Montclair activists: You may find police abolition isn’t what you think
By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
People think police abolition means chaos, Trevor Hettrich of Montclair Beyond Policing says. But he and other members say that’s not true.
Police abolitionists, he argues, have spent decades researching how crime works, why it happens, how it can be prevented with structures other than law enforcement.
“I think if there were a broader push to just understand what it is at its heart, I think people would be surprised by how much it would resonate with the general population because they’re not radical ideas,” he said.
That’s the idea behind Montclair Beyond Policing’s ongoing “Abolition Study Group,” a weekly meeting on Mondays through Aug. 30. Members stress everyone is welcome — not just those on board with the group’s own philosophies of abolition and police defunding.
They’re using a study guide by the Abolition Journal as a framework for discussions. The guide discusses the work of activists and authors such as Angela Davis, who asks readers of her book “Are Prisons Obsolete” to “envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment — demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.”
In the group’s first meeting, on July 19, 26 people attended — just five of them pre-existing members of Montclair Beyond Policing, members say. In all, 71 had signed up to attend at least some sessions so far, members told Montclair Local July 21.
Members say they hope to ask questions of attendees from the Montclair community, and in so doing, spark conversations: Where are township resources going? Are the resources going to institutions that would take care of people? Are these resources going to the police department to be spent on new vehicles, on equipment and weapons, on hiring more police officers? Could we live in a society where police are obsolete? And would this framework work in a town like Montclair?
“Even though Montclair might not have the more visible, spectacular and horrible instances of police violence you might see in bigger cities, we have structural issues,” Lily Cui, a founding member of Montclair Beyond Policing, said. “We have unhoused people in Montclair. We have people who are struggling with mental illness or mental health crises. We have a lack of recreational spaces where young people can spend their time. We have deficits in educational spending. These are all issues that are part of a bigger picture.”
The group’s plan for the study sessions, members say, is to create a safe space where such issues can be discussed, and where community members can learn from one another.
“Political education is so important and I don’t think it's prioritized in our country,” Mark Joseph, a teacher from Newark working in the field for 13 years who joined Montclair Beyond Policing last year, said. “Political education is key. I think that’s part of the reason why we’re doing the abolitionist study group.”
And group members hope to challenge the idea of what safety means.
“There is this narrative that Montclair is exceptional, that our police department is exceptional. People feel like the police are just the good guys in town, and that individually they’re good guys. So, what’s the problem?” Annelise Scherfen, another member of Montclair Beyond Policing, said. “It might not be you who’s pulled over but we have visitors from other areas that might be the ones who are pulled over and the ones receiving this force.”
Montclair Beyond Policing came together amid the activism of Summer 2020, after the death of George Floyd under then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee. Its members have played a role in ongoing debates about the role of police in town, including just this past week, as members called into a Township Council meeting to oppose continuing to have a resource officer in schools.
Its message is far from universally accepted.
Police abolitionists often note disproportionate enforcement and escalation involving communities of color. But Councilman David Cummings — who represents Montclair’s Fourth Ward, home to the township’s largest Black population — told Montclair Local earlier this year he’s proud of the efforts Montclair police have undertaken to build ties with the entire community.
Abe Dickerson, founder of Montclair Citizens for Equality and Fair Policing, has argued Montclair residents deserve more transparency into budgeting and police practices — and is in partial agreement with groups like Montclair Beyond Policing, which argue for more funding of social services. But he also says well-trained police are needed to respond to crisis situations, including mental health calls, where there could be violence.
And Police Chief Todd Conforti, who took a knee along with marchers at 2020’s Crack the Blue Wall rally in Montclair, has argued his department already partners with outside agencies on a host of issues, including mental health and drug addiction, to prioritize service over enforcement as appropriate.
Joseph recalls canvassing a few months back, at a farmer’s market, asking people to sign a petition supporting alternatives to policing. He said 50 people signed the petition, but others were adamantly opposed. Some yelled at him, he said.
“There were people who said, ‘Well, what are you going to do without the police?’” Joseph said. “Just like there are people every week that ... call in during the council meetings with the same rhetoric.”
“Our priority, however, is not to persuade individual naysayers but to continue to research, educate ourselves and anyone interested in a structural analysis of our society, and develop non-policing resources that will keep our communities safe,” Cui said.
One of the 26 people to attend the July 19 study session was Nick Haas, a community organizer from Ramsey and founder of Common Food for Common Good, an organization that takes unused plots of land and facilitates their transformation to community food spaces.
Haas is also part of the Ramsey Alliance for Social Equity, which advocates goals including bias training for police and more transparency and accountability around law enforcement practices.
He said Montclair Beyond Policing’s series was the first time he’d heard of an abolitionist study group, and hopes to bring Montclair Beyond Policing’s study group to his own town.
“Especially in towns like Ramsey where it's mostly conservative, mostly white, abolition means [to many people] that we want to get rid of the police, we want to get rid of prisons, and that’s it. We’re just going to let the chips fall, and people are afraid of that, because it sounds like the Wild West,” Haas said. “But in reality, it’s not that at all. It’s really about building a community that truly values life.”
Montclair Beyond Policing members say they hope to change the narrative around abolition, and build community networks where people feel safe without thinking of the police.
“There was a large pool of knowledge that people were eager to share that helped us learn from each other in addition to learning from the resources,” Cui said. “Participants responded to questions or disagreement in good faith and with the aim of growing our shared understanding. The generous and constructive spirit of the discussion was a great model for continued abolitionist building. We left feeling inspired for the weeks and the work ahead.”