– Critical Resistance reflects on the current landscape of policing in 2023 and recommends what is to be done –
After the largest protests in US history, we see the death and destruction of policing on the rise with police having killed roughly three people daily since 2020. At Critical Resistance (CR), we ask how can that be after an estimated 16-24 million stood together to resist policing after the death of George Floyd, proclaiming bold demands such as “defund the police” and “abolition now”? A summer of global unrest with abolitionist aspirations was disrupted by the US presidential election with false promises from the Democrat party to deliver any sort of alternative from the right-wing. The result? A bi-partisan expansion of policing and soaring body count.
Where we are now in 2023
In 2022 alone, a record number of people were killed by policing, according to Mapping Police Violence, with 1,183 slain in total, 25% of whom were Black. Fearmongering with a false narrative of rising crime, Republicans continue to push hard “law and order” agendas in defense of “democracy,” while the Biden administration and Democrats pledge to fund policing, issuing classic reformist reforms we know will never end the violence of policing, such as body cameras, increased funding for training, and revising use of force standards. In fact, multiple democrat-led cities including Houston, Austin, Philly, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in addition to Chicago and New York all strategically increased police funding since demands to defund the police spread across the globe.
On a federal level, US police forces are third in the highest rankings for military budgets and spending in the world, meaning the US military has the largest military budget globally, followed by China’s military second, and then the US’s police force. As Kamau Butcher from People’s Coalition for Safety & Freedom points out in Truthout, the Biden administration tripled down on policing in December 2022 alone, subsidizing more than $770 million to local law enforcement, an additional $324 million to hire 1,800 new cops across the US, and proposing a measure to give an additional $13 billion to Community Oriented Policing Services (or COPS) Program, a component of the 1994 crime bill that arms police with military grade weapons and surveillance equipment, marking “30 years of funneling over $19 billion” to expand policing through state and local government. Meanwhile on a state level rolling across the US, in the last two years since the George Floyd rebellions, nearly 300 police reform bills instituting civilian oversight initiatives, anti-bias training, stricter use of force limits, disguising police involvement in cases of arresting people with mental illness or in certain states of crisis, and more.
In many states and major cities with concentrated police presence already, gruesome deaths persist, primarily targeting Black and Brown people. In Memphis, for instance, where 29-year-old Tyre Nichols was fatefully beaten and killed by six agents of the SCORPION unit (Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods), several of the longest standing and trendiest reformist reforms were already in place, including de-escalation training, use-of-force limits, requirements to exhaust all alternatives before resorting to deadly force, and reporting all uses of force. According to Al Jazeera, prior to Nichols’ tragic and senseless murder, the state of Tennessee even enacted state law requiring cops to intervene & stop abuse & report excessive force by other cops.
We can’t help but see the parallels between Memphis 2023 and Minneapolis 2020: George Floyd was suffocated to death in a city with similar efforts to policing reformism and professionalization. And we can’t help but connect the intersection between the now-two-year struggle in Atlanta to stop Cop City, a $90 million, over 85-acre training fortress that escalated when cops killed an Indigenous Venezuelan, queer and non-binary protestor and forest protector, Tortuguita, earlier last month, to the increased training proposed across the country.
At this point in 21st century, we must understand as undeniable fact that reformist reforms to policing do not prevent premature deaths or the violence of policing. Since the first police department was established in the US in the 1840s, policing reformism and the professionalization of policing have worked to expand and bolster the reach and impact of this deadly institution. Our demands and organizing strategies must maintain that policing is a system, it is not about individual cops, and the entire system is predicated on violence and control. The system of policing is also not broken; it functions exactly as it was designed to – to maintain racial capitalism and all the oppressions used to enforce it from white supremacy to heterosexism and patriarchy, ableism, classism, Islamaphobia and xenophobia, and US imperialism. Moreover, policing and imprisonment are firmly linked. The communities and individuals that are targeted by police are more likely to go to jail or prison, so we cannot rely on any form of imprisonment to respond to police violence. Our approach to policing needs to be integrated into an overall analysis about prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition and must acknowledge all the different kinds of cops we’re confronted with—from police forces and border patrol, to private security, community policing, and tips hotlines.
