Reforms Don’t Work
Season 1, Episode 6
Season 1, Episode 6
In this episode, we’ll discuss reforms in the family policing system and how these reforms don’t stop the harms perpetuated against Black children, families, and communities. We’ll also be discussing the differences between reformist reforms and abolitionist steps.
About Our Guests:
Dylan Rodríguez is a teacher, scholar, organizer, and collaborator who has maintained a day job as a Professor at the University of California-Riverside since 2001. Since the late 1990s, Dylan has participated as a founding member of organizations like Critical Resistance and Abolition Collective. He is the author of three books, most recently White Reconstruction: Domestic Warfare and the Logic of Racial Genocide.
Maya Pendleton has been a part of the upEND movement since its inception. She currently works as a researcher and writer for the upEND movement, focusing on how we abolish the family policing system, the harms of the current system to children, families, and communities, and the world we will build post-family policing.
Hosts: Josie Pickens & Jaison Oliver
Producer: Sydnie Mares
Editor: Imani Crosby
Coming up this episode of The upEND Podcast.
That even in what seems to be a best case scenario of a Black child, you know, moving into quarters with a wealthy white family who from the outside looking in seems like they did, they did like a noble job caretaking and doing all the rest. It actually became another site of violence and an extraction for Michael Oher adulthood, you know, as a 30 something year old, talking about that and testifying to that and saying, you know, In the best case in the best case I suffered from this family’s extraction and their exploitation.
Many of the reforms that are constantly suggested in policing, they’ve already been tried a thousand times over and we know that they don’t work. They’ve never worked, but there’s all this, you know, energy for reforms, but there’s no energy for trying something new. And I think that’s another thing that we have to remember. Most of the time reforms aren’t new. They’ve been done, they’ve been tried, they don’t work.
Families separated through Child Protective Services voiced their anger on the steps of the state capital today.
They say the system has a history of racial discrimination.
Stop kidnapping Black children.
This CPS system is just a part of a bigger system. We have to destroy the whole damn thing.
53% of Black children will be investigated by the child welfare system by the time they turn 18.
The family policing system forcibly separates over 200,000 children from their families every year. Can a system that began with racist intent ever become a system that makes all children and communities safe?
We know the answer is no. Absolutely not.
Welcome to the upEND Podcast, a podcast that looks toward the abolition of the child welfare system, which we at upEND more accurately call the family policing system.
In this podcast, we contemplate the history of family separations in the US, the current state of the family policing system, and what a future without family policing can look like.
We’re your hosts. I’m Josie Pickens.
And I’m Jaison Oliver. Let’s get started.
All right. Welcome back to The upEND Podcast. In this episode, we’ll discuss reforms in the family policing system and how these reforms don’t actually help to end the harms perpetuated against Black children, families, and communities. We’ll also be discussing the differences between reformist reforms and abolitionist steps. Jaison and I are excited to be joined by Maya Pendleton and Dylan Rodriguez.
Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. Thanks for inviting me, y’all.
Hi everyone, it’s nice to be here.
Thank you, thank you. Dylan Rodríguez is a teacher, scholar, organizer, and collaborator who has maintained a day job as a professor at the University of California, Riverside since 2001. Since the late 1990s, Dylan has participated as a founding member of organizations like Critical Resistance and Abolition Collective. He is the author of three books, most recently, White Reconstruction, Domestic Warfare, and The Logic of Racial Genocide.
Maya Pendleton has been a part of the upEND Movement since its inception. She currently works as a researcher and writer for the upEND Movement, focusing on how we abolish the family policing system, the harms of the current system to children, families and communities, and the world we will build post-family policing. Welcome Dylan and Maya.
All right, so just to get started, I hope that you can both tell us about how you came into this work and connections between your work and family policing. We’ll start with you, Maya.
Yeah, so I came to this work like I think many people do, familiar with policing in the prison system. And I was working on movements to abolish policing, abolish prisons and surveillance and those types of things.
And at the same time, I started working within the child welfare system or the family policing system. In my mind, these were two different efforts, right? So I really had a concrete understanding years ago of policing in prisons as surveillance, as arms of racial capitalism, as genocidal violence against Black communities, but I didn’t really understand or situate family policing in the same way.
So I began working with youth who were experiencing the foster care system and really organically through conversations with them about their experiences, I started to unearth what was going on in the system, the things that they were experiencing, their desires to go home, their desires to be closer to their families. And despite wanting those things, understanding that the system was controlling them and limiting their access, they weren’t getting their needs met, living out of trash bags, really typical horrific stories of what happens to children and youth who are within that system.
I then began to try to work on reform efforts focused mainly on, you know, improving policy and practices within child welfare systems. So improving service delivery, timelines of children in foster care, permanency, all these things that reform efforts focus on aimed at bettering the system to protect children and families.
Somewhere along the way, through conversations with other organizers, other people, colleagues, many of whom are involved with upEND, we’ve made parallels finally to the prison system, policing and child welfare system, recognizing that they’re functioning in similar ways, sort of creating these sort of like asymmetrical paths of violence against certain communities, heightening surveillance, and they’re all functioning within each other. And it became very clear to me that these are systems that are not only working hand in hand to oppress people, but also working hand in hand to surveil people, and that abolishing policing, abolishing prisons, also means abolishing family policing.
Thank you. How about you Dylan?
