Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom (Hardcover)
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Named a Kirkus Reviews "Best Book of 2021"
"Becoming Abolitionists is ultimately about the importance of asking questions and our ability to create answers. And in the end, Purnell makes it clear that abolition is a labor of love—one that we can accomplish together if only we decide to."
—Nia Evans, Boston Review
For more than a century, activists in the United States have tried to reform the police. From community policing initiatives to increasing diversity, none of it has stopped the police from killing about three people a day. Millions of people continue to protest police violence because these "solutions" do not match the problem: the police cannot be reformed.
In Becoming Abolitionists, Purnell draws from her experiences as a lawyer, writer, and organizer initially skeptical about police abolition. She saw too much sexual violence and buried too many friends to consider getting rid of police in her hometown of St. Louis, let alone the nation. But the police were a placebo. Calling them felt like something, and something feels like everything when the other option seems like nothing.
Purnell details how multi-racial social movements rooted in rebellion, risk-taking, and revolutionary love pushed her and a generation of activists toward abolition. The book travels across geography and time, and offers lessons that activists have learned from Ferguson to South Africa, from Reconstruction to contemporary protests against police shootings.
Here, Purnell argues that police can not be reformed and invites readers to envision new systems that work to address the root causes of violence. Becoming Abolitionists shows that abolition is not solely about getting rid of police, but a commitment to create and support different answers to the problem of harm in society, and, most excitingly, an opportunity to reduce and eliminate harm in the first place.
About the Author
Derecka Purnell is a human rights lawyer, writer, and organizer. She received her JD from Harvard Law School, and works to end police and prison violence by providing legal assistance, research, and training to community-based organizations through an abolitionist framework. Her work and writing has been featured in The New York Times, NPR, The Atlantic, Boston Review, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, The Appeal, Truthout, Slate, and many other publications. Derecka is currently a columnist at The Guardian, a Margaret Burroughs Fellow for the Social Justice Initiative’s Portal Project at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and a Scholar-in-Residence at Columbia Law School.
"Becoming Abolitionists by Derecka Purnell, blew me away with its compassion, introspection, research, stories and clear sighted case for abolishing our criminal punishment system and radically reconstructing our society to address the root causes of harm and violence."
—Ibram X. Kendi, bestselling author of How To Be An Antiracist
"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."
—Sophia Ramirez, PEN America
"An enlightening and inspiring book about a bold idea with great potential to change society."
—Seattle Book Review
"Becoming Abolitionists provides a blueprint for each of us to begin to run, dream, and experiment toward a just and livable future."
“This book will open up your sociopolitical imagination and leave you optimistic about what is possible when we commit to safety for all.”
—Brea Baker, Elle.com
"An informed, provocative, astute consideration of salvific alternatives to contemporary policing and imprisonment."
—Starred Review, Kirkus
"Part memoir, part essay, and part argument, Becoming Abolitionists is an organizing tool itself, inviting in skeptics and offering a bridge to committed activists in other movements."
—Lyra Walsh Fuchs, Dissent
"Far from avoiding the tough questions, Purnell dives in headfirst. Drawing from history, she deftly connects the roots of violence to the racial and economic hierarchies police are charged with maintaining, arguing that precarity cannot be eradicated by the people who are paid to protect it. Becoming Abolitionists is ultimately about the importance of asking questions and our ability to create answers. And in the end, Purnell makes it clear that abolition is a labor of love—one that we can accomplish together if only we decide to."
—Nia Evans, Boston Review
"Drawing upon a Black radical tradition of social movements, Becoming Abolitionists reveals the power of self-study, collective political education, and resistance to reform efforts to inspire a new generation of activists. Purnell offers a persuasive and warm invitation to us all to deliver on the promise
and potential of abolition."
—Aida Mariam Davis, Stanford Social Innovation Review
"[Purnell] draws convincing parallels between the past and the present to demonstrate that today’s policing systems are vestiges of this oppressive framework ... She is in such command of her material [that] even if you disagree with her, you are compelled to listen."
—The Guardian (UK)
"Through deft historical research, political analysis, and gutting prose, the book uses a variety of approaches to map Purnell’s complex and fulfilling political evolution."
"Part memoir, part political and social commentary, the St. Louis native’s genre-bending book demonstrates her road to adopting abolitionist politics and makes the argument for why the new abolitionism — the push to end prisons and policing in the United States — ought to be the future of the country."
