The Economics of Abolition


“Defund the police” became a rallying cry in the summer of 2020 as demonstrators flooded streets across the United States to demand an end to police brutality in the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of the police. In the months since, hundreds of city councils nationwide have voted to reallocate what amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars away from law enforcement to a broader array of services that support public safety. But these shifts amount to only a fraction of the money we spend on law enforcement—not to mention incarceration and the military. Will the new abolition movement succeed in transforming how we invest public resources? And what really are the economic underpinnings of the system this movement aims to change? Laura investigates the economics of abolition in conversation with historian Vijay Prashad, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles co-founder Dr. Melina Abdullah, Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, and prison abolitionist Andrea James.

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– Abolition is a synonym for freedom and for emancipation.

– Abolition means an opportunity for us to move away from the current criminal legal system and discover what different looks like.

– The morals of the US government are captured in the annual budget.

– If you’re spending this money on LAPD, on policing, you are not spending it on the things that we know will keep communities safe.

– It’s all c oming up on The Laura Flanders Show, the place where the people who say it can’t be done take a backseat to the people who are doing it. Defund the police became a rallying cry in the summer of 2020, as demonstrators flooded the streets of US cities and towns, demanding an end to police brutality in the wake of the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police. In the months since, hundreds of city councils nationwide have voted to reallocate what amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars away from law enforcement and towards a broader array of services that support public safety. But these shifts amount to only a fraction of the money we spend on enforcing laws, not to mention incarceration and the military. Will the new abolition movement succeed in transforming how we invest public resources in public safety? And what really are the economic underpinnings of the system this movement aims to change? My guests this week have some ideas. I’ll talk with Dr. Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter LA. In June, she presented a people’s budget to the LA City Council. Then I’ll find out from LA City Council member, Marqueece Harris Dawson, how the people’s proposal went down. Finally, I’ll talk with Andrea James, founder and executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, a formerly incarcerated woman herself, and to kick things off, we will go to Vijay Prashad for a global perspective from a historian and the executive director of the tri-continental Institute for Social Research. Vijay, we’re here to talk about abolition, the economics of abolition, in particular. But let’s start with defining our terms. When you talk about abolition, what do you mean by that word?

– Abolition is a tough concept because, in a way, it’s a synonym for freedom and for emancipation. In the history of the United States, it’s emancipation from perhaps one of the most horrendous things human beings have done, which is to enslave other human beings. So the abolition movement was the movement of emancipation of people who had been enslaved. You know, today, human beings face a different kind of enslavement. We are enslaved in a way in a system that denies us freedom because we don’t have money. And so the way I understand abolition and emancipation is we need to abolish the system that robs us of our dignity.

– But what system would we need to abolish to emancipate ourselves in the way that you’re describing?

– If I don’t name the system, everything I’ve said sounds logical. Everybody’s should be moved by the fact that 2.5 billion people go to bed hungry at night, and of them, most of them are children, it turns out. But if I say that what prevents the hungry from getting access to food is money, and the lack of money, the dispossession of large numbers of people is a consequence of, and here it comes, is a consequence of capitalism, and that therefore, we have to think hard about the fact that capitalism is simply not capable of feeding half the world’s population, and therefore, we need to abolish capitalism. I mean, that scares people because they think, well, what are you talking about? I mean, capitalism is what provides us with wealth. And then of course, one turns around and says, no, it’s not capitalism that provides you with wealth or with the, you know, amazing things that the modern world has. It’s human ingenuity. If I had started by saying, well, you know, abolition means the abolition of capitalism, it’s click, you know, it’s the end of, nobody wants to watch that because that’s terrifying. But if you think about it, if you think deeply about it and you wonder, why are people dispossessed? You know, why don’t people have money in their pocket? It’s not because they’re not working or trying to find work. You know, these two things are important. People work and are not able to cover their bills.

– You haven’t mentioned race yet. If we look at our movements, our social movements today that are raising the battle cry of abolition, there are Black Lives Matter movements, are Movement for Black Lives. It’s very specifically viewed through a racial lens. How do you see the racial lens and the patriarchal lens playing in all this?

– Most of the planet is not white. In the West, it’s of course, people of color that are slipping at higher rates into hunger and poverty. This is the history of colonialism. It’s because of enslavement that large amounts of wealth was stolen from people, taken to Britain and so on to fund the Industrial Revolution. So that’s how colonialism finances capitalism and has then 300 years of impact in the history of capitalist development.

