Statement on the Irredeemability of the United States Police and Prison System
Adopted at Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business on June 4, 2023
US society is addicted to surveillance and punishment, and our police and prisons are their institutional embodiment. They channel the human need for safety into racist fear and disgust, and use that excuse to control and destroy Indigenous, Black and brown people and communities. By any objective measure, police and prisons fail to “serve and protect” these communities. Because these institutions are rooted in systemic racism, they cannot be reformed or redeemed. They must be abandoned, and new institutions built that will ensure genuine public health and safety.
Clear Hearts Quaker Circle, organized in Portland, Oregon, is a Quaker community founded in, and committed to, anti-racism and radical inclusion. We are fiercely committed to our shared Quaker testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality and Stewardship. Together, these testimonies guide us in seeking justice for our neighbors and our world. In the US context, it is impossible to talk about justice without addressing the abuses, lies, intimidation and violence of law enforcement in the United States.
Imagine Black, a grassroots organization in Oregon whose mission is to “help our Black community imagine the alternatives we deserve and build our political participation and leadership to achieve those alternatives,” explains:
“All across this country, Black people live with the everyday reality of being subjected to a police occupation. This is a form of state violence perpetrated against our community. As a people living in Black bodies, state-sanctioned violence, hyper-surveillance, and resulting disenfranchisement is a constant danger. Black folks who are poor, women, people who are currently and formerly incarcerated, working class, LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming, differently-abled, and Black immigrants and refugees of all documentation status are particularly vulnerable. The physical and economic violence of policing, incarceration, and judicial supervision can no longer be tolerated.”
For simplicity, we will refer to municipal police departments, county sheriff’s offices, and a wide variety of state and federal law enforcement agencies collectively as “police.” Similarly, there are a variety of federal and state prisons, detention centers, and local jails, which we will refer to collectively as “prisons.”
There was never a “good” form of American police that we can recover or return to. If we are serious about improving public health and safety, we need to use different methods and institutions, with different goals and different personnel.
Before publicly-funded municipal police forces became widespread in the second half of the 1800’s, the American police function was already well established and recognized in organized slave patrols in the South. These instruments of white supremacy date back to the early 1700’s. Their practices were largely preserved by Southern police after the Civil War.
In the North, early 19th-century business interests created police forces by pressuring the government to pay for surveillance and discipline of the labor organizing that was threatening their bottom line, using racism and classism to frame proactive policing as necessary for so-called “public order.”
Although prisons were seen as a “humane” improvement over capital and corporal punishment in the early 1800’s, after the Civil War, prison populations boomed as prisons became a major source of labor. Jim Crow laws were used to define free Black folks as criminals to make it legal to re-enslave them. Work conditions for prisoners at this time are often described as worse than enslavement.
Waves of prison building and associated attempts at criminal justice reform spread throughout society periodically throughout American history. The era of mass incarceration began in the 1970’s, driven in part by cynical attempts to disrupt the political power of Black communities and leftist activist organizations while pandering to the white majority. Mass incarceration has also proven to be full of profit-making opportunities for the private sector, from construction to operations to inmate services. Every intended reform has become a new tool of exploitation and control.
The only solution is to abandon the failed project of American police and prisons and build new practices for transformative justice, healing, and community care and safety.
Clear Hearts recognizes that these changes will not happen overnight. Like the abolition group #8toAbolition, “we believe in the strategic importance of…measures that reduce the scale, scope, power, authority, and legitimacy of criminalizing institutions.”
We commit to the following actions as individuals where we can, and as a body where Way opens, and we urge all people of good will to do the same:
- Provide material support to local organizations working toward goals compatible with police abolition. In Portland, examples include Imagine Black, Don’t Shoot PDX, and the Transformative Justice Coalition. It is not necessary to agree with all of an organization’s positions or tactics in order to recognize and support the critical role they play in countering unaccountable, harmful police.
- Avoid calling the police. Alternative resources that offer immediate assistance through emergency or crisis services, including for Portland, are collected on the DontCallThePolice.com website. 211 Info may also be able to help.
- Advocate for the inclusion of community groups in the collective bargaining process with local police unions. The interests of the public, especially members of the public most negatively impacted by police targeting, must be represented when negotiating the details of police union contracts.
- Advocate for meaningful and consistent community oversight of police operations. Elected officials have proven themselves to be unwilling or incapable of imposing accountability on police.
- Advocate for the removal of the profit motive from police and prisons. Arbitrary fines and fees, cash bail, exploiting incarcerated people as cheap or free labor, and predatory prison commissaries are only some of the ways our institutions create and maintain a financial interest in the status quo.
- Vigorously oppose the construction of any new prisons, or the addition of inmate capacity to any existing prison. Practices from before the era of mass incarceration, and widespread use of compassionate release during the height of the COVID-19 epidemic, demonstrate that our obsession with imprisonment is driven by ideology and economics, not necessity.
- As individuals, preferentially support political candidates who pledge not to accept contributions or endorsements from police unions or associations, and challenge political candidates who do. American police are incompatible with multi-racial democracy and should not be legitimated as actors within it.
- Build connections with incarcerated individuals in order to support them in inhumane conditions. Book donation drives, seasonal greeting cards, pen-pal relationships, and volunteering in prisons are only some of the possibilities.
- Bring consistent and creative pressure to bear on the federal government to end its current exploitative detention and deportation practices for immigrants and refugees. This vast machine confuses and dehumanizes immigrants and isolates vulnerable people from lawyers, locks them up without hope in remote centers, and separates them from their families and communities – instead of providing them with the protection they need and deserve.
Although these actions take effort, when taken with like-minded friends, organizations or faith communities, they energize us, because hopelessness and powerlessness are soul-draining. Join us on this road to an achievable society where the surveillance and punishment state is nothing more than a history lesson.