On Friday, Columbia Scholar in Residence Derecka Purnell spoke about her book: Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom, and her experience with abolitionist organizing in collaboration with the Eric H. Holder Jr. Initiative for Civil and Political Rights. Content warning: mentions of violence and police brutality.

On February 15, Derecka Purnell spoke about her book and political organizing career with Professor Frank Guridy, the director of the Eric H. Holder Jr. Initiative for Civil and Political Rights. 

Derecka Purnell is a scholar-in-residence at the Columbia University Law School Initiative for a Just Society (IJS), specializing in abolitionist work. Her book Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom, written in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, details Purnell’s own experiences with abolition, her political awakening, and her upbringing in St. Louis, Missouri. 

I first learned of Derecka Purnell’s book last semester in my Introduction to African American Studies class, taught by Nyle Fort, Assistant Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University. Her emphasis on community care and abolition as a means of political engagement inspires my perspective on activism, making this event one of personal value.

Purnell began the conversation by discussing her “commitment to knowledge production and political organizing,” in the words of Guridy. As the daughter of a comedian and granddaughter of a poet, Purnell was constantly surrounded by books and educational materials, despite periods of homelessness and economic struggle. In addition to being a motivated student, she was extremely curious and never afraid to speak her mind or ask questions that went against the status quo. This curiosity continues to drive her work, especially in terms of radical politics. 

Purnell told her audience that she believes it is crucial to be informed by life experience, take risks, and “think and write in public” in order to produce knowledge. Based on her childhood role models, displays of art and knowledge are not foreign, and her book is an example of these three qualities. As Guridy said, Becoming Abolitionists is quickly turning into a body of work that could be as impactful and integral to the body of knowledge that is Black and abolitionist studies as The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois and works by Angela Davis. 

Next, Purnell was prompted to discuss her educational journey and the path that led her to Harvard Law. As a Black Studies undergraduate student, Purnell was focused on political engagement and accumulating knowledge to provide for her community, with an end goal of attending law school. 

Her mother served as a primary inspiration for Purnell’s decision to attend law school. As a young girl, Purnell recalled her mother giving her the option of becoming a doctor or a lawyer, suggesting that either of these careers would allow the family to overcome poverty. Purnell also remembered her mother emphasizing the need for a lawyer who would take the breadth of knowledge they acquired and use it to advance their community. 

Activism had always been a force in Purnell’s life, but it wasn’t until her senior year of undergraduate studies in 2012 when a 17-year-old Black boy named Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, that it rose to the forefront. Just a week before her first day of law school, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, the neighborhood that Purnell grew up in. 

These events disrupted Purnell’s world and sense of Black life. As someone who didn’t grow up with “mobility,” which Purnell defined to include a stable household with educated parents or an abundance of resources, she clung to these ideas as a means of defining safety. 

She candidly stated that Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old student murdered by Michael Dunn in Jacksonville, Florida in 2012, were not the “type” of Black men she expected to be killed. Like many others, they were young, educated Black boys with a sense of social safety that Purnell had never been afforded. This immense blow to her conception of safety pushed her to delve even deeper into organizing. 

Her deep engagement in organizing for justice almost stopped her from attending law school until a friend of hers told her that “this won’t be the last time someone gets killed and there will be this [type of] response.” This advice prompted Purnell to live out her childhood dreams of attending law school. 

At Harvard, she was deeply engaged in protests and demonstrations on campus, ranging from large-scale rallies to sit-ins and boycotts. These efforts, Purnell explained, were met with constant police surveillance, leading her to develop strategies to talk to police and prepare for protests. Her background in political engagement in the St. Louis Ferguson Uprising allowed Purnell to educate those around her on their legal rights pertaining to arrests and protests. 

On the first anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in 2014, Purnell was meant to be attending job interviews, but she decided that corporate law didn’t give her the sense of purpose that she expected it to and that she needed to focus on work that reflected the needs and interests of her community. 

Looking back to the examples of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Purnell told the audience that the idea that “someone could kill someone and just go home didn’t make sense to [her].” At the time, she was in a classroom learning the technicalities of the legal world but saw that the functions of daily life didn’t uphold these rules. This led Purnell to the realization that she “was paying for a law degree that didn’t reflect the realities of the legal system,” which forced her to reframe her political analysis and relationship to law school. 

Purnell then began to understand how to produce knowledge in a way that could lead to structural change. She found that shifts in public opinion, the media, and pop culture were necessary to enact change, rather than merely studying the world from a technical perspective. 

After offering this background, Purnell defined the language she had been using consistently throughout the conversation: organizing. Organizing and protesting are two distinct entities, according to Purnell, and highlighting their difference is central to her approach. She explained that to protest is to oppose something, but organizing has a neutral quality that makes it applicable to all groups and sides of an argument. She also highlighted the spontaneity of organizing, which she said is essential to the act.

Purnell defined organizing as an “intentional effort to change a thing.” To illustrate this definition, she mentioned an anti-slavery protest in London in 1821. The protest sought “friends of slaves” to support them, and because of the ambiguity of the language, women felt inspired to join the movement. They were unsure if their presence would be welcome, but they attended regardless. This moment in time served, in the words of Purnell, “as a catalyst for the American Women’s Suffrage Movement.” 

Similarly, Purnell emphasized the role that language and education have in organizing and tackling complex issues. In a crucial critique of American politicians who claim that concepts of abolition and defunding the police are jargon and that “nobody knows what they mean,” Purnell argued that people have been organizing in favor of such issues for years but that prioritizing this specific language is immensely important. The word “defund,” for example, has an indisputable meaning, which Purnell asserted is helpful when describing the act of “defunding the police” in a context where everyone involved doesn’t have the same foundational understanding of the movement. 

Purnell understands that abolition is a difficult concept, which is why she prioritizes explaining it to diverse audiences without abandoning critical language. Purnell stated that it is not enough to say that prisons shouldn’t exist, but rather one must seek to abolish prisons. This language is essential, even if the core of the arguments is similar. 

The conversation then shifted into a Q&A segment in which participants asked Purnell about her perspective on future organizing, law school, and other topics. 

When asked how to approach activism and encourage future generations to engage politically, Purnell urged audience members to focus on fostering an “energetic movement” comprised of anyone willing to engage rather than focus on the age of participants. She believes that activists in general tend to romanticize young people and that this isn’t an effective strategy to develop a movement. She noted that anyone willing to change their mind, learn about, or discuss a topic, especially of an older age, should be welcomed into the movement with the same enthusiasm used to welcome young people. 

Another student asked more specifically about the role of the university as an institution, specifically in organizing radical struggle. Through her experiences at Harvard Law, Purnell is no stranger to organizing at and against powerful institutions. Drawing on many examples from that period, she explained the complex relationships that activists must have with the institution they belong to. This includes working strategically to achieve goals and evaluating the potential consequences of activism in specific situations. 

In the final minutes of the conversation, a student asked how Purnell reconciles with failure and how to remain invested in causes despite the feelings of hopelessness that often surround periods of political unrest. To this, Purnell said that people must find excitement in anger and use it to fuel future attempts at achieving specific goals. 

Purnell ended the discussion by reemphasizing the importance of an engaged, “critical mass of human beings” who, regardless of their quantity, are committed to the causes they believe in in a real, community-focused way. 

Fayerweather Hall via Bwog Archives