I’ve been writing quite a bit recently about the ideological struggles on the Left between the push for more gun control laws while demanding the defunding of police and even abolishing prisons, because I think this is a fracture point for the Democratic coalition that is only going to grow larger in the months ahead. If Democrats take back the White House and the Senate, they’ll be in a position to enact a sweeping gun control agenda, but every one of their new gun laws will create a new criminal offense that, by the terms of their own legislation, will rely on armed police officers to enforce and prosecutors to take to court. The end result would be more non-violent offenders being put behind bars for something that used to be protected by the Second Amendment. How would the defund police movement react and respond to that scenario?
Of course, since many who are calling for both more gun laws and an end to policing and the abolition of prisons aren’t gun owners themselves, they may not see the inherent contradiction in their ideology or be too troubled by the consequences of enacting their agenda into law. However, the issues go beyond gun control, as one prison abolitionist learned when a stranger broke into her home in Berkeley, California and tried to sexually assault her in her bedroom. In a very compelling piece at The Atlantic, activist Ayelet Waldman describes how the attack forced her to confront her own ideas about re-imagining the criminal justice system.
Dialing 911 was the first decision I had to make after I discovered the man by my bed—if you can describe my frantic call as a “decision.” The second came a day later, when a police investigator contacted me to ask whether I wanted to prosecute. In the throes of a trauma that I was busy underestimating (“I’m fine. I’m fine. Really, I’m fine”), I tried to balance a host of considerations. For starters, would my children and I be willing to testify if he went to trial? I’ve seen what a competent defense attorney can do to a witness. I was a competent defense attorney, setting traps for people, tying them up in their own words, doing my best to trigger confusion and even fear. Could my kids and I stand up to that? Would rekindling the trauma be worth it?
Knowing that the majority of criminal cases end in a plea bargain, no court required, somewhat alleviated my anxieties, but it didn’t make the decision appreciably easier. How could I consign someone to the brutalities of incarceration when I’ve long advocated for the abolition of prisons? I even edited a book called Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives From Women’s Prisons, a collection of first-person stories designed to illuminate the countless human-rights violations that plague prisons in the United States.
Granted, my family and I would feel safer while the man was confined. Since he stole into my bedroom, I’ve been startling awake multiple times a night, terrified. Before we go to bed, I repeatedly ask my husband if he’s locked the doors and turned on the alarm. For weeks, my son saw the man out of the corner of his eye in dark rooms, and he took to sleeping with a hammer beside his pillow.But what about when my attacker got out—was there a chance he’d be less of a threat, to me or someone else? According to the investigating detective, his record includes at least one psychiatric hold, suggesting that his violent behavior might stem in part from some form of mental illness. He definitely seemed unbalanced when he leeringly insisted that he’d been invited into my house, that everything was fine. Though a significant number of people in American prisons are mentally ill, very few receive any kind of psychological care. The harsh conditions of confinement could just as easily make him less stable rather than more. Some prisons have programs targeted specifically at rehabilitating sex offenders, but their effectiveness has been the subject of much debate over the years.
The entire piece is worth a read, as Waldman describes her struggles between her belief that prisons should be abolished and the thought of her attacker getting off scot-free and perhaps going on to attack others. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you what she ultimately decided to do, but Waldman’s story is worth highlighting because it’s a pretty good example of what happens when a high-minded philosophy runs headlong into the reality of dangerous individuals intent on inflicting harm on innocent victims.
Cases like Waldman’s are why I think that ultimately the defund police movement is destined to fail, at least on a national level. Policing and criminal justice reform, on the other hand, are still likely to take place in many states and even at the federal level, which means that the anti-gun activists who also believe that the criminal justice system is inherently racist will eventually have to confront the fact that means their favorite gun control laws are as well.