Black Lives Matter movement demands defund, dismantle, reimagine policing

June 11, 2020
Mural of George Floyd painted by Pakistani truck painter Haider Ali.

In Houston, Texas, the body of George Perry Floyd was laid to rest on June 9. Thousands came to the celebration. Big Perry was greatly loved. The message in the eulogies was clear: No Justice, No Peace.

Two weeks earlier, on May 25, in Minneapolis, Floyd was killed by four cops, one kneeling on his neck until he went limp and died. A video of the killing led to mass demonstrations in 50 US states and about 20 countries across six continents.

Mass uprising

Mass anger against the police is spreading. The central leaders come from the Black Lives Matter Movement and youth of all races, who have stepped forward.

Most demonstrators came out spontaneously and made signs and banners. Two high school women (one Black, one white) put out a leaflet calling on protesters to take San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The demonstrators took over the bridge and kneeled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Many drivers in stopped cars joined in.

In Washington DC, the mayor and local activists painted a huge Black Lives Matter sign on 16th Street (now “Black Lives Matter Plaza”) in front of the White House, where President Donald Trump was hiding out in his “bunker”.

Trump had his attorney general mobilise unidentified police/army units to attack peaceful demonstrators. He then built a “fence wall” around the White House.

The protests grew larger each day following Trump’s threat to “dominate” the streets with the military. Bridges were taken over in many cities.

While elected Republicans stand with Trump, the public is becoming more critical. The uprising has moved so fast in two weeks, the unthinkable is being discussed: defunding and re-imagining the police force. Many are calling for its abolition.

Shift in public opinion

A new poll on June 9 revealed that 74% of Americans say they support the protests.

The demonstrations have growing bipartisan appeal, with 87% of Democrats saying they support them, along with 76% of independents. Among Republicans, the majority — 53% — also back the protests.

Trump’s disrespectful response to Floyd’s death is condemned by a 61% majority, with 47% vehemently opposed.

Among those who said protests have been largely peaceful, 91% support them. These numbers reflect a historic shift in attitudes, especially among whites.

The Washington Post began monitoring police shootings and deaths in 2015. By the end of that year, cops had fatally shot nearly 1000 people, twice as many as ever documented in one year by the federal government.

“The number of Black and unarmed people fatally shot by police has declined since 2015, but whether armed or not, Black people are still shot and killed at a disproportionately higher rate than white people,” the Post reported on June 8.

From 2015-19, the death rate for Blacks was 30.3%, compared to 7.3% for whites, who are 60% of the population; Blacks are 13%.

There is a social and political crisis that both Republicans and Democrats are trying to figure out. Can the expanding protests be contained? Can the more radical democratic demand to defund and dismantle the police be shut down?

Defund and dismantle police

A major city in an important Midwest state, Minnesota, did the unexpected on June 7. Nine members of the Minneapolis City Council — a veto-proof majority — pledged to dismantle the city’s police department, promising to create a new system of public safety in a city where law enforcement has long been accused of extreme racism. (Minneapolis police union head Bob Kroll called Floyd a “violent criminal” and protesters part of a “terrorist movement”.)

"It is clear that our system of policing is not keeping our communities safe," council president Lisa Bender said. "Our efforts at incremental reform have failed, period.”

The decision, presented as a year-long process, opens the door to reimagine policing — something considered impossible to discuss before Floyd’s murder.

Many Minneapolis institutions had already decided to end contracts using police to patrol public schools and universities. If these steps are taken, less money for policing will be needed. The funds can then be shifted to other functions, such as for the homeless and mental health.

The city council correctly recognised that reform alone cannot end the corruption and violence of its police department.

In fact, the Minneapolis department had already pushed through many reforms that did not change the culture.

African Americans are less than 20% of the population, but suffer 60% of cop brutality and violence. According to the local Black Vision Collective, the community was fed up with this “reform” record. It is why many community leaders called for defunding and abolition long before it became more popular.

In addition, the defund/dismantle demand is tied to calls to end mass incarceration. The criminal justice system is a complete failure. The US has more prisoners than any country in the world.

In response to mass protests, Democrats in the Senate and Congress adopted a legislative package to improve policing on June 8. They did not, however, endorse a sweeping transformation of the police. Top Democrats, including presidential nominee Joe Biden, oppose defunding and dismantling those police departments that refuse to reform and prosecute “bad” cops.

