Reframing “Defund The Police”
The firestorm over former President Barack Obama’s recent comments questioning the semantics and sentiment of “defunding the police” have led to a call from activists and politicians for him to rethink his stance and retract his statement. However, these criticisms are misguided in that they assign a left-of-center political and philosophical approach often thrust upon President Obama; one in which he has never truly subscribed to. It is no secret that for many black people Obama is more of a descendant of Frederick Douglass and Alain Locke, rather than WEB DuBois, Ida B. Wells and William Monroe Trotter. Obama is an institutionalist and a political pragmatist. The type of broad appeal he has garnered is aligned perfectly to his middle of the road agenda. Though we lift up his persona and accomplishments as an ideal, the fabric of his identity will always hold him a bit removed from the struggle — and thus the movement. It is disingenuous and an act of futility to believe that he, and those of his political and social ilks, will ever radically adopt meaningful and transformative policy. Despite the origins of his public service, as a community organizer on the Southside of Chicago, Obama has never taken a full-throated critical approach that parallels the urgency and risk-taking posture of protestors on the ground in American cities like Baltimore, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York City, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, and Omaha.
Instead of amplifying the social media noise of dissent over this singular sound bite, activists need to create meaningful action steps to shift the paradigm for systemic and transformative wins as they relate to deconstructing the current iteration of policing in America. This moment has garnered international attention with organized demonstrations of solidarity in Accra, London, Dublin and Paris, where citizens are protesting with the same fervor that they are in Brooklyn. We must not lose the opportunity to enact meaningful policy while simultaneously mapping out a plan to elect humane and morally disciplined judges to municipal and state benches.
Certainly, Obama’s comments are important due to his membership in the whitest and exclusively male fraternal order of The Presidency of The United States of America. As the only black man to ever helm the desk of the Oval Office, with a bird’s eye view from the Ivory Tower, we, Black America hold him in a place of cultural reverence; and we sometimes mistakenly assume that when he speaks, especially publicly on subject matter so “close to home”, that he speaks to and for us all. However, his assertion to temper the abolishment call for defunding the police is neither surprising nor dismissive. Obama is arguably the most astute black political institutionalist since Frederick Douglass; however, I would respectfully disagree that the multi-racial, multi-generational, and multi-ethnic demand to defund the police will adversely hamper the current and future work of the status quo Democrats, who often appear to be more aligned with the GOP than the folks who continue to support them. Every election cycle history repeats itself as black, brown, young, and lifelong Democratic voters alike wait in long lines to vote, push back against the scarcity of polling locations and challenge absurd identification policies under the shadow of vote suppression. Yet, once the ballots are secured the reliable voting block once wooed is set aside, while Dems court long shot attempts at bipartisan deal making.
The overhauling of policing in America, specifically the policing and acts of terror inflicted upon black bodies, is not a new phenomenon. Black folks have been organizing and calling for a rebuke of rouge and predatory police violence for over a hundred years in cities such as Chicago, dating back to the Chicago Riots of 1919. A community that is still reeling over the state sanctioned execution and declaration of governmental terror inflicted upon 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. In 1935 on March 19, Harlem was the site of a police riot when rumors sparked that Lino Rivera, a Black Puerto Rican was falsely accused of shoplifting during the Great Depression. It was the organizing of the group The Young Liberators who led the charge to call out police brutality, just as it is our young people who are leading the call to defund the police. Perhaps it is because as a multi-ethnic, internationally raised global citizen, Obama had the privilege of not knowing the unnerving reality of being stopped, frisked, and roughed up as a rite of passage. Nor has he had to worry about his own children being accosted for “fitting the description”.
Like Obama, I would shift the language to “Deconstruct Policing”; this adjustment in language coming from me, someone whose very father was killed by his state sanctioned protectors. The insistent call to defund is a bold bellow to action and directly states the demands, but it simply starts the conversation and does not lend to spelling out a strategic plan. Though the idea is radical, and the energy is revolutionary, the shift required to free black and brown bodies from legal bondage in center cities across the United States of America must be methodical. Abolitionists called to “end slavery”, just as women coined the “woman’s suffrage movement”. In both of those cases activists created a political and financial apparatus to move their agendas. Similarly House Representative Karen Bass has presented a substantial piece of policy in The George Floyd Reform Act. Except for Congressional Elected Cori Bush of Missouri, very few folks across the country ran on an explicit “Defund the Police” platform. My fear is the emotive ethos of this moment will be muddied and become entangled in an ideological tug of war with Former President Obama and/or Vice President Elect Kamala Harris. Both have asked folks to temper their calls for abolishing an outdated, atypically arcane system of civic management that mismanages its relationship with the American people, particularly those of color. And though it may be fair to say that Biden and Harris appreciate the principle of the Defund the Police movement, where their policies fall is yet to be seen.
Obama and other institutionalist political types seem to have a blind spot in recognizing that activists in this moment are rife with frustration as they are the offspring of individuals who have been calling for this bold step of liberty for decades. They have watched neighbors, parents, loved ones, friends and foes alike killed and incarcerated with little faith in how justice factors into the fate of their community members. In 1951, activists organized and engaged in a campaign to hold America accountable for the state sanctioned genocide of Black Americans with a petition in tow that they bought to the United Nations aptly called “We Charge Genocide”. In 2015, during Obama’s presidency, The Ferguson Report was published by The United States Department of Justice Civil Right Division. The report is a brilliant look brought forth by a broad range of local voices including law enforcement, clergy, and community members. The heartbreaking narratives are only further substantiated by horrifying statistics — the byproduct of failed community and police relations amongst a host of other insular breakdowns. The Ferguson Report is a step in the right direction and it is my position that through a public/private/university partnership one can fund the work of a collective to deconstruct the current model of policing with progress toward more equitable and humane forms of public safety. Universities are in an unique position to step up beyond academic rhetoric and performative social justice, and to evolve into pillars of coalescence and ingenuity that fund community groups working to dismantle systemic issues of poverty, police brutality and increase comprehensive equity in all spaces. Protestors in Boston and Cambridge would benefit from funding from Harvard and MIT; just as activists in Chicago and Philadelphia should not be extolled for demanding that The University of Chicago or UPenn cut a check. Just as universities must commit to the development of an infrastructure that addresses acts of terror with dollars and the support of scholars; corporations mustn’t be allowed to set up shop in cities until they put forth funding and a robust strategy to address the deep socioeconomic, educational and employment chasms of surrounding, suffering communities. These initiatives may not directly impact senior management but will mitigate the horrors that the building custodian must endure.
This call to action doesn’t cower to the political old guard or dismiss the progressive voices on the left, but it forces each of us to think more long-term about the process and sustaining progress than we did during the Occupy Wall Street Movement. What is “normal” is frankly killing too many of us, and leaves those still living traumatized, exhausted, and desensitized. We have protested and talking heads have spread the word. Now it is time to mobilize. Let us gather around the table we built, map out a plan that includes the removal of guns in schools and prohibits law enforcement from answering mental health crisis call with guns. With more communal oversight, plus dollars earmarked from universities and corporations to help with funding, there is potential to disrupt, deconstruct and redistribute the budget and the pervasive power of the police.
Tony Clark is a Professor of African American Studies and A Public Academic