Given these facts, what is to be done? After over a month of loss after devastating loss, as more of us are once again moving into the streets to resist policing, we must once again soberly ask ourselves: what will it take to concretely move the needle toward a world without police?
How we can move the needle
At this juncture, CR turns to a couple of our past anti-policing campaigns for recommendations & possibilities forward. Having developed a few winning campaigns against policing since 2010, including ending the use of gang injunctions in Oakland through Stop the Injunctions Coalition (2010-2015), successfully defunding Urban Shield (2013-2018), passing an initiative for Care Not Cops (2017-2020) and disbanding Portland’s gang policing unit in 2020, we offer the following:
1. CAMPAIGNS and FLASHPOINTS
Flashpoint moments– when there seems to be a sudden surge of resistance flooding the streets– are challenging for abolitionists and organizers. Expressing generations of trauma and grief due to the multi-generational violence and oppression of policing protecting white supremacy as well as the outrage of prematurely losing yet another person while hundreds and at times thousands flood to the streets in resistance, it is challenging to say the least to stay grounded politically, as well as clear on strategy and long-term vision, especially when our political climate and organizing formations are fragmented, and our movements are beleaguered. Flashpoint moments also often understandably center around a death caused by policing. Horrific and tragic, police killings, though, are not exceptional – again, they are integral parts of the everyday institution of policing, not the result of one bad cop but made possible by reformist reforms that expand policing and increase contact of community members with cops. Craig Gilmore explains police killings as the “tip of the iceberg” of policing. As abolitionists or anyone wanting change from our current situation of a rising death toll due to policing, our task requires us to not only respond to the tip of the iceberg, but remove the whole iceberg altogether. So, how do we remove iceberg? We melt the whole damn thing.
Additionally, flashpoint moments require abolitionists to seize a moment and political opening during widespread grief and righteous rage, posing the threat of staying in a reactionary position, not necessarily strategically selecting a concrete issue to organize around. Truly inspiring, empowering and hopeful, in flashpoint moments, there are quick and energetic responses to oppression, as well as a breadth of people filling the streets, making demands, and pressing for change. Yet, throughout the emergence of policing as an institution since the mid 1800s, people have band together in rebellion to resist police killings, and protest after protest for nearly 200 years now, some uncertainties remain for abolitionists and change-seekers: How do we maximize the organizing opportunities presented in time of intense grief & outrage and funnel collective outrage into focused activity, harnessed strategy & coherent organizing? What does accountability look like in response to an execution by agents of the state? How do we grieve collectively while avoiding reveling in death or the loss of a specific person and keep focus on the state as an oppressive force that merits direct confrontation?
In the span of CR’s only 25-year lifetime thus far, from Amadou Diallo to Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Aiyana Jones, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, now Keenan Anderson, Tortuguita, Tyre Nicols and the countless others killed by policing whose names aren’t known beyond local reach, each time people en masse hit the streets to protest cases of murder by police, we need to collectedly recognize that the violence of policing unfortunately will not end by solely mass protest but concerted campaign organizing – how we melt the iceberg.
In other words, winning campaigns are the vehicle to abolishing policing. Abolitionists, activists, and freedom fighters cannot make direct, material change in our society against institutions like policing without organizing through campaigns. Generally speaking, campaigns allow us to make demands of institutions of power and leverage alliances to achieve systemic change, build a base of support, strengthen our membership, engage in liberatory education and culture shifting, and develop abolitionist leadership.
Campaign work is hard work, taking years to materialize and win, and many of our finest, most seasoned abolitionist campaign organizers are battle-worn if still with us. Sometimes, despite all our work, we lose parts of a campaign or a particular fight and need to regroup to pivot and propel the fight forward. In fact, CR’s first campaign in the late 1990s to stop Delano II prison in CA from being built was a loss-win fight: while this particular prison was still built after a decade of steadfast statewide organizing, no prison in CA has been built since, halting CA’s 20-year run of the largest and fastest prison construction boom in the world. Despite the hardships and at times losses, PIC abolition requires a clear method, and campaigns are what materially move us forward toward an abolitionist future of collective liberation. Since, again, the PIC and all its parts are not broken, our campaigns against policing need to not expand or legitimize any part of the PIC. This is how we ensure some sort of victory for abolition no matter the outcome of a campaign.
