Black Lives Matter protest in Denver. June 6, 2020 Photo: Thomas Elliott / Flickr

Reform is not enough: defund the police, then abolish it

  • June 8, 2020

Authority & Abolition

A new generation of activists is leading the biggest popular uprising in the US in over 50 years, and rather than reform they demand radical structural change.

The United States’ powder keg of racial capitalism, searing inequality and violent policing, compounded by the state’s ruinously indifferent response to a global pandemic and a sputtering economy, has finally exploded. Mass protest has shaken the country, with more than 40 cities instituting curfews and 23 states calling in a total of 17,000 National Guard troops to stamp out the uprisings.

The eruption of righteous fury pulsating around the US represents a historic moment not seen since America’s last mass urban rebellions, the “long hot summer” of 1967 and the 1968 uprisings following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Just as the unrest of the 1960s came to signify a generation’s clash with racism and institutional decay, today’s uprisings and the brutal response of the state have engendered a watershed moment demonstrating the limits of protests previously seen as socially acceptable and the need for revolutionary structural change.

America’s Tragic Tipping Point

It goes without saying that racialized violence is nothing new in a nation where the capital building was literally built by slaves. This violence is so deeply rooted in the soil of American history that it remains one of the most vile and pressing issues facing the country. The only thing that has changed is the development of technology that makes recording the murderous police and “vigilante” lynchings baked into America’s DNA possible. In 2019 police killed over 1,000 people in the US. Black Americans are two-and-a-half times more likely to be murdered by officers of the law than white people, while 99 percent of police killings do not result in officers being charged with a crime. American police kill as many people in days as those in many countries do over the course of years.

Cell phone documentation of police killings and brutality has heightened awareness but also spawned a sickening pattern in recent years: an unyielding parade of horrid snuff films where Black men are murdered on camera makes their way around social media, drawing outrage and sparking localized protest. The only thing more gut-wrenching than the murders themselves is knowing that despite video evidence, justice rarely follows in their wake. Little has changed since the recording of Rodney King’s beating in 1991.

The reforms in policing and government in response to public outcry over these videos tend to be highly localized and fairly minimal. Thankfully, it looks like this macabre pattern has been shattered by the swell of uprisings unfolding in cities and even suburbs and rural communities throughout the US.

It is not immediately clear why the killing of George Floyd was the catalyst for the pent-up rage, fear and frustration for so many Americans instead of one of the numerous other recorded murders that have circulated in the recent past. There are likely many factors why the brutal murder of 46-year-old Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin and three other members of the Minneapolis police was the tipping point.

One is certainly the horrifying sense of déjà vu accompanying Floyd’s death, which in many ways mirrors the 2014 murder of Eric Garner by the NYPD. Like Floyd, Garner was ruthlessly strangled by police. Garner’s haunting last words, “I can’t breathe,” have become a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement. They were also the last words uttered by George Floyd as he lay pinned down, crushed under the weight of Chauvin’s knee.

Not only did the officer that murdered Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, avoid indictment on civil or federal charges, he was not even fired until five years after the killing. Meanwhile, as Pantaleo continued working as a cop, the NYPD showed just how genuinely they were taking calls for reform, instituting a vicious campaign of harassment against Ramsey Orta, Garner’s friend who filmed the incident.

Floyd’s murder was not the only recent racist killing. In February, Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead by two men in broad daylight. Arbery was out jogging in his Georgia neighborhood, his death a terrifying echo of the 2012 Trayvon Martin lynching. Though in these cases the police did not pull the trigger themselves, the protections provided to racist killers by the criminal justice system was on full display. George Zimmerman walked off free after lynching 17-year-old Martin, while Arbery’s killers were only arrested in May, months after the murder, when the video of the heinous act went viral. And proving that police do not only kill men and there is truly nowhere Black people are safe, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was murdered in her Louisville, Kentucky home in March.

Despite the dizzying number of documented lynchings and police murders of Black Americans, the outbreak of public unrest on this scale is new. It is also rooted in the country’s broader political and economic context. The country-wide howls of weariness and red-hot anger are born out of the seemingly endless cycle of police and vigilante violence snuffing out Black lives, but flames of the uprisings have been fanned by a series of other factors.

Due to the coexistence of inhumane callousness and incompetence at every level of government, Americans have endured the planet’s deadliest outbreak of COVID-19. The US has one third of the world’s cases and just a little over four percent of its population. More than 100,000 Americans have died from the virus, an unimaginable and heartbreaking fact that has seen little national mourning and looks unlikely to incur any form of repercussions for those responsible for mismanaging the crisis.

And as with nearly everything in America’s perniciously-inflated version of racial capitalism, even something as unbiased as a virus has horrendous racial implications. Structural inequality, inadequate social services and lack of access to healthcare have ensured that people of color have been hit hardest by the coronavirus crisis. If Black Americans are not executed swiftly at the hands of the police, they have to face the prospect of dying slowly from poor healthcare and a global pandemic.

