Derecka Purnell Is Speaking to the ‘Abolition Curious’

The Becoming Abolitionists author on her journey from skeptic to advocate.

Photo: Courtesy of Derecka Purnell
Photo: Courtesy of Derecka Purnell
Photo: Courtesy of Derecka Purnell

Gunshot wounds. Allergic reactions. Nosebleeds and asthma attacks from unsafe and polluted air. These are just a few of the reasons that Derecka Purnell, an organizer, journalist, and human-rights lawyer currently based in Washington, D.C., used to call the police. Growing up in an underfunded, predominantly Black neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri, Purnell and others in her community, not having access to other resources, called 911 for almost every issue; police accompanied paramedics or arrived alone. Cops were everywhere and police violence, unavoidable. As a young girl in St. Louis public schools, on-campus police or “school resource officers” lined the hallways. In high school, Purnell once witnessed an officer break up a fight between two students by punching one boy so hard in the ear that he fell to the floor in pain.

Still, as she entered college, Purnell wasn’t ready to imagine a world without police. She had seen and experienced physical and sexual violence throughout much of her life, and the thought of erasing the entity that was purportedly meant to protect her and her loved ones filled her with fear, as it does for so many Americans. It wasn’t until Purnell entered law school, when she was in community with other organizers, that police abolition became a more serious idea in her mind. Suddenly, Purnell was asking the probing, critical questions that are typical — and often integral — to an individual’s abolitionist initiation: What would a world without police look like? Is that something we are able to imagine and willing to fight for?

These are the questions that Purnell’s debut book, Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom (October 5), so artfully grapples with. Through deft historical research, political analysis, and gutting prose, the book uses a variety of approaches — part autobiographical, part textbook, part personal musing — to map Purnell’s complex and fulfilling political evolution. “The more that I learned and continue to learn about abolition, the more questions I had,” Purnell told the Cut. “I realized I was part of a broader group of people, particularly activists, who were trying to figure out their own political leanings, and that I wasn’t alone in this process of figuring out what it means to be an abolitionist.” The tides were changing: Organizers who celebrated George Zimmerman’s arrest in 2012 were calling for abolishing police in 2020. And though many books had influenced Purnell greatly, she had yet to read one that captured the personal and emotional nuance involved in this massive political shift. “I couldn’t quite find a specific text that went through the process of embracing abolition,” Purnell said. “I wrote this one so people could see it was possible.”

Statistically, a fair few Americans became police abolitionists — or at least warmed up to the idea — in the latter half of 2020. According to June 2020 data from FiveThirtyEight, about 31 percent of Americans support the “defund the police” slogan. Data from Reuters during this same time frame notes that 76 percent of respondents were in support of proposals that moved money from police budgets into “local programs for homelessness, mental-health assistance, and domestic violence.” Though the “defund the police” demand certainly gained traction during the Black Lives Matter uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the strength of Purnell’s work is in her ability to place today’s unrest in historical context. Becoming Abolitionists explains how the discipline originated during the 18th century, when enslaved people across the United States fought for their freedom. Slavery ended in 1865, when the 13th Amendment abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime,” but we know that the reality is not so clear-cut: Slavery was and still is legal as it is practiced through incarceration (not to mention the other forms slavery takes today, including sex trafficking and the forced indentured servitude of illegal immigrants). As arrest and incarceration rates skyrocket year after year — according to recent data from the Sentencing Project, there are currently over 2 million people incarcerated in the U.S., a 500 percent increase over the last 40 years — abolitionist organizers continue to demand that we reimagine new methods of public safety. For Purnell, abolition is not just a matter of safety, but one of justice. In her book, she muses on what might have happened if George Floyd had lived.

I often wonder, What if the cop who killed George Floyd had kneeled on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds instead of nine minutes? Floyd would have lived to be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for allegedly attempting to use a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. Is that justice? I did not think so.

Purnell does not offer definitive answers to these questions, or set forth proposals for exactly what this sort of justice would look like, but she does boldly argue that abolition is the best road to reaching it.

Photo: Courtesy of Derecka Purnell

The idea of “becoming” is a through-line in many contemporary abolitionists’ work. Throughout much of 2019 and 2020, for example, we were able to watch rapper Noname’s public journey from Black capitalism to an embrace of police abolition and other anti-capitalist frameworks. In her recent book, We Do This ’Til We Free Us, veteran abolitionist thinker and organizer Mariame Kaba also addressed this shift in thinking. Her essay, “So You’re Thinking About Becoming an Abolitionist,” debunks the common myth that abolition is only concerned with tearing down what exists, and instead posits that a key, overlooked component of police abolition is imagining what can be built. “Let’s begin our abolitionist journey not with the question, ‘What do we have now and how can we make the world better?’” Kaba writes. “Instead let’s ask, ‘What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?’”