A democratic demand

The democratic demand of defunding, along with demilitarising the police, targets the enormous police budget (in many cases amounting to 30–50% of a city’s budget). The demand is to redirect that money to the social programs that have been cut, such as affordable housing, education/recreation, jobs and healthcare.

While social programs are cut to the bone, police get the latest hardware, including tanks, drones, helicopters and now facial-recognition technology — purchasing hardware the military no longer needs.

The movement and its demands are more than a response to Floyd’s and other murders. They are rooted in 400 years of national oppression of Blacks, from the slave patrols to the “black codes” and Ku Klux Klan infiltration of police departments, following the defeat of the Reconstruction era in 1877.

During this time, an unwritten deal named the “Great Compromise” between Republicans and Democrats kept the presidency in Republican hands and removed all federal army troops from the South, thus betraying the Black Republicans.

The white terror that followed removed nearly every gain won by freed slaves after the Civil War in 1865, including the right to hold office and vote. Police departments were a tool of that terror and criminal violence.

Most of the hand-wringing about defunding police concerns how whites would react to it; not the fact that police are already seen as a major “problem” in Black and Brown communities.

Myth of unconscious bias

As this debate unfolds, it is necessary to also challenge the myth of unconscious bias. There is anti-Black bias among cops just as there is in society. That bias leads to racial profiling and deadly incidents against unarmed Black men for simply being Black.

Many liberals are aghast at the “defund and abolish” demands of Black militants because whites rarely suffer at the hands of cops for simply having white skin. They support the current police system with some reforms. They ask: "What if there is a burglary or a traffic stop? Who do we call?“

It seems simple but it is not. Blacks make that call and hope they walk away and are not brutalised, locked up or killed.

But there is no such thing as “unconscious bias”. There is ingrained bias toward Black men and boys in all whites, and many Blacks. That bias is well known, whenever a Black person applies for a home loan, a job and seeks justice.

In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr and civil rights leaders demanded enforceable affirmative action programs, including the use of quotas after legal rights were restored to most Blacks. This was the only way to ensure highly qualified African Americans could get positions they were previously denied.

Racial bias can only be combatted by laws and regulations. Few of the programs and laws of the 1970s have survived, which is why many positive changes have been reversed. Today, Blacks with a college degree make less income on average than whites with a high school diploma.

The battle against the police “blue wall of silence” can inspire a broader civil rights movement against anti-Black bias.

An alternative democratic vision

The defunding and dismantling of the standing police is the first step to creating a “safety force” under community control, with the ability to prosecute bad cops and those who are rarely thrown in prison.

An alternative democratic vision is crucial to building new safety forces in Minneapolis and all communities. These forces must live among and serve their communities. Whatever names they take, petty criminals will be arrested, other crimes taken care of and any rogue elements prosecuted. None of that happens under the current system, in which police see Black and Brown people as threats for simply walking and breathing.

Socialists have argued for this democratic approach for decades. After the 1960s rebellions, socialists called for community control of police.  The democratic right to be safe cannot be achieved with the existing police system.

The fight for this democratic demand can lead to higher awareness and social and political consciousness, especially among the youth, concerning racism, capitalism and why a new system is needed.

It is no surprise that the Democratic Party opposes these demands, since they back and support the fundamental role of police in society. The reforms they now propose are simply to gain votes in the presidential election. Yet, mass actions are the reason why reforms such as ending choke-holds are already being adopted by many cities and police departments.

The Democratic Party will never back abolition, defunding and demilitarisation of the police. It co-partnered with Republicans in creating the multi-trillion-dollar military industrial complex and a massive prison system, from which about 600,000 Blacks are released each year, unable to then find stable employment.

Democrats also fear the inevitable push back from racists and neo-fascists against the mass anti-police movement. Trump’s and the far right’s smears against protesters as “Antifa” are part of a strategy to deflect attention away from police violence.

The mass demonstrations must deepen and expand to win full equality with whites and stop police violence. The demands to defund, dismantle and demilitarise the police go hand-in-hand with “No Justice, No Peace”.

Reverend Al Sharpton spoke at the celebration of Floyd’s life in Houston and Minneapolis and announced that a march on Washington will take place on August 28, led by the families of Black men and women murdered by cops and white vigilantes. It will also be the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech for “equality and justice” and against the national oppression of African Americans.

There is every indication that the protest movement can continue through to the August national march on Washington, even with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

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