Public Comment

New: Defunding the Police

Steve Martinot
Monday June 15, 2020 - 04:33:00 PM

For two weeks now, massive crowds have been in the streets of the US, marching to end police brutality, and demanding justice for the many people, mostly black, who have been killed by police in the last couple of weeks. The latest one, June 8, occurred in East Oakland in the wake of two weeks of demonstrations against precisely what happened – the CHP shot and killed the driver of a car. 

Not all victims are as famous as George Floyd. Most don’t get on youtube. But the cops all know about the outrage and opposition to police murdering people on the street. They are, most of them, involved in suppressing those demonstrations, starting violence against them so that the violence in retaliation to the police can be used to disparage the demonstrations. But since Floyd’s death, there have been people killed by cops in Vallejo, in San Francisco, and now in Oakland. Is it not that the cops are not listening. They just don’t care. 

One thing that is new, however, is that the cop who killed Floyd was fired, and not just put on paid administrative leave. And then he was charged with second degree murder, along with his accomplices who held Floyd down while his life was taken from him. Can we breathe a sigh of relief, that finally we have a city government that rises above that oxymoronic phenomenon of the forces of public safety killing those they are sworn to protect? 

Floyd’s murder, and the other cases of police brutality that have gone on for two weeks, have become an international issue. There have been demonstrations in places like England, France, and Germany. In the US, demonstrations have been daily in every state, and in over 140 cities. That is how widespread opposition to police brutality and its murderousness has become. Some cops have even given respect and recognition to the demonstrators by joining their marches or “taking a knee” at the side of the crowd. That kind of gesture is hard to respect because it is an admission that these cops were powerless to stop the brutality-ethic inside their own department. One has to ask, since they are "police," what has made them so powerless? 

At the center of this upheaval, there is now a loud call to "defund the police." It has become so unignorable that 9 members of the City Council of Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, have made public their support for "dismantling" the police department. In metaphoric terms, it says that, since the police don’t listen to the people, pull the rug out from under them. Since the brutality continues, this reveals a true sense of justice. It is significant that these councilmembers think in terms of a super-majority. It means they recognize the possible need to defeat the Mayor’s expected veto. (Is the Mayor pro-police? Does that mean he is okay with burying their dead victims?) 

For the Minneapolis City Council, "dismantling" the police does not mean just cutting their appropriations tomorrow, and sending them home. It means initiating and fulfilling a long process (they envision a year) of conversation with the communities and neighborhoods of the city to figure out how to construct an alternative agency that will actually serve and uphold the safety and well-being of the people of the city. In other words, it won’t be another agency imposed by political power from above, but something evolved out of dialogue by the people themselves, facing the need to replace what does not serve them. At least, that is what is proposed. Spoiler Alert below. But it is absolutely real that the necessary purpose must be to involve those communities and neighborhoods in participation. It must go beyond just being input, or “public comment,” such as we find so familiar here. In Minneapolis, it is envisioned as actual participation in figuring out how to replace the police with a new structure that will serve the people. 

If it succeeds, it will amount to a significant change in power. Will that make it a revolution? No, since no group has a perspective of actually seizing political power. But this last two weeks have been recognized as a turning point in dealing with these issues. And "revolve" means to turn. The greater significance for the Minneapolis City Council is the fact that they understand the necessity to go slowly on this, and be both intelligent and democratic. 

This is a process that has been emerging in the thoughts of social justice movements against police brutality for years. What the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to a head now is the racialized nature of police brutality and murderousness, the endlessly racialized nature of what "matters." It is the inseparability of the white supremacy of the US from that endless racialization and re-racialization – built upon its original dependence on enslavement, an then upon the alternate form of subjugation of people of color instituted (Jim Crow) when enslavement was abolished. 

That earlier dependence has today become the adamance of police refusal to give up the power to shoot people of color. Even after massive demonstrations bring about murder charges against the Minneapolis cops who killed Floyd, other people of color are being shot by cops – Tony McDade, Sean Monterrosa, Erik Salgado. 

Defunding the police is not just a question of taking away money, and therefore hours, and therefore also bullets (rubber and otherwise) from the police. What defunding the police means is disempowering a cultural structure that should have long ago been dismantled, the structure of racialization in the US. Today, it has three sources of power upon which it not only stands but rebuilds itself after (and against the gains of) the civil rights movements: the police, the prison-industrial complex, and the two party system. 

The Two Party System?? Think back, who among the 20 candidates running for the nomination in the Democratic Party had to drop out of that race first? Everyone knew that Trump had to be deposed for his white nationalism and his misogyny and his gangsterish style of dispensing with thought. Now, in the wake of Biden clinching the nomination, black people throughout the country are talking about the necessity for a black political party, and a black-latinx alliance. 

The police, as a cultural institution, have brought misery to uncountable families, to whole communities (mostly of color) by killing and massively incarcerating people. To dismantle the police through defunding them is not to reform an agency of government but to transform a cultural structure. And what this last two weeks has shown the world is that the structure of racialization that the police compose marks a dimension of criminality at the core of governmental officialdom. 