—Kovie Biakolo, Essence
"Blending trenchant social critique with intimate stories from her own upbringing, Purnell’s text marks a necessary installment in the larger tradition of abolitionist writing."
—Dean Spade, them.us
"Bold and utopian, yet grounded in Purnell’s experiences and copious evidence of how reform efforts have fallen short, this is an inspiring introduction to a hot-button topic."
"Packed with glimmering moments of poetic clarity and power. Purnell has gifted us a book that is engaging, textually rich, clear in voice, driven, even paced, astutely researched, necessary and damn good. A must read."
—Darnell Moore, author of No Ashes in the Fire
"[For Derecka], abolition isn’t just about taking away the institutions that give people an illusion that everyone is being kept safe when they’re actually not – it’s about building new structures that remove the need for these violent and oppressive systems to begin with."
—Tayo Bero, The Guardian
"Becoming Abolitionists received a starred Kirkus review for its insight into the problematic nature of policing, including constitutional policing—that which upholds the U.S. Constitution and individual civil rights. Purnell highlights her evolution from cop-caller to abolitionist and dissects the violence in policing culture."
—Nia Norris, Kirkus Reviews
"While her narrative is densely fact-packed throughout, Purnell is able to deftly lead the reader through the ins and outs of the abolitionist mindset so that it is clear and comprehensible for all, including those who, like her, might be initially skeptical."
"It's been amazing having you here, and your book is twice as amazing as the conversation because you can have it for so much longer."
—Trevor Noah, The Daily Show
"With deep insight and moral clarity, Purnell shares her compelling journey of political education and personal transformation, inviting us not only to imagine a world without police, but to muster the courage to fight for the more just world we know is possible. Becoming Abolitionists is essential reading for our times."
—Michelle Alexander, bestselling author of The New Jim Crow
"Becoming Abolitionists is part memoir & part manifesto for our times. Beautifully written, the book takes the reader on a personal journey from the Midwest to South Africa with a pit stop in New England. As a member of the ‘Trayvon Generation,’ Derecka offers us invaluable insights into how young activists are navigating and challenging current injustices. If you’ve been curious about the modern abolitionist movement, this book is a must read!"
—Mariame Kaba, bestselling author of We Do This Til We Free Us
"At once specific and sweeping, practical and visionary, Becoming Abolitionists is a triumph of political imagination and a tremendous gift to all movements struggling towards liberation. Do not miss its brilliance!"
—Naomi Klein, bestselling author of The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything
"Derecka Purnell has one of the most exciting minds of a generation, and Becoming Abolitionists gives us all an excuse to praise her. This book is an explosion of deep intellect matched with great love, showing a journey toward radical politics that embraces the messiness. Derecka does not expect we all wake up and become abolitionists immediately--it didn't happen that way for her--but by showing both her intellectual and emotional path toward abolitionist thinking, she provides a roadmap that is also compassionate to those moving in a slower lane. But with an argument rooted in history, criticism guided by deep care, and writing that pulses with urgency, Becoming Abolitionists will convince you that is exactly what we all need to do before you even put the book down."
—Mychal Denzel Smith, bestselling author of Invisible Man Got The Whole World Watching and Stakes Is High
"Derecka Purnell's writing is freeing and draws you. Becoming Abolitionists is a beautiful invitation to understand what is possible if we commit to unlearning our dependence on police and address the underlying injustices that cause harm in our communities. This is the book we have been waiting for and knew we needed to advance abolitionist efforts. Purnell is the abolitionist writer of her generation."
—Bettina Love, author of Abolitionist Teaching
"One of the most perceptive and passionate thinkers of any generation, Derecka Purnell, has written a genuinely revolutionary text for our times—one that resists easy answers or solutions and never shies from the hard questions. She proves that abolition is not an event or a utopian dreamstate, but rather a journey of assembly struggling to create new worlds of freedom as we fight the unfree world we inhabit. Beautifully written, passionate, honest, Becoming Abolitionists charts a journey we all must take if we plan to survive, let alone live together."
—Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
“With the elegant prose of a gifted storyteller, the acumen of a seasoned organizer, and the sharp-edged wit of a radical legal scholar, Purnell takes us on the powerful journey to police abolition in her new book, Becoming Abolitionists. It is a must read for anyone serious about understanding this moment, and the ongoing Black freedom movement.”
