This article was prepared as an entry in the debate on the police question for the Winter 2021 issue of The Activist.
Prompt: Whenever and wherever there is police brutality, socialists must stand beside the people who resist. But how do we go from protests to political change? Do we want an end to police violence or to policing itself? What should our slogan be, how do we convince others, and when will we know if we’ve succeeded? The following short articles represent distinct positions on “the policing question,” and we hope they will help you clarify your own thoughts.
Last year’s uprising for racial justice sparked a discussion about police reform in Y/DSA and across America. How should we handle unjust police killings and end the privilege that protects these officers from any prosecution from the law they “maintain”? This fundamental question gave birth to the idea of defunding the police. To the unfamiliar, defunding the police can sound ludicrous. Without their help, who would protect the public from criminals? The short answer is that the police will still be in charge of this role. When we demand to “defund the police” we are not talking about abolition. What we want is to take a chunk of the local police department’s massive budgets and put that money towards social services like education and public health. We do not want society to plunge into complete anarchy, so maintaining some sort of order is needed.
We must be realistic if we want to accomplish our goals. Overthrowing the police state and starting over from scratch would be ideal. But is this feasible? No. Cocktail bombs and shabby shields can only take you so far. What are you going to do when you’re face-to-face with a cop in full riot gear, shooting rubber bullets and tear gas? Get seriously injured. Think of defunding the police as a battle plan. Charging head first with weapons in hand to change a problem (that is mostly systemic) is completely unnecessary. If we want to help the working class we must start with actually helping the communities that are affected by over-policing. Strategize by infiltrating the machine. Redistribute the police department’s funding and put money elsewhere.
For example, in 2020 the Chicago Police Department received $1.76 billion dollars while the city’s public schools are extremely underfunded (Civic Foundation, “What is the CPD budget?”). In 2019 Fund Chicago estimated that 98% of Chicago Public Schools do not receive adequate funding (“Equity and School Funding in CPS”). This non-profit also concluded that CPS receives only 66% of the funding that students need. The state of Illinois recommends that school districts spend $22,000 per student. CPS currently spends a fraction of that, only $16,000 per student. And Chicago is notorious for forcing educational staff and teachers to go on strike every new school year, demanding equal pay and funding.
When we advocate defunding the police we are arguing for funding the social programs that city governments ignore instead of over-funding the police. There is no reason why there have to be budget cuts that undermine America’s future generation while simultaneously putting more money into a brutal protected class that actively harms BIPOC and poor communities. The goal is to get even and that starts with giving social services a chance to succeed. This can only be realistically achieved by controlling our cities’ finances. A hit to their wallet is much more effective than a punch to the face.