Becoming Abolitionists. Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom

Publication Date:

October 2021



Original language and publisher

English (USA) | Astra House

Territories Handled

World excl. North America

Territories Sold

English (UK & BC excl Can) (Verso)
Brazil (Grupo Novo Século)
France (Éditions Syllepse)
Italy (Fandango)


Essay, Politics

Foreign Covers


Becoming Abolitionists. Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom


[Purnell] draws convincing parallels between the past and the present to demonstrate that today’s policing systems are vestiges of this oppressive framework… She is in such command of her material [that] even if you disagree with her, you are compelled to listen. — The Guardian

An informed, provocative, astute consideration of salvific alternatives to contemporary policing and imprisonment. — Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews

While her narrative is densely fact-packed throughout, Purnell is able to deftly lead the reader through the ins and outs of the abolitionist mindset so that it is clear and comprehensible for all, including those who, like her, might be initially skeptical. — Booklist

Bold and utopian, yet grounded in Purnell’s experiences and copious evidence of how reform efforts have fallen short, this is an inspiring introduction to a hot-button topic. — Publishers Weekly

Part memoir, part political and social commentary, the St. Louis native’s genre-bending book demonstrates her road to adopting abolitionist politics and makes the argument for why the new abolitionism — the push to end prisons and policing in the United States — ought to be the future of the country. — Kovie Biakolo, Essence

Becoming Abolitionists received a starred Kirkus review for its insight into the problematic nature of policing, including constitutional policing—that which upholds the U.S. Constitution and individual civil rights. Purnell highlights her evolution from cop-caller to abolitionist and dissects the violence in policing
culture. — Nia Norris, Kirkus Reviews

It’s been amazing having you here, and your book is twice as amazing as the conversation because you can have it for so much longer. Trevor Noah, The Daily Show

Far from avoiding the tough questions, Purnell dives in headfirst. Drawing from history, she deftly connects the roots of violence to the racial and economic hierarchies police are charged with maintaining, arguing that precarity cannot be eradicated by the people who are paid to protect it. Becoming Abolitionists is ultimately about the importance of asking questions and our ability to create answers. And in the end, Purnell makes it clear that abolition is a labor of love—one that we can accomplish together if only we decide to. — Nia Evans, Boston Review

Part memoir, part essay, and part argument, Becoming Abolitionists is an organizing tool itself, inviting in skeptics and offering a bridge to committed activists in other movements. — Lyra Walsh Fuchs, Dissent Magazine

Drawing upon a Black radical tradition of social movements, Becoming Abolitionists reveals the power of self-study, collective political education, and resistance to reform efforts to inspire a new generation of activists. Purnell offers a persuasive and warm invitation to us all to deliver on the promise and potential of abolition. — Aida Mariam Davis, Stanford Social Innovation Review

Purnell’s writing is personal, moving, and offers a globally relevant perspective. It dramatically expands the scope of how Americans can think about policing and justice and will leave a lasting impact. — Library Journal

[Purnell] uses history, policy, and the Black radical imagination coupled with her very personal story of growing up in St. Louis to illustrate how the relationship between the Black community and the police reflects the injustices of our justice system. She goes deep into the truths about our America and helps open up a necessary dialogue on what it means to become an abolitionist. — Boston Globe

Blending trenchant social critique with intimate stories from her own upbringing, Purnell’s text marks a necessary installment in the larger tradition of abolitionist writing. — Dean Spade, them.

At once specific and sweeping, practical and visionary, Becoming Abolitionists is a triumph of political imagination and a tremendous gift to all movements struggling towards liberation. Do not miss its brilliance! — Naomi Klein, bestselling author of The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything

Derecka Purnell has one of the most exciting minds of a generation, and Becoming Abolitionists gives us all an excuse to praise her. This book is an explosion of deep intellect matched with great love, showing a journey toward radical politics that embraces the messiness. Derecka does not expect we all wake up and become abolitionists immediately–it didn’t happen that way for her–but by showing both her intellectual and emotional path toward abolitionist thinking, she provides a roadmap that is also compassionate to those moving in a slower lane. But with an argument rooted in history, criticism guided by deep care, and writing that pulses with urgency, Becoming Abolitionists will convince you that is exactly what we all need to do before you even put the book down. — Mychal Denzel Smith, bestselling author of Invisible Man Got The Whole World Watching and Stakes Is High

With the elegant prose of a gifted storyteller, the acumen of a seasoned organizer, and the sharp-edged wit of a radical legal scholar, Purnell takes us on the powerful journey to police abolition in her new book, Becoming Abolitionists. It is a must read for anyone serious about understanding this moment, and the ongoing Black freedom movement. — Barbara Ransby, author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement

An extraordinary, wonderful, insightful, and immensely generative book that makes the case for abolitionist thinking, amplifying the self-activity of the masses already in motion, and at the same time providing a thoroughly absorbing and captivating description of the author’s own journey. Rather than encouraging each of us to brand ourselves as radical, Purnell points us toward the collaborative acts of co-creation and accompaniment that can make revolutionary change possible. She incorporates decoloniality, feminism, Indigeneity, environmental justice, and disability activism organically into her critiques and solutions. One of the most exciting, inspiring, and enlightening books I have read in a long time. — George Lipsitz, author of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness

With deep insight and moral clarity, Purnell shares her compelling journey of political education and personal transformation, inviting us not only to imagine a world without police, but to muster the courage to fight for the more just world we know is possible. ‘Becoming Abolitionists’ is essential reading for our times. — Michelle Alexander, bestselling author of The New Jim Crow

