In his latest State of the Union address, President Joe Biden tried to kill movements to defund the police, saying: “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with resources and training.”
In one of the few moments of genuine bipartisanship, Biden earned a standing ovation from Democrats and Republicans for his declaration. He also garnered praise and encouragement from many Democratic observers. While some progressive lawmakers like Cori Bush criticized Biden’s statement, Douglas E. Schoen, former adviser to President Bill Clinton, claimed Biden’s remarks about policing represented a “high point” in the president’s domestic policy discussion.
The 2020 uprisings achieved an astonishing feat by launching the demand to defund police into mainstream discourse through protests and in the media. In addition to setting the terms for public debate around state violence and politicizing and radicalizing more Americans, the racial justice protests also led to other material outcomes. More than 160 statues came down as state violence pushed more people to reconsider the U.S.’s racist history. School boards and education officials in several major cities, including Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle and Oakland moved to kick police out of schools. The movement also enjoyed electoral wins. Residents of Austin, Texas, and a coalition of the local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter, the Travis County Democratic Party, and the county’s employees’ union defeated a proposition that would have expanded the city’s police force in November 2021 while Democratic Socialist Janeese Lewis George defeated a moderate incumbent to win a seat on the city council in Washington, D.C. by running on a defund platform.
However, some cities did not respond by cutting police budgets in any significant nor lasting way. In fact, Baltimore and Los Angeles Mayors Brandon Scott and Eric Garcetti sought to increase police funding in 2021; Scott proposed a budget that added $28 million to Baltimore’s half-billion-dollar plan. And after paying Black Lives Matter activists lip service amid the 2020 uprisings with his support of redistributing $150 million from the Los Angeles Police Department, Garcetti called for a 3 percent increase in policing. New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, did not cut police funding in his first proposed budget, and left the option open for increases after shifting police forces “from the desks to the streets.” Ultimately, Republicans and many Democrats have used “defund” in the same way as they responded to the emergence of “Black Lives Matter” — by trying to weaponize it in an attempt to suppress and discipline radical protests against racism and state violence, and to bolster police power.
Few people who’ve actually followed President Biden’s actions believe he actually supports an agenda that would confront violent policing. One need not only look to his history of support for past legislation, which contributed to the militarization of law enforcement and mass incarceration, but also to his current reformist policies. The assumptions undergirding Biden’s approach to public safety run diametrically opposite to that of Black Lives Matter — Biden’s focus is on flawed strategies for “addressing” violent crime through an expansion of policing, rather than on curtailing police power and creating the conditions to address the root causes of violence.
Biden’s approach relies on expanding federal police forces and giving law enforcement more power in states and localities. In its 2021 plan to address gun violence, the Biden administration called for increased funding to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and the creation of “strike forces” led by “designated United States Attorneys” working with state and local police to attempt to combat interstate gun trafficking in cities such as Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.
Moreover, the Biden administration allows localities to use American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to expand policing. States and cities are allowed to use a portion of the $350 billion distributed through the COVID relief plan to hire more police and to acquire more equipment if they can demonstrate an increase in violence due to the pandemic. Mayors Sylvester Turner of Houston, Texas; LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans, Louisiana; Paige Cognetti of Scranton, Pennsylvania; Jim Hovland of Edina, Minnesota; and Hardie Davis, Jr. of Augusta, Georgia, all remarked about their use of ARP funds to retain officers and purchase police cars in a series of videos for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
In addition to supporting more funding for police generally, strengthening the ATF and encouraging municipalities to allocate pandemic rescue funds to policing, the Biden administration is also calling for more investment in what it considers a peaceful approach to public safety: community violence intervention (CVI) programs, which seeks to take a localized approach to preventing violence. These programs often focus on a collaborative approach between police, community leaders and social workers to achieve this end. Initially, this pledge appears to be a step in a more nonviolent direction. The Biden administration reported that CVI programs “have been shown to reduce violence by as much as 60%.” Allowing municipalities to rely on ARP education funds, as well as financial resources from various foundations and the Microsoft Corporation, the Biden administration supported CVI programs in 15 cities, including many of the hot spots in the 2020 uprisings, such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia.
However, when one examines the program of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which is one of the Biden administration’s inspirations for adopting CVI, one notices that such a program is not ultimately a nonviolent one. The threat of zero tolerance and police violence lurks behind the carrot of “group violence interruption” (GVI), defined as: a “four-step, problem-oriented policing strategy” that seeks to identify a particular group responsible for disorder and use a combination of non-violent means (i.e., communication with suspected group and access to social services) and violent methods to mitigate harm.
According to the program:
Law enforcement representatives then deliver a message, in the most respectful terms possible, that if the community’s plea is ignored, then swift and sure legal action will be taken against any group responsible for a new act of lethal violence. This process is repeated until the intervention population understands that, at the request of the community, future shootings will bring strong law enforcement attention on any responsible groups. This creates a powerful “focused deterrence” effect that has been shown to rapidly reduce violent behavior.
The Giffords Law Center’s GVI program is, in practice, a traditional anti-gang initiative dressed up as liberal “community policing.” The report states that gun violence is often perpetrated by a group of individuals and the program is designed to neutralize this minority without referring “to those at the highest risk of shooting or being shot with pejorative terms such as gang members, thugs, or predators.” Like other police reforms such as New York’s ban on chokeholds or Seattle police relying on deescalation training, law enforcement-driven violence “interruption” hardly looks to be a panacea to address either community or police-perpetrated violence.
Now, of course, no person should live in fear of violence. And while it is necessary to have nuanced conversations about violence in the U.S., it is important to remember that the police contribute to gun violence in this country. According to the Washington Post, police set a record for fatal shootings in 2021 since they started recording incidents in 2015.
We need to continue organizing and advocating for an abolitionist approach to community safety. An anti-racist, anti-capitalist and feminist strategy to addressing violence and other forms of criminalized behavior would seek to dig deeper to pull out the roots of violence. Rather than only reacting to violent behaviors, an abolitionist approach would advocate for policies that transforms urban spaces, utilize participatory forms of economic development, advocate for a guaranteed income as an economic floor for everyone, while also devoting more resources to mental and emotional health.
When considering defunding the police, the question we should continue to raise to critics is: What would it mean to live in a nonviolent society? Or a society where more community-based democratic forms of justice prevail? Many Americans love to cite Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent philosophy when they want to discipline anti-racist protesters, but few really seek to take the notion of living in nonviolence seriously. Instead, Democrats, Republicans and police would rather attack a demand or a slogan because they do not want Americans raising fundamental questions about police authority and justice. We are not only supposed to accept police as a way of life, we are also expected to celebrate it. As the old neoliberal slogan goes, “There is no alternative.”
Yet one of the points of the defund campaign is to encourage us to use our imaginations to explore better alternatives. Organizations such as the Detroit Justice Center have undertaken this type of comprehensive approach to abolition. The organization facilitates political education around participatory budgeting and engaging in strategies from working to divest from incarceration to advocating for investing in community-based restorative justice centers, modernizing public schools. Project Nia and Interrupting Criminalization have also launched a political education project, “One Million Experiments,” that offers tools and examples of imaginative approaches to community care and disrupting violence and preventing harm.
Moreover, it is also important to remember that defunding police is not an ideology itself. It is a strategy — to raise questions about what kind of society we deserve and to organize toward building communities around more grassroots approaches to urban and economic development, public safety and justice. Defund is part of a broader path toward police abolition. Or as abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba has reminded us, “defund is the floor.”