While there are different approaches to developing campaign strategy, CR uses a campaign development method tailored from MidWest Academy’s work, grounded in eight main steps or sets of requirements starting with rigorous assessment of local, state, national and event global conditions and involve locally-informed, creative, expansive, multi-pronged strategies & tactics. (See section 3, page 24 of CR’s Campaigns to Abolish Policing Toolkit for explanation of all eight steps, including guiding questions and prompts for your own campaign planning here). Through this methodology for campaign development, CR has worked to build strong coalitions that have stopped the CA prison construction boom; ended the use of gang injunctions in Oakland; defunded Urban Shield; closed a jail in downtown San Francisco and halted jail expansion for seven years; stopped a new jail from being built in the Bronx in New York and reignited calls for “No New Jails” in NYC and to #CloseRikers; defied jail expansion in Los Angeles since 2004 through a series of jail fights; pressured the city of Portland to defund its police department, invest in mental health services and disband their gang policing unit; dropping all charges for over 100 protestors, mostly youth of color, arrested in protests after Oscar Grant was killed by a transit cop in Oakland in 2009, and more.
In 2009, for instance, CR’s Oakland chapter developed CR’s first explicitly anti-policing campaign, applying a campaign strategy we harnessed in Stop Delano II to resisting gang injunctions in Oakland, a policing strategy that previously had steam rolled over communities of color across the US, ensnaring entire neighborhoods in heavy policing, surveillance and imprisonment through gang criminalization. Forming Stop the Injunctions Coalition (STIC) in the aftermath of the Oscar Grant rebellions with a group of formerly imprisoned community members experienced with gangs, we created another historic movement that has become a model campaign for effective abolitionist organizing. Because of the organizing STIC made possible, CR went on to forming another coalition and winning campaign to stop Urban Shield a few years later.
2. BOLD, Shrink & starve STRATEGY & ACTIONABLE ABOLITIONIST DEMANDS
Because the PIC is a global, intricate and overlapping system, we have to attack it from all different angles using different strategies. CR’s campaign organizing enacts and amplifies strategies to dismantle imprisonment and policing, to change common sense notions of safety, and to build life-affirming resources and practices that support Black, Brown, working class, immigrant, trans and gender queer communities. At CR, Dismantle-Change-Build, is our abolitionist “theory of change” framework that empowers abolitionist organizers to strategically chip away at or “shrink and starve” the interlocking systems of policing, imprisonment, and surveillance, putting abolition into practice.
Inspired in part by the internationalist strategy that toppled South African apartheid and then applied to over a decade of fighting prison expansion in CA, the “shrink and starve” strategy is about abolishing the entire PIC by chipping away at specific parts of the complex, such as policing. CR has developed a set of guiding questions to assess whether or not a demand or change to policing is in fact abolitionist. These four simple, yes-or-no questions are:
- Does it reduce funding to policing?
- Does it challenge the notion that policing makes us safe?
- Does it reduce the tools, tactics & technology that police have at their disposal?
- Does it reduce the scope and scale of policing?
These questions help us see that more training, community policing initiatives, body cameras, civilian review boards and oversight committees, not only don’t work to reduce the violence of policing especially tragic deaths, but rather concretely expand policing as an institution, widening its reach and enhancing points of contact and encounters between people in communities and police forces that can and too often do result in death, beatings, harassment, assault, intimidation, trauma, and arrest.
These questions also spark creative alternatives to the policing reforms the state sells, providing an assessment tool to measure various demands on the table that move us closer toward a collectively liberated future without police violence. Considering these questions, we can see that abolitionist steps to actually change policing from its destructive design include:
- defunding policing programs, units, strategies and departments
- disbanding specific policing programs, units, strategies and departments
- eliminating programs and research for police, military and corrections
- reducing the size of the police force (layoff cops and cut policing positions)
- building with labor unions to reduce police associations’ sway
- counter-organizing military & policing recruitment
- suspending the use of paid administrative leave for cops under investigation
- withholding pensions and don’t rehire cops involved in excessive force
- capping overtime accrual and overtime pay for military exercises
- withdrawing participation in police militarization programs
- building community-based accountability responses to interpersonal harm and harm reduction programs,
- organizing for free, quality education, transportation, housing, healthcare and mental health services, better jobs and economic development, and other life-affirming infrastructure
- budget organizing to prioritize state spending on community health, education, affordable housing and economic development and better jobs outside of policing, military and corrections
- creating community-run responses to different kinds of crisis
- cancelling or withdrawing contracts that facilitate cross-jurisdictional or cross-department collaboration between different sectors of policing, such as Immigrations & Customs Enforcement (ICE) collaborating with local police or transit police collaborating with highway patrol, etc.