Well, I’ll say that I consider myself to be a student and apprentice of organizations and movements like upEND that have really presented a vital abolitionist analysis of what y’all have come to name family policing. Which Ii’d like to enrich and embolden by thinking about this apparatus as another extended arm of the perpetual domestic asymmetrical domestic war that the US nation-building project wages on Black families, on Indigenous families, you know, on undocumented people, etc.
So I’ll say that the way I come into this work is that way, as a student, as an apprentice, but in the longer track, around the last, almost the last three decades of what I’ve been doing, I’ve been really honored and humbled to be participating for these last, you know, close to 30 years in what’s come to be identified as prison and eventually policing abolition movements.
The latter 90s, we were identifying the regime that we were contesting as the prison industrial complex. I still tend to use that term. I actually don’t like the term mass incarceration. To me that term doesn’t make sense. You know, just because I think it’s an inaccurate term. I think that the terms that we ought to use are closer to the terms of war, to the terms of targeting, to the terms of differentiation rather than mass.
But I’ll say this, there was a time, I think, an extended time during the buildup of what became prison abolition movements in which not only was there an absence of an abolitionist analysis of so-called child and family welfare, but there were elements within this emerging movement that would tend to advocate to support child and family welfare systems as a kind of alternative to incarceration. So what you would have would be folks that would advocate for a redistribution of state resources toward things like family therapy, toward child protective services, toward all these things that you all have come to identify as this kind of terror machine. It’s like a targeted terror machine.
And I’ll say I’ve been sympathetic or not even sympathetic. I’ve been, I’ve been aligned with that kind of analysis from jump. In other words, I was always generally suspicious of liberal solutions to what I thought was a genocidal problem. I I’ve never really fallen on the side of believing that the state, especially the state in the US would be inadequate or even just not a damaging and violent alternative formation of conquest and terror that the state itself has created and reproduces.
So I think the emergence of this analysis really does resonate with everything that I’ve come to learn from people, both in direct contact with the so-called child and family protective system, foster system, et cetera, who refer to child protective services as kidnappers and hostage takers. You know, thinking about this as part of a long lineage of colonization of anti-Black chattel slavery and so forth.
And I’ll say again humbly, I hope that this is the first of many conversations I have with you all at upEND. I’m hoping to be in, you know, comradeship and alliance and participation with you all in trying to figure out how to get rid of the system, how to destroy it for good.
I want to circle back to something that you mentioned early on, Dylan. You talked about asymmetrical domestic warfare. Can you talk about what that means?
Yeah, let me start by saying that the notion of asymmetric war is generally not one that’s used by the military or people in like military studies anymore, right? They’ve kind of dispensed with that idea. I still use that term in part because I’m using it within a Black radical tradition rather than a military and military studies tradition.
I think within a Black radical tradition, the notion of asymmetric war meshes with the idea of anti-Black genocide and what you could provisionally call domestic war.
And I think the reason why these terms are important is that when people talk about war, especially in places like the US, they tend to project it beyond the nation state borders. They tend to think about warfare and war as something that happens in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, et cetera.
But part of the Black radical revolutionary tradition identifies, and the Native sovereignty and self-determination tradition and so forth, Puerto Rican independence tradition, we can go down the line. Part of those radical and revolutionary traditions identifies the site of US nation-building itself as always and already engaged in warfare.
And the reason it’s asymmetrical, I’m just thinking about the mathematics of it. You know, that it’s not even disparity, it’s really about asymmetry. In other words, the ways in which this nation building war is conducted, it’s inadequate to think about disparate casualties. You have to think about casualties that are actually incomparable both in terms of intensity and in terms of scale and quantity. And I think the topic of this podcast and the abolitionist intervention and framework that upEND is bringing really does bring that forward in some profound ways. So I think this is why asymmetry is important because it’s both referring to the way in which warfare is conducted and in terms of the casualties that are extracted by that war. That’s the asymmetry.
Yeah, I’m thinking about what you’re saying about asymmetrical warfare, and it kind of ties into a topic that we regularly discuss on the podcast. I feel like one of the tools that’s used in asymmetrical warfare is this idea that these systems that are created within this nation are like helping systems, right?
Benevolent systems, right? If we’re thinking about a traditional policing system, we need police, right? Because we need police in order to keep people safe. We need the family policing system in order to keep children safe. There is this myth of benevolence.
And Maya, I actually have a question for you around this myth of benevolence. Because as you brought up, when you first kind of became, gained knowledge of the system in the way that it really works versus what you might’ve traditionally thought as far as the way that it works. You realize like, oh, this system does not work in the way that it says that it works, or maybe it works in the way that it’s designed to work, but it does not work in the way that it says it should.
And I wanted to ask you, how do you see this myth of benevolence showing up in terms of reforms? We already know how this system, this idea of like, benevolence shows up in just the way that the family policing system is presented to the general public. How do you see that myth of benevolence also showing up in terms of like reform since that’s what we’re discussing in this episode?
Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think a key and central way to think about the myth of benevolence and how this shows up in the system is how the system thinks and talks about parents specifically. How Black parents, how Native parents, how their communities, their homes are demonized, they’re dirty, they’re unfit. And how parents are sort of seen as this perpetrator of mass violence against children.
And that enables the system to then swoop in and say, we are saving children from these terrible, awful, ugly parents and their communities. And children are actually being harmed at mass. I mean, if you look at the rhetoric that’s perpetuated by the child welfare system, like in the media, in the news, in movies, it’s this idea that this mass harm is happening against these children that you can’t see. And we have to save them. We have to protect them from their parents.
