Defunding My Mistake
Confessions of an ex-ACAB
Until about five years ago, I unironically parroted the slogan All Cops Are Bastards (ACAB) and earnestly advocated to abolish the police and prison system. I had faint inklings I might be wrong about this a long time ago, but it took a while to come to terms with its disavowal. What follows is intended to be not just a detailed account of what I used to believe but most pertinently, why. Despite being super egotistical, for whatever reason I do not experience an aversion to openly admitting mistakes I’ve made, and I find it very difficult to understand why others do. I’ve said many times before that nothing engenders someone’s credibility more than when they admit error, so you definitely have my permission to view this kind of confession as a self-serving exercise (it is). Beyond my own penitence, I find it very helpful when folks engage in introspective, epistemological self-scrutiny, and I hope others are inspired to do the same.
How Did I Get There?
For decades now, I’ve consistently held plain vanilla libertarian policy preferences, with the only major distinction being that I’ve aligned myself more with the anarchists. Whereas some were content with pushing the “amount of government” lever to “little”, I wanted to kick it all the way to “zero”. There are many reasons I was and remain drawn to anarchist libertarianism, and chief among them was the attractively simple notion that violence is immoral and that government is violence. The problem with moral frameworks is that they can be quite infectious. To pick on one example for demonstration’s sake, I notice that for many animal welfare advocates a vegan diet is heralded not just as the ideal moral choice, but also as the healthiest for humans, the least polluting, the cheapest financially, the best for soil conservation, the most water-efficient, the least labor-exploitative, et cetera & so forth. It’s certainly possible that all those things are indeed true, but the point here is there’s a risk that if you become dogmatically attached to a principled position, you’re liable to be less scrutinizing when reflexively folding in other justifications. I suspect that happened to me with prisons, for example, where because I felt immediate revulsion at the thought of the state forcing someone into a cage, I was unwilling to entertain the possibility it could be justified. Ceding the ground on this particular brick was too threatening to the anarchism edifice I was so fond of.
Obviously if you advocate getting rid of the government, people naturally want to know what will replace it. Some concerns were trivial to respond to (I’m not sad about the DEA not existing anymore because drugs shouldn’t be illegal to begin with), but other questions I found annoying because I admittedly had no good answer, such as what to do with criminals if the police didn’t exist. I tried to find these answers. Anarchism as an umbrella ideology leans heavily to the far left and has a history of serious disagreements with fellow-travelers in Marxism. Despite that feud, anarchist thought absorbed by proxy Marxist “material conditions” critiques that blame the existence of crime on capitalism’s inequalities — a claim that continues to be widely circulated today, despite how flagrantly dumb it is. As someone who was and continues to be solidly in favor of free market economics, these critiques were like parsing an inscrutable foreign language.1 I was in college around my most ideologically formative time and a voracious reader, but I churned through the relevant literature and found nothing convincing. Instead of noting that as a blaring red flag, I maintained the grip I had on my preferred conclusion and delegated the hard work of actually defending it to someone else. I specifically recall how Angela Davis’s 2003 book Are Prisons Obsolete? (written by a famous professor! woah!) had just come out and the praise it was getting from my lefty friends. If this synopsis of the book is in any way accurate, Davis’s arguments are so undercooked that it should come with a health warning. The fact that I never read the book all the following years could have been intentional, because it allowed me a convenient escape hatch: whenever pressed, I could just hide behind Davis and other purportedly super prestigious intellectuals as my security detail. Back then, I carried the incredibly naive assumption that any position held by prestigious academics couldn’t be completely baseless…right?
Also pertinent is exploring why I felt so attached to something I knew I couldn’t logically defend, and the simple explanation is that it was cool. Being a libertarian can be super socially isolating, especially if you live only in places overwhelmingly surrounded by leftists like I do. I navigated the social scene by prioritizing shared political values — let’s not discuss how I don’t support the minimum wage, focus instead on how much I hate the police and on how much I love punk rock. That worked really well. Putting “ACAB” on my Tinder profile was an effective signaling move that dramatically improved my chances of matching with the tattooed and pierced cuties I was chasing. Announcing at a party that you are so radical that you’re willing to eliminate prisons is an effective showmanship maneuver that few others have the stomach to challenge. There was plenty of social cachet motivating me to ignore niggling doubts.
How Did I Leave?
Whatever the outward facade, my position was crumbling behind it. Almost seven years ago I started working as a public defender and was inundated with hundreds of hours of police encounter footage that were completely uneventful; if anyone, it was usually my client who acted like an idiot. I’ve seen bodycam footage that starts with officers dropping their lunch in the precinct breakroom in order to full-on sprint toward a “shots fired” dispatch call. I’ve seen dipshits like the woman who attempted to flee a traffic stop while the trooper was desperately reaching for the ignition with his legs dangling out of the open car door. Despite this, the trooper treated her with impeccable professionalism once the situation was stabilized. At least about five years ago, I found myself in a conversation with a very normie liberal lawyer on the question of police/prison abolition. It was one of the first times I encountered serious pushback and I quickly realized just how woefully under-equipped I was. I distinctly remember how unpleasant the feeling was — not from the fear of being wrong about something, but rather the fear of being found out.
