Apr 23, 2021

Abolishing the police, with Alex Vitale

Abolishing the police, with Alex Vitale

A conversation with a police abolitionist.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is a subscribers-only edition of Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can do that by clicking here.

Last week, after writing about police violence and police reforms, I received a lot of criticism from readers for not including a deeper look at the police abolitionist movement.

Shortly after that criticism came in, I began reaching out to some of the most well-known advocates for abolishing the police in America: Mariame Kaba, Jamiles Lartey, Jenn Jackson and Martin Sheeks, among a few others. A couple responded, but only one took me up on the opportunity to sit down for an interview this week — and it was, to my delight, one of the better known names in this space: Alex Vitale.

His book, The End of Policing, is considered an essential read on abolishing the police. I read it last year after a Tangle reader mailed it to me, and I found myself quite moved by the compelling arguments he made. There are a few quotes that could sum up Alex’s view neatly, but the one most often shared from the book — and the one that lives on the cover of the book — is this:

"The problem is not police training, police diversity, or police methods. The problem is the dramatic and unprecedented expansion and intensity of policing in the last 40 years, a fundamental shift in the role of police in society. The problem is policing itself.”

On Thursday afternoon, Alex and I sat down for a Zoom chat to discuss the abolitionist movement and his book. It allowed me to prod him about some of my reservations and get some clarity on his views. It should be obvious, but bears saying, that Vitale is one person in a large group of professors, criminologists, activists and politicians who are pushing to abolish the police — but the specific positions he takes in our conversation are his alone.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length and, in places where I thought additional context was important, I’ve noted them with an asterisk*.

Isaac Saul: There are so many places we could start. Obviously, police reform is a huge issue in America right now. It's at the front of everybody's mind with the Derek Chauvin case. I read your book last year, which I enjoyed a lot, and I recommend it to anybody who's interested in the case for abolishing the police. I found it really compelling despite going into it being sort of pre-biased to the opposite side* and I definitely want to talk about it. But one thing I don't really know about you or your work that I'd love to start with is just how you got into this. I mean, what was your path that sort of led you to the positions that you're advocating for today?

*I want to amend this to note that I am not really the “opposite” of Alex, and it’s disingenuous to say so. I went into his book already believing similar reforms that he advocates are needed, but I was much more skeptical of the “abolish the police” or “defund the police” movement before reading his work.

Alex Vitale: What could possibly explain this, right? [Laughs] So, I actually went to college with an interest in urban affairs and was looking at things like community housing development programs, and urban enterprise zones and things like that. And I moved to California in the late 80s, and got a job working in housing and economic development policy for the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness.

It was during that period that we began to see this big ramping up of the criminalization of homelessness. The city of San Francisco, like a lot of cities across the country during this period, had basically given up on the idea that they were going to house people and instead turned it into a criminal justice matter, turned it over to the police and then the police began to start ticketing people, breaking up encampments, harassing people, driving people into the jail system, etc.

And this kind of forced me to think about the connection between criminalization and different strategies of economic development. It basically led me to the understanding that the city had invested itself in this strategy of subsidizing high finance and corporate headquarters very much like New York did and that decision made the city more competitive globally. But it also required all kinds of tax breaks and incentives that bankrupted the city and forced them to cut social services. And the result is widespread homelessness, untreated mental health and substance abuse problems, failed schools. And then this gets turned over to police. And so I get pulled more and more into thinking about the centrality of policing to our understandings about the economic and political future of cities.

Isaac Saul: In your book, one of the most compelling sections of it to me was about this very issue. It was about comparing the different ways certain municipalities and cities have handled homelessness. It's sort of a common sense thing, if you stop to think about it, that if you send police out to arrest people who are having mental health issues or facing drug addiction and living on the streets, that's not really a great way to get them help. It just throws them into the court system. They go in debt because they have tickets and fines. I'm curious, are you seeing anywhere in the U.S. where people are solving for this problem in a way that you hope they would? I mean, are there programs out there that are working right now to address this without police?

Alex Vitale: Yes, I think the best thing to look at our cities that are using various forms of what we call a housing first approach. This is the idea that we should not be focused on emergency shelters, transitional housing, all kinds of therapeutic interventions, much less criminalization. We just need to put people into housing. And yes, some of these folks have mental health problems, substance abuse problems, etc. So we need to put in place support services to help people maintain that housing.