And so after that saving and protecting happens, the media never really talks about what happens to the children that end up in the system, what happens to the families that end up in the system. Every once in a while, you get a huge media case about a child who was tragically harmed by either abusive parents or abusive foster parents, but we never hear about what happens after that. So these stories about parents are really perpetrated through the news, through the media, by the system itself.
We can even think back to these sort of like historical archetypes, like the welfare queen and all of these ideas about like Black parents and like their kind of like planning, plotting against the government, against systems. And so we need a system like the child welfare system to save people.
And when that happens, not only are a whole group of parents told that, you know, their children are not theirs because they can’t protect them or they can’t provide for them. But we’re also told that a certain population, a certain group of people needs government surveillance, needs government watch, needs a hotline you can call, that parents can call, that teachers can call, that doctors can call. They need this because en masse, they might harm these vulnerable group of children. I mean, there’s so many contradictions within these myths, right?
First of all, that the government doesn’t even protect children. We can’t even get free lunches for children, right? So like there’s so many contradictions within the myth, but you know, this sort of myth making is central to the survival of the child welfare system. I think as abolitionists, we always get so much pushback that we’re not interested in helping children. We won’t save children. What happens when children are harmed? And these are only myths that are made possible by the idea in the first place that parents are en masse harming the children in their homes.
Yes, thank you. And I feel like this next question you’ve kind of already answered, but I wanted to see if you had anything that you wanted to add. If we’re thinking about everyday folks, you know, the general population and their understanding of the child welfare system, what do you think regular everyday folks get right or wrong in their beliefs about the actual impacts of the family policing system?
For instance, I know that growing up, I thought that every type of intervention from the family policing system involved abuse, right? I had no idea that children were separated from their families because of the quote unquote neglect. And I didn’t know until I joined the upEND team and really started digging into the definitions of neglect and abuse that, oh, a lot of times what we’re seeing when we’re thinking about neglect is actually the effects of poverty and lack of resources for families. So can you think of what people get right and what people get wrong when they’re thinking about the impact of the family policing system?
Yeah, I mean, I think the thing about the family policing system is that it’s almost like a colloquialism. People, you know, see a child being harmed, they say, “call CPS,” or “somebody needs to contact CPS. Has anybody called CPS?”
So I think for people who don’t experience foster care in the family policing system, it’s like a catch-all sort of thing to swoop in and help families. But I would say that if you ask people who have actually been within the throngs of this system, they’re pretty clear on what it does and what it doesn’t do. I think that parents are pretty clear on the fact that it’s not helping them. I think that the services that are offered are basically, they’re not addressing their immediate needs.
I think that…you know, kids who are experiencing the trauma of the foster system understand that the interventions are not helping them, not helping them get back home, not helping their parents who might be in need of help. So it’s almost like the family policing system sort of exists in a silo where this groups of people are dramatically impacted and could tell you horror stories from it.
But the general public still sees the system as something that is doing good ultimately. Something that might need to be tweaked, you know, and it’s service delivery, but ultimately promoting a social good, is doing a social good, is needed and helpful. And so I think a key part of abolishing the system is understanding that the system itself is harm and the existence of a system like this is harmful.
And we also have to dismantle, again, ideas about parents, right? Because I think that I sometimes hit a wall with folks and even that, you know, you can tell them that most cases are due to poverty or neglect. But there’s still something inherent within a lot of people where they still don’t believe that poor parents deserve to parent, right?
There’s all these debates all the time about, well, why would you have kids if you can’t afford them? And so I think like dismantling that idea too. So it’s not just that people are coming into the system because of poverty, but it’s also the fact that it doesn’t matter if a parent is poor or not. Why do we live in a society where poor people don’t have what they need? Why are people poor in the first place?
And so that’s the other part of the myth-making that we have to address and undo is that people are, let’s look outside of just individual poverty and let’s think about why do people live in these conditions? Why are people forced to decide whether they’re going to leave their kid at home or go to work? These are unlivable, untenable conditions that people live in. And living in untenable conditions pushes people into surveillance systems. And so we have to start there and start asking ourselves, what type of society do we want to live? What type of society do we want to build?
That’s so good, Maya. And I just have one more question around this myth of benevolence and how this system is able to continue to operate because of this myth. And I want to bring it back to reforms as well. Can you explain how reforms are used by system administrators to skate past responsibility for harms enacted against children and families?
Yeah, reforms are so critical in maintaining systems and also in maintaining state violence. So if a system administrator can come in and say, look, I see the issues with the system, I can see that there’s racial disproportionality here. We need to fix that. We need to address that. We need to do better training.
That assertion is always telling us that the system is indeed the one who should be handling children and families. There’s never a question. There’s never a sort of shift of power in saying communities get to handle their own problems by themselves.
Every time a reform is suggested, it is saying that, yes, we need this system. Yes, the system is functional. It just needs a little tweak. What reform dismisses is the fact that we can create things outside of systems to actually serve us. But reforms really kill our political imagination in saying that what is in front of us is the only thing that can ever be, is the only way that we can ever live. And every time reforms are suggested, we’re reaffirming the existence of a system that needs, saying that it needs to be there, saying that it is functional, saying that it does serve a purpose.
And on the other hand, when we counter reforms, we’re actually questioning: does this actually have a purpose? Do we actually need this? And it brings us closer to questions where we can create our own realities. But as long as reforms exist to continue to reshape and alter systems, we are sort of stuck in this gridlock of a cycle of reform, bad thing happens, reform, do something else, try something new.
