An Abolitionist Response to the Capitol Breach

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re surely aware that, on Wednesday January 6th, a massive group of alt-right extremists and fascists led a historic assault on the US Capitol. Thousands of people from all over the country descended on Washington, DC to attend the “Stop the Steal” rally in an attempt to force Congress to overturn the election in favor of Trump. The protestors quickly became rioters as they breached Capitol security, which was underprepared and easily overwhelmed, and entered the Capitol building violently by force. Five people died as a result of the violence, and hundreds more were injured. 

As a young and aspiring abolitionist, questions flooded my brain as I watched the rioters (not protesters!) and insurrectionists (not anarchists!) breach the Capitol building and processed the aftermath of the breach along with the rest of the country. Why wasn’t there a stronger police presence? How will pro-Trump Republicans respond? What happened to “Blue Lives Matter” and “Respect the Badge”? And for f***’s sake, why are so many politicians acting like we haven’t seen this coming for the last four years?

One question lingered, and continues to linger, on my mind: what is the abolitionist response to an insurrectionist attack on the government? Certainly not “we need more police,” or “the police should have used stronger (read: deadlier) tactics.” I even struggled to reconcile my abolitionist politics with more reasonable responses — can we support “prosecuting the rioters to the fullest extent of the law” while supporting the abolition of prisons? Can we denounce the lack of a police presence while calling for the abolition of policing? 

In the days that followed, I scoured abolition activists’ social media accounts, looking for guiding voices in a sea of politicized screaming matches along the lines of “SEE?! THIS IS WHY MY (conservative/liberal) VIEWS ARE RIGHT!!” Because I’m a social scientist and obsessive list-maker at heart, I’ve decided to summarize what I’ve found here, for others who, like me, found their abolitionist ideals wavering in the face of fascist insurrection. 

So, without further ado, allow me to present: 

An Abolitionist Response to the Capitol Breach 

  1. “More police” is NOT the answer. This may go without saying, but abolitionists have been very vocal in the past few weeks about the foolishness of responding to the Capitol breach by expanding the size and reach of police departments. Activists have been quick to point out the extent to which Capitol police were complicit in the riot, both in allowing insurrectionists to enter the building and in participating in the “protest” themselves. Perhaps more importantly, abolitionists note that what is needed in the face of such an event is a solution to the underlying problem (read: white supremacy), not an increase in law enforcement that is essentially a band-aid on a gaping American wound. 
  1. We must be extremely wary in this moment of politicians who put forth policies in the name of safety, anti-fascism, and counter-terrorism that ultimately expand the prison industrial complex. Abolitionists have said it hundreds of times, and it deserves repeating (preferably from a megaphone atop every building across the country, but repeating it here will have to suffice): Reform will not solve the problems of the prison industrial complex. Politicians and policymakers are all too good at co-opting the language of leftist activists to mask the true face of their proposals, and abolitionists urge us to be even more alert to these disguises in the wake of national tragedy. In fact, reforms of this nature often do more harm than good. We’re already seeing such reforms being proposed — Biden has voiced his support of the creation of new domestic terrorism legislation, and the new US Capitol Police Chief is pushing for “permanent fencing [around the Capitol], and the availability of ready, back-up forces in close proximity to the Capitol” (Wise). Yes, these rioters are domestic terrorists, and yes, such security measures seem well-intentioned in their attempt to address domestic terrorism. But at the end of the day, these measures will only serve to add even more funding into the bloated budgets of police departments and return legitimacy to law enforcement agencies in the wake of their failure to defend the Capitol building. Most importantly, abolitionists urge people to remember that, while these security measures are being proposed in response to white supremacist domestic terorrism, once the shock of the Capitol breach has waned, these policies (like all domestic defense policies before them) will be disproportionately used to brutalize working-class communities of color and other marginalized groups. 
  1. We must stop calling the Capitol siege “surprising” or insisting that it “does not represent us.” This is America, where more than 250 years of institutionalized white supremacy and exploitative racial capitalism have led us directly to this moment. In the plantation South, the first police departments were just professionalized slave patrols; in the industrial North, police departments were created to quell strikes by whatever means necessary and control the industrial working class for the benefit of capitalist factory owners. The prison system provided (and still provides) an alternative slave labor force for capitalist land- and business-owners after the “end” of slavery. In other words, racism and white supremacy are stitched right into the very fabric of the US. If you watched the live coverage of Congress members making statements on the floor just hours after the breach, you will have heard Republicans repeating the same lines again and again, like broken nationalist parrots: this tragedy does not represent us, this is not who we are, this is blah blah blah. Newsflash: yes, it does. Yes, it is. 
  1. The causes of the Capitol breach must be solved by politicians, not police. If we are committed to abolitionist goals, we cannot support the arrest and imprisonment of the rioters and insurrectionists. Sounds contradictory, no? And yet, this is exactly what abolition is all about: getting to the root of the problem and addressing those roots in order to stop the surface-level violence and “crime” that happens as a result of those underlying issues. In this case, those underlying issues are white supremacy and systemic racism. Congress is all too good at throwing the criminal justice system at problems that are too hard or complicated for them to deal with, but a political response is exactly what we need right now. We do not need more police, more laws, or more funding. We need a national reckoning on how to end white supremacy and racism, once and for all. And if our current representatives are unwilling to have this conversation and create change, it’s time for new representatives that actually represent.  

While abolitionists have a whole lot more to say about the police in general and the riot specifically, these four points are the most important in understanding how to move forward without betraying our abolitionist ideals. It will be a long time before we understand the extent of the Capitol riot’s impact on our nation, but we know enough to know that more police and more anti-terrorism laws are not the solution. If we truly want to address and prevent future violence, we must look to abolitionists — not police — for the answers. 

Sources

Wise, Alana. “After Riot, Acting Capitol Police Chief Calls For Permanent Fencing Around Complex.” npr.org, January 28 2021.

Published by elenabreda

Elena Breda is a senior at Pitzer College majoring in Sociocultural Anthropology. She specializes in activism, politics, and pop culture writing, and is passionate about prison and police abolition, radical care, and community building.

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