At six feet four inches and 290 pounds, Thomas Owen Baker looks the part of a hulking riot cop. On November 30, 2011, he was assigned to provide crowd control at the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona, for a protest at a conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an influential group of private sector representatives and rightwing politicians who draft state legislation to promote their interests.
That day, Baker’s black uniform was soaking up the desert heat of the Arizona winter. At the protest line, his baton firmly in hand, dozens of protesters are looking him in the eyes as they shout: “WE! ARE! THE 99 PERCENT!” Watching the protesters stoically through the plexiglass visor of his helmet, Baker found himself agreeing with them.
In 1937, a number of Chicago Police Department officers quit in protest following the “Memorial Day Massacre” when fellow officers gunned down ten strikers, wounding dozens, during the opening days of a massive strike against steel companies across the Midwest.
“Baker!” a voice calls behind him. He turns to see his supervisor, leaning in to be heard above the raucous chants. “If you want to eat, they have chow for us,” he tells him. Baker walks past a gaggle of mostly white executives gathering to smoke outside the front of the fancy hotel. He is directed to a side door and down a shaded ramp into the hotel basement, where food is being made for the officers on the scene. He sees chefs in freshly soiled white aprons. Custodians in gray jumpsuits. Bussers and maids. All the Black and brown workers who keep the hotel running. Now Baker is among them in his police uniform.
Resentment starts to well up deep inside him.
“I was representing the interests of these rich people upstairs who are making decisions,” Baker recalls, “and I was risking my life to clean up their mess on the street and providing them security—but I wasn’t fit to eat in the same place as them. I was the help.”
In 2014, the year protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police killing of Michael Brown, Baker quit the force and entered graduate school, where he’s currently completing his Ph.D. in criminology, focusing on police violence, at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
“If [we are] thinking about the world we want to see,” Baker says in an interview, “we think about a world without the police.” But in the meantime, he says, present-day police should have limited contact with the public, be subject to rigorous accountability methods, and be given intensive competence training.
Most of all, Baker believes addressing the basic causes of socioeconomic inequality to be a comprehensive solution. The institutions that could make police obsolete are those we do not invest in enough: education, medical and mental health care, economic security, housing, community centers, and youth athletics, dance, and art programs.
“What we need to do is take a more holistic approach to understanding community safety, and recognize that these other institutions create the public safety that’s required to no longer force public order with the threat or actual use of violence,” Baker says.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest the U.S. policing system is incorrigible, virtually since its inception. Numerous commissions by U.S. Presidents and by police departments themselves—the Chicago Crime Commission in the 1920s, President Hoover’s Wickersham Commission in the 1930s, President Johnson’s Kerner Commission in the 1960s, the Knapp Commission in the 1970s, all the way up to President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing following the Ferguson uprisings—have detailed widespread, fundamental flaws and suggested desperately needed reforms.
All have failed.
It’s not hard to see why. Violence, racism, corruption, and abuse of authority are all baked into the batter of the system. Even one of Obama’s handpicked task force members, Yale Law School professor Tracey Meares, asserted two years after she and her colleagues released their 2015 report: “Policing as we know it must be abolished before it can be transformed.”
Police are charged with preserving the existing social order, observes historian Sam Mitrani, author of The Rise of the Chicago Police Department: Class and Conflict, 1850-1894. “I suspect that police who openly side with rebels or revolutionaries—or with abolition today,” he writes via email, “cannot remain police for very long.”
“Moral injury is as much an individual responsibility problem as it is a social problem.”
This was the case for Atlanta patrol cop Tom Gissler, who quit the force in July 2020. Gissler had groused about his orders to shake down the Black tenants of the Bedford Pine apartment complex, which provides Section 8 housing, and write up any legal offenses he could find, such as parking tickets and outstanding warrants. Anything to make it easier for the Bedford Pine developers to evict the current tenants and replace the complex with more expensive housing. In turn, the developers promised office space to the police department. His supervisors admitted to the arrangement and derided Gissler’s moral compunctions.
“There was something about that that made me think now, when I clock into work, I’m not doing any good,” Gissler told Mother Jones. “I’m actually doing harm.” The experience jaded Gissler. “It dawned on me that the entire system, the entire thing, was just a shitty mafia system.”
Rebel cops have long been part of the police mix, long before the story of Frank Serpico, whose whistle-blowing on New York Police Department corruption led to the Knapp Commission, was made into a film. In 1885, a year before the momentous Haymarket rally, the McCormick Reaper Works company had employed a group of Pinkerton private security agents who fired on strikers. After the strikers managed to drive off the Pinkertons, police arrested eight of the Pinkertons, for firing on the strikers.
In 1937, a number of Chicago Police Department officers quit in protest following the “Memorial Day Massacre” when fellow officers gunned down ten strikers, wounding dozens, during the opening days of a massive strike against steel companies across the Midwest. In the 1919 Boston police strike, almost the entire city police force deserted their posts to protest a ban on organizing a union, as well as unfair pay and squalid working conditions.
