Matthew Z looks at the astonishing spread of the demand to defund the police, particularly in Democrat-run states and local governments.
Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti and the president of the Los Angeles board of directors announced a plan to identify $100-150 million in cuts to the LA Police Department’s grossly over-inflated budget. Minnesota announced the divestment of on-campus police in higher education, and then later announced a plan to defund and dismantle the police department. Seattle police have vacated the 32nd precinct. Portland, Oregon announced plans to divert police funds to other programs. And New York announced a plan to stop shielding police records.
Democratic lawmakers are scrambling for a compromise in an attempt to quell the massive rebellion underway in all 50 US states and around the world. A rebellion in response to the murder of George Floyd, centuries of systemic police brutality in the US, and an insinuated threat from President Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act. This was a threat made real by Trump’s eager willingness to use excessive force against peaceful protestors for a church-front photo op.
There is no doubt, these announcements of compromise are extremely significant. Democratic lawmakers are facing a lot of pressure to respond to one of the movement’s demands to defund the police. If someone would have told me a week ago that states around the US would be making these sorts of concessions, I would have accused them of having a questionable grip on reality. I might respond with: “no way is there any chance that states begin to take any sort of look at their ever-expanding police budgets, I don’t think there has ever been an instance in my lifetime where the police or military budget was reduced”.
But in just a few days, I have been proven thankfully wrong. The significance of states being forced to reconcile the ludicrous state spending on police and mass incarceration cannot be emphasised enough. This is a significant event, and one that should be viewed as a victory for and by the Black Lives Matter movement, and all the groups acting in solidarity with the movement to stop police violence against Black and Latino communities. For us, these cuts to police budgets are huge victories. We should celebrate the scale of the movement and its ability to win these important concessions. But for Democratic lawmakers, these reforms are compromises. Compromises that are designed to first and foremost end the unrest in the streets, and second to restore faith in a system that has no intention of making any serious alterations in the material conditions of life.
Historically, escalated spending has not solved crime or any other problems faced in any communities, and has significantly exacerbated them in Black communities. So to see this historical trend make an about-face in under a week is cause for celebration. But that in no way should translate into a failure to seriously evaluate and critique the concession offered. Joe Biden has come out against the movement to defund and even proposed a raise!
Money for services, not killer cops
Before the anti-racist uprising, the City of LA budget was slated to increase police spending by $122 million, but with the pressure coming from this movement, officials have decided that might not be a good idea. However, this cut only accounts for 10% of the LAPD budget, it’s a far cry from defunding the police. The published budget for transportation (186 million)*, homelessness (26 million), youth programs (28 million)**, and Medicare contributions (55 million), pales in comparison to the LAPD budget. Clearly, Garcetti is only willing to offer drops in a vast ocean of financial resources dedicated to law enforcement.
But what about the argument that we should not ‘kick a gift horse in the mouth’? $100 million removed from the LAPD budget and directed elsewhere is nothing to scoff at, and can potentially be used in 101 useful ways that would benefit the community. But how this money will be allocated, what sort of programs, and how much will be dedicated is not yet clear.
Los Angeles makes public where the tax dollars go, the Safe City section shows the overall LAPD budget still sits at around $1 billion, so this win is a far cry from defunding the police altogether. If we look deeper into the report under the section titled ‘A Liveable and Sustainable City’ we see the police listed again for an additional $385,000,000 in allocated budget. We have to dig even further in order to finally find the spending for transportation, homelessness, youth programs, and Medicare contributions.
The proposal does more than just leave the details about redistribution for later, but it leaves generally intact the juggernaut of policing that costs well over $1.2 billion a year, and does nothing to address the long standing issue of police in schools, or a punitive truancy program championed by former Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who later was forced to admit that in hindsight (it’s always hindsight, even Biden claims the Clinton crime bill was poor in hindsight) was in fact a punitive program that contributes directly to the school to prison pipeline and the over incarceration of Black and Brown children (this is a topic that UTLA has been fighting since before the 2019 teacher strike-wave in 2019). Nor does it address the fact that California’s prison population sits at just about 130,000 at any given time, and that this disproportionately affects the Black and Latino community. One concrete alternative to Garcetti’s budget is the People’s Budget, a proposal from a coalition of organizations that wants to redistribute funds to essential services and defund the police entirely.
The anxiety of the power structure is apparent after seeing the slogan “Defund the Police”, and “ACAB” (all cops are bastards) spread like wildfire in the protests around the world. Historically, demands to defund, disarm, and disband the police came from the revolutionary left. The popularity of these slogans today indicates a shift in the way the masses view the role of the police, and parallels the increase in support for BLM.
#ACAB spay-painted on walls, and burned-out police cruisers seems to indicate that the narrative “not all cops” or the argument that there are just a few ‘bad apples’ do not hold up under the weight of reality anymore. Police kill on average 1,600 people every year. Taking just the 1,600 body-count average, since 2001 police have killed 30,400 people (10 times the human loss on September 11 for comparison). Additionally, 600,000 people enter the prison system every year for some duration of time, many of whom are never actually convicted of any crime but held on bail they cannot afford to pay.
