Think Like an Abolitionist

Donovan Lewis, Age 20

A tragedy happened in Columbus this week: Police officer Ricky Anderson fired one bullet, killing 20-year-old Donovan Lewis. Police entered Donovan’s home, hunted him down with dogs, and murdered him. Such awful events are all too common. According to the Washington Post Fatal Force Database, 690 people have been shot and killed by the police so far in 2022 (as of August 31st). As a comparison, according to the Gun Violence Archive, 456 people have been killed in a mass shooting so far in 2022 (as of August 31st). Rationally, as Americans, we should be more afraid of being killed by the police than in a mass shooting—especially if we’re poor, Black, or brown.

This is a primary reason I am an abolitionist. I believe that the United States Police Force should be abolished. We cannot simply abolish mass shootings (though we could ban assault weapons), and so that makes lessening the harm from mass shootings more challenging. But when it comes to reducing the number of people murdered by police officers each year, there is one obvious solution: get rid of police officers. But I digress; my goal is not to argue for this position here. I’m working on a book about that, though, so stay tuned.

Instead, today, I want to give you an inside peek into how I think. As an abolitionist learning about the latest fatal police shooting, here’s what goes through my mind. Whenever I consider stories about the police, FBI raids, judge and jury verdicts, or other functions of the United States Justice System through the lens of someone who wants to abolish all of it, I recall a famous quotation from Albert Einstein:

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

A central tenant of my abolitionist view is answering this call to widen my circle of compassion. It provides the framework for me to expand my awareness with curiosity, primarily through asking questions, imagining situations from multiple perspectives, and hopefully increasing the size and number of my spheres of concern to include more awareness for more creatures. Once my awareness is expanded, compassion soon follows, but it takes practice and gratitude to get there. I invite you on the journey.

Sphere One

In the smallest sphere of compassion, where you’re restricted to thoughts of yourself and your loved ones, you might have the following thought: thank goodness my loved ones are safe. Learning about a fellow parent’s loss can encourage us to take stock and to hug our children a little tighter. That is surely a good thing. Out of curiosity, how could we take that seed of gratitude and expand it, just a bit?

Sphere Two

In the next sphere, we might feel compassion for folks affected by the tragedy with whom we identify in some way. Mothers instinctively think of Donovan’s grieving mother. Young Black men think of Donovan’s fear and pain. Police officers think of Ricky. I invite you to embody each of these perspectives. How would it feel if you are a police officer to think of Donovan’s grieving mother? If you’re white, how might you feel if you were a Black man living in Columbus, OH in the aftermath of this tragedy? Considering these different perspectives and imagining how others might be feeling right now is one way to expand the diameter of this sphere.

Check in with yourself. Is there a perspective you’re not willing to consider? Is there a person affected by the tragedy you’re unable to identify with or you refuse to even consider because you deem them unworthy of your care and affection? This is a growth opportunity. Try to find one, small thing you might be able to have some awareness of. Notice I said awareness, not compassion. Start with simply acknowledging that something might be difficult for this person; you don’t need to go all in on empathy in a growth moment. For example, I have a difficult time taking the perspective of the police officer because it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine ever choosing that profession in the first place. Nonetheless, I have never taken someone’s life before. I do not know whether Ricky has ever taken a life in his thirty years as a police officer, but I can imagine that coming to terms with this fact (as well as being on administrative leave and enduring the media attention and upcoming investigation) is putting stress and strain on him and his loved ones. That would be a difficult situation for anyone to endure.

