Defunding, disarming, defeating and abolishing the police

17 June 2020
D Taylor

This is the power of the contemporary anti-racist movement: the mainstream media in the US is seriously discussing how and why the police might be abolished. Democrats are being booed and chased from rallies if they won’t agree to it. A YouGov poll from mid-June found 44 percent of Americans to be in favour of cutting police budgets and reallocating the money to social welfare, while 27 percent supported the slogan “defund the police”.

A wide-ranging debate has broken out about what police abolition means, whether it’s possible, and how it might be acheived. At the heart of the debate are three verbs: reform, defund and abolish. Which should happen to the police? Does abolish really mean abolish, or is it the same as defund? Are defunding and abolition just different ways of saying reform?

“Reform” – the usual go-to when the police have been caught murdering someone – for now appears discredited. As Alex S. Vitale points out in his prescient 2017 book The End of Policing, the US’s murderous militarised police are the product of decades of “reform”. The “better training”, “diversification” and “community policing” that have tended to constitute these “reform” efforts have led mainly to police departments having more money, better weapons, more effective PR, and a deeper implantation in the neighbourhoods where they brutalise people and kill with impunity.

Around the peak of the first incarnation of Black Lives Matter five years ago, “[t]he Minneapolis police implemented trainings on implicit bias, mindfulness, de-escalation, and crisis intervention; diversified the department’s leadership; created tighter use-of-force standards; adopted body cameras; initiated a series of police-community dialogues,” Vitale writes in the Guardian. But none of it worked, and now the police department there is widely recognised as so institutionally rotten that in a display of desperation the Democratic-led city council recently pledged to “dismantle” it.

The developing consensus in progressive opinion – including not only the far left, but many reformists and even a lot of the centrist liberal intelligentsia – is that “reform” is not enough. “Reform” has meant little more than making the police a more effective and acceptable instrument of repressive state power. Increasingly, it is that repressive power itself which is seen as the problem. That’s the significance of the growing support for police abolition.

The concept of abolition wasn’t invented in 2020. Use of the term in relation to the criminal justice system – mostly concerning prisons – was spearheaded by activists like Ruth Wilson Gilmore (author of Golden Gulag), Mariame Kaba, and Angela Davis. “What I love about abolition ... is the idea that you imagine a world without prisons, and then you work to try to build that world,” James Forman Jr., author of Locking Up Our Own, told the New York Times in 2019. But the mass movement that emerged this year has made the slogan mainstream, and it is now applied to police as well as prisons.

This is an important development. For decades, police have been gaining in prestige and firepower in the US. Polls have shown entrenched trust and respect for the police (with unsurprising variations depending on race) at the same time as faith in politicians, the media, big business and trade unions has declined. Cops have been given military-grade weapons and armoured cars and it’s routine for them to pepper spray and tear gas peaceful protests. Governments and parliaments everywhere are keen to give police more powers to snoop and pry. The enormous movement in the US has, in two short weeks, started to reverse that process.

The concept of police abolition isn’t limited to scrapping police departments. It also means winding back the criminalisation of poverty and mental illness that results in so many poor people, and so many Black people, being forced into contact with the police – contact that leads to fines, imprisonment, violence and, too often, death. You might say it’s about abolishing the policeability of the inequality that prevails in capitalist societies. It’s an argument that the expansion of the power of the police has gone hand-in-hand with the stagnation of wages, the loss of secure jobs and decent housing for workers, and the collapse of social welfare. "We don’t want to just close police departments," writes Mariame Kaba in the New York Times. "We want to make them obsolete. We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place."

These emerging debates are therefore not just about brutal state repression, but the conditions that create it: systematic racial discrimination and growing economic inequality. In a sense, this movement is picking up where the anti-racist movements of the 1960s left off: with the recognition that the extreme economic inequality of US capitalism is inextricably linked to the racism and violence that permeates it’s social life. The movement has created profound ideological upheaval at every level.

The first target was the racist violence of the police and the state bureaucracies that defend them when they kill. Now, instances of police brutality – against Black people, but not only – are suddenly being met with rapid suspensions and charges against the perpetrators, while demoralised pigs resign en masse. Florida’s SWAT team and the riot-control squad of Buffalo, New York, have basically abolished themselves, with their officers quitting because they can’t handle being held even partially accountable for their thuggish behaviour.

But the movement has also challenged the unreckoned-with legacy of slavery, segregation, colonialism, and imperialism, a legacy which pervades almost every social institution. It is symbolically expressed in the statues of notorious white supremacists, many of which were erected during the Jim Crow era to demonstrate the local capitalists’ resentment at the end of slavery and intention to keep doing what they could to disenfranchise Black people. The movement’s broad horizons were displayed in the early decision of protesters to target the White House – a building not usually associated with the concept of policing, but more an emblem of the entire US political and social system.

And now the campaign to defund or abolish the police, although it seems at first to focus narrowly on the question of repressive state power, actually raises much broader economic and social questions. For those who worry that the movement against racism is doomed to be co-opted into liberal posturing and virtue signalling, this is a sign of a very healthy dynamic towards a confrontation with the deep structures of economic and social inequality.

But the slogans of “defunding” and “abolishing” themselves contain tricky nuances and complexities. There’s now a cottage industry of articles in mainstream newspapers with titles like: “What would efforts to defund or disband police departments really mean?

There’s not always a clear differentiation between the notions of “defunding” and “abolition”. Consider the dialogue at the now celebrated failure by Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey to ingratiate himself with protesters:

Protest leader: “Yes or no, will you defund the Minneapolis Police Department? Be quiet y’all, it’s important that we actually hear this, because if y’all don't know, he’s up for re-election next year... and if he says no, guess what the fuck we're gonna do next year?”