But the system we have in a lot of places right now is that people are told, “Well, first you have to be clean and sober, then you have to be on your meds. Then you have to go to this training program. Then you have to show up at 8:00 a.m. every day for a month, and then we'll give you a temporary room. And then, if you make any mistake, then we bump you back down to the bottom of the list.”

And therefore people never get to any housing. Instead, put them in the housing, whatever shape they're in, and then stabilize them.

The problem is cities don't want to do this because they don't want to really intervene into housing markets, they don't want to start building housing. They don't want to pay for the production of low-cost housing, so they create this sort of pointless, social services archipelago that manages people, but never really helps them in their homelessness.

Isaac Saul: So there's a ton of debate outside of the homelessness issue about the defund the police, or the abolish the police movement. I'm a politics reporter. I write a political newsletter. So often I'm discussing this through a political lens, which is very often related to optics and messaging. And I hear moderate Democrats say, “oh no, we don't want to abolish the police or to fund them. We want to reallocate! We want to reform!” And then I hear activists say, “no, we mean abolish the police. We are working towards a future without police.” And then conservatives use that as a hammer to kind of bludgeon the left. “Look at these radicals, they want to abolish the police. They're telling us they want to abolish the police.”

I'm not asking you to speak for anyone but yourself here, but I'm wondering if maybe you could articulate for me: What is your position? What is it that you want?

Alex Vitale: I'm not so interested in these litmus tests of language. If an elected official wants to take money out of the police budget and use it to create supportive housing as they just did in Austin, I'm all for that and I don't need it to be labeled as “defund the police” or “police abolition.” And I don't use that language in the book. Neither the defund language or abolition language, because I think we need to have different strategies talking to different populations of people.

For me, what abolition means is it's an analysis. It says, “Look, policing is about the mobilization of violence workers.” Because that's what distinguishes police from other government workers. It’s that authorization and capacity to use violence. That's what undergirds police authority. It’s that that's inherently dangerous and problematic for some democratic societies and that policing should always be the tool of absolute last resort.

It has been used historically and even contemporarily to reproduce inequality, primarily along lines of race as well as class and sometimes gender and sexuality. And so what it means to me is that we are demanding that the state do everything it can to avoid the use of police. To the extent that we can't figure that out, then maybe we need some violence workers to handle some very small number of things. But when we look closely at what police actually do, it has very little to do with violence or serious crime.

They're chasing homeless people around and patrolling school hallways and dealing with mental health crisis calls and waging the war on drugs and they just shouldn't be doing any of those things. And that analysis helps us to avoid the mistake of thinking that we can fix the violence and racial disparities of policing with things like implicit bias training or body cameras, when the problem is built into the mission of policing and what we need to be doing is rethinking the mission of policing.

Isaac Saul: I’m interested in hearing how we know that this sort of day-to-day policing is as you describe it. I guess maybe there is an entryway here for me to express my concern about the abolish the police movement. I'll tell a very quick personal story. I've been the victim of a crime that I would think police would want to address. I was at home in college at the University of Pittsburgh and somebody broke into my house. I was there, they didn't think anybody was home, but it was an armed robbery that I came downstairs in my towel for, and there was this guy with a crowbar tearing open my door frame about to break into the house.

And I panicked, and I did what most people do: I called 911 and had a screaming match with the guy and held the door shut and he ran away. And the cops come and you know, I'm a person who felt safer in that moment that I could pick up my phone and dial 911 to get help. And again, everything you're saying makes sense. I found your book extremely compelling about the long-term outcomes of this. But how do we get from where I am in that moment to the future that you want for the cities and the country as a whole? Because I also feel a little scared about a world where I don't have that resource to go to in that moment to protect myself.

Alex Vitale: So first of all, did the existence of police prevent that guy from trying to break into your home?

Isaac Saul: No [laughs].

Alex Vitale: No. Did the police arrive in time to catch the guy?

Isaac Saul: No, they did not.

