Why Do We Call the Police?

Why Do We Call the Police?

An interview with Derecka Purnell, the author of Becoming Abolitionists, about what makes communities unsafe—and how she went from calling 911 to fighting for abolition.

A Black Lives Matter rally outside LAPD Headquarters in Los Angeles on May 25, 2021 (Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

Booked is a series of interviews about new books. In this edition, Lyra Walsh Fuchs talks to Derecka Purnell, the author of Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom (Astra House).

In Becoming Abolitionists, Purnell charts how she went from calling 911 “for almost everything” to fighting for the end of prisons and police. Purnell is a human rights lawyer, writer, and organizer. She monitored police with the National Lawyers Guild and the Black Movement-Law Project in Baltimore during the protests after Freddie Gray’s murder in 2015 and has joined uprising crowds everywhere from Ferguson to Capetown. When we spoke, she was at Howard University to support the student sit-in against poor housing conditions. Her book—part memoir, part essay, and part argument—is an organizing tool itself, inviting in skeptics and offering a bridge to committed activists in other movements.

Lyra Walsh Fuchs: What, if anything, has surprised you about the conversations you’ve been having about the book? Is there anything you wish that you included that you didn’t?

Derecka Purnell: I have all these very specific ideas about what a transition could look like, and I went back and forth about including them, because I didn’t want the book to be read as “This is what we need to do to build an abolitionist world.” I really do believe in organizing collectively. I believe that we get to decide what that transition looks like, so I had to resist the temptation of writing, “We should start by doing this, and then we should do this, and then we should do this.”

What I did put on the table was, “We should explore why people are calling 911, and build relationships with those people to figure out if we can reduce their reliance.” And, “We should start removing resources from the police as we’re building the world that we want, because the police are going to sabotage the work that we’re going to do. We should fight for sweeping policy changes.” Some people who I’ve been in conversations with want to be told an answer so badly, and I think, “I should’ve just said it.” But, there’s not just one answer, and that’s what I think is so exciting about the abolitionist project.

I also didn’t realize how many people wanted to hear more about parenting, and the conversations I have with my children about abolition.

Walsh Fuchs: Maybe there’s a guide to abolitionist parenting in your future.

Purnell: Yes! I think so.

Walsh Fuchs: Let’s get concrete for a moment about these visions of transition you have. Can you describe one?

Purnell: We need to figure out how to reduce peoples’ reliance on police. And police ultimately manage a lot of the inequality that we have in our society. We have to fight for big, sweeping changes, including policy changes, to start reducing that inequality. We can’t just abolish the police and leave capitalism intact, leave homophobia and racism intact, because then we’re still going to have an unequal society that will figure out other ways to do that policing work.

One immediate thing that we can start is reviewing data about the voluntary and involuntary encounters that happen between police and civilians and think about specific ways to reduce them. Why do people call the police into their homes and their neighborhoods? By studying those calls and interacting with people in our neighborhoods, can we figure out what’s actually lacking?

That’s just one part of a broader project, including reducing police funding and the size of police forces, and freezing police academies. Those are tangible and concrete goals people can understand. But looking at 911 calls is an immediate action we can take to start reducing our own reliance on police.

Walsh Fuchs: If most of the 911 calls in a neighborhood were for noise complaints, are you saying we should look at that data and figure out how to address these complaints without police?

Purnell: I asked the chief of police in Ferguson what the number one 911 call was there, and he said, “Shots fired.” Every time you hear a shot, that doesn’t mean that someone was killed; people shoot recreationally, people shoot in retaliation, people shoot guns to hunt, people shoot guns to scare people away, people shoot guns to preemptively hurt someone before they get attacked. We can’t get to the bottom of why people are shooting just by looking at these 911 calls, but if we know that lots of people are picking up their phones to make the call, then we can go about creating a community intervention plan. Do we have some idea of who’s shooting? Maybe we should do a gun buyback program in this neighborhood, or maybe we should do more street violence interruption in this neighborhood, or maybe we should figure out how to rely on truces to stop violence. Maybe there are guns retailing in the neighborhood that shouldn’t be there. These are all different ways that we can start getting into some of the roots of the problem that police can’t. Police can show up and maybe arrest someone who shoots a gun, but it doesn’t stop the cyclical nature of the gunshot phone calls. It’s just arresting one person who can shoot a gun again once they get out of jail.