If you find yourself saying “fuck him” to Ricky, then again, I invite you to sit with that feeling and imagine a different perspective. Other folks in this arena might be unable or unwilling to take the perspective of Donovan—a “criminal.” They think that if you don’t do anything wrong, then you won’t be shot by police. From what I’ve read, the arrest warrant for Donavon was for domestic abuse, assault, and the improper handling of a gun. And while we must remember that under the current American Justice System Donovan would be innocent until proven guilty, these are still very serious charges. As someone who has endured domestic abuse in the past, I tend to believe women (I’m making the statistically probable assumption here that the domestic partner in this case is a woman, but I’m open to new information proving me wrong about that), and so while the burden of proof is on the state, I tend to believe women when they say men beat them. Someone else—maybe a Ricky supporter—who believes that Donovan is a “wife beater who hid from police instead of opening the door when they first knocked,” may find themselves similarly saying “fuck him.” Both are genuine human responses. You do not need to conceptually align yourself with a perspective to see it.

While awareness of these different perspectives helps us to expand our spheres of compassion, I would never ask victims to identify with oppressors as that may cause significant harm. For instance, I would never ask Black men today to have compassion for cops. I will always draw a line at giving away so much compassion that it diminishes your own power. Stand in your power today. Leave that work to others and practice some community and self-care instead. You deserve it.

Sphere Three

In the next sphere, we might grow the number of people we consider affected by the tragedy. Who else is struggling today? I can imagine that the woman who reported Donovan to the police is having some conflicting feelings. While she may have been trying to keep herself safe, I can imagine she did not mean to start a process that ended with Donovan dead. That’s got to be very difficult to manage, emotionally.

I believe that the Chief of Police in Columbus, Elaine Bryant, a Black woman with children, likely feels stuck between a rock and a hard place. I imagine she feels a sense of loyalty and duty to her police force and to her Black community, and she’s trying to thread that needle. I don’t know much more about her or Ricky’s history on the force, but I feel for her, and I know she does NOT want her police officers out on the street murdering Black men.

What about the other two men in the apartment who were taken into custody? Why didn’t they answer the door for ten minutes? Were they afraid for their lives, having police banging around outside at two o’clock in the morning? Were they protecting their friend, Donovan? Did they also do something against the law (maybe they were high?) that they didn’t want to be caught for? They were handcuffed and taken to police headquarters. I’m not sure if they’re still there but spending a night or more in jail must be very difficult, regardless of the reasons.

Finally, we might expand further to include Mayor Ginther, the City Council and others who might be involved in the upcoming investigation, the brave and dedicated protestors who will come out in droves this weekend, the police officers who will face off with their dissenters, the other police officers at Donovan’s house that night who witnessed him being shot, the paramedics who initially treated Donovan, the Emergency Department doctors who declared him dead, and the friends and families of all the people mentioned so far. The more we understand our communities, the people involved in horrific events such as this, and how they all operate, the greater we can expand our awareness of the difficulties they face. The more we practice awareness and openness to their experiences, the more compassion will grow inside us.

Sphere Four

Can we expand further? I think we can reach out into the domain of societal institutions, higher than any particular individuals. We can ask deep, fundamental questions about how we created a structure that landed us in the midst of this tragedy. The central question for me is: why were armed police officers in Donovan’s home in the first place? Is this necessary to successfully “protect and serve?” You can see from the body cam footage that police officers outside have their weapons pulled, in hand, ready at the waiting. They’re anxiously moving from one foot to another, from one stance to another, clearly full of adrenaline as they pound the door, demanding entrance. It’s worth noting again that it’s two o’clock in the morning. Why are adrenaline-fueled, armed police officers banging on Donovan’s apartment door in the middle of the night? Is this the first line of action? Has he been notified in any other way that there is a warrant out for his arrest? Is there another time or place where police could arrest Donovan?

After the first two young men answer the door and are taken into custody, police officers on the scene decide to call for additional back-up from the K-9 unit. What changed to make the situation so dangerous as to request back-up? And the big question: if the person being arrested was a rich, white, middle-aged man living in Upper Arlington, how would this situation be different? I can tell you that the police would not be knocking in the middle of the night! They’d approach in broad daylight rather than under the cloak of darkness. They surely wouldn’t even think to call for K-9 backup. And I know they wouldn’t be so quick to conclude a vape was a gun. There is a deep bias in the minds of police that being on Sullivant Ave at two o’clock in the morning arresting a Black man is automatically dangerous, and that makes them more likely to take more severe action, thus increasing the probability of lethal force. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Sphere Five

We can expand this societal thought even further: does arresting, trying, and imprisoning one person make anyone else safer? But I’ll leave that thought for another day.

