Liberation Road

Why and How Socialists Should Build Support to #DefundPolice

Mary Jo Connelly is a member of Liberation Road’s Boston District

Mass support for the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) is moving many people to action against police brutality

After generations of organizing against the many different forms of violence that destroy Black lives and highlight deep contradictions in this country, the Black freedom movement has gained the attention and support of most Americans. George Floyd’s videotaped assassination and the tens of thousands of people protesting have made it harder for white Americans to deny the state-sanctioned, anti-Black violence that has always been right in front of its eyes. Within weeks, polls reported that 91% of Americans agree that racism is a problem in the U.S. and 72% believe it is a serious problem. Similarly, almost 90% of respondents think police violence is a problem, with 65% considering it serious.

There is also mass support for the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM), and that support is moving many people to action. Two-thirds of U.S. adults of all ethnicities say they support BLM, with almost four in ten strongly supporting it. While nearly all Black Americans (86%) and strong majorities of Latinx and Asian Americans support BLM (77% and 75%),  60% of white Americans also support it.  More than half of Americans polled say they have taken some sort of action in support of BLM, and among young Americans age 18 to 34, two-thirds have taken action.

Why a Systemic Demand to #DefundPolice is Strategic, Necessary, and Possible

#DefundPolice, which has emerged as the movement’s leading demand, reflects the lived experience of Black Americans as well as the protesters’ understanding that violence against Black Americans goes well beyond beliefs and biases; racism is rooted in institutions and reinforced by the flow of money, and material resources and access. Much credit for this shift is due to the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) decade of educating and organizing.  Raising this demand is making possible things that were hard to imagine a month ago: crowds of people testify late into the night to get their city, county or state to cut police budgets, some City Councils voting to slash funding for or even considering ‘disbanding’ their police departments, and some school committees and colleges ending their contracts with police.

The limitations and failure of reforms shows us that the problem is not ‘bad apples’ or over- or under-policing, or even that policing takes funds away from human needs. The problem is policing itself—a system that destroys Black life in the name of upholding capitalism. ‘Reforms’ haven’t stopped police violence against Black people; neither has hiring more Black, Brown, female and/or queer police. Civilian review boards, anti-bias training, body cameras, de-escalation, limitations on use of chokeholds or other violent force, required reporting, and registries of violent cops all leave intact the institution and culture of policing. The need for these reforms has even been used to justify increasing law enforcement budgets. The Center for Popular Democracy reported that in 150 large U.S. cities, the share of budgets devoted to police has increased by about 1.2% since the late 1970s, even as crime decreased; and all of these budgets have increased since 2016. Police budgets eat up from 20%-45% of available funds in U.S. cities, many times more than public health, housing, training, and other programs that address community needs and do more to keep us safe.”

Why the lack of mass support for #DefundPolice is not inevitable or static

The majority of the public, while concerned about police violence and expressing support for BLM, say ‘no’ when asked if they support defunding their police departments. Conversations with friends and neighbors highlight this contradiction and reflect Black and white Americans’ very different experiences with policing. In two June 2020 polls that were broken down by race, almost half of Black respondents said they supported defunding police, while fewer than a quarter of white respondents supported did. Support also reflects respondents’ overall political orientation: in three polls that reported results by party, on average 50% of Democrats supported the “defund the police” movement, while 84% of Republicans opposed it. This is complicated by the fact that #DefundPolice demands are different from city to city, and that it’s a new idea for all but seasoned activists.

But this is a moment when more people are open to learning about systemic racism, and current polling on #DefundPolice should not be taken as a lack of support for system reform, including re-directing funding away from policing. One poll found that more people like the ideas behind #DefundPolice than like the slogan: when asked how they felt about “redirecting some taxpayer funds to other agencies (social workers, health care and mental professionals), so that they, instead of police, could respond to different kinds of emergencies”, more than 60% of respondents said yes.

Four Strategies for Socialists to Build Support for #DefundPolice

#1 Embrace the strategic demand to #DefundPolice; educate and debunk propaganda about it. Create additional slogans that frame this dialogue better for the people you are engaging.

#DefundPolice reflects both the experiences and hopes of most Black Americans-(and others who are targeted by policing) and the M4BL movement’s understanding of the necessity and possibility of systemic change to accomplish its goals. As socialists, we should be working to support this. Efforts to #DefundPolice have the potential to build left movements in so many ways: not only by shrinking police functions and power to harm us, but also by supporting community-controlled alternatives to policing. The demand for shifting resources has opened up the conversation about what people need to be really safe, and whose needs public budgets should prioritize–key elements of engaging people in visioning and starting to build a different world.

