Newsletter #25: Defund, Abolition, and Remaking Our World, with Mariame Kaba and Geo Maher

The Dig is releasing Newsletters #25 and #26 in reverse order.

by William Harris

I moved to Chicago half a year into the pandemic and soon began organizing with the Chicago Tenants Movement, a small group dedicated to building tenant unions. At the time, Chicago-area tenants were protected by two eviction moratoriums, one federal and one state-enforced, which meant that I spent much of my time working with tenants who had been illegally evicted. They couldn’t pay rent, and so one afternoon, their landlords changed their locks, or threw their belongings into the alley, or shut off their utilities, or showed up with goons and told them to leave.

These were tenants from Black working-class neighborhoods, primarily, on the city’s South and West Sides. They didn’t like calling the cops. They knew that police interactions could suddenly go south, and they knew police rarely looked after their interests. But many of them were used to it — dialing 911 became one unideal version of what you might do when your landlord showed up for the third time that week, flanked by strange men, just weeks after he’d thrown your things to the curb.

Did the cops help? Sometimes, the tenants told me, in limited ways. If you could show proof of residence, they might help you get back in your house. They might warn the landlord that his actions were illegal. But not once, in my experience, did police intervention lead to actual consequences for the landlord, or do much to stop the landlord from changing the locks again next week.

“It’s not simply an ideology that we rely on the police,” says political theorist Geo Maher in this week’s Dig episode, which features him in conversation with police abolition organizer and educator Mariame Kaba. “It’s not about bad conceptions in our head. We really do not have alternatives in the world.”

We live in a world in which, for many poor and working-class people, police structure everyday life. Our task, then, is not just to convince people that a world without police is possible — it’s to begin building real alternatives to policing in the here and now.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

How could a world without police be structured? Such questions are not abstract prompts for daydreaming, as Kaba insists. They’re questions geared towards practical organizing, towards coming together both with neighbors in our immediate environments and as a working-class movement at larger and larger scales, in order to build up alternatives to a world in which policing has become a repressive, one-size-fits-all solution to material misery.

Further Reading Ours is an acute moment of “counterinsurgency,” Maher says here, in which the ruling class carries out a desperate effort to make us forget the explosive, liberating power of the summer 2020 George Floyd Rebellion. I know no better way to recall the thrill of those days than reading Tobi Haslett’s survey of that unprecedentedly militant summer, “Magic Actions,” at n+1.

For related Dig listening, check out our interview with Stuart Schrader on the links between our domestic carceral state and US imperialism, and our interview with Alex Vitale on the case for police abolition.