The rage over the mishandling of health outcomes during the coronavirus crisis is further amplified by the laughably cynical response to the economic hardship brought on by the pandemic, which only intensified existing inequalities and brutal labor relations. A staggering 40 million Americans are currently unemployed and 40 percent of low-wage households lost a job in March alone. This is doubly important in the US, where healthcare is so frequently tied to employment.

It is estimated that 27 million lost their health insurance due to unemployment stemming from the pandemic. While members of the working class, which is disproportionately made up of people of color, have been kicked a $1,200 relief check, most of the $3 trillion the US has pumped into coronavirus bailouts has gone to supporting business and keeping the stock market afloat.

Indignation and exasperation over racist violence, a generation-defining pandemic and impending economic collapse — for working people, if not the stock market — have conspired to ensure George Floyd’s murder would be a tipping point, launching a multi-generational, multi-ethnic rebellion instead of a single, local protest. This extension of the Black Lives Matter movement, spearheaded by a new generation of activists but built on the lineage of alter-globalization, occupy, immigrant rights, Indigenous rights and environmental protests has massive potential to shape American politics for years to come.

The Futility of Protest and Reform on Someone Else’s Terms

Despite their roots in existing movements, these uprisings feel like a unique development in recent American history. For all the anguish they carried and their importance in sowing the revolutionary seeds currently in full bloom, police precincts were not burned at the unrest in Ferguson or Baltimore that marked the early development of the Movement for Black Lives.

While those two rebellions were momentous, the US is currently experiencing what feels like dozens of simultaneous uprisings of equal or greater size. The whole country has been pushed into a slow boil of police riots, providing ample proof of the role police play in escalating situations as they seek to act violently and with impunity, as well as the futility of previously-preferred forms of protest.

At least 12 people people have already been killed since the start of the unrest — though not all at the hands of the police. Police left protester David McAtee’s body on the street for 12 hours after shooting him dead in Louisville. 22-year old James Scurlock was murdered by a white bar owner during protests in Omaha, Nebraska. Police have injured countless protesters, with a head-spinning, stomach-churning flow of images of brutality flooding in from around the country. Hundreds of protesters are finding out how laughable the term non-lethal force is to describe police equipment like tear gas or rubber bullets, which can maim and kill.

Black Lives Matter protest in Washington DC. June 6, 2020. Photo by Ted Eytan / Flickr

The widespread implementation of curfews has in practice made any form of protest after an arbitrary time illegal, drastically heightening tensions and leading to even more brutality. A brief comparison with the comparatively-relaxed policing of right-wing anti-lockdown protests that swept the nation earlier in the coronavirus pandemic shows the central role police play in instigating violence. Heavily armed white protesters occupied Michigan’s state capitol without incident, while police take no issue clashing with unarmed demonstrators asserting the value of Black lives. The incredible failure of police to deescalate tensions and refrain from engaging in brutality during anti-police brutality demonstrations has only given the uprisings a further jolt.

Police riots have also rendered law enforcement’s justifications for crass militarization all the more far-fetched. Not only has the transfer of $4.3 billion in military equipment from the armed forces to police from 1997-2014 failed to actually make cops safer, it means that many Americans living in inner cities are under a constant state of occupation and siege by a quasi-military force. The presence of police in riot gear — especially when care workers still struggle to obtain PPE during a pandemic — immediately ratchets up the stakes of demonstrations and empowers police to feel they can physically dominate the public.

Though none of this is new, police are actively targeting journalists, with hundreds of documented attacks on press and press freedom during the initial week of protests. This has served to make police misconduct undeniable while tempering the usual pro-law enforcement coverage that accompanies protests in the US. There have been enough harrowing images of police abusing protesters on the news that if they occurred in any other country, the US would already be using them as an excuse to invade. In what speaks to a broad shift in public opinion, a majority of Americans even think burning down the Minneapolis police precinct after Floyd’s death was justified.

Ongoing participation in uprisings throughout the US also signify a rejection of the idea that violence against property is equitable with violence against Black lives, or that a protest can be considered violent because an inanimate object burns. And though the usual handwringing has accompanied “looting” occurring in the wake of many protests, the selective nature of what gets destroyed paints a picture in direct contrast to accusations of blind race rioting. Ransacked police precincts, confederate monuments and honorary institutions, and luxury retailers are not coincidental targets during anti-police violence uprisings backdropped by searing economic and racial inequality.

The uprisings that began in Minneapolis, so frequently escalated by the police, are only necessary because of the abject failure of other forms of protest. Though many right-wing or even liberal pundits decrying the violence of this wave of protests claim they support peaceful demonstrations, they often worked to sandbag objectively peaceful and symbolic protests at every opportunity. The very verbal assertion that Black lives matter was somehow transfigured into a draining and unproductive political debate.

