ODVV interview: Systemic racism in the US...
The tragic killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, by a former Minnesota police officer on May 25, was not the first instance of white cops resorting to undue force against Black citizens, but was certainly egregious enough that made the American people’s blood boil, sparking massive protests in the United States from coast to coast, prompting demonstrations in some 30 countries against racism and police brutality.
The killing of George Floyd was exposed and went viral owing to the videos captured by bystanders who were witnessing the law enforcement officer Derek Chauvin applying a neck restraint on the unarmed man for nearly 9 minutes when he was put under arrest after Floyd was reported purchasing cigarettes from a grocery store at the intersection of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood of Minneapolis, and paid for it using a counterfeit $20 bill.
The words Floyd uttered in the final moments of his life, “I can’t breathe,” as the police officer was pressing a knee into his neck, evoked the same words Eric Garner, another unarmed Black man had used, when he was put in a chokehold by a New York City Police Department officer on July 17, 2014, resulting in his death. Since Garner’s death, the words turned into a slogan associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and a number of books and songs were produced based on them.
Now, racial injustice and anti-Black prejudice are once again at the center of national conversation in the United States, and media are feverishly talking about racism being a systemic disease structured into the country’s institutions. In other nations, also, media debate surrounding racism has overshadowed the coverage of other issues, including the global COVID-19 pandemic. Deutsche Welle ran an opinion piece, headlined “Systemic racism is the real American carnage.” The British broadsheet The Daily Telegraph published a commentary, titled “I am beginning to fear that America will never solve its racism problem”
Faye V. Harrison is a noted American anthropologist and a Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. She has written extensively on race, racism and antiracism since the 1990s, and was one of the advisors for the traveling museum exhibit "Race: Are We So Different?" that the American Anthropological Association developed in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota. Prof. Harrison is the recipient of several awards, including the William R. Jones Most Valuable Mentor Award from the Florida Education Fund.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Prof. Faye Harrison to discuss the recent wave of global protest over the killing of George Floyd, racism in the 21st century America and the role of education in bridging the racial divides. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Q: The agonizing killing of George Floyd rekindled a long-simmering public debate on police brutality in the United States. Is it the case that acts of police violence disproportionately target African-Americans or is it a challenge faced by all American citizens equally? Why hasn’t the judicial system been able to hold the police departments accountable?
A: All American citizens do not equally encounter police violence and extra-judicial killings – when police act as judge, jury and executioner. The presumed public safety role that police play is not implemented equally across the board. The rampant pattern of police brutality and state-sanctioned killings is more than an occasional problem that stems from “a few bad apples” in local police departments. This is the assertion made in the White House by President Donald Trump and by the Attorney General William Barr who is at the helm of the US Department of Justice. Not uncommonly, conservative views on policing insist that killer cops are completely justified for protecting the public from ungovernable dangers to society. This logic often leads to decisions being made within police departments and in the courts to acquit officers, which reinforces the institutionalization of impunity and exonerating police from culpability. The fact that judicial procedures are so often aligned with the logic and politics of impunity demonstrates the default state sanctioning or approval that anti-racist activists are contesting in their campaigns against state-sanctioned killing, the unjust murders of Black as well as Brown and indigenous people. Let me point out that “Black and Brown” is now part of the political language that is being used to acknowledge that Blacks are not the only targets of egregious racist violence. I include mention of indigenous people here because, they, too, suffer from lethal policing and state-sanctioned violence of various sorts but are largely absent from the public debate.
Many police officers around the country are never prosecuted for their crimes. Judgments are too often made by police chiefs and police unions that the killings committed are justified in the exercise of law enforcement. Over the past several decades in what has been called the “law and order” regime of the “War on Crime,” the powers of policing and police impunity have expanded, and the technologies and techniques of policing have undergone a process of militarization within a context of state securitization. Within this context, indiscriminate criminalization – profiling and treating people as though they are criminals or criminal suspects – has had deleterious effects. It has also affected the way that dissenters have been treated, despite their constitutional right to dissent. These processes and the views about them are widely debated in the public sphere and have been there for a while. Social scientists, including criminologists, historians and other scholars also debate these issues. I want to emphasize that the cumulative research record along with solid journalistic accounts is quite abundant and still growing on the workings of police brutality, the carceral state, mass incarceration, and how different aspects of structural racism frame and underpin all of these phenomena.
