From Defund to Abolish: Moving Beyond the Police

Police violence against minorities is a long recorded problem in the United States. The roots of policing in America can be traced back to Southern slave catchers returning the enslaved back to their “masters” and anti-immigrant Northerners criminalizing the cultures of new migrants. As time passed, these reactionary groups evolved into the formal institutions of authority from which the American judicial system would be built. This worldview would not only be expressed through the actions of those often-mentioned “bad apples” on the force, but also in the laws that were written to further justify the oppression of minority communities. This system of racial abuse has only expanded with time, avoiding substantive reconciliation with its past.

However, the Black Lives Matter movement has brought us closer to reckoning with this broken legacy than we’ve ever been before. A near decade of organizing came to head  over the summer of 2020, organically producing “Defund the Police” as both a rallying cry and a direct demand. While some people adamantly oppose the phrase, its intention or both, it has become one of the most impactful demands in contemporary American activism.

The expression made headway over the summer in reaction to continued police brutality and extrajudicial murders of unarmed Black Americans. You may have seen it online or heard it chanted it in the streets; either way, most Americans are now acutely aware that defunding the police is a primary demand of the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests from which the demand emerged saw a tangible boost in numbers and intensity — sparking excessive backlash from police which, in many cases, resulted in violence. Every major city and state witnessed a flood of people pouring into the streets to stand in solidarity with the protesters and against the police. Engaged activists and leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement determined that it was not enough to just protest: we must adamantly demand specific material goals while doing so. Previous attempts to reform the police have proved largely unsuccessful — in turn, activists have questioned whether an institution endowed in white supremacy is worth salvaging at all.

Defund the Police is basic in concept: reduce the monumental budgets of police departments across the country and redistribute those funds toward already underfunded social services such as housing, education, mental health care, employment assistance, etc. We’ve all been exposed to hundreds of disturbing videos in which police abuse their power and react with unnecessary lethal force. In many cases, the police never should have been called in the first place or even ended up in the wrong location — and, upon their arrival, subsequently murdered innocent people with impunity. In fiscal year 2019, police departments cost taxpayers $300 million in misconduct settlements. Rather than continuing to funnel money into police budgets, which is inevitably used to pay out large sums to families who have suffered from police violence and to militarize local departments, supporters of defunding the police advocate for addressing societal issues by meeting the general needs of public safety and welfare within a community — thus reducing the drive to commit crimes in the first place.

Despite illustrating a compelling goal and garnering wide appeal, the phrasing attracted bitter backlash. You’ve likely heard the excuse that it's too radical to attract moderate support and that the language is misleading. On the contrary, the demand is extremely clearer – it is tied to an explicit policy goal rooted in the ultimate goal of a civil society – to reduce harm and hardship across the population. It avoids the trappings of other protest movements by tying outrage against the system and the organizing efforts it fruits to a clear and consistent demand. This helps ward off appropriation or loss of focus that all too often douses the initial fire that prompts popular movements and uprisings.

Moreover, it is not the responsibility of the left to mollify the emotional apprehensions of moderates when it comes to attaining justice. Rather, it would behoove activists to focus and elucidate the road ahead: the path to police abolition. Defund the Police does not mean abolish the police; however, this movement can serve as a stepping-stone toward the eventual goal of police abolition.

Right now, our mechanism for justice is entirely reactive; or, as David K — a student of police abolition who organizes political education work for the Metro DC Democratic Socialists — explains, “wait until something bad happens to you and then we’ll spring into action … policing is a knee jerk solution to societal problems.”

“I don’t want to wait, I want the material conditions around me to change so that I don’t have to constantly worry,” David continues. In the wake of the protests, David took part in a series of Metro DC DSA socialist night school sessions that focused on defunding and abolishing the police. “[The idea of] Defund is great because it brings people together even if they’re not abolitionists,” he points out. “People realize money is power — and any effort to cut the police budget is an attempt to attack power.”

