he mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on May 24th, 2022, sent shockwaves nationwide and refocused critical attention on policing in the United States. But the attack, just two years after the mass rebellions that shook the nation and the world after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, has also shed light on policing in ways that high-profile incidents of police brutality could not—shedding new light on the abolitionist alternative in the process. While the killings of Floyd and Taylor stand as testament to the long shadow that slavery casts on contemporary policing of Black communities in particular, what unfolded in Uvalde was something different. In what follows, I emphasize three key differences that set Uvalde apart, and the implications each has for rethinking the meaning of and possibilities for abolition today.

First, Uvalde was not a police action but a mass shooting, in which police stood quite literally on the side-lines for more than an hour while the shooter—eighteen-year-old Salvador Ramos—killed nineteen children and two teachers. Second, Uvalde was not an instance of white-on-Black violence but largely Brown-on-Brown: like nearly 80 percent of the local population, almost everyone involved—the shooter, the victims, the police chief—were Latinx. And third, in the face of police inaction, the parents and relatives of the Uvalde victims took matters into their own hands – both on the day, attempting with some success to enter Robb Elementary to rescue their children, and in the wave of organized outcry that has come since. Taken together, these three differences expand our understanding of policing and abolition in three ways: underscoring the uselessness of the police, binding policing to the border, and pointing toward the radical alternative posed by the self-activity of the Uvalde parents themselves.

First, for many, Uvalde drives home the uselessness of the police in ways that move us beyond the concrete harm inflicted by policing. In A World Without Police, I mapped the sprawling apparatus of global policing, along with a broader “pig majority” comprising judges, juries, vigilantes, and everyday citizens who perform and uphold the work of policing economic and racial power (Maher, 2021). This expansive world of police  was on full display in Uvalde in the astonishing 376 officers present, ranging from local deputies to school police, US Marshals and Texas Rangers, Border Patrol and the DEA—a bizarre and peculiarly American patchwork that in its very complexity and overlapping jurisdictions encourages abuse and impunity. With only a few exceptions, however, none of these agencies or hundreds of heavily armed and highly trained individuals stepped in to stop Ramos or save those trapped inside. Instead, onlookers locally and nationwide were struck by the utter indifference this small army of police displayed toward the students, staff, and teachers inside.

The fallout since has been correspondingly broad. A state trooper was sacked, and school police chief Pete Arredondo was forced to resign from his newly sworn-in city council seat before being fired. The school superintendent, chief of the Uvalde municipal police, and state-wide head of the Texas Rangers all resigned. Even the local district attorney was sued for obstructing the investigation. The failure, in the words of a report by the Texas House of Representatives, was “systemic.” But this wasn’t the first time police had shown such indifference in the face of a school shooting, and Uvalde also underlines the longstanding (though frequently overlooked) legal fact of American life that they weren’t even obligated to try. When Nikolas Cruz entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018 in a shooting rampage that killed seventeen, school resource officer Scot Peterson effectively hid for 45 minutes. Despite the outcry from parents of the slain students and police officials, a series of court decisions upheld the long-held legal precedent that Peterson had “no duty to protect” the students. Where most high-profile cases of police brutality and murder emphasize the concrete harm police inflict, Uvalde drives home the other side of this reality: that not only do police not protect and serve the public, but they aren’t even legally required to try.

While focusing on the uselessness (rather than harm) of policing might seem the less radical proposition of the two, the implications are, counterintuitively, more radical in some important ways. Concrete harm points toward mitigation, fuelling an endless cycle of toothless reform proposals geared toward whittling down the most excessive forms of brutality. Despite the best efforts of abolitionists to anchor harm in underlying institutional systems, elected leaders rearrange deck chairs by banning chokeholds, mandating bodycams, and more training—all premised on the idea that safety can come only through the police. the action, or rather the inaction of the police in Uvalde, cuts through such reformism.

It also opens up space for alternative interpretations and possibilities: there is no way to train police in courage and self-sacrifice; no procedural reform to address a situation that violated every existing protocol. “They failed to prioritize saving the lives of innocent victims over their own safety,” in the words of the House report, refusing to take even those same risks undertaken spontaneously by unarmed family members. And against the argument that we need more cops, here were 376 sitting on their hands and refusing to act. A useless institution is not faulty or even broken. It may even be functioning exactly as it was designed to do—this much is true of the slavecatchers turned police. As Natasha Lennard (2022) put it, “Uvalde Police Didn’t Move to Save Lives Because That’s Not What Police Do.” The uselessness of the police points more directly toward abolition by demanding a new horizon for safety that asks first and foremost: if not the police, then who?

Second, located in a contested zone just 50 miles from the southern border and crosscut by migration, drug and weapons trafficking, and border enforcement, Uvalde is a microcosm of how policing and imprisonment are deeply enmeshed with and inseparable from border enforcement and detention, and the political economy of both. Abolitionist theorists and organizers increasingly insist on the fundamental complicity of policing and border enforcement, which uphold the internal boundaries of race and class and the external border of the nation-state, respectively (Denvir, 2020). Borders, like the police, actually produce the violence they claim to be preventing (Jones, 2016), and both should be targeted for abolition, alongside the prisons and migrant detention centres they feed.

