The cause of abolishing police and prisons often gets challenged with questions of extremes: What will happen with serial killers? How do you stop a person with a gun? On Jan. 6, a violent mob descending on the United States Capitol presented one of these examples of extreme harm. How do you stop an armed mass of rioters, carrying Confederate flags and white supremacist symbols, from breaking into one of the central seats of American democracy? After President Donald Trump incited his supporters to attack the Capitol, what or who but the Capitol Police could have stopped the attack from happening?
Woods Ervin, a longtime abolitionist organizer with the group Critical Resistance, had a different question: Would the breach at the Capitol—which resulted in the deaths of five people—have happened without police? As the events unfolded, Ervin was in a meeting with other organizers. As they watched the news, members of the meeting with experience both protesting and lobbying at Capitol Hill were in a state of disbelief.
“We were rapidly trying to make sense of it, and that moment the perimeter of the building was breached, we were like, ‘Oh. There are police in on this,’” Ervin says. “In all of our experience of traveling to the Capitol, it was just surreal to imagine a group of largely unorganized protesters being able to reach the building in that way.’”
The potential involvement of some members of the Capitol Police in the Jan. 6 riot is still under investigation, and no convictions have been made. But even as Ervin watched the news, videos were already spreading online showing Capitol Police officers abandoning barriers, waving in rioters, and even taking selfies with people inside the building. After the riot, two Capitol Police officers were immediately suspended—one was the officer who took the selfie; the other was an officer who allegedly put on a “MAGA” hat and offered rioters directions through the Capitol. At least 10 other Capitol Police officers are under investigation for their behavior during the riot. That’s in addition to dozens of local police officers from around the country who flew in to Washington, D.C., to take part in the deadly riot.
Of course, many members of the Capitol Police did resist the rioters, and one officer died of his injuries while defending the building. (There have also been arguments made in defense of police abandoning barriers.) Eventually, with reinforcements from the FBI and other federal forces, the police removed rioters from the Capitol. But today for Ervin, it still beggars belief that the Capitol Police—which employs more armed officers than the entire Boston Police Department—could fail so spectacularly without some sort of acquiescence, implicit or explicit, to the rioters.
In response to the police failure at the Capitol, the federal government has responded by doubling down on police power. After the breach of the Capitol, and anticipation of this week’s inauguration, tens of thousands of National Guard troops have descended on D.C., giving the capital the feeling of a city under occupation: armored vehicles roll through the mall, as troops erect barricades and fencing. Simultaneously, both Democrats and Republicans have called for new domestic terrorism legislation and increased policing to prevent the sort of insurrection that was seen on Jan. 6.
For abolitionists like Ervin, the massive build-up of armed state power in D.C. is a predictable but disappointing response to the Capitol riot. Agents of the state armed with guns couldn’t stop the first right-wing vigilante riot from happening, so why should we expect them to stop the next one?
“Increasing law enforcement can feel like a quick, one-size-fits-all solution; it allows for people to experience a visceral sense of closure. Both the public in general, and of course the lawmakers who were inside the building, want to feel like this problem has been solved,” Ervin says. “But those legislators don’t want to think more broadly about what this means. They’re not going to consider the systemic roots of what happened. They aren’t going to offer transformative or long-term solutions that actually get at the heart of white supremacy.”
‘Look at the root of the violence that occurred at the Capitol’
Different abolitionist organizers argue that combatting right-wing extremism with police and the military threatens to simply ignite an arms race between the growing white supremacist, authoritarian movement and the government. Already, defense officials and experts have expressed worry that filling D.C.—and many state capitals—with National Guard troops might lead to a repeat of Kent State in 1970, and the horrific sight of U.S. military personnel opening fire on American citizens.
There are also worries about insider attacks: The Pentagon is rapidly working to vet the troops currently in D.C. after years of letting right-wing extremism spread among service members. Across the country, tens of thousands of current and former police officers have joined far-right groups like the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers. Abolitionists say that this is yet another reason to divest from a police response to the right-wing extremism: The lines between police departments and extremists groups can get uncomfortably blurred.
Instead, police abolitionists say that a true, transformative response to the violence at the Capitol would strive to resolve the origin of the violence, rather than simply hand more guns to police to try stop the violence when it inevitably happens again.
