It’s an all-too-familiar scene. An alienated young man named named Tyler Down approaches a school clad in black, strapped with guns and ammunition, and bent on cold-blooded mass murder. But unlike the tragedies making headlines across the United States, this shooting does not come to pass. Before he can act, some classmates learn of the plan. A friend instructs them to not call the police. Instead, he confronts Tyler directly, arguing that the senseless act will not make anything better. He tells the disturbed young man: “I don’t want you to die.”
At this, Tyler relents, and surrenders his weapons to his classmates, who promptly whisk him away before the police can arrive. His classmates see no point in turning him over to the prison system. If they did, one reasons, “then he’s expelled at least and probably in jail, and probably tried as an adult… so he’s in [juvenile detention] until he’s twenty-one, and then they send him to prison, and then what happens to him?” Instead, his friends work with him to build up his mental health and reintegrate him into the school’s social fabric, while organizing a complex network to monitor his behavior and ensure he does not plan another attack. Olivia Baker, whose daughter’s suicide defined the show’s first two seasons, cautions a student to steer clear of the police entirely, since they will only make matters worse. “They’re idiots,” she warns. “But they’re dangerous idiots.”
It’s a bold move even for the seasoned provocateurs of 13 Reasons Why, a high school drama that basks in controversy courted by frankly handling hot button issues like teen suicide, drug addiction, and sexual assault. The show’s decision for the high schoolers to handle serious issues amongst themselves is a common enough feature of teenage drama ranging from The Babysitter Club to A Nightmare on Elm Street. Effective teen drama emphasizes the waning power of parental authority and the painful necessity for young people to become ethical subjects in their own right, which often involves depicting parents and other adult authorities as absent or inept. The show’s decision to add a would-be school shooter to this classic equation, however, produced almost unanimous outcry from the Internet commentariat.
“Are we supposed to empathize with the school shooter?” exclaims the Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon. An exasperated Fallon wonders if “the fact that everyone around him seems to have moved on from the fact that he had planned to shoot up their school, [means] that the show is trying to humanize him? Or redeem him?” Vanity Fair’s Laura Bradley lists the incident as yet another “dangerous” instance of the show’s tendency “to seek justice by looking anywhere but the criminal justice system…” TV Guide’s Megan Vick similarly condemns the students who support their wayward friend, and help him, in her words, to “get away” — despite the fact he ended up changing his mind. “Their excuse,” she writes, “was that they didn’t want to see Tyler’s life end, either in bloodshed or behind bars. But what kind of message does this send viewers.? Adopting a more measured posture, De Elizabeth at Teen Vogue argues we should want to sympathize with the young man, “because of the trauma he’s experienced, yet the series’ attempt to humanize a school shooter doesn’t — and absolutely shouldn’t — sit well.” Connor Garel at Vice chides the show for ostensibly not supporting gun control legislation.
13 Reason’s Why’s dramatic near-miss outside Liberty High’s homecoming dance capped off the show’s second season back in May of 2018, when a scheduled premier party was cancelled after the shooting at Santa Fe High School claimed ten lives and left thirteen wounded. Season three, which debuted last August, came as the horror of indiscriminate mass shooting has reached a new height in the US — at least fifty-eight people died in mass shootings in that month alone — routinely claiming lives and devastating communities across the US. In response, police and federal agents have conducted a number of high-level preemptive arrests of suspects alleged to be planning a shooting, trumpeting a redoubled effort to catch mass shooters before they strike.
Even when they do not have guns, these suspects are arrested amid great fanfare, often publicly identified, and subsequently made anathema to their communities. While it’s an open question whether these arrests are becoming more common, as a largely supportive NPR piece suggests, or simply more widely publicized, the local and federal police undertaking these arrests have a clear stake in publicizing their own responses to justifiable public fears of mass shootings, while normalizing the use of police as a preemptive response.
