We Must Divest From Policing, Not Just the Police

Photo Source: Elena Breda, Portland OR

We have never been more policed than we are at this very moment: every move we make, every website we visit, and every post we share is surveilled, not to mention disseminated at a profit. Police budgets have never been bigger, and we’ve never had as many laws as we do today — so many, in fact, that no one actually knows how many there are. We’ve witnessed the rise of mass criminalization, mass incarceration, and the militarization of the police. Even our children are overpoliced, with millions going to schools that have police officers but no counselors, psychologists, social workers, or even nurses.

At this point, we need to start calling the United States what it is: a carceral police state. 

Recently, people have begun to realize the cruel and unusual punishment that so many Americans—specifically those who are Black, low-income, or otherwise marginalized—face at the hands of the police. In the past year, the police abolition movement has garnered international support. Movement slogans like “defund the police” have gone from protest chants to political rhetoric. We’ve finally reached a point where people are realizing that reforming the police is a waste of time, energy, and resources, and that the only way to truly address and mitigate state harm is to dismantle police departments.

Abolishing the police is necessary, urgent, and crucial. It’s also not enough. 

It’s not enough because the police aren’t the only state agents who commit and perpetuate harm. It’s not enough because America’s addiction to criminalization and policing goes far beyond police departments. It’s not enough because the racist, violent and oppressive ideologies that are embedded in police departments are also embedded in every other government institution. 

Abolishing the police isn’t enough because policing is stitched into the very fabric of American society. 

If we truly want to become a more just society, if we truly want to dismantle the carceral state, we can’t just defund and disband police departments. What we need is not (only) a structural or financial divestment from police, but an ideological divestment from policing. Otherwise, whatever we build out of the ruins of police departments will be just as bad, if not worse, than what we have right now. 

It is this very reality that led Angela Davis and other activists in the 90s to coin the term “prison industrial complex” to point out the relationships between and interconnectedness of prisons, police, surveillance, government institutions, and private interests.

In their panel titled “Abolish Policing, Not Just the Police,” Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law refer to the presence of policing in government institutions as “tentacles,” and that’s exactly it: the carceral ideologies of policing, surveillance, and punishment have worked their way into every single government institution, creating tentacles stretching from police and prisons to social services, child welfare, low-income housing, mental health and substance abuse programs—the list goes on and on. 

Cutting the head off the beast by abolishing the police, however, won’t kill off these tentacles. Carceral ideologies are insidiously resilient. If we truly want to see the end of these injustices, we must go straight to the source. We must abolish carceral ideologies of policing, punishment, surveillance, and control. 

If we focus only on abolishing police departments without also working to abolish carceral ideologies, we risk replacing the police with not-so-abolitionist alternatives that simply reproduce the role of the police in a newer, shinier form. Abolitionists are quickly realizing one way in which this is already happening: the call to take the money divested from police departments and invest it in health and human services departments. 

On the face of it, this proposal sounds completely in line with abolitionist ideals—defund police departments, invest in social services and welfare programs for underserved and over-policed communities. Wonderful, right? It would be, if the police were the only problem. Newsflash: they’re not. Remember policing’s slimy ideological tentacles? Well, one of them has itself firmly and historically wrapped around one of the main programs within HHS: Child Protective Services. 

The child welfare system—or as Dorothy Roberts calls it, the “family regulation system”—is just as heavily shaped by carceral ideologies as the police are. Most CPS investigations involve accusations of neglect which, in reality, are simply manifestations of poverty. CPS programs ignore socioeconomic and structural inequalities in favor of controlling, surveilling and punishing predominantly Black, indigenous, and immigrant working-class families. As Schenwar and Law point out, CPS, child welfare, and foster care programs are themselves “institutions of control and surveillance.” 

It’s clear that if we’re not careful about targeting carceral ideologies while we target police departments and their budgets, we’re likely to fall prey to the diversion of funding from the police into programs that uphold the same destructive, violent, and oppressive carceral logics. 

You might be reading this and thinking to yourself: “this all sounds well and good, but changing ideologies is impossible. We can actually defund and dismantle the police, so we should be focusing on that instead of your abstract utopian nonsense.” Don’t get me wrong — abolishing the police and investing those billions elsewhere is absolutely crucial in the fight against the carceral state, overcriminalization, and mass incarceration. 

Yes, abolishing the police is the first step. Yes, it is better than nothing. And yes, it is much easier to disband police departments and reallocate money than it is to shift ideologies. But shifting ideologies is not only possible, it’s the only way to truly enact change and shift our society away from policing and towards something better. We will not end the injustices we are trying to eliminate if we focus solely on abolishing police departments without also pushing to restructure our society around anti-carceral ideologies. If we focus only on abolishing the police and not also on abolishing policing, we risk replacing the systems we dismantle with new systems doing the same old oppressive job.  

Of course, the inevitable next question is, well… how? How do we divest from carceral ideologies? How do we shift individual, collective, and national mindsets away from policing and towards something better? What do we replace these ideologies with? 

I admit, I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have the magic crystal ball that tells us how to erase centuries of ingrained carceral logic. What I can say is that abolitionist activists all over the globe are currently working on this very question, rising to the challenge of envisioning and implementing a world without police, policing, or carceral ideologies.

And as for what we replace them with… we must replace carceral logic with anti-carceral logic. We must replace life-taking ideologies with ones that are life-giving. We must replace distrust and alienation with community care and mutual aid. We must replace punishment with rehabilitation and restorative justice. We must replace captivity with collective liberation.

We must replace death with life, and hate with love

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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