And none of these reforms are new, right? So oftentimes reforms are just things that are like refashioned, redeveloped. We’ve heard it before. There’s a thousand names for one thing, but often like they’ve been tried.
We see this with police reforms all the time. Many of the reforms that are constantly suggested in policing, they’ve already been tried a thousand times over and we know that they don’t work. They’ve never worked, but there’s all this, you know, energy for reforms, but there’s no energy for trying something new. And I think that’s another thing that we have to remember. Most of the time reforms aren’t new. They’ve been done, they’ve been tried, they don’t work.
Yeah, no, so first of all, I’m indebted to Maya for your work, your research, your scholarship, your organizing, your activism on this. I just wanna let you know I’ve learned a lot from you, and I continue to. So in conversation with you and on this point, I think it might be helpful regarding Josie’s question to make the argument that there really is no such thing as knowledge about the family policing system, that there are only mythologies.
There are only generally anti-black white supremacist colonial mythologies that are pushed by the state, pushed by the two dominant parties, pushed by administrators of agencies, as well as kind of dominant policymakers. So there’s only mythologies, which is really just another way of saying that they’re just lies. Like what you actually have is not knowledge. What you have are stories that circulate, which are ripe for being demystified, ripe for demystification as lies.
And I wanna make reference to an interesting, example of this that just happened in real time, like in front of the public, um, including the kind of folks you’re talking about, Josie, which is what happened with Michael Oher recently, right? The the former all pro offensive lineman for Baltimore Ravens who’s retired now who came forward and just destroyed the entire mythology that was perpetuated by the Academy award-winning movie that, you know, he was ostensibly that he was a main character in, The Blind Side.
So his story and folks, I’m not going to recite the story here, but I will say that what his story does is number one, it shows how it is that even in what seems to be a best case scenario of, of a Black child, you know, moving into quarters with a wealthy white family who from the outside looking in seems like they did, they did like a noble job caretaking and doing all the rest. It actually became another site of violence and an extraction for Michael Oher. And now he’s coming back in his adulthood, you know, as a 30-something-year-old, talking about that and testifying to that and saying, you know, in the best case, in the best case I suffered from this family’s extraction and their exploitation of me.
And so I think that this is profound. What really breaks my heart about the Michael Oher situation is how the Tuohy family and um, Michael Lewis the author of the book how they talked about him as not merely in need of the white savior rescue from poverty, from impoverishment in like this kind of stereotypical story of the dysfunctional, non-functional Black family or non-family, but also that he was unintelligent, that he was academically, you know, non-functional and dysfunctional. When if you just look at his, you know, elementary, junior high and high school transcript, Michael Oher was academically gifted.
So what breaks my heart is how he actually has to address that. He says what really upsets him in some ways the most is how this mythology, this lie about him that was originating in this foster family policing situation, projected him as a dumb Black child. And so he said, I think that to me is what really animated his pushback and his kind of rebuttal of this testimonial. So yes, I think we have to stop thinking about this. What ordinary people think they know about this, it’s really not knowing, right? What you’ve got is lies.
We hope you’re enjoying The upEND Podcast. A quick note: upEND is funded through the generosity of people like you who believe that ending the harm of the family policing system will help us to create a safer future. If you’re enjoying this podcast, we hope that you’ll consider donating to our work. Visit upendmovement.org/donate for more information.
I really appreciate that point, especially thinking about how he has to come back, you know, what, 15 years later to one kind of relive and rehash the story. But also even despite movie, book, right, professional football career, we still don’t know the truth about what he experienced, right? This is something that we’re seeing long after his football career is over. That’s really interesting to me and ties into what you’re saying about we’re not really getting knowledge, we’re getting propaganda and lies and like a mythology about what’s happening here, but we’re not getting real true stories and real knowledge.
What is also so interesting is your point that this is the best case scenario. Like if there was a case that someone would present as how the family policing system and the foster care system works and actually helps children, like that would be the case, right? And so now being confronted, the public being confronted with this idea that even though this family was wealthy, they still chose to lie and steal from this child who according to them had nothing, not even intelligence and an ability to understand and make choices for himself.
So again, like even in the best case scenario, there is still this harm. So just imagine what most Black and brown children, most Indigenous children experience in this system. I wish we would dig a little deeper into that question in the public conversation.
I mean, the kids who eventually become adults, like the kids who survive these systems, they’re already rebutting these lies, mythologies, and stories with just everyday testimonials. And here’s what I take from it in my many encounters now with people who are survivors of these systems is that the kind of environment, the kind of family environment, nuclear family environment of relative white wealth or even extreme white wealth, like in Michael Oher’s situation, that actually is just another layer of violence and abuse. It just looks, feels, and sounds a little bit different. And it’s also sanctioned.
So in many ways, it’s actually more dangerous and more traumatic in different ways, right? Because it’s actually sanctioned by the state and by a kind of popular common sense that says, oh, that kid is lucky. That kid’s lucky that he, she, they fell into the lap of white wealth. But you know, anybody who saw, and anybody who pays attention to these testimonials knows that is oftentimes not a happy place that brings with it various layers of suffering.
So I want to connect this to prevention oriented reforms and Maya, I hope you can maybe talk about a couple proposed reforms and really push back on how they’re supposed to stop family separations by offering parents who present low risk of harm to their children with services that will help them be better parents.
