‘Abolish The Police’ Isn’t New. This Energy Is.

A decadeslong movement to take money from police budgets and reinvest it into communities has seen its ideas propelled into the mainstream.

Erica Perry has spent years on the front lines of the police abolition movement. An organizer with the Memphis, Tennessee, chapter of Black Lives Matter and a lawyer with Law For Black Lives — a national attorney group founded in 2014 just after the Ferguson uprisings — her activism has been informed by a childhood immersed in Black liberation and theology. 

She was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which she says “has consistently, historically, been a part of radical movements. And so I come [to this work] in that lineage of asking: How do I address the suffering of our people, and recognize that this is a systemic issue? How do I organize and provide legal support for other organizers who are taking on unjust, anti-Black, and oppressive systems? And that just comes from a deep place of love.”

It’s from that place of love, that tradition of caring, that Perry came to the movement to end policing as we know it. Proponents say that the police, with ballooning budgets and increased militarization, undermine the safety and health of communities. They argue that the U.S. criminal justice system has at every level — from law enforcement to courts and prisons — not only failed at public safety but actively harmed Black and brown communities through hyper-criminalization and overincarceration. 

“Abolition refers to a world in which people don’t need to rely on police or prisons — these punitive and carceral systems — in order to thrive,” said Mon Mohapatra, co-author of #8toAbolition, a campaign designed to build a society without police or prisons. 

Graffiti on a barricade inside the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest in Seattle. The area surrounding Seattle's East Precinct pol
Graffiti on a barricade inside the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest in Seattle. The area surrounding Seattle's East Precinct police station is operating as a semi-autonomous jurisdiction outside the control of state authorities.

Whether calling to abolish the police or to “defund” law enforcement, advocates demand that money be divested from bloated law enforcement budgets and reinvested into community resources such as public health, housing, infrastructure and public schools. Realloting monies would mean police, most of whom live outside the communities they patrol, would no longer be dispatched to deal with issues they’re neither trained nor equipped to address. Instead of cops armed with high-grade military weapons, first responders might include locally based crisis workers trained in deescalation tactics, youth advocates, medics and substance abuse counselors.

Not every proponent of defunding is calling for the total abolition of the police, but those that do see taking money from police budgets as a first step. “Defunding is a transitional strategy to get to zero police,” said Mohapatra.  “It’s important that people know that when we say ‘defund,’ we mean as a part of the process of moving towards no police.”

These ideas are not new. The roots of the American movement to abolish police goes back to a group of multi-racial, formerly incarcerated men who called for prison abolition in the 1940s. The idea was taken up by two white female activists who separately published books on the topic in the 1970s. Then, in the 1990s, activists including Black scholars and educators Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore founded Critical Resistance, an organization campaigning against the prison-industrial complex, a system which includes policing. 

Angela Davis, at a rally in front of the University of the Republic, in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 2019. Davis is a high-profile
Angela Davis, at a rally in front of the University of the Republic, in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 2019. Davis is a high-profile advocate for prison abolition.

But events in recent weeks have thrust these arguments into the mainstream in an unprecedented way. National outrage following multiple killings of Black people by police, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Rayshard Brooks, has been further stoked by the seemingly endless number of daily cellphone videos showing police meeting protesters with violence, including tear gas and rubber bullets.

The U.S. pours more than $100 billion dollars into policing a year, while mass incarceration costs an additional $81 billion annually (and that’s likely to be an under-calculation).

Those dollars often come at the expense of services that support health and well-being of communities, services that would make them safer and reduce or even eliminate the need for policing. Many U.S. cities funnel more funds to police departments than any other public service ― around 20% to 45% of discretionary funds, according to data from the Center for Popular Democracy Action ― with majority-Black cities among those with the largest law enforcement budgets.

In Atlanta, for example, nearly 30% of the city’s 2017 general fund was spent on police services, while just 0.9% of city funds went to the department that handles transportation planning and affordable housing. 

Demonstrators paint the words 'defund the police' as they protest June 6 near the White House in Washington, D.C., over the d
Demonstrators paint the words 'defund the police' as they protest June 6 near the White House in Washington, D.C., over the death of George Floyd.

At every stage, the criminal justice system is more punitive toward Black people, resulting in a disproportionate number of stops, arrests, convictions, and deaths at the hands of police. Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at five times the rate of white Americans, making up 38% of the state prison population, despite representing just 13% of the U.S.’s overall population. Black children are five times more likely than white children to have a parent in jail

Overpoliced, overincarcerated neighborhoods endure high rates of family and social ruptures, and community-wide trauma, stress, depression and anxiety. Racist policing standards drain Black communities of both social services and financial resources, creating scarcity conditions that — in tandem with the consistent presence of armed, militarized, adversarial police forces — make neighborhoods less safe and leave communities demoralized. 

The disconnect between spending on police and spending on social services is particularly jarring in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, which disproportionately affects Black people and has highlighted this country’s racial inequities. 

“It’s not a coincidence that the uprisings and protests we’re seeing unfolding come on the heels of this government’s botched response to the world’s worst pandemic that our generation has ever seen,” said Mohamed Shehk, communications director at Critical Resistance, a grassroots organization focusing on dismantling the prison-industrial complex.