Alex Vitale: Okay. So let's not overstate what the police actually do. They may make you feel better, but they did not solve that problem for you. And this is the way most people experience policing. Policing is what happens after harms have already occurred and then police sometimes make those harms worse for people. We hear constantly from victims of crime, domestic disputes, etc., that the police came and made it worse. Like the case we just had in Ohio, where the girl calls and says there's a fight. I'm feeling jeopardized, she has a knife, she's using it to protect herself, and the police come and kill her.*

So that didn't exactly work out the way that we think that policing works. And yet this is actually quite common. Now, this is not the whole answer, right? What are we doing to prevent this kind of crime from happening? One of the things we know about these kinds of burglaries is that they are driven overwhelmingly by the desire to get money for drugs. This is what's motivating a massive percentage of household burglaries. And these are folks who are desperate because they can only get drugs on the black market at highly inflated prices with a lot of danger to themselves and others. So we need a complete rethink on the war on drugs. We need to look at schemes for legal distribution of drugs to people who are addicted to opioids. When this has been done in the past, it has a dramatic effect [in] reducing this kind of property crime.

So let's look at what's really driving this kind of scary, dangerous, property crime and actually try to address that. Because policing, it turns out, is actually not that effective. The vast majority of burglaries are never even reported to the police, very few are solved. Very few are even investigated, really.

And it turns out that the amount of money that it takes us to incarcerate people for burglary is greater than the value of all goods stolen in burglaries across the United States. So it's just not a very efficient or effective system.

*The context and details around the Ma’khia Bryant shooting are still emerging. For a different take from Alex’s, you can read David French’s defense of the police officer involved. The Washington Post has reported on the shooting here.

Isaac Saul: From reading your book, it strikes me that you make a lot of data, research, study-based arguments around the cost of policing. That's a great example, that the cheaper alternative would be to go after these root causes. I know this answer is maybe as obvious as I think it is — which is just bad politics — but why aren't cities making the choice to go your route? I mean, what's the holdup? If we know that we can reduce violence, reduce drug use, reduce homelessness… if you're the mayor of New York, then that's a no-brainer. If you could cut violence and homelessness and drug use in New York City, you would be the most popular mayor ever. So why isn't Bill de Blasio taking your route if he's got a team of experts who all are looking at different research that you're looking at, why do they seem to think that having police on the streets is the solution?

Alex Vitale: Well, some cities are starting to figure this out and that's why we're hearing this discourse in places like, Ithaca, New York. And in Minneapolis, where they're like, “well, maybe we shouldn't turn this whole thing over to police. Maybe we should reconceptualize it and begin to engage in these investments in other strategies.” I think the resistance is partly ideological, which is this idea that all local government can do in the face of global competition is subsidize the already rich, which is rooted in this kind of market centered ideology that says that government can’t intervene in markets. We just have to let the markets do what they want to do and we can just tinker at the margins. And so what de Blasio has said about housing is “well, all we could possibly do is create some incentives for new developers to include a few somewhat affordable units in their new developments in return, for getting permits and land use rights.”

This is very different than the strategy that the city pursued during the 1930s during the depression. The city said, “oh, we have a housing crisis. We're going to go and build housing for tens of thousands of people.”

And that idea is completely off the political radar right now. No one is willing to even talk about it. It's just inconceivable, but that is in fact what's needed. The free market is not capable of producing housing for millions of Americans and so millions of Americans are homeless.* And the only real way to do this is either to radically expand incomes at the bottom of the income distribution or build massive amounts of public housing through community-based organizations. We should do it in a smart way that reduces potential harmful impacts on communities, that doesn't create pockets of entrenched poverty, that links people to employment through decent transit corridors and all the rest, but right now no mayor in the in a big city in the U.S. is willing to even contemplate getting into the building of massive amounts of public housing.

*On any given night, there are an estimated 550,000 Americans experiencing homelessness.

Isaac Saul: So maybe housing is your answer to this question, but there are a lot of proposed reforms to address some of these issues not just around police violence, but around the root causes of why police are interacting with citizens: abolishing qualified immunity, national data sharing on police misconduct, eliminating traffic stops and eliminating police interactions with homeless. If you could pick a reform or two to go after in a city like New York, what would you prioritize? In the real world application of this, to me, it strikes me that we probably have to do this piecemeal if we're going to do it. And I'm interested in where your priorities would lie.