One of the most perceptive and passionate thinkers of any generation, Derecka Purnell, has written a genuinely revolutionary text for our times—one that resists easy answers or solutions and never shies from the hard questions. She proves that abolition is not an event or a utopian dreamstate, but rather a journey of assembly struggling to create new worlds of freedom as we fight the unfree world we inhabit. Beautifully written, passionate, honest, ‘Becoming Abolitionists’ charts a journey we all must take if we plan to survive, let alone live together. — Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

Becoming Abolitionists is a vital resource for anyone committed to the struggle for social justice, written by one of the sharpest and most inspiring voices to emerge in a generation. Taking readers on a journey from her childhood in St. Louis to the protests in Ferguson, the halls of Harvard, the streets of Soweto and beyond, Derecka Purnell’s heart-rendering analysis gives us the tools to envision a new society with endless possibilities. Even more, Purnell’s extraordinary blend of personal memoir, history, and critical theory provides a roadmap to build a safer and more just world. Like the Autobiography of Angela Davis, ‘Becoming Abolitionists’ is sure to remain an essential text for decades to come. — Elizabeth Hinton, author of America on Fire and From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime

Purnell is undoubtedly one of the most important writers and activists of our generation, offering us a vivid, moving and compelling book for anyone interested in one of the most urgent issues of our times. Purnell weaves experiences of racism and resistance to articulate a blistering critique of racial capitalism, state power and imperialism, taking readers on a journey towards the radical alternatives to police and prisons which have shaped Black political movements in the 21st century. — Adam Elliott-Cooper, author of Black Resistance to British Policing

Derecka’s book provides a front row seat to how a generation of young people have been radicalized by a series of contradictions living within the heart of global empire: the United States. She explains, with powerful stories and brilliant analysis, how she has committed herself to abolition in the context of ongoing collective study and struggle. The abolition she discusses is anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist, committed to racial, economic, and gender justice. A call to not simply tear down prisons and police, but to build a society where our collective needs prevail over profit and punishment. This book is more than a front row seat, it is an invitation to join the most important movement of our time. — Amna Akbar, Professor of Law, The Ohio State University

Becoming Abolitionists brilliantly lays out the connections between policing and other forms of oppression and shows why even well-meaning ‘reforms’ won’t get us where we need to go. This profound, urgent, beautiful, and necessary book is an invitation to imagine and organize for a less violent and more liberatory world. Everyone should read it. — Astra Taylor, author of Democracy May Not Exist but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone

A beautiful invitation to understand what is possible if we commit to unlearning our dependence on police and address the underlying in-justices that cause harm in our communities. This is the book we have been waiting for and knew we needed to advance abolitionist efforts. Purnell is the abolitionist writer of her generation. — Bettina Love, author of Abolitionist Teaching

Part memoir & part manifesto for our times. Beautifully written, the book takes the reader on a personal journey from the Midwest to South Africa with a pit stop in New England. As a member of the ‘Trayvon Generation,’ Derecka offers us invaluable insights into how young activ-ists are navigating and challenging current injustices. If you’ve been curious about the modern abolitionist movement, this book is a must read! — Mariame Kaba, bestselling author of We Do This Til We Free Us

Packed with glimmering moments of poetic clarity and power. Purnell has gifted us a book that is engaging, textually rich, clear in voice, driven, even paced, astutely researched, necessary and damn good. A must read. Darnell Moore, author of No Ashes in the Fire

For those skeptics of Abolition, this brilliant, revolutionary book will take you on a breathtaking journey to the other side. As Derecka makes clear, abolition is not just about firing cops and
closing prisons; it’s about eliminating the reasons people think they need them. If you read any book this year – Read this. It’s a radiant and practical blueprint for the new world. — V (formerly Eve Ensler), author of The Vagina Monologues and The Apology

Becoming Abolitionists is a wise and passionate argument for the urgency of first responders without guns. Purnell takes on the hardest questions with analytical rigor and common sense. This is abolition for the people. — Paul Butler, MSNBC Legal Analyst and Author, Chokehold: Policing Black Men

Becoming Abolitionists is an amazing and insightful book. It gives me hope that maybe we can live in a society free of the need for police or prison. — Daniel S., Incarcerated Noname Book Club Member

In the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, an invitation to imagine a world without police, following activist Derecka Purnell’s journey to embrace abolition.

A long-overdue national reckoning with the problem of police violence is finally underway. From community policing initiatives to increasing calls to reform, defund or abolish the police, more and more people are grappling with what alternatives to policing might look like.

Enter Derecka Purnell, organizer, journalist, Harvard Law graduate, and a rising voice of the Trayvon Martin Generation. In making the case for police abolition, Purnell draws from her personal journey, as a child growing up in poverty, where calling 911 was often the only option, as a young woman determined to seek justice from the law, and later as a lawyer and advocate for abolition.

Structured in chapters that address concerns around police abolition—what about the murderers? The rapists? How do we stay safe?—Purnell argues that police can not be reformed and invites readers to envision new systems that work to address the root causes of violence instead.

A revolutionary book about choosing freedom, Becoming Abolitionists will inspire readers to imagine and create new communities that can guarantee safety, equality, and real justice for all.

Marketing Information

  • Nearly 10,000 copies sold
  • Recommended in GlamourThe, and Columbia News.
  • Op-Ed “America has a history of banning Black studies. We can learn from that past” published in The Guardian on February 14, 2023.
  • The Kansas City Defender notes that attendees of the “Young Black Writers’ Social” received copies of Derecka Purnell’s Becoming Abolitionists in their event tote bags published on October 3, 2023

Foreign Covers