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Graffiti on a wall in Minneapolis, Minn., on June 6. | AP Photo
Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna is an assistant editor at Politico Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @ruairiak.
On the activist left, it’s a trending hashtag, chanted in marches, scrawled on signs: Abolish the police. On the right, the slogan represents an unthinkable change, a symbol of everything wrong with modern radicals, denounced in capital letters by presidential tweet. And for lawmakers, “abolish the police”—as well as its cousin, “defund the police”—has quickly become a political hot potato.
All of them are grappling with an idea that seemingly came out of nowhere. The slogan echoes “abolish ICE,” the progressive rallying cry that arose during the 2018 campaign season and then vanished. But “abolish the police” is an idea that had been brewing for decades in academic and activist circles before it exploded into view this summer. An activist from Chicago shocked Fox News viewers four years ago when she told Megyn Kelly, “We need to abolish the police. Period.” The phrase itself dates back to at least 1988, and its deeper roots run further still—and offer some unsettling insights about the origins and history of American policing.
Polls already suggest these ideas are moving beyond slogans to real political preferences. One recent poll showed that as much as a third of U.S. adults—and more than half of Democrats, African Americans and young people—now support the movement to defund the police. How much room the movement has to grow though isn’t clear. Perceptions of police have sharply dropped in the wake of the nationwide protests about policing and racial injustice. But the two-thirds share of Americans who oppose the idea has remained roughly constant over the past few weeks, and Americans over the years consistently have told pollsters they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in police as an institution.
Simu Liu, the actor set to be the first Asian lead in a Marvel film, tweeted that abolishing the police “doesn’t mean absolutely no police anymore,” and offered a link to an article in which Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff writes that while some might see police abolition as a literal solution or long-term ideal, most just want “sweeping police reform.” At the same time, VanDerWerff praised the slogan’s “narrative power,” drawing a comparison to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.”
Progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the use of language like “defund” an “excellent choice” for those who have been trying for years to “prompt a national conversation” about police. “‘Refund’ or ‘reallocate’ didn’t do that,” she tweeted. The shocking language of the slogans can help shift the Overton Window, making what might otherwise be politically controversial interventions more palatable. Even the White House, which has firmly taken the side of law enforcement, is now reportedly crafting an executive order to address police misconduct.
But while some are indeed more than happy to settle with reform, that’s certainly not what everyone who says “abolish” or “defund” really wants.
2. It’s literal, but temporary (or partial).
There’s a middle-ground view of the calls to “defund” or “abolish” the police: We still do need police, the argument goes, but policing as we know it is so broken that departments can’t simply be reformed. It will take scrapping our current police forces to allow a new and better version to emerge. Or, on the “defund” front, the middle-ground version is that shrinking a department’s funding, perhaps drastically but not to zero, would create a new and better balance of police and the other services that keep communities safe and peaceful.
The former approach, outright disbandment and rebuilding, is not just theoretical: It has a track record. In Camden, New Jersey, all the city’s cops were fired in 2013, and a new police force was developed with different rules under the county government. Today, Camden’s reconstituted police force is larger than its predecessor, but both police violence and crime are down.
“Break the machine to save it” might sound extreme, but there’s a deep strain of police history that drives some to believe it’s necessary. Police forces, as some see it, have certain kinds of inequality woven into their DNA. Beginning in the 1830s, local town-watch systems evolved into formal municipal police departments, a change driven less by popular demand than by businesses’ desire to ensure more social order. In the South, the rise of police was more explicitly racial: Precursors to many formal police departments were slave patrols, first created in the Carolina colonies in 1704. After the Civil War, they evolved into police forces whose job, in large part, was to enforce Jim Crow segregation laws. And this is not just the stuff of a bygone era. Today, black people are disproportionately stopped by police, shot by police and killed by police. According to YouGov polling, more African Americans fear victimization by police than fear violent crime.
With all that in mind, some say it’s impossible to fix police departments without first wiping the slate clean. Others, however, think that instead of wiping the slate clean, big chunks of what policing looks like today should just be broken off, leaving a leaner force for limited purposes.
Alex Vitale—a professor of sociology and author of The End of Policing, a manual of sorts for the defund movement—falls roughly in this camp. “I’m certainly not talking about any kind of scenario where tomorrow someone just flips a switch and there are no police,” he told NPR in an interview last week. “What I’m talking about is the systematic questioning of the specific roles that police currently undertake, and attempting to develop evidence-based alternatives so that we can dial back our reliance on them.”
In this view, abolishing, or at least defunding, police departments would serve one other practical goal: to free up money for other local services that might actually help to reduce crime, like mental health treatment, drug rehabilitation, poverty relief, education and housing. In 2017, the Center for Popular Democracy published an analysis of 12 major jurisdictions across the country, showing that at the city and county level, spending on police vastly outweighs spending on other services.
Politically, the push to reduce police department budgets and reinvest in community services is gaining steam. According to CityLab, lawmakers in more than a dozen cities already, including Los Angeles, have “proposed or made pledges that would divest some resources from the police.” The effort to, at minimum, scale back police presence in schools is already advancing in places like Denver.
And Minneapolis, depending on what it does next, could be a test case for real abolition.
