How Do We Actually Put Abolition into Practice? Some Reflections on the April 9 Policing Tax Vote

It’s no stretch to say that over the past month or so the primary thing occupying my mind is how this Saturday April 9th we all have a chance to vote up or down a new property tax that would fund the bulking up of the NOPD by 500 officers—a 40% jump in police power for the police department. I first learned about this upcoming millage vote back in November when I was doing some research in alignment with and in service to the organizing work of BreakOUT! as well as for my own dissertation project. Folks over at BreakOUT! wanted information into how different policing apparatuses (local and state, public and private) were springing up and how this police expansion operated as a backlash to the wins of the NOPD consent decree.

Being the carceral state-building nerd that I am, I started looking into the different city and state laws, ordinance, and financing process behind these new configurations. Quickly, I learned that while most attention was going to the creation of new private patrols and the French Quarter voting to have 30-50 state troopers patrolling the Quarter[1] in addition to the NOPD’s Fifth District detail, all these projects aligned with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s greater plan of rebuilding the NOPD to 1600 officers (the ‘pre-storm’ force size) by 2020. This move is at the center of Landrieu’s vision of the city, and indeed last year Mitch got the state legislature to pass a new law so that this millage could be put on the ballot this spring. What’s more, as I started paying more attention to the news around expanding the NOPD, I also learned that in response to the NOPD’s crisis of recruitment and retention, Superintendent Harrison has lowered the qualifications needed to become a cop—both in terms of not having to be from here and lowering the previous educational standards of recruits.

Figuring this out while overwhelming also appeared to me as an organizing opportunity. It seemed to me (and still does) that this was an opening for greater conversations about not only police brutality but the everyday routinized violence of police in general. Furthermore, with mass incarceration having broken into popular discussion after decades of tireless organizing, it seemed apropos that this issue of hyper-policing, one of the first links in the chain of prison growth, could galvanize some progressive white people who read their Michelle Alexander[2] to turn out to vote against the millage.[3]

So through the organization of European Dissent, I proposed and was supported in us holding a public event around the tax. I assumed that with issues like a millage vote on a random day in April, the biggest work would be 1) to educate people that a vote was happening at all, and 2) to remind people of the multitude of ways that the NOPD, like all police departments, uphold and further white supremacist, (hetero)patriarchal, capitalist, transmisogynist, and anti-immigrant violence.

I soon realized that my notion of people having a default anti-police politic was more idealistic than I had realized. In just publicizing the event, I had a series of conversations with mostly white men (but also some white women) who had a knee jerk reaction against our having an event against the policing tax. I found myself in conversation after conversation with tattooed cultural worker types defending the idea that giving more money to the NOPD was not a good idea.[4] I wasn’t just surprised by the amount of pushback I received, but by how many folks were skeptical to unwilling to believe that I had key information on the issue—when they had often not even known the April 9th vote was happening until I told them. Even when I shared my facts and figures on how much money the NOPD has already or that increasing policing doesn’t lead to a safer city or any other number of things, buttressed at times by my sharing that I had been doing some combination of researching, writing, and doing political work around policing and prisons in New Orleans for a decade, it still didn’t seem that I was making much headway.[5] It appeared easier for folks to reiterate the Mayor and NOPD’s line about the imperative of us voting up to reduce wait times from the police than to think about how policing directly contributes to a punitive system anchored in anti-Black racism.

Listening to folks in these conversations, I found myself increasingly curious by the impulse to support the NOPD to fix itself through making itself larger,[vi] as well as my own assumptions about where people stood on issues of policing. Out of these conversations I became even more curious about what shape the conversation would take at our upcoming event. However, the one thing that I did not anticipate was that hardly anyone would show up. With fliers around town, texts sent to friends, and dozens of people indicating that they would be attending from the Facebook event page, I was taken aback that less than ten people (including the organizers) showed up for the event itself. I’m not going to lie. This gave me all sorts of feelings. And while we could go down a rabbit hole of theorizing why people chose not to show up, what most saddened me was peoples missing of a truly informative, moving, and probing conversation based on the presentations by people from BreakOUT! as well as long term abolitionist organizer and visionary artist kai lumumba barrow. Listening to them speak about their personal experiences with police profiling, with specific information about how more arrests and citations create ‘statistics’ that justify bigger jails and prisons, plus the raising of hard questions about what type of city do we actually believe in and what are logics that underpin the idea that armed state agents make us safer, I found myself scribbling furiously to capture all the brilliance in the room. And I was so sad that so few of us were able to stretch from that wisdom offered.

In the week and a half that’s followed, the FAQ that we put together around the policing tax has spread through emails and Facebook. This month’s issue of Antigravity talks about the policing tax and the Anti-Oppression Voting Guide is decidedly against the policing millage. Yet, these have been matched and exceeded by numerous glossy pro-millage mailers from various PACs informing us that all the major papers have endorsed the tax. The most recent one I’ve seen relies on an image of a white woman fearful from some figure in the dark—harkening to the Jim Crow and lynching era politic that the protection of white womanhood from Black ‘criminals’[7]requires the expansion of state-sanctioned and extralegal forms of punitive violence. The reliance of this fear-mongering strategy on the imagined unsafety of white cis-women like myself does not shock but still enrages me. Drawing upon such white supremacist ideologies in my name in the service of shoring up police power goes against everything that I believe in.

It is now just a few days out from the vote. While I cannot predict how it will all shake out, I can’t help but turn over in my mind over and over again something that kai barrow said at the event. At the beginning of her presentation, she stated,“it is illogical to vote for more police.” And while I whole-heartedly agree with her, I also am confronted by the degree to which people are operating in a different logic and heart space from the one that I reside in. How is it that at the moment that mass incarceration and police violence is squarely in the public debate thanks to the work of groups such as Critical Resistance, Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, #BlackLivesMatter, we are still unable to let go of the narratives and myths of public safety that we have been taught? How do we keep missing that it is in such mundane measures that the carceral state gets built? What does it take to mobilize and organize folks to scale up our sense of belonging to not only those we know but to the people we will never know?[8] How can we divorce ourselves of the logics of the carceral racial capitalist state? What are our dreams for the future of New Orleans? For me, it is through grappling with such questions along engaging in the day-to-day work of activism that I believe transformation is possible. For me, a policing millage may seem boring but fighting it is one small way we can work towards materializing abolition democracy and true collective freedom.

End Notes

[1] It is worth noting that the decision to have more state troopers patrolling the Quarter was brought forth by the French Quarter Management District’s Security Task Force (a special carved out political entity) who got on the ballot a new sales tax to fund the state troopers – and was approved by less than 1,000 people back in October, and then supported by additional funds from the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Convention Center.

[2] And also hopefully their Angela Davis and Ruthie Wilson Gilmore.

[3] I am still hopeful that folks will.

[4] In his recently published book Progressive Punishment, Judah Schept talks about the pitfalls of the ‘radical aesthetic’ of activist work and these encounters made me reflect about how a broader ‘radical aesthetic’ can also be limiting, albeit in different ways.

[5] Then again, who knows?

[6] This is the pattern of basically every history ever written of policing and prison reform with the punch line always being that such reforms tend to fortify not fix the penal system.

[7] Or simply Black people out of place as Katherine McKittrick reminds us.

[8] I am grateful to David Stein for introducing the idea of ‘scaling up one’s sense of belonging’ to me.