This body of research, particularly the streams of critical social analysis, dates back to earlier historical periods and examines the logic and effects of racialized policing over the longue durée, including during the era of slavery in the United States when slave patrols were deployed to recapture runaways, fugitives from the plantations where they were enslaved. My colleague Pem Davidson Buck reveals that the US state’s monopoly over punishment has been integral to its political sovereignty since the formation of the country as a nation state based on settler colonialism and slavery. Today the afterlife of slavery figures prominently in the fabric of our society. However, the legacy of past chattel slavery is conjoined with post-emancipation modes of bondage and unfreedom which have endured over time and in the present. Slavery was never completely abolished. The 13th Amendment of the US Constitution made legal provisions for continuing slavery as a punishment for convicted crimes. We need to think seriously about the implications of this codification for a society in which mass incarceration and enduring – although reconfigured –racialization and racism are rampant. This is the status quo despite popular claims about “a few bad apples” in a post-racial society.
There are parallel predicaments of lethal policing and mass incarceration in other parts of the African diaspora, where historically captives were transported from Africa to colonial territories in the Americas and other places where they populated historically unprecedented sites of racial slavery. Scholarly analysis on the legacy and afterlife of chattel slavery in Brazil, for example, demonstrates that police terror – Jaime Amparo Alves’ preferred term, which implicates a variety of different kinds of public and private policing units, is a problem so serious that the Afro-Brazilian movement for racial equality claims that genocide is being perpetrated against people of African descent, particularly those living in impoverished favelas where their security is most at risk. Jeffrey Sluka and others have written about how police and military operations in many parts of the world, most immediately in Latin America and the Caribbean, owe a great deal to US influence, imperial power, and foreign aid. The latter has included training for counterinsurgency, anti-drug, and anti-crime—which intermesh. Police operations, for example death squads, are frequently rationalized in terms of these goals, even when the targets of lethal violence are social justice activists, trade unionists, journalists, or merely innocent bystanders.
As a social anthropologist, I try to keep up with the publicly engaged ethnographic research that my fellow anthropologists have undertaken documenting the severity of anti-Black police and civilian –paramilitary or vigilante – violence in Brazil and other parts of Latin America. João Costa Vargas, who studies white supremacy in both Brazil and the United States, Jaime Amparo Alves, whom I’ve already mentioned, Keisha-Khan Perry, and Christen Smith have documented and explained the workings of the racial and gender biases in police profiling, brutality, and lethal force. Much of this work also examines the ways that Black communities exercise their sociopolitical agency within dehumanizing circumstances. Anthropologists are also doing compelling work in the United States. Pem Davidson Buck, Laurence Ralph, Aisha Beliso de Jesús, and Kalfane Ture are among those making important interventions in how we should think about the racialization of policing and statecraft.
The current scholarship on the United States, then, clearly reveals that Black Americans are disproportionately affected by police violence. Even when they are unarmed and innocent, they are more likely to be profiled and targeted for criminal offenses. Black Americans suffer the brunt of racist policing at a higher rate than most other minoritized groups, notably Latinxs, citizens and immigrants. As I suggested before, although there is little public awareness of this, indigenous people, also called Native Americans, actually suffer the highest per capita rate of police killing. The numbers, however, are extremely small. Native Americans – American Indians as well as Alaska and Hawaii Natives – constitute a very small segment of the national population, namely 2 percent. American Indians and their communities in cities and on reservations make up about 1 percent of the national population and are unevenly distributed across the entire country. Black and Latinx populations are dispersed across the national landscape and are represented by stigmatizing stereotyping as dangerous, ungovernable, and out-of-place, threats to the social order and body politic.
The claims I am making are not just opinions, polemics, or exaggerated political rhetoric. There are databases that corroborate these disparate patterns, and websites such as “The Sentencing Project” and “Mapping Police Violence” where aggregate data are provided along with explanations of evidentiary sources and the methodologies used for analyzing the data. There are also journals, for example, “Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict & World Order,” that publish peer-reviewed research articles by criminologists and other scholars who study criminal injustice. Among the prominent authors who write on the politics and political economy of policing and mass incarceration are Angela Y. Davis, Michelle Alexander, Ruth Gilmore Wilson, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and, 20 years ago, Jill Nelson, who edited an anthology, Police Brutality. That book included a statement originally published in 1900 protesting the persecution Black people faced from white “roughs and policemen” in New York City. That was during the time when urban riots were largely instigated by Whites against African Americans. The distinction between roughs, thugs and vigilantes, and the police was often blurred. This was also true during the height of lynching in the Southern region, where police frequently colluded with the Ku Klux Klan and other violent groups that usually enjoyed impunity.
