Remaking Justice

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By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

The murder of George Floyd was a feature, not a bug, in the eyes of a growing number of critics, activists and ordinary Americans who’ve now watched police respond to peaceful protests with hundreds of instances of violent attacks, carried out with reckless abandon for all the world to see. The long-held belief that police are synonymous with public safety simply doesn’t jibe with what the whole world is watching daily on TV and social media.

In a Monmouth poll, 78% of respondents said protesters were either fully (57%) or partially (21%) justified in their anger — an unheard of level of support for any protests in U.S. history.

“What people in the streets have won is a permanent, generational change to the mainstream view of policing,” Minneapolis City Council Member Steve Fletcher tweeted on June 2.

“We are going to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with a transformative new model of public safety,” City Council President Lisa Bender tweeted two days later.

Three days after that, a veto-proof council majority publicly committed to that promise, amounting to a drastic defunding of the department, if not its complete abolition, which remains a long-term goal of abolition activists.

In case it sounds too risky or radical, Fletcher offered a safe, sane, sensible description of what it would look like in practice, in an op-ed for Time, under the headline, We Must Disband the Police — Here’s What Could Come Next:

We can reimagine what public safety means, what skills we recruit for, and what tools we do and do not need. We can play a role in combating the systems of white supremacy in public safety that the death of black and brown lives has laid bare. We can invest in cultural competency and mental health training, de-escalation and conflict resolution. We can send a city response that is appropriate to each situation and makes it better. We can resolve confusion over a $20 grocery transaction without drawing a weapon or pulling out handcuffs.

Dramatic transformation is hardly a wild-eyed fantasy. We could achieve it simply by becoming more like some of our closest allies. With just more than 4% of the world population, we have almost 20% of the world’s prisoners — an extreme outlier on the world stage. We imprison people at a rate almost 6 times that of Canada, the nation most culturally similar to us, and the rate at which our police kill civilians is similarly extreme. The comparison to Great Britain is even more stark: from 2010 to 2019 American police killed 140 civilians for every one killed by their British counterparts.

But abolitionists seek more than merely catching up with what other countries take for granted. A June 5 Medium post from the Movement for Black Lives reaffirmed the ultimate goal:

We believe we can build a world free of police, unapologetically. We know that will take all of us. We are not under any illusion that we can build that world overnight. Those who would suggest we believe that are gaslighting you away from important solutions that work to keep our people safe NOW. …

We need bold and visionary action, right now. The call to #DefundPolice gets us that action, right now. It is both a clear solution and an important measure of accountability.

Right now.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti had introduced a budget that increased spending on police by 7.1% at the same time other spending was being drastically cut — 8.9% cut from Economic and Workforce Development, and 9.4% cut from Housing and Community Investment, for example. This despite the fact that crime was down from the year before, even before COVID-19 hit. Garcetti’s budget devoted 54% of discretionary spending to the police.

A coalition of groups organized by Black Lives Matter LA responded with a call for the People’s Budget, which was created based on a survey of 1,470 Angelenos, and with an online participatory budgeting process (via Zoom and Facebook Live) including 3,300 participants.  That budget devoted 5.72% for “Law Enforcement and Policing,” 24.22% for “Reimagined Community Safety,” 44.25% for “Universal Aid and Crisis Management,” and 25.8% for “Built Environment.”

All this happened before George Floyd’s murder, and the subsequent demonstrations, which led a group of city council members to introduce a motion on June 3, requesting up to $150 million in budget cuts for the LAPD.

“The change required won’t happen with one piece of legislation and it won’t happen overnight, but this preliminary budget cut of at least $100m-150m is a step in the right direction,” Councilmember Herb Wesson tweeted.

But activists saw things differently.

“$150 million looks big, until you realize it still leaves the LAPD with 51% of the city’s unrestricted revenues. That’s not at all acceptable,” said Melina Abdullah, a leader of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. “Our People’s Budget allocates just 5.7% of funds to traditional law enforcement. City Council and Mayor Garcetti need to know that we’re fighting for truly transformative change here and won’t be bought off with just this minimal amount of money.”

That same day, Garcetti pledged to “identify $250 million for further investments in community programs, including cuts to LAPD’s budget,” and tweeted out a list of reforms that had already been introduced.

Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing views reforms more broadly, as spelled out in a Guardian commentary headlined, The answer to police violence is not ‘reform.’ It’s defunding. Here’s why.

Perhaps most importantly, Vitale’s book explains that the purpose of policing has always entailed violence for political ends, while also making it politically acceptable.

“Crime control is a small part of policing and it always has been,” Vitale explains. “Felony arrests of any kind are a rarity for uniformed officers, with most making no more than one a year,” he notes.  Even detectives “spend most of their time taking reports of crimes that they will never solve — and in many cases will never even investigate.”

