‘This Is a Moment for Imagination’

Mychal Denzel Smith, Josie Duffy Rice, and Alex Vitale on the limits and opportunities of considering police abolition in an election year

This spring, amid a global pandemic and an unprecedented presidential campaign season, a number of Black Americans—including Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd—lost their lives to police violence. In June, CJR convened three longtime writers and speakers on the subjects of anti-Black racism and policing to discuss the media conversation that has evolved in the wake of recent protests.

SmithWe’re now a few weeks into sustained national protests against police brutality that erupted after the death of George Floyd, and all three of us have been appearing on air as a result of intense media attention on protesters’ demands to defund the police or abolish the police. We’ve talked and written about these ideas before, and in this moment we’ve had an opportunity to speak to a number of different audiences. How are you two feeling about making the media rounds?

Duffy Rice It feels overwhelming. For years I felt like I was Bible-thumping on the corner to an audience that didn’t want to hear it. Or I was talking to the same people who already believed. So it’s exciting to see more people grapple with these ideas.

Vitale Mostly it’s exhausting. I’ve been working twelve-plus-hour days. But it also is an obligation. I feel that I need to use my position as an academic book writer to create as much public space for this movement as I can, in the arenas that I have access to. I’m trying to advance these ideas in ways that provide political space and resources intellectually and financially to folks on the ground.

Smith In the conversations on police abolition that I’ve participated in with both of you in these past few weeks, I do feel like we’ve had space, but then what we say gets chopped up, decontextualized, and turned into sound bites. How do we push the conversation further when we know the media attention span is so short?

Vitale I’ve been actually blown away by the number of hour-long radio shows and podcasts and live events in which I’ve had opportunities to explain these things in depth. But even having five to seven minutes on national television to lay out what this movement is about was something that I’d never experienced before, except in one case with PBS NewsHour. The time spent discussing police abolition by mainstream media sites like the Washington Post and Time magazine and CNN has really been remarkable. So at least in those first two weeks of the protests there was a real openness to hearing what this is about. I think we’re in a slightly different moment now.

Duffy Rice It’s a moment for imagination, which has generally been scarce in talking about criminal justice. It’s very hard for people who don’t do this work every day to imagine a new world, so to see people engaging in that is major. The national conversation won’t remain this focused forever, but I hope this moment will open the door to a new way of thinking. My grandma, for example, has been doing civil rights work for seventy years. A couple of weeks ago, police abolition was not even on her radar. Now you can see her looking at these ideas as if they’re not so foreign. There’s no going back to a world where people don’t have this paradigm in their head.

SmithAt the same time, the context that’s needed to have a difficult conversation is diminished because cable news outlets are committed to a certain style of television and presentation that’s built around quick segments. The ideas get packaged and served to a majority-white audience in the form of a basic introduction rather than a complex argument. Is that the best way for people to understand these issues? What do you do when you’re on television knowing that this is one of the few opportunities that you’re going to get to advocate for the idea of abolishing the police or discuss it with any real knowledge?

Vitale All you can do in those moments is give the best, most concise argument you can for having these ideas be seriously considered, and attempt to lift up the folks who are doing the actual work on the ground. The only reason that this level of conversation is happening is because of the uprisings. Strategically my focus is on using my voice to directly support those movements, because that’s what’s going to really create the political power necessary for change. Technocratic arguments and well-reasoned treatises are not enough.

Duffy Rice Cable news is not constructed for new arguments. And it’s hard to overestimate the importance of this year being an election year, and the fact that a lot of these people think that police abolition is a losing issue. We’re always battling the court of public opinion, and good ideas that are new don’t always poll super well. That’s not a concern of mine, necessarily, but it is a concern of cable news networks.

Vitale This rejiggering of the cable TV narrative is definitely tied to the election. It’s clear that CNN and MSNBC are in the Biden camp, and therefore they share a very narrow analysis of police reform. They don’t want to do anything that is going to show up Biden or make Biden look inadequate. They’re not interested in having many voices that are undermining Biden’s pro-police message.

SmithThe ideas we’re seeing around policing and abolition have been developing for a long time. We’re hearing a lot from Ruth Wilson Gilmore, for example, whose writing and organizing dates back decades. We are reaching a zenith for the movement in which Mariame Kaba can write an op-ed for the New York Times saying literally abolish the police—the product of so many decades of work—but certain journalists who are now just encountering the movement dismiss it out of hand as silly and unserious, in bad faith. Some writers are saying, “This is a dumb idea, I don’t know where it came from, no one has explained it.” A few are fixating on polls showing that people don’t support the idea of abolishing the police. Is this sort of dismissal worth addressing? Does the focus need to be less on those who aren’t interested in taking the conversation seriously and more on media that is curious?

