“This week, rioters have plunged many American cities into anarchy, recalling the widespread violence of the 1960s,” wrote Sen. Tom Cotton. He’s right. These gangs have terrorized our citizens with violence, suppression of free speech, and have radicalized an entire generation against the police. The perpetrators? The police themselves.
In the weeks following the tragic police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other African Americans this year, the police had one final chance to take a stand against racism and rampant abuse of power. I shouldn’t have been surprised with what happened next.
Just in this summer’s police brutality protests, conservative Twitter user Greg Doucette has compiled more than 500 instances of police brutality caught on camera as of June 15th. With the eyes of the country on them, cops not only used batons and shields to beat and shove protesters, but used mace, rubber bullets, flashbangs, and tear gas indiscriminately on peaceful crowds, the press, and bystanders whose only crime was walking home from the store. This violence has caused numerous deaths (including the Kentucky National Guard live-ammo shooting of David McAtee, a Black business owner), and dozens upon dozens of permanent injuries and disabilities. Frankly, we’ve barely scratched the surface here, but we’re going to get bogged down if we try to cover all the brutality we’ve seen in the last few weeks.
In the wake of all this, while polls still reflect low support for “defunding” the police, the idea is being treated far more seriously. The Minneapolis City Council has already announced its intent to begin disbanding the MPD and to invest in a new model of public safety. Such plans to “defund” the police vary from true abolitionists who want police departments scrapped entirely to the more moderate proposals of diverting significant funding away from existing police departments into public health, public safety, and other programs to actually address societal problems at the source.
Plenty of Democrats and some Republicans have taken this moment to propose more toothless reforms to police departments instead of facing increasing calls for divesting and reinvesting. Reform movements such as “8 Can’t Wait” have sleek graphics that may seem important, but they propose regulations that are already instituted in many of the largest and most brutal police forces in the country.
Boston was the first American city to form a centralized police department in 1838, and every major city in the United States had one by 1880. In northern states, most were developed in the model of the London Metropolitan Police, but in the South most were formed from existing slave patrols. After the Civil War, the new southern police departments functioned largely to control and intimidate the newly freed slaves and enforce Jim Crow laws, denying Black Americans access to public and political life. Police all across the country, not just in the South, enforced segregation and participated in never ending violence against Black communities in the century following the Civil War.
As explicit segregation waned in the 1960s, racist policing had to be rebranded. The past 50 years of over-policing in black communities owes itself in part to the explicitly racially motivated war on drugs and broken windows policing of the 80s and 90s. The United States has the largest incarcerated population, the most police killings, and the most people dying in police custody (all per capita) than any other developed country, and it’s not even close. This system works just fine for rich white people, but of course police violence and over-criminalization is targeted at people of color, particularly the poor.
All of this is worthy of intense criticism, and that’s without mentioning how cash bail has helped fuel our massive prison population, how police unions and qualified immunity protect and encourage excessive force from cops, how slavery is still legal if you convict someone of a crime, how prisons profit off of that labor or just from jailing as many people as they can, police blatantly lying about their use of force, and so on. It almost seems like too much to be true, doesn’t it?
Does defunding the police still sound like too much? Take it from former Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who says that we are asking too much of our police officers: “We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. . .Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops.”
This is a direct call to defund the police department. Mental health problems? Have a functioning public mental health infrastructure! Public education problems? Give them the tools they need to solve it!
Even the movement to abolish police doesn’t seem all that scary when you think broadly about our society. We get to decide which institutions we keep, and which ones we replace. Why should we keep the police when we could build a system that better addresses the root causes of crime as well as public safety?
You can nitpick exact details here and there, but one thing is abundantly clear: policing in this country is not working. Police departments are unwilling and unable to reform themselves. They are a willing cog in the business of mass incarceration and too often do not have the mandate or respect of the communities they ‘serve and protect’. Asking police politely to be less brutal has not worked. Reform has not worked.
The time is now to defund the police.
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