Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom by Derecka Purnell was my first step in my own journey toward abolitionism. I started reading it days after the footage of Tyre Nichols’ murder became public. I’ve known since 2020—embarrassingly late—that policing was a racist institution, and since then I’ve hovered around the “defund the police” area. I didn’t take a hard stance because I didn’t know enough about abolition. But Nichols’ murder, in which five Black cops with body cams used their hands to murder someone, pushed me over the edge. Reform and defunding don’t work. We need abolition.
An abolitionist foundation
Even so, calling for the abolition of police is a pretty radical stance. I don’t shy away from radical stances like this, but I don’t make them until I’ve read about them and know the arguments for them. That’s where I turned to Becoming Abolitionists.
In Purnell’s book, I was hoping to find a foundation on which to build my own abolitionist stance. I wanted to know more about the history, purpose, and impact of police and prisons. Then I needed an answer to that first, obvious question anyone would have about abolition: “What are the alternatives to policing and prisons?”
I came out of this book with a much more solid understanding of abolition than I had when I started, to be sure. I’m beginning to feel comfortable stating plainly that we need to abolish the police. If someone calls me out when I wear the t-shirt in the image of this post, I feel that I have reasons to justify this public proclamation of abolitionism.
A mistitled memoir?
That said, I just don’t feel that Becoming Abolitionists was the ideal introduction to the entire concept of police abolition. I was surprised to see that, despite the title,
This is not a “how-to” book on becoming an abolitionist. This is an invitation to share what I have been pushed to learn in developing the politics of abolition; this is an invitation to love, study, struggle, search, and imagine what we have around us to make this possible, today. This book’s purpose is to share the freedom dreams and real contradictions of a movement that I, that many abolitionists, hold dear, and to share how those dreams and contradictions and opportunities inspire me.Derecka Purnell, Becoming Abolitionists, p. 8
Though vague, this paragraph from the introduction describes the book well. Becoming Abolitionists is more or less Purnell’s memoir in which the reader learns what she learned about slavery, policing, and prisons along the way. I did learn the arguments for abolition that I had hoped to, but I also met dozens of colleagues and organizations that Purnell worked with, attended the Ferguson protests after Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, got to know Purnell’s friends and family, attended abolitionist meetings at Harvard Law School, and traveled to South Africa and the Netherlands.
Purnell’s life—and she is only a few years older than I am, shockingly—is fascinating. But I wonder if the back-and-forth between her personal work and global work, news stories and historical detours, took away from the central message or at least made it hard to follow.
Reviews of a disjointed enigma
One Goodreads review, which accurately critiques the book in a way that is somehow more organized than the book itself, says,
But if it’s not a “how-to” book, then what is it? This is not a rhetorical question. I don’t know what this book is.
I think the book tries to do too much, and ironically ends up doing too little. The book is written in a very discursive manner, moving from tangent to tangent.
. . . I’ve organized my review into what I think are the real themes: 1) why abolish and not just reform, 2) why are people opposed to abolition, 3) what about the murderers and the rapists. Additionally, I think there are two borderline themes that are quite underwhelming: 4) capitalism, 5) and how do we abolish.
. . . I know that Derecka will write a great memoir, and a magnum opus on abolition – just as two separate and distinct books.Goodreads review by JK
Multiple reviewers describe the book as disjointed. One writes,
This book started out good, but then it got disjointed and hard to follow, with non sequiturs and typos. It seemed like she was rushed to finish it, without time to fully flesh out and connect some of her great ideas. . . However, I still don’t think one could read this book and come out still all-in on police and prisons. (Disclaimer: I’m fully in agreement with Derecka on abolition, I just wanted the book to be really solid for lending it to my parents and others on the fence/curious about abolition)Goodreads Review by Ali Hill
What about the murderers?
Likewise, I also agree with Purnell’s conclusions, even if the way there sometimes felt roundabout. Personally, the single most concrete idea I gained from Becoming Abolitionists was Purnell’s responses to “What about the rapists?” and “What about the murderers?” She intentionally does not give one alternative to policing, but she does extensively address these questions and explain how to eliminate or at least greatly reduce these types of crimes in the first place.
Becoming abolitionists, the concept and the book, is about entirely reframing what society looks like. Our society right now is deliberately structured in a way that relies on police and prisons. It’s not like abolitionists haven’t considered how to reduce harm; it’s pretty much all they think about. They just also include the harm done by police and by prisons. So instead of relying on prisons to get rid of murderers, Purnell urges us to consider why people murder in the first place and how we can eliminate circumstances the often lead to it. The same is true for sexual violence.
Imagining an abolitionist future
The answers, unsurprisingly, involved things like affordable housing and fighting misogyny and transphobia, but what my fellow readers seem to be asking for is more of a concrete answer on how to do that. How does one simply delete patriarchal thinking? I do not know.
I might have enjoyed Becoming Abolitionists more as a second or third book in my dive into abolitionist reading. I feel that I would have appreciated it more if I had started with more groundwork on what exactly it is that we are talking about, like what JK described in their review above. I need to backtrack into more introductory information (which I can hopefully do with Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing), but with Becoming Abolitionists, I’ve already gotten a glimpse of how everyone can flourish safely in an abolitionist society rooted in love.
6 thoughts on “Dreaming of a Free Future: A Review of Becoming Abolitionists”
It sounds impossibly utopian. Yes, eliminating poverty would remove the motivation for a lot of criminality, but that’s a huge job right there. And then we seem to be asking for a society-wide radical transformation of attitudes about gender etc, which is an even bigger job (and yes, I’ve personally seen attitudes towards gays go from nigh-universal disdain to widespread acceptance, so I’m aware that change can happen. But it seems like something deeper is being asked for here). And any society, no matter how justly structured, still presents opportunities for cheating the system, and there will always be people who believe that they can do better by going that route, and there will always be people who just can’t control their temper, and so on. Not in my lifetime, anyways.
Yes, we can do better at maintaining basic social order, and protecting people from their neighbours than we are. The US is doing notoriously badly among Western nations — do any of the reformists or abolitionists look, say, at the Nordic countries, to see if there are better models?
I agree with what Steve said, but I thought I’d also point out that your comment that “Reform and defunding don’t work. We need abolition” seems to be in conflict with Derecka’s Atlantic article, which suggests that abolition is the end game of incremental reform. That makes a lot more sense. While it is a noble and worthwhile goal that I don’t want to dissuade anybody of, I also think that we need a balance of pragmatic realism to go with our utopian dreams.
That makes sense. I haven’t read the article, but in the book I think she is saying that reform isn’t the goal (like you said). She knows it won’t happen all at once, so she advocates for defunding police and prisons at the same time as actively building more abolitionist “alternatives”. The process itself could be hard to follow though. I’d like to read a few more books about it.
You just keep working through these really difficult topics. Thank-you!
UBI and expanded SNAP would help abolish poverty.
Except that she doesn’t address the question at all. She discusses it. That is not the same thing as answers. (Note answerS: plural) She evades it, she dodges it. If she didn’t want to answer it then don’t but be honest about it.