Why are we, despite all of these prevention-oriented reforms that we’ve already talked about, have been around for generations now, why are we still seeing generations of families in the system, right? Grandparents, parents, children who are still trapped in the system, who have all been removed or been forced into these systems of surveillance, punishment, regulation. What are some of these reforms and why are we still seeing generations of families in the system?
Well, I mean, it’s disingenuous, right? I think, you know, to echo what Dylan is saying, reforms attempt to say there’s harm happening and us, the system that created the harm can also solve the harm. It doesn’t make any sense, right?
We see generations of families entrapped in family policing despite quote unquote prevention services because they weren’t given quote unquote prevention services. If the state is creating conditions for poverty and poverty causes harm and for children to go without food and for families not to have housing, how can a state institution, without eliminating poverty, prevent a family from not having housing? It doesn’t make any sense.
So we continue to see these reforms that focus on individual behavior, on helping people find jobs, on making people take parenting classes. All these mechanisms that are, you know, basically telling us that it’s not that people are poor, it’s not that people are houseless, it’s not that people are earning close-to-nothing wages, it’s that they just need to be better parents.
And so reforms are asking us to take what we see, not believe it, and pretend that a parenting program can solve the issues that communities are facing that are caused by the state. So I just think if we look at reforms very clearly and we see them for what they are, we recognize that the state is trying to make us believe that the state can also fix the harm that it is consciously creating.
And you mentioned parenting classes, and I want to think about some of the issues that families are running up against, right? Housing, of course, is something, up in movement is based in Houston. We have a very big issue with evictions that are happening. And the biggest predictor of evictions is the presence of a child in the home, right?
So, how is this reality that families are experiencing, undermined by the family policing system that says it’s going to help families to address the problems that children are facing.
Not only does the family policing system not address the problems that people are facing, right? The family policing system does not offer concrete supports. It does not look at a family who is facing housing insecurity and say, I’m going to provide you housing. It does not fill the refrigerator up with food. It ignores the huge issues that families are facing and puts a parenting class on top of it. So not only is the system incapable, under-resourced, purposely under-resourced, to address the problems that families are facing, but it also exacerbates the problems that they face, right?
So I was reading cases, there were so many parents who either couldn’t go to a parenting class and that was marked against them, that they were choosing between going to their job or going to parenting.
Now if you lose your job because you go to the state mandated parenting class, now you might lose your housing. And now you have another risk factor on your case notes, right? So again, the system is not being honest with parents. They’re being disingenuous in saying that these things will help them help reunify their family. They don’t mean that because they can’t mean that because they’re not offering people what they need.
And what they are offering is often pushing people into even deeper poverty and making it even harder to reunify their family, to get their kids back, to get on their feet. So many families that experiencing family policing encounters end up in deeper poverty. They end up losing their job. They end up losing housing. They’re put on registries where they’re surveilled for the rest of their lives. The system literally makes it almost impossible that contact with the system will leave people better off and that’s why only certain communities are coming into contact with the system.
Everything Maya said echoes what I think is one of the durable insights of abolitionist forms of analysis. Which is say that while, while much of the world is pearl clutching about how the family’s policing system doesn’t work right. What I think Maya’s insights tell us what the testimonial insights of survivors of these systems will tell us is that the system is actually working precisely as it’s supposed to work.
That it is actually intended to reproduce the asymmetrical misery and terror that created displacement, insecurity, and danger in the first place. That the point is to sustain an already existing racial, political, economic, and gendered system of fat power, violence, and domination rather than cultivate forms of collective empowerment and autonomy that could potentially lead to a complete overthrow of at least sections of those systems, right?
So when I’m talking about overthrow, I’m not even talking about the grandiose sense of revolution, I’m talking about the localized sense of just obsoleting the state, right? And then people realizing that, right? People realizing that, oh my God, like we’re housing insecure, we’re healthcare insecure, and we’re food insecure. And yet, because we have autonomous ways of doing community, of being in community, that allow us to find help and assistance from folks, and not rich white folks, but ordinary folks down the street, you know, that have know-how, that have skillsets that we can share with each other. That is profoundly dangerous. That’s profoundly dangerous, not only to the state, but to the people who are kind of aligned with and partnered to that state.
So I think that the function of reforms to a system which is intended to produce exactly these things that Maya is indicating. The reforms need to be entered as part of that system. They’re actually an extension. They are central. When I say extension, I don’t mean that they’re corollary. They’re a central extension of those systems continuing to work as we’re describing them here.
Thank you, Dylan. You’re answering my questions before I can ask them. You’re doing such a good job here of explaining abolitionist framework, this idea of between absence and presence. A lot of times when we focus on dismantling systems or you know abolishing systems we don’t think about, well, what does it mean to create communities of care? What does it mean to be able to provide resources for one another? And I feel like that’s what you’re discussing when you’re talking about reforms and also talking about what abolitionist steps are.
But I would like for you to give us a little bit more, where we talk about the differences between reformist reforms and abolitionist steps. And if you have any examples, although I feel that you’ve just given us some examples, right, of like people pulling together resources and not resources that we might receive from the state or resources that we might receive from rich folk, but just everyday community resources that we can pull together and build together. But if we’re talking about dismantling this system, and why reforms don’t work, a lot of that conversation has to address this idea of reformist reforms. So again, can you tell us the difference between reformist reforms and abolitionist steps and if you’re able, give us some examples of each.
