The beginning of dreaming is the end of policing

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In my intro course on blackness and mass incarceration, I ask my mostly seventeen and eighteen-year-old students how they would live their lives differently if abolition were achieved. Some say they would change their majors. One said she would wear her natural hair. One said she would fear less for her little sister’s safety. This year, one of the last students to answer the question started to cry, moved by witnessing twenty of their peers give themselves permission to dream of a freer life, a freer world for us all.

When I turn the question upon myself, now thirty-four years old, black, and queer, Sean Bell comes to mind.

When I first heard about the murder of Sean Bell by the police on his wedding day I was around my students’ age. I think about him now even though the names we scream all across the country are George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade and Ahmaud Arbery and more. But, I think of Sean when I look at the inexhaustible list of names because he reminds me of something a white friend once said about how he lives his life: Each day I am going to a wedding.

It’s not the institution of marriage or the vows or the flowers that holds my attention. It’s the posture of celebration and of looking forward at the uncertain future with wonder and with the reassurance that you are loved — thoroughly, expansively and unconditionally. 

When city and federal funding is granted to police departments to use or to disburse, our politicians knowingly continue to arm one of the most brutal American institutions responsible for terrorizing black people, snuffing out my people routinely, mundanely and without consequence.

In a world without police, the embarrassing stories we tell about one another, the tears we cry, and the toasts we raise, are to and for the living. Defund the police and let us say, Each day I am going to a wedding — rather than, For one more day, I escaped my funeral.

We are standing on the precipice of achieving the dreams of my students, their loved ones, and me; city councils around the country are voting to defund their police departments. I urge each of you reading this to pressure your councilmembers to do the same. It is time to collectively and publicly reimagine what care and justice look like in the streets and in our relationships. This is our chance to prioritize wellbeing and growth for all. This is our chance to say no to conditional safety. No to conditional fear. No to conditional living.

Thirty-four and still dreaming of freedom, this is what I know in my bones: we can get it done.

Ianna Hawkins Owen is an assistant professor of English. A portion of this op-ed was originally delivered as a testimony to the Boston City Council.