Books: An abolitionist world is possible


Geo Maher’s new book, “A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete” (Verso Books), is impossible to read without feeling the anger and the sense of possibility that surged during the summer of 2020 after George Floyd’s murder. Maher channels both these sentiments throughout the book and creates from them a vision of a world where the police as an institution no longer exist.

“A World Without Police” is incendiary; it celebrates the burning of a Minneapolis police precinct and titles its first chapter “The Pig Majority.” This is part of a lengthy exposé of the well-known crimes and racist, sexist, anti-working-class history of American police that spans the first two chapters of the book. Maher is careful to not exclude vigilantes and private security forces from his gaze, and later will indict so-called “border security” as well. This gives the book a comprehensive and thorough vision that goes beyond immediate issues of police brutality.

In “The Mirage of Reform,” he goes on to show that most police reform measures are actually counter-productive. The modern spate of training, “non-lethal” weapons, and body cameras have increased, rather than decreased, police violence. Diversity and community policing are shown as illusions, as when Maher writes the book’s most damning line:

“The ultimate goal of community policing is to destroy any sense of true community, leaving only a community of snitches and bootlickers in its wake.”

This is followed by a condemnation of so-called police “unions,” as Maher demonstrates clearly that cops are not part of the labor movement and have always stood in opposition to workers’ demanding rights and a better living. He also notes with some irony that the “blue flu,” when officers call out in protest, can sometimes demonstrate that their presence is unnecessary, such as in the 2017 attack on New York Mayor Bill De Blasio. But primarily he demonstrates that the cop “unions’” main bargaining point is complete impunity for police actions.

Maher’s positive vision, detailed across two chapters, shows fragmentary and incomplete ways that a world could be built without police surveillance. He takes hard looks at models—such as Camden, N.J., which dissolved its police force only to be patrolled by county police—that aren’t solutions to the underlying problems of poverty and injustice. He speaks only with some reservation of self-defense networks, noting that many neighborhood watches produce vigilantes like George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin in a Florida suburb in 2012. But he sees hope for an abolitionist future through community building.

This is followed by a look at the border, where Maher sees the same issues coming to the forefront, and plenty of blame for both Democratic and Republican politicians. His stance is unflinchingly internationalist both in terms of abolishing borders and standing against U.S. imperialism.

The book concludes with a frank discussion that democracy itself requires abolition; that the unaccountable, brutal armies of occupation that are the police need to be swept away for communities to rule themselves—and that the capitalist system they serve and protect needs to be done away with as well. Maher is unflinching about both, and makes it clear that a world without police would be a world without capitalism, a necessary connection.

Perhaps the most important facet of Maher’s book is the attitude it manages to take in the face of often painful divisions within the movements for racial justice over what strategies to pursue. He is uncompromising in his hostility toward the police, but optimistic about any efforts that really take power away and give it back to working and oppressed people. His concern that moves to “defund the police” or “abolish police” will be turned against impoverished areas is tamed by an optimism that cracks in the “thin blue line” are crucial for developing an alternative.

Maher sums the book’s mass action perspective clearly: “We can’t allow the abolitionist horizon to become an abstract moralism that divides struggles from one another and, more importantly, cuts organizers off from communities in struggle. Abolition is a mass struggle or nothing at all.”

“A World Without Police” is a tour de force. It inspires vivid feelings of outrage toward the rampant injustice and impunity of the police. What makes it a masterpiece, though, is how skillfully it channels this anger toward constructive steps that could create the momentum needed to break through and end the whole racist, sexist, capitalist system once and for all.

Photo: Sid Hastings / AP

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