In addition to the shrink-and-starve strategy overall, in order to abolish the entire PIC and move our communities at large toward self-determination and liberation, it’s essential to demand what we want as PIC abolitionists, not what we think we can get. Frederick Douglas’s timeless quote “power concedes nothing without demand” reminds us that actionable demands help abolitionists pin point what change exactly is needed and where we are trying to move our targets in a campaign. Rephrasing the goals of a campaign as tangible demands, both goals and demands should be clear and specific, and reflective of campaign strategy, with short-term as well as long-term objectives. This enables campaigners to win incremental victories, putting cracks in the system, by eliminating a key part of the system of policing or energizing a community to boldly resist and strategically challenge policing together. Having unified, intersectional demands determined collectively and that all coalition partners can work for anchors the campaign, despite glaring political differences and priorities amongst coalition partners or serious challenges opponents may present (Check out this chapter on STIC’s work in Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency to see more of how unified demands grounded the campaign’s victory).
3. MULTI-PRONGED STRATEGY: Three-pronged
In each of CR’s campaigns, we’ve developed multi-pronged strategy with three primary layers: legislative (or legal or litigative depending on the campaign issue), media, and grassroots mobilization or outreach. Working with our “dismantle-change-build” theory of change framework and shrink and starve approach to chip away at the PIC, we structure our campaigns and coalitions to carry out all of its work together through these prongs. What’s most important here is that these prongs must work in tandem and high coordination with one another. They are not autonomous, isolated, or linear, but distinct while conjoined cogs in the wheel that materialize and move the campaign forward. When examining STIC’s work, we see not only what each prong entails, but how they move together.
For instance, through legislative strategy, STIC provided full legal support for people named in the gang injunctions, as well as regular court support, attending hearings and court proceedings for each case, and organizing community members to rally consistently outside the court house. The objectives for this strategy were two-fold: get the injunctions filed against lists of individuals dropped, while also surmounting pressure on City Hall, specifically driving a wedge between City Council and the police in order to persuade the city to not pursue gang injunctions as a policing strategy in Oakland for any neighborhood ever again. This required regular mobilizations to City Council meetings, budget discussion and discussions as well as Public Safety Committee meetings, and meeting with specific district representatives, speaking out against the injunctions and policing as a whole, showing support for the people named in the injunctions, and raising our demands. In all ways, the legislative and legal strategy in STIC was aligned with the media strategy, informed by the abolitionist messaging our media organizers generated.
STIC’s media organizing was also robust with effective strategy and game-changing outcomes. Through CR’s media organizing, wrangling the mainstream and local press as well as generating our own “people’s” media for the coalition, STIC worked to control and shift the narrative on policing. Through both mainstream and grassroots media, we were able to spread winning, effective messages that compelled our bases to take action and swayed our targets to challenge the use of injunctions, the City Attorney and Chief of Police, which helped us wield the overall legislative strategy of driving a wedge between city council and the police department.
Given that our messages are only as strong as their messengers, CR developed key spokespeople for the coalition with a range of expertise related to the fight, especially people named in the injunctions and formerly imprisoned people, able to speak to a variety of audiences on policing, violence, and real solutions. We rapidly countered misinformation about policing, injunctions, the City budget, and individuals named on the injunctions. In every press release, media advisory, press conference, radio or TV news interview, op-ed, letter to the editor, video, rally speech or City Hall talking points, we uplifted the coalition’s unified demands and consistently centralized clear calls for community self-determination, not increased policing. This is how CR shifted the debate on policing in Oakland, so that the terrain on which the grassroots organizing took place was one we were shaping rather than Oakland Police Department or the City Attorney.