A heavy-handed police response to just about any social problem is to be expected in the United States. Police groups, right-wing politicians, austerity-hungry capitalists, and their allies in the press — the “law and order” movement — have worked very hard for decades to ensure that police, courts, and jails are the only serious agents capable of responding to social issues like drug addiction, interpersonal violence, mental illness, and now the growing epidemic of mass shootings. These social actors have successfully pushed for the diversion of resources away from “welfare state” policies like public housing, employment, and education, and toward police and prisons, which they claim provide lasting safety.
The end game of this shift is over two million Americans locked in cages that do nothing to fix the problems that resulted in their incarceration in the first place. Meanwhile, there are upwards of four times that number in some stage of pre-trial or post-conviction supervision, which represent not an alternative but a pipeline to prison. Paradoxically, this behemoth “security state” has made working-class communities across the country no safer than they were before the country’s prison explosion. Instead, the state of social disorder which prisons and police are supposed to repress is only proliferating, and assuming ghastly forms like mass shootings. Clearly more fundamental problems are not being addressed.
If the law and order vision for a safe and just world has failed, you wouldn’t know it from watching TV. Hundreds of television channels bear images of heroic (if charmingly flawed) police, nefarious criminals, and the network of repressive institutions — station houses, courts, jails, and prisons — that form the only barrier between our imperfect society and pure chaos. Shows like Law and Order and CSI depict police as intrepid crime solvers, despite the reality that police only solve a small fraction of reported crimes. The “reality television” franchise Cops has churned out over a thousand episodes, and countless imitations, featuring police waxing philosophical as they boot down doors and otherwise behave like an occupying army on American soil, with the tacit approval of the show’s producers. More complex dramas like The Wire and True Detective, which portray police as morally ambiguous sad boys, also end up justifying their wrongdoings by pointing to the greater social evils to which cops respond.
In short, the law and order movement’s mission to make 911 the only conceivable phone number to call in moments of social crisis finds little challenge in popular culture. By departing from this narrative, 13 Reasons Why has enraged its critics, and has — perhaps unwittingly — given voice to an alternative view of crime, punishment, and safety, known as abolitionism.
Abolitionists do not discount the reality of antisocial and violent behavior in daily life. Activist-scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore makes a point to tell audiences she does not believe most people are in jail for nonviolent drug offenses, a mistaken belief sometimes attributed to abolitionists. Having lost a loved one to violence, Gilmore notes, she does not dismiss the seriousness of many of the acts that have landed people behind bars. Gilmore also argues that incarceration does not make the community affected by violence any safer or better off. Abolitionist Beth Richie draws from twenty-five years of anti-violence activism to argue that the law and order crackdown on violence against women had the effect of further destabilizing communities of color, and further criminalizing black women who do not fit the model of “innocent” victim. Similarly, policing scholar Alex Vitale examines the disastrous impact of the rise of policing as a response to the problems of homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness, and other areas where funding has been shifted away from civilian social programs and toward violent police.
From an abolitionist perspective, police and prisons are a cause of social disorder, not just a response to it. The cause is the structural inequality of our structurally racist capitalist society. Accordingly abolitionists argue that effective solutions to social crisis do not come from violently regulating daily life by adding more police, or locking people away in miserable prisons from which they will emerge in worse shape than the entered — if they’re allowed to emerge at all. From an abolitionist perspective, there can be no prison or police in a truly just world, nor can there be justice in a society based on inequality of wealth and power. Instead, abolitionists advocate building healthy communities where the poverty, misery, and alienation that underlies violence can be mitigated, while overturning capitalist society to produce a world that values every life equally.
This means people who do bad things can be held accountable in a way that considers a full social picture — ranging from the needs of the victim, to the perpetrator, to the shared community of which they are a part. Above all, from an abolitionist perspective, there is nothing scandalous about “humanizing” a person who has attempted, or even committed a harmful or even a seemingly monstrous act, which offended many critics of 13 Reasons Why. They are, after all, humans.
