Derek Chauvin and Prison Abolitionism: A Socratic Dialogue

An admittedly grumpy composite portrayal of every conversation I’ve ever had with a “prison abolitionist”:

Me: “I think the American prison system is vile and indefensible. We lock up way way too many people for way way too long and there are tons of people in prison right now should never have served a day behind bars. Even those prisoners who really do need to be kept away from the rest of society should be held in vastly more humane conditions for shorter periods of time and the focus should be on rehabilitation. That said, I acknowledge that some form of imprisonment would almost certainly have to exist in a much better society. So I guess I’m not a prison abolitionist — just an extreme prison reductionist.”

PA: “Well, I’m definitely a prison abolitionist.”

Me: “What does that mean exactly?”

PA: “It means prisons should be abolished. I don’t think they should exist. What are you having trouble grasping here?”

Me: “So, for example, you don’t think Derek Chauvin should be put it in prison? Because it seems to me that locking up murderous cops would be a really good first step toward correcting some of the crazy power imbalances between cops and ordinary people we’ve got right now…but if you’re an abolitionist about prisons, I assume you disagree?”

PA: “No, don’t be ridiculous. I still want to lock up Chauvin. It’s not like abolitionists want to let everyone out of prison immediately. That’s a caricature.”

Me: “OK, but the issue here isn’t just whether you want to free every prisoner tomorrow. You’re saying that you also want to put new people in prison sometimes? Like Chauvin?”

PA: “For now, sure, but I want to abolish prisons entirely in the future.”

Me: “OK, so what do you think should happen to Chauvin equivalents in the future?”

PA: “Well, there won’t be any Chauvin equivalents, because when we do get around to abolishing prisons we’ll also abolish cops. So what happened to George Floyd couldn’t happen in the future.”

Me: “What about a private security company employee who did what Chauvin did?”

PA: “Well, there won’t be any of those either. Because we’ll also have abolished capitalism. And poverty. And all the cultural factors like patriarchy that help fuel interpersonal violence.”

Me: “So when you say ‘abolish prisons’, all you mean is that in an extremely advanced stage of a future socialist society you hope that prisons will wither away along with the rest of the state? That seems like a weird way to use the word ‘abolish.’”

PA: “Well, it’s not just about that long-term hope. I also want to do things now to get us closer to the horizon of abolition. So I also support reforming the system in ways X, Y, and Z.”

Me: “So do I! All of those reforms sound great to me. Let’s work towards them together and not use a slogan that makes it sounds like you’re saying that rapists and murderers shouldn’t continue to be involuntarily confined, and which thus alienates like 99.9% of working-class people of all backgrounds.”

PA: “To hell with that. You and I are totally different.”

Me: “How so?”

PA: “We have the same short term goals but I want to go beyond those goals. I want to completely abolish police and prisons.”

Me: “By which you mean you hope that one day in the future no form of policing or imprisonment will be necessary?”

PA: “Yep.”

Me: “Well, I mean, it’s not like I wouldn’t root for that very slim distant possibility too! I’m not as confident as it sounds like you are that we’ll ever get all the way there but that sounds less like a political difference between us than just a matter of differing empirical predictions.”

PA: “Look, police and prisons serve the interests of capital. So as an anti-capitalist of course I want to abolish them.”

Me: “OK, but short term you acknowledge that we need *some* kind of professionalized law enforcement apparatus and somewhere to confine people who engage in violent behavior for set periods of time, right? So aren’t you just saying that, at least for the foreseeable future, what you actually want is to replace the capitalist state with its capitalist cops and prisons with a workers state with socialists cops and prisons?”

PA: “No, those future socialist institutions would be so totally different they wouldn’t deserve to be called the same thing.”

Me: “Well, I can kinda see that. But even if that’s true, I have to say calling it ‘prison abolition’ seems pretty unhelpful to me. Everyone not totally acculturated to the left who hears ‘I want to abolish police and prisons’ will think you mean something you don’t mean.”

PA: “No only pedants like you think that.”

Me: “I think you’re very wrong about that, but OK. Could you tell me more about these completely different institutions that would exist in your preferred socialist future? Can you tell me how specifically they would be unlike anything we might think of when we think of policing or imprisonment?”

PA: “It’s not my job to educate you. Maybe you don’t know anything about prison abolitionism, but that’s not my problem.”

Me: “I see. So whose job is it to educate me? Can you at least tell me what to read?”

PA: “Fine. Read, ‘Are Prisons Obsolete?’ by Angela Davis.”

Me: “OK, cool! I love Angela Davis. She’s great.”

Me again later: “Hmm. I still love Angela Davis but the only part of that book that was relevant to this discussion was pretty bad. The last chapter was the only one about alternatives to prisons and it was just astonishingly hand-wave-y.”

PA: “What do you mean?”

Me: “Well, for example, she talked about ways to reduce crime in the long term but she never exactly said whether she believes interpersonal violence would ever literally be reduced to zero, and if not what should be done with remaining offenders.”

PA: “You probably would have been just as dismissive about the movement to abolish slavery in the 19th century.”

Me: “Excuse me?”

PA: “You heard me. People can never imagine what radical change will look like until it’s happened.”

Me: “You don’t think 19th century abolitionists knew about wage labor when they were talking about abolishing slavery?”

PA: “Maybe they did. But what as socialists you and I agree is the next historical step after that — abolishing wage labor? Didn’t Marx say that we shouldn’t write detailed recipes for the cookshops of the future?”

Me: “Marx was wrong. He was right about most subjects but he was wrong about this one. When you don’t write those detailed recipes, the people you’re trying to convince will be understandably skeptical about whether they’ll have anything to eat in that future. The good thing, though, is that lots of people have written recipes. I wrote a quick one here. Bhaskar Sunkara wrote a more detailed version in the first chapter of his book The Socialist Manifesto. David Schweickart wrote a super-rigorous book-length one you can read here and…”

PA: “None of that counts as socialism anyway. Unless markets and money have been completely done away with that wouldn’t be real socialism.”

Me: “OK, that sounds like about what you’d think. But let’s go back to the part about slavery. The abolitionists were people who did want to abolish slavery immediately, with no preconditions. There were plenty of moderate anti-slavery politicos, like Lincoln when he was first elected, who no one called ‘abolitionists.’ And the difference was precisely that the moderate Republicans like him wanted to defang what they called ‘the Slave Power’ by doing things like stopping slavery from expanding to new territory and economically squeezing it in various ways and they certainly hoped that it would gradually die out over time but they didn’t want to ‘abolish’ it.”

PA: “Thanks for the history lesson. But immediate abolition isn’t what contemporary police and prison abolitionists advocate.”

Me: “But aren’t you suggesting an analogy with 19th century abolitionism when you call your movement ‘abolitionism’?”

PA: “No.”

Me: “So why do you call yourself an ‘abolitionist’?”

PA: “Because I want to abolish prisons.”

Me: “BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?”

PA: “It’s not my job to educate you.”

….and on and on and on and on and on and on like that.

Ben Burgis is a philosophy instructor at Georgia State University Perimeter College and the host of the Give Them An Argument podcast and YouTube channel.

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