Defund the police and break the chain

The following is reposted with the author’s permission from a letter to the editor in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. If, after reading this, you are more disturbed by the use of the word “defunding” than of the consequences of “overfunding” a police state — then you are disturbed by the wrong thing.

Lois Ahrens: Defund the police and break the chain

I want to talk about one long chain. Starting in this tiny city and in every city where mayors and councilors decide on policing budgets. Here the amount for police is almost $7 million a year. A big chunk considering there is almost no crime. But like everywhere, it starts with mayors and city councils giving too much money and too much power to too many cops.

The money goes to cops in schools where Black children and Latinx children get disciplined, suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white children. It moves on to racial profiling with stops of drivers and people walking down the street.

And, sometimes policing and especially over-policing leads to arrests and then charges and then over-charging by district attorneys, including Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan. That means piling up so many charges that people have little choice but to take a plea bargain out of fear of a longer sentence if they risk going to trial.

From there, the chain goes to prisons and jails. In Massachusetts, we pay $1.2 billion to keep about 14,000 people caged in jails and prisons, overstaffed by guards with unions as powerful as the ones police have. Like police outside, they are trained in the same us versus them “warrior “mentality.

When you add this up — too many police, racial profiling, cops in schools, district attorneys and plea bargains — what we get is a state where more than half of the prison population is Black and Latinx, even although those groups account for 17% of Massachusetts’ population.

And, right now prisoners, that is people, in state prisons have been locked down for months. This is really a “lockdown,” not just being unable to eat in a restaurant or take a trip to California. This is being locked in a cell the size of a parking space. This is locked down where social distancing is impossible. This is locked down, where in the Framingham women’s prison, 85 of 180 women have COVID.

It starts here. In this city council and in every city council, which is why we need to defund the police and start breaking the chain.

Lois Ahrens

The writer is founding director of The Real Cost of Prisons Project.

Choose a side, fix the world

These are interesting times. Suddenly many White people are looking at racism and capitalism with much more critical eyes. In a perverse sort of way, COVID-19 has opened avenues for change and given White people an unexpected opportunity to reflect on how our society fails all but a handful of us.

With the economy going down like the Titanic, suddenly many White Americans have noticed who’s being escorted into the First Class lifeboats, and it’s been an eye-opener to see how the whole system is rigged. Overnight, multiple crises have generated a little more understanding and sympathy for people who have been in coach or steerage their whole lives. Sitting at home during an enforced “time-out” White Liberals have had a chance to do some much-needed and long-postponed introspection. Everyone is learning more about the depths of depravity and dysfunction of a system built around White Supremacy.

But there is a certain tendency of White Liberals to start with introspection and stop there. Robert Kuttner, writing in the American Prospect (“Beyond White Navel-Gazing”) gives an example of dutiful but hollow Yom Kippur apologies a few of us offer, where the resolve to change and repair is absent from the apology.

Unless an apology is specific and accompanied by a specific plan to repair the injustice, injury, or insult, most Talmudic scholars don’t regard it as serious. The requirements for Jewish Tshuvah are very similar in the Muslim world. Depending on the offense, repentance often includes restitution or reparations.

Many of the anguished White tears we’ve been seeing lately are empty gestures unless accompanied by work for racial justice. Book groups and discussion groups are important, don’t get me wrong. Most of us have an incredible lack of understanding of structural racism, much of our own history, many of our own laws, and we know surprisingly little about the lives and cultures of a third of our American friends and neighbors. Discussion groups help provide understanding and strengthen resolve to join the fight.

But, above all, White people mostly need to just choose sides. We either choose justice and equality — or we continue, comfortably and complacently, failing to change a system that works better for some of us than others. This country really is going down like the Titanic. And, in a time of crisis, action ought to supersede navel-gazing.

I think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who described marching in Selma as “praying with his feet.” Though I completely lack any religious impulse, I admire the Jewish Prophetic tradition of challenging unjust kings and laws. Heschel literally wrote a book about it, and he was aware of the connections between the Jewish tradition and the African-American prophetic tradition. But at the end of the day it wasn’t history or scripture or even common cause that motivated Heschel. He was just a White guy who understood that what went on inside his own heart and head was much less important than fixing a broken world.

Lipstick on a pig

Although Republicans have defunded education, food stamps, public housing, Planned Parenthood, NPR, sanctuary cities, environmental and occupational health, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the UN Refugee agency, what really upsets Liberals lately is when police reformers call for “defunding the police.” Objections range from worries that Hannibal Lecter will be running amok, to how it might look if Liberals called for something radical.

In the midst of a global pandemic, an epidemic of police murders, and the breakdown of American democracy, it’s the least of our damned worries.

