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Abolition Fantasyland

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books and culture

Abolition Fantasyland

A new book distills the problem with the Left’s anti-police imaginings. September 3, 2021
Public safety
The Social Order

A World Without Police, by Geo Maher (Verso, 288 pp., $27)

It is hard to think of a slogan as dramatically unpopular as “defund the police.” As of March, just 18 percent of Americans supported the movement. Some House Democrats have blamed their party’s flirtation with it for their underperformance in the 2020 congressional election. And while some cities have slashed police budgets, more have resisted the urge; others attempting to make cuts have met with resistance from communities that don’t want violent crime in their backyards.

Geo Maher’s A World Without Police, released 15 months after the “defund” movement began, is thus best read not as a call to arms but as an epitaph. The book is a strangled cry for attention—a demand that we return to the fantasy world a few activists inhabited ever so briefly last summer, before rioting and violence snapped us back to reality.

Why get rid of the police? Much of Maher’s answer is standard-issue babble: policing’s sole purpose is to enforce “white supremacist capitalism” by harassing and murdering anyone who is not white, male, and straight, particularly black people. Maher recapitulates long-debunked claims that policing emerges out of slave patrols, and argues that even majority-black-run criminal-justice systems are obviously white supremacist.

As evidence for this argument, Maher leans heavily on various unpleasant anecdotes about the worst police brutality of the past century. Such arguments are a prime example of “sampling on the dependent variable,” using only outcomes selected on a criterion to prove the universality of that criterion. For example, if I wanted to prove that all leftists were lunatics, I can’t just use as evidence one leftist who was forced to resign his academic job after tweeting “All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide.” Lots of leftists have not written that “when the whites were massacred during the Haitian Revolution, that was a good thing indeed,” and it would be poor reasoning to infer a general principle from this.

Where Maher does rely on something besides anecdote, he is reliably misleading or inaccurate. To prove that police “protect and serve” only white people, he cites relative rates of police killings of white and black people—neglecting to mention that an unarmed black man is about as likely to be killed by the police as he is to die in a bicycle accident. And he supports his claim that police do not reduce crime by citing “dozens” of studies that compare numbers of police to crime rates in and between cities. Such analyses are hopelessly compromised by simultaneity bias; three decades of better-quality research reliably finds that cops reduce crime.

This is all so slapdash, one suspects, because Maher is not actually all that interested in the world as it is, but in the fairytale world of police abolitionism. There, criminals are just poor victims of circumstance, while the real bad guys are the police and the evil system they uphold.

This becomes apparent in Maher’s discussion of what, exactly, will replace the police once we abolish them. After much hemming and hawing about “transformative justice” and “radical change,” he finally admits it: the burden of public safety will fall on you. “[A]lternatives begin to emerge when we choose to call friends, family, and neighbors instead of the cops, and build outwards in concentric circles,” he writes. “When there is a conflict among family members or between neighbors, this broader fabric can provide a critical alternative to bringing in the armed guardians of the state, because community members have more of a stake than the cops do in treating others like they matter.”

Maher offers additional proposals, ranging from “violence interrupters” and “preventative programming” to forming defense organizations modeled on the Black Panthers. (He approvingly cites the emergence of such militias in the breakdown of law and order in Minneapolis, conspicuously failing to note the city’s spiking homicide and shooting rate.) But at its core, the argument is this: the provision of protective services by the state should be replaced entirely by the initiative of individual communities, working together in accord with leftist visions of justice.

What makes A World Without Police worth reading is this distillation of an argument often made implicitly by people ostensibly far less radical than Maher. The New York Times’s Ezra Klein, for example, recently lamented that the police were still a necessary evil, at least so long as the “criminogenic conditions” in many communities had not been erased. This is also the core conceit of sociologist Patrick Sharkey’s Uneasy Peace—policing dramatically reduced crime, but now we need to move away from it and toward a more community-oriented crime control strategy.

What all these views have in common—though Maher is the most explicit about it—is the belief that there is something basically unnatural or alien about the institution of policing, and that its existence is a necessary evil until society returns to or attains some purer state. Public safety ought to be a collective responsibility, but for now at least, we have the police instead.

This notion gets policing all wrong. It is not that we have an institution of policing instead of community self-management; it is that community self-management is not possible without an agreed-upon set of social norms, which are enforced at last resort by an institutionalized system in the form of police and criminal justice. Communities can work their problems out insofar as people operate within the terms of a social contract. But antisocial behavior—whether it be public indecency or homicide—is characterized by an unwillingness to abide by those terms. Policing both manages such instances and reduces their frequency by creating the credible threat that backstops compliance.

This is the grim reality beneath the abolitionist fantasy. Drawing down the police will weaken communities, not empower them. It is no accident that the militias that Maher seems to prefer spring up in failed states—they are not a triumphant fulfilment of social order but an evil made necessary by its collapse.

Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

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