Abolition is Not a Suburb

Affluent white havens are not models of accountability

“It looks like a suburb.” So responded Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez , on Instagram, to the question “What does an America with defunded police look like to you?” The congresswoman has said the same of abolition, notably during a February panel , sponsored by Rising Majority, in which she appeared with other members of the Squad — Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. During the Q&A, Ocasio-Cortez stated, “What’s important in this conversation is for us to talk about the world that we want. Because people, a lot of people, cannot fathom what an abolitionist America looks like. Tell them it looks like a suburb.”

At the heart of this framework is an interest in reducing the number and power of police and relying less on carceral “solutions” for promoting safety and dealing with harm. While suburbs are racially and class diverse, others who use this model, including Mariame Kaba, Josie Duffy Rice , and Ta-Nehisi Coates (who quotes Duffy Rice) tend to reference the affluent, white suburb. Even when the suburb is never explicitly named, similar logic is expressed on numerous platforms pushing a divest-invest strategy. This approach to defunding the police enjoins us to shift budget priorities from policing to social services and a care economy while rejecting the carceral practices that inform the current delivery of these services. These are good goals to have.

Yet the affluent, white suburb is no model for abolition. To imagine it as such is to construct the suburb as an idyllic space in which white people make good political choices rather than to identify it as part of the design of racial capitalism and carcerality abolitionists seek to confront.

Social services as crime control

Abolitionists often emphasize the historical and political construction of crime and how crime control in the post-Emancipation era was used to limit Black people’s freedom and movement. In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Y. Davis writes, “In the immediate aftermath of slavery, the southern states hastened to develop a criminal justice system that could legally restrict the possibilities of freedom for newly released slaves.” In the field of criminal-justice studies, there is a wing called radical criminology. While not all scholars of this subarea promote abolition, they do raise critical questions about crime as a sociopolitical construction, as well as the study of crime itself.

In other words, what do people talk about when they talk about crime? Some who employ the suburb frame address this question. For example, in her recent op-ed for the New York Times, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” Mariame Kaba discusses how crime is popularly imagined versus what actually puts many people in contact with the police: “The first thing to point out is that police officers don’t do what you think they do. They spend most of their time responding to noise complaints, issuing parking and traffic citations, and dealing with other noncriminal issues.” On Twitter, Josie Duffy Rice has stressed the same.

Unlike those, such as Kaba and Duffy Rice, who underscore that criminalization is a targeted process, proponents of the suburb model like that proffered by Ocasio-Cortez reify an explanation of crime consistent with a liberal concern about deprived groups acting out. For example, in a June 10 interview on Good Morning America (GMA), George Stephanopoulos asked Ocasio-Cortez to comment on Joe Biden’s refusal to support defunding the police. Ocasio-Cortez responded by situating defunding the police as divestment-investment. As she told Stephanopoulos, “not enough resources are being put into the very kinds of social programming and investments that prevent crime and social discord in the first place.”

While acknowledging in her Instagram response that “something harmful,” including “harmful crimes” can happen in the affluent, white suburb, Ocasio-Cortez makes suggestive comments regarding the healthiness of these communities. At the Rising Majority event, she described the suburb as a place where “schools are fully funded, and there are trees in the street, and children can eat nutritious food, where their brains are able to adequately develop, and that there are policies that people fight for so that the community is healthy enough . . .”

Talk of “crime and social discord,” as well as references to “nutritious food” and brains being “adequately able to develop” run the risk of aligning a discussion of crime control with the trope of Black-on-Black violence, which started gaining traction among politicians and pundits in the 1980s. While many proponents of the Black-on-Black violence discourse are conservatives, David Wilson emphasizes, “liberals were complicit in this constructing.” Unlike political and fiscal conservatives, liberals might deploy the narrative of Black-on-Black violence to solicit support for “full-scale liberal intervention into inner cities” and in the process integrate “notions of powerful local culture with imperfect capitalist economic and political foundations.”

While Ocasio-Cortez would likely reject racist imagery depicting Black people as violent, comments about healthy nutrition and developing brains put her suburb model dangerously close to the liberal version of the Black-on-Black violence framing. It also hints at an epigenetic approach, which posits that structural factors, including racism and deprivation of needed social resources, impact social groups on a biosocial level and that this can shape sociological outcomes. Unfortunately, as Kenyon Farrow has pointed out, epigenetic discourse has become popular among those expressing a commitment to fighting racism.

Affluent, white suburbanites have different priorities

During her GMA interview, Ocasio-Cortez stated, “And it may sound strange, but many affluent suburbs have essentially already begun pursuing a defunding of the police in that they fund schools, they fund housing, and they fund health care, more as their number one priorities.”

