This weekend, I had to ask a favor. A big one. I needed someone with a truck to help me move four one hundred and twenty pound restaurant booths and an undetermined number of wooden chairs and tables down from the second floor of a restaurant under construction and across town. And I needed to do it within the next twelve hours.
I made a Facebook post and waited. An hour later I had a message in my inbox from another person in the trans community offering to help. She had a truck and was available to help me. Knowing the amount of labor the job entailed, I texted another friend from the trans community, who is also in my recovery circle, to see if she might be available to help. She responded immediately, asking when and where. Twelve hours later we had all of the furniture moved into my 700 foot condo, which is currently acting as temporary storage space for a worker’s co-op that is waiting to sign a lease.
This is how my communities operate, and how I have learned to operate over the course of the last five years: if someone needs something you have–be that time, money, a ride, a couch to sleep on, or a listening ear–you share. And the reason you share is because you were in their position before: homeless or on the verge of homelessness, rejected by your loved ones and society at large, a prisoner to your addiction, a prisoner in your body, desperate to change but lacking the means to. In my communities, we share not as an act of charity, but as an act of necessity: we are all we have, and only we can save each other.
This didn’t come naturally at first. As a white queer person who had “emancipated” myself from my Christian, conservative upbringing, I was conditioned to believe that receiving help meant relinquishing personal boundaries, autonomy, power. Independence was more important than comfort. And then one day I found myself at the end of my rope: financially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I was a poor, visibly trans man in Kentucky. I was also an alcoholic who had hit rock bottom, and who was unable to get sober.
What does an alcoholic on the verge of homelessness, an addict with a criminal record, a Black man who is late on rent, a visibly trans person who can’t find work, have in common? None of them can turn to the state (government officials, the police, the system) for help. And so they turn to each other–in solidarity, not charity. “Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.” Or as Peter Kropotkin once wrote, “the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community.”
The most common argument against abolition, and for many, the most compelling, is that without prisons or police there is nothing to deter bad people from committing violent crimes. But abolition isn’t just about removing or divesting from our existing systems. Rather, it is the view that we need to abolish those systems in order to invest in our communities, especially the most marginalized. We need more jobs, more educational opportunities, more affordable homes, more community centers, more addiction and mental health resources, and more say in how our communities function. And as abolitionists we believe that investing in our communities in these ways is the best way to decrease violent crime. And isn’t that the alleged purpose of our criminal justice systems? To prevent violence?
Here some will protest that prevention isn’t enough. Community centers, social workers, mutual aid–these things are great, but we need actual police to handle domestic abusers, murderers, serial rapists. And we need somewhere to lock these monsters up. The issue here is that police don’t stop violent crimes from occurring. And the real monsters rarely end up behind bars.
Consider that for every 1,000 sexual assaults reported in tbe US, fewer than five rapists are incarcerated. Twenty of every 1,000 robberies end in incarceration. Thirty three of every 1,000 people charged with assault and battery end up behind bars. Consider also that there have been hundreds of incidences of sexual assault perpetrated by police, and that police violence is a leading cause of death for young Black men in the United States. Consider the significant history of mistreatment of LGBTQ people by US law enforcement, including profiling, entrapment, discrimination, and harassment by officers. Consider that two thirds of Black Americans do not trust the police to treat them equally, whereas most white Americans do.
I think that most white people, most white queers even, cannot imagine a world without police and prisons simply because we have never had to. For most of our lives we have been privileged enough to think of the police as the good guys, and of prisons as the place where the bad guys end up. We have felt a sense of security in knowing that if things get shady, we can call 911. And because we spent so much of our lives wrapped in this invisible security blanket, we have never had to imagine and create networks of mutual aid. We have never gotten to experience true solidarity, to realize that we have everything we need as a community of people with different needs and abilities. For much of my own life, my whiteness shielded me from that harsh experience, and blocked me from that profound realization. It’s one of the reasons I’m forever grateful to the trans and recovery communities. These communities showed me not just that, but how a world without police and prisons is possible.