VitaleI’m not interested in debating Tucker Carlson. But I think there does need to be some pushback on the kind of Vox news centrism that relies on misrepresentations of these ideas and these movements.

Duffy RiceThere is an overreliance on numbers in journalism. I don’t think poll numbers are totally irrelevant. I wouldn’t suggest right now, at this very moment, that Joe Biden make his entire platform about abolishing the police. I understand that there’s a utilitarian approach to winning a presidential election. But the thing is, poll numbers aren’t my job. I’m not a campaign manager. What I do, and what Alex does, is present ideas where we have expertise.

Everything I learned, I learned from Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis. These are the people who have taught me everything. And I didn’t start out in this field as a prison abolitionist or police abolitionist. Learning is a valuable skill that can help you change your mind. Abolishing slavery also didn’t poll well. Martin Luther King didn’t poll well. Historically, when we look back on things and think, “How could we have had that system?” the answer is that the majority of people supported that system. So the fact that it doesn’t poll well is just not relevant to my own approach to thinking about this work. We’re asking people to change their minds about a big idea. Sometimes that takes longer than three weeks.

Number-based critiques frustrate me because they are an illusion of information that isn’t reflective of actual truth. If the numbers say crime goes up, well, what crime are we talking about? Who’s measuring it? Most crime isn’t even reported. The word crime itself is laden with assumptions and biases and misunderstandings. FBI statistics cannot describe what’s happening in a community or how people feel.

Trying to measure the worth of policies by determining that for every dollar of crime prevention we put in, we get $1.63 of social benefits is an approach that will never accurately reflect the lived experiences of people. We have to interrogate really basic ideas about justice to even have a real conversation about police abolition, and I don’t think that interrogation is happening. Some reporters cite studies and say, “We’re just asking the real tough questions.” But they’re not. The real tough questions are the ones that don’t have an answer here, and that result in some uncertainty, and that make us question everything we think we know about crime and safety in America.

“Abolishing slavery didn’t poll well. Martin Luther King didn’t poll well. The fact that it doesn’t poll well is just not relevant.”

Vitale It’s not just a kind of willful ignorance or intellectual laziness. This is about a political-economic viewpoint that says that it’s not appropriate for us to have universal healthcare or adequate housing because that would require reining in the power of economic elites. It’s a defense of a rancid class war carried out in part by a reliance on policing.

Duffy RiceWhat we’re saying is that policing is part of a much bigger structure that relies on the control and the subjugation of Black people and poor people, and has for decades. What if we were to grapple with what it means to not rely on policing? I think that when this feels theoretical to you as a journalist, those conversations seem too big and too unnecessary and too leftist and too pie-in-the-sky. They’re not. They’re actually crucial for us to evolve as a country. This isn’t a thought exercise. I think it is lamentable to see laziness disguised as pragmatism in people who present themselves as thought leaders.

Smith Let’s talk about America’s discourse about crime historically. Crime became central to politics in the sixties, as uprisings in urban areas reacted to a lack of jobs, to poverty, to police violence. Simultaneously the suburbs were built and became a destination for white flight. Consequently, white people feared violence encroaching upon their safety in their suburban enclaves. And so, during the Lyndon Johnson administration, the idea of an urgent need to eradicate crime was born. Richard Nixon took it to another level, and a number of big-city mayors came to power by committing to maintain law and order. That was translated again through Ronald Reagan and the war on drugs, and adopted by the Democratic Party. The idea of crime and Black criminality was a bipartisan idea. So I say all that to ask, what gets lost when conversations about crime and policing get subsumed into electoral politics?

Duffy Rice I think what you’re getting at is the social construction of crime and criminality and the fact that for decades politicians have been wielding this as a shortcut to an election win. And not just presidential candidates or congressional candidates—it’s every single level of government in almost every single position, including judges, city council, mayors, district attorneys, sheriffs, state legislators. We started seeing cops in schools around the time of Brown v. Board. We articulated the war on crime in the Johnson administration, around the time of the Civil Rights Act. So you can’t decouple racism from crime in this country’s history, and you certainly can’t separate partisanship from the conversation about crime.

