Influencing the Influencer: Movement Lawyer Angelo Pinto Talks Defunding the Police, Prison Abolition, and the Future of Accountability
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I spoke with Angelo Pinto for the first time in early March of this year. We talked mostly about his career in criminal justice and his work with Until Freedom, an intersectional social justice organization. At the tail end of the interview, he mentioned that he was a prison abolitionist and I asked him what that meant exactly. Angelo explained the term matter of factly, and with a serious calmness that clearly informed me and mysteriously intrigued me.
Like the perfect professor, Angelo folds his knowledge into dialogue in a way that is so effective that it’s easy to regurgitate and apply it within your own narrative. For 20 years, he has been enhancing the awareness of the broken criminal justice system, quietly and confidently. Angelo is the unsung hero of the modern-day Abolition movement. Although his voice is not the loudest and his name is not the most known, he is the brains behind it all.
In this in-depth interview, Pinto talks about the phrases ‘Defund the Police’ and ‘Prison Abolition’ which have been shared widely on social media in the past month after the murder of George Floyd. He gives an insider’s perception of what accountability looks like without prisons and jails, and he gets honest about how he’s been waiting on this perfect storm his whole life.
Branden Janese: What is the biggest misconception that you see people sharing on social media surrounding the concept of defunding the police?
Angelo Pinto: Well I think the biggest misconception or the biggest challenge for most people is the idea that you're just kind of taking funds away from the police and not doing anything else. So people [express concerns] like, ‘Okay so you're just gonna defund the police and then what's going to happen in communities? Are communities still going to be safe?’ So I think the first thing is that when folks are talking about defunding the police, the other piece that they're also talking about is an investment or reinvestment or actually the first time investment in communities. The reality is folks who do this work and folks who have done research know that police don't make the community safe, so more police and additional funding is certainly not going to make communities safer. Oftentimes, more police and more money just make certain communities, Black and Brown communities, surveilled more, policed more and, what we're witnessing around the country, even murdered more. So this expansion of policing, the explosion of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, is not making any community safer has not reduced violence and the research does not indicate that.
So what we're saying is to defund police. [Cities are] spending too much money on police to begin with, which means we can't spend on education, we can't spend on unemployment, we can’t spend on mental health services [and] we can't spend on general health services.
On alternatives to policing:
AP: There are alternative first responders systems. So, oftentimes if there's a mental health crisis, if there is a domestic violence crisis, if there's a family crisis, folks call 911 when in actuality, a trained professional, let's say a mental health professional, would actually be the best person to call and intervene and actually preserve life and rectify the situation. But because of the way the system currently exists, what happened is that the police are called in. Unfortunately, in some instances, they use extreme force and sometimes they use deadly force. So that is the basic sentiment around defunding. It isn't just defunding the police and nothing else, but it's defunding a system that hasn't proven to make communities safer and reinvesting. We know that more policing spending doesn't make communities safer, but providing more resources to communities is what will make communities safer.
BJ: Would it make sense to train the police more effectively or are they a lost cause?
AP: People have been talking about that for a decade. Not only that, but police already get training. What we realize is that training hasn’t shifted police practices. But the other thing is that you can't train away racism, you can’t train away white supremacy, you can’t train away prejudice. You just can't. The evidence of the inability of law enforcement to do that is every police killing that we see across this country, so training just doesn't work. The officer who put his knee on George Floyd’s neck was actually a trainer. He trained officers. Not only that, some of the other three officers who were standing there watching, he actually trained.
George Floyd’s murder is a clear example of the inability for training to make the kind of change and impact necessary to preserve life, to transform law enforcement. The history and culture of policing, particularly around Black bodies, is a long history. The idea that you can train away the ways that police excessively use force in Black and Brown communities is just not possible. It’s clear that these officers take this training seriously. Not only that, the Department of Homeland Security and I believe the CIA, has conducted research over the past 20 years and found that there is white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement. [This] means white supremacists actively infiltrated law enforcement to terrorize Black life and Black bodies. So when people have an alternative to finish their agenda, training certainly won’t work there either. The simple reality is that training doesn't fix this. The notion that it does is unfortunately a notion of throwing more money at a false solution, one that we know just doesn't work in the set of circumstances we are facing. And one that we should also realize does not undo a system of institutions that has a tremendously long history of terror. We have to really move away from this idea that training is any part of the answer.