Frey: “I do not support the full abolition of the police department.”

Protester: “All right, then get the fuck out of here.”

At that admission from Frey, the crowd exploded into a roar of disapproval, chanting “Go home, Jacob, go home”. Clearly, both Frey and the protesters considered defunding and abolishing to be pretty much the same thing.

More mainstream liberal voices have published reassuring articles that argue police abolition is really just a different way of saying reform. “A long-simmering movement for police abolition has become part of the national conversation, recast slightly as a call to ‘defund the police’,” wrote Christy Lopez, director of Georgetown Law School’s “Innovative Policing Program”, in the Washington Post, Be not afraid. ‘Defunding the police’ is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds.”

On the other side, there’s Mariame Kaba’s article in the New York Times: “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish The Police”. Kaba is a Black prison abolition activist. Her article is one of the most left wing articulations of the abolitionist position. It puts a heavy emphasis on fighting against economic and social inequality. But even that piece quotes, with apparent approval, Tracy Meares, of the authors of Obama’s post-Ferguson Task Force on 21st Century Policing: “policing as we know it must be abolished before it can be transformed” (emphasis added). Elsewhere, Kaba has, in her own words, described the meaning of prison abolition: “complete and utter dismantling of prison and policing and surveillance as they currently exist” (again, emphasis added).

Phrases like “as we know it” or “as they currently exist” tend to make their way into a lot of articles about abolition. That’s when the conceptual lines between abolishing, defunding, and reforming the police can get a little blurred.

Ambiguity around the term “abolition” sometimes makes it possible for the liberal establishment Democrats to champion the concept. The measure of success is much vaguer than that of more clear-cut demands like disarming police or cutting their budgets. You know when police have been defunded, and you know when they’ve been disarmed. But it’s surprisingly hard to tell when they’ve been abolished. “The whole world is watching. We can declare policing as we know it a thing of the past,” wrote Steve Fletcher, one of the Democrats who dominate the Minneapolis city council. But the much vaunted council-approved “dismantling” of the police in Minneapolis has turned out in practice to be a year-long feasibility study into various kinds of police reform.

Camden, New Jersey, has been held up as a model of a city that supposedly “dismantled” its police department. But its police chief marched at the head of the recent protests. How can a city that dismantled its police department still have a police chief? Because having dismantled the city police – as part of a statewide austerity program, not the mayor’s sudden conversion to anarchism – Camden reconstructed a new, very well-funded police force under the authority of the county government, with lots of standard community policing reforms. The newly hired officers were instructed to knock on doors and patrol streets, get to know the community, host basketball games and barbecues. This stuff isn’t abolition in any meaningful sense: it’s a neighbourhood panopticon, involving a lot of the expensive rebranding efforts now being derided as mere “reform”. And yet Camden is upheld as an abolitionist model: “the city that really did abolish its police”.

Behind the ambiguity of some of the slogans, the reality is relatively straightforward. Cops are cops everywhere: a brutal, racist clique of gangsters who can intimidate at will and which the authorities depend on to maintain capitalist order and protect their power. As long as capitalism exists, the police will not be abolished. A society based on inequality and exploitation needs violence and repression to keep the oppressed in line. Cities like Camden might abolish the police “as we know it”, but they’ll only return in a rebranded form – maybe with a little less of the overt sadism, but still a violent, discriminatory, and repressive force presenting itself as the defender of safety and order.

To really “abolish” the police would mean allowing workers to deal with problems in our communities as we see fit, without armed agents representing our rulers intervening. That would require a lot more than cutting cop budgets and redistributing wealth. The working class would have to be organised and empowered to settle disputes collectively. Such a situation would be completely incompatible with capitalism, where the unchallenged rule of capitalists in the workplace and cops in the street requires workers to exist as passive, isolated individuals. Cities and towns in which the working class run their own affairs, and the capitalist state is powerless to intercede, are cities and towns in which the political rule of the capitalist class has been overthrown.

To try to create a simulation of that while capitalism still exists is to fall into the mirage of “community policing”. The real end of the police will come when the working class can collectively organise a society based on satisfying human needs, rather than a society organised by the power of an exploiting class and the domination of a bureaucratic state.

Cops should be defunded, with the cuts as deep and far-reaching as possible. They should be disarmed – not just of their military-grade weapons, but of their sidearms they use to settle disputes. They should be treated with scorn and seen as enemies. Poverty shouldn’t be criminalised, and the poor should have access to decent welfare and employment: that should be funded not just by ripping money from police department budgets, but by attacking the accumulated wealth of the capitalists whose system the police defend. These would be positive developments in their own right, and they might, if you squint your eyes, look like the “abolition” of the police as we know them. But the police would still be there, temporarily weakened and on the defensive perhaps, but ready to step in where needed to protect the status quo.

Activists have to keep fighting to make prisons and police as irrelevant as possible while also fighting for the dignity and wellbeing of the oppressed.

But to really create a world without police and prisons – without a force dedicated to upholding the fundamental inequalities of a society built on exploitation – it won’t be enough to just cut their budgets or take away their most powerful guns. Nor is it enough to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. We have to create a society that isn’t divided into a ruling class, which owns property and gives orders, and the working class, which must be policed and intimidated so that it better submits to conditions of exploitation.

The militarisation and racism of the police are symptoms of a society based on fundamental principles of inequality and oppression. We can’t defund the capitalist state to death: we’ll have to overthrow it in a revolution and reconstruct a society based on collective cooperation, to make unnecessary the gang violence that today we call law enforcement.

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