But, look, fear is a very salient emotion. I recognize that as a parent. I spend half my time worried about something happening to my kid that statistically is just as likely as him getting abducted by aliens. When people feel like their safety might be at risk, it’s very difficult to have a reasonable conversation about statistics. That is one of the most uphill battles that we fight. But I do think that arming people with the truth is a helpful defense. It’s interesting to see people’s reactions when you tell them crime is lower on average than it’s been in fifty years. Maybe your car gets broken into, or maybe there’s interpersonal conflict, but the random violence that we think of as crime is not happening at scale. People think crime is a solid category with solid numbers with solid indicators. It’s not. That’s scary for people in many ways, but it’s also an opportunity to shift our electoral politics away from allowing elected officials to lock people up and to then say they did their jobs. What really keeps us safe? Is it the back end of policing, is it the back end of prisons, or is it making sure kids have good schools? Making sure they have parks? Making sure someone picks up the garbage? What is it that provides people with safety? In large part, it’s dignity and opportunity, and if we don’t provide those two things, then we’re fighting a losing battle—the same one that politicians have said they’re fighting for years.

“The harms the news talks about are framed as individual moral failure and inadequacy rather than structural failures.”

Vitale It’s important to emphasize that this is a public safety movement led by people who have experienced a profound lack of safety in their lives, and for whom policing has not been the solution. But there’s a larger conversation that needs to be had about how we understand harm and risk. And the electronic media, both local and national, in the United States is funded by corporate advertising. It’s important to them that harm and risk be conceptualized in a particular way that absolves corporate America of any responsibility for these problems. So if General Electric owns national media directly through purchase or indirectly through advertising, we’re not going to hear much about how they’re poisoning communities. Look at climate change and how poorly that’s been covered—because it implicates the people who pay for the news to go on the air. That means that the harms that get talked about on the news are the harms that are framed as being the result of individual and group moral failure and inadequacy rather than structural failures of housing markets, labor markets, and healthcare markets. That has always been a major factor in the “it bleeds, it leads” approach of news programs. We need to lift up non-corporate-sponsored media so we have a chance to explain these ideas more fully.

SmithWhat are the prospects of pushing the Democratic Party, and in particular Joe Biden, their selected standard-bearer and architect of the 1994 crime bill, to have a substantial conversation around defunding the police?

Vitale None. I’m very pessimistic about this. A month ago, no one I worked with thought that we would be in direct conversation with the Biden folks about discussing abolitionist frames for understanding the criminal justice system. I think our ability to make an impact on this national election is quite limited, and strategically I continue to put most of my effort into building local organizing.

Duffy RiceI don’t think any shift at all is impossible. Certainly I agree that come November, defunding the police is not going to be on the table. I also agree that that’s not where defunding the police happens. National narratives do have salience, and it’s critical that national politics at least be aware of the conversation. But policing, again, is local. Criminal justice is local. And what the community needs in West Virginia is not going to be what the community needs in Baltimore or Atlanta or Oakland. We’re always trying to tell local stories on a national scale, but that can be difficult to do if you don’t have a strong local journalism infrastructure, which obviously has been depleted over the past few years.

We need to build momentum locally, where it has already been building. I’m reminded of the $15 minimum wage. When I graduated from law school, in 2013, a $15 minimum wage was a crazy idea. Nobody was talking about it except some fringe labor activists. And then it got pickup in Seattle, in San Francisco, in New York. Suddenly it’s a national movement. And here we are in 2020, when a $15 minimum wage is a reasonable position for a Democratic politician to take and not be laughed offstage. These shifts are possible—I don’t know if they’re possible five months from now, but they’re possible long term. We’re seeing a chink in the armor of the culture of policing. People are starting—not enough people, not a majority—but some are starting to think that maybe police have too much power and they’re not capable of maintaining it responsibly. There is potential. This is a groundswell movement.

This article has been updated.

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Mychal Denzel Smith, Josie Duffy Rice, and Alex Vitale are three longtime writers and speakers on the subjects of anti-Black racism and policing. Smith is the author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching and the forthcoming Stakes Is High. He is a Fellow at Type Media Center. Duffy Rice is the president of The Appeal and host of the podcast Justice in America. She is a New America Fellow, a Type Media Fellow, and a Civic Media Fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab. Vitale is a professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and a visiting professor at London South Bank University. He has spent the past thirty years writing about policing and consults with police departments and human rights organizations internationally. He is the author of City of Disorder and The End of Policing.