3. We truly shouldn’t have police.
The most extreme view of “abolish the police” is that it means what it says. It does not mean reimagining or reinventing the police. Police abolitionists want the literal end of the institution of policing in America—even if it takes a while to get there.
This as-advertised view of the rallying cry, while perhaps the most farfetched in the modern political climate, is also the most deeply rooted, with an intellectual history and framework that’s been developing over decades.
The echo of slavery abolition isn’t a coincidence. Eighty-five years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term “abolition-democracy” in his book Black Reconstruction, describing the fight to finish what the abolition of slavery had started and Reconstruction failed to do: break the rest of the institutions that had arisen to keep black people poor and powerless—that push them “backward toward slavery.” In the criminal justice system, he focused chiefly on prisons and convict leasing, but also specifically mentioned white police as being an instrument of black “domination.”
The new movement to abolish the police is a direct outgrowth of the prison abolition movement that grew in part from Du Bois’ ideas. In the 1940s, a multiracial group of incarcerated men began to call for the abolition of prisons, and the idea gained wider traction on the left in the 1970s, when two white women—one a Quaker, the other a communist—published books explicitly calling for it. By the ’80s and ’90s, prison abolition had become a movement, most closely associated with two black women, Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, as well as Canadian Quaker Ruth Morris. Prison abolitionists such as Davis expanded their critiques to a broader “prison-industrial complex,” including policing. And in the public sphere, some activists started to use “abolish the police” as a rallying cry after a series of prominent police shootings in 2014 and 2015, but it didn’t really take off until this year.
The epicenter of the recent “abolish the police” surge, and potentially the site of the movement’s next big experiment, is Minneapolis, where the police were under the microscope even before the killing of George Floyd there on May 25. In 2017, a group of activists and organizers published a report on the 150-year history of the city’s police department, concluding that the solution to its legacy of violence against black residents, particularly in the past few decades—from the shooting of 17-year-old Tycel Nelson in 1990 to the 2015 shooting of Jamar Clark—was not more reform, but rather the complete dissolution of the department and its replacement with nonviolent alternatives. At the end of last year, these police abolition activists notched a small victory when they pushed the City Council to redirect more than a quarter-million dollars from the police to an office of violence prevention in the health department.
To the abolitionists, Floyd’s death only confirmed their beliefs that the police were simply unfixable. The department had already tried to reform itself, implementing implicit-bias training five years earlier, creating use-of-force standards and adopting body cameras for officers—and an officer killed the unarmed Floyd anyway. Two allied groups of Minneapolis abolitionists soon put out a petition to push the city council to “defund the police” much more aggressively, by taking $45 million out of the department’s nearly $200 million budget. After growing demands from protesters, on June 7, nine City Council members—enough to override a veto from the mayor—decided to go even further, vowing to dismantle the department altogether. On June 12, the council unanimously approved a resolution to “commence a year long process” to look into what they would replace the police with.
In Minneapolis and elsewhere, police abolitionists say their real goal isn’t just to wipe out police forces, but to reconstitute society in a way that makes them far less necessary, if at all. The movement has a wider program: decriminalization of many nonviolent offenses, such as drug use and sex work, and shifting resources and responsibilities from the police to social welfare services. The result, advocates envision, is a community that simply has less crime to deal with. (To skeptics, they point to research suggesting that less policing can actually reduce crime and that police have low rates of solving many crimes, though other studies suggest that more police keep the crime rate down.) For what crime persists, police abolitionists say there are better alternatives: health professionals or social workers trained to be first responders to nonviolent situations, and unarmed mediation and interruption teams—like Cure Violence, Ceasefire or Safe Streets—equipped to prevent violence first, and respond to it when necessary.
Even the most committed abolitionists will acknowledge that that world is years away; in the near term, they hope to advance the cause through intermediate steps, including abolishing police unions, disarming the police and overturning the “Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights” that exists in a dozen states and is used to protect police officers from investigation or prosecution for misconduct. Advocates are also engaging in a widespread outreach campaign, using tools like Instagram to share what are essentially educational PowerPoints—on subjects from “the case against reform” to how to “imagine a world without police” or a “police-free future.”
While it can be imagined, there’s no actual model—at least not yet—for a world without police. Even countries that have virtually abolished their prison systems still maintain police forces, though not always armed. And while a number of American cities, mostly rural small towns, have disbanded their police departments over the years to save money, the policing duties are reliably picked up by either the county sheriff’s office or a neighboring jurisdiction.
It’s also unclear if the politics will break any further in abolitionists’ direction. Right now, the movement faces strong headwinds. Republican attorneys general and members of Congress vigorously oppose any effort to defund the police, let alone abolish it, and the GOP is hoping to make it a wedge issue in November. Even Democrats in Congress are trying to quash the campaign, and figureheads of both ideological ends of the party—Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden—are explicitly spurning the nascent movement, in all its gradations.
Ocasio-Cortez, as well as fellow progressive “Squad” members Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, appear to be the only national politicians so far who have not shied away from calls to “defund the police,” but even they haven’t yet embraced “abolish the police.” When it comes to what’s next for the movement, the spotlight remains—as it has for two weeks now—on Minneapolis.
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