The idea that many abolitionists put forward is that there is a way to engage with reform advocacies, meaning primarily policy reform, legal reform, maybe even electoral-type reform, institutional reform, that does not foreclose the possibility of more militant and more radical activity following in the aftermath of that particular reform achievement. And then I think optimistically, the notion is that certain types of reform might even create more room to do abolitionist work. So that’s the distinction between abolitionist steps and then reformist reform.
Now, reformist reforms are what reforms generally tend to be, which is they’re reforms that operate from the assumption that the only political possibility, the only institutional, cultural, social possibility to address a system of, in our case, asymmetrical suffering, terror, and violence is to make relatively minor or even significant adjustments to an existing system which has actually created and is primarily responsible for that asymmetrical terror, suffering, and violence. That’s a reformist reform. It’s the idea that there’s no horizon beyond the reform itself.
And that is, in fact, one of the primary technologies of the US military’s concept of counterinsurgency. So I think we need to understand that, right? So I think maybe, maybe we can think about the phrase non-reformist reforms as synonymous with, with counterinsurgency, maybe domestic counterinsurgency.
And I say this, there’s a quote that I always paraphrase from the US joint forces field manual on counterinsurgency. Right. And I’ve been talking about this obsessively for like the last 10 or 15 years, because this manual is everywhere. Literally millions of ordinary people have downloaded and read it at this point. It’s like available for free on the U S military’s website. And one of the things that this field manual on counter insurgency actually says is it explicitly, it explicitly talks about reform. It actually says “auxiliaries”, meaning members of the potentially insurgent population, right. “Auxiliaries might be co-opted by economic or political reforms, whereas the fanatic combatants will most likely have to be killed or captured.” That’s the formula of counterinsurgency. Reform is central to it.
And the entire manual of US military’s counterinsurgency curriculum says that ideally, reforms are the primary way in which we will conduct counterinsurgency, by which we mean pacifying and neutralizing a population which is poised to be in positions of insurgency and potentially overthrowing state power if not creating autonomy from it. But ideally we will create a series of reforms that will kind of rein that back in, reinvest and reproduce kind of optimism, misplaced optimism and dysfunctional and violent hope in an existing system. And will therefore kind of divest people of the potential opportunity, if not the imperative, to militantly destroy these systems. So that’s what a reformist reform is.
Now I do want to make the argument that I’m not sure that non-reformist reforms should be understood automatically as abolitionist steps. I don’t know that abolition should be understood procedurally. I don’t know that there’s a kind of formulaic guarantee that a non-reformist reform cannot be turned into a repressive counterinsurgent reformist reform overnight.
And that’s to say that I think at best, the way I would argue, we need to frame qualified support for certain kinds of reform measures. I think we need to take our own analysis in this conversation seriously, that this is a genocidal asymmetrical warfare apparatus and understand that maybe the types of reforms that we are willing to support are best understood as casualty management.
They’re at best trying to control the fallout, trying to control the suffering, try to control the illness, the dying, all the stuff, the trauma. That’s what I mean by casualty management. I don’t mean it as a metaphor. I mean it directly and literally.
And I learned this from currently and formerly incarcerated people who engage in prison strikes and rebellions of all kinds all the time, agitating for just what seems to be the most modest institutional reforms to their conditions of captivity from the outside look in and it’s like, oh my God, those are reformers reforms. But no, it’s not. What these folks are doing is they’re trying to minimize casualties.
And I’ll give you examples. One of the famous examples from the 90s into the 2000s was and continues to be agitation for adequate provision of medical care for especially vulnerable people in prisons, jails, detention centers, and youth prisons. Meaning, shoot in this day and age, people with COVID. But people who are HIV positive, you know, people who have diabetes or hepatitis or whatever. Where for folks that are even modestly familiar with it, you understand most likely that the provision for medical care for folks in those positions of extreme medical vulnerability is minimal, if not completely absent in those sites of incarceration. So part of what incarcerated people is they agitate for that, right?
Now it seems like that’s a reformist reform, but in my view, that’s casualty management. It’s folks that are trying to prevent the systemic potentially deadly suffering of a lot of their comrades, if not themselves. But it’s to say that there’s another side to all of this, which people also identify, which is if they can win that reform, it also provides an opportunity for the state to sustain the system, right? So it’s like there’s something on the other side of even the casualty management piece that we need to understand that casualty management is really, that’s not the objective here. That’s an emergency measure, right? What we actually want is to abolish the genocidal system.
So I think this is how we need to understand any engagement with any type of reform. And I think what this also means is that we need to be more explicit and more intentional in talking about the role of the Democratic Party. This is something I’m going to be pushing to anybody that will listen to me nowadays, right?
Because I feel like, especially in the aftermath of the uprisings of 2020, there is a really insidious way that various tentacles of the Democratic Party, including kind of like extensively grassroots and community-based and progressive elements of the Democratic Party have effectively engaged in a liberal counterinsurgency that has usurped a lot of the militant, radical, and potentially abolitionist and revolutionary energy of the 2020 uprisings and turn it into another arm of electoral reformism. By which I mean both reforms of the electoral process and reformist candidacies that are running for office.
And I’m not just picking on what’s happening in Chicago right now, right? Although that’s a profound example, but I’m talking about everything that the kind of misplaced and displaced hope and optimism that the Obama administration cultivated and gaslit into so many of people who were my friends and comrades then stopped being my friends and comrades for a while because we disagreed on this and then we eventually came back and we became friends and comrades again because we all agreed that Obama was you know what he was.
