During last year’s uprisings against the ongoing anti-Black violence of police, “defund the police” emerged as the demand and rallying cry. Today, as we mark one year since George Floyd was murdered in the Cup Foods parking lot in Minneapolis by police, abolitionist organizers are still issuing that call, waging fights to defund police and invest in their communities — and experimenting with more holistic ways to keep communities safe.
In the past year, defund police campaigns have seen material wins, gained traction and grown in numbers. As Interrupting Criminalization’s recent report The Demand is Still Defund breaks down, over $840 million dollars were cut from local police departments and $160 million of community investments were won by defund police organizers across the country in 2020. These wins include: the first cut to the Minneapolis Police Department’s budget in 20 years, a 20 percent reduction in the Seattle Police Department’s budget, a budget cut and hiring freeze for the Salt Lake City Police Department, the passage of a Los Angeles County ballot measure requiring 10 percent of unrestricted county funds to be reinvested into community programs and not police, and many more.
In Durham, North Carolina, the city’s Community Safety and Wellness Task Force had its first official meeting in April and is planning how to allocate the city’s $1 million commitment toward alternatives to police. This task force was won in 2019 through the organizing of the Durham Beyond Policing coalition (DBP), which initially formed in protest against Durham’s plans to construct a new $71 million police headquarters in 2016. DBP organizer Manju Rajendran, who sits on the new task force, explained: “It would be a failure to use that space to perpetuate the same mistakes where we try to gently bend policing to make it friendlier. We are proposing something that has not been done yet, which is dismantle the policing and prison systems.”
The sentiment that we have a responsibility to create transformative solutions beyond minor reforms sums up a guiding principle behind abolitionist and defund police organizing. Defund organizers like Rajendran are clear that police killings will not end without taking resources away from the police because power is the heart of the problem. Police have too much power and Black and other marginalized communities have too little.
Interrupting Criminalization’s report affirms the wins of the movement in the short period of the last year, but warns against taking all police budget cuts at face value. The 50 largest cities in the U.S. cut 2021 police budgets by 5.2 percent in total, but many in the context of across-the-board cuts to city budgets. In other places, money was “cut” but then still ultimately given to police in another way. In Dallas, for example, where protests lasted daily for over 120 days last year through the hot summer, $7 million was cut from the police overtime budget but police were then given a similar amount to what had been cut to buy “non-lethal weapons” — a category that includes pepper spray, batons and tasers, which have actually been used by police to kill and severely injure, like in the police killing of Dominique “Damo” Franklin who was fatally tased by a Chicago police officer in 2014.
“Defund the police” has always been shorthand for a two-part demand: It is just as much about investing in thriving communities as it is about divesting from policing. Organizers of the local In Defense of Black Lives Dallas coalition surveyed hundreds of Dallas residents last year to create a People’s Budget in favor of cutting Dallas Police Department’s budget by $200 million and reinvesting in community care. Their current demands include funding for a non-police violence prevention office, mental health programs, emergency housing, economic development, recovery for the impacts of the pandemic and the unprecedented winter storm that hit the U.S. South this year, as well as decriminalization of poverty. The summer before George Floyd was murdered, an influx of state troopers was deployed to Dallas to address community violence, resulting in daily police harassment of local residents. On top of this, the winter storm resulted in deaths, displacement, economic hardship, damage to people’s homes and exorbitant debts to exploitative gas companies. In Defense of Black Lives Dallas’s platform is about defunding police in order to offer real solutions that get at the roots of interconnected problems of policing, structural violence and community violence. Mercedes Fulbright of In Defense of Black Lives explains that the coalition wants to “focus more on the affirmative, liberatory vision” in this year’s efforts.
