Abolition Means Removing Policing From Our Teaching and Thinking

Home Social Justice Abolition Means Removing Policing From Our Teaching and Thinking

Finding solutions outside of increased policing requires creativity, imagination, the dismantling of carcerality and white supremacy, and an investment in community resources.

By Victoria Collins

The work of abolition calls us to imagine something new, but this imagining is not done all at once. To abolish the police as an institution we have to understand, then dismantle, the mechanisms and structures created and used by policing at-large. One of those mechanisms is our public education system, which utilizes policing as a way of being and thinking in and outside of the classroom. 

The idea of policing hinges on the notion of safety. More pointedly, it hinges on the notion that we are dangers to ourselves and require overseers to attend to our own well-being. Police are embedded throughout Black and brown communities under the guise of protection and have been for so long that many cannot imagine our communities without them despite their consistent abuses against us. As is true for most Americans, I was taught that the police were agents of good meant to protect and serve us and provide a helping hand when needed. But time would melt away the façade. 

Like many millennials, I saw the death of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of his killer as the last straw, the final piece of proof in this American pudding that proved that it was molded and expired. I watched summer after summer as Black people’s bodies were left to smolder on the pavement after being killed by those who had existed within the embedded claim, “to serve and protect.” I entertained the thought of reform until reform revealed itself to be an incomplete solution—a solution that still did not solve for the violence policing produces, and this brought me to the almost unfathomable: abolition.

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The ubiquity of policing in our communities and schools makes policing seem harmless, and even necessary. The presence of police in school hallways has become a widespread practice since the 90s. School Resource Officer programs became even more prevalent in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. Many young students today often regard officers as “friendly” and “helpful,” or as my peers and I did when we were younger, as “just part of the ecosystem.” 

When I was in grade school in rural Mississippi, my classmates and I joked often that our school felt like a prison, with its barred entrances, yellowed lighting, strict schedule, and rigid code of conduct—without even realizing the full implication that a statement like that carried. None of us had ever been to prison, but we held assumptions that were informed by movies, music, and popular culture. As we grew up, our proximity to prisons grew closer. By the time we got to high school, many of us knew, or knew of, at least one person in our lives who had been to prison. It was just one of those things that happened to “bad people,” we were told. Not thinking ourselves “bad people,” my peers and I tried like hell to stay out of the way of that reality. Despite how hard we tried, it found some of us and just narrowly escaped others—including myself.

With one way in and one way out, vigilant administrators prowled the halls looking for kids who weren’t “where they were supposed to be.” Marked by the looming presence of the District police chief, my school experience was characterized by the enforcement of indirect and direct policing measures and procedures that my peers and I followed, more or less, without question. We were told, like most students are told, that these measures were put in place for our “safety,” and in a world of mass shootings where none of us could yet fend for ourselves, we held tightly to those things that they said made us “safe” from the world around us.

Policing, as an institution, has transformed and manifested itself in a variety of ways—from slave catchers to safety security agents, to Amy Coopers and Karens. From entities to individuals, the mantle of “safety” gets taken up by a variety of hosts—public officials, civilians, teachers, and students—and is informed by the white, cis-heteropatriarchal standards that inform every other aspect of American social and economic structure. In my current neighborhood in the South Bronx, a precinct looms not even two blocks away. 

The violence that is levied against students when police are constantly present is tangibly and viscerally felt. Black and brown students are disproportionately subjected to this violence. Studies have shown, in Texas, that the increase in police officers in public schools led to a six percent increase in suspensions and arrests among Black students. 

The students of a youth organizing group in the Bronx, known as Sistas and Brothas United (SBU), are speaking out and bringing attention to the dilemmas they face that are a direct result of having police in their schools. In the wake of uprisings following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, SBU organized to question how police brutality finds its way into their lives. In a series of socially-distanced “banner drops”, students, public officials, and community members marched to several public schools across the South Bronx to protest in the name of police free schools. But this isn’t an issue endemic to the Bronx, and the efforts of Black, brown, and queer student organizers in the Bronx is part of a larger organizing effort for police-free schools nationwide. 

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Schools should be places of refuge and community for young learners. This is the very principle that undergirds the idea of education: learning in community. It has been the consensus of Chicago mayor, Lori Lightfoot, and many others, that schools “need security” and that without this security, classrooms will become unsafe, unruly, and unproductive. However, the true impediment to learning is the indirect policing measures that would dictate that the school and the classroom be “orderly” spaces. For those who are educators, it is up to us to model a more radical pedagogy of liberation for students to feel alleviated from the violent tactics of fear and intimidation that they currently know. 

Finding solutions outside of increased policing requires creativity, imagination, the dismantling of carcerality and white supremacy, and an investment in community resources. As Audre Lorde wrote in Sister Outsider, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”  

The work of abolition happens on many fronts—not only in prisons, but in communities and in classrooms also. Educators and administrators are called to imagine a world and to imagine their schools and communities without police. Though it is not an easy task, it can be done and has been started by sister-teachers like bell hooks and June Jordan, who said in a 1978 speech that “…education must be about the truth, or we should forget about it. And I believe that the most important and the most valuable truth on earth is that we are alive, we are the living. That is to say, that we are the truth. Therefore, as [students] enter high school and undertake different courses, I hope that [students] will remember this truth: the truth of your absolute value as a human life. Use this truth in measuring the education offered to you.” A responsibility then falls on students to demand more of their teachers and administrators. And this also is the work of abolition, for each of us to demand more of our care, of our humanity, and of one another, in order to build a world and communities of learning where everyone can be free. 

Victoria R. Collins (she/they) is a queer, Black writer and teacher born and raised in in the “Hub City” of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In the tradition of generations before them, they made their migration to New York City. Victoria earned their MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, and settled in the South Bronx, where they work as a teacher, tutor, and freelancer. They write primarily about their experience of being southern, queer, and Black in twenty-first century America. 

Victoria’s writing centers stories that focus on the experiences of the working class, gender identity and politics, and family. Their writing has appeared in Bustle, Hippocampus Magazine, Raising Mothers Magazine, and the “Unreliable Narrator” issue of Fatal Flaw Literary Magazine.

(@vicwritesthings, IG & twitter)

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