– And the relationship with racism, just to put a fine pin on it?

– When colonialism began to develop, these ideas come, which is that certain people in the world just don’t deserve to live with the fruits of dignity. John Locke, who wrote these treatise on government and is seen as one of the, you know, important figures in liberalism, in the Second Treatise of Government, John Locke says that Native Americans, because they don’t advance and develop God’s bounty, they can be exterminated, they can be dispossessed. I mean, this is one of the people looked at as the main figures, intellectual figures of the Enlightenment and of liberalism really who saying it’s okay to disrespect entirely Native Americans, dispossess them, exterminate them, et cetera. Racism is cooked in to the key ideology of capitalism, which is liberalism.

– The reason this is important to talk about this, it seems to me, is because while everything that you’ve said is deeply discouraging because it paints such a long pic– such a long history of a very big system. On the other side, it does at least indicate that this dispossession was a manmade kind of a thing, that it’s a system that we could perhaps unravel. And I’m asking you now to think about this moment that we’re in of movement and uprising. Where do you see the potential and where, perhaps, the pitfalls? And I’m thinking of the Movement for Black Lives, the movement for defund the police, and these calls for abolition that are getting louder by the day.

– Essentially, if I could distill it in economic terms a little bit, I would say what they are saying, Laura, is they’re saying the morals of the United States of America are not captured in the US Constitution. Don’t keep talking about the Constitution to understand the country. The morals of the US government are captured in the annual budget. The budget is a much better reflection of a country’s morality than its constitution. And if you, every single year put more money, much more money into repression, into the police, into the military, into imprisonment and so on, and so little money to taking care of human troubles, nobody’s saying we’re perfect. You know, we’re filled with flaws. We need help, and communities can help, families can help, the government can help. So you need money going there.

– In June, as demonstrators against police brutality took to the streets across the US, the Los Angeles City Council invited representatives of Black Lives Matter LA into the city council to present the People’s Budget. That was a proposal developed through an unprecedented survey of tens of thousands of LA residents. The People’s Budget was also a response to the mayor’s announcement that, amidst over $200 million in budget cuts made necessary by COVID-19, the city was going to increase its police budget by 7%. To that, the people of LA said, no, and Dr. Melina Abdullah was there to convey the message.

– This should not be about your own political ambitions. This should be about what kind of world do you want to make. The world is speaking right now. They’re saying we don’t want a system of policing that puts targets on the backs of Black people, especially, but also is a regular assailant and traumatizer of our entire community. You have an opportunity now to not just say, who am I as a city council member, but whose are you? Do you belong to the Police Protective League, do you belong to your ambitions, do you belong to your ego, or do you belong to the people?

– Vijay Prashad said, one learns more about a country from its budget than from its constitution. Why did you decide, with so many possibilities, body cams, all the rest, to focus on the budget of LA, in particular, it’s police department?

– Sure, so I’ll quote another economist, Julianne Malveaux, who says that a budget is a statement of one’s ethics and morals, right? And so when we saw that number, this pie chart with this stark 50% going to LAPD, we said, that’s way too much. And then we shared it with people across the political spectrum, and everyone confirms what we feel, that that’s way too much. You know, budgets are also zero sum games. So if you’re spending this money on LAPD, on policing, you are not spending it on the things that we know will keep communities safe. And we believe that if we claim to be a democratic society, then it means people should be engaged in how our own tax dollars are spent. So we believe in something called participatory budgeting. And we know that there are leaders like Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi, like Ras Baraka in Newark, New Jersey, who also agree that people should be engaged in this process. And so we said, why not Los Angeles? Why are people not engaged in this process? And so we said, we’ll do our own participatory budgeting. And so we had a series of town halls, a series of workshops, and finally we said, well, let’s do some survey work. We wound up getting 25,000 responses. We’re way over that now. And what we found in the survey, before the murder of George Floyd, right, before defund the police was the clarion call, that they wanted to spend just 5.4% of the city’s budget on LAPD, on traffic, and on prosecutions combined. We’re challenging you to say you belong to the people, to do something courageous, and we see examples all around this country of people doing things that are courageous.

– Marqueece Harris Dawson is the Los Angeles City Council member for the eighth district in LA.