The culprits of lynchings and those who supported their actions used accusations that Black males were guilty of raping and spoiling the chastity of White women as the justification for mob justice. The late 19th and early 20th century research of activist journalists like Ida B. Wells proved that while the myth of Black men’s predatory sexuality was promulgated, the real motives for lynchings were quite different, among them Black economic mobility and attempts to exercise the franchise and other constitutional rights. Lynch mobs did not restrict their “sport” and “recreation” to Black men. Women and children were also killed in those cruel crimes against Black humanity. Those tragic incidents sometimes attracted large crowds of people, including families with children. Pictures were taken and made into postcards that were mailed to friends. These documents celebrated hangings from trees – what the jazz singer Billie Holiday’s lyrics called “Strange Fruit” – within an atmosphere typically associated with county fairs and festivals. This is the unspoken “heritage” of today’s alt-right, made up of Ku Klux Klan, neo-fascist, White nationalists, survivalists, and other White supremacists. This is a key portion of Trump’s social base, which also includes corporate oligarchs and members of the financial elite. He joins his “Unite the Right” supporters in opposing the removal of Confederate monuments of Civil War generals, who committed treason against the United States. Most of those statutes and memorials have their origins not in the post-bellum period but during the infamous Jim Crow segregation era when segregationists publicly articulated and enacted their strong opposition to Black civil, human rights.
In the early 1950s, the radical civil rights lawyer William L. Patterson compiled a robust report, a petition, supported by data on the continuum of state-sanctioned human rights violations inflicted against African Americans. From lynchings to public policies, practices, and inactions that contributed to the social conditions that resulted in prevalent patterns of morbidity and mortality.
The 1952 petition was titled We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of the United States Government against the Negro People. The US government did everything it could to prevent the petition from receiving a fair hearing in the UN and international community. João Costa Vargas has written that a genocidal continuum persists today, creating conditions for “geographies of death.” Black vulnerability to social death, a concept from historical sociologist Orlando Patterson, and their assignment to spaces of dehumanizing non-being make Black people susceptible to becoming victims of the physical death to which police violence contributes.
Evidence-based analyses of the anti-Black racial biases and practices in policing and in the wider criminal justice system can be found in publications and reports produced by academic scholarship, civil society organizations, and national and international human rights agencies such as Amnesty International and the commissions and committees within the United Nations. There is no dearth of evidence and analysis on the problem. The way the problem is politicized and addressed in public policy is a problem and a volatile focus of struggle.
Q: Incidents like the killing of George Floyd by a white cop have happened in the recent years multiple times. It was only on March 13 when a Louisville Metro Police Department officer fatally shot Breonna Taylor, an African-American emergency medical technician in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky. However, such happenings usually get lost in the news and don’t trigger notable national or international movements. What was the reason the death of George Floyd sent shockwaves across the globe and sparked protest movements in all US states and nearly 30 countries?
A: There is definitely a gender bias involved, even in the social justice movements that have emerged in response to police killings. When Black Lives Matter was established in the immediate wake of Trayvon Martin’s not receiving justice, that is, because his killer George Zimmerman was acquitted by the court, that hashtag-facilitated national activist network went about things differently from what had been done in the Black freedom movement in the past. Three queer-identifying Black women were the founders of #BLM. They took advantage of the public outrage and anger generated by the mass-mediated, publicly debated killings of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida and later Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. However, their organizing tactics were more sensitive to matters of gender and sexuality – to issues of intersectional justice. Under the rubric of Black Lives Matter, there has been an acknowledgment of Black queer and trans lives, which are also vulnerable to police and civilian violence.
Despite the important educational and sociopolitical work that #SayHerName, a Kimberlé Crenshaw-led campaign that the African American Policy Forum sponsors has inspired, the problem of gender bias and hierarchy repeated itself in the case of Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, a transman who was killed by police in Tallahassee, Florida in late May. Those cases did not receive the amount of national and international news coverage they deserved, and it was not until after George Floyd’s case, due to the extensive video footage that had gone viral, sparking solidarity demonstrations all over the place, that awareness of these other cases was raised. Local demonstrations in Louisville, Kentucky, for instance, demanded justice for both Taylor and Floyd. News coverage picked up on this connection, as well as other cases that are part of the larger problem. Even international demonstrations revealed that solidarity with protesters in Minneapolis was often combined with outrage and anger about similar crimes in London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and beyond. As a consequence, more of us are “saying the names” of many of the befallen in an expanded mapping of the “geography of death” in which Minneapolis has become an epicenter.
