Thoughts on Defunding the Police

I started thinking about writing about this the day Derek Chauvin was convicted and Ma’Khia Bryant was murdered. And then I had a very hard conversation with a friendquaintance on social media who suggested that Ma’Khia did deserve to be murdered, unlike other Black people like George Floyd, because she had a knife. The person who suggested this was a Black man, and I felt shame and sorrow about my response to him - which was anger, and which didn’t serve the larger conversation. But it silenced and confused me for a bit.

And then, well, other things started happening, as they do, in the world and in my life. Dear friends lost a pregnancy. A dear friend lost her dad. One of my children took the bus to school for the first time; another one got a stye in his eye. I was overwhelmed with work. I got the second vaccine and shivered in sweat for 30 hours.

And today when I wondered, “is now the time to have this conversation?” I realized that what I was actually wondering was: “should I wait until after the next time a Black person gets murdered by the police to publish this so that it’s on the top of people’s minds?”

Which was my answer.

I know there will be another time. You know there will be another time. This system is not working. We must build something better.

I’ll share my thoughts on what has become an enormously polarizing topic not because I have The Answer or even An Answer. (TL; DR: I don’t have either). I’ll do it because it’s My Answer. And I’ve decided that the single most important thing anyone committed to justice and antiracism can do in this moment is to say, clearly, why THEY believe the current police state must end.

Not be reformed, but end.

So what you’ll read here is my why, colored by my limited life experience as a white woman activist organizer suburban upper middle class mom who has done some reading and studying on what is an immensely well documented and complex world of thought. (Many links and resources that have guided my thinking will be in the comments).

My Answer is rooted in Ibram X. Kendi’s philosophy, which changed my understanding of racism. We are not racists or antiracists, he says in his book “How to Be An Antiracist.” We say and make and do hundreds, thousands of things a day. Some of them are racist and some of them are antiracist. He said, and I believe, that everything is either one or the other.

So by his definition, which resonates with me, you are never An Antiracist. You are striving to be antiracist. You are noticing your racist ideas and actions, and working to adjust and correct.

(The similarities to meditation here are astounding to me. The goal of meditation is not to have a mind clear of thoughts; that is impossible. The goal is to notice your thoughts and come back to your anchor. You do it sixteen, six hundred, sixty six thousand times every time you meditate. You think, you notice, you come back. That’s it, that’s the work. There’s no journey or outcome other than the falling off and coming back.)

Both antiracism and meditation are practices.

I make this distinction between the concepts of racism and antiracism because I want to create space for you, where ever you are on your journey, to know that whatever you have done before this moment doesn’t define you as A Racist or An Antiracist. It doesn’t exempt you from this conversation one way or the other, and it doesn’t mean that where ever you have been you cannot change or open your mind further right now, and again tomorrow, and again the next day.

You and I have done and thought racist things. Today. Probably in the last hour. You, hopefully, as I have, have also done and thought and worked towards antiracist ideas and structures and policies.

So how do we know what is racist or antiracist?

Racist ideas and actions uphold the notion that there is a superior race of white people, and support the system that was created to make us believe that. Antiracist ideas and actions reject the notion of race as a social construct, recognize the system that enforces that notion, and work to dismantle it.

So when you hear that Black people are killed by police at three times the rate of white people, you can think two things:

The racist idea is that Black people break the law more frequently than white people, that Black people are more violent or more dangerous or more threatening to police officers. That would account for the difference.

The antiracist idea is that one’s skin color has nothing to do with how innately violent or law breaking one is, but that there is a system at work which has been carefully and painstakingly created to make you think that in order to uphold the notion of a supreme race of white people.

If you believe the latter, defunding the police is the only way to ensure that black lives actually matter.

But what does defunding mean?

From my understanding, it begins with giving communities (actual laypeople like you and me) a participatory role in creating city budgets so that mental health professionals, social workers, and conflict resolution and de-escalation experts are trained, invested in and called upon during the vast majority of crises that don’t require military grade weapons, and so that the police budgets that often comprise almost half of an entire city’s discretionary budget can be redistributed for the housing, transportation, job skills training, healthcare and substance abuse programs we know prevent crime, and less (or how about none?) for tanks and body armor and grenade launchers.

But why do we have to call it something scary like “defunding”?

Because listening is antiracist. And if we listen to the leaders of the movement that are causing our country to awaken from its four hundred year long white supremacist stupor, the leaders who first said Black Lives Matter and who have led us through this awakening, they are telling us this is what we need. It is racist to think any white person knows better than the millions of people who’s lives and children’s lives are being taken. Of course you don’t have to agree with everything those leaders, or anyone, says - but being antiracist means accepting that this isn’t about you for once, and taking a step back, and listening to the people who haven’t been heard for centuries. Trust them.

But the phrase “defund the police” isn’t popular.

Remember when everyone said Elizabeth Warren wasn’t electable? She’s electable if you fucking vote for her. Black Lives Matter was a polarizing thing to say until two thirds of our country’s biggest companies made it their own personal ad campaign. Let’s start with you and worry about the rest of the country later.

