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  • Writer's pictureJason Harrison

The Limits of Carceral Logic in Dayton and the United States

The traffic stop began with the same cruel banality so many traffic stops in Black communities do: with a pretense.

In this case the Dayton Police pulled over Clifford Owensby, a Black man with paraplegia, because of his window tint, and ended up violently dragging him out of his vehicle. If not for social media posts expressing outrage about the September 30th traffic stop, no one outside of Owensby’s family and friends would know what happened.

This is the nature of policing in the United States, where driving one’s vehicle becomes a potentially lethal invitation for police officers to humiliate and drag Black people through the streets. This is why the idea of carceral abolition--that is, eliminating prisons, police, and surveillance from society--has generated more mainstream interest, particularly in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder.

The George Floyd uprisings and police reaction to them in 2020 forced me to contemplate the idea of carceral abolition for the first time as a realistic concept and not some radical, unrealistic fantasy. I had been following the abolitionist Mariame Kaba on social media for a while, but 2020 will always be the year that I remember moving closer to believing in and pushing for abolition.

I want to be clear with you right now that I continue to find the idea of abolition deeply challenging for the same reasons you might find the idea challenging as you’re reading this.

I began to shift my own thinking around the carceral state with this 2019 New York Times Magazine profile of Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack. Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as Gilmore puts it, they “mess up.”

One thing you’ll notice immediately when you begin reading about abolitionism is how many of the movement’s most important thinkers are Black women. Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis, and Kaba are all among the names you’ll see frequently when diving into abolitionist thought, which at first might seem counterintuitive given how often Black women suffer from various forms of violence, including sexual.

Earlier this year Bill Cosby was released from prison because of prosecutorial misconduct, while R. Kelly was just convicted of sexual violence charges that could land him in prison for the rest of his life. Decades of abuse. One man now free, the other facing life in prison. The connective tissue between the two cases is the collective disregard for the voices of dozens of women over the years who’ve been telling us about these men.

As our prison system proliferates, we’re left to grapple with the fact that incarceration not only doesn’t deter sexual violence (Cosby and Kelly allegedly abused victims over decades), but it also very well might prevent accountability and any process that could meaningfully address the harm caused while doing nothing to change the culture of masculinity that allows for and encourages such abuse.

If we accept the logic that the carceral system does little to prevent violence against vulnerable people, then we must ask what purpose it serves. In the Dayton area, the network of segregated suburban departments--most notably Oakwood’s, where Black motorists are pulled over in wildly disproportionate numbers--appear designed to keep Black people out. The Dayton Police then grab the baton to ensure that Black communities remain in redlined communities while suffering from the twin cruelty of over-policing and under-serving, all with the blanket approval of the local Democratic Party.

Just a day before Owensby’s traffic stop, for example, Dayton city commissioners used a procedure perfect for avoiding scrutiny and accountability to pass the latest Fraternal Order of Police contract. They deftly revealed the contract during the commission meeting before an emergency vote, ensuring that no one was able to review or comment on the contract before it was approved.

The broken nature of policing has always been a bipartisan project in the United States. Here in Dayton, Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate and current mayor Nan Whaley has invoked the phrase “Black Lives Matter” repeatedly in public, all the while aggressively maintaining a status quo that demonstrates just how little political courage the party she has ruled in this city possesses when Black equality is on the line. An elected official who believed that Black lives do matter would never use an emergency vote to elide community input.

Rather than continue to subject Black humanity to the whims of capricious police stops and the cynicism of our political parties, we should abolish the carceral state and simultaneously begin the long, hard work of building a free and just society. This is not the argument one makes when they’re running for governor, but I’ve grown to believe it is the only logical and ethical and humane conclusion one can come to when evaluating Black experiences with prisons, police, and surveillance.

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