This small handful of names are just a few of the many innocent lives taken through the use of violent police force within the last 10 years. These are the names of mothers, fathers, children and friends killed for no cause other than being Black in America.
The recent murder of George Floyd has triggered an explosion of protests and illuminated the severity of race issues in America. Millions of people have marched through communities across the world demanding justice for George Floyd and the many other lives lost to police brutality. Huge corporations such as Coca-Cola and Walmart have publicly advocated for and donated to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and even Republican politicians like Utah Senator Mitt Romeny have marched with BLM activists in the streets.
These actions taken by corporate America, and Democrats and Republicans alike, accentuate how the majority of America is beginning to recognize that the outrage over the murder of innocent Black people is not a political movement, but a human rights crisis. And while it is important to celebrate the small steps that individuals, corporations and politicians have taken, it is also important to look further down the road toward long-term solutions that will generate genuine equality within the written and unwritten rules of our society.
One way activists have been working toward these long-term goals is by pressuring local and state governments to defund and dismantle the police. Some activist organizations, such as 8 to Abolition and Reclaim the Block, suggest the first step is to radically redistribute funds from police into public services that are qualified to respond to specific situations of crisis. Both arguments to defund and abolish the police support the divestment of police funds and the investment into restorative justice efforts and public service like teachers, counselors, healthcare and education. This reallocation of funds would knock out the use of militization in poor communities and the criminalization of nonviolent cases of mental health crisis, homelessness and sex work. Abolitionists argue that defunding is only the start toward creating a society where police are not needed because other services would be able to respond in ways that focus on healing communities rather than criminalizing them.
To mainstream society, these demands might seem radical, implausible or dangerous. People on all sides have been quick to react with judgement and condemnation before fully understanding what the rhetoric of defunding, abolishing or even reforming the police implies.
Rather than condemning the efforts of those who have been targeted by institutionalized racism since the founding of the United States, people in positions of privilege have a responsibility to actively listen to those voices. By responding defensively before thoughtfully understanding these communities’ demands, those in positions of power directly uphold an oppressive culture.
To understand the mistrust and fear that Black communities feel in the presence of police officers, we must first look deep into the past to recognize how and why we continue to see so many innocent Black lives ended at the hands of police officers.
In the South, the first law enforcement unions began as slave patrols, aimed at protecting white property and capturing and returning escaped slaves. The passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865 outlawed slavery, except as a punishment for crime, which provided further motivation for slave patrols to target and arrest Black people through the enforcement of Jim Crow laws. Once these laws were made illegal in the 1960s, police officers utilized stop-and-frisk and other techniques to further enforce mass incarceration — a system deliberately designed to advance this incarceration of Black people for nonviolent crimes.
Essentially what activists are arguing is that the police system in America is not something that can be reformed because it was never broken to begin with. Policing was intentionally created to oppress Black communities and protect white communities. Reforming police institutions will only funnel more money into a system that was built on the basis of controlling Black people. To defund and abolish the police means to plant and cultivate a new system that protects life, rather than try to salvage the withering, wounded tree that our nation has become.
A common critique of the defunding of police is that these racist instances are the fault of only a few “bad apples.” While there is no denying that there are good police officers, this does not erase the fact that the entire law enforcement institution continues to perpetuate and maintain racism. In a profession that is responsible for the lives of others, there is not room for a few “bad apples.” This isn’t a discussion about the individual, it is about the institution that has allowed the preservation of white supremacy since its creation.
Another concern is that society will fall apart without an institution designed to serve, protect and maintain the safety of citizens — and even if we agree that the system of policing is rooted in racial bias, defundment sounds like an unrealistic task that will take many years to accomplish. The problem is that this type of restricted thinking is what has allowed America to uphold white supremacy and the oppression of people of color for over 400 years.
The inability to think outside of an unequal, prejudiced system or the denial that any long-term change can ever be made sustains the ideals of white supremacy and oppression of people of color. When people advocate for the defunding or abolishment of police, the goal is not to denounce each individual cop, but to argue that belonging to a police institution means being complicit to a system that devalues the lives of people of color. To defund or abolish the police does not mean that there will be no organization that protects and helps people or that everyone will solve their own crimes. It means using methods of restoration, such as mental health organizations, accessible childcare, education and affordable housing, to create less of a need for police.
Understanding the language of a movement is crucial to identifying the motives and demands of those who are calling for change. For example, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” came about in 2013 when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, was shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer when he was walking home from the store by himself. This devastating murder led to the creation of the BLM movement. The movement created a public platform to communicate that Black lives need to stop being treated as disposable.
It wasn’t until seven years later, when a recording was released of George Floyd being killed in broad daylight by a police officer who knew he was being recorded and backed by three other police officers, did the BLM movement become backed by businesses, politicians and mainstream media. In other words, it took an unimaginably inhumane and wicked act for the majority of white people to take the time to understand what BLM means.
Almost all efforts for long-lasting change begin as ideas or movements deemed too radical for mainstream society. It often can take time, pressure or even a catastrophic event, like the muder of George Floyd, for people to finally wake up and get on board with what educators, activists and oppressed communities have been saying all along. When movements arise it is imperative to listen before labeling a fight for justice and equality as radical.
Until we dig to the root of the inequalities, rather than try to repair something that has already grown into an inherently racist system, Black lives will continue to be taken by the police.
Abolitionists and educators like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Mariame Kaba argue that reform only reinforces and upholds a system. Rather than reapplying bandages to an open wound, we must stop what is causing the wound in the first place.
Additionally, scholars, educators and even police have argued that law enforcement officers are given many responsibilities that they are unqualified for. Oftentimes, they are the only public resource in communities and therefore are expected to respond to situations of homelessness, mental health crisis and drug addiction — all circumstances they are not trained for. Organizations such as BLM and M4BL have laid out plans to radically redistribute funds from police towards specialized individuals and organizations who are trained to deal with these issues in nonviolent ways.
Nine members of the Minneapolis city council have already agreed to dismantle the police and transfer duties over to social services trained in specified areas. Progress and change are in the air, but this is just beginning. Healing cannot happen until the racist institutions that thrive on the oppression of people of color are eradicated and replaced with anti-racist, anti-oppressive systems. This includes mass incarceration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.), policing and unfortunately so many more organizations that rely on foundations of inequality.
Defunding the police is indubitably a big goal and will take time. It will take more than just being awake to the inequalities in America — it will take action. It will take tough conversations with family and friends, and connection and understanding of one another. It will take white people recognizing, no matter how “woke” they think they are, that they are participating in and benefiting from a racist establishment. Education is a never-ending process. It is time to create a system based on principles of anti-racism, equality and human rights.
Until we dig to the root of the inequalities, rather than try to repair something that has already grown into an inherently racist system, Black lives will continue to be taken by the police. We cannot be surprised by recurring hate crimes when police institutions were designed to protect white people and property and harass, control and kill Black people. Until we wake up and understand that the fight for freedom will not end until all people are treated equally, nobody should be comfortable with our current police system.
Carley Weiler believes that listening to marginalized voices is the first step toward reaching equality, including demands to defund the police.