Becoming Abolitionists

Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom

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Pub Date 05 Oct 2021 | Archive Date 28 Sep 2021

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"An informed, provocative, astute consideration of salvific alternatives to contemporary policing and imprisonment." 
— Starred Review, Kirkus
"[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)

"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

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. 
"An informed, provocative, astute consideration of salvific alternatives to contemporary policing and imprisonment." 
— Starred Review, Kirkus
"[Purnell] draws convincing parallels between the past...

Advance Praise

"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

"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...

Marketing Plan

Major national media campaign including print, radio, and online coverage

Pitch for feature stories and profiles, by-lined pieces, and op-eds

Author interviews on national radio, television, podcasts (NPR, PBS, NBC, CNN, ABC, HBO, etc)

National author tour including independent bookstores and festivals

Multi-month prepublication campaign on Astra House's socials

Highlight in Astra House newsletters and on website

Digital marketing/publicity campaign including features and reviews

Major awards submission campaign

Early outreach to influencers in activism, politics, and popular culture

Targeted outreach to organizations, media focused on police abolition, racial justice, women's issues

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ARC giveaways on Goodreads and NetGalley

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Academic outreach: political & American studies, human rights, history, law schools

Targeted #Bookstagrammer outreach

Major national media campaign including print, radio, and online coverage

Pitch for feature stories and profiles, by-lined pieces, and op-eds

Author interviews on national radio, television, podcasts...

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ISBN 9781662600517
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Featured Reviews

Derecka Purnell generously and urgently takes the hand of the reader to guide them on an extremely important journey to answer the question of what would it truly mean to abolish a society that could have/could need police and prisons? Purnell directly answers the wider calls from last years uprising of what does defund and abolishing the police mean, what is the scholarship and organizing work behind these calls, and how did she arrive to this political understanding. She relentlessly guides you through the political education and organizing work that informs her and highlights the ways that abolishing the police is tied up in so many other systems of oppression today. This isn’t the first abolitionist text I’ve read but I still found new and important connections in what she discussed. Especially important in this summer of flooding, wildfires, drought, and record temperatures is the connection of the police to climate change. We should all be wary of the ways that police, prisons, and the military will be used to manage the climate crisis without addressing the route cause and challenging the power of fossil fuel corporations. I would categorize this as both a fantastic read for people hoping to learn the first thing about abolition and people that have studied it already, to remind them of the other work going on and perhaps new connections they had not considered before. I hope so many people pick this one up and I’ll be recommending it to everyone I know.

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I love this book! I think the structure of interweaving Derecka's personal experience of becoming an abolitionist along with lots of history, sharp analysis, and anecdotes works really well. I also liked that individual chapters focused on issues like gender, disability, and climate. By far my favorite aspect of the book is the clear anti-capitalist framework and analysis that Derecka carries through it. It was new for me to think so clearly about how the police create and manage inequality, and how they create classes/groups of marginalized workers by policing race, class, gender, disability, etc. I especially loved her analysis of how sexual violence creates a group of easily exploited workers in women, especially women of color and migrant women. This frame of anti-capitalism allows Derecka to easily turn a lot of commonsense ideas about policing on their head--police protect the capitalists and their interests (which means extracting labor from workers easily and at a low cost), not the people. So, the police are actually functioning exactly as they are designed to when they murder people and enforce racial hierarchies. As Derecka concludes, this simply means that we have to abolish the police and the oppressive systems that they uphold. I think Derecka does an excellent job of discrediting many common objections to abolition and some common ideas in left-leaning social movements today, particularly the idea that sending murderers and rapists to jail is "justice" and that reforming police will help (it will just give them more money and power). I will say that I don't know how well this book will function as an introduction to abolition for someone who is completely new to it. Since it covers so much ground, I'm not sure that I would be convinced by some of Derecka's points if I weren't already primed to agree with her because she has so many points in the book that she can't take the time to unpack them all thoroughly. Some of the scholarship she cites is also quite difficult (particularly Moten, but also some of the Davis), and I don't know how readers would interpret this without having previously read those scholars. My main substantive critique of the book is focused on the chapter about disability, in which Derecka appears to mostly stick to the medical model of disability instead of the social model. Although she notes that policing and capitalism physically disable people (through violence) and how capitalism excludes disabled people from the workplace, she maintains the idea that disability is located in an individual's body, rather than the society that is only built to work for certain bodies. She uses the language of "accommodation" rather than universal design. This oversight seemed just a bit out of line given how strong her linking of policing, marginalization, and capitalism was in other chapters. The social model of disability could help illustrate how capitalism creates disability not physically but as a category (just like how race, gender, and class are socially constructed through capitalism). A final critique is the lack of mentioning food justice, specifically veganism. Derecka hints at food a few times in the chapter on climate, but she does not take on the fact that most people in the US live on a diet that is founded on violence against animals (which is also violent against workers in the industry). This seems like another oversight given her goal of living in peace/abolishing violent systems, and given the intellectual history of Black feminist veganism.

