Image used with permission. Credit: RudeLoveArt

Contained within the 16 Days of Activism against Sexual and Gender-Based Violence is the anniversary of Montreal’s École Polytechnique massacre on December 6, 1989. 31 years ago, 14 women were murdered by the white male terrorist Marc Lépine because they were women.

Remembering our devastating history of violence against women also brings us to reckoning with our present reality. We continue to witness communities that are casualties of gun violence in ‘Canada.’ As abolitionists, we understand this kind of violence as inseparable from not only SGBV and normalized misogyny, but also a hypermilitarized state that is founded on stolen land and genocide. We need not look any further than to the mass shooting by Gabriel Wortman earlier this year in Nova Scotia, and Wortman’s history of violence against women, to clearly make this connection. We are tragically reminded of how little has changed since 1989, and that the struggle to realize liberation from SGBV is far from over.

How do we relate this work to abolition?

SGBV has long been handled through policing and incarceration. The go-to response for people experiencing SGBV - because they’ve been told this is the best solution or because they don’t know where else to turn - has been to call the cops. And yet, police don’t protect victims and Survivors, especially those who experience oppressions at the intersections of race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, migration status, and more. This is why the struggle against SGBV must be rooted in abolition.

What is abolition feminism?

Abolition is commonly understood as the ideas, laws, policies, and theories that have been advanced to end slavery. Legally, enslavement in ‘Canada’ and the ‘US’ ended long ago. However, Black abolitionists will be quick to point out how many of the same practices of containing, controlling, and stripping rights from Black and Indigenous people have continued and even expanded through the rising practice of mass incarceration. Today, abolition refers to the ongoing movement, rooted in this rich history of liberatory struggle, to abolish all forms of incarceration, state-sanctioned violence, and control that disproportionately targets Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour.

Abolition feminism feels a bit redundant because it has always been Black, Indigenous, queers, trans folks, and women of colour who have led the charge for abolishing the police and the prison system. We can turn to the work of Angela Davis, Hortense Spillers, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, Lola Olufemi, Miss Major, Mimi Kim, Michelle Alexander, Robyn Maynard, Elle Jones, Erica Violet Lee, Beverly Bain, Leanne Simpson, Alex Wilson, and Audre Lorde as an incomplete list of powerhouses who have made necessary contributions to the abolition organizing we know and take part in today. But because of the historical and continuous erasure of the people who are to thank for realizing many of the successes in the abolition movement, it is important to define it and give credit where credit is due.  

As Lola Olufemi writes, “abolition as we know it now, developed through the black feminist tradition, owes everything to imaginative potential. It is a belief in emancipatory forms of social organisation and an end to all forms of violence, expropriation and exploitation.” This comes from an understanding that the struggle for emancipation from state violence through abolition has always been related to feminism and its struggle for emancipation from the violences of heteropatriarchy, colonialism, and misogyny/misogynoir.

We can see the need to locate the struggles of feminism and abolitionism as hand-in-hand when we witness Indigenous women in ‘Canada’ being incarcerated at a higher rate than any other group, and police clearing reported cases of sexual violence, disappearance, and murder of Indigenous women at one of the lowest rates in the country. The problems of sexual violence, police violence, and prisons have always been interlinked and they have always been feminist issues.

Five reasons why policing won’t solve SGBV

First, the cops don’t prevent SGBV. Law enforcement is an inherently reactionary tool, meaning we call the cops after harm has already happened. The common tropes we see in episodes of Law and Order: SVU and Criminal Minds of the stranger in a dark alleyway attacking a woman who is then saved by a compassionate group of police officers is not a true representation of sexual violence or how police typically respond to victims and Survivors. In reality, a police response does not, and cannot, protect us from SGBV.

Second, police involvement with SGBV has done nothing to reduce how often it occurs. Police have increasingly become the primary responders to SGBV since the 1970s. Efforts across the last 50 years to ‘get tough on’ SGBV through legal and police reforms that made mandatory arrests in domestic violence incidents, or expanded the use of incarceration for people charged with sexual assault or domestic violence did nothing to decrease how often SGBV occurs. ‘Canada’s’ first women’s shelters were built in the early 70’s and today there are over 600 shelters. These numbers alone show us that a police response has not solved this problem.

Third, sometimes when police do answer calls regarding SGBV, there is a real chance that they will actually harm the person who called the police. Cops in ‘Canada’ have jailed women after they sought help from law enforcement, and even physically harmed them.

Fourth, cops belittle, mock, and don’t believe victims of SGBV. The Globe & Mail’s “Unfounded” series exposed distressing flaws deeply embedded in our criminal process. Notably, one in five sexual assault reports in ‘Canada’ are dismissed by police as unfounded. Locally, Joanne Minaker’s research in Winnipeg recounts multiple stories of Indigenous women met with apathy when reporting domestic violence to police. One Indigenous woman recalled running away from her attacker after being physically beaten and knocking on a nearby police officer’s car window for help, only for the officers to say they could not help her and drive away. Indigenous and Black communities, justifiably, often do not and cannot trust the police to protect them. Promoting police as our main response to SGBV leaves BIPOC communities with fewer safe, effective options to seek help.

Last but not least, the millions of dollars we pour into policing is, in fact, millions of dollars not spent on community programming. As Laureen Snider has written, when public funding is channeled into policing and prisons, social programming gets cut. This includes women’s shelters, welfare, and public housing. These are all legitimate means of harm reduction that do not require a police response.

Ultimately, police do little to nothing to prevent SGBV. For many, a police response does more harm than help, whether it is through the heightened risk of police violence or the way police siphon funds from support services. We need abolition feminism to lead the way in the struggle to end SGBV because decades of police intervention and police reform have not proven to work in favour of victims and Survivors. It is long overdue to reinvest our massive police budgets into life-sustaining services for Survivors, including shelters, mental and physical healthcare, and affordable housing. All of these services can immediately provide the support victims and Survivors need to flee a violent situation–services that a paramilitary force has proven they cannot provide.