People’s opinions are shifting every day based on what they are learning about how the question of shifting resources from policing, and beginning to dismantle policing, is framed. Instead of defaulting to demands that poll better with the broader public, we want to help shape that framing and win people over. The Invest/Divest frame laid out in the M4BL’s policy platform ‘Vision for Black Lives’ is a great place to start. It is a battle: there is a lot of confusion about what people are asking for with the #Defund demands, and those who benefit from policing are taking full advantage of this to sow fear in our communities. As we do this, we need to heed the M4BL’s caution to “not water down the concept” to the point where we are approaching #Defund as simply a way to fund housing, education and other supports during COVID-19; a way to demilitarize the police or to shift some funds and functions from the police budget to other programs that perpetuate policing.[i]  Supporting the creation of community alternatives to violence and policing is critical not only to keep Black people safe from police violence, but also to create opportunities for Black self-determination;, as communities take increasingly greater control of their lives and resources.

 #2: Build Bridges to Working Class Communities of color and disabled people where they have been under-engaged by the movement

In places where Defunding campaigns have been initiated by younger and whiter progressives, it is critical that they also engage with the (usually older) working class Black and immigrant communities to reflect on their experiences with police/policing and to assess possible defund demands. Failing to do whatever it takes to deeply engage communities that have so much history with the police creates tensions at a time when there are opportunities to build bridges, something that many of us on the left can help with. 

Many community members and leaders who have not been brought into discussions about #DefundPolice strategies and demands resent being spoken about and for: “Nothing about us without us.”  It’s a short- and long-term strategic error, since many of these communities and leaders have a lot of experience with shell games or fake reforms, something the #Defund leaders need to understand. A radical-sounding 60% police budget cut that only reflects the perspective of protesters and organizers is not better than a demand for a smaller initial cut developed by established working class Black and immigrant. With only days or weeks to organize before upcoming budget votes, we should encourage movement-building demands that require ongoing dialogue with targeted communities about the use of funds cut from police budgets.

#3: Build bridges to the Independent Political Organizations that are working to build power for all.

Here I will echo Michael Hamer’s call in the July 8th Road Signs – Field Notes for bringing together the larger number of groups and individuals active in the anti-police violence organizing into efforts to build power through organization, including electoral strategies. In many places, #DefundPolice mass organizing is being moved inside City Councils, County Commissions and State Houses by officials elected by our movements. Campaigns like “What a Difference a D.A. Makes” not only broadened public awareness of police brutality and criminalization, but elected people on platforms that included #Defunding police and decriminalizing.    

Building a successful movement–one that dismantles policing, prisons and state violence, and which returns both funding and self-determination to Black communities and other communities of color, is going to require bigger forces to come together into left political organizations that are strong enough to win big confrontations with capitalism. We need to root the anti-policing and the abolition movement in a broader strategy that is emerging: building power as a ‘new majority’—a multiracial, multi-gendered, multi-generational movement led by people of color and working-class people. New majority organizations build power in different forms: power to disrupt and resist in the streets; power to share a different vision of what real health, education, safety, democracy, and a fair economy would look like for all of us, power to frame issues in the media and popular opinion, and power to elect our own people to government bodies at all levels.

#4: Embrace Abolitionist Thinking in our Movements

Bringing the anti-police violence forces into broader ‘for all’ organizations will require that we invest much more in Black self-determination and Black leadership. I also believe that it requires socialists and revolutionaries to embrace abolitionism more than many of us have.

Abolitionist thinking is deeply anti-capitalist, and we can learn a lot from it. The current #Defund movement reflects abolitionists’ understanding of U.S. history, in which the state has created—and required–police murder and other forms of state violence against Black people. Abolitionists have documented how criminalizing, policing, and imprisoning Black individuals and communities has been used in the U.S. since colonial times by the white ruling class to consolidate its power.

Abolitionists highlight the ways in which the U.S. ruling class has interwoven anti-Blackness and white supremacy into the U.S. variation of racial capitalism, which we deploy as militarism on the world stage.  In this time when more white people are confronting whiteness and its systemic nature, it would be a step backward to ignore the role of policing in constructing and defending white supremacy. We need to extend this understanding to include demilitarizing the border, abolishing ICE, diverting its funding to processing asylum claims, naturalization, and legalization processes, and beyond, to abolishing U.S. military intervention at home and abroad. 

Finally, we have a lot of work to do to envision and work toward a society where we take care of each other without any need for police or military: rooting out anti-Blackness and other racism, cisheteropatriarchy, and other forms of domination that manifest in violence. We need to include abolitionist frameworks in our strategy and demands at all levels, in our movements’ culture and practices.