How Defund and Disband Became the DemandsBreaking News
tags: racism, public safety, police abolition
In Columbus, Ohio, where I live—just as in towns and cities across the country—the streets have been alive with rallies and marches, sit-ins and die-ins, community events and emerging mutual aid networks, in solidarity with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, three black people among many killed by police this spring. And as has also been the case in cities and towns across the country, the police response has been brutal and repressive. Handmade cardboard signs and spray paint now decorate public spaces with the new demands of mass protest: “Defund the Police,” “Fuck 12,” “ACAB,” and “Abolish the Police.” From coast to coast, the target of these protests is the very institution of policing, rather than “a few bad apples.” The demands reflect growing recognition that the problem is not individual police or isolated bad acts, and that reforms like body cameras and civilian review boards simply will not lead to the profound change that many know is necessary. The protesters are saying, loud and clear, that the only solution to the violence of policing is less policing—or maybe, none at all.
The call to defund police has rapidly developed momentum, with mayors across the US considering budget cuts to their police departments, and Minneapolis City Council committing to full dissolution. These calls to defund and disband police have roots in decades of prison abolitionist organizing, which aims to end incarceration and policing in favor of a society grounded in collective care and social provision. In fact, from Minneapolis to Los Angeles to New York City, where local officials are most quickly announcing the most concrete changes, abolitionist organizing has been growing since the 2014 Ferguson and 2015 Baltimore rebellions. Minneapolis, for example, is not simply the place where the uprisings began after the murder of George Floyd last month—it is also home to the Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block, both of which have been working to defund the police since 2017.
Until fairly recently, the most common demand at protests responding to police killings had been the call for the criminal prosecution of individual police officers. But as happened in the case of Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who killed Michael Brown, most police are never charged for their violence. When they are, police unions provide officers paid counsel. Judges dismiss cases and juries acquit. In the rare case of a charge and a conviction, judges typically impose sentences less severe than is commonplace for far less serious crimes.
Since the emergence of Black Lives Matter (BLM), and long before, we have watched this police impunity play out time and time again. Many non-black people have had to grapple with the reality that policing is different for different people and in different communities: whereas police tend to treat middle class and wealthy white people with respect, they often treat black, brown, queer, trans, and poor people with violence and disregard. Meanwhile, cities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on body-camera programs; but police often turn these cameras off, and there is no clear evidence that they reduce police violence even when used properly. And as journalists scrambled to document the rates at which police kill every day—data that, before 2014, was not publicly available and that the federal government still does not collect—we learned that police kill almost three people every day. That rate of killing has not let up.
Although calls for defunding and dissolution, rather than reform, may feel new to many, abolitionist organizing against the “prison industrial complex”—which includes prisons, police, and surveillance—goes back more than two decades. The organization Critical Resistance, established in the late 1990s in Berkeley, California, and now with chapters in Oakland, New York, Los Angeles, and Portland, is central to both the organizing work and the dissemination of ideas on which today’s campaigns draw. Critical Resistance places its efforts in the history of struggles against enslavement, and identifies slave patrols as the progenitor of US policing. Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Rose Braz, and Rachel Herzing are among the group’s co-founders. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?, Gilmore’s Golden Gulag, and Critical Resistance’s various handbooks, workshops, and campaigns for prison and police abolition—including against jail expansion and police enforcement of gang injunctions—have become blueprints for organizers across the country.