JS Titus argues that the demand to defund the police must extend beyond reallocating existing government spending to social services. This article was originally published on 20 July 2020.
The eruption of the Black Lives Matter protests since the murder of George Floyd in May have shaken the US. The protests, which have spread to over 60 countries show that the appetite for change is massive and widespread. Here in Britain, protests have taken place in over 150 locations. One of the main slogans that has emerged in the US has been the demand to “Defund the Police”.
Far from being a call for more austerity, this demand is about a fundamental shift in the priorities of society — taking resources away from the repressive arm of the state and redirecting it to socially useful ends. But the logic of the demand extends even further than reallocation of existing spending. The demand emerged from the prison abolition movement, which was pioneered by activists such as Angela Davies, Ruth Gilmore Wilson and Mariame Kaba, which entails a “vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation.” Now the demand arising from this year’s protests and riots have extended the concept of prison abolition to the abolition of the police system.
In a recent interview with Michael Brooks, Vijay Prashad explained the paradox of policing by saying that states pay to put a police officer between poor people and the food they need. Why not just pay for the food instead? He gave the example of Eric Garner, who was killed on suspicion of selling cigarettes without tax stamps, and George Floyd for using counterfeit money — both ways of trying to feed themselves and their family and to stay alive.
In Britain, however, the demand for defunding the police has not been so prominent in protests or in left discourse. This is in part a reflection of the different circumstances — numbers of police killings are, while unacceptably high, lower than in the US, and police spending in Britain is far lower than in the US. However, there is also an element of disorientation on the British left after the collapse of the Corbyn project. Just seven months ago, most socialists in Britain were part of an election campaign that was proposing an additional 10,000 police officers.
In the last two general elections, Labour’s manifestos proposed policies emphasising the rebuilding of public services and projecting an image of a potentially benevolent state. However at the same time, they were going to be tough on crime by taking a more ‘holistic’ approach, which meant having policies such as more police officers, reversing cuts to prison officers, and a public health approach to drugs predicated on medication and harm reduction.
While Tory policy was 20,000 more police officers, plus more use of the repressive and racist ‘stop and search’ tactic, Labour committed to hiring 2,000 more frontline officers than the Tories. Instead of putting arguments for making the repressive powers of the state weaker, Labour were pushing to make them stronger! The differences with the Tories were of degree, not direction.
A lot of new left-wing activists who were inspired by the Corbyn project have had a political education that has involved arguing for making a more benevolent state with greater powers to intervene in the economy and welfare. The collapse of Corbynism has made it urgent for the left to put forward arguments that are critical of the state and its repression and containment of class struggle. Calls to defund the police must be combined with arguments to disarm the state: not only to disband its violently repressive arms, such as the police and border force, but also to end its insidious role in policing all aspects of working class life, such as punitive benefit sanctions and the Islamophobic Prevent agenda.
The ambiguity around the term ‘defund’ makes it possible for liberals to try to co-opt and depoliticise the demand. For example, rather than calling for abolition, people suggest defunding the police could involve shifting the emphasis of policing towards putting more “community” officers on patrol. However, as Alex Vitale has argued, far from being a crime fighting and solving force, we instead need to “understand policing as fundamentally a tool of social control to facilitate our exploitation. So the idea that we’re going to make them nicer and friendlier while they do that task, and that’s gonna make everything okay, is laughable.” Not only do we need to defund the police budgets, but we also need to confront and dismantle what the police are put in the middle to defend — capital. This means using the demand as a starting point to tackle the state’s role in the criminalisation of poverty. We can also highlight the ways in which groups in struggle prioritise life-making, as Tithi Bhattacharya puts it, in the face of death-making by the police. For example, the protesters who broke into Target stores and were decried as criminal looters actually redistributed food and supplies they expropriated to those in need.
We need to be careful in the ways we put arguments about the reallocating funding from the police to other public services. It’s not enough to simply say that we could give the money spent on the police to mental health services when the mental health system as it is currently constituted is clearly a racist one. For example, in Britain during the year to March 2019, Black people were more than four times as likely as white people to be detained under the Mental Health Act (306.8 detentions per 100,000 people, compared with 72.9 per 100,000 people). Black communities are also overrepresented in secure mental health forensic services and psychiatric facilities. According to Jacqui Dyer, the current Mental Health Equalities Advisor for NHS England, there is an understanding in some Black communities that if you go into mental health services “it’s not that you get recovery, it’s that you die there”. Therefore, it is not enough to say we need to defund the police and reallocate the funds into social services, we need to de-police the social services. This would entail recuperating those life-making activities and reorienting them away from profit making or maintaining “order”, and towards genuine rehabilitation.
We need to say that reforming the police system is not enough, that putting more money in a system to train individual police to not become racist is not enough. We need to defund the police and the prison system, and to shut down migrant detention centres. These demands cut strongly against the logic of capitalism and the capitalist order, yet they now have a much larger audience with whom they might resonate than at any time in recent history. These arguments can be connected to immediate agitational demands in the movement for an end to stop and search, the decriminalisation of drugs and an end to the manufacture and export of rubber bullets. The left needs sharply to pivot away from the notion of the state merely as a neutral and potentially benevolent provider, and debates around police abolition provide a fertile ground for making such arguments.