But I think that this is part of what needs to be discussed as well. It’s like this is not accidental, this is not conspiratorial in some kind of magical Alex Jones kind of way. This is actually the normative functioning of the system. If you want to talk about it as conspiratorial, talk about it as conspiratorial in the normative functioning of the system kind of way. That folks are conspiring to do this as a systemic part of their everyday jobs.
One part of what I’m hearing is a pushback against this focus on abolitionist steps or reforms that are non-reformist reforms centered around the state and centered around policy and really taking that to look at how are we building the structures and systems that we need outside of these structures. that are going to co-opt and feed into the harmful systems that we’re trying to dismantle now.
Yeah, I think what I’m doing in a way is I’m acknowledging a debate and a set of kind of, you know, arguments, hopefully productive arguments, but political disagreements within this field of what people name as abolition and abolitionist organizing.
I think it’s increasingly pronounced now that there is a differentiation between what you could identify as a more or less state-centered or a state-centered set of visions and alternatives to the existing apparatus. And then another set of positions which are influenced by I think the histories of Black autonomy, of Black and Indigenous anarchism, of revolutionary struggle and anti-colonial struggle that are really privileging the idea that destruction of these systems is already the condition through which communities of care create, come into being.
There is no cart and horse, right? It’s like that these things are simultaneous with each other as moments of creativity, that insurgency and destruction is simultaneous with creativity and care. And of course, you know, this is part of, again, if we just look at the historical lessons that are to be learned from various struggles for survival, not to mention anti-colonial revolutionary and Black abolitionists and radical struggles across the diaspora.
This is what you see happening again and again, is that folks who are actually involved in confrontations with state terror and genocide, number one, they don’t have the time, right? They don’t have the time to engage in kind of formulaic arguments about whether we should prefigure our communities of care before we destroy this oppressive genocidal system. You have no choice, but to engage in counter war, guerrilla war, whatever it might be against that genocidal system. And it’s in the process of waging that destructive abolitionist counter war that you’re actually potentially cultivating these new, you know, sovereign self-determined autonomous communities, right?
Also by communities, I’m talking about community as an activity, not as a noun, you know, that folks are figuring out community as they do this. And of course, that’s the abolitionist response to the family policing system. It’s actually community, you know? I mean, that’s what I think I hear Maya getting at and what I hear testimonials from people who are survivors of this thing talking about is that community as an active practice, sometimes an experimental practice, that’s actually the existing alternative already to this family policing and child kidnapping apparatus.
I wanted to see, Maya, if you… And I know you have something to add. I know one of the things that we want to talk about is the framework tool that you developed and how people can differentiate between reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms and maybe talk a bit more about what abolitionist steps look like. But I wanted to see if there’s anything that you wanted to add to what we’ve been discussing or what Dylan has shared with us before we move on to that question.
I think it’s so helpful what Dylan has added. And I think it’s important to complicate what seems to be easy distinctions to make or easy differentiations to make to understand that. At the end of the day, we are gambling with the state, which is the death maker. So it’s like, can’t necessarily slice and dice in a way that comes across on paper to say that this is a reformist reform, this is not. This is an abolitionist step, this is not.
I think that the exercise is one of trying to… I think that people have so many tactics and so many things that they’re trying to do. And I always struggle with how do we bridge tactics? How do we support efforts that folks are making? I think that’s so often folks who are experiencing this system are engaged in you know, sort of like legislative or policy sort of like type tactics and knowing what sort of what the end post is, like, what do we support? What do we not support? What are the potential harms of supporting this?
So I think that with the framework, we are not trying to say yes or no. We’re trying to provoke thought, trying to ask people to, you know, think through their movements and think through possible implications and figure things out along the way.
But I mean, I agree with so much of what Dylan is saying about reforms and, you know, the difficulty and in a lot of ways the contradictions of deciding, you know, what is an abolitionist step and what is not.
Thank you. And I also, as we’re discussing this, wanted to see, are there any distinctions or definitions that you’d like to add to this conversation about like the difference between what is reformist and what is non-reformist? Are there any examples that you can offer?
I don’t know about examples, but you know, something that, something that I think about a lot is the missteps we make in advocating things that are so easily co-optable. You know, what Dylan was saying about the radical imagination and the energy that was present n the uprisings of 2020 that was so easily co-opted.
I think part of our goal needs to be to do things that are not, you know, state co-optable, that are not so easily manipulated and moved by the state. And the state is powerful and it can do that. But I think the more radical we get with our demands and what we’re asking from what we’re working for, the more of a threat that is and the harder it is for the state to then take that energy and redirect it somewhere else. I think also when we are working on these reforms, the idea of political education and common goals is so important.
The internet is crazy, people find things anywhere, but we spend less time ensuring that folks understand that where we’re coming from and having common goals and having that type of political education sharing the same language and not in some academic way, but a way that we’re struggling together. We’re struggling with ideas. We’re picking them apart. We’re looking at the weak point. So I don’t have examples for you, but I think that that’s part of the work in producing a framework like this. So as part of the work and deciding like where we’re going to go, what directions that we’re going to take. How do we become ungovernable? How do we, you know, resist political co-optation? How do we make our demands so clear that the state is not able to take them and then format them in ways that are, you know, serving the state?
I was going to ask another way that you’ve answered a question that I was going to ask, Maya, because I was going to ask you kind of like what was the reason that you decided to do all of this research and work to develop this framework tool. By the way, for those listening, you can check out the framework tool on the upEND website and we will have a link for that in the show notes of today’s episode.
