Opinion: protests in the US have seen repeated calls for abolishing and defunding the police, something which may have relevance beyond that country

By Theresa O'Keefe and Katharina Swirak, UCC

The protests and civil uprisings that emerged over the last few weeks in response to the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, created ripple effects across the globe. In the midst of a global pandemic, physical and virtual protests spread rapidly, symbolically culminating in the dismantling of monuments to slave owners and racists in the US, UK and elsewhere. These images of fallen statues of "heroes" in public spaces were powerful, as they served as visceral reminders how we accept and normalise societal racism in our midst.

The protests were also powerful as they brought to the fore what has been fought for by civil rights activists for decades: the acknowledgement of the connections between structural and institutional racism and the recurrent violence by the police against Black communities in the United States.

Protestors' calls for abolishing or defunding the police have also been accompanied by concrete actions. An example is the Minneapolis City Council’s move to replace the city's police department with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, with the aim to implement a "new 'holistic’ approach to public safety". Civil rights activist and philosopher Angela Davis describes what we see unfolding before our eyes as a historical moment, the result of a long struggle. "I see myself as witnessing this moment for all of those who lost their lives in the struggle over the decades", she said. 

From Channel 4 News, interview with activist and academic Angela Davis

But what do these calls for abolishing or defunding police forces actually mean? They might seem clear-cut in an American context with its heavily funded militarised, adversarial and racialised policing practices. Might they also be relevant in a country such as ours with a different type of police force? An Garda Siochana is generally unarmed, often described as being "of" and "from" the community and, according to repeated Garda Public Attitudes Surveys, held in high esteem by the general public. 

Critical Sociology and Criminology highlight the importance of asking questions about the nature of policing, its purpose, and its relationship to power and conceptions of justice. Michel Foucault’s work on the origins of the modern prison institution in 18th century France provides a good foundation for thinking critically about what we often leave unquestioned.

He famously argued that the prison which was created by penal reformers as a more humane and efficient form of punishment, could in fact be much more insidiously cruel than previous forms of punishment. His work inspires many critical thinkers to never accept at face value what is presented as 'progressive'.  It is in this spirit that it is important to think about the relevance of abolitionist demands in the Irish context.

Many of the Garda's contemporary attributes are due to the legacy of colonialism

So what are some of these demands? Firstly, abolitionists remind us that it is important to think about the origins of police forces. Police forces were set up to protect and defend the interests of those in power: slave owners in the case of North America, early capitalists and industrialists in the case of Europe and colonial interests in the case of Ireland and indeed much of the global South.

Modern policing is rooted in these beginnings and their organisational structures, functions and operations have never become disconnected from these foundations. The origins of An Garda Síochána, for example, are found in the aftermath of the Civil War and many of the organisation's contemporary attributes are due to the legacy of colonialism. For example, the decision against the use of firearms originates in concerns over the roles former members of the colonial police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary, would play in the reformed policing organisation established in the early years of the Free State.

Secondly, abolitionists remind us that police forces themselves often produce violence, contrary to the more naïve assumption that they solely prevent violence. This does not only happen through violent arrests and other problematic practices that have been repeatedly exposed through the work of investigative journalism, human rights' bodies’ reports and whistleblowers. It also happens through the everyday policing practices that sociologists and criminologists would describe as symbolic violence, which are experienced disproportionately in working-class areas, amongst young people and by Traveller and ethnic minority communities.

From RTÉ Archives, Andrew Kelly reports for RTÉ News on the Garda training process in 1981

Thirdly, abolitionists would argue that it is inherently difficult to meaningfully reform existing institutions. Police forces, just as army personnel, operate according to  a 'barrack mentality'. They are usually trained away from civil society and operate a closed knit and secretive culture. History is littered with attempts to reform these institutions but little progress has been made.

In Ireland, the history of policing is marked by a number of incidents that arise out of its close relationship with the Catholic Church. The role of gardai in enforcing institutions like industrial schools, the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby homes is now well-documented. The Kerry babies case and failures of the Gardai in the Dublin Archdiocese sexual abuse cases as outlined in the Ryan report also point to the role of the Gardai in maintaining a moral monopoly in Irish society. The findings of the Morris Tribunal, the policing of protests like the 2002 Reclaim the Streets march and Shell to Sea also raise questions about whose interests are being served by the gardai.

The deeply entrenched interests of An Garda Síochána made reforms difficult for several Government ministers and police commissioners alike. Despite subsequent reforms, including the establishment in 2007 of an independent oversight body in the form of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, issues persist as we saw the Maurice McCabe case, the continued lack of an independent public inquiry into the death of Terrence Wheelock in Store St. Garda Station and the Garda ‘Rape Tape’ incident. 

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland report on the response from An Garda Síochána to the Reclaim the Streets street party protest in Dublin in May 2002

Finally, abolitionists acknowledge that everyone in society wants to feel safe, the desire for justice to be served when transgressions happen and the importance of the common good being promoted by public institutions. However, abolitionists remind us that typically only a minority of police time is used on addressing violence crimes. They also remind us that violence is strongly linked to levels of inequality that are experienced in any given society. Research has also shown that there is no link between increased policing and lower crime rates. With this in mind abolitionists campaign for public resources to be redirected from policing to services that can make a contribution to reducing social inequalities along with other structural changes.

To reflect on what it means to abolish policing must mean, we must also consider what counts as crime, how crime is punished and who gets incarcerated or criminalised. For Ireland, it means asking questions about links between policing historical institutions, like the Magdalene Laundries, current forms of incarceration like the Direct Provision system and the disproportionate representation of those from ‘seriously deprived areas’.

From RTÉ Prime Time Explained, Brian O'Connell and Ciara Ní Bhroin explain the Direct Provision system

Would abolitionists be so naïve as to suggest that all types of violence would magically disappear if the police would be abolished tomorrow? No, but abolitionists remind us that safety and justice can be achieved in many different ways and not all people have the same access to safety and justice. Abolitionists ask us to imagine not an end to policing but an end to the need for policing. To return to Foucault, could we imagine a vision of justice that does not include punishment, but rather the elimination of the conditions that give rise to injustice in the first place?

Dr Theresa O'Keefe is a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at UCC. Dr Katharina Swirak is a lecturer in Criminology in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at UCC 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