Alex Vitale: Well, I think you're absolutely right. It has to happen piecemeal. Despite the rhetoric around Minneapolis, no city is going to completely transform this overnight. So for me, I think the obvious low-hanging fruit is to get police out of the mental health business. Between a quarter and a half of all people killed by police in the United States are having a mental health crisis. And so we need to create community-based mental health services, which may mean increasing taxes in addition to cutting police budgets. And we also have to create non-police crisis response teams.

And that's what a growing number of cities are doing from Oakland to Los Angeles to Denver to Albuquerque to Austin to Portland, Oregon. They're all trying to get police out of the mental health business. We're running a pilot program here in Upper Manhattan in New York. I think they've made some mistakes in the way they've organized it, and advocates have some concerns about the model they are using, but this general idea needs to move forward.

The other thing is I think we’ve got to get the police out of the schools. This has been a total disaster. The research shows it's not making kids any safer. We have over 5,000 NYPD personnel attached to New York City Schools, which is more than all counselors of all varieties combined.* So we’ve got kids going to school with no school nurse, no counselor, but hallways filled with school police.

And so we need to replace them with counselors and high quality after-school care and support services for kids in crisis. And this is going to free up hundreds of millions of dollars that could be spent to provide better services. Instead of criminalizing our young people.

*This statistic shocked me. So I looked it up. Not only is it true, but it’s actually not very close — the combined number of guidance counselors and social workers is less than 4,000.

Isaac Saul: Yeah, that was a part of your book that shocked me. I mean, I have read a ton about the issues with the “school resource officers” that exist in public schools in inner-city areas. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. We had a school officer that was sort of like, a D.A.R.E.* type cop in high school. But I had a high school that was 4,000 students. So, I barely ever saw him. In your book, you talk about the origins of this and how it's impacted kids. Maybe you could give our readers a breakdown of how that happened and what the impact has been, from your perspective, because that was something that I didn't know a ton about before I read your book.

Alex Vitale: So there was an early wave of school policing that begins in the 50s and 60s that is focused on trying to create respect for authority among young people. And so there was a certain amount of juvenile “delinquency and crime.” Some gang activity and some violence. And so what they said is, well, we're going to put police in elementary schools — not because there was any crime in elementary schools, but this was going to be the way to teach kids to have respect for Officer Friendly.

And so that produced this idea of “let's put a police officer here, a police officer there,” have them be friendly to the kids, and that way they'll have a better attitude about police and law and order. And we'll do these D.A.R.E. programs. And so none of this is about improving public safety. D.A.R.E., for instance, every single study ever done shows that it doesn't work. It can actually increase drug use among kids. But they do it because the whole point is to teach respect for authority.

Now in the 90s, school policing explodes. And it explodes in relationship to three changes that are going on.

One is the rise of the “super predator” myth. And this idea that there's going to be this wave of juvenile sociopaths who were just going to kill each other in the halls. This was totally spurious research based on cooked up data. It was completely inaccurate. Every year after these predictions were made, youth crime actually fell. But it fit a narrative that was very politically popular at the time, which said that the problems in urban America are not deindustrialization, austerity, infrastructure collapse, white flight. No, the problem is sociopathic Black and brown young people. Moral failure. And so what we need to do is lock these kids away as quickly and [for] as long as possible.

The second factor was “school reforms,” which was really about papering over the budget cutting of schools and the defunding of schools. So they say, “Look we can defund the schools as long as we focus on the essential tasks: reading, writing, arithmetic. And we're going to do that through high-stakes testing, rote learning and we're going to eliminate all the extracurriculars and support services. And we're going to put in place a zero-tolerance disciplinary system.”

So this is the so-called Texas miracle, all that leads to No Child Left Behind. And what it turns out happens is that test scores in some places go up not because students are smarter but because what they've done is they've driven the low-performing students out of the schools and into either the criminal legal system or alternative schools that aren’t included in the testing regime. And this is exactly what happened in Texas. They faked test score numbers to make it look like it was working. When really what they were doing was throwing away the lives of 20 percent of all the students in the public school system.

