Defund the Police and Refund the Communities

Crisis Cities is a public symposium on the 2020 crises and their impact on urban life, co-organized by Public Books and the NYU Cities Collaborative. Read series editor Thomas Sugrue’s introduction, “Preexisting Conditions,” here.
The dueling crises of the pandemic and police brutality have brought many problems to the surface of our society and made them impossible to continue to ignore.
Defund the Police and Refund the Communities

The United States remains locked in a vise of crisis. The pandemic continues to tromp through the country, surging unabated, raging like a California wildfire. More than 240,000 people have died as the nation now braces for a predicted fall and winter surge. Instances of police violence have been met with sustained protests that may last for days or weeks in one locality, only to give way to another publicized case of police abuse elsewhere, igniting a new round of local demonstrations and demands for change. While police brutality has been the sharpest edge of the country’s racial crisis, that crisis’s most enduring manifestations—in housing, education, health care, and employment—are getting worse as the pandemic recession deepens.

These crises are not unfolding in parallel; instead they are linked in a national unraveling exacerbated by simultaneous avoidance and instigation by Donald Trump. Where Trump has consistently downplayed the significance of the virus, even when infected with it, and ignored the wider social crises that are becoming more entrenched the longer they remain unattended, he has just as vociferously demanded law and order, effusively praised the police, and egged on the violent right-wing fringe that makes up a portion of his base of supporters. The result has been to make a historically bad situation feel, at times, unbearable.

New predictions warn that the US could near 300,000 deaths by the end of the year. While a threat to the country as a whole, the virus’s spread is particularly dire for African Americans, as Black communities across the country have suffered the heaviest burden. Belying their minority status, Black Americans are massively overrepresented among the dead, dying at three times the rate of their white peers. By August 2020, COVID-19 had become the third leading cause of death for African Americans.

The deep and pervasive inequities exposed by this government’s failed efforts to stem the extraordinary transmission of the virus were overlaid with the stresses of a crumbling economy that threatened to wipe out the meager wages and salaries that were keeping Black families above water. Nationally, unemployment stands at 6.9 percent, but for African Americans, it is nearly 11 percent. So, the violence of police, which has been the main propellant pushing people into the streets, only underscores the inequities that continue to dog Black communities. The added burden of police harassment compounds the existing frustrations that circulate in place of opportunities robbed by racism. In the pandemic, the deprivation is raw, acute, deadly. Tensions are high, and tolerance for the typical humiliation of police interactions is decidedly short.

No government in the midst of a global pandemic could guarantee the protection of everyone, but the US government has barely tried.

This is a dynamic that will not easily be undone. The social mechanisms that should be in place to respond to these crises don’t exist and have not been invented. The scale of the crisis has surpassed the financial meltdown in 2008, and yet our government, led by a cabal of narcissistic millionaires with a palpable hatred for even the idea that government resources would be used to help people, has dithered in the face of generational catastrophe. But to blame these issues on Trump alone would be to ignore how years of bipartisanly inspired wars, austerity, racism, and retrenchment have impaired and undermined the state’s capacities to respond in meaningful ways. At a time when millions of people need unprecedented public intervention to stave off the worst effects of these crises, the stewards of government struggle to pursue plans that can rescue those standing on the edge of a financial precipice. The dueling crises of the pandemic and police brutality have brought these problems—typically hidden or not a part of public conversation—to the surface of our society and made them impossible to continue to ignore.

In their wake is the sobering possibility that the tools offered to fix these problems—whether they be temporary eviction moratoria, temporary enhanced unemployment payments, or cultural-competency programming for police—are wholly inadequate to end the problems for which they are prescribed, thus creating the possibilities of ongoing, deepening, and widespread anger and bitterness. The pandemic and police brutality, as well as the protests the latter provokes, are the most urgent problems, because they are the most disruptive to maintaining social equilibrium. But the deeper roots lie in persisting social, political, and economic inequality. When young activists speak of “dismantling systems,” these are the networks of destruction they are attempting to identify.

Of course, no government in the midst of a global pandemic could guarantee the protection of everyone, but the US government has barely tried. This is because doing so would require a rejection of principles deeply ingrained in this country’s governance over the last 40 or so years, as public aid and assistance have been demonized and treated as worse than the conditions they are supposed to cure. The result has been the diminution of public programs combined with a rigid call for greater personal responsibility as the surest prophylactic against the trials and tribulations of life in late capitalism.

The imprint of this thinking couldn’t be clearer during the pandemic. Government mandates have been replaced by appeals to personal responsibility. Last July, when Tennessee experienced its highest single-day coronavirus-case increase yet, the governor, Bill Lee, blamed the citizens of his state: “When we have people dying in this state as a result of this virus, we should be taking personal responsibility for this.” The Republican governor of South Carolina insisted, “We cannot keep businesses closed forever. … What it boils down to is, we must be careful individually.”

Millions of workers had to either return to jobs that threatened their health or risk losing their benefits. Here is where race and class violently intersect: working-class African Americans are concentrated in jobs that make them vulnerable to being exposed to the virus. Since the onset of the pandemic, these jobs have been arbitrarily described as “essential,” even though the pay offered and protections available to those workers reveal these positions as more marginal than anything else. While American billionaires have become $583 billion richer since the onset of the virus, millions more ordinary people have lost health care, housing, jobs, and any sense of security. The optics are cruel: the well-off and elite take refuge away from the threat of the virus, buffered by the bodies of poor workers forced to labor under threat of disease.