Purnell’s writing similarly pushes readers to expand their conception of what a police-free world could look like. In 2020, she was part of the #8toabolition campaign, a response to Campaign Zero’s #8can’twait campaign, which argued for various police reforms. The #8toabolition campaign was so successful that eventually Shaun King, then considering running for office in Brooklyn and a vocal supporter of #8can’twait, added “abolition” as one of the goals of his campaign as well. In her regular column for The Guardian, Purnell routinely challenges her readers to expand their views on the role of policing in public safety. In the aftermath of the January 6 riots at the Capitol, Purnell published an essay about how the justice system would have killed or punished protesters if they were Black, a notion that circulated widely on social media and in the press. After Congress passed the George Floyd Act in February, she penned a story insisting that reforms to a violently racist system would not have been enough to save Floyd or many other victims of police violence; instead, we must create an entirely new framework. Pushing her readers to think outside the limitations of our current justice system is important to Purnell, who herself went from skeptic to eventually championing abolition after being encouraged by her peers. “I was able to take on more creative, imaginative, radical, and beautiful politics, all because I was pushed by the organizers I studied and shared space with,” Purnell said. “I was curious, I asked questions. I had heavily unexamined ideas about the world and the police, but those thoughts hadn’t been brought to the surface yet; I think a lot of folks are in the same boat.”

So how does one become an abolitionist? An open mind is the start, but it’s certainly not the end. Many texts, such as Angela Davis’s Abolition Democracy, aided Purnell on her journey. But study, too, only takes one so far. “What happens is there’s an attraction to the ability to espouse abolitionist ideas without paying attention to political development, or the work it took for someone to get there,” Purnell explains. “But it took years for many organizers to move from reforms like ‘we want body cameras and more diverse police’ to ‘we shouldn’t have capitalism or police; these systems are inextricably linked.’ So I’m a bit nervous when people assume they can just read a book or some tweets and then call it a day. More than anything, abolitionists need to belong to a movement, to engage in political struggle.”

Even now, Purnell says, her politics are still changing, guided by  conversations she’s had, struggles she’s been in, and constant ideological trial and error. As she acknowledges, “The abolitionist politics I have today are not the same as the ones I had ten years ago. Abolition is always a constant state of becoming.”

This idea of political evolution — a continual “becoming” — can be both comforting and terrifying, particularly in an age where people are constantly and brutally shamed for their past beliefs online. The strength of Purnell’s writing is in her vulnerability, her refreshing openness about changing her mind. She feels no shame for her past political beliefs, as they shaped her into the empathetic and widely read thinker she is today. “They were honest,” said Purnell of her older essays, many of which lean more liberal or left of center as opposed to her current fully leftist takes. “Everything I’ve ever written is honest. I remember after Trayvon Martin was killed I published something on Facebook saying, ‘I hope this doesn’t cause more tension between Black people and the police,’ when I was maybe 21 years old. If people tried to say to me, ‘Well, you weren’t an abolitionist when you were 21,’ I’d say, ‘Exactly.’”

Despite an impressive writing and organizing tenure, Purnell still considers herself fairly new to abolition, and writes for folks who feel the same. “I write for the abolition-curious,” she said, “people who maybe aren’t full-fledged abolitionists but have questions, thoughts, or unexamined ideologies about policing or movements as a whole. I think we should ask those questions together.”

What about the rapists?

It’s a question Purnell has been faced with countless times, from both conservatives and the abolition-curious alike. If we abolish the police, who will punish the murderers, the rapists, and others committing harm? In her book, Purnell handles these questions with care. Rather than deal in hypotheticals, she sticks to the facts. Of women who have been married, she writes, 10 to 14 percent have been raped at least once by their partner. Of women and girls who report being raped, almost half were asleep or at home at the time, and an overwhelming majority were raped by people they know. Nearly 80 percent of sexual violence by boyfriends, husbands, and ex-husbands is not reported to the police. And when it is reported, the accused rarely face justice: A 2014 report found a minimum of 20,000 untested rape kits across police departments in five U.S. cities alone.

A survivor herself, Purnell understands firsthand that policing is not the way to repair harm and get justice in the aftermath of sexual violence. “What about the rapists?”, Purnell argues, is the wrong question to ask in the first place. Instead of holding onto a system that aims to punish people after violence has already taken place, we should invest in resources — such as affordable housing, quality education, better access to food, and accessible mental-health care — that are proven to help prevent criminal violence in the first place. Police abolition, and the redistribution of departments’ budgets to these essential social goods, is a crucial step in prevention. “When people come across police abolition for the first time, they tend to dismiss abolitionists for not caring about neighborhood safety or the victims of violence,” Purnell writes. “They tend to forget that, often, we are those victims, those survivors of violence, too.”

Purnell writes about abolition not as a possibility, but a certainty. “It is not a question of ‘if’ abolition will happen; abolitionism is being practiced every day. The question about total abolition is ‘when.’” And she’s right: As mutual aid proliferates during the pandemic and calls to defund the police or invest in alternative methods of policing crop up in cities across the country, the future Purnell envisions seems to be slowly forming. In her book, Purnell outlines other important steps she thinks we should take, such as universal child care and health care for all who need it — measures that would both vastly improve quality of life and stop us from relying on police for things like health or community care.

“As time passes, people eventually resist the oppressive conditions they live under because they realize that if they don’t, the conditions only get worse,” Purnell said. “That’s what happened during the slave trade, during the creation of the eight-hour workday, and with many feminist causes. There’s going to be a breaking point. There’s only so much longer we as a society will tolerate police killing three people per day, or having millions of poor Black and brown people incarcerated. The next question we need to collectively ask ourselves is, if we are no longer tolerating what we have now, then what are we committed to building?”

A New Book for the ‘Abolition Curious’