BJ: What do you know about the NYPD $6 billion budget cuts?
AP: What we're seeing is that the NYPD currently has a budget of about $50 billion. What Scott Stringer and other folks have said is that they are committed to reducing that budget by about $1.5 billion, that's essentially what we know right now. The details of exactly where that money will be coming out of was not clear to me. What also appears will happen is that there will be an investment, $10 million so far, into the existing crisis management system that exists in New York City, which is essentially the folks who do violence interruption. [It’s] one of the tried and true alternatives to policing that has been proven to disrupt community violence and make communities safer. It’s a small investment, $10 million as compared to $1.5 billion being taken out of the police budget. It's not clear exactly where that money goes. We hope it goes not only to these alternatives, but to provide resources to the communities that often face the highest rate [of] violence as a result of city, state, and governmental neglect.
BJ: Can you talk to me about prison abolition? What it means, where it comes from, where it started?
AP: Prison abolition is an idea that's been around for quite some time. Who is credited with originating the term I'm not quite sure. One of the most visible prison abolitionists and the person that folks often refer to when discussing prison abolition is Ruthy Gilmore who is an intellectual, an organizer [and] a thinker around issues pertaining to the criminal justice system and mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex.
In a nutshell, what prison abolition is a world without prisons, [is] a world without jails. A world where alternatives to this very punitive form of incarceration — or punitive caging which is really what it is — no longer exists. We know that when you place someone in a cage, or place them in a prison cell, or a jail cell, or when you put someone in solitary confinement, you dehumanize them.
There's nothing about that practice or that process that is humanizing. There's nothing about that practice or that process that will rehabilitate an individual. There's nothing about that practice or process that will allow a person to re-enter society better and be whole. We know that that process strips individuals of their dignity and of their humanity. We know it makes communities less safe. There's evidence that individuals who entered jail and prisons who committed nonviolent offenses because they enter a hyper-violent setting, a hyper-masculine setting, that they often are released and then recidivate with a violent offense when they were not involved in a violent offense to begin with. The atmosphere, the environment, the caging of individuals exasperates the propensity of violence, and that's one of the many reasons why folks say they're abolitionist. Prison abolition should be the call to really confront the system of mass incarceration. The idea that you cannot reform certain systems. Mass incarceration, prisons and jails, caging are systems that are so inhumane that it must be done away with.
That it's the sentiment of abolition. I think folks who have been doing this work long enough and folks who are just aware of the nature and humanity of prisons are aligned with the idea.
BJ: So in that sense can you talk to me about what accountability would look like without prisons?
AP: There's a lot of models and I think that we still haven't truly scratched the surface of what it could look like. I will say this, there was a time when [prisons and jails] didn’t exist. For a long period of time, cultures have had systems in place that allow for accountability. When you look at mass incarceration in the United States, we know that most of the folks incarcerated are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. There are non-confinement alternatives that we already use that would really serve the community better. So for instance, let's say there is a situation in which someone has stolen something from somebody, or they damage someone’s property, or they destroyed the property. Wouldn’t it make sense that in some capacity they would restore the property? It could mean that they work it off. It could mean that they're paying restitution. It could be even a more engaged process where the person who is the victim and the person who is believed to be the offender are [meeting together] to figure out collectively what would allow them to feel like this is remedied. That's one way for that to happen.
There are models around the world where there are facilities for individuals [to] go to that are humane, where [people] are not in a cage, where they receive the kind of services they need for the duration of time they need to be made whole, to be made better and to be able [to] heal from whatever traumatic experiences they’ve had. When we look at the mental health institutions or the mental health system in America, for a long period of time there was the use of asylums, which in many ways [functioned] like prisons and were abusive and horrendous facilities. Over time we said, listen, we have to change this. This isn't humane, this isn’t what we should be doing with folks who have mental health issues. That’s not to say that we have it right now, but this is to say we have realized for the sake of humanity and decency we had to transform the system. I think the same thing is true now. The reality first and foremost is we shouldn't be considering having [nonviolent offenders] locked in a facility or in an institution.