This messaging suggests that affluent, white suburbanites were once over-policed and underfunded but have taken the steps to get their priorities in order. More, the suburban model, as employed by Ocasio-Cortez, obscures how racial capitalism structures public finance, such as how racism and pro-policing politics shape national, state, and city economies in terms of the gutting of the social welfare state, the racial politics of municipal creditcorporate funding  of police organizationsresidents paying for punishment“police brutality bonds,” and taxpayer politics.

In doing so, the suburban frame fetishizes the affluent, white suburban taxpayer as leading the charge for abolition in practice.

Camille Walsh examines how, as a trope, “the taxpayer” is a citizen who is white, tax paying, and deserving. While African Americans have at times invoked taxpayer rights, Walsh shows how “the taxpayer” is a raced figure that implies “an ‘untaxed other’ who does not pay taxes and therefore has not earned rights.” Raúl Carrillo and Jesse Myerson note a related danger of the “taxpayer” frame: “Although most of us pay taxes of some kind, every time we say ‘taxpayer money’ we prolong the illusion that society depends on certain kinds of people so we can have nice things.” Ocasio-Cortez’s depiction of affluent, white suburbanites as simply pursuing different budget priorities politically puts “the taxpayer” in the driver’s seat and also suggests that affluent, white suburbanites are the vanguard of abolitionist budgeting. In this scenario, their tax revolt is against the carceral state.

Ocasio-Cortez’s suburb model and its deployment to support defunding the police treat state and city budgets as if they are balanced like a household budget. She is not alone in this approach, as many divest-invest strategies do the same. What Carrillo and Myerson draw our attention to is that there is actually enough money to fund whatever we want: “Politicians may act like the U.S. government has the same constraints as a household or business, but the U.S. government can’t go broke. It can impose silly constraints on itself, like the debt ceiling, but people who actually know how monetary operations work know the U.S. government cannot run out of dollars.” Or, as Carrillo has provocatively stated elsewhere, “The U.S. government can never run out of money in the same way that the NBA can never run out of points.”

So what does this mean for local budgets? States, cities, and municipalities are not monetarily sovereign in that they do not print their own money and, as monetary subjects, they must get revenue in ways that are legally allowed. This can involve taxes, fines and fees, municipal bonds, philanthropy, and private investment. The federal government, however, is monetarily sovereign, as it can print money. Thus, the federal government can provide funding, whether through the Federal Reserve or Congress. Some have considered how this works in relationship to defunding the police. Eric Levitz notes, “It is not possible to mount a remotely credible response to the recent uprisings over police violence and discrimination while forcing cities to slash spending. . . . Anyone who would like the United States to make meaningful progress on racial justice . . . must call on Congress to cease needlessly starving state governments of funding.” Along with calling on Congress to stop starving us, another demand can be for the democratization of the Federal Reserve, as proposed by Jasson Perez in a recent podcast.

What Levitz and Perez don’t mention is that the federal government can always fund more of everything — including both local policing and social services. Such a possibility could undercut a divest-invest strategy and means we need to make more explicit the political demand to never fund the police, regardless of the budget. What their commentaries do draw our attention to are the layers of public finance that shape the budgets cities have to work with and that are obscured in Ocasio-Cortez’s emphasis on budget priorities among affluent, white suburbanites. They also help us move beyond the taxpayer frame, which is useful since putting the taxpayer in the driver’s seat could always backfire as a divest-invest strategy. After all, those with more power and money may decide they are willing to pay higher taxes to keep policing and may weaponize their identity as “taxpayers” to do so.

While Ocasio-Cortez is familiar with modern monetary theory — which is associated with the finance approach delineated here, in her support for a divest-invest strategy she nevertheless promotes a taxpayer-driven model in which the affluent, white suburbanite serves as the paragon of moral budgeting and social innovation. In the process she obscures how affluent, white suburbanites are the beneficiaries of a racist-classist financial infrastructure whose operations remain relatively underexamined by the general public.

Abolition as the privatization of accountability

Ocasio-Cortez’s suburb model posits that when crime and harmful activities happen in affluent, white suburbs, residents are committed to using different means than the police, courts, or incarceration to deal with them. On a surface level, this aligns with a basic goal of abolitionists: to address harms in ways that do not involve criminalization or captivity.

But abolition is not just the absence of policing or captivity; it is also about creating different models of accountability and harm reduction. It is about recognizing the social and political construction of crime as well as the violence and futility of captivity for trying to make us safe, while also attending to the reality that people can and do engage in harmful and violent behaviors that need to be socially addressed. Abolition, then, involves figuring out what nonpunitive accountability looks like in public.

Affluent, white suburbs are not where we should look for models of accountability. Yet this is where Ocasio-Cortez directs our attention.