—Barbara Ransby author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement
"In this moving and mind-expanding meditation on the nature and possibility of justice, Derecka Purnell—a self-professed member of the 'Trayvon generation'—traces her personal journey from her hometown of Saint Louis, Missouri to the frontlines of a global movement against racism and police brutality. A true philosopher, Purnell gleans wisdom at every opportunity, studying and struggling whether she’s in a law school seminar or protesting in the street, in a courtroom defending a client or visiting a nail salon. Being radical, this wonderful book reminds us, doesn’t mean having all of the answers—it means constantly questioning, listening, learning, and being willing to reassess and grow. Becoming Abolitionists brilliantly lays out the connections between policing and other forms of oppression and shows why even well-meaning “reforms” won’t get us where we need to go. This profound, urgent, beautiful, and necessary book is an invitation to imagine and organize for a less violent and more liberatory world. Everyone should read it."
—Astra Taylor, author of Democracy May Not Exist but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone
"For those skeptics of abolition, this brilliant, revolutionary book will take you on a breathtaking journey to the other side. As Derecka makes clear, abolition is not just about firing cops and closing prisons; it’s about eliminating the reasons people think they need them. If you read any book this year – read this. It's a radiant and practical blueprint for the new world."
—V (formerly Eve Ensler) author of The Vagina Monologues and The Apology
"Becoming Abolitionists is a vital resource for anyone committed to the struggle for social justice, written by one of the sharpest and most inspiring voices to emerge in a generation. Taking readers on a journey from her childhood in St. Louis to the protests in Ferguson, the halls of Harvard, the streets of Soweto and beyond, Derecka Purnell’s heart-rendering analysis gives us the tools to envision a new society with endless possibilities. Even more, Purnell’s extraordinary blend of personal memoir, history, and critical theory provides a roadmap to build a safer and more just world. Like the Autobiography of Angela Davis, Becoming Abolitionists is sure to remain an essential text for decades to come."
—Elizabeth Hinton, author of America on Fire and From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime
"An extraordinary, wonderful, insightful, and immensely generative book that makes the case for abolitionist thinking, amplifying the self-activity of the masses already in motion, and at the same time providing a thoroughly absorbing and captivating description of the author's own journey. Rather than encouraging each of us to brand ourselves as radical, Purnell points us toward the collaborative acts of co-creation and accompaniment that can make revolutionary change possible. She incorporates decoloniality, feminism, Indigeneity, environmental justice, and disability activism organically into her critiques and solutions. One of the most exciting, inspiring, and enlightening books I have read in a long time."
—George Lipsitz, author of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness
"Derecka's book provides a front row seat to how a generation of young people have been radicalized by a series of contradictions living within the heart of global empire: the United States. She explains, with powerful stories and brilliant analysis, how she has committed herself to abolition in the context of ongoing collective study and struggle. The abolition she discusses is anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist, committed to racial, economic, and gender justice. A call to not simply tear down prisons and police, but to build a society where our collective needs prevail over profit and punishment. This book is more than a front row seat, it is an invitation to join the most important movement of our time."
—Amna Akbar, Professor of Law, The Ohio State University
"Purnell is undoubtedly one of the most important writers and activists of our generation, offering us a vivid, moving and compelling book for anyone interested in one of the most urgent issues of our times. Purnell weaves experiences of racism and resistance to articulate a blistering critique of racial capitalism, state power and imperialism, taking readers on a journey towards the radical alternatives to police and prisons which have shaped Black political movements in the 21st century."
—Adam Elliott-Cooper, author of Black Resistance to British Policing
"At once an account of the life and education of an already extraordinary young life and a sharp and searching effort to remake our society in the image of abolition democracy and the movement that began in Ferguson, this book is, in the end, more than a book. It is an act of radical love."
—Walter Johnson, award-winning author of The Broken Heart of America and Soul By Soul
"Becoming Abolitionists is a wise and passionate argument for the urgency of first responders without guns. Purnell takes on the hardest questions with analytical rigor and common sense. This is abolition for the people."
—Paul Butler, MSNBC Legal Analyst and Author, Chokehold: Policing Black Men