Furthermore, the higher level of intersectional consciousness nowadays has meant that more protesters, organizers, and others are making connections, connecting the dots between multiple cases of state-sanctioned killings and giving more attention to Black women and trans people’s experience with police and civilian brutality. The fact that these concerns are being publicly discussed now indicates that Black feminist and womanist voices have had an impact over the past decades.
Q: What is your take on President Donald Trump’s response to the death of George Floyd, which perceptibly infuriated the American people from all walks of life and led to violence and rioting in some cities and states? Is it fair to say Trump himself is partly responsible for the surge of racism in the United States? Why did he deride the protesters, threatened them and called them terrorists, unlike his predecessor who believed the culture of dissent and protest was integral to the US civilization?
A: Racism is systemic in the United States. This means that it assumes a variety of forms, many of them covert, tacit, and everyday. These are barely legible in the public eye, especially the eyes of people who accept the idea that racism no longer exists in any serious, systemic way and that it is antiracists who are causing problems with race, which they direct against innocent white people whose rights are believed to be under threat. In a national context in which a growing multiracial population is exercising its rights and power, for example, Barack Obama in the White House, rightwing White people think that they have become victims of “reverse racism” and a potential genocide.
Sometimes tacit racism is referred to as “implicit bias,” but racism is not only bias or prejudice, even when it is implicit and ambiguously encoded. Biases and prejudices are constituent elements in an assemblage encompassing practices and structures that, according to Leith Mullings, “transforms certain forms of perceived differences, generally regarded as indelible and unchangeable, into inequality. [Racism] works through modes of dispossession, which have included subordination, stigmatization, exploitation, exclusion, various forms of physical violence, and sometimes genocide. Racism is maintained and perpetuated by both coercion and consent and is rationalized through paradigms of both biology and culture.” There has definitely been a surge in flagrant, spectacular forms of White supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-immigrant hatred targeting Mexicans, Central Americans, and Muslims, and now that we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic there is even a surge in anti-Asian and Asian-American hate crimes, which President Trump’s insistence in calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus” has aggravated. President Donald Trump’s speeches, tweets, and executive orders embolden and normalize racist speech and behaviors at nearly every level.
He refused to criticize alt-right and neo-fascists demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 and more recently he defended armed white protesters who demanded “liberation” and “freedom” from stay-at-home orders meant to contain or mitigate the pandemic. Trump has blamed the unrest that George Floyd’s killing has ignited on ANTIFA, anti-fascist anarchists supposedly responsible for rioting, He blurs the line between looters, arsonists and peaceful protesters, whom he entangles in the terrorist-targeting net he casts over the heterogeneous demonstrations of civil disobedience. Under his administration, the counterterrorism division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation has put “Black identity extremists” at the top of the list of terrorists, more of a threat to domestic, homeland security than Al-Qaeda and extremist white supremacists, who have consistently demonstrated a greater tendency toward hate crimes and violence. Their activities, both in geographically dispersed locations and in cyberspace are methodically tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which reports that the numbers of active hate groups have grown since Donald Trump made his entrance onto the political stage during his 2015-2016 presidential campaign. Yet, Trump argues that there are good people on both sides and both sides are to blame for violence when it is directed toward non-violent demonstrators. Trump has called on local police and the National Guard to “dominate the streets” and he wants to deploy the armed forces to meet that objective. Fortunately, this is not the consensual view among military leaders, nor is it a view that many mayors embrace.
Q: What is the change that needs to take place in the United States so that the rights of the people of color are safeguarded and the plague of racism is eradicated forever? Do you think the passing of new legislation is the panacea? There is an array of laws in America which outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender and religion, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. As a result, it appears that there is no legal vacuum when it comes to addressing racism. Why is racial discrimination still ubiquitous?