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Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom by Derecka Purnell is an essential read for anyone with an interest in the police and making society better for everyone. In other words, this book needs to be read by everybody. When Purnell states near the beginning that she really thought the abolitionist movement was utopian at best and foolish at worst, she is starting from the same point most of us start. So whether you already support the cause, whether you like the idea but can't imagine what that society might look like, or even if you are opposed to the idea right now, this book makes a clear case for abolition and offers ideas for moving forward. I have read maybe a dozen books on or contributing to the idea and while I don't think this one replaces all of those I think it does an excellent job of bringing the activism, the theory, and the pragmatics into conversation. For those trying to better understand, Purnell walks you through her own transformation as a way to help you look at your own life and beliefs and come to a better understanding. If you're already behind the idea but want to know how to make it happen, there are ideas here that can be adapted to your situation. The key is to remember that this is not a movement about destruction but one about remaking society so that there are fewer harms affecting people and thus a society where the police and our carceral society become obsolete. In other words, we are not creating a void but rebuilding with stronger and better material. Like I said, I would recommend this to everyone no matter where they currently stand on the issue. Whether you're for, against, or undecided, your position is only as good as your knowledge. This book offers a solid knowledge base as well as ideas that, I think, stop just short of being overly prescriptive. Ideally this won't be a reader's only exposure to abolitionist thought, but if it is it is a good choice. Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.

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In her new book, Derecka Purnell, lawyer and activist, outlines a compassionate stance for abolition. Part memoir, part exposition, part action plan, this should be the next anti-racist book you pick up. Since George Floyd’s murder in 2020, you have probably seen or heard of protestors demanding to “Defund the Police.” Becoming Abolitionists provides background on the issues at hand like over-arrests, wellness checks that turn into raids, violence by police who are already trained to de-escalate and don’t. In many ways it picks up where Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow leaves off from eleven years ago with more current events. It outlines the more public face of violence against Black people that we’ve seen since the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Freddie Gray in Baltimore and also the more private face of the evictions of residents from low-income housing and police arresting residents on loitering charges while they hang out outdoors to escape the heat. As an organizer, Purnell spends time one on one with people, often answering the questions “What about the murderers? What about the rapists?” She answers those questions here, both with statistics and with personal and public stories. She breaks down myths with discussions of bodily autonomy, explaining the damages to a community of prison sentences for drug related crimes, and even challenges the legal framework for determining criminality. Purnell’s action plan is eminently rational and, more importantly I think, achievable. In her conclusion she outlines five major points for community engagement. Community accountability is also an easy phrase to throw around, but Purnell insists that reallocating resources to promote healthy communities will make a radical difference. For example, instead of the state spending money to put a child in foster care, redirect that money to community programs to help families and children flourish. The idea of abolition is not just to be anti-racist, but to promote supportive growth, well-rounded communities, and address concerns of the climate crisis on poor communities. Most of all, what I loved best about this book is Purnell’s transparency about change and growth. As a young person, she and her family relied on the police for everything. They had to, because the police were their only option in an area devoid of healthcare, locksmiths, social workers and maintenance workers. But events and conversations over a lifetime lead to change, and she knows that even today this book is only a starting point and that her views will continue to adapt and evolve. This one is important. It’s more than anti-racist. It’s an action plan to heal communities wrecked by violence, broken families, and climate change. I cannot recommend it enough, especially if you aren’t sure what abolition in our contemporary era could look like.

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A must-read for anyone seeking to become more educated on the issues surrounding policing and prisons in the United States. Derecka Purnell expertly intertwines her own experiences with a policy evidence base building her case for abolition. **Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review**

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