Let’s also remember that as activists and people striving to be antiracists that we are not meant to create campaign slogans, write talking points for elected officials, or draft legislation. That’s above our pay grade.

We don’t go into our salary negotiation saying “whatever you give me is fine.” We don’t say this is what we want, and this is what we’d accept if you don’t give us that, and this is what we think you’ll probably give us, so we’ll start with that last one. That’s for Senate Leaders and Minority Whips to calculate.

We give you, elected officials, a picture of what the dish should look like, and y’all are gonna have to figure out the ingredients and how hot the oven needs to be to get it there.

We set the bar, we tell you how high. You, as the elected official or candidate, have to respond to us. That is literally your job. You work for us, we pay your salary, and here’s our list of demands.

Our demands include, but are not limited to, having the right to not be killed while: driving a car, “looking sketchy,” having a mental health episode, sleeping in bed, standing in your grandmother’s backyard, falling asleep at a Wendy’s drive-through, eating ice cream at home, being pulled over for a traffic violation, selling CDs, walking with a friend, being bipolar, selling loose cigarettes, playing with a toy gun or even, yes even, using a counterfeit $20 bill.

A racist idea is that the system is working as it was intended, and it should continue.

An antiracist idea is that the system is working as it was intended, and it should end.

But what about so many of you (and me, once) who say - the system is NOT working as it was intended, and it should be reformed?

Aside from the studies showing that reforms haven’t worked in preventing police officers from murdering unarmed Black people, to understand the call to abolish the current police state you must accept why police began in the first place.

In Alex S. Vitale’s “The End of Policing,” the most important book of our generation about the police state and what to do about it, he shows us that no one ever even pretended police existed to prevent crime. They existed to respond to it as a means of controlling certain parts of the population. The purpose of the London Metropolitan Police, considered the “original” police force, was to “protect property, quell riots, put down strikes…and produce a disciplined industrial workforce.” This model, imported to Boston in 1838 and spread throughout the United States thereafter, was meant to control the “widespread social disorder” associated with the working classes and make strikes, bargaining and unionizing impossible or, at least, illegal. (Whatever that means, and whoever decides it.)

But well before London was attempting to “protect the propertied classes from the rabble,” Southern cities had uniformed slave patrols, accountable to civilian officials, who had the power to go onto private property and ensure enslaved people were not harboring weapons, or worse, learning to read.

When slavery ended, so did the slave patrols. But white supremacy is the craftiest and most indefatigable villain you’ve ever known, and it depends entirely on the control of Black bodies. So the slave patrols became police forces, professionalized and recognized by elected officials, deciding what bad behavior would qualify as a crime. Strengthened by the KKK, the formalized policing that took us from Reconstruction to Jim Crow eras ensured that formerly enslaved Black people were still living in constant fear, forced to play by imaginary and senseless rules, where the wrong move ends in death or life in a cage.

Sure, these rules were technically also applied to white people, but strangely, when I had a tail light out or stole a pack of cigarettes from the Walmart there wasn’t a cop there to arrest me and potentially kill me during the arrest.

(There actually was a cop in plainclothes there to arrest me on the corner of Ludlow and Houston after a drunken brunch at the Essex in January 2009 as I and two friends smoked a bowl of pot. And while being ankle cuffed together and mocked by cops who were just a few years older than us and spending the night in The Tombs and being strip searched was an experience I hope I never repeat, I’ll also never forget the Black woman who took our mugshots saying with true sadness, “you girls shouldn’t be in here.” But who should then?)

I ask you to read Vitale’s book, and then let me know if this statement - “the system is NOT working as it was intended, and it should be reformed” - is a racist or an antiracist idea, when we consider the origins of the system and it’s ultimate goal.

***

Change is upon us, and it’s scary. Many of us who were raised in white affluent communities where police departments were essentially invisible (already abolished, never “funded” in the first place) may have positive or neutral associations with police. Maybe you know cops and it hurts your heart to see them vilified, because you know they aren’t all like “that.” (That may be true. But the system is designed in a way that encourages them to be, that allows them to be, that defends them if they are). Maybe you worry about your own safety. Maybe you’ve been told that defunding the police is a radical idea. Maybe you have heard the phrase but haven’t yet read something that explains what it actually means.

When change is coming, when we know it’s right and inevitable and necessary, and potentially destabilizing and hard, we bargain. If this, then this.

If I stop talking on the phone so much he won’t hit me again, and then we won’t have to get a divorce. If we just reform the police, then we won’t have to start from scratch. If I stay here, I won’t have to face something new.

White people’s reluctance to face this truth and to embark on something new is our privilege, our protection, our supremacy enshrined. Black Americans have no such luxury. It’s something new, or its death. And by death, I mean the end of life. The stoppage of life. The prevention of life.

You know she should leave him, right? You know he’ll never change? Therapy won’t solve this. It is not your fault, honey - he was broken from the start. It’s not your fault, but now you have to fix it. And by fix it, of course, we mean end it.

Let’s leave this abusive marriage. Divorce is the only way.