In her Instagram response, Ocasio-Cortez writes, “When a teenager or preteen does something harmful in a suburb (I say teen bc this is often where lifelong carceral cycles begin for Black and Brown communities), White communities bend over backwards to find alternatives to incarceration for their loved ones to ‘protect their future,’ like community service or rehab or restorative measures.”

We can consider how Ocasio-Cortez’s narrative of white communities “bending over backwards to find alternatives to incarceration” is consistent with her image of affluent, white suburbanites being presumably more committed to other budget priorities. Also questionable is her suggestion that not being policed is a matter of self-design as opposed to not being targeted. According to her, “affluent White suburbs also design their own lives so that they walk through the world without having much interruption or interaction with police at all aside from community events and speeding tickets (and many of these communities try to reduce those, too!).”

If anything, what Ocasio-Cortez is actually describing is the way that affluence and whiteness provide these communities the means to avoid consistent targeting by the police, to ignore laws, or to evade punishment. To be able to be the target of less policing, as well as to hire attorneys and use money and networks when accused, is a thing that white affluence provides — an affluence tied up in and made possible by the racist-classist financial infrastructure concealed by the suggestion that affluent, white suburbanites just have different budgeting priorities. In cases where harm might be perpetrated, using one’s resources in terms of money and connections to avoid criminalization and incarceration can be more an evasion of accountability than abolition.

If, as Angela Y. Davis reminds us, we as a society avoid dealing with the structural dimensions of harm, when it is committed, by disappearing perpetrators in prisons, the other side of the coin is this privatization of accountability available to elites. There are notable differences, of course, as captivity in a cage is a much different and vicious form of being tucked away from public view. I would never confuse captivity with the privacy, money, and racial status shielding an affluent, white suburbanite. But a shared dimension is that each approach tries to make people, when they have committed harm, be disappeared from public view and consciousness while the structural roots of harm go unaddressed and society operates as normal. Again, abolition involves figuring out what nonpunitive accountability looks like in public. Affluent, white suburbanites being shielded from the violence of carceral systems while others are not offered the same opportunity is not a model of abolition. It is just an expression of relative power and racism.

Ocasio-Cortez does acknowledge racism plays a role in disparate treatment. In her Instagram response, she asks, “Why don’t we treat Black and Brown people the same way? Why doesn’t the criminal system care about Black teens’ futures the way they care for White teens’ futures?” Yet her consideration of racism is hampered by her comparative analysis when a relational one is appropriate. While noting racial groups are treated differently, Ocasio-Cortez ignores that whiteness is constructed as having, and more importantly deserving, a future, and how money, power, and racism shape the condition of possibility for affluent, white suburbanites to keep their children from being sentenced to harsher punishments, if they are charged or convicted at all.

Of course we know that white people are criminalized, some are brutalized by the police, and a significant number have been or are currently incarcerated. But even when white people are entangled in the criminal justice system, including being convicted of crimes, they are often able to solicit sympathy or leniency by being juxtaposed in relationship to the specter of Black and Brown criminality. The racist double standard Ocasio-Cortez speaks of is not simply an issue of different budget priorities or treatment. The disparity in punishment is relational. When it happens, the different treatment of white people — even when they are found guilty — involves rescuing them from forms of carceral control and violent punishment deemed racially appropriate for others.

This is not a call for parity in punishment. An abolitionist project would never consider this justice, since punishment itself is at the heart of carcerality, and equal punishment means Black people — who, as Jared Sexton notes, are the “prototypical targets of the panoply of police practices and the juridical infrastructure” — will never be free. But what we get from the affluent, white suburb is less a model of abolition and more an evasion of accountability, which can rely on racialized tropes of innocence to avoid punishment — which only enforces carcerality against those who serve as the raced specter of criminality.

While discussing abolition during the Rising Majority panel, Ocasio-Cortez proclaimed, “And to say, you know, we not actually wanting anything different, the world that we’re fighting for already exists, it just exists for some people, and we want it to exist for all of us.” The world that already exists, according to Ocasio-Cortez, is the affluent, white suburb. Yet these suburbs are part of a spatialized racial-class design in which capitalism and anti-Blackness structure public finance. Affluent, white suburbanites may seek protection for their children in ways that legitimate carcerality for others who serve as the specter of criminality and “deserving” harsh punishment, and often use their money, power, influence, and racial status to evade accountability for real harms they commit. Taken together, this cannot be what abolition looks like. While we are told the suburb gives us a model of the world we’re fighting for, looking to the affluent, white suburb for quick inspiration can only work if we ignore the logic and design of racial capitalism and carcerality we seek to undo. Ultimately, the suburban frame, even when employed with the best intentions, works against what is required of abolition. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore tells us, “Abolition requires that we change one thing: everything.”