The messaging that our media team generated also informed the vibrant and wide-reaching grassroots mobilization hustle our outreach team carried. After CR members studied the work of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and reading I’ve Got the Light of Freedom by Charles M Payne to examine organizing structure and mobilization strategies, tactics, and to configure the relationship of outreach to other campaign strategy prongs, we grounded all outreach efforts in the primary purpose of outreach: to build people power so that the community can effectively pressure decision makers to enact the campaign demands. We then used a diversity of base-building tactics including:
- Regular and consistent workshops at schools, youth programs, community centers and organizations, local businesses and neighborhood hubs; organized community forums, events, town halls; regular street outreach and door-to-door canvassing; putting up flyers and window posters at businesses, community spaces and flea markets; hosting movement history movie nights, discussing the criminalization of gangs as a strategy for political repression and counter-insurgency (like Bastards of the Party); organizing block parties and neighborhood mural projects in the injunction zones; circulating a petition to build base of thousands of Oakland residents to oppose injunctions and support the campaign; a Voter Guide to inform City Council election, budget & policing policy; Know Your Rights workshops and canvassing in injunction zones and “How to Interact with the Cops” trainings for youth, as well as creating and distributing pocket guides and an anonymous hot line to report instance of police violence we then used for campaign research to inform demands and legislative and media strategies.
The results of these tactics and strategies impacted Oakland for generations to come: CR and STIC’s outreach organizing helped start a new anti-violence and youth development organization in one of the injunction zones and an abolitionist community garden, built a base of support including hundreds of Oaklanders who shut down City Council meetings with us and ten-miles of intersections from East-to-downtown Oakland for a youth-led student walk out and march during a Week of Action to stop the injunctions, and solidified Oakland’s reputation by pushing City officials to declare Oakland as “un-policeable” and “police resistant”. STIC’s grassroots mobilization organizing in tandem with the legal and media strategy prongs, created a loud, unified voice across Oakland that Oakland does not want gang injunctions, Oakland does not need policing, and that Oakland is our city and belongs to the people—we have our own solutions to the problems of violence.
Again, in STIC, each strategy prong didn’t have its own rogue mission or competing set of values, and each prong didn’t wait for the other to take direction. Direction was shared, coordination was tight, and all prongs of the campaign informed and reinforced each other.
4. COALITONS and MULTI-SECTOR MOVEMENT BUILDING
One single campaign cannot abolish the entire PIC. In order to fully liberate our communities, we need to build an international movement. Therefore, building strong coalitions are essential to winning campaigns. A way of conducting shared work by organizing different kinds of organizations and communities for a shared goal, coalitions allow us to prioritize, support and build the leadership of communities directly impacted by the campaign issue at hand by developing relationships with other organizations working on intersecting issues, engage a variety of skills and perspectives, grow abolitionist viewpoints among different groups, and to bring together organizations and formations across different sectors. Most importantly for the left and the political project of PIC abolition overall in this particular moment, coalitions build collective power across a spectrum of politics and organizing styles or formations.
In 2013, CR formed the Stop Urban Shield coalition with a diverse group of organizations, including the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), the War Resisters League, and Xicana Moratorium Coalition (XMC). Hosted by the Alameda County Sherriff Department in the Bay Area from 2007-2018 and funded through a federal counter-terrorism grant program of Department of Homeland Security, Urban Shield was an annual weapons and military expo that brought together local, regional & international police military units to collaborate & train on new forms of surveillance, repression & state violence until CR banned together with several movement partners of different persuasions to stop Urban Shield. Using CR’s same three-pronged strategy as before in STIC, the coalition ended the largest SWAT training in the world, forcing the city of Oakland and County of Alameda to stop hosting the expo by defunding the program in 2018.
Since Urban Shield started in 2006, receiving the lion’s share of Alameda County’s disaster preparedness resources, Urban Shield also brought in non-policing first responders, including firefighters and EMTs, to train in their militarized exercises, expanding the logic of policing even further into different sectors. Through the coalition, CR worked to mobilize organized labor, anti-war and anti-imperialist organizations, environmental organizations, health workers and professional emergency first responders, community-based emergency response groups, survivors of militarized police violence, survivors of emergencies and disasters, faith groups and communities all to band together to defund and stop Urban Shield.
