Four years ago, the Coalition Against Police Crimes launched Re-imagining Public Safety as a public education campaign to disclose how much money the City of St. Louis was spending on a failed arrest-and-incarceration model. The workshops that took place all over the city allowed participants to re-imagine what real public safety could look like if those millions of dollars were invested in human needs.
Fast forward to the demand to Defund the Police, and we hear those same local conversations amplified in national debates.
Black Lives Matter protesters have been in the streets since the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cops. The demand from the streets to defund police departments has resounded across the country because cities have come to the same realization. The budgets of police continue to balloon while social services and programs get cut. “Defund the Police” means different things to different people, and the meaning falls along a wide spectrum.
BLM activists and allies are demanding that police be taken out of schools, the end to SWAT and chokeholds, the use of mandatory police body cameras, the end to hyper-surveillance, and the ban of so-called nonlethal weapons such as flash bangs, rubber bullets, tear gas and bean bag ammo. Savings would be pumped into community mental health services, housing programs, youth recreation, training and employment, childcare, parks, and education.
In Chicago, the police had a $33 million contract for resource officers when counselors and nurses are all but absent. These lucrative contracts keep police employed and contribute mightily to the school-to-prison pipeline. Millions of students attend schools were there are no counselors, nurses, psychologists, or social workers. Investment in these positions would better address the challenges our young people face.
Many Defund advocates are abolitionists interested in decreasing the size and scope of police departments until they no longer exist as we know them. Their belief is that given the origin of police in slave patrols, there is no reforming the institution. Nothing short of abolition will do. The only issue up for debate is how long abolition will take.
What we don’t need to spend money on is another damn study! Some would argue that training—of any kind—for police is a waste of tax dollars. Implicit bias training has not ebbed the contempt of white officers towards Black and Brown people. Body cams have not been that helpful in convicting cops, only traumatizing us more as we take in the horrific images of police murder re-runs.
Sacred police budgets have continued to increase even in the face of declining violent crimes. The budgets are untouchable during city financial crises. St. Louis city has a $40 million budget shortfall due to the COVID-19 crisis. Will the city budget be balanced on the backs of Black working people, the very victims of police violence?
Knocking down Confederate statutes or making changes to Aunt Jemima on the pancake box are symbols of white supremacy. Let’s not get the strategy twisted. Dealing with those symbolic reminders of oppression are important but they don’t change the real power dynamics in this country. If they changed Jemima’s name to Zuri and put her in African attire, police terrorism of Black communities would not stop. If Juneteenth were made a national holiday tomorrow, we would still have a huge racial income gap in this country.
While communities are united in the moment around the need for some kind of police reform, let us center ourselves on a few key guiding principles. We should not support any reforms that consolidate state or corporate power. We should not lend resources or support any policy that harms Black lives. And we should work toward a genuine re-alignment of political and economic power.