Resisting the cop in our heads

Sarah Lamble explores the opportunities to challenge punitive logic in our day-to-day lives and replace it with social justice.


It can be hard to fathom how we get from the world we are in now to an abolitionist future. But abolition is not simply an abstract vision: it is about what we build in the here and now to make that future possible. It is an ongoing and everyday practice, a political philosophy and a way of life.

One of the reasons we continue to rely on prisons and the police is that, when faced with violence or a crisis situation, it can be hard to know where to turn instead – our default response is often to fall back on the criminal justice system. For this reason, abolitionist work is not just about building alternative strategies for reducing and responding to harm – it is also about shifting the broader mindset that presumes we must rely on violent authorities and threats of punishment to deal with social problems.

Everyday abolition is about shifting the broader cultural norms that shape such habitual responses and confronting the ways we have internalized damaging norms and practices – in other words, how we kill the cop in our heads. As abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba argues, ‘When we set out trying to transform society, we must remember that we ourselves will also need to transform.’

One of the biggest challenges is to unlearn the ‘common sense’ logic that equates justice with punishment. We are repeatedly taught in school, at home, at work and in popular culture that ‘justice’ requires retribution. This often involves responding to someone whose behaviour has caused harm with isolation, exclusion, stigma and shaming. Whether it is expelling the misbehaving child from school, barring the person with a criminal record from a housing service, ‘cancelling’ someone on social media who says something hurtful, or calling the cops when a neighbour isn’t complying with Covid-19 regulations, many of us have learned to respond to social problems by asking an ‘authority’ to deal with it for us, or by punishing and exiling those who have done damage.

But punishment is seductively misleading, as it rarely generates the resolution, healing or long-term change that is needed to actually reduce harm. Instead, it often exacerbates problems by escalating cycles of hurt and violence. The kid who is excluded from school is far more likely to end up in prison; the person with the criminal record is more likely to end up homeless; the neighbour you call the cops on is at increased risk of facing state brutality. These small everyday decisions made in response to immediate issues in our lives can end up inadvertently feeding larger problems. A far more effective tactic is to address the underlying causes of violence in our communities, provide healing support to those who were harmed and develop strategies for repair and resolution.

There’s no point in dismantling prisons and police if we then act like cops and prison guards in our own communities

This is not to say we must deny our feelings of anger or suppress desires for revenge in response to wrongdoing. Particularly when someone we care about has been hurt, the impulse to lash out can be strong. The desire to ‘get even’ can sometimes feel all-consuming, particularly if it comes from an expectation that retaliation will somehow prevent the harm from recurring.

Abolition offers a pragmatic framework to recognize that acting on these impulses in a retributive way will not actually get us where we ultimately want to go. Retaliation and punishment are not effective in preventing future harm. Such responses simply use one form of violence to respond to another. The desire for retribution is often reflective of how we’ve been conditioned to respond rather than what we actually need in a given situation. As Angela Y. Davis has said: ‘The retributive impulses of state punishment are inscribed in our very individual emotional responses.’

Punishment or compassion

Without a deliberate shift away from punishment-based responses and towards collective practices of care, support and healing, even the most promising alternatives can easily replicate the systems and logic they were meant to replace.

Across the world, local mutual aid groups established so that people can support each other with basic needs – such as food and medicines – during the Covid-19 pandemic have been a vital lifeline. But some groups quickly descended into neighbourhood surveillance and snitching mode, turning community support into community policing and monitoring. There’s no point in dismantling prisons and police if we then act like cops and prison guards in our own communities.

When not accompanied by transformative justice principles, community accountability processes can also slip into punishment and exclusion, or even vigilante justice, and can mirror the same patterns of racism, discrimination and social abandonment that characterize the criminal justice system.

An important everyday abolitionist practice is to support each other in working through punitive impulses and to channel the urgency of ‘something must be done’ into strategies that will actually reduce violence in the long run. It means collectively untangling ourselves from harmful systems and the kinds of logic that perpetuate cycles of violence.

We can start to challenge such punitive logic in the places we find ourselves everyday – our schools, homes, workplaces, neighbourhoods and community centres.

A key element of everyday abolition is recognizing that we ourselves will sometimes be the harm-doers - we too need to practice accountability and making amends

This might mean rethinking our punitive impulses when we get into conflict or refusing to participate in cancel culture politics or public shaming tactics on social media. Or it could be about encouraging a friend to consider an alternative response to calling the cops to deal with their ‘problem’ neighbour. It might mean questioning policies at your school or workplace which use punishment as a form of behaviour compliance.

Another key element of everyday abolition is recognizing that we ourselves will sometimes be the harm-doers or harm-enablers – and we too need to practice accountability and making amends. This means approaching accountability as a daily practice and skill we all need to cultivate and foster, rather than something that is delegated to others or reserved for egregious situations.

Ultimately, challenging punitive norms requires us to be attentive to power dynamics in situations of everyday conflict – and to respond with compassion, care and support rather than punishment, blame, defensiveness or retaliation.

Collective efforts

Being able to respond effectively in situations of harm and crisis also requires us to build up our collective skills and capacities. If we can train people in first aid and emergency resuscitation techniques, we can also teach safe bystander inventions, violence de-escalation, conflict resolution and harm reduction. We can learn the early signs of abusive relationships and support each other to intervene before things escalate. We can find ways to support each other to heal from our own and collective traumas.

When a problem comes up, we can consider all the ways we could potentially address the situation without relying on police or prisons (or by becoming police-like or punitive ourselves). As Ann Russo notes: ‘When people have an opportunity to think outside of the box, many more options emerge for taking an active role in responding to everyday violence.’

Some of these alternatives may initially feel harder or more challenging in the short term than simply calling the cops – particularly if they require us to play a greater role in proactively reducing or stopping violence. But if putting in the work now means better outcomes in the long run and more enduring resolutions, then our efforts will be more than worth it.

We can also take steps to use our collective power to resist attempts to expand the powers of police and prisons (see page 25). There are many ways to get involved in local, regional and global campaigns that move us closer to that abolitionist future. We can work together to shift from criminal justice responses to social justice ones. We can work collectively to rethink ideas of what justice means.

Doing everyday abolition work is an ongoing practice that requires strategies at different levels. As the LGBTQI+ group Community United Against Violence reminds us, violence exists internally (within ourselves), interpersonally (between people) and institutionally (between institutions and individuals). Work to address this needs to happen at all three levels so that our everyday efforts are contributing to the broader social, systemic and institutional change that will make a world without prisons and police become possible.

In the words of transformative justice organizers GenerationFive, whose goal is to end child sexual abuse within five generations: ‘Meaningful change is only possible when we are willing to face and take action to address the gaps between the future we long for and the realities we are living.’

Sarah Lamble is an organizer with Abolitionist Futures, a group working in Britain and Ireland to build a future without prisons, police and punishment. Lamble also teaches at Birkbeck, University of London.