Today, some activists balk at the thought of cops supporting rebel causes. A statement published on Medium this past July by an account called “Copfreenyc” asserted that “there is no room for law enforcement of any kind in our movements.” Days earlier, Nabil Hassein, an organizer with the Brooklyn-based anti- prison group No New Jails NYC, wrote, “I could perhaps have been persuaded that in the progressive movement from here to abolition, there is some space for cops to turn against their own role.”
But there are more structural issues at the root of the problem. As Shannon Jones, co-founder of the New York City police abolitionist group Why Accountability, also known as Bronxites for NYPD Accountability, noted in an interview with Gothamist in June: “[Y]ou have a lot of Black people who are cops, work for social services, work for [the New York City Housing Authority]. But if you look at any city agency, the top levels of city agencies are white people.”
Woods Ervin, an organizer at Critical Resistance, a California-based prison abolition group, agrees. “Policing is harmful to communities, so it doesn’t surprise me that people with firsthand experience in policing would come to that conclusion as well,” Ervin says. “As abolitionists, we’re not centering on individual cops. It’s about the movement of community members seeking to dismantle a system and build up structures that actually keep communities safe, simultaneously.”
Meanwhile, a debate is seething in the modern labor movement about what to do about police within their ranks. Several groups have expelled police unions since the summer 2020 protests, while others remain. Some labor leaders like Bill Fletcher Jr. have argued that organized labor in the United States must address police unions head-on, member to member.
“Any moves to eliminate police unions will certainly be followed by calls to eliminate other public sector unions, including firefighters, postal workers, and teachers,” he wrote.
For Jan Barry, a longtime activist who co-founded Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1967, police dissenters may be just a few steps behind active-duty military and veterans who have spoken out against an unjust system. But one difference between soldiers at home and police at home is that soldiers have managed to organize themselves and carve out a place in social justice movements in past decades, while police dissenters remain isolated and atomized.
Barry left the Army in 1965 and entered the anti-war movement at a time when the nation’s first S.W.A.T. team was created, soon spreading to nearly every police municipality. Later, the 1033 Program administered by the military’s Defense Logistics Agency delivered hand-me-downs to police in the form of surveillance aircraft, vehicles, and weapons.
Seeing police use armored personnel carriers like those he used to see in Vietnam made Barry realize that “they’re treating us like we’re in some other country that has been occupied.” It also made him more determined to speak out and learn to organize at home.
The anti-war movement allowed Barry—who received political education through attending teach-ins, developing organizing skills, and networking—to find other like-minded soldiers and activists.
But not everyone was welcoming at first. Barry remembers that some activists called him and fellow soldier-organizers hurtful names like “baby killer.”
“Some people in the peace movement would say things like that and didn’t really want to learn anything about other people,” Barry says. “So you really just have to keep reaching out and find people who are willing to understand: If you’re going to have a wider movement, you’re going to have to be inclusive of people who otherwise are thinking in a different perspective—and change their minds.”
Francisco Cantú’s time as a U.S. Border Patrol agent gave him grisly night terrors, leading him to quit the agency rather than continue to participate in violating migrants’ rights. But it wasn’t the stereotypical post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms of jumping at loud noises or experiencing flashbacks. Cantú refers to the “moral injury” of his Border Patrol tenure, an affliction familiar to some military veterans who turned into anti-war activists.
“Moral injury is very quiet,” Cantú says in an interview. “It’s something you sit with that changes you from within.” Cantú came out publicly for abolition in a recent article for The New York Review of Books. “The idea of abolishing immigration detention and other cornerstones of border enforcement may sound radical, but it is the only legitimate starting place for negotiation,” he wrote.
The movement seems to be opening up. Former Border Patrol agent Jenn Budd, a fierce advocate of abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol, was invited by Maria Puga, the widow of Anastasio Hernández Rojas whom Border Patrol agents beat to death at the San Diego-Tijuana border crossing in 2010, to speak alongside her in front of the border wall in late October 2020. It was the first time Budd had been asked to speak at an activist event like that.
“For me, that was a lot. That makes coming forward about the truth of the Border Patrol worth it,” she says.
“Moral injury is as much an individual responsibility problem as it is a social problem,” says Garett Reppenhagen, a former U.S. Army sniper and executive director of Veterans for Peace. Reppenhagen was the first active-duty soldier to speak out, through then-anonymous blogging, about his experiences in Iraq in 2004, during the U.S. occupation.
Through organizing in Iraq Veterans Against the War and now Veterans for Peace, as well as organizing mutual aid in his neighborhood outside Colorado Springs, Colorado, Reppenhagen has changed course from being exploited as a stalk-and-kill predator for the state, to opposing state violence and convincing others like him to rebel and help build a new society together.
“Hopefully,” he says, “these cops and border agents will also find that through activism service, real service, they can get some of their soul back.”