Reimagining the Commons Is One Step Toward a Future Without Police

The abolition of policing is about building a new world centered around “the commons” — a term initially used to describe an area of land in the center of medieval towns to be used by all. The commons was a place where you could graze sheep and grow crops, to meet, have weddings and funerals, or to mark the passages of the seasons. It was owned by no one and used by everyone to provide collective sustenance. It has evolved to describe the concept of collective resources for the collective good, while “commoning” has come to describe the process and practice of coming together to cultivate and manage common resources.

“Commoning” is about affirming humanity, eliminating inequality and social hierarchies, and promoting shared well-being and greater safety. The antithesis of the commons is the police. Their original and ongoing role was to determine who gets what, and how it is done. This is all in the interest of wealth accumulation. Rebuilding the commons doesn’t mean expanding institutions of soft policing in the name of building up “the public sector.” Instead, it means abolishing the social order that privatizes and polices the commons so that we can build a new society and forms of governance that will reinstate the commons and grow it sustainably. We’re not asking for kinder, gentler cops, or broader or softer lines around who gets what. And we’re not demanding more money for public services that are administered in punitive and criminalizing ways. We’re demanding the creation and expansion of the commons as part of a Black feminist culture of care rooted in shared resources, infrastructures, and knowledge that will allow communities to self-govern and thrive. Our goal is collective flourishing, and acknowledgment of our common humanity.

How does this translate into concrete demands? How does this translate into actionable demands? To make these common entitlements and not “benefits” policed through social policy, they must be universal and, along with land and labor, de-commodified. Recreating the commons also means ensuring de-commodified access to things that make life worth living — the things that are necessary to live fully into our individual and collective human potential, like arts, culture, recreation, and rest. This is about far more than access to goods and services; it’s about a new conception of community and social relations. “Commoning” to meet everyone’s material needs requires us to shift from a deficit mindset to one of abundance. It means we must stop constantly looking for the person who is “undeserving,” “cheating,” taking more than “their share,” or “getting over on the system,” whose behavior or ways of being must be policed through denial of access to social goods. These frames all come out of policing — labeling someone an “appropriate” target for criminalization, abandonment, or regulation. Instead, we need a culture where everyone is included. A tweet from the Bloomington police department, which was later deleted, clearly showed how policing can disrupt cultures of care. The department tweeted that they had noticed people were taking all the books from the town’s free library. Despite the fact this is against the explicit intent of a Free The department was then agitated. They believed that people were selling books on the secondhand market, despite the fact that there was no prohibition against it. A culture of care makes books accessible to all who need them in whatever quantities they need. It is part of a larger context of collective care that includes care for the planet.

Shifting to an abundance mindset can be challenging for many of us — including abolitionists. In Charmaine Chua’s recounting of the two-week occupation of the Sheraton in Minneapolis described in greater detail in the “No Soft Police” chapter, she describes the work volunteers had to do to interrupt their own instincts to police, and to instead create a “culture of abundance” within the reclaimed space in which residents were free to take more than one meal or stock up on snacks. Just as we need to unseat the “copaganda,” “copspeak,” and “cop knowledge” described in the “How Do We Get There?” chapter within ourselves, we also need to interrupt the instincts ingrained by racial capitalism to protect me, mine, and my people at the expense of others. We also need to unseat the instinct to become the “soft police” ourselves, by controlling access to resources in ways that coerce compliance with notions of “normalcy” and “proper citizenship” while still holding people accountable to shared values. These commitments are based on a deep and mutual understanding of our interdependence. That means taking responsibility for each other’s care. It means structuring society in such a way that there is enough to go around, and it doesn’t fall to a few individuals to care for others in unsustainable ways.

Cultivating a culture of abundance and meeting communities’ material needs will no doubt go a long way toward reducing the likelihood of harm. Even if all of our needs are met people will still hurt each other. We are all still human. However, as Rachel Herzing says, “Eliminating the PIC will expand the context in which we can develop new ways of relating, build protection, and address harm.” Policing currently takes up so many resources and so much airtime that it crowds out opportunities for underfunded and unfunded community-based solutions to prevent, intervene in, and help us heal from harm and violence. Refunding the commons and defunding police would provide resources and make it possible for community programs and other nonpolice or non-carceral responses in times of crisis. It will also make it possible to invest in a network of preventive and respite services that can help prevent crises from ever occurring. It is therefore crucial to reimagine and rebuild the commons in order to create futures that are not governed by policing.