A: There is no single panacea. Racism is systemic, so in order to dismantle it, to eliminate it, fundamental transformations are necessary. Legal and procedural reforms are often inadequate. There is a long history of such reform, and even with these changes, the problem of police violence has persisted and, in some respects, has been reinforced by larger processes and policies such as those related to the militarization of policing and continued investment in mass incarceration. When funding is abundantly available for prisons but not for public schools, there is a problem in the society’s priorities.
Legislative reforms, such as the civil rights acts and voting rights act are necessary but insufficient. Codifying law does not guarantee the implementation and enforcement of the law. I make a distinction between de jure and de facto law. On the level of de jure law, racism should not exist because it is against the law in the land of democracy and the “American Dream.” Ideological blinders preclude many people from seeing and recognizing the racism that is ongoing, encoded in discursive practices, and embodied in behaviors, especially in cross-racial encounters. A racializing logic permeates the society and culture. Changing that is a long-term endeavor. If people deny that we have a problem with race and racism, then that impedes the process of transformation and of ensuring justice for all.
Social control over Black bodies is foundational in the US society. It is also at the base of what thinkers like Aníbal Quijano, Walter Mignolo, Arturo Escobar, and Catherine Walsh identify as the mutually constitutive relationship between modernity and coloniality. Racial hierarchies are intrinsic to modernity and coloniality, and anti-Blackness has come out of this dynamic of power. Caribbean philosopher and theorist Sylvia Wynter has argued that the category of man, as in mankind, is a Eurocentric construct, which excluded Africans and their descendants. We need to reimagine an “after-Man” alternative in which full humanity can exist ontologically and materially for Black people. If we can achieve this fundamental, revolutionary goal, then racism – as anti-Blackness, white supremacy or anti-indigeneity or what have you, will no longer serve an integral function in society. Overturning modernity cannot occur solely in one society. It is a transnational configuration that is linked to the political economy, political ecology, and cultural dynamics of global capitalism. Its logics of accumulation, marketization, and dispossession, sometimes translated into the loss of life itself.
Q: Do you agree that the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests worldwide can be called the moment of the international community’s racial awakening? In countries like Britain, protests went beyond the condemnation of US police brutality and morphed into venues for people to express dismay at the scourge of racism within their own borders. Is the international community going to take action to meaningfully invest on fighting racism and find a durable solution?
A: I certainly hope that what we are seeing is a radical new awakening of global scope that will set the tone and create some of the initial conditions for the level of transformation that would dismantle the scourge and structuration of racism. The dismantling I am envisioning entails an enormous, long-term, multi-phased struggle along with an enormous amount of transnational solidarity and collaboration on many different levels if we are to be successful in working toward restructuring or building replacements for ensuring public safety, economic justice, equal access to quality education, gender equity, the leveling of class inequalities, and building forms of democratic participation premised on new models of citizenship and leadership beyond what presently exists in the contradictory regime of neoliberal, bourgeois democracy.
All the people participating in mass demonstrations around the world do not necessarily share the exact same vision of the future world. Cultivating workable levels of agreement to work together toward what may be common understandings is a challenge but one that we can find meaningfully constructive ways to pursue.
Q: Many scholars who study race relations maintain that no child is born with racist attitudes, and they are the family, educational system and society which inculcate racism and internalize it. What are the major flaws of the educational system in the United States that translate into racism and prejudice against minorities being still pervasive in the society some 150 years after the abolition of slavery and 55 years after the abandonment of the Jim Crow laws?
A: Educational reform and curricular change are more complicated than they may seem.
We in the United States have certainly come a long way since 1865; however, we still face major problems with what one educator and author, Jonathan Kozol, once described as “savage inequalities.” The educational system as a whole, from kindergarten through university training, namely K-12 and beyond, is highly stratified and uneven. There are excellent schools, colleges, and universities as well as institutions fraught with problems. There are Black, Brown, and indigenous students who have experienced academic success and have enjoyed the upward mobility function that schooling can accomplish. However, critics of education and researchers who study what happens in classrooms, teacher-student interactions, educational leadership, and educational outcomes show how schooling can reproduce society’s inequalities by socializing students for a raced, classed, and gendered society rather than creating outcomes that lead to the ideals of the American Dream, in which everyone can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” if they work hard and exercise personal responsibility. The situation is much more complicated than these mythical perspective claims.
