“Defund The Police” is Not Abolition
The demand to defund the police has become a central narrative responding to the graphic killing of Black people. Black organizers must now discuss if this strategy can move us closer to community control of public safety and unpoliced Black neighborhoods.
The defund demand has a number of important branches but at its root it is a call to mobilize community energy towards winning votes at local budget hearings. This effort is not just about the vote but reflects a firm belief in U.S. democracy which at this exact moment may be the most mistaken political stance possible. During the Jan. 6th meeting at the U.S. Capitol we witnessed a show of strength that could not have happened without deep police collaboration. Misleadingly called an insurrection, this was a public service announcement of the vertical integration of the police from the various classes of the right wing grassroots to the very top of the u.s. government. The police are now part of the formal or informal leadership of both political parties. We very well may have witnessed the last presidency of the united states of america because there are guns pointed at the gears of the U.S. political system. So to get significant Black support, defund the police campaigns will have to explain why we should fight for votes in a country that does not have a democracy.
What January 6 brings into view is a foundational principle of Black abolition rooted in the philosophy of George Jackson. Black abolitionists have held from the beginning the u.s. political system is already fascist especially in regards to Black people. In fact George Jackson argued that “…fascism-corporativism did indeed emerge, develop and consolidate itself into its most advanced form here in Amerika.” So when defunders define abolition as mobilizing people to win budget votes, they are in opposition to the tradition shaped by George Jackson as they march us back into the burning house Martin Luther King Jr. lamented. This lack of democracy is even more pronounced at the local and state level, where defund campaigns must win if they are to set the stage for abolition.
The myth of U.S. democracy is even more pronounced at the local and state level, where defund must win if they are to set the stage for abolition. How the strongest defund efforts fare in places where they should have a number of progressive allies and resources, is revealing. In Minneapolis the death of George Floyd led to a precinct burning down. Then advocates mobilized the community to win a budget fight. They won the vote to defund the police in order to “dismantle” the department. But then this incredible victory was quickly rolled back by an unelected city commission. To mask this complete lack of democracy, the elected leaders of the city then placated defunders with an $8 million cut in the police budget, while quietly adding $11 million to the police’s budget for future hires. The decision also only removed officers that were already civilian staff. So, there are exactly the same number of police on the ground as before. On the financial side the budget cut mainly came from the projected police overtime. But you cant limit police overtime spending because these are funds that can be changed at any time. For example the Minneapolis police department received 37 times their overtime budget when they beat down protestors mobilizing from George Floyd’s death. If this is evidence of things to come the entire defund the police movement may have to start framing simply maintaining current police levels as a victory.
In Los Angeles, Peoples Budget LA, a defund campaign led by BLM Los Angeles managed to cut 8% or $150 million from the LAPD budget. Maintaining this pace every year would completely defund that infamous department in a little over 12 years. Except that the $150 million cut may not have actually come out of the police budget at all. And the $97 Million that was directly cut from the police budget was from overtime spending, which in the event of an emergency, the LAPD can still get. The u.s easily manufactures cyclical emergencies to justify surpassing overtime budgets. Finally, the police budget cut in Los Angeles simply replaced a budget increase of the same size. Defunding the police is a con game, and in places like Austin, Texas these hollow budget votes are used to keep activists running on the hamster wheel of u.s. democracy.
In some cities the system is so undemocratic and corrupt the police don’t bother to hide how they use intimidation to directly control politics. When organizers in Baltimore pushed to defund the police, they were faced with a rigged local political system. During this powerful fight, members of Leaders of the Beautiful Struggle explained that John Hopkins University even got approval, to create their own police force, “complete with arrest powers and state protections.” You can clearly see in the discussion that how the Baltimore defund fight was frustrated on all sides by the police union and undemocratic municipal procedures. So again, and again the strongest defund coalitions are faced with the reality that the u.s. does not have a democracy at the local and state levels. This is a major reason why Black abolition must be a divestment from u.s. democracy and an investment into Black sovereignty.
The defund argument also assumes that public support for the police is rational. But the support for police is non-rational. We know this because police funding increases even when crime goes down . The US has always been willing to fund the police even as the rest of the public infrastructure crumbles. This means if all defunders have is data and well researched talking points it wont be enough. Police are supported whether it makes budget sense or not because Black people must be watched, and Black revolt must be kept down. This fundamental role of US police is independent of any budget. You can defeat it but you can not defund it.
Now in community spaces and corporate media, the call to defund the police rests on a core contradiction. On the one hand, defund is presented as just a series of budget votes that cut police funding, building people power to bring us closer to the eventual goal of abolition. But then in the same breath defund the police is defined as the exact same thing as abolition. When convenient defund the police is only the road to abolition, but when needed it can become the exact same thing as abolition. These things can’t both be true at the same time. This contradiction creeps into the analysis from even thorough defund campaigns like Critical Resistance who argue that, “a lot of people are trying to say there’s a difference between police reform, defunding the police and abolition. And the call to defund the police is abolitionist. It’s a step towards abolition. It is not a separate, moderate or watered-down thing.” Now if defund the police was the same thing as abolition there would be no need to add it to the original call to abolish the police. But once abolition becomes winning votes at budget hearings then that means defunders like Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley are also abolitionists fighting to organize violence under the community control of Black people with no police.
They are not.
Defund democrats are pro-police and gave Trump record-breaking support for the u.s. global police forces that repress Black uprisings around the world. The squad’s support for defund comes from a sure belief that defund the police campaigns actually won’t lead to unpoliced Black neighborhoods with community control of safety and violence. In fact, the squad may have already defeated the aspirational budget goals of local defund the police efforts. Because by getting behind tax cuts, the CARES ACT and the federal COVID-19 response, they have put together a record breaking transfer of wealth to the same class whose property the police guard. This part of the defund coalition gave wealthy elites and the police more than enough resources to frustrate any local or state efforts to defund the police.
