Building the base for police abolition: Defund & Refunk

Throughout 2022, Metro DC DSA hosted a series of community workshops designed to expand and strengthen the political base for defunding the police. The events — called Defund & Refunk used art, performance and guided conversation on budgeting and municipal finances, and residents were asked what public safety would look like without the police.

The events were held in DC’s public parks as a way to reach communities directly and to frame our conversation within public life in the city. We’ve documented some of the notes and materials from the event, including a guide, as a way to mark our activity on this and to provide a resource for those looking to reproduce them in the future.

The current condition

Over the past few years, the Defund MPD (DC’s police department) coalition successfully organized to direct political action in pursuit of its mission. The 2021 resistance to greater criminalization of fare evasion in 2021 was one of the Coalition’s most successful efforts. Other successes include charting a removal of cops from schools and pressuring the Council to keep MPD’s budget flat for a few years (the 2023 budget will be the first time the MPD budget has been expanded in six years).

But these defensive demands are not enough; a more transformative response to the criminalization of life in the city is what’s truly demanded. To bring about the local change we seek, our community needs a wider understanding of how huge public budgets work — and how they influence and shape our cities and neighborhoods.

The orientation toward landowners and capital interests is a long observed problem in local government. The wealthy have perfected the art of executing political pressure and influencing policy streams in ways that subvert the public good and make life more carceral for working-classes. Abolitionist scholar Alex Vitale identified this problem in his 2017 book The End of Policing:

“[Research by] Steve Herbert shows that community meetings tend to be populated by long-time residents, those who own rather than rent their homes, business owners, and landlords. The views of renters, youth, homeless people, immigrants, and the most socially marginalized are rarely represented. As a result, they tend to focus on ‘quality of life’ concerns involving low-level disorderly behavior rather than serious crime.”

The Defund & Refunk series was designed in part to address Herbert’s and Vitale’s analyses. The concept of defunding the police can feel obvious to an engaged activist, but to those who haven’t been directly introduced to these ideas, the demand may feel confusing, intimidating or wistful. Our Defund working group wanted to reach wider audiences, build up familiarity and support for our ideas, and spread a wider awareness about the Defund Coalition’s objectives in a detailed, accessible way.

The process

Three sessions were organized in neighborhoods where the DSA has a smaller imprint, beyond the typical socialist bases in Northwest DC. To start these conversations, performance and poetry were used to contextualize the concepts and provide an alternative route for dialogue. A week before the event, we also canvassed the neighborhood and distributed flyers to build awareness beyond the DSA’s typical communication channels.

Good Vibe Tribe, a local music and artist collective, partnered with our working group to help kick off these events. The Tribe took excerpts from Adrienne Maree Brown’s “The River”, a short -story exploring the politics of change and gentrification in cities, to be played between live performances.

We then proceeded into guided discussions on the District’s municipal budget. We used a participatory budgeting model as a framework to help guide these conversations. Participatory budgeting is a citizen engagement process through which community members decide how to allocate a portion of a public budget. When executed correctly, the framework can help residents most often left out of city budget conversations engage with discussions on how tax dollars are allocated, learn how municipal government works and realize discrete political demands through city budgets.

Municipal budgets are a central component of American policing systems, and when activists call for defunding the police, the emphasis is always on the larger picture. When shown just how much money and resources are dedicated to these systems — especially when compared to other departments — the public is able to clarify how power and priorities are established. For instance, the MPD budget may seem small at a glance, but when contrasted with our other spending priorities, the scope of our local carceral system becomes much clearer:

Illustrated graphs displayed at the event.

Following these conversations, attendees were asked for their input to prompt discussion and reflection on these ideas. Participants were also provided with guided art-making supplies, which we found to be a great way of bringing people together and opening up new perspectives or ideas among participants. We also asked attendees deeper questions about what it means to shape and design a safe, healthy, equitable society:

·         What about DC feels alive to you?

·         Where would you direct $250 million dollars in government spending?

·         How would you want to have fun in your city?

·         What public amenities would you install?

·         Who are the people you know you can count on?

·         What are the problems you observe in our neighborhoods, and what jobs would help fix them?

Following the event, we collected participants names and contact information and provided them with additional literature and printed materials to read at home.

Production checklist

The Defund and Refunk events were intentionally designed to be accessible and repeatable. The events are easily repurposed and adapted to local contexts, making them a great process for building a political base. They also cost relatively little, making them easily scalable depending on available resources or prerogatives.

Below is a short checklist that helps prepare these programs. We hope local Metro DC DSA members, DSA chapters, or other abolitionist-minded collectives or political organizations can find use in helping develop and frame these sort of events.

Before the workshop...

Gather a crew. A dedicated team is essential for executing strong public events. This could be in the form of your working group or coalition, depending on how your formation is structured.

Set a date, time, and location. This may be the most important. Once your team commits to a date, time, and location, everything else will need to happen, from comms outreach to internal planning meetings. We learned that 4-6 weeks was a comfortable amount of time for us to plan for the events.

Find a good location. The space should be accessible via public transit, or at least walkable. There should be a playground or a separate play area for kids to be safely supervised. A plus if bathrooms and water fountains are available. If not, it’s a perfect example to show participants that they should demand those things.

Ask for volunteer support. Even setting up one workshop is a huge undertaking, so you’ll need a number of volunteers. You’ll need people to help plan the agenda (more below), facilitate workshops, scout locations, purchase snacks and supplies, print materials, design graphics for comms, conduct research about your city budget and write original research. On the day of the workshop, you’ll need people to help with childcare, interpretation for ESL (English as a Second Language), and a police liaison.

Plan the agenda. Keep it very simple and open for late arrivals, newcomers, and interpretation. We tend to schedule 2-3 hours for the workshop, depending on attendance.

Purchase supplies and snacks. It’s going to be a long workshop and people need to feel comfortable. The most simple can be butcher paper, markers, and crayons. More advanced can include paint and clay. Optional: Search for artists and food vendors.

Street canvassing a week or two prior to the workshop. Note that this is different from door-knocking. The goal here is not to reach homeowners, but those who are most vulnerable to police brutality. Those who are often at bus stops, streets, street corners, liquor stores, gas stations. People who often rely on using public space to live, socialize, and get around. Introduce yourselves to the locals, let them know you’ll be in the neighborhood and invite them to stop by. Most will be very receptive and appreciate you. 

Day of the workshop...

Arrive early to set up. We usually give ourselves an hour of setup time to practice what we’ll go over.

Don’t panic if things don’t go perfectly. 80% of the workshop will be planned, and 20% will need to be figured out in the moment.

Participate in artmaking or guided discussions. During the participation portions, use the time to offer your ideas as well. Get people talking or creating, and encourage others to come out of their shells and share their ideas and perspectives.

Relax and have fun! This is like planning a party, and you as organizers and facilitators want to have a good time too.  

After the workshop...

Decompress and give yourselves time to relax. This was a lot of work, and you should be proud of yourselves.

Follow up with attendees. After a break, send out texts/emails/calls thanking people for coming and letting them know what’s next. That can depend on how far along you are in your defunding organizing. If you’re further along, the next ask may be to ask attendees to contact their mayor, councilmember, alderman or district rep about what else they’d like instead of more cops. But if you’re just getting started, this may simply be political education and setting a foundation with residents

Events like these aren’t enough on their own, but when paired with a wider gamut of activities, they play a crucial role in building up a political base capable of pushing our societies away from force and carceral punishment.

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