There were instances where I pulled bullshit what-I-really-mean defenses of ACAB and tried to pontificate about how it’s less about whether individual officers are per se “bastards”, but rather how the institutional role is blah blah blah. I played similarly squirmy motte-and-bailey games with the abolition topic when I was confronted with undeniable rebuttals. I found an example from almost 10 years ago of one of my most common responses, where I’d highlight some police scandal (e.g., cops seizing more stuff through civil forfeiture than is stolen from people by burglars) and accompany it with the eminently lukewarm “on net, society might be better off without police”. The argument is as abstract as it is unconvincing; soaring at an altitude too high for effective critique yet also too remote for anyone to care. Tellingly, I wouldn’t and couldn’t address the more pressing questions of how to deal with more serious crimes.
It was bizarre watching the discourse unfold during the 2020 BLM riots/protests. Almost overnight, the normie liberal demographic that previously was willing to push back on my inanity was now hoarse from screaming for police abolition. My younger self would’ve been thrilled watching the populace fully adopt radical anarchist sloganeering, but my actual self was aghast. I couldn’t believe these people were speaking literally (yep!) or whether they somehow discovered the elusive magic elixir that transformed police abolition into a viable policy proposal (nope!). I’m someone who was and remains a full supporter of BLM’s policy proposals, and I even defended burning down a police precinct building in Minneapolis for fuck’s sake, and yet I didn’t join the defund chorus.
Still, there’s a noticeable bend to some of my writing from that time where I consciously mirrored some of the language du jour — such as making a bog standard argument against mass incarceration while aping abolition language, or responding to a DTP conversation by discussing police overcompensation. I haven’t changed my mind about anything I wrote there, but nevertheless it’s fair to accuse me of indirectly “sanewashing” the DTP issue. I took my boring, wonky arguments and adorned them with the faintest slogan perfume. This let me carry my hobbyhorses on the attention wave, but it also contributed to rehabilitating (however slightly) the totally crazy slogan position.
I know it sounds crazy, but I think effective law enforcement is a vital component of any well-functioning society. Tons of cops are perfectly decent people who try to do the best they can at a difficult and unenviable job. There are bad people out there who can be prevented from doing bad things only when they are physically restrained with chains and metal bars. Unless we develop some revolutionary new technology or fundamentally modify the nature of man, this is the reality we’re stuck with. I still firmly believe there are loads of improvements we can make to the policing and incarceration we have, but abolishing it all is a delusional idea untethered from reality. Radical stance, I know.
Regarding the anarchist responses to the topic, the only coherent proposals I’ve ever encountered are from David Friedman and others on the anarcho-capitalist side (a variant thoroughly detested by left-wing anarchist thinkers who think it’s an affront even to consider it “real” anarchism). Friedman’s response is essentially a cyberpunk future with competing private companies offering insurance, security, and arbitration in one package. Friedman’s proposal is unusually thoughtful and coherent (the bar is low) and yet still remains largely a thought exercise reliant on some generous game theory assumptions. Who knows if it will or can ever work.
In terms of lessons learned, I should first note that introspection of this kind, spanning across such a long time period, will have significant blind spots and would be particularly prone to flattering revisionism. The most obvious mistake I made was in burying those unnerving moments of doubt. Instead of running toward the fire to put it out, I did my best to tell myself there was no fire. I had already arrived at a conclusion in my mind and worked backward to find its support, and I suppressed how little I could actually find. Whether intentionally or not, I fabricated comforting explanations for why my position was right even though I couldn’t directly defend it, often citing evidence that was more aspiration than reality. My ideological isolation kept me safe from almost all pushback anyways. And magnifying all of this were the social dynamics that rewarded me for keeping the horse blinders on.
I’m likely overlooking other factors of course, and there’s the ever-present, gnawing worry that haunts me, whispering that I might be fundamentally mistaken about something else. Maybe I am, but hopefully I’ll be better equipped to unearth it.
This isn’t really on point or even about crime, but to give just one example of the “vibe” I encountered from left-wing anarchists, Voltairine de Cleyre in one of her essays makes a very Kulak-esque argument about how to best guarantee freedom of speech:
Anarchism says, Make no laws whatever concerning speech, and speech will be free; so soon as you make a declaration on paper that speech shall be free, you will have a hundred lawyers proving that “freedom does not mean abuse, nor liberty license”; and they will define and define freedom out of existence. Let the guarantee of free speech be in every man’s determination to use it, and we shall have no need of paper declarations.