“An abolitionist response would look at the root of the violence that occurred at the Capitol. It’s not enough to say there were too many police, or not enough police, or not the correct police, or that many white supremacists were police, or vice versa,” says Mon Mohapatra, an abolitionist organizer in New York and one of the authors of “#8toAbolition,” a resource guide and list of demands created by activists across the country.
This effort, to seek out and to mend the root causes of violence, is at the heart of the modern abolition movement. Of course, it is difficult, complex work.
“People find comfort in throwing police at a problem, because the alternative takes work,” says Ervin. In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis, one of the godmothers of the modern abolition movement, writes, “This is the ideological work that the prison performs—it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society.”
This, then, is the first step in an abolitionist response to the violence at the Capitol: delineating, understanding and then addressing the social forces that brought thousands to the Capitol intent to commit violence.
As Ervin notes, this work has already been taking place in abolitionist spaces for decades: Divesting from police has meant that communities have had to find others to protect themselves from right-wing vigilantes, and so abolitionists have long studied the origins of white supremacist violence.
In the case of the Capitol attack, this hardly takes in depth research: Rioters were goaded on and incited by months of Trump and his allies—like Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley—spreading false claims about election fraud, in an attempt to overturn the results of a democratic election.
“Part of an abolitionist response to harm, in situations in which someone with power has used that power in order to enact power, they get removed from that position of power; and they get cut off from access to resources so they can’t replicate that harm,” says Ervin.
Similar to the perspective of modern medicine, abolitionists hold that the proactive prevention of violence is monumentally more productive than any attempt to solve violence once it’s already happening. Labor and resources will always find better use addressing the root causes of harm, rather than trying to stop the harm once it’s already happening. However, abolitionists remain acutely aware that violence can still happen, even with thoughtful, dedicated efforts to prevent it.
“There’s this incorrect notion that abolitionists want to send social workers running at men with guns,” says Nathan Yaffe, an immigration lawyer and abolitionist organizer with Survived & Punished, an organization that seeks to end the criminalization of survivors of sexual violence. “No one has ever called for that.”
Yaffe says that abolitionists’ focus on transformative solutions—for instance, connecting an unhoused person with social services, rather than sending in armed crime fighters to address a homlessness call—can get warped by critics. In the wake of the Capitol riot, the blogger Matthew Yglesias, a noted critic of defunding the police, joked on Twitter that abolitionists would prefer to send in “social service providers” instead of police to deal with the violent and armed insurrectionists. While abolitionists do argue that resources are better spent tackling the social causes of violence with a service-based approach, that is not the same thing as sending in a social worker to deal with a riot.
“Abolitionists have developed ways [to respond to active violence] outside of a police,” says Ervin. “The skills are present; it’s just that the dissemination of them has not been resourced and supported.”
Across the country, different community organizations have invested in community safety programs that don’t involve police. In New York, the Vision Change Win, a collective of social justice consultants, holds regular workshops on what the organization calls “Get In Formation.” The workshops bring together safety and security practitioners from Black and Indigenous communities with decades of experience focusing on addressing violence without a police response, training hundreds of people in techniques like verbal and physical de-escalation.
In Oakland, California, Community Ready Core has invested greatly in community safety and self-defense practices in Black communities. The organization grew as a response to the threats Black organizers in the Bay Area were facing from the alt-right in the wake of Trump’s election in 2016. “We take these threats extremely seriously and are mobilizing to defend Black community, religious and cultural spaces from these violent hate groups. Doing nothing is not an option! We must stand against white supremacy in all its forms. Our call in this moment is to defend our spaces and our people,” the organization’s website reads.
The idea of facing off against mobs of white supremacists without involving the police might strike some as surprising. But as Ervin reminds, Black communities have spent hundreds of years surviving white supremacist marauders. Throughout U.S. history, police have been unwilling to protect Black people from white supremacists—if the police themselves weren’t among the riders in white hoods. Black communities have had to find other ways to keep safe.
What then, is to be done to stop another right-wing riot from breaching the Capitol? A frequent refrain among abolitionists is that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. There’s no ready answer to what community safety around government buildings would look like in a world where police and prisons have been abolished. But the resources to begin imagining that future do exist, in the work of community self defense projects. While this would take dedicated work and unprecedented political will, abolitionists are clear that we have no other choice: The police couldn’t keep the functions of democracy safe on Jan. 6. They won’t be able to keep them safe in the future.