– Before the city council, I spent all of my adult life being an activist and really using all my time to advocate for improvements in quality of life for communities that I lived in like South LA. The council district seat became open, and I always thought that we missed a lot of opportunities in city council as community activists and progressive activists, and so I pursued the seat and got the support of the voters.

– So describe the experience that you had as you observed the presentation of the people’s budget by Dr. Abdullah and her team. That’s not your everyday event, that community activists come into the body of city hall and make that kind of presentation with that kind of data at their back.

– What was different about their presentation was they were talking about the whole budget. So normally you get people that come in and talk about youth services, or they talk about the environment, or they talk about one thing and they know their one thing very, very well. This trip was very ambitious because it sought to talk about the whole budget and the whole operations of the city.

– So the People’s Budget, organizing behind it, the presentation itself, this wasn’t a stretch for you to absorb the argument they were making, but I bet it was a stretch for a bunch of your colleagues, and I wanted to ask you about that.

– Well, you know, I think a lot of them were stunned. A lot of them wanted to know more, they wanted to learn more. And I think a lot of them, everybody wanted to talk, which I think was the big accomplishment.

– Now, the conversation is good, the attention is good, but you still have to come to a vote on a real change of priorities at the level of the budget. What is that going to take? What are some of the obstacles that you face, and what do activists, and maybe just regular voters, need to know about the challenge that you, as a well-intentioned, committed city council member face in trying to make this kind of change?

– Every activist and every observer should remember this when we’re talking about how social change is achieved and how you move big systems. The mayor and the finance team brought to city council in April a budget that cut all of our departments by 15%, and it raised the police budget by $123 million. The budget ends up passing unanimously, even with my vote, even with those of us who were complaining about it, but we were so small, we couldn’t stop it. Literally the week after those hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets in LA, those same people came back and voted a cut of the police department, something that was considered a political impossibility just a few weeks before. And the point I make is, it’s the action in the streets that changes things. It actually, again, it’s important to elect good people. I say that every time I’m up for election, vote for me, I’m a good person. But what’s more important is creating the condition so that good people inside can struggle and create change.

– This is absolutely a moment when the world is cracked wide open. What’s going to be said about this moment is dependent upon people’s willingness to make Black lives matter, to actually create substantive change, to actually usher in substantive change, to actually listen when we say our priorities are making sure that the universal needs of people are met. We live in a world of abundance. There should be housing for everyone, clean food for everyone, a clean environment for everyone. And so we can have those things. As we struggle to re-imagine public safety, the system also attempts to entrench itself. So, you know, here in Los Angeles, the mayor attempted to say, oh, re-imagined public safety, steal our words, and then charter a new permanent bureau for LAPD. And it’s important that we said, no, that’s not what we mean, and that we outed him for it, and that we’re pressing him on it, and that we’re making sure that the $250 million that was pledged actually goes to things like housing and mental health and all of the other resources that we’ve talked about. So yes, you know, just because we say it doesn’t mean it’ll get done. The struggle is constant, right? Angela Davis says that freedom is a constant struggle. And so we cannot let up for a moment because they won’t let up for a moment.

– The struggle to come up with an alternative to police and prisons as we know them now has been largely informed and led by people with firsthand experience with the current system. People like Andrea James. She’s, the founder and executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and her activism began when she was doing two years inside while one of her children was still very young. It was inside that you started organizing and working with other incarcerated women and their families in a way to kind of change the story of what the issues are that get people incarcerated and what they need in their lives. Today, you organize an annual conference. You’ve just held it this year, virtually, Free Her. Tell us a little bit about the issues that the thousands of women and girls you bring together for that conference face. What are the issues that they face in their lives?

– The women that helped to shape that conference are formerly incarcerated women and currently incarcerated women. Everything we do includes our sisters inside to help, to shape, and to give a platform to their voices and to their work. We consider ourselves to be the experts, as well as academia, as well as researchers, as well as policy people. We’re asking the question, and we’re coming up and implementing the ideas around what different looks like to really dig deep, demonstrate to the general public about the true stories behind the lives of these women who are on a prison bunk and how it is a continued injustice to only use incarceration, or to use incarceration at all, as we are abolitionists, to solve problems that are really social justice, social issues that need to be addressed. And much more fiscally responsible for us to take a different approach than the billions of dollars we continue to spend every year to cycle people in and out of incarceration and preclude them, post-incarceration, from being able to get involved and engaged in economics again.