The movement of people speaking together about how to change this cultural structure, and beginning to conceive of the steps necessary to build a replacement for it, is a profoundly pro-democratic movement. It will be (hopefully) a process of people discovering an alternate cultural structure that will be humane and democratic. The steps proposed by the Minneapolis City Council are focused on going to the neighborhoods and the communities and initiating talks and dialogue on how to do this. The idea is to replace policing standards that are imposed by power and an elite from on top (and by the police themselves) with standards of peace and respect for the sacredness of human life and human being that can only come from the people themselves. 

How will this process of dismantling the police begin? What will "defunding" the police entail? 

While this extended process of evolving and inventing a humane alternative, there are certain aspects of the situation that we are given that can be rectified immediately. There are areas of social life in which the police don’t belong. These areas can be removed from their control right now. 

For people whose mental health has been infringed in some way, and who go through severe episodes of emotional upset or trauma, the police should not be the ones responding. They are not trained to treat people gently or with human compassion. Others who are so trained in mediation and therapy should be the ones to respond. Militarized personnel only know how to come waving guns and giving commands that are irrelevant to the situation. It is the mentally ill and traumatized people who bear the brunt of police torture techniques (“in the interest of obedience”). This issue is specifically relevant to the Bay Area, and Berkeley in particular, since the killing by command and asphyxiation of Kayla Moore by the Berkeley police still has not been recognized as murder. 

Police in the schools can be defunded. Schools don’t need police to arrest, handcuff, and brutalize students (think of that 10 year old taken away recently in handcuffs). Education does not fair well under threat from fearful presences. Schools need to be other than disciplinary institutions. Guns don’t teach people how to think critically or knowledgeably. What they do is prevent us from thinking clearly and critically about how to get rid of them, and build a peaceful culture for ourselves. 

The homeless need services just like the housed residents of a city need them. But they are confronted with the police rather than with care and facilities that would advance their ability to survive. From the police, they do not get recognition of social membership. And the city uses the police in order to avoid providing the trash pickup, the housing advocates, the toilets, the health care and trauma counselors, and the protection against the elements and pandemics into which the homeless have been thrown by economic greed (high rent and low wages). The encampments provide the needed community that unhoused people depend on for survival on the street. The only thing the police know to do about the encampments is trash them (unconstitutionally). So a third function of policing that can be defunded immediately is their enforcement of harassment rules against homeless people. Sending the police waving guns or pepper spray is only to engage in criminal activity against harmless people. 

There is another arena of police activity for which defunding might save a lot of grief and hardship, that dealing with domestic disputes, or drug overdoses, or a host of other personal conflicts that the stresses of society produce through its refusal to take responsibility for the welfare of its residents. People who are on the edge of the abyss (low wages, greedy landlords, pest-ridden buildings, self-medications, etc.) don’t need cops arriving and waving guns. They need ombudsmen and ombudswomen to act as mediators and de-escalators and advocates. 

"Defunding" the police means taking some of their money and giving it to institutions that are professionally trained to deal with these sectors of the population that have been pushed to the edge in a humane and caring way. It is something that can occur right away. These are all areas of contemporary society where the police can be defunded while the communities and neighborhoods sit down with each other and work out a replacement that will be focused on people’s well-being, safety, and freedom from fear. 

Mayor DeBlasio in NYC has put forth his own mini-version of the defunding idea. He will take a chunk of the funds budgeted for the police and use it for services for the homeless and against evictions. A variety of Newyorkers involved in the demos who have appeared on Democracy Now have essentially said with respect to DeBlasio, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” 

The city council in Minneapolis is saying is that they have 9 votes, which is enough to outvote the mayor’s expected veto. The worldwide expression of outrage against police brutality however is also a call to get rid of political leaders who wish to suppress these demonstrations and who support beating up homeless and mentally ill people. 

Spoiler Alert: As inspiring as this seems to me, I can’t help being a bit sanguine about it. I think it possible that the police reaction in opposition to this kind of movement will be enormous. It occurs to me that, as this defunding process moves forward, suddenly our communities will find themselves oddly flooded with drugs, drug trafficking, and a rise of petty crime by poor people getting more strung out than before (possibly followed by not-so-petty crime). And the cops will then say, “you see, you need us.” We have seen that before, during the 70s and 80s. Gary Webb reveals its inner dynamic in his book, Dark Alliance. John McCoy has unveiled the connection between the CIA and heroin. Peter Dale Scott has written endlessly on the police and drug trafficking. 

When the forces of “law and order“ play with illegal activity for political purposes, it is not for justice but for political power that it occurs. The mass incarceration campaigns begun in the 1980s, which produced the largest prison system in the world, could not have happened if the police had not adopted it. Though trumpeted as a "war on drugs," drug trafficking only increased. Today, some 70% of the prisoners are in for victimless crimes. And only about 5% are actually in prison for violent crimes. Nevertheless, there is a publicity campaign to create the impression that 100% of the prisoners were violent criminals. Well over half the prisoners in the US are people of color. 

The prison system is another pillar of the structure of racialization. Defunding the police will only be part of the job.