There are a plethora of alternatives to engage. Seventy-five percent or more of the folks who are incarcerated [are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses]. [By] just doing that, you can radically shift the size of those folks incarcerated in the United States. For the folks who [our] society is not sure an immediate return to society would be safe I think we could learn from those around us and even get some training about intriguing facilities that are honorable facilities that rehabilitate. Facilities that really create a sort of circumstances where someone can return to the community and make it better. The answers and solutions are there we just, as a society, have decided not to do them and [instead, we decided to] over incarcerate.
BJ: What is the most push back that you receive from doing work like this? Do you have any surprise supporters for this movement?
AP: I mean the biggest push back is usually from law enforcement. If you're a police officer or if you’re a corrections officer, if you're a DA, [these] individuals' lives and jobs are premised on the idea that Black and Brown bodies will continue to be incarcerated. So for that purpose alone, that is usually the folks who do the most push backing. When you say let's have less police, let’s abolish the police, let’s have no jails and prisons, the folks who are working there and the folks who are making billions of dollars say, hold on, you can't do this while we do this. Then they [begin] to talk about safety.
In terms of those who are surprised supporters, I think that there’s police officers. There's a group of police officers in New York City called the NYPD 12 that were suing the department. There are many folks within these institutions who have been fighting for justice — maybe not many — but they exist. There are folks who don't agree with the way in which policing happens and thought that this was an honorable institution and joined for that reason. So I think there are officers who are pushing back from within the system. There are correction officers saying, ‘Hey, this isn't the way we should be doing this.’ Those are the individuals, as hard as it may be, who have to begin to dismantle the system from the within and have been some of the surprise supporters.
BJ: What are the actionable steps that would need to be done in order for the theories to come to life?
AP: I think it's happening. I think the reason why it's happening — it sounds cliche but — it’s the power of the people. There's been people in office, there's been many [attempts] to confront mass incarceration, to confront policing that really just hasn't worked or has been so slow. Think about it, New York City has the largest police force in the world and said, ‘We're gonna cut our $6 billion budget almost by a quarter’ Unprecedented. I just saw in L.A how they're cutting the budget. I'm seeing in other places around the country how they're saying, ‘No more, we're gonna cut police in schools.’ I've seen a tremendous amount of transformation in Minneapolis. There is change happening around the country with regards to policing and defunding police — it’s actually happening. And like you said, even when you heard the words prison abolition and they were new to you, now this has become a part of the American dialogue, the American discourse, and America will never be the same.
We won't be able to go back to a place where this isn't a part of the discourse. The people's power is what made that happen. The people in the street. The people demanding the government change. Not legislation, not elected officials, not petitions. Not to say those things didn't play a role, but that hasn't been the driving force. The kind of change we’re seeing now is unprecedented. I think now those things can really be leveraged to create more change. The people have to continue to utilize their power to show the elected officials, to show police departments, to show the world that we decide what happens. Not only that, we don't want billion dollar police budgets. It just makes no sense. Particularly when we are often seeing police murder [and] particularly when we are seeing excessive use of force. That’s really where we are and what is happening.
"...This has become a part of the American dialogue, the American discourse, and America will never be the same."
BJ: I think about this a lot. I always wonder how sustainable this work is. People are in the streets for three to four months, and things are actually changing. It all seems like it is happening so fast. I'm wondering how sustainable these changes are.
AP: Even sometimes for me [I think,] ‘Wow, it’s really happening.’ I've been doing this work for 20 odd years, you realize it's actually not fast. You realize that this moment is as a result of many moments. I remember when Occupy [Wall Street] happened. People in Kentucky and Louisville are actually occupying spaces right now. I remember what Occupy did was it allowed people to talk about the 99% of the 1%. Never before was that part of the national lexicon.
I remember when Trayvon Martin happened and people started to look at police violence and vigilante violence in the New World or the in the last 10 years and say, ‘Wow this is a serious issue.’ They looked at stand-your-ground laws. Then Michelle Alexander’s book happened and people started talking about mass incarceration. What I'm saying is that people have been doing a lot of work to get us to a moment where organizers were able to leverage a moment like the murder of George Floyd. It looks like it's happening on the fly, but [it’s been] hundreds of years of resistance really being leveraged. That's really what's happening at this moment. In addition to that narrative, the landscape of the world is changing forever. My daughter, who is eight years old, has participated in more protests and movements than some people I know in their whole life. [My daughter] knows who Breeona Taylor is, she knows what happened to her. Children who traditionally have not been radicalized, or who have not been aware, are crystal clear about what's happening in America. They are not afraid, they are not scared, they don't say, ‘Why me?’ They're not not saying what If I live in the civil rights movement. They're not doing any of that. They're going into their room, they're making a sign and demanding to go into the streets. I've been trying to tell people you're dealing with a whole different kind of time right now. This generation decided it’s gonna stop. Now a lot of people are still afraid of that and still want to shield their children from it. We have reached a point where a critical mass is doing the opposite. A critical mass is aware, a critical mass is going to move and the critical mass knows that we can't relent.