Rather than passively accept police hegemony, David insists that now is the time to politicize the issue of defunding the police with your local representatives. The Defund Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) working group in Metro DC DSA has already rolled out preemptive measures like “power-mapping” to prepare for the opposition ahead. In short, power-mapping research helps activists determine where political relationships lie and how they are connected to various community stakeholders and key players to influence the city’s budget. In David’s words, “it is used to understand the terrain on which the fight will occur.” Power-mapping underlines the complex power dynamics of the city's government and helps discern which paths are worth pursuing.

In some cases, drawing lines on a physical (or digital) map between political power players can help activists contextualize the nuances of integral community relationships. For example, if you’re aware that the mayor of your town has political or monetary connections to certain entities, or if they have a working relationship with particular community leaders, you can more easily navigate those connections by placing pressure on those within the mayor’s purview to adopt defunding the police as a policy measure. This is your direct line of transparency to your community’s budgetary process. It is also one of several ways to gain political advantage over those who misuse public funds for nefarious purposes. Every politician has a network of advisers that can be leveraged through coordinated activist disruptions. Community leaders should serve the will of the people — not the profits of the upper class.

When asked about the criticisms of the verbiage of Defund the Police, David resolves, “people criticize the language of the slogan because they want language that’s agreeable. Just because you’re explaining doesn't mean you’re losing — people asking questions can lead to further education. It’s a mistake for people to imagine that we need language that won’t scare people off. Any effort to back off policing is going to scare people off — police accountability is still necessary.” Indeed, the goals of our movement should not be diluted by capitulating on our convictions for the sake of using conciliatory rhetoric. Furthermore, there have been many successful strategies spurred from Defund the Police that we should be excited about and seek to replicate.

The symbolic gesture of a slogan often elicits a charged emotional response from both supporters and detractors as it enters the public sphere. Most are born out of reaction to political events as they unravel in real time; despite often being snappy and short, slogans have a certain timelessness about them. They allow for a movement to be boiled down to its essence and distributed rapidly through a catchy phrase while outliving the action it was associated with. For better or worse, a slogan must attempt to toe the line between oversimplifying its nuances and succinctly explaining its demands, goals and sentiments in a way that resonates with those repeating it. When utilized effectively, it is one of the most powerful tools of persuasion that can be used to rally people behind a cause. The fact that Defund the Police gained momentum so quickly is a sign of its popularity among the disparate grassroots movements that pushed its agenda forward. The slogan and its associated movement are notorious and effective — and the actual work of defunding the police is already underway.

While defunding the police is a great start, the eventual goal should be to completely abolish the police. Many immediately shrink from this idea, as it defies every norm that we’ve internalized about governance. It is almost impossible to perceive a version of our society without police when we have implanted so many responsibilities in their hands. However, as we witness their continual abuse of power, their syphoning of capital from other critical services and their unequal enforcement of the law, it is time to reframe our conception of policing altogether. It has become abundantly clear that our institutions of criminal justice do not operate on behalf of the average working-class American — especially for minorities. Rather, they persist to solidify the influence of the bourgeoisie and preserve white nationalism.

Content Warning: mentions of violence and sexual assault.

Property crime makes up the vast majority of all reported crimes. In 2018, larceny/theft accounted for 72.5% of all property crimes committed; burglary accounted for 17.1%; and motor vehicle theft accounted for 10.4%. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the median annual income for all incarcerated people prior to their imprisonment is $19,185. These figures would suggest that most petty crimes are committed in the name of material necessity and would disappear if we guaranteed health care, food, housing and education to every citizen. These objectives are achievable (despite the political barriers) and would result in a sharp decline in theft, larceny and other property crimes.

But even for crimes of passion, like the example of the serial killer or domestic violence, there are more effective response methods than policing. In many cases, these circumstances are exacerbated by power differentials that are not in favor of women or marginalized groups. Many victims of domestic violence do not report their abuse out of fear of police escalating the situation upon arrival, or doing nothing at all. The best path forward would be to transfer this job to those whose expertise lie in de-escalating instances of domestic violence and helping the victim access pertinent resources. “We can dramatically reduce killings, rape and assault by changing material conditions and power dynamics,” David asserts.