Did you have anything that you wanted to add about why it was so important for you to kind of work to develop this framework tool?
I think it just comes down to the fact that in this work, and we’ve talked about this a lot over the last hour, is that all of these myths exist. And the myths are propelling the reforms that people support. And so offering something that folks can struggle through and to think about and evaluate their actions, evaluate what they’re fighting for, I think it was needed within the family policing space.
I think that these tools and resources exist in so many ways in larger PIC abolition movements, but not in the same way for family policing. And family policing is so unique in that we’re constantly fighting against the idea that the state is protecting kids. And so if reforms are being driven by, you know, the insistence that there does need to be this protection and surveillance, I wanted to create something that would assist or attempt to assist—I’m open to feedback. I’m open to criticism—but attempt to assist people and, you know, dismantling those ideas and realizing that the state is not legitimate, and therefore, what are the actions that we need to take if we understand that the state isn’t legitimate. If we understand that parents don’t need state surveillance, how do we move from there, how do we move forward?
And for both of you, is there something that we haven’t asked or discussed yet that you want to share with listeners about how to think about and understand the directions that we should be moving in, acknowledging what Maya said about the fact that we are gambling with the state, right? And that the state is constantly engaged in this co-optation and counterinsurgency to like crush and co-opt movement work to make itself stronger. But is there anything else that you all wanted to share along these lines?
I’ll start because I want Maya to have the last word, if that’s okay. I’ll just add briefly that, that I think that there might be some potential pedagogical and political value in thinking about proposed and actual reform to the family policing system as essentially as invitations to consent to, as well as participate in domestic warfare.
And I’m talking about the solicitation is to anybody, that to consent to and participate in domestic war means that these reforms to family policing are effectively trying to deputize as many ordinary people, and especially vulnerable people, targeted people as possible. At the bare minimum as constituencies supporting the ongoing existence of this particular form of warfare against targeted families, but also as the kind of extended foot soldiers without even realizing that that’s turned into the kind of advanced front of the family policing counterinsurgency apparatus. It’s kind of soliciting and inviting people who are directly connected to, if not part of, targeted families to actually participate in the work of the state.
Again, primarily because the capacity of the state to do that work is oftentimes diminished or minimal. Then what you do as a counterinsurgency tactic is you engage in reforms that invite ordinary people who are not paid by the state, who are not part of the state, who are not part of a social welfare, child welfare, family welfare apparatus to do that work, to do the work of surveillance, of calling in. Again, it’s the work of policing. That’s exactly what it is. So we need to frame that as, frame a lot of what we’ve been analyzing here in this kind of critical analysis of reform. It’s really an invitation. That’s what reforms are. They’re an invitation to participate in this terror-making apparatus.
Yeah, and I think I’ll just quickly add that I always think about reforms as reshaping how the state inflicts harm but not eliminating the harm. So if we continue to be okay with families being harmed and surveilled and that being the reality of folks who live in certain neighborhoods, then we continue to support reforms.
But if we understand that reforms are at its core a way that the state sort of morphs harm into more palatable, into sort of like more digestible, forms of violence for people to be okay with, then we can understand that reforms to family policing system at large are just ways to reshape, literally reform, reconfigure, redo harm a little bit more eloquently, a little bit better, a little bit more skillfully, but at the end of the day, reforms will always ensure that children and families are being harmed by policing.
Thank you both. This episode and what you’ve shared has been so informative and has made me think a lot deeper about my ideas around reform and the differences between reformist reforms and non reformist reforms and again what it means to move closer to abolitionist visioning. So to wrap things up and to end I wanted to each of you to give folks listening a little bit of information on where they can connect with you and your work. So Dylan, you can go first if you’d like, please.
Yeah, I invite any opportunities to collaborate with people on experimental, speculative, or even existing projects that are seeking to directly and militantly confront and ideally destroy these terror genocide, misery creating apparatuses. That’s what animates me. It’s what keeps me alive. And I hope people will reach out. I can be reached at the email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m on social media if you want to DM me there too. My Twitter handle is @DylanRodríguez and my Instagram is @DylanRodriguez73. But yeah, I’m down to just get involved with anything, study groups, mobilizations, whatever. I live in occupied Southern California, but I’m all over the United States and sometimes all over the planet, trying to reach out and participate with people in these different forms of struggle. So I humbly submit myself to you know, to these efforts. I hope that I’ll get some invitation from folks listening to this.
I’d love to hear from folks. You can find me on Twitter @mvpendleton. I’ll also share my Instagram handle, which is hard to say. So I’ll share it with Josie and Jason to add in the chat. Feel free to DM me, message me, set up a time to talk. I love that type of stuff. So looking forward to hearing folks, looking forward to connecting with folks and doing this work.
Yo, shout out to Victoria Copeland, by the way, who got this going and got me invited into this discussion. So sending my love, abolitionist and Black revolutionary solidarity to Victoria Copeland. One of my favorite people.
Big shout out to V!
Yes, Victoria taught me, brought me into a lot of this work. So just, I should have said that at the beginning, but Victoria brought me into a lot of this work. And so I have deep appreciation to Victoria.
Shout out to V, SoCal legend.
All right, well thank you both for joining us today.
Thank you for joining us for the upEND podcast as we explore family policing system abolition. To learn more about upEND and our work to strengthen families and communities, visit our website at upendmovement.org and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @upendmovement.