I think what we'll see is that the efforts, the organizing, the tactics to move things along will shift and change, but I hope that we realize that there are few things, and maybe nothing, in this moment like having people in the streets. It shows people just the sheer magnitude of their power. In Minneapolis [for example], with all the police force, even with the National Guard, you can't stop the people. When the people are together, they realize that it’s just too many of us. It's not even anything deep or theoretical to think about it. The people's power is too tremendous when the critical mass wants change. When the critical mass ones change there's nothing you can do about it.
BJ: In that sense what happened that was different this time? Did we just not want it bad enough before? I hear you when you say that everything has changed. However, the people have been protesting for a long time, Angelo. What is so different now? Is it COVID? What is the difference between then and now?
AP: I heard someone mentioned a scripture in the Bible and it says something to the effect that a goal or desire isn’t always achieved because that person is the swiftest. Sometimes that happens because of time and chance. Timing and chance, certain things you can't predict.
We were dealing with a perfect storm of things that has allowed this moment to happen. It’s beyond us. To be in a moment where a pandemic is happening, and there's no sports, entertainment is restricted and people are not active in their homes, that makes an impact. To have social media and the age of technology, it allows people to see police murder on their phones in an instant. All that makes a difference. To have organizer's who have been cultivated over the past twenty years with people who have been organizing around uprisings that have happened in cities across America, that makes a difference. So what we really have is a moment where a pandemic, the age of technology and information, organizers organizing specifically around police murder for the past ten to twenty years, and engaging in uprisings has created a perfect storm for us to utilize a moment for change. I believe [this perfect storm has] changed the world in ways we haven't really seen before, certainly not in the United States of America.
BJ: You're living in the future in a sense. That sounds weird but it feels like the work that you're doing is way ahead of what a lot of people can even begin to grasp. I’m rooting for you.
AP: I appreciate that so much. I think what you said is accurate and really captures it well. We're living in the future. In a moment we could’ve never predicted, we always hoped for [this moment], and [now it] has come to fruition. Just like when you're starting a fire, you're hoping that it catches. We have kind of just been waiting and waiting and waiting. The moment that George Floyd was murdered we happened to be in the Midwest. I remember telling the team, ‘We are nine hours away, we need to drive to Minneapolis, we just gotta be there, we are too close.’ Did we think what happened would have happened? Of course not. But we were prepared to respond and be in solidarity with our people.
BJ: How do you deal with all of this heavy work emotionally?
AP: You know it's interesting, when I was in Minneapolis and family members would call me and ask if I was scared. What it feels like is what we've been waiting for. For me, it was the greatest feeling ever. I can understand how for other people it's still scary. For me, it was like, no accountability. It was like the greatest prize ever. Even though we've been working overtime times two, the moment has arrived. Tremendous opportunity for change is here and it's just deeply affirming. So it's been really great.
BJ: That's great to hear that it's not so emotionally overwhelming that you're going to the closet to cry.
AP: I think for folks who don't do the work, it is. I think also for folks who are newer to doing the work it's like that too. But I think the folks who have been doing the work for a long time understand how to pace yourself and have developed a routine for self-care. It's not that it isn't hard, but you've been made for the moment. For most folks in society, they're being forced into a new space and a new understanding of society which is very hard. Some folks are forced to catch up and it can be very traumatizing. But for the folks who have been doing this work, and for the younger people, children and folks probably 23 and under, it's feeling necessary.
BJ: Right. It’s no longer a burden, it’s something that is imperative to get done.
AP: It's a tremendous awakening. I think for some people when you've been asleep for so long, to wake up so quickly can be traumatizing. It can almost be deadly. For those who may not have been sleeping as long and are gradually being awakened to [this] moment, they can ease into it a little better.