Similarly, we can anticipate that there would be a dramatic reduction in violent crime by addressing people’s mental health issues directly. There is a noticeable connection between untreated mental illnesses, trauma and violent crime. Taking a proactive approach by ensuring all individuals have equitable access to mental health professionals and rehabilitation services would inevitably result in less violent crime and a healthier society overall. The usual retort to abolition is to bring up extreme cases like serial killers. Of course, serial killers can never be completely eradicated, but it is ridiculous to continue funding local police at the levels of a small military in order to combat irregular, sparse violent outliers. Also, a majority of the time, the perpetrator is benefiting from unbalanced power differentials that are baked into the fabric of our cultural norms and amplified by our criminal justice system. Whether they are a former cop who uses their resources to kidnap, sexually assault and murder women; a man who lures women to their deaths using his status and charm; or someone who targets Black children knowing they can easily fly under the radar, the common denominator is the presence of power differentials that result from a racialized and gendered capitalist society. The state plays a crucial role in reinforcing these hierarchical relationships at the expense of vulnerable populations.

In fact, David suggests, because the notion of crime is inherently racialized and politicized, we should instead replace it with the word “harm.” If you’re a minority, you are more likely to be associated with the word “crime” or “criminal” than if you are a wealthy white man pulling off major white-collar crimes that impinge more detriment to society than petty theft or vandalism. The idea of what constitutes crime is also subject to the paradigm of profit taking precedence over human life. Eviction may not be considered a crime, but it is harmful. Illegal immigration may not be harmful, but it is a crime. The end goal of any society is to reduce harm as much as possible, and our society considers harm against property to be paramount. The content of what is considered harm is decided by the state; therefore, in a capitalist society such as ours, the accepted definitions of crime and deviance are opposed to egalitarianism.

Community defense is also a major component in moving beyond policing. Minorities in the United States have historically turned to community resources when the state provided none. The strongest example is the Black Panthers, famous for their work in Black communities across America. The most prominent photos of the Panthers usually depict them as intimidating, often holding rifles; but in reality, the bulk of their program was invested in improving the material conditions of Black Americans. As a Marxist-Leninist organization, they often focused on food distribution and literacy programs. They had a massively positive impact on their communities — sponsoring schools, legal aid offices, clothing distributions, local transportation and health clinics. While the Panthers strongly believed that violence was necessary to Black liberation, their model of proactive community protection was the main reason for their major success and appeal. Community defense includes, but is not limited to, violence; the aim should be to exhaust all other options before resorting to it.

That said, in a world where police departments are mostly replaced by robust social services, there will still be the need for some reactive measures. In practice, this might look similar to the program “violence interrupters,” where former gang members try to intervene during dangerous situations between known community members. Because they have neighborhood legitimacy, they are respected enough to successfully abate violent conflicts and provide guidance to young folks who are caught up in illegal activities. While the violence interrupters and police are both reactive solutions, their approaches drastically differ in their roots. The violence interrupters’ strategy stems from a sense of compassion, understanding and community; that of the police stems from a desire for punishment, conformity and order. Yet, despite the success of this program, it is continually underfunded while police budgets soar.

Picture, for a moment, what a society without police would look like. It is not surprising that many people would initially imagine chaos and unabated violence. This fear stems from our collective conditioning living under the most punitive and carceral government in the world — making it nearly impossible for us to fathom a society that functions independent of law enforcement. Yet, when police are frequently terrorizing communities of color, breaking the law with impunity and allowing right-wing rioters to storm the Capitol building with ease, it is clear they have lost any legitimacy to claim they “protect and serve” American citizens. Rather, they seem to serve their own interests and protect their unspoken alliances with dangerous far-right groups like Patriot Prayer.

We can no longer accept ineffective reforms to our inherently rotted criminal justice system. Within the confines of this failed punitive state, we will never attain a society that ensures the general welfare and safety of all of its citizens — regardless of race or class. We should seek to form a society that prioritizes the material conditions of community members, only resorting to reactive intervention when absolutely necessary. Our best recourse in the short term is to place pressure on politicians to support defunding the police and work to expand community defense initiatives in order to set the stage for the long-term goal of abolishing the police.

Tenacious democratic communities do not build themselves — now is the time to start the foundational work that aims to reduce harm and values human life over profit. Since the police have not moved beyond their racist founding principles, it is evident that we must move beyond the police.

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