– What difference do you think the pandemic is making to this discussion around economics and investment and abolition?

– Laura, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. We have turned from a policy organization working on abolitionist principles to literally a mutual aid organization. What we’re finding is that we have been reaching out to the mayor, to the governor, to our legislators, and we have been met with absolute silence. And so we have had to take it upon ourselves to use our own general operating budget to now figure out how to reorganize ourselves financially to support and shore up women with children in homes with absolutely no resources. If you were suddenly governor, if you were suddenly mayor, what would you be spending on instead?

– If I were governor, I would use my clemency power. That would be the first thing that I would do. I would sit behind my desk as governor and I would do a mass clemency in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. 50% of our incarcerated population in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are elderly people. That would be the first group of people, pregnant women, women with children who are churned into the child welfare system, which now currently mirrors our criminal legal system, to provide them with clemency. And the other thing that I would do is I would develop more things like we’ve created with no state funding, with no contribution from the city, we have just created the first transitional house that was started and led by formerly incarcerated women. Kimya’s House is a transitional home, longterm, longterm. Our women come out and they’re lucky if they get a month somewhere. 18-plus months to help women heal and to move forward with their lives, to manage their illness or addiction, to reconnect with their families and their children, to reacclimate themselves, to healing.

– Why is it so important to take leadership from women of color and to apply this gender as well as the race lens to our problem?

– Women have been the backbone in the communities most targeted by mass incarceration. They have been the support system for the family members that get entangled in the criminal legal system. They have been the support system long before they started to become the fastest and largest-growing incarceration population. They were the ones that were also the re-entry support services for their families, and this goes back, in Black communities, through slavery. Women have always been the ones to keep the families together, to hold the babies when the parents were separated for one reason or another. And so we have to have a gender analysis.

– Can you see abolition from here, Andrea?

– We can certainly see abolition from here. We know because we’re not waiting for the system to make the change. We have no, we’re not under any illusion that prisons are just going to fade away or that people are going to understand what we mean when we ask to defund or to reallocate funding from law enforcement. We don’t expect that people will get that right away. Many more people are beginning to understand that. But for us, we’re building these systems in hyper-local communities that are focused on individual accountability, that are focused on community accountability, that are focused on transformative justice, that are focused on people assembly processes. And so, while this current system exists, we’re building systems outside of that system that are people-led. But the last thing I want to just mention for people to think about, Laura, in terms of abolition, abolition is happening in this country in wealthy white communities every day. The response and the difference in the response to wealthier people in this country and white people in this country from wealthier communities is very different in the criminal legal system than the response in Black and brown communities. and that response that wealthier, whiter communities receive is abolition, it’s a form of abolition. If people think about some of the breaks that they’ve received because of who they are, or who their families are, or what community they live in, or when they weren’t arrested because, or when something was swept under the rug. You know, our governor’s own son has a case that we have no idea what happened to. If that had been a Black or brown person from Roxbury, he or she would be in prison right now. So asking governors to give clemency to sick and elderly women in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and other places that have been buried in prisons for decades is not asking a lot because it’s a system that already exists in this country. Abolition exists. We’re just asking that it be provided as an opportunity across the board.

– You know, there are people at the middle of all this, Laura, that’s the main thing. People who work in policy forget, I think, sometimes, that we’re talking about human beings. And, you know, even when they bring people to testify before the committees and so on, they bring them as caricatures. I need you to say this in order for my bill to do that. No, listen to people. Can we sort of pledge to take humanity, other people’s humanity seriously?

– My hope, my prayer, my faith, my work is committed to making sure that you ask about 20 years from now that, 20 years from now, when all of my children are grown, right, that they live in a place where our humanity is valued, the humanity of all people is valued, that everyone has all of what they need and most of what they want. One of my favorite books is Freedom Dreams, and what he challenges in that book is for us to steal back the time that we have to vision, and in our vision, we need to remember that the most radical visioning that we can do is visioning that’s grounded in love and justice and freedom. And so I think that if we do that work to both, vision, love, justice, and freedom, that 20 years from now, we’ll realize it.

– For more on this episode and other forward-thinking content and to tune into our podcast, visit our website at and follow us on social media @TheLFShow.


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