The third factor that's happening here is the Columbine shooting, which happens in the 90s and terrifies a lot of people, despite the fact that there were school police at Columbine that day. And it made no difference. Just as there were school police at Parkland High School in Florida and it made no difference there either. But this fear created a lot of political space to say the problems of schools are about violence and young people being out of control.

Not [about] not enough teachers, overflowing classes, no support services. So this engendered another round of school police expanding at the federal and state and local level. And that's really what got us into this mess.

Isaac Saul: Obviously, this week, the Derek Chauvin trial happened. I write in my newsletter the left’s take, the right’s take and then my perspective, and I had taken a pretty hard stance on this, before the verdict came down, that it was clear to me charges needed to be brought. I watched a lot of the trial and I found the prosecution far more compelling than the defense. Once it did come down, there was sort of this interesting mix of reactions in the political and advocacy space.

There were some people saying “this is the bare minimum,” and this was sort of the perspective that I felt, which was like — we watched a cop kill somebody in a 10 minute video. His police chief testified against him, experts examining the use of force testified against, all these witnesses testified against him, and he got prosecuted. Great. This is the least we could do.

Then there were other people who are like “this is sort of a watershed moment in the fight against police violence. It's setting a precedent for police. It sends a message to officers across the country.” I'm interested, what was your perspective on this? I mean, is it going to change anything? Do you think there's momentum being built for these kinds of reforms because of a ruling like this? How does it move the space that you're operating in?

Alex Vitale: Well, I think that first we should understand the guilty verdict as being the result, in large part, of the intensity of the movement and the anger in the country. You mention how vigorous the prosecution was, how many officers were involved in testifying against Chauvin. That is extremely rare. What we generally see in these cases is the prosecutor refusing to bring charges, intentionally subverting the prosecution by muddying the waters in all kinds of ways, and the police closing ranks behind the accused officer and then a finding of not guilty.

The other thing is that in the rare cases where someone is found guilty, it usually is because the department decides they want to get rid of this person for political reasons or whatever — nothing changes. And we're already seeing in the wake of this case unions and other bodies saying “see, the system worked. We had a bad apple. We convicted him. We got rid of him and now we can go back to waging a war on drugs, a war on gangs, vice rates and all the rest.” And so nothing really changes as a result of it.

Now, maybe if out of the thousand-plus police killings a year, maybe if we had someone convicted and sent to prison every day, which would be in a third of cases. Or even once a week, right? Which would be in about one-twentieth of the cases, then maybe we could say “oh, something has really changed here. We're in a completely different space,” you know? But we're not in that space. I don't think many people in the movement expected that this verdict would have some effect on the nature of policing. I think they just felt it was a bare minimum, and that the real focus is on these budget battles, trying to reduce the scope and intensity of policing, that's where the real action is.

And that's where the real organizing is, the people showing up to budget hearings, lobbying city council members. The idea that we're going to reform police through body cameras and putting a few more cops in prison — I don't think that holds water with people anymore. And that's why the signs last summer said “defund the police” and not “put killer cops in jail.” Because people have tried that and they don't think it's going to help.

Isaac Saul: One of the things I struggle with and a trap I fall into is that I find myself often more prone to criticizing the kind of really far-left rhetoric, you know, the “all cops are bastards.” You watch some of the street protests and you see people sort of advocating that every police officer is a horrible, violent, racist person and that there's something inherent about their work that makes them that way. Aside from the argument of whether that's true or not, I just struggle with it because I know police officers.

I have friends who are cops and I have this knee-jerk, defensive reaction for them, where even despite being an advocate for police reform I end up criticizing people who I might otherwise agree with because of the rhetoric around it. And I’m wondering how we navigate that in the police reform and the police abolition movements.

Alex Vitale: Well, you know, the street protests are the reason that we’re here today having these conversations. They've been essential in forcing the public conversation about these issues, but they're not the only expression of the movement. There's all the work that's happening in neighborhoods that involves real organizing among folks who have to struggle with both insecurity and over policing. So I think we have to try to balance the rhetoric we get from the streets with what people who are really engaged in the organizing in the communities are saying. I think they both want ultimately the same things, which is to replace policing with better strategies, but they are going to maybe use different rhetorical tactics in their efforts to achieve that.

