Necessary Unlearning: On Derecka Purnell’s ‘Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom’
Abolition is a rich and complicated movement, surrounded by many questions and even more misconceptions. For those just discovering it—the “abolition-curious”—it can be overwhelming, as it was for Derecka Purnell. “Initially, the notion of ‘police abolition’ repulsed me,” she says in her new book, Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom (Astra House, 2021). Now a human rights lawyer, writer, and organizer, Purnell recognizes that what she once thought to be necessary was, in reality, a placebo. She says, “Calling them felt like something, as the legal scholar Michelle Alexander explains, and something feels like everything when your other option is nothing.” With this in mind, Becoming Abolitionists serves as a guide for readers looking to unlearn fear and dare to imagine a world without police and prisons.
Purnell documents her unlearning through her own journey towards abolition, beginning with her childhood in an underfunded neighborhood in Missouri that relied on 911 calls for everything from nosebleeds to gunshot wounds. Despite the prevalence of the police, she now sees how they did nothing to improve the safety of her community, only reacting to and escalating violence. In college, after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, Purnell organized her first rally, demanding Zimmerman’s arrest. She held onto the belief that police needed to be reformed, not removed. That was until the Ferguson Uprising in 2014, a response to Darren Wilson’s murder of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, whose body was left in the street for four hours as law enforcement responded to the matter. Brown’s murder, which happened in her home state, forced Purnell to confront her unexamined ideas about police. She states: “Before 2014, I didn’t feel anxious about a cop killing me.” For weeks she protested in Ferguson while pregnant, terrified that the tear gas would cause a miscarriage, before leaving for law school. Classmates and activists there helped her see the police and the carceral system through an abolitionist lens. Purnell began to understand political theorist Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s concept of abolition as a presence rather than absence: abolition is not just about abolishing police and prisons but instead abolishing the kind of society that relies on police and prisons in the first place. It is an avenue for dismantling oppressive institutions to make space for dreaming about and working towards a liberated future.
Through her life story, Purnell interweaves the history of abolition and its intersections with other social justice movements, exploring how mass incarceration is but one manifestation of a much larger web of oppression. For instance, one chapter focuses on the frequently asked question of how to account for sexual offenders and explores the root causes of sexual violence. Purnell says, “Sexual violence is not simply an act perpetuated by deviants; it is a manifestation of race, class, gender, sexuality, patriarchy, and colonial relationships about power, control and domination.” She conducts similar explorations into colonialism, ableism, climate change, and policing outside of the United States, demonstrating how these societal issues are consequences of social conditioning that can and must be dismantled. In this way, Purnell’s Becoming Abolitionists demonstrates how abolition changes our thinking about active responses to several societal and cultural challenges beyond policing and the carceral state.
Because our society does not actively practice abolition, it can elicit concern and fear from communities like those from Purnell’s upbringing taught to rely on police. Questions about safety are bound to arise. We may ask, “Who will we call if…?” Purnell responds to these questions with patience and empathy. She teaches with a rare vulnerability, explaining that while we do not have all the answers yet, abolition is a constant state of becoming, relentlessly challenging preconceived notions of what the world needs. She reminds readers, “Growth requires us to constantly evaluate the ideas we hold dear.” Derecka Purnell is honest about her nonlinear evolution towards abolition and in doing so, is able to meet readers at their own personal points of progress. Wherever we are on our abolitionist journey—whether an experienced organizer or freshly on the path—there is something to take away from Purnell’s powerful story, even something as intangible as hope.
Listen to Sophia Ramirez in conversation with Derecka Purnell for PEN America’s Works of Justice podcast.
Sophia Ramirez is a postgraduate fellow with PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing. She previously volunteered with the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project, reviewing incarcerated writers’ submitted poetry, fiction, and essays. A recent graduate of Wilton High School in Connecticut, Sophia will attend Yale University in fall 2022.