Cries for abolition have never been louder
The movement to defund the police has been growing in strength throughout the United States and Canada, particularly following recent events in the States. To learn more about what defunding the police looks like here on the prairies we reached out to Free Lands Free Peoples, an abolitionist group that is part of SMAAC; Saskatchewan Manitoba Alberta Abolition Coalition, fighting for the abolition of police and the penal system. Here they explained why the penal system needs to be abolished, what some alternatives might look like.
Free Lands Free Peoples (FLFP) started with three women in Edmonton, Alberta. It is an Indigenous led anti-colonial penal abolition group, campaigning for the abolishment of the penal system, which includes not just prisons but also policing and other series that support policing and prisons. Recently FLFP have been fundraising through a GoFundMe in order to support currently incarcerated and recently released people. In the time of COVID, recently released individuals could have an even harder time finding work, and so FLFP have been wanting to provide small stipends of $250 to people to help secure food, housing, phones, et cetera. They’ve already raised almost $50,000 for the cause.
When asked about the defund the police movement, Nancy Van Styvendale, an educator and member of FLFP said this, “Abolition doesn’t mean reform. Defunding the police sounds like reform, but from an abolitionist perspective prisons and police are inherently violent and inherently cause harm and it cannot be reformed because that violence and harm is inherently built into the system. The prison system is built on punishment, control, and containment of people.”
She goes on to describe how, historically in Canada the police, ever since the creation of the North West Mounted Police, now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, have been used to clear the land for settlement, clearing Indigenous peoples from the land for white settlement. “That’s why police were created in the first place… People wonder why black and indigenous peoples don’t turn to the cops for support and trust in the police.” Van Styvendale said, “It’s because the police are not and have not been there for them. They’ve always been there for the protection of white property.”
Free Lands Free Peoples started with recognizing the need for public education around abolition. Abolition was virtually unknown among the general public merely a year ago, it’s only through mainstream movements like Defund the Police in recent months that it has begun to get more traction.
“People often think of [abolition] as fringe and radical.” Van Styvendale said. “It’s because of that that we need more education around abolition… Abolition is really about people living all in relations with one another, where we can reduce the harms of society and where we care for each other in a better way.” Although some people believe abolition would mean murderers and rapists running amok on the streets, Van Styvendale says that’s not what it’s about, it’s not about letting violent offenders go. It’s about concern with the harms of the people in the prison systems. “People who are inside and who are labelled as offenders by the systems are themselves, most of the time, [are] victims.” Putting someone in prison demonizes or dehumanizes them to people outside of prisons.
“I’ve seen the impacts prisons have on people.” Van Styvendale said. “I’ve seen the way prison oppresses people, both for the people incarcerated and the people that work inside.”
“Abolition is particularly important for Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples have had their own systems of justice.” Van Styvendale said. “The penal system is particularly harmful, not just because it is fundamentally oppressive for everyone involved, but particularly for Indigenous peoples because it imposes these colonial values on Indigenous peoples… It’s punishing people, for example, for using drugs, instead of helping them overcome addiction, and works insidiously to remove Indigenous peoples from lands, nations, and families. It continues colonization.”
“Abolition is not just prisons, but police and those that support policing and prisons.” Van Styvendale said. She described how all these systems that work together, they are all built on a system of harm, which is why FLFP argues they cannot be reformed, but must be abolished.
“There is no blueprint for abolition.” Van Styvendale said. “Solutions would look different in different contexts.” Van Styvendale went on to describe alternatives to the penal system, particularly in an Indigenous context. “Indigenous peoples have had their own systems of justice that do not follow colonial rule.” It could involve looking towards Indigenous solutions like restorative justice and transformative justice.
Transformative justice revolves around the transforming of societal conditions. It’s about imagining a different world in which we relate to each other differently, address harms differently, and get rid of harms. It would be like taking the money spent on policing and prisons and spending it on universal basic income, proper housing, free pharma care, et cetera. It is a proactive approach to crime, rather than reactive.
Restorative justice revolves around restoring the relations that have been harmed. If someone commits harm against someone else, rather than throw them in jail, isolating them from their community and leaving the harm, they must work to restore the harm done.
“There is a video on Cree Indigenous Justice I show my class every year.” Van Styvendale says, “[About] a man who steals a horse, and after the elders and others in charge of justice confer, they decide the man must be given the task of taking care of the person he has harmed. He has to mend those relationships. [It’s] a very different model of justice rather than removing and isolating them from their community. “
As she said, there is no blueprint for what abolition would look like. There are still lots of questions, such as what to do with violent reoffenders, and how to serve justice when relations cannot be restored. Van Styvendale stated that restorative justice isn’t always the solution. “Everyone has to consent to that process and some victims won’t want to be involved.” She said.
Already there are community driven groups that are fulfilling a role that police are not. Van Styvendale cited a camp set up in Edmonton that helps to take care of homeless people. She describes it as “the community comes together and provides resources and cares for people where society has failed to do so. Providing care and making sure to provide the resources to meet people’s needs… if people aren’t hungry and living in poverty, they wouldn’t have to steal to make ends meet.” She also highlighted the Winnipeg Drag the Red movement. Supporters of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls have come together to drag the Red River to fish for bodies because the police were not. They took matters into their own hands because the systems they turned to were unable to help. “The penal [system] and police [were] built for white middle- and upper-class property owners. It’s for protection of property rather than people.” Van Styvendale said.
In Edmonton FLFP are campaigning to remove police from schools. “We don’t need cops on campus or in school. Cops on campus are there to police who comes on campus, a place which is supposed to be a public place, discouraging racialized groups from attending.” Van Styvendale argues.
Free Lands Free Peoples are looking to release a podcast this fall where they can continue to educate people about abolition. They are working with Indians and Cowboys, an Indigenous podcast. Till then they are focusing on their fundraiser for incarcerated and recently released people.