There is a growing body of research showing that some schools have been reorganized according to a carceral logic, what is called the school to prison pipeline. The relationship between punishment, policing, and schools is not as linear as the pipeline metaphor suggests, but the point is that public schools have become venues where disciplining and punishment figure prominently, and where Black students, particularly boys but girls are not immune, are treated as though they are dangerous delinquents who deserve being brutalized and placed in “reform schools” – a euphemism at best – where, unwittingly or not, they are socialized for a future in mass incarceration. Even highly touted charter schools have not reduced or done away with this problem, as the research of one of my former students, Justin Hosbey, indicates. There are data sets and infographics on this problem available on a number of online sites. The website of the American Civil Liberties Union, is one example. The scholarship on race and education is abundant and burgeoning. The discrepancy between what we know, or should know based on all this evidence of the problem, and what is being done to resolve it is huge.
Let me say that many of the students I teach at my university and at the other universities where I have worked over the past 30 years have gone through K-12 and beyond never having had a Black teacher, never having been exposed to textbooks and other learning resources that address more than the very basic and often stereotypic ideas on race in the past and present of multiracial US society, as it is situated in the world. There are places in the country where there is strong opposition to teaching anything that makes white parents and their children feel uncomfortable and could be interpreted as hostile toward them. White fragility. This means that the history of settler colonialism, the genocide inflicted on indigenous people, the cruelty of slavery, and the brutality inflicted in the territory that was Northern Mexico before it was violently annexed cannot be addressed. Internationally acclaimed literature, such as the late Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s novels, has been censored in schools and public libraries in some conservative localities across the country. I have encountered students who have entered higher education without knowing anything substantive about Martin Luther King, Jr. beyond the commodified mischaracterization of him, which has been appropriated by post-racial proponents. These students don’t know that Malcolm X is not read as Malcolm the tenth, because they have never been exposed to the history of the mass social movements of the 1960s and the central part that African descendants played across a diverse ideological terrain. I do not want to overgeneralize, because there are some excellent schools in this country, but I have begun to suspect that they do not represent the norm. Quality education in which critical thinking and the gathering and assessment of evidence are valorized should be a human right, but in our de facto reality it is a privilege that only some of us can enjoy.
Q: One of the demands of the Black Lives Matter protesters in the recent weeks has been the defunding of the federal police as a way to check its powers and hold it accountable. The devotees and allies of President Trump have portrayed the defunding of federal police as a demand of the Democratic Party, rather than being a national call. What are your thoughts? Will violence against the minorities, particularly the blacks, disappear if there is a disinvestment in law enforcement departments?
A: President Trump and many others, including many liberals, for example, Joe Biden, interpret the demands for defunding the police as a threat to law and order and public security, as they understand them. They cannot envision an alternative way of structuring and promoting public safety. And they appear to be too myopic to understand the degree to which policing is embedded in a matrix of militarization and securitization on the basis of a manufactured panic over crime and the dangers of potential political disorder. The call for defunding is coming from some elected officials at the local level, such as the Minneapolis City Council, and from social justice activists and advocates who subscribe to an abolitionist agenda.
Abolition and defunding do not mean completely wiping out the police. They do, however, call for the radical reorganization of public safety based on new priorities such as the redistribution of funding so that investment in policing does not mean disinvestment in healthcare, education, and housing. Also defunders advocate that we rethink the role that police play vis-à-vis mental health practitioners, community organizers, and others with needed skills and capacity for addressing non-violent offenses that are often linked to addiction, homelessness, unemployment, domestic violence, and other problems that could potentially be managed through non-violent techniques informed by community-based, participatory models for achieving conflict resolution, reconciliation, and restorative justice. These objectives are part of a long-term plan to transform society so that the kinds of policing we have now will not be necessary.
Reorganizing public safety without dealing with the high rates of underemployment and unemployment in Black communities, much higher than what is claimed based on official ways of measuring unemployment, or without redressing food insecurity, in landscapes of food deserts, economic precarity, and “savage inequalities” in schooling will not have the positive results for which abolitions are aiming. Defunding the police is only one priority within a more holistic vision for change.
There are ideological and political differences between those who advocate “reform” and those who advocate “transformation.” However, neither of these categories are monolithic. There are reformists who claim to support fundamental reform. I suspect that they do not mean the same kinds of holistic changes that abolitionists espouse, but there may be some overlap that might provide a common ground where interested people can meet, learn to listen to each other, and exchange ideas in a receptive climate in which zero-sum games do not prevent empathetic engagement.
By: Kourosh Ziabari