunity for Black and brown people in Chicago. Defunding “means you are eliminating one of the few tools that the city has to create middle class incomes for Black and brown folks.” That America’s second largest police department can only be defended as a kind of violent jobs program is a clear indictment of policing as an act of public safety. Furthermore, the fact that policing is one of the few tools available to bolster a racially diverse middle class is yet another indicator that police have far too much responsibility.
But America has never truly had a system of “public safety,” if only because Black “safety” has historically been imagined as being secured by more policing, whereas white “safety” is ensured by altogether different means. America does not flood the dorms of Harvard with cops because they are areas of “known drug activity.” It does not station armed officers in the cubicles of Wells Fargo. The white parents of Westchester do not generally have to subject their teenagers to The Talk. White safety, itself built on a foundation of enslavement and segregation, is ensured through familial wealth, home ownership, well-funded public schools, stable employment, and health care. Black safety is ensured by “zero tolerance policing” and “stop and frisk.” White safety is cancer prevention. Black safety is all-day chemotherapy.
Abolition seeks to eradicate this Jim Crow system of public safety—not merely a two-tiered system, but a system where one tier benefits by extracting from the other. To “reform” policing, to subject it to bias training of dubious import, to push for the return to an illusory past where Officer Friendly provided sanctuary, is to attempt to patch up the more nefarious features of a system that should be obsolete. Without the history of policies and practices that make up white supremacy, without enslavement and slave patrols, without black codes and miscegenation laws, without poll taxes and courthouse lynchings, without redlining and housing segregation, without mass incarceration, policing as we know it would not exist.
The outlines of the possible are already upon us. Defunding the police—divesting money from the back-end solution of policing and investing it on the front end—is a first step along the path. To meet the very real concerns about neighborhood violence, we could look to preventative programs like Cure Violence and Save Our Streets in cities like New York. These organizations view gun violence as a public health question rather than evidence of community moral rot. Both have been able to successfully reduce and prevent gun violence without inflicting more violence on communities they claim to protect.
Nowhere is the extra layer of unnecessary violence more reflected than in our insistence on sending men with guns to resolve mental health crises. In Eugene, Oregon, CAHOOTS, a crisis intervention program, was able to respond to 20 percent of the area’s 911 calls last year. Through the program, teams of medics and experienced mental health professionals are dispatched to handle certain emergencies instead of the police. For people suffering from mental health crises, addiction, and homelessness, introducing law enforcement in moments of desperation is an invitation for disaster. CAHOOTS reduces the risk of unnecessary violence and criminalization.
And removing police from our long and futile war against drug abuse is essential to abolition. This requires us to consider the role of harm reduction, rather than abstinence, as a possible avenue toward reducing the associated drug use. This solution is not theoretical. In countries such as Norway, Germany, and Canada, drug users can go to a safe injection site and use in regulated, medically supervised, and sanitary conditions. These facilities avoid relying on the stigma and shame that trails many of those suffering from addiction. And it works. When people have access to a safe environment for drug use, they are more likely to seek treatment on their own.
Abolition looks like justice for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. According to RAINN, for every 1,000 sexual assaults, only about 230 are reported to law enforcement. Of those, less than five result in incarceration. In other words, 75 percent of sexual assaults go unreported and 99 percent go unpunished. Policing does not protect women from sexual assault, it facilitates it. Prison sexual violence, not only at the hands of other incarcerated people but also from correctional officers, is a persistent problem across the gender spectrum, including the thousands of juveniles housed in adult prisons. In place of our current system, abolition envisions providing domestic abuse survivors with crisis counselors and violence intervention teams trained to specifically navigate intimate relationships, available at a moment’s notice. What would a future look like for rape survivors if there were professionals or organizations that could provide not just physical safety but mental, emotional, and financial resources as well?
But more than an array of solutions to discrete, isolated issues, abolition envisions something more fundamental—entirely different values. A world where the resources put into not just policing but our robust system of prisons and jails is invested in the people to eventually render the present justice system obsolete. This is a world focused on the reduction of violence and harm. Certainly you would still need professionals responsible with holding accountable those who violate the social contract in the extreme—rape or murder—and an improved investigative system to catch the perpetrators. But even in that case, ensuring society’s protection should look very different. Even in the most extreme circumstances, it would demand an end to the conflation of public safety with public vengeance. Removing someone from society to stop them from enacting violence does not require subjecting someone to the current prison system, where solitary confinement, assault, sickness, torture, and rape are par for the course.
This is the world I imagine when I picture what I want for my children—a world where social consequences are weighted along with criminal consequences, where incapacitation is not conflated with torture, and murder and rape are taken so seriously that we do all we can to prevent either from happening in the first place. But ultimately abolition is not about a suite of options imposed by someone else—even me. The promise of abolition is the promise of democracy itself—one long denied Black people: the promise inherent in constructing an order of public safety originating in the needs and desires of a community, and not those who have, for so long, exploited them.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates Guest-Edits THE GREAT FIRE, a Special Issue
— Breonna Taylor’s Beautiful Life, in the Words of Her Mother
— An Oral History of the Protest Movement’s First Days
— Celebrating 22 Activists and Visionaries on the Forefront of Change
— Novelist Jesmyn Ward on Witnessing Death Through a Pandemic and Protests
— Angela Davis and Ava DuVernay on Black Lives Matter
— How America’s Brotherhood of Police Officers Stifles Reform