For Those Who Say How Can We Defund the Police, Let’s Talk about Using Our Radical Imagination To See What Defunding the Police Could Mean (Part 4 of 4)

My first three blog posts in this series (scroll down in this link to start with Part 1) attempted to lay some groundwork for taking more seriously the idea of “defunding the police.” I addressed the early history and the more recent history of policing to show where we are today when it comes to the police’s role in “social control” and “racial control.”

In my second blog post, I showed how for decades funding to police departments has grown exorbitantly. What exactly do we get with that huge investment? This month, the Washington Post reported that “A review of spending on state and local police over the past 60 years, though, shows no correlation nationally between spending and crime rates.” In 2018, the state and local governments spent $137 billion on police. The popular narrative we’ve been taught for years is that we need police to stop crime, but if we have spent a lot on policing, and it doesn’t seem to have any effect on crime, then why are we continuing to spend this money? Furthermore, what do we really mean by “crime” anyway? A police officer killed George Floyd because of $20. Michelle Alexander would say we are not spending $137 billion to reduce crime but rather to have “social control” and “racial control.” I don’t want my tax dollars supporting “social control” and “racial control” – do you? I’d rather have my tax dollars supporting justice. Let’s consider New York City.

In a recent episode of the podcast Social Distance about defunding the police, hosted by the Atlantic, the three speakers highlighted the following points specific to New York City, where the “NYPD budget is $6 billion.” That budget is “More than the Department of Health, the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Youth Services, and the Department of Employment Services combined.” Also, “It’s larger than the World Health Organization” and “larger than the GDP of 50 countries around the world.” Furthermore, this is “the biggest police budget in the country,” and due to the pandemic, it’s getting cut by .39 percent, “whereas the Department of Youth and Community Development, which funds after-school programs, literacy services, and summer youth-work programs, is losing 32 percent of its budget.”

If budgets should reflect values, then what does this show? Why is so little spent on public good and so much spent on “social control” and “racial control”? An exorbitant budget on policing might be our current status quo, but it wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way. Many racial justice organizations have recently been promoting various plans to defund the police and to shift that funding to affordable housing, education, mental health services, homeless services, after-school programs, jobs training, and other types of programs that have been purposefully underfunded for decades, as I discussed in my second blog post.

For example, I’ve noticed that a lot of people are recommending Campaign Zero and its campaign #8Can’tWait that focuses on eight major recommendations. Recognizing this work is important, but let’s not stop there. Let’s also understand that while “defunding the police” is a phrase that appeared to hit the mainstream media only very recently, it has actually been around for years and is connected to the larger project of prison abolition. For example, Black feminists and prison abolitionists Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Angela Davis have been working on these issues for decades.

Gilmore’s introductory explanation of abolition has been circulating in social media recently, and I have found it quite powerful: “Abolition is about abolishing the conditions under which prison became the solution to problems rather than abolishing the buildings we call prisons.” If we “abolish the conditions” then we are focusing on justice in all of our systems, whether it is housing, education, healthcare, or other aspects of the public good.

When people say “defund the police,” some people mean take part of the policing budget away and put it to social services but leave the policing system intact. Other people mean defund current policing entirely and create something new, something that would support public safety, something that would focus on the public good rather than “social control” and “racial control.”

Last year, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature article on Ruth Wilson Gilmore and explained her work as follows: “Prison abolition, as a movement, sounds provocative and absolute, but what it is as a practice requires subtler understanding. For Gilmore, who has been active in the movement for more than 30 years, it’s both a long-term goal and a practical policy program, calling for government investment in jobs, education, housing, health care — all the elements that are required for a productive and violence-free life. Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack. Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as Gilmore puts it, they ‘mess up.’”

I know many people have a gut reaction to the phrase “defund the police,” and it’s not a positive reaction. The phrase “prison abolition” or “abolish the police” likely produces even more negative reactions. I get it. It is very hard to imagine a world where prisons or the police would not be necessary. One might wonder, what about calling 911, or what about a serial killer? However, if we get stuck because we cannot use our imagination, then we’ll never address racism. But, if we can use our radical imagination—where we imagine a world that does not yet exist—then we need to be open to all kinds of possibilities. We have taken for granted that the status quo of prisons and police are just the way our society needs to be, even though other countries we like to compare ourselves to have very different relationships with prisons and policing.

I have found the campaign by the organization #8toAbolition to be especially powerful in helping me exercise my radical imagination.

They are raising concerns about measures that are merely reforms, meaning changes that do not ultimately change the structure or the system. In other words, reflecting on my earlier blogs, if policing’s purpose is for “social control” and “racial control” then why reform this system, which will allow “social control” and “racial control” to continue? Don’t we need something else, something that we can only envision if we use, once again, our radical imagination? As #8ToAbolition writes on their website, “we hope to build toward a society without police or prisons, where communities are equipped to provide for their safety and wellbeing.” If communities can have safety and wellbeing without the police and without prisons, then why not?

To conclude, I want to return to the questions I posed in my first blog. If the motto of the police is “protect and serve,” who is being protected? Who is being served? At what cost? Let us imagine another way, a way that does not perpetuate harm, trauma, and violence. If we don’t imagine another way, another world, then we can’t create one, so let’s get started.

-by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer, which includes a four-part series “For Those Who Say How Can We Defund the Police” and a new resource page on Policing & Racism.

5 thoughts on “For Those Who Say How Can We Defund the Police, Let’s Talk about Using Our Radical Imagination To See What Defunding the Police Could Mean (Part 4 of 4)

  1. Powerful stuff. Extremely helpful to understand the concepts and goals and disparity between funding the police vs social services. It all starts with funding. Thank you for this great education. I’ll share it.


  2. Pingback: For Those Who Say How Can We Defund the Police, Let’s Talk About What Makes It So Hard To Address Police Accountability and Systemic Racism (Part 3 of 4) – divided no longer

  3. I hope you don’t mind me posting a reference here to an issue of Radical History Review that I just co-edited “Policing, Justice and the Radical Imagination” (co-editors Amy Chazkel, Naomi Paik and Monica Kim) that touches on this issue from the vantage point at the intersection of activism and the study of history. The publisher is making the whole issue available for free until September.


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