Abolish the Police (and Prisons)!

The world-wide demonstrations that were triggered by the police lynching of George Floyd on May 26 are now embracing what once appeared as a shockingly extreme demand: abolish the police!

The demand surfaced first in the Minneapolis protests and was powerfully made indeed when protestors on the first night of the insurrection burned the Third Precinct to the ground.

Over the course of the one month of continual protests since then (in 2000 American cities and towns and over 60 other countries) this demand has begun to receive widespread legitimacy for the first time.

This might be the most important impact of the current uprisings so far.

Here’s why.

‘Progressive’ politicians and police chiefs have been promising to reform the police for nearly fifty years. When police and the FBI assassinated leaders of the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement in the 1960s and 1970s under the COINELPRO program, politicians called for reforming the police.  After Philadelphia police dropped bombs on the headquarters of a Black nationalist organization in 1985, killing six members and five of their children and burning down 65 houses, there were calls to reform the police. After four New York City plainclothes cops killed Amadou Diallo in 1999, after Bay Area Transit cops killed Oscar Grant in 2009, there were calls to reform the police.

But all the police reform efforts were doomed to failure. By the late 1980s, every police department in the U.S. had been militarized by Federal and state programs under the so-called War on Drugs. Bu the 1990s, virtually every police department had a SWAT team, and was receiving training and equipment and new recruits from the U.S. military and at times the Israeli Army. Whatever their previous histories, every police department in the United States was transformed into a military occupation force, trained to view policing as the pacification of a potentially insurgent civilian population.

The militarization of the police was explicitly conceived of as a racial project. In 1968, Richard Nixon had been elected President by ‘the Silent Majority’ of suburban and Southern whites because he had called for the ‘restoration of law and order’ to quell Black-led urban insurrections. Reagan’s War on Drugs in the 1980s explicitly targeted Black and Latinx communities as ‘drug-infested neighborhoods’ in order to justify police occupation. From 1986 onward, the increasing reliance on police violence created a system of mass incarceration with more citizens behind bars than any other country in the world.  By the early 2000s, some 72% of the prison populations was non-white.

The use of force to pacify Black and Latinx communities was necessitated by the logic of the new neo-liberal order, which, in the name of economic efficiency doomed more and more people of color to low-wage jobs, public schools stripped of all meaningful educational resources, the termination of public health and mental health services, reduced access to low-income housing, and unleashed of gentrification onto these communities. Neo-liberalism was a force that was tantamount to physical and cultural genocide.

The demand to abolish the police is a call to rethink public safety as a whole”

The demand to abolish the police is therefore a call to dismantle far more than racist police departments: it is a call for this nation to rethink public safety as a whole. To do that will mean undoing the neo-liberal order that necessitated militarized policing in the first place.

The question implied by the demand to abolish the police is simple: what do we mean by public safety? We can certainly say this:  People feel safe when they are not afraid of police or anyone else bursting into their homes or randomly stopping them on the streets in encounters that too often lead to their deaths. People feel safe when they know they will be rewarded with a decent standard of living for their hard work. People feel safe when they can get a high-quality education and learn how to think for themselves. People feel safe when they have access to health care. People feel safe when they live in places where they know their neighbors and share a real pride in their community. They feel safe when they are not threatened by environmental disasters.

In other words, real public safety means rethinking our investment priorities. It means taxing wealth and limiting profits. It means a guaranteed high minimum wage. It means spending trillions of dollars on education, health care, and housing. Why should we invest trillions of dollars in war, police and prisons? Why should the top 1% get 90% of the wealth?

Abolishing the police certainly does not mean abolishing law enforcement. In a just society, we will need to enforce tax laws (on wealthy people) and fair working laws and environmental laws (on corporations) and housing laws (on landlords). The main people responsible for maintaining community safety will not be cops. They will be well-resourced educators, health professionals, religious leaders, and most importantly, community-based organizers.

Let’s be clear about it: this simple vision for public safety requires a massive reconstruction of American society. It means a new economy that is based on investment in production and not investment in financial speculation; it means an economy with guaranteed full employment and high enough minimum wages to abolish poverty; it means investing in an excellent educational system at all levels, universal and free health care. 

The demand to defund the police is also closely tied to the demand to abolish prisons. If we can imagine a new way to think about public safety, we can surely think of better ways to take care of the 2 million people now populating America’s prisons: people who have been damaged by racism and poverty.

The growing popularity of the demand to defund the police shows us that this new world is not as far away as it seemed before COVID. The pandemic has revealed in very stark ways the failures of neo-liberalism. Anyone of conscience can see that the disinvestment in public health has left the United States very vulnerable; everyone can see the injustice of a $3 trillion economic recovery act that left hundreds of millions of Americans poor and lined the pockets of investors. And the operation of racism in this crisis has been vulgar and obvious to all: millions of Latinx and Black ‘essential’ workers forced into unsafe work conditions developing high levels of infection; the unchecked disease ravaging many Native American communities; the callous disregard for the dangerous conditions in America’s prisons and jails, etc.

In a strange way, George Floyd’s terrible last words—“I can’t breathe’—mirror the feelings of a large majority of this nation, who are experiencing the pandemic as an assault on their livelihoods, their families, and their hopes and dreams.

We are at a moment when the neo-liberal order itself is teetering, and ready to fall. Let us have the courage to demand the restructuring of American society that should—no, must—begin with the demand arising from America’s streets: Defund the Police!

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