The fictitious Liberty High School of 13 Reasons Why is of course not the ideal setting for an abolitionist allegory. The show chronicles the kind of largely white, relatively affluent, and distinctively suburban environment typically most insulated from the ravages of mass incarceration — though notably not spared the catastrophe of school shootings. The show dedicates disproportionate attention to white men, who are already likely to be given a second chance in the eyes of the law. More broadly, the show has been regularly accused of clumsily handling its subject matter, such that keeping track of its various sins against social justice orthodoxy has become something of a spectator sport, with entire tallies dedicated to parceling its content into the binary “woke” and “problematic.” And as critic Laura Jane Turner writes, “there are more than 13 reasons as to why the show is often seen as problematic.”
Yet, if we move beyond the mechanical desire to dole out praise and blame to pop culture artifacts, the turn to abolitionist themes on a largely white suburban television show reveals an interesting truth about our current political moment. Two phenomena the show explores — the opioid crisis, and mass shootings — represent the intrusion into “white flight” suburbs of the problems traditionally associated with the racialized “inner city.” As my friend Zhana Kurti often points out, drug addiction and gun violence, while never completely foreign to the white suburbs, are now reaching epidemic levels in white America. This shift is in turn undercutting the “tough on crime” approach that has characterized the state’s response to these problems in black and brown America. An abolitionist perspective would take seriously the structural racism inherent in this double standard, but would also reject the liberal law and order demand of equally harsh treatment for everyone regardless of race. Instead, the newfound distaste for law and order among a growing strata of white Americans can be the cause for challenging structural racism in the justice system, and demanding equal compassion for everyone.
Moreover, Tyler’s storyline is not the only controversial flirtation with redemption the show undertakes in season three. Perhaps more provocatively, the show explores the redemption of a previous archvillain — the privileged, smug, serial rapist Bryce Walker, a not-so-subtle doppelganger of real-life Stanford rapist Brock Turner. Having made Walker the ultimate unlikable character, 13 Reasons Why reverses course in season three and undertakes the almost impossible task of exploring how he can be brought back into society. While Walker’s survivors like Jessica Davis attempt to piece their lives together, Walker lurks in the fringes of Liberty’s social world as a pariah. Can he ever make amends to those he has harmed? Can he change? What are we to do with the Bryce Walkers of the world? Importantly, the show does not answer these questions in a conclusive way, which is the most honest answer possible. The possibility of Walker’s redemption is cut short by a midseason plot twist that presents a whole new set of deep ethical questions, while simultaneously examining the long-term impact of retribution on those who carry it out and justify it. These questions will surely animate the show’s fourth and final season.
The solutions to these problems do not derive from theories of crime or think pieces on the Internet, but experimentation with doing accountability and justice outside the law and order status quo. If such experimentation is currently foreclosed by the tight grip police and prisons hold on managing our society’s descent into barbarism and environmental disaster, odd cultural moments like the emergence of an abolitionist plot line in 13 Reasons Why demonstrates a growing yearning to escape the dead end of law and order and begin to face the tough questions underneath the boot of repression. Indeed, the legitimacy of policing and prisons as a means of managing social life has come under serious doubt thanks to social movements like #BlackLivesMatter, as well as the changing demographics of the populations most impacted by drugs and gun violence, and a general distaste for the mounting costs and human carnage of mass incarceration and police violence.
By breaking with the powerful law and order consensus, 13 Reasons Why has demonstrated a kind of everyday abolitionism which I recently discussed with veteran abolitionist Pilar Maschi. Maschi told “there are abolitionists all around us,” meaning that if we are willing to look past what people say and look instead at their deeds and desires, the striving for liberation from a society that necessitates police and prisons can be found in surprising places. And for those of us who believe another world is possible, such everyday striving, no matter how imperfect, should be identified and encouraged wherever it arises, whether in an imperfect mass movement, outré popular culture artifacts, or the messy and contradictory business of our day-to-day lives. After all, the notion that all people should be able to live dignified and empowered lives outside the meshes of a repressive state should not be controversial. But it is. So here is where we start.