Social Insurgency and Law Reform

Posted: 13 Mar 2024 Last revised: 23 Apr 2024

See all articles by Amna A. Akbar

Amna A. Akbar

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law

Date Written: February 28, 2024


A decade of social insurgency—racial justice protest, abolitionist organizing, and spontaneous mass action—has created the conditions of possibility for shifts in our recognition of the violence of policing and the need for alternative forms of state and community capacity. In this Article, I argue the social insurgency has fueled a series of significant yet contradictory responses by the state: increased policing and criminalization and the enactment of a great deal of police reform. These contradictory responses reflect not the futility of social insurgencies, but the messy, non-linear dynamics of social change. To make this argument, I theorize social insurgency and spontaneous mass action, and I undertake the first effort to chronicle the range of police reform efforts that have made headway within the context of the social insurgency: reforms familiar for decades within legal scholarship, as well as a whole range of abolitionist-oriented reforms: cutting police budgets, funding alternatives to police, shutting down jails and detention centers, and removing police from public school districts, for example. Social insurgency opened pathways and created constituencies for social change that did not exist before.

Protests against the carceral state have produced a shapeshifting of police, prisons, and the carceral state that was almost inconceivable the decade prior. The social insurgency has focused attention on the legitimacy of racialized policing, incarceration, and criminalization. In turn, social movements have asked whether “public safety” is served by police, prisons, and jails, and whether there are alternative ways to build a safe society. New possibilities are open even as stubborn structures of power endure.

However unsatisfying the results thus far might be—and they undoubtedly are, for anyone who sees our system of mass imprisonment and policing as fundamentally cruel and unjust—even this was the product of social insurgency sustained over time. Most of the reforms enacted are not those activists and organizers called for. We might disagree about the depth or quality of particular reforms, like some and dislike others. We might disagree about the substance and durability of the reforms. But if we cannot see what happened, we will have missed important lessons about how social change happens, and what the struggle against the carceral state will require.

Keywords: social insurgency, social movements, law reform, Black Lives Matter, George Floyd rebellion, reform and retrenchment, non-reformist reforms, police reform, criminal justice, prison abolition, defund the police

Suggested Citation

Akbar, Amna A., Social Insurgency and Law Reform (February 28, 2024). Ohio State Legal Studies Research Paper No. 846, Available at SSRN:

Amna A. Akbar (Contact Author)

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law ( email )

55 West 12th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210
United States

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