Not only is Uvalde a testament to this complicity and broad abolitionist imperative, but it also provides a lens for thinking through how the political economy of policing and the border have (re)shaped the lives of those in Uvalde and beyond. Concretely, this complicity was on full display during the massacre: 149 of the officers gathered outside Robb Elementary, nearly half, were Border Patrol. One of the reasons given for the lax response to the lockdown order was that there had been no fewer than 47 such lockdowns in just the three months prior to the massacre. Of these, 90 percent were caused by ICE and Border Patrol pursuits, but none resulted in violence at the school (Despart, 2022). By May 24th, teachers and staff were desensitized to the alerts and responded more slowly as a result.

The ideological crisis the massacre has exposed in Uvalde further underlines the economic implications of policing and border enforcement. According to the Texas Tribune, Uvalde is a “conservative, predominantly Hispanic town,” but these “back-the-blue” values “collide[d]” with police inaction during the shooting, with some locals even suggesting that “the massacre may be a turning point for the town’s relationship with police.” Of course, being pro-cop depends on who you ask, and while some poorer residents have found themselves profiled and detained by police and Border Patrol alike, many continue to profess support for law enforcement. Why? As is so often the case, this cognitive dissonance is resolved materially: “support of law enforcement includes backing Border Patrol, a major employer” in the town, the article adds, and law enforcement officers “are recognized not just as heroes—but as cousins, aunts and uncles” (Beeferman, 2022).

In other words, just as Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007) speaks of a “prison fix” that seeks to resolve capitalist crisis through prison-led growth and job creation in rural areas, and others speak similarly of a “migration fix” (Bird and Schmid, 2021), we might be tempted to point toward a border fix that is both at once, in which enforcement, border construction, and surveillance technology become the only—or at least the best—economic game in town. Such fixes are always economic and ideological, shoring up a pro-police and pro-Border Patrol constituency in the most traditional of ways—people tend to support their own employment programs—while in this case leaning heavily on orchestrated panic about cross-border violence.

Third, the courageous self-activity of the Uvalde families points beyond the world of police we inhabit today and toward the abolitionist horizon of a world without police, in which we keep us safe. Looking at how the Uvalde families refused police power thereby helps flesh out the other side of this dialectical clash of opposing worlds, which was rendered instantaneously clear in images of police facing off with angry family members who were “tackled, tasered, handcuffed, and threatened with arrest as they begged officers to go inside and save their kids—or for attempting to do so themselves” (Olurin, 2022). Characteristically, however, most media attention focused on the first part (police restraining families) rather than the second (those families taking matters into their own hands).

According to multiple accounts, several parents broke the police perimeter and entered the school to rescue children—one has since accused police of retaliating against her for her outspoken criticism of the police’s actions that day. Teachers too put their lives on the line, “laying their bodies over kids as the bullets hailed” (Wallace and Pappas, 2022). And while most reports rightly emphasized that the parents and teachers, unlike the cops, were mostly unarmed, on-the-ground reports make it clear that some, like Mario Jimenez, “were armed and ready to storm the school” (Li et al, 2022). These actions obviously stand in stark contrast to those of the cops: courage in the face of cowardice has never been so clear. But this is about more than just courage. By being prepared to act in the face of police indifference, the Uvalde families bypassed the demand for more police or more courageous police action, showing instead how the community can and should take care of itself.  

The latent abolitionism of the Uvalde families wasn’t simply about their actions on the day, however, but was also apparent in how they controlled the narrative afterward. Few people today outside Uvalde would even recognize the name Salvador Ramos, because Uvalde parents themselves consistently downplayed his role in favour of systemic critique, demanding action or resignations from the entire range of institutional actors. In the words of a lawsuit filed by the mother of one victim against the police, school district, and gun manufacturers, this “wasn’t just an act of one violent, troubled young man” (Nguyen, 2022). Ramos’ family and personal struggles were well-known to many, but rather than individualize or pathologize him, the narrative of the families recognizes that safety is a collective, not an individual task. What sense would it make to punish someone so clearly “troubled”?

If many abolitionists follow Angela Davis’ (2003) insistence that “prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings,” the discursive strategy of the Uvalde families shows that that community members, their families, and their problems aren’t so easily banished—and that consequently, community members—not the police—are most likely to embrace a cohesive program of systemic change and restorative justice in the face of social harm. This latent abolitionist perspective, and the fraught geopolitical conditions underpinning it, would become even more devastatingly apparent just a month later and 75 miles to the east in San Antonio, when 53 migrants died after the improvised air conditioning system in the tractor-trailer they had been traveling in failed. Despite official efforts to blame so-called “human traffickers,” calls for individual punishment quickly fell flat in the face of an obviously systemic tragedy: it was the border itself, and those who patrol and enforce it, that had condemned the victims to so risky a crossing.  

Abolitionists urge us to imagine and build a world in which police and prisons are, in Angela Davis’ (2003) words, “obsolete”. But what if these institutions already are? This is the lesson of Uvalde and so many other examples of not merely the brutality and harm of the police, but their uselessness. These interpretations are never a fait accompli, however, never a mechanical extension of the brutality of events, since the question of what is useful always poses another, famously posed by Lenin: useful for whom? For the community and collective well-being. Here uselessness and harm are inextricable, not only the concrete harm of brutality but the banal evil of ever-expanding police budgets—to the tune of 40 percent of the municipal budget in Uvalde—diverting resources that could be better used with the promise of a safety that never arrives. What kind of world might be possible if that 40 percent were returned to the people of Uvalde and put into their eminently capable hands of the victims’ families?


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Geo Maher is Coordinator of the W.E.B. Du Bois Movement School for Abolition and Reconstruction in Philadelphia, having taught previously at Vassar College, San Quentin State Prison, and the Venezuelan School of Planning in Caracas. He is author of five books, including A World Without Police.