“The reality is that the police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and nonwhite people: those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements,” writes Vitale, in contrast.

This can be seen most clearly in the origins of modern policing, which were tied to three basic arrangements of inequality in the 18th century: slavery, colonialism and the control of a new industrial working class.

In Britain, Sir Edmund Peel established the first urban police department, London’s Metropolitan Police, in 1829, modelled on his experience developing new methods of colonial control while managing the occupation of Ireland. Bloody massacres only increased resistance, so Peel employed more subtle methods — “identifying and neutralizing troublemakers and ringleaders through threats and arrests,” writes Vitale.

That model was imported to Boston in 1838, and spread from there, most notably, to New York City in 1844, where biracial dockworker strikes, starting in 1802, and wider strike waves, beginning in 1809, “culminated in the formation of the Workingman’s Party in 1829, which demanded a ten-hour day, and led to the founding of the General Trade Union in 1833,” writes Vitale.

A second point of origin was Southern slave patrols, adapted to controlling slaves in Southern cities, where they regularly were tasked with work outside the direct control of their master. These were professionalized long before the London Metropolitan Police.

“The Charleston City Guard and Watch became professionalized as early as 1783,” Vitale notes, and had 100 city and 60 state guards on its payroll by 1831.

There were other colonial origins as well, especially for state police. The Texas Rangers were originally “a loose band of irregulars… hired to protect the interests of newly arriving white colonists.” Its purpose was straightforward: It was established after a private police force, the Coal and Iron Police, proved inadequate in suppressing strikes and union organizing.

What’s more, Vitale notes, America then turned around and created colonial police forces in Central America and the Caribbean. They “were designed to be part of a Progressive Era program of modernization and nation-building, but were quickly turned into forces of brutal repression in the service of U.S.-backed regimes.”

Thus, the widely noted militarization of American police over the last few decades is but the latest example of a process that’s at least 100 years old. Given how badly our past several decades of forever wars have turned out, this close relationship only serves to further undermine the notion that it’s a source of safety, stability and lawful order.

The call to defund the police and invest in communities can be framed in multiple ways, one of which is simply to highlight how much funding has shifted to policing and prisons over the past four decades, with so little good to show for it and so much community need left unaddressed.

Making sense of this shift of spending is a primary concern of Dr. Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, in her book, Getting Tough, as she describes in her introduction:

In 1980, the United States spent three times more money on food stamps and welfare grants than on corrections. By 1996, the balance had reversed, with the nation devoting billions more to corrections than the two principal programs for the poor. Policymakers paired diminishing levels of support with policies constraining beneficiaries’ privacy and freedom.

Notably, black women — typified by the “welfare queen” trope — were both functionally and symbolically excluded from this political process of redefining ‘good citizenship.’ So there’s a historical logic to why they’ve played such a crucial role in the abolitionist movement that’s now so sharply challenging it — from Angela Davis, co-founder of Critical Resistance, to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, to Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, co-founders of Black Lives Matter.

The tough policies that emerged from the 1970s reversed the direction of thinking that preceded them, such as “[Richard] Nixon’s guaranteed minimum income proposal that would have added roughly ten million people to the public assistance rolls,” Kohler-Hausmann notes. “Before politicians enacted a frenzy of harsh sentencing laws in the 1970s and 1980s, there was broad agreement, especially among elites, that long prison terms were programmatically ineffective at controlling crime,” and federal mandatory minimums for drug violations were abandoned in a 1970 law.

“[The new tougher] policies did not reflect the inevitable failure of the state or the congenital degeneracy of poor communities of color. Instead, they actually helped entrench these assertions in the political vernacular … ‘Getting tough’ was often the path with less political resistance from powerful interests in society,” she explained. “Proponents exalted punitive strategies of containment and civic degradation by linking them to masculinist visions of ‘tough’ state power and disparaging alternative strategies as effeminate and ‘soft.’”

The “get tough” narrative implies a reliance on hard facts that simply doesn’t exist. If it actually were the case, then America’s sky-high incarceration rates would make it the safest country on Earth — which it clearly is not. In fact, Japan, which has a murder rate less than one-twenty-fifth of ours has less than one-fifteenth of our prison population per capita.

In short, for all the passion that’s driving the demonstrations and the calls for fundamental reforms, there is no rational argument against them. There is only force.

“We must completely transform the world so we can start something new,” Cullors wrote recently in Vogue. “The abolition of the police can be an investment in care for people, leaning into the imaginative efforts of the collective to hold people accountable. Abolition inspires us to redefine safety as a collective action.”