Right now, U.S. state and local governments spend roughly $115 Billion on local and state police. If defund campaigns completely won and cut 100% of police funding tomorrow, Jeff Bezos alone could cover the loss and still be one of the richest men in the world. The 1% also has direct investment in the killings we see on the news. Starting as a slave market, modern day Wall Street profits whenever police kill someone. This is dangerous because even though private funding for local law enforcement is low, if cities were forced to cut the police’s public money stream, municipal governments could use any number of private financing mechanisms to refill their coffers.
While wholesale private financing of police may seem a bridge too far for some, keep in mind that 1973 NYC Mayor John Lindsay was prepared to do just that and had ample funding for it from The Association for a Better New York. Besides the police simply have a wealth of resources at the local level to quietly frustrate defund budget votes. Even within the current funding guidelines, police foundations can buy time by forcing campaigns to wade through sophisticated budget manipulations, sapping movement energy. The 1% already directly support the army who protect their property through a complicated international network of police associations, drug running operations, police unions, foundations, government agencies, and right wing formations. This police network was made even stronger with record level tax cuts and the CARES ACT’s huge wealth transfer. The police can also adjust for losses in man power by continuing the expansion of fusion centers, a national surveillance system that merges local and federal police. After decades of extorting cities, the 1% have developed plenty of local financial instruments to help the police cover losses, play number games, and announce fake victories until they finally figure out how to defeat defund campaigns.
But this summer we saw a shift in national consciousness after decades of mobilizing around Miriam Carey , the state led horror of Hurricane Katrina, the theft of water in Flint and many other communities, the killing of Miriam Carey and countless more. For a brief moment this summer most U.S. citizens supported the burning of a police precinct. So in light of this history of fascism and our current climate, the belief that the police answer to the votes of city officials is a faith statement only non-Black believers in U.S. democracy can really afford. The only way police will leave Black neighborhoods is because Black people took community control of public safety and opposed police presence.
Ultimately, what sets the stage for Black liberation isn’t policy campaigns but the grassroots organizing that lives in every Black neighborhood. But it’s natural to look for narratives and defund the police gives us a linear process that is easy to follow. This approach starts with protests that force a vote, then the police are defunded, pouring resources into our communities which over time will create the scenario for Black communities with no police. But when a critical mass of people are agitating and taking action, a long reform process is placed in front of the goal of abolition without an explanation of why this detour into the U.S. political system is mandatory or even necessary. In this vein, Working Families Party argues that “the only way to stop police violence is to defund the police and instead create, uplift and fund the community services that keep Black people safe, healthy and free.”
The vote is not the road to Black liberation. That debate has been settled, just by the fat it still has to be held. To unpolice our neighborhoods Black people will need to work with each other through families and neighborhood networks. Now when defund gained mainstream prominence most of the people who mobilized on the street and in media were non-Black people. This created a discussion between politicians and non Black groups that may cloud how we currently understand defund the police. So as always its important to bring discussions back to the material conditions of your particular community. Now since Black liberation must be community driven you may assess that defund the police is a useful tool to begin community discussions about abolition. Or you may decide defund the police is a good way to reveal US fascism and the absence of democracy. If that is the case defund presents key questions for Black organizers.
Black abolition views U.S. democracy as a myth, and U.S. fascism as already a reality. The call to defund the police keeps Black politics within the U.S. political system when Black abolition calls Black people to leave that behind. You will have to determine how you can divest from the police and invest into institutions that other Black liberation efforts are are working to abolish some say all of our social services are based in Black death. As you build, also discuss what the role of defund’s rational budget campaign when public support for the police is non-rational. Black organizers will also need to discuss the contradiction in the popular stance that defund is the same thing as abolition and also the road to it. After this you will have to navigate anti-abolition defunders who actually oppose putting public safety in organized Black hands.
Now since Black abolition holds that fascism is already here and that the vote is too small of a room for Black politics, where do Black politics live? While the current defund conversation may currently be between non-Black people and the state, Black abolition requires faith in organized Black communities. Whatever your level of participation and reflection, if you move in that spirit you will be able to find political demands rooted in that practice. Campaigns focused on abstract policy will only connect to Black people as characters they write about, history they theorize or clients their non-profit and contract work services. Black abolition organizers must put into practice tangible outlines of how you and your family can be abolitionists amidst the real violence you face. We see this immediately in community conversations, because Black people routinely shoot down any abstract discussion of unpoliced neighborhoods. Its not enough to just describe the problem of violence, prisons and police. We will have to be disciplined and repeatedly explain abolition in clear creative ways.
Black politics lives within and among Black people in your neighborhoods, associations, cultural spaces, and families. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t come from something, and you do not come from an incompetent people. We are entering a war over the terms and conditions of the next era. George Jackson’s tactics and philosophies are even more useful now because, “At this stage, how can anyone question the existence of a fascist arrangement.” What happened at the U.S. capitol was only the beginning of what is coming. And even with a democracy, the U.S. has no problem maintaining, “simultaneously a dictatorship over black Americans.” Look within your immediate family friends and social circles. You will be surprised at the wisdom you will find there along with first hand accounts of similar times. Trust the work of your elders and the previous movements that hidden within arms reach are all the resources you need to create the cultural practices and institutions that will nurture and sustain a new Black liberation movement. Tap into the best of your ancestral traditions and hone a sharp analysis of the current conditions. Get your team together and get to work. The only way we can establish Black community control of public safety is by making community wide moves and building the bricks and mortar of whatever we need to make abolition a reality on our terms.
Originally published in Black Agenda Report 20 January 2021