by Alycia Ramirez
Since the death of George Floyd last spring, the term “Defund the Police” has jumped into the public conscientious, but not by some twist in fate or happenstance. The fight for police accountability and reform has been a generations-long battle, which has coalesced into what we see today with the Defund the Police movement.
In over 100 years of policing there has been repeated violence directed at Black and Brown communities at the hands of police, and little meaningful reform to stop or reduce it. White America may be just fine with doing the absolute bare minimum and maintaining the status quo, but marginalized communities may not be so willing to endure another century of violence directed at them.
The uncomfortable truth is that police forces were originally created in our nation for the purpose of upholding white supremacy. They were slave catchers, created for the explicit purpose of capturing runaway slaves.
Even in today’s modern era of policing there is evidence of clear connections between members of law enforcement and white supremacist, extremist groups. The recently attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol is widely believed by the nation’s military allies to have had tactical support from some within law enforcement. Two of the Seattle Police Department’s own officers are under investigation for being in Washington, D.C. during the insurrection. The Seattle Police Officers Guild’s president is being criticized widely for his public comments falsely blaming the Black Lives Matter movement for what happened at the U.S. Capitol.
George Floyd’s death was the spark that ignited the flame of the Defund the Police campaign. Billions of dollars are poured into our police departments across the country annually ($194 Billion was spent on police and incarceration by local, state, and federal governments in 2017) with no evidence that this has improved public safety or reduced crime. What this funded police surveillance has done, however, is cause harm to Black and Brown communities. According to a recent study, 1 out of every 1,000 Black men can be expected to be shot and killed by police, and in 2018 the American Public Health Association declared police violence a public health issue, which disproportionately affects BIPOC and other marginalized communities.
While our communities continue to suffer from devaluation of assets and the effects of generations of systematic racism, more money has been pumped into police agencies while fatal police shootings have continued to rise.
There has been some success with passing reforms, such as Initiative I-940 here in Washington which passed in 2018 and resulted in an Auburn, WA police officer being criminally charged in the death of a young man named Jesse Saray. These changes brought about the rise of citizen review boards and officer-worn body cameras nationally. However, neither these or any collective attempts at reform have been enough to change the deeply racist culture of policing or prevent the deaths of People of Color. As of this writing, 2,418 Black and Hispanic people have been shot and killed by police in the last 5 years alone, in large part because of this racist culture. Some of the most recognized of these victims include Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Philando Castille, Botham Jean, Rayshard Brooks, and Breonna Taylor.
Defunding calls for dollars from over-bloated police budgets to be diverted into Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities, and invested into civilian-led and operated mental health and social welfare services. The exact dollar amount and demands will vary from community to community, but the underpinning belief is the same: Police aren’t the answer to all of society’s problems and investing in underinvested communities is more effective in tackling the root causes of crime and poverty. It is a call to action which has been adopted in cities across the U.S. The Minneapolis City Council voted to divert $8-million dollars from the police department to fund services such as violence prevention and mental health crisis response teams. Here in Seattle, the City Council voted to divert 18% of the police department’s budget to BIPOC communities, a community participatory budgeting process, and civilianizing 911, among other things.
Despite all this, I’ve heard countless, well-meaning, mostly white colleagues and Democratic Party moderates insist Defund the Police is a bad slogan and should be altered to be more politically friendly. Terms like “reimagine policing” or just “reform the police” have been offered insistently as alternatives, both of which water down the intent and, ironically, change it from a call to action to a vague slogan.
The second most common counterpoint I hear is that the phrase has to be repeatedly explained or makes people uncomfortable. The conversation it generates is actually part of the point. It takes time to move the needle of public consciousness (e.g. the Civil Rights Movement that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act lasted over 15 years). Even the anti-segregation protests of the time, did not initially have public support, with 57% of the public believing lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides in the early ‘60s were hurting chances of integration. We know now both tactics played a pivotal role in desegregation of public establishments, but white America was, and still is, very uncomfortable with directly addressing the systemic racism that has shaped our nation and our laws.
We must begin to acknowledge how racism has shaped our policing and have those hard conversations. Ignoring them and refusing to address the culture of violent racism and extremism within police departments isn’t politically savvy, it is dangerous, especially for BIPOC communities.
I’ve even heard the argument, again from mostly white moderates, that we should converse around the rallying cry “I can’t breathe” instead of “Defund the Police,” as if repeating our trauma over and over again, without addressing the cause of that trauma, is a better and less insulting option.
It should be no surprise BIPOC communities birthed the “defund” concept. Concepts of community-based policing and welfare systems have been advanced since the early 1900s by famous Black thinkers and leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers. These ideas have evolved into today’s Defund the Police movement. From the fight against segregation to this movement, BIPOC communities have been at the forefront of the struggle for racial equality. It is their voices who should continue to lead the political and social fight against institutional racism, and white allies who should be listening and uplifting those voices.
Alycia Ramirez is a community organizer active in the Seattle area with her primary focus being immigrant rights, anti-racism, and demilitarization of law enforcement agencies at the state and local level.
Featured Image: South End community members attend a Defund SPD caravan and rally held at Rainier Beach Community Center Sept. 7, 2020. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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