Regardless of indications of growing public support for reallocating funds from police at least in certain places, many decision-makers, including many self-proclaimed “progressives” have been hostile targets for defund organizing. In Chicago, where there is a robust movement behind demands to defund police, the city’s official 2020 budget survey filled out by tens of thousands of residents showed that 87 percent of Chicagoans favored reallocating police funds toward other programs. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, however, has rooted herself firmly in opposition, not only claiming that she would never defund the police, but actually giving the Chicago Police Department (CPD) hundreds of millions of Chicago’s COVID relief dollars instead of channeling them toward needed programs to support struggling residents. In Atlanta, after the police murder of Rayshard Brooks last June, progressive city council member Antonio Brown proposed reallocating a third of the $218 million police budget toward social services. Hundreds of residents gave public testimony calling for defunding the Atlanta Police Department. The council deliberated for two days, but ultimately struck the proposal down.
When policy makers oppose defunding the police, one of the most common arguments they use is the idea that we need police in order to address crime, harm and violence. The reality is, however, that the “solutions” we get by funding police are not really solutions at all. For example, many local police departments contract with ShotSpotter, a gunshot detection technology which is advertised as a tool for addressing gun violence. However, not only is ShotSpotter ineffective in doing what it claims to do, it adds to the problem of gun violence. According to the MacArthur Justice Center, “the ShotSpotter system sends police on thousands of unfounded and high-intensity deployments, which are focused almost exclusively in Black and Latinx communities.” Eighty-six percent of the time an armed officer is deployed by ShotSpotter, no crime is reported at all. The least violent outcome of a program like ShotSpotter is that public dollars pay an officer to attend to a false alarm and a private company’s profits. The more violent outcome is that someone gets killed, like 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who was killed by a police officer in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood after ShotSpotter detected shots and officers pursued Toledo with guns drawn.
Despite some narratives, those of us advocating for abolitionist approaches including defunding police are actually deeply concerned with violence and addressing the root causes of both structural and interpersonal violence with thoughtful, holistic and transformative change. We simply cannot afford to continue resourcing a system that so consistently kills our people.
Given that many policy makers remain committed to this deadly system, one important piece of the work of visionary movements is pushing those unwilling to meet movement demands out of power. Black organizers in St. Louis recently celebrated creating the conditions in which the incumbent mayor decided not to run for reelection, making way for young, Black progressive Tishaura Jones to win and pass a budget amendment to defund St Louis Metropolitan Police Department by $4 million in her first days in office. Other examples of this work include campaigns like Chicago’s #ByeAnita campaign which helped oust State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in 2016, and the less successful #StopLightfoot campaign that intervened in the campaign of current Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Other campaigns are creating political consequences for progressive politicians outside of campaign cycles. In Chicago during last year’s budget cycle, when city council members flip-flopped on movement demands of communities that helped get more progressive candidates in their seat, those same communities called them out. In the case of formerly DSA-backed Council Member Andre Vasquez, Chicago’s DSA chapter publicly broke ties with him over his vote in favor of a pro-cop austerity budget.
While policing does remain the status quo, it is not a stable one. The truth is that part of police power is the stronghold they have on our imaginations. This happens through education, media, and the communications and press teams included in the bloated police budgets we want to cut that run smear campaigns of Black victims of police murder. That said, enormous numbers of people have come into the work of imagining safety beyond policing due to movement efforts of the last year and continue to be welcomed into participatory campaigns. “There’s everyday people looking for homes within coalitions like ours,” says Fulbright of In Defense of Black Lives Dallas, describing how more and more people are looking to join abolitionist groups. Opening one another’s eyes to the possibility of a better world in the face of fear and uncertainty is the important work of visionary movements, and the defund police movement has arguably done this work very well in the last year.
One year ago this week, many of us watched videos of a Minneapolis police station burn to the ground, wondering what would come of the political moment we were in. While there is still no shortage of unfinished business for the abolition movement, hundreds if not thousands of new and old campaigns, organizations and neighborhood crews have advanced fights to defund police in what has felt like the longest year ever. Looking toward the summer of 2021 and beyond, abolitionists are positioned to be engaged in deep community building, making sharp demands, continuing to protest, manifesting concrete wins, and offering a vision for a society with a different set of priorities that can benefit us all.