The Abolitionist’s Future

Finally, what happens next? There will be an investigation, and many people will be rooting for justice, which in their minds means that Officer Anderson will be found guilty of murder and sentenced to prison. As an abolitionist, I wholeheartedly want an investigation, especially one that could answer some important questions about this event. What caused officers to go to Donovan’s apartment at two o’clock in the morning and what could we do differently next time? What caused officers to call for a K-9 backup unit? How does bias of location, the nature of the arrest warrant, and race factor into this decision? Why did Officer Anderson—dog in his left hand—fire his weapon so quickly without nearly enough time to make a good judgment? Why do officers need to be carrying weapons at all? An investigation is helpful because answering these questions might help us prevent future Donovan’s from being murdered, lives cut far too short.

As an abolitionist, however, I cannot root for Ricky to go to prison. I understand and have empathy for those who are suffering today, and this suffering may lead us down a path of wanting Ricky to pay for what he’s done. We are human, after all. But we must also realize there’s no way for Ricky to pay his debt. Nothing will bring Donovan back. Nothing could ever happen to Ricky that is as bad as what he did to Donovan, and in my heart of hearts, embodying my highest self, I cannot wish for such horrors to happen to any living being. I believe that transformation comes when we focus on what we could do differently in the future to prevent such senseless tragedies rather than spending even an ounce of energy on backward-looking retribution (or revenge). Healing and prevention are the mantras of abolition.

I mourn with the community today, and I pledge allegiance to doing whatever I can to contribute to a future free from such deep wounds. In solidarity, sending light and love to all.


Unity is NOT the Answer

Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest to police brutality.

President Biden’s clear goal for America is unity. He called for unity many times during his inaugural speech, and here’s how he advises Americans achieve this lofty goal:

“We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.”

POLITICO, Full text: Joe Biden inauguration speech transcript

At first, I was convinced. I day-dreamed plans for how I might work toward peaceful conversations over dinner with Republicans and even Trump supporters. I’ve had many fruitful conversations with conservatives in the past, and I was brainstorming how I might use these skills beyond Facebook debates. I was moved to action by Biden’s words. 

Then I reflected on how this call for unity might sound to others, such as Colin Kaepernick, and I came to the conclusion that unity cannot be the goal, and empathy cannot be the means. Only justice can lead us forward. In today’s essay, I will focus on an argument for why I believe unity cannot be the goal. I’ll take up the justice path in a subsequent post. 

“Unity cannot be the goal, and empathy cannot be the means. Only justice can lead us forward.”

Biden offers good advice to one portion of Americans: the Trump supporters who believe the election was stolen and who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Yes, I can see how peace, progress, and the state of the nation are threatened by Trumpism. I appreciate the command to “get in line.” But those folks were not listening to Biden’s speech, and if they happen to hear about it later, I promise it will not convince them to change their behaviors or modify the contents of their souls. 

That’s because unity cannot be demanded. If part of America simply won’t listen to your calls for unity, then your calls will not unify them with the rest of the country. 

The deeper reason unity cannot be demanded relates to the institutional power imbalances in America. The command to “be more unified” must always be directed at a collective that is already divided. The person commanding unity cannot force the collective into unification (though with enough power, they can certainly force the collective into behaviors that appear to be unified, typically at the expense of the oppressed). In forced unification, the oppressed assimilate to the will of the oppressor in what appears to be unification but, in reality, is more of the same old subjugation. Thus, demanding unity can only create the false appearance of unity, not actual unity. 

Only those in power can demand “unity,” and they will only achieve assimilation. Only those with the privilege to make the rules can demand an “end to division,” and even then, any success will be at the expense of those without the power to refuse. Consider a few absurd scenarios of someone without power demanding unity from someone with power using Biden’s words from his inauguration speech.

