History and human nature give us good reasons to avoid a reform path of abolishing the police. But it is gaining ground, and not just on the fringe.

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Abolishing and defunding the police have become rallying cries in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Are they “outlandish” or “nonsense,” as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said? Just a case of wackiness gone wild in the emotion of the moment?

I think not. Calls for dismantling police are a central part of a larger movement to abolish today’s itarian punishment-centered system. There is strong and growing academic support for the view that “the institution of criminal punishment is ethically, politically and legally unjustifiable.” The abolition of police is a logical extension of the growing movement to abolish prisons. 

History and human nature give us good reasons to avoid such a reform path. But it is gaining ground, and not just on the fringe.

“We don’t need another training program,” says ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. “We need to defund the budgets of these police departments.” A veto-proof majority of Minneapolis council members has declared their intent to "dismantle" and “abolish” the city’s embattled police agency and to build an alternative model of community-led safety. One group, A World Without Police, wants to replace police “with systems of community safety and conflict resolution.” 

No-punishment communes have failed

What is the alternative to a system of coercive enforcement through police and prisons?  As New York University Professor David Garland explains, a society that “intends to promote disciplined conduct and social control will concentrate not upon punishing offenders but upon socializing and integrating young citizens — a work of social justice and moral education rather than penal policy.”

Not only is the abolition of coercive enforcement an established idea with growing support, it is an idea with historical roots and, perhaps even more importantly, an idea that some groups have taken beyond imagination to real-world application. In the magical years of the 1960s social revolution, idealists established anti-punishment communes. They sought to prove to the world that people could live together in an open society that maximized personal autonomy while protecting the rights of others. As I wrote in my 2015 book, “Pirates, Prisoners and Lepers: Lessons from Life Outside the Law,” their foundational principle was the prohibition of coercive enforcement of rules. 

One of the most famous of these non-punishment communes was Drop City, established in May 1965 on six acres of scrub land outside of Trinidad, Colorado. The commune became a rich incubator for artistic and social creativity, including the development of geodesic domes made from junk car hoods as living quarters. Open to all, there were no formal enforced rules, but it was entirely appropriate for a member to complain to another about how the person’s conduct hurt others.

Things went well for a while but finally a new member, Peter Rabbit — most residents took new names — followed his own mind and dismissed others’ complaints. He took the absence of enforcement as an opportunity to promote his interests at the expense of others. As members increasingly resented his open thievery and their helplessness in the face of it, they stopped cooperating and the commune collapsed. 

GOP Sen. Tim Scott: outbreaks of hepatitis and a growing proportion of freeloaders, formal rules were adopted and enforced by required appearances before the community for open discussion. If the coercion of social stigmatization was ineffective, the offending member was expelled. Of course, in the larger society, expulsion is not an option. Its practical equivalent for segregating the offender from the community is imprisonment. 

Black Bear commune’s adoption of a coercive enforcement system saved it, and it continues to exist today. All no-punishment communes, like Drop City, have failed.

Unfair enforcement must be fixed

While they were ultimately unsuccessful, it is hard not to admire the social pioneering spirit of the Drop City creators and the many other action-oriented idealists. Notice, however, that they did not seek to impose their personal ideology on everyone else, but instead meant to lead by example as a means of persuading others.

Unfortunately, some of the current police and prison abolitionists have no such modesty or respect for others’ views. They have determined that their view is the “right” view and entitles them to force everyone to repeat the failed experiments of the past. 

A new, transformative system“Crimes That Changed Our World: Tragedy, Outrage and Reform.” 

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