Stop Urban Shield used many of the same tactics that STIC did: mobilizing communities to give public comment at county hearings; building with survivors of SWAT raids to amplify their experience and testimony; community forums and workshops to increase public awareness and political education; organizing town halls to press decision makers on the issue; press conferences to amplify our message; and creating a “Community Preparedness Fair” to amplify alternatives to militarized responses to disasters, bringing in and working closely with new allies in emergency relief, climate defense, and healthcare fields. Because of this broad coalition containing many base-building and cultural organizations for different communities of color, some of whom were waging identity-based fights against US imperialism, like ANAK-BAYAN, AROC and XMC, Stop Urban Shield coalition also was able to amplify and enhance its direct-action tactics. For instance, the campaign came to a pitch when the coalition organized a victorious direct action at the Alameda County Fairgrounds to shut down the 2016 Urban Shield through a statewide mobilization that involved hundreds of people setting up barricades to the fairgrounds, preventing police forces and trainees from attending the expo. This action wouldn’t have been possible without a strong coalition of different kinds of organizations banding together with shared coordination and leadership.
Moreover, this five-year fight turned Urban Shield from something that was relatively unknown and obscure into a hot-button issue in the Bay Area and beyond that all progressive organizations were against, solidifying longstanding movement relationships, developing new ones and bringing in “unlikely” allies, including public health professionals, and demonstrated the power of our collective grassroots organizing. Moreover, the victory had local and international impacts—we successfully chipped away at the US’s ability to more effectively police and expand militarized policing on communities of color in the US, while also hindering its ability to outsource and exchange those strategies and tools to countries where the US maintains imperial control or influence in the Global South, like the Philippines and Palestine.
Ultimately, coalitions enable us to grow a strong & vibrant global movement for abolition, because coalition building requires organizations to engage in principled struggle to create unity in the purpose, goals, and plans to build power across geographies. Similarly to the hard, grueling work of campaign organizing generally, coalition building is prickly. It is not the purpose of a coalition to require all its organizations to have the same politics, to all be abolitionist, or to all be aligned on the overall vision of what they are fighting for in the long term. Co-founding organizer of SNCC, Bernice Johnson Reagon argues in “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century,” (1981):
“There is an offensive movement that started in this country in the 60’s that is continuing. The reason we are stumbling is that we are at the point where in order to take the next step we’ve got to do it with some folk we don’t care too much about. And we got to vomit over that for a little while. We must just keep going.”
Regardless of our different political tendencies and disagreements on leadership, structure, strategy or tactics, we must lean into the prickly struggles of broad-based, multi-sector coalition building in order to wage unstoppable campaigns to make material change and uproot institutions of imprisonment, policing, and surveillance. This is how we liberate our communities. The collective power generated by a strong coalition far surpasses what any one organization can do alone.
Above all, we hope these recommendations and reflections stoke the fire and resolve of all our comrades—near and far, new and old—to stay the course in this protracted struggle for PIC abolition with CR, to defend demands to defund policing when under implicit and explicit scrutiny and attack, to harness our rage and collective grief into piercing long-term strategy and to seize this moment to its full potential to propel our struggle forward. It is through winning campaigns with bold demands, multi-prong abolitionist strategy, and mighty coalitions that we build the international movement we need to win community self-determination and liberation once and for all. A world without cops and cages is possible.
Resources for organizing against policing
Some of the resources Critical Resistance has made over the years to resist policing are linked throughout the article above. Also be sure to check out:
- CR’s Abolish Policing resource page here
- Catalogue of all anti-policing materials (including some from CR’s movement partners) on our resource hub here
- Issue 35 (Summer 2021) of CR’s bilingual inside-outside newspaper The Abolitionist focused on defund policing and much of the great work we’ve seen in the past few years resisting policing. Full, free download here!
- CR’s toolkit for Developing Campaigns to Abolish Policing here
- Reformist reforms vs Abolitionist steps to policing chart here (and a new 2022 version for campus policing here)
If you and your organization would like Critical Resistance’s support developing your own campaign to against policing, request CR’s Toolkit Training to Develop Campaigns to Abolish Policing here.