“At the drop of a dime they can send in a massively militarized police force to repress a protest, but we aren’t able to have widespread testing,” he continues. “The prioritization of funding policing that is the reason George Floyd was killed, is the same prioritization that has left our health care system completely underfunded and underequipped to respond effectively to the spread of the pandemic.”

A policeman shoots rubber bullets at protesters throwing rocks and water bottles during a demonstration next to the city of M
A policeman shoots rubber bullets at protesters throwing rocks and water bottles during a demonstration next to the city of Miami Police Department on May 30 in Miami.

This failure of the system to provide first and foremost for people’s health and safety drives Perry’s abolition work. “When we talk to folks in the community, we find that they’re trying to survive,” Perry said. “If folks have their needs met, [crime] is less likely to occur.” If and when crime does occur, she continued, reinvesting money in communities would mean they would have the right services to fully address those issues. “Policing doesn’t.”

Police are often stepping into situations where a social worker or other community support tools would be more effective, said Molly Glasgow, a volunteer with MPD150, a coalition dedicated to creating a “police-free” Minneapolis.

They are also not very effective at stopping crime in the first place, she said: “Police are responding after there has already been a robbery. In the world we’re looking to create, there would be a focus on prevention. And this would come from people who are embedded in the community who have the resources and the skills to be able to connect with people and deescalate that situation.”

The activists I spoke with are all involved in multi-pronged, often community-collaborative steps to create a future beyond policing ― and they are seeing successes.

The Oakland Chapter of Critical Resistance worked with a coalition of groups that in March 2019 successfully helped defund “Urban Shield,” a massive SWAT training program for emergencies that has been accused of militarizing the police. The bulk of the $5.5 million that had been approved for Urban Shield was redistributed across Bay Area cities and counties to help train the public on disaster preparedness.

Meanwhile, the Portland, Oregon, chapter of the group helped apply the pressure which led to the city’s announcement in June that it would dissolve the police department’s gun violence and transit units, both accused of disproportionately targeting people of color, and redirect $7 million from police budgets to communities of color.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti walked back promises to raise the police budget by 7% (which would have taken the total LAPD budget to $1,857,330,549, nearly 30% of the total city budget) and stated he will “identify $250 million in cuts so we can invest in jobs, in health, in education, and in healing.” And in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to “shift funding to youth services” from the police department’s $6 billion budget, though he said official numbers would not be available for weeks. 

Campaigners are also working to identify the best ways to spend reallocated funds. Perry, who also organizes with Nashville People’s Budget Coalition, has been formally surveying local community members to understand their precise needs. Burgeoning support for divesting from the police in the city was clear from the lines of people at a Nashville city council meeting on June 2, many of whom waited hours to voice their support for cutting police budgets and reinvesting in the community. The meeting started at 6:30 p.m. and didn’t finish until around 5 a.m

And on June 7, in the city where police killed Floyd, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council publicly pledged to “dismantle” the local police force — though one member was careful to later clarify that the announcement was not backed up by an official vote.

Glasgow credited the city council decision to “years of organizing combined with calls from the community during the uprising, especially young black organizers on the front lines.” She added, “council members who just recently had supported adding more police officers are now instead responding to the needs of the community to dismantle a system that has continued to harm people. It will be up to ongoing organizing and community pressure to hold the council to their decision and make our vision into a reality.”

Folks who once thought abolition was an impossible and radical idea are now asking questions. Erica Perry, Law For Black Lives

While those shifts are seen as critical first steps, they don’t tackle the big-picture issue of how overfunded the American criminal justice system is across the board. Brandon Holmes, the New York City campaign coordinator for Just Leadership USA, a group that aims to halve the number of U.S. prisoners by 2030, says this moment is just the beginning of a lengthy process of divestment. 

“There’s an entire criminal legal system that billions of dollars are invested into every year,” Holmes noted. “It may start with the police, because they’re the actual uniformed enforcers of this hierarchy of racism and oppression. But then it gets to the district attorneys and the judges who will take the police’s word for it, and who will protect them.”

Three years after launching a campaign to shut down Rikers Island, New York City’s most notorious jail, Holmes and other JLUSA members finally secured the City Council votes to close and demolish the facility by 2026. He views the current national and international moment of attention toward racist policing as a first step toward a bigger reckoning. 

“It’s time for us to take it broader and ask, how have the judges and district attorneys historically protected the police in incidents of misconduct?” said Holmes. “How have we not been able to truly hold these law enforcement agencies accountable? So I’m excited about this. Really.”

Mohapatra is also energized to see a groundswell of support for the abolitionist movement, but stressed how far there is to go, and how deeply entrenched the current system is: “Jails are still being built. I think it’s not going to mean anything if we don’t wrest power away from the people who still benefit from those systems.”

As for Perry, she is optimistic about where this moment might ultimately lead. “Yes, I’m grieving and heartbroken, because we continue to see violence enacted upon us by the state. But I’m really hopeful about doing this work with more people who are also committed to a public safety that includes investments in our community.”

She added, “Folks who once thought abolition was an impossible and radical idea are now asking questions.”

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