Walsh Fuchs: In the book, you also suggest that, rather than more criminalization of gun possession, going after manufacturers would be a good strategy.

Purnell: We absolutely have to reduce and ultimately eliminate our gun culture in the United States. When I was in law school, a Black man in North Carolina who had a gun was going through a crisis and his fiancée was trying to tell the police that there was a gun in the car, and the police shot him. The police said they “feared for their lives.” Well, they can always fear for their lives, because there are more guns in the United States than there are people. [Through cases such as Graham v. Connor], the Supreme Court has given them a license to kill based off of this phrase. And if the police always have a license to kill people because they may have a gun, the simple solution is that we have to fight terribly hard to reduce the number of guns in this country. We have to fight for the reinterpretation of the Second Amendment; we have to put pressure on big lobbying groups like the NRA, and on our gun manufacturers, and on Congress for regulation on production and manufacturing.

The people who get locked up for gun possession—usually poor Black and brown men—are put in jail, they get a record for gun possession, they come out of jail, they’re in a precarious situation, often more precarious than before they went to jail, and they may get a gun to protect themselves. You’re just putting someone through a cycle of racking up gun charge after gun charge, while never getting to what will actually keep this person safe. We put the blame on people for owning guns and not the society that leaves them vulnerable, the society that permits gun production at absurd rates. We have to fight it in culture, we have to fight it in media, we have to fight it in Congress, we have to fight it at the city level. I don’t think further criminalization of gun possession is going to get us there.

Walsh Fuchs: Speaking of Congress, what do you think is the best avenue toward abolition for those who are policy and law-focused? Is it even possible for anything to get passed on a national level?

Purnell: I think we should try everything. The reason why I’m a lawyer, in addition to being a writer and an organizer, is because I think that we have to be athletic in training for this fight. As a lawyer, I get to help organizations sue jails, for example, to try to close them. That’s something that I have the legal skills to do. I know it’s an uphill battle.

Policy change is very important. We’re fighting to eliminate student debt, for example, like the Debt Collective. Or fighting for the Green New Deal, like the Sunrise Movement. Or fighting for the Red Deal, like the Red Nation. These policies can help undermine violence in our society. When we undermine violence, then people don’t feel like they need to rely on the police to solve everything. We fight for the electoral changes and the policy changes that can help increase agency in our neighborhoods and our communities. People are stuck in abusive relationships because they don’t have healthcare, or child care, or they can’t afford somewhere else to live. If we fight for the kind of society that has strong safety nets, and allows people to work with dignity and choose what they need to thrive, then we can reduce our reliance on the carceral state.

Walsh Fuchs: You write that “robust movements for socialism, decolonization, disability justice and earth justice are equally or perhaps more important than a singular movement for abolition.” Why, then, do you choose abolition as the focus of your work, versus one of these other movements?

Purnell: I see them all in tandem. Last year, when I began watching people identify as abolitionists in the wake of the uprising in response to George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin, many were talking about abolition and defunding the police in isolation. It reminded me of what happened a few years ago when “anti-racism” entered the public consciousness; I saw a lot of people identifying as “anti-racist” without talking about capitalism. I think it’s impossible to be anti-racist and not be anti-capitalist. You have to be both, especially if we understand race formation as part of capitalism’s rise in this world. I was nervous that people talking about abolition were solely focused on police, prisons, prosecutors, and surveillance. What I try to explain in the book is that I was engaging with feminism, anti-capitalism, immigrants, and anti-border work, all before I started understanding abolitionist politics. Last year, abolition—more than disability justice, more than climate justice, more than feminism, and more than decolonization—is what I saw people picking up and running with as an identity or as a brand. So I wanted to write a book to say, “If you care about abolition, if you care about dismantling the carceral state, we have to be in conversation with all of these other paradigms in order to figure out how to best fight for freedom.”