It seems the facade that the police are here to “protect and serve” is suffering from some serious contradictions. At some level, people are starting to interrogate the narrative of police in our communities or at least their conduct, management, and budget. As these concessions are announced, people are beginning to realize their own power, and see that the most effective lever of control over particular budgetary issues (i.e. education, police, transportation, health, etc) that people realistically have is when we hit the streets in mass, and demand it. It is undeniable that this tactic does, in fact, work.
Some might pose the question, “Why now? What about all the others that have been killed at the hands of police? Why not protest all police killings?” aka ‘all lives…’. First, the Black Lives Matter movement has protested every police murder since the movement began. I have always been fascinated that the lightning-rod to a movement is simultaneously able to be used as a method to discredit it. Yes, George Floyd’s murder is the lightning-rod for the current movement, but attempts to paint these protests from politicians and media as only about George Floyd attempts to ignore the history of police violence and murder. This was the same interrogation of protests when people revolted in Ferguson, or demonstrated for Tamir Rice, or Trayvon Martin, or, or, or—and “or” thousands more times. The “all lives” argument has been used for each and every moment when the Black community has stood up and said “we are not allowing this to be, we demand justice”. It was never one straw that broke the camel’s back, it was the million underneath it.
What do Democrats have to offer the movement now? If the completely out-of-touch statement from Presidential Candidate Joe “Shoot to Maim” Biden is any indication, it’s not much. Even Bernie Sanders has been disappointing on this question, arguing to reform the police and even increase their budgets, when the movement in the streets is demanding their abolition.
The Democratic Party machine certainly appears ready to pull out the same old bag of tricks. They have called out the big pinch hitter Obama and the Obama Foundation to try and quell the uprising. But it seems it’s just an updated version of the same thing: vote, we will take care of the rest, and protestors must remain within the police department’s definition of ‘peaceful’—or else.
Geroge Floyd was murdered in a Democratic state, in a Democratic city, by a cop who was funded by Democratic lawmakers. This tells us that there is no electoral path to defeating police violence. Democratic state and local lawmakers have sent police departments in to violently attack protestors over the last two weeks and imposed curfews to curtail protests. Just because they might use less tear gas than a Republican state, does not make them the champion of the people, far from it, no matter how much they kneel wearing kente cloths.
What do the realities of the current moment suggest about what should be done? Certainly being silent is no longer an option for Democrats, this only works if the streets are empty and there is no video evidence of police brutality. Neither does the ridiculous attempt to pin more than 30,400 police killings on a few bad apples. Those are war-like casualty numbers, and the appropriate parallels should be drawn; police are in an active war against Black and Brown communities. The ‘bad apple’ argument is noticeably missing from this uprising, precisely because it no longer resonates.
It seems the only ‘bad apples’ left for the establishment to blame are the protestors, which is certainly not a new tactic. Several news reporters have expressed the sentiment “If it was not for the looting, everyone would understand why you are upset”. Or at least some variation of the attempt to discredit what is happening in every US state and several countries around the world.
There are others that have detailed the systemic factors behind looting and violence that occur during these rebellions. I won’t try to list those here, however, this rebellion seems to have another clear target: the police directly. We are seeing police stations, police cruisers, and police kiosks (like the one at the Grove mall in LA) burn to the ground, or be defaced with the slogans of the movement. Not only are the ‘things’ that make up the free market system the object of protest, but so is the system of policing in the US, and that is extremely significant.
Despite the attempts to minimize, reduce, or discredit the upheaval over the last several days, we have seen the size of protests continue to swell in numbers. Two days in a row, protests in Portland, Oregon filled the Morrison and Burnside bridges with people. It takes a herculean effort to fill a bridge with people, but it was accomplished. This is a familiar scene around the globe. The Democrats would like to offer some gestures to the movement, like Garcetti has done with the LAPD budget, alongside other limited reforms to police departments. But it seems unlikely that the movement on the streets will settle for gestures—and it shouldn’t. Governments around the US are in scramble mode to get things back to status quo, but it seems the conditions created by COVID-19, and the continued unanswered issues of systemic racism and violence against Black and Brown working class communities are preventing a return to the status quo. Murder can no longer be dismissed as the result of ‘bad apples’. The changes the movement has already won are not directly tied to voting for the right Democrats. Sitting and waiting for the hearts and minds of police and officials to change is a pipe-dream. All of this indicates the status quo is completely unacceptable.
The actions of the working class around the world during this rebellion is a continuation of a long and rich history of working class revolt. It’s won the vote, the 8 hour day, education, healthcare, social security, and a number of other vital social services that directly benefit the working class. But there are still extreme divisions among the class in terms of nationality, race, sex, and gender. However, Black Lives Matter has united a multi-racial working class movement against capitalism’s armed protectors, the police. The movement must claim its victories when Democratic mayors like Garcetti are compelled to cut police budgets, but we should demand nothing less than the full abolition of the police. The movement shows no signs of stopping yet, and that scares the shit out of both Republicans and Democrats.
* 60 million of this amount is dedicated to Parking Enforcement.
** It should be noted that the youth program funds are part of Gang Reduction which means police involvement.