Isaac Saul: Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, there's been a lot of debate about where violent crime stands and where it's going in the United States. And I think the standard narrative is that we had this spike in violent crime in the 90s and we saw certain reforms or laws passed. And we saw the spike in crime come down. There's a lot of interesting literature out there about how that was sort of a global trend and not something that was just happening in the United States.

During the pandemic, I think a narrative is forming, especially from the right, that the police pulled back in the wake of a lot of these defund the police movements. And we saw violent crime go up as a result and that has sort of been paired with other research from all sorts of criminologists and economists who say that the presence of police in cities — the physical presence of them being there — prevents crime from happening. It reduces crime rates. I'm interested in what your reaction is to that narrative, what you've been seeing during the pandemic and over the last year?

Alex Vitale: This is just nonsense. It's politically motivated nonsense. It's clear that the increase in crime is tied to the pandemic, that people are in very desperate circumstances, have extremely high levels of anxiety, economic insecurity, mental health stressors and all the rest. This claim that police have pulled back has been disputed by police leaders across the country. Here in New York state, Shea* said we are doing everything we can 24 hours a day to stop this violence and it's not working. What we're doing is not working. There is no pull back. We are going full tilt ahead to stop this and it's having no effect.

And I think that's the reality here. So this idea that somehow because Bill Bratton one day said, let's arrest more homeless people, that the entire Western world enjoyed a 30-year long crime decline, is of course utter nonsense. And frankly, these studies that claim to show, well, we put a few more police on the street one day and there were three less car break-ins, therefore we must have policing on every street corner, is also nonsense.

If we disappeared all police tomorrow, would that cause problems? I'm sure it would! But that's not what anyone is calling for who's actually doing this work. What we're talking about is systematically replacing policing with better interventions. And we do that over time. We test things, we evaluate things. We look at the evidence and then we try new things and we keep advancing this process. But this idea that police are the only possible strategy for producing safety is just utter nonsense, and entirely politically motivated.

*Dermot F. Shea is the New York City Police Commissioner.

Isaac Saul: I really do feel myself moving on this issue into your camp, the Alex Vitale camp, and I am curious… You teach in Brooklyn, you're a New York-based guy. Do you have the ear of police department officials? Are politicians listening to you? Is this a consideration the NYPD is making? Where are we in this?

Alex Vitale: These are somewhat separate questions. So, sure, I know folks at One Police Plaza* and I've had conversations over the years with a lot of the police leadership, but I'm not really talking to them. They did not create the War on Drugs. They did not decide to defund mental health services. They did not pull the counselors out of the schools. These are all problems that were created by politicians and then put in the lap of the police. And a lot of police don't want to be in charge of these things. But it's not their call. This is a political problem.

So do I have the ear of politicians? Increasingly. And a lot of candidates in this year's upcoming election have approached me and I've spent a lot of time meeting with them, reviewing their websites and their campaign literature and their comprehensive plans on public safety, and I'm very happy to have the opportunity to do that. And I think that we're going to see some shifts in the politics of New York City after this new city council is elected, because there's a big change in mindset.

What we have now is a lot of folks who have capitulated to this idea that there's nothing they can do but send the police and then they don't want to hear about reducing the police because that's what they've told their constituents is the only thing they can have. And then there’s a new generation that's like, “oh, we have a youth violence problem. Well, why don't we start investing in our youth? Why don't we create community-based violence interruption programs? Why don't we put counselors in the hospitals to work with young people so that they don't become the next generation of offenders?”

We have real ideas about how to break the cycle of this violence and it just requires a different political mindset that says that government can actually do something positive here, and not just be a mechanism for pushing wealth up the economic ladder.

*One Police Plaza is the NYPD headquarters.

Isaac Saul: Alex Vitale, thank you so much for your time today. If people want to learn more about this issue, engage in this debate, where do you suggest they go? Where can they follow your work?

Alex Vitale: Well, I'm on Twitter @AVitale — And Verso Books, the publisher of the book [The End of Policing], has made the ebook a free download in response to this current round of interest and movement around the issue. So there's no excuse now.

Isaac Saul: Alex, thank you so much for the time, I really appreciate it. And let's keep in touch, would love to chat with you more sometime in the future.

Alex Vitale: You bet Isaac.

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