Observations

On 5 June, Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, DC, commissioned her staff to paint the words “Black Lives Matter” – the rallying cry for tens of thousands of people across the US protesting the police killing of George Floyd on 25 May – in yellow letters that spanned the width of a road close to the White House. The following day activists added more words in the same yellow paint: “= defund the police”.

Activists in the US have for years campaigned for police budgets to be slashed in favour of investment in schools, housing, social services and community-led anti-violence initiatives. They say America’s police force is beyond reform, that inherent bias training or greater police accountability would not address the inherent violence of an institution estimated to kill around 1,000 people a year and which upholds a criminal legal system that locks up two million people annually, most of them poor and black or Latino.

Defunding the police is the starting point; the goal is abolition. Weeks ago such ideas were confined to radical circles; now they are discussed by the political mainstream. 

In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, the city council announced on 8 June it had agreed to defund and dismantle the police department. The “defund the police” slogan was the subject of dozens of newspaper explainers, and discussed on national television shows. Almost every one of them would have featured Alex S Vitale, a 54-year-old sociologist at the City University of New York and the author of the 2017 book, The End of Policing, which lays out the intellectual case for the police abolition movement.

His publisher Verso has made a digital edition of the book available for free. When we spoke in early June it had been downloaded over 200,000 times and Vitale had been doing ten to twelve interviews a day for a fortnight. “It’s gratifying to see things moving in a direction that I, along with many others, have been calling for over many years,” he said.

The End of Policing argues that the function of policing has been to enforce inequality. Policing emerged as a way of enforcing slavery, colonialism and the control of the working class in the 18th century. Its central purpose remains “the suppression of workers and the tight surveillance and micromanagement of black and brown lives”, Vitale writes.

To make matters worse, four decades of post-Reagan austerity politics in the US has created social problems, such as mass untreated mental illness and substance abuse, homelessness, failing schools and economic precarity, which police forces have been left to manage. The New York city police budget is $6bn, more than is spent on homeless services, housing, youth and community services, health and hospitals and parks and recreation combined. Reforms that do not tackle the root causes of social violence are doomed to fail, Vitale argues. 

He began writing The End of Policing in 2014. But his ideas came from working for the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness in the 1990s. While researching ways to respond to the city’s criminalisation of homelessness he began to realise that none of the proposals he presented, such as sensitivity training for officers, would make any difference. The city had given up on providing housing for the homeless and had passed the problem on to the police to manage. Whatever he proposed, the police would continue to clear people from public spaces and break up their encampments.

Vitale says that police abolition would be a gradual, negotiated process. “There’s no magic switch that we can find that we can just flip and ‘poof’ there are no police,” he told me. There is no blueprint for what a police-free society would look like, although there are evidence-based projects that point the way forward, such as community-led anti-gang interventions that negotiate gang truces and address young people’s emotional trauma.

“We have to articulate a different vision of justice. We have this degraded notion of justice in the US that’s been reduced to punishment and revenge. We need to talk about justice as a strategy for creating safe communities that are healthy and sustainable, that have a future,” Vitale said. “We can achieve that not by driving more people into the criminal justice system, not by chasing people around with guns, but by giving them resources to solve their own problems.”

Achieving such radical change will be difficult. “We have deep political problems in the US that have driven a significant part of the population towards a commitment to authoritarianism and racial animus,” he said. One challenge will be winning over white, suburban America. The communities most likely to support the police rarely use or see them. “There are well-meaning people who live in suburban neighbourhoods, who have almost no contact with the police, for whom policing is an abstraction,” Vitale said. “We have to talk to those people about the impact that policing has on the rest of society. We have to humanise the impact of that policing.”

Donald Trump has described the defund the police slogan as a sign of Democrats “gone crazy”. The Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged $300m to community policing, an amount activists decry as laughably small. But, Vitale told me, when he considers the shift in public debate across the US, he is “more optimistic than I’ve ever been”. 

17 June - 24 June 2020