Just as the uprisings of 1967 and 1968 arose from the fiery frustration of a multitude of Black Americans exhausted with getting their asses kicked at one civil rights demonstration after the other, today’s generation has tried every form of peaceful protest imaginable and Black men and women continue to get murdered by police at a soul-destroying clip. And all four Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd’s murder have been booked and charged due to the increased pressure brought about by the protests.

Ongoing police violence and the state’s response to the uprisings have also brought the glaring limits of reform to the fore. At every level of government, the state has proven either unwilling or incapable of reigning in its police forces or the pervasive, racist carceral system, making clear the need for radical structural change.

Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo, the first African American to hold the position in the city’s history, is credited with helping make the Minneapolis PD a national leader in reforms. And for all of Minneapolis’ community policing, they still crushed the life out of an unarmed, innocent man on a busy street. And reformist measures and extra training did little to prevent Minneapolis police from escalating early protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.

Police chiefs and spokespeople around the country tripped over themselves to condemn Floyd’s murder and pose for feel-good photo ops with kneeling protesters, but when the sun went down they did little to stop their officers from carrying out similar brutality. Training and body cameras make little difference if new regulations are not strictly enforced and police continue to view the communities they are meant to serve as occupied warzones.

Regardless of whether they have undergone substantial reform, municipal police departments have repeatedly proven to be nearly ungovernable, acting semi-autonomously and refusing to yield to mayors and other elected officials. While plenty of ostensibly progressive local leaders have also rushed to condemn the murder of George Floyd, they have struggled to prevent their city’s law enforcement from abusing protesters. This is often due to the outsized power of police unions, which shield their members from accountability and often dictate “security” policy to elected officials.

In New York, mayor Bill de Blasio, who at least fashions himself a progressive, was quick to call for the Minneapolis officers responsible for Floyd’s murder to face criminal charges. Yet his own city took responsibility for disciplining Eric Gardner’s murderer at glacial speed and de Blasio has maintained his faith in old-school, broken windows policing. And when the uprisings reached New York, it was only a matter of time until de Blasio was blaming his constituents for being too slow to get out of the way of the NYPD SUVs that barreled into crowds instead of reprimanding the reckless drivers.

Police reform has also hit deadly roadblocks at the national level. The Black Lives Matter movement arose under a Black president and Black attorney general, both of whom were — at least verbally — committed to criminal justice reform. Though Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder did manage to slightly curtail mass incarceration, military equipment continued flowing to local police departments during the Obama presidency and racialized police violence was as hauntingly present then as it is today.

Trump’s openly fascist approach to policing makes meaningful changes at the national level a pipe dream, and things may not get much better even if he is voted out of office. Joe Biden recently called for police to shoot unarmed civilians in the leg instead of the heart. And as Obama’s tenure proved, even when national leadership is committed to ending police violence and racist mass incarceration, the mechanisms of both institutions are far too deeply ingrained in American politics to be removed without revolutionary shifts.

A way out?

The one positive to take from decades of failed police reform is there is no question of what does not work. And this moment has also inspired an increased outpouring of activism and thought on how to meaningfully curb killer cops that has supplemented decades of existing work from activists.

The first step would likely have to be dismantling the police unions. Police unions serve no public good, existing to protect their members from repercussions when they murder and brutalize the public. What other union regularly defends killers? Police unions are also at odds with the broader labor movement, neither seeking nor providing solidarity with other workers. Expelling the International Union of Police Associations from the AFL-CIO would be a decent start.

The United States spends $100 billion annually on policing, funding which is rarely cut despite local governments regularly taking an axe to key social services in the name of austerity. Massively defunding the police would force the hands of local departments, reducing the number of cops on the streets and military weaponry at their disposal. Reinvesting this funding into programs that actually prevent crime and improve people’s lives would be a massive added bonus.

Most importantly, any structural changes like defunding police forces or breaking up police unions so that elected officials — accountable to the public — can reassert control of public safety in their cities must be seen not as a final step towards solving racist police violence but as the opening salvo in a move towards police abolition. This will have to be done with a similar structural reimagining of the entire criminal justice system.

The protests currently rocking the US and spreading around the globe are the best chance in decades at inspiring meaningful change and ending the horrifying cycle of racist police violence and vigilante lynching that have accompanied America for its entire history. The uprisings that have risen to meet the challenge of a broken justice system represent a watershed moment unseen in the US since the 1960s.

Today, a multi-generational, diverse cohort of activists fronted by rapidly-radicalizing youth are coming into their own and have already earned some victories, as legislators are pushing to stop police militarization, Minneapolis schools have cut ties with their city’s police department, while the city council has pledged to disband the police department in its entirety. Just as important, George Floyd’s killers are in the process of facing justice, all thanks to a productive groundswell of public fury.

The rebellions engulfing the country will hopefully achieve further victories, while simultaneously reframing understandings of effective protest and serving as a stark reminder that taking to the streets can and does win battles.

Dave Braneck

Dave Braneck is a Berlin-based journalist covering labor, politics and sports. He also contributed a book chapter on historic shifts in work, globalization and the state for the recently published Contours of the Illiberal State.

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