Liberals have been as incapable as Conservatives of re-imagining a world without a highly-militarized paramilitary force occupying, in effect, urban neighborhoods. If only now they are beginning to understand the need to demilitarize and democratize the police, they still seem more afraid of blowback from adopting a particular phrase — and of alienating the mythological white swing voter — than of finding common cause with police reformers. Hopefully this is changing.

But the “defunders” are absolutely right: there are many police programs that can be, and ought to be, completely defunded. There is no need to quibble about what “defunding” means in these cases. It means exactly that — stop wasting taxpayer money making police more dangerous, and stop throwing money at useless and deceptive public relations gestures.

Here’s what many of the “defunders” have been proposing:

  • defunding the 1033 program, which puts military weaponry into police hands
  • defunding the Department of Justice COPS program that assures preferential hiring of ex-military and subsidizes local police forces hiring them
  • defunding school-based police (so-called “resource” officers) and the construction of actual jail cells for children in some schools
  • defunding forfeiture programs that permit police departments to keep the proceeds
  • defunding municipal fine programs that automatically flow to police departments (think “Ferguson”)
  • defunding the enforcement of non-violent crime and harassment of the homeless
  • defunding sensitivity training for officers who should never have been hired in the first place and for whom the training is a waste of time
  • defunding “advisory” boards, ride-alongs, drug awareness and athletics programs that are basically public relations campaigns offering the public no real oversight or control of the police
  • defunding costly overtime and “details” programs (why can’t the electric company provide a flagman?)

If people think that “defunding the police” requires too much parsing and too much explanation, they aren’t spending any time questioning the phrase “community policing.”

Liberals have been some of the greatest champions of “broken windows” policing and “community policing,” which filled city streets with hundreds of thousands of additional cops, filled the nation’s jails and prisons to overflowing, and led to unconstitutional “stop and frisk” practices by police forces which suddenly began receiving piles of cash and military gear — including cities run by Liberal politicians.

One of their inventions, “community policing,” is little more than a public relations sham — a transparent attempt to convince a community [that knows better] that the White buzz-cut with a badge on their porch is really Officer Friendly. “Taking a knee,” as some police officers did last week (instead of putting that knee on someone’s neck), was just another P.R. stunt, a “charm offensive” police departments resort to on occasion.

But it’s not working. And the police response to recent protests showed it’s mostly a big act, when people protesting police abuse and members of the press are shot at, beaten, injured, tear-gassed, and pepper-sprayed by police, often for no reason. It only confirms how comfortable police are with abusing the public and getting away with it.

As the Department of Justice defines it, “community policing” is based on [unequal] “community partnerships” involving the police, media, and community groups, and places a few hand-picked community leaders and clergy on various “advisory” boards — which in the end have no real political power.

In its most benign form Community Policing is simply lipstick on a pig.

New Bedford residents will recall the Justice Department-brokered Action Plan, which was meant to defuse community anger and distrust after the murder of Malcolm Gracia, and which constituted an advisory board of community representatives and the media — but never challenged the power of police unions and never resulted in real community oversight or control of the New Bedford police.

Provisions of the Action Plan were striking: the community, not the police, was responsible for being informed of its own rights and avoiding complications with rogue police officers; and community “relations” and “choices” by young people — not police misconduct — were identified as the root causes of the Gracia murder.

But here we are again. We’re way past the lipstick. Clearly somebody needs to do some thinking outside the box.

Max Rameau, an activist with Washington DC based Pan African Community Action, recently discussed a more democratic definition of community policing. Members of a community board are chosen from the community by lottery and directly oversee police hiring, firing, and management of their own police departments. Voters in every precinct vote on whether to decommission or continue using existing police personnel. But Rameau’s idea of oversight and management of the newly-constituted police departments is very different from today’s.

If it makes Liberals feel any better, taxes are used to fund the operations of this form of policing — Hannibal Lecter isn’t a worry — but old, ineffective, dangerous, repressive and undemocratic forms of policing would be decommissioned. And all the old budgetary and legal machinery is scrapped and defunded. And we start again from scratch.

Last year over a thousand Americans, mainly men of color, were shot and killed by police. Almost the same number died after being electrocuted by Tasers. In contrast, in Germany, a country with a quarter of our population and certainly no stranger to racism, there have been roughly 11 police killings each year since 1990, and the number has been going down. In a country experiencing a resurgence of neo-Nazism, police accountability and oversight is the only reason for Germany’s dramatically smaller number of police killings.

It’s going to take ideas like Rameau’s, studying how police in other countries are managed, and experiments like the decommissioning of the Minneapolis Police Department, to re-imagine what policing ought to be. Given that America has a race problem not going away any time soon, police reform solutions must cede control of policing to victimized communities — and we must do it today.

Yes, today — and no uncomfortable phrase, no uncharted territory, and no experiment is too radical in the service of stopping the unnecessary slaughter of Americans by their own supposed protectors, particularly people of color who are their disproportionate victims.