Walsh Fuchs: The idea of “abolition” does shock people, including some people who are part of the movements that you were just talking about. How do you bring in people from the other corners of those movements at the same time that you’re trying to link them together?

Purnell: I think it depends on the context. There are people who are scared of the term “abolition” for different reasons.

I’ve met socialists who say, “Well, we shouldn’t fight to defund the police, because that’s austerity. We should be fighting to make sure that the government can fully fund all of our services equally.” What’s scary about that is the assumption that anything that the government has decided to fund is inherently good. The government funds war. Would we consider reducing the military budget to be austerity? What’s different about defunding the police versus defunding public education and other social services? Why would people be interested in defunding the police but believe we must fight to make sure that other parts of our social fabric continue to be funded, like libraries? If I’m in conversation with those people, those are the questions I try to ask.

It’s a little bit different with the people I organize with. We ask each other very hard questions—questions that are much harder to answer than the ones I’m asked by people who are just afraid of abolition. When we ask each other, “What about the murderers?” we’re really trying to create responses. We’re trying to experiment. We’re trying to figure out which organizations can directly get to the heart of that problem.

And then, there are people who are afraid of abolition because they’re vulnerable to violence. There were people who were afraid of abolition under slavery because they didn’t know what to expect. They didn’t know if the white abolitionists in the North who were fighting for their freedom would protect them in the aftermath of the Civil War. They didn’t know what would happen. Some went to a stop they thought was a part of the Underground Railroad, and then they were betrayed by someone claiming to be an abolitionist who would sell them right back into slavery. There were all of these risks and all of these fears around what it would mean to change a society that relied on these oppressive institutions. In the wake of that oppression, people decided to keep organizing, keep talking about it, keep writing about it, keep experimenting, keep fighting for a society that is less oppressive than the one that they inherited. Today, it’s on abolitionists and people with radical politics to explain that vision, and it’s on us to commit to try to make happen.

Walsh Fuchs: There’s another challenge you write about: violence inspired by war. Can you talk more about how our culture of militarism leads to everyday violence?

Purnell: I came to those ideas by studying the work of sociologists. Whenever there’s war, we see an increase in non-military violence in the countries that are at war. We see this violent mentality. It reminded me of the statistic about how domestic violence increases during World Cup games, whether your team wins or loses. We see families, women in particular, experience assault from their partners, their brothers, the men in their lives. This also happens in war. Assaults increase, homicides increase, sexual violence increases. Within the U.S. military, the rates of sexual assault are through the roof. That’s also true in the areas around military bases.

If you say, “Every time we engage in war, we are inspiring people to engage in acts of violence,” you’re called unpatriotic, anti-soldier. Really, it’s the military that is anti-soldier. It doesn’t care about the well-being of the people that we send to go fight our wars, or the well-being of the victims who experience sexual violence in the military. It’s much like how cities and states don’t care about individual police officers. But they foster patriotism around the institutions, and people who are cops or soldiers feel bound and affirmed by that patriotic protection, even while their individual well-being is being neglected.

White supremacists emulate militaristic behaviors. They wear military uniforms; they try to enter into the military. Representative Steve Cohen, [a Democrat in Tennessee], tweeted after mass shootings: “You want to shoot an assault weapon? Go to Afghanistan or Iraq. Enlist!” That is the logic. It inspires so much violence that’s avoidable and preventable. We have to make a decision: Are we going to continue to protect sexual violence and racist violence in the military? Are we going to continue to let the military create chaos in countries abroad for resources? Or, are we going to fight for a world where people are free of that violence, where people are free to live the kind of lives they deserve, with dignity, justice, and peace?

Lyra Walsh Fuchs is the editorial assistant at Dissent.

Derecka Purnell is a human rights lawyer, writer, and organizer.

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