But without state and national governments’ imprimatur of coordinated guidelines and a massive deployment of federal resources that could allow people to safely isolate without fear of economic collapse, all the personal willpower in the world could not prevent the spread of an airborne virus. That was never in the works. Instead, there was a one-time payment of $1,200 for those lucky enough to qualify. There was enhanced unemployment for those capable of navigating systems to apply for unemployment that had been sabotaged by public officials hoping to dissuade the unemployed from exercising their right to unemployment insurance.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the state underestimated or completely failed to calculate how the virus’s disproportionate impact on Black communities would converge with existing frustrations and bitterness over racist police abuse and unleash the most violent and sustained uprising in a generation. They also underestimated the ways that white people would realize their own vulnerabilities, exposed through the spread of the virus, and join with Black people in revolt against a deadly, stultifying status quo. According to analyses from the New York Times, 10s of millions of Americans have participated in Black Lives Matter protests.

The protests were spread across 2,500 large cities and small, mostly white cities like Portland, ME, and Boise, ID. This momentum not only points to a developing solidarity built over several years of Black activism demanding white people take action against racism; it also speaks to the growing insecurity that pervades the lives of ordinary white people. The worst toll of these conditions has unquestionably fallen on Black communities. It can be measured in the weight of the growing numbers felled by the virus. But among working-class whites, the impact of this crisis is undeniable, as the economy comes to a halt and our virtually nonexistent social-welfare state, with its appalling inadequacies, fails to function. When this reality is layered atop mounting student-loan debt and medical-care debt, as well as a future that is so clouded by ambiguity and insecurity that it is impossible to see what it holds, Black protests offered a way out, a potential direction toward clarity and purpose.

This realization among 10s of millions has laid the foundation for a genuine resistance to the status quo we face today. It is an unprecedented outpouring. At its heart was the fury that fueled nights of fires and looting. But for stretches of days into weeks, there were peaceful protests involving dozens to 10s of thousands of ordinary people. These protests were sustained by quickly generalizing beyond the specific issue of police brutality, just as the BLM movement in 2014–16 had done earlier. The movement has mostly come to focus on defunding police agencies and redistributing those resources to other, underresourced public services.

Since an aversion to taxing wealthy individuals and corporations has left local governments ill prepared to effectively respond to local crises of poverty and unemployment, they turn to policing to manage the inevitable problems that arise in the absence of a robust economy and given a threadbare safety net. In cities across the country, then, law enforcement takes up enormous portions of local budgets. Cities have also become used to paying out 10s of millions more to settle lawsuits in response to police killings or police brutality; those sums are written off as the cost of doing business.

The pivot to “defund the police” operates on a visceral level and a practical level. The US spends nearly $100 billion a year on policing alone. This does not include the 10s of billions of dollars spent to maintain the criminal-justice system. Reducing funds for police may lower the numbers of police, which can limit the contact between law enforcement and those communities they occupy. Less contact lowers the possibility of police harassment, violence, and, in some cases, murder. Through this process, all of the racist assumptions that are reinforced by the presence of police may also be undermined.

Those who claim that the demand to defund the police is too extreme fail to grasp the evolution of the demand. It is only because of the continued failure of more moderate strategies to rein in the police that activists are then drawn to “extreme” solutions. While the general public’s attitudes concerning police seem to have liberalized over the last several years, American police seem even more violent, racist, and impervious to the mildest of reform.

If the pandemic has revealed what is broken in our society, then redistributing public dollars away from law and order and back toward treatment and care is the solution.

In city after city, cell-phone recordings have captured brutish behavior by public servants tasked with defending the public good. Police in New York City have driven their cars through throngs of protesters, mimicking a tactic popularized by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, VA, in 2017. Police have been captured on tape beating nonviolent protestors, fraternizing with white militia members, cavorting with white supremacists, and wantonly discharging tear gas, rubber bullets, and other weapons against unarmed residents. If one were to turn down the sound on the coverage, it would be impossible to spot the difference in law-enforcement tactics between the US and Hong Kong or Belarus—all brutalizing a gathering public at the behest of authoritarian leaders. In the face of this repression, requesting fewer funds to choke the beast of racist police terror appears very reasonable to many activists.

These calls for the redistribution of funds from policing to public services were easy conclusions to reach as the pandemic continued to push the broken parts of our society to the surface. Where states struggled to gather PPE for health-care workers, police in cities across the country were armed to the teeth and outfitted in the latest and most expensive gear and devices. But there have been other questions: Why are our public schools’ HVAC systems so outdated that schools are forced to remain closed because administrators cannot ensure the circulation of fresh air in the buildings? Why is there so little affordable housing that people must endure the threat of eviction in the midst of a public-health crisis?

The contradictions and lies that connect the pandemic to the quotidian spectacle of racist police violence are blatant. Where localities struggled with the simplest forms of coordination between city and state and national government, the deployment of national-guard troops along with local police appeared to be done with ease and rapidity. The police state was cohesive and coherent in all the ways that the public-health state and the broader social-welfare state had failed.

We are, of course, a long way from defunding the police. But no social movement shapes its agenda by what is most pragmatic and least contentious. Instead, movements begin with what they want and believe to be necessary. If the pandemic has revealed what is broken in our society, then redistributing public dollars away from law and order and back toward treatment and care is the solution. We need public schools, housing, hospitals, and libraries that are funded akin to how cities and states fund their police departments and pay for their prisons and jails. These redistributed funds would not be enough to finance an ailing public sector or to help create the kinds of jobs that are necessary to restore hope and excitement about the future. But they would be a step in the right direction and away from the violence of the police. The scale of the protests and the intensity of the anger can be terrifying and exciting, as both illuminated a way out of the darkness of this long winter threatening never to end. But the frenzy of a June uprising brought spring and all its hope and expectation of renewal, vitality, life. icon

Featured image: Black Lives Matter protest, marching from Dupont Circle to the White House on June 7, 2020. Photograph by Victoria Pickering / Flickr