Imagine the absurdity of a wife pleading with her abusive husband for a united front: “honey, it’s time for you to treat me as a partner rather than an enemy. I demand we treat each other with dignity and respect from now on. We must join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.” Here, too, the wife is offering some great advice to her abusive husband, and yes, if only he would do these things (and more), they may have a shot at repairing the relationship. This scenario is absurd because we know the world doesn’t work this way. The abused wife does not have the power to command her husband change his ways.  

Imagine another absurd scenario in America: a Black man stating his case to the local police, “officer, surely we can see each other as neighbors not adversaries. I know that my outrage at the deaths of innocent Black men is exhausting to you, but we must treat each other with dignity and respect. If not, then there will be no peace—only chaos, only bitterness and fury. We must join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.” Amen. Absolutely. This is all true, and I am a huge fan of everything this hypothetical Black man says to the police officer. This scenario is also absurd because, again, we know the world doesn’t work this way. 

Oppressed people cannot simply ask their oppressors to treat them with more respect and have their requests honored. That is part of what it means to be oppressed: your requests don’t matter. They have no force. They will not change a damn thing. 

Here’s how the real world works. It’s the abusive husband who says to his wife, “why do you always have to be so combative? Can’t we just get along for once? Can’t we just go to one nice dinner without getting into a huge fight?” Translation: can’t you just always say and do exactly what I want you to say and do? 

Or the police officer who says to the Black man, “if you weren’t so violent, I could trust you. If only you protested in these allowable ways, we wouldn’t have to bring the pepper spray and rubber bullets.” Translation: can’t you just always say and do exactly what I want you to say and do?

The reason the “helpful, unifying advice” only goes from abusive husband to wife and from police officer to Black man—and not vice versa—is because men and police officers have the power to dictate what women and Black men think, feel, and do. The opposite is simply not the case. Calls for unity can only made by those with the power to control what others do. 

When the oppressed comply with the oppressor’s calls for “unity,” it is mere assimilation. It is survival. It is what they have to do, not what they want to do. That’s why true unity cannot be demanded because if it is demanded, it will be nothing but the appearance of unity.

Even if the call to unity were possible for those without power, true peace cannot come from joining forces with the oppressor. Some rules (white-only lunch counters) are not worthy of respect, and disrupting the status quo is the only way to change them. Some things are worth shouting, (“Say her name!”  “Breonna Taylor!”) even if the shouting and anger feels divisive to those in power. Yes, outrage is exhausting, but that does not make it any less of an appropriate response to the outrageous. A calm, polite, ordered, unified society is not thereby better than a chaotic one. We need “good trouble” to disrupt the false unity, which is mere assimilation, before we could ever grow true unity in it’s place. 

Even if calls for true unity were possible, it would be morally wrong to ask the oppressed to:

  • Join forces with their oppressors
  • Show empathy/sympathy or compassion toward their oppressors
  • Walk a mile in their oppressor’s shoes
  • Forgive their oppressors
  • Stop being angry with or displaying hatred toward their oppressors

What kind of sadist would ask a slave to walk a mile in her master’s shoes “for the union”? It is a great harm to demand the powerless endure BOTH their own oppression and empathy towards those who oppress them. In addition to being morally wrong, such calls for empathy, too, can only come from those with power, such as the abusive husband and police officer. It’s the abusive husband who demands his wife understand how it feels to be him, and then diminishes all of her feelings. Police officers demand empathy for how life-threatening their jobs are–as if choosing a career is equivalent to being born Black in America–and then offer no empathy of their own.

Forced unification or requests for empathy, commanded by those who have the power, causes additional harm to the oppressed, and so unity should certainly not be our goal, and empathy should not be the path to unity.

If unity cannot nor should not be the goal, then what is? 

A start to an answer is justice. Not a bloodthirst, retributivist justice as is doled out by the American Criminal Justice System. Rather, justice as fairness, as developed by philosopher John Rawls. More on that next time.