Defund is a Strategy

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In the year that witnessed the George Floyd rebellion, police and other security forces in the U.S. killed over 1000 people, disproportionately Black. The spectacle of the Derek Chauvin trial has made it more difficult to see that these killings form only the most visible layer of a system that produces and reproduces violence on a mass scale. Holding millions of people in prison for years or decades of their lives is another: there are nearly 2 million people in U.S. prisons and jails, a quarter of all people currently incarcerated around the globe, and this figure does not include those held in custody by ICE. This massive use of force to contain and control populations, producing and reproducing forms of racial dispossession, recalls Brecht's observation that “the raging stream they call violent / but the riverbed that contains it / no one calls that violent.” Demanding to live otherwise is not foolish. It is not even utopian. It is the most realistic response to unlivable conditions.

This situation, which Rachel Herzing recently called a “carnival of violence,” is the problem to which abolition poses the only solution. Abolition means and requires the transformation of social relations so that prisons and police no longer provide a false answer to real problems of crisis, violence, hunger, trauma and need. It is grounded in an understanding that the wealthiest state in human history began to incarcerate people at the rate and scale that it does as the result of deep structural transformations in economic and political life. Prisons and police form a decisive instrument of class war in the U.S. at the present, as the means of disciplining and containing a racially stratified population of surplus labor, of both citizen and non-citizen status. If this is the case, then there is no socialism without abolition, and no successful project of building the power of the multiracial working class without identifying and undoing the disorganizing violence of the carceral state.

So what is to be done? The uprising inside and outside the US pushed abolitionist thinking and practice into view on an unprecedented scale. The call to defund, disarm and abolish municipal police departments, while neither cause nor the consequence of the riots, quickly became their most immediate practical demand in a sea of inchoate calls for reform, ‘legislative change,’ and even, on occasion, a return to church pews.

“Defund,” together with abolition, is widely misunderstood on both the right and the left. Its political opponents make their attacks occasionally in good faith and overwhelmingly not. But Defund is an indispensable strategy in the present—capable of shifting resources at a mass scale from the state’s repressive and death-dealing mechanisms into institutions that sustain everyone’s ability to live, consolidating anti-police sentiment into an actual shift in social relations, and forming an anti-carceral bloc that can link the demands of racial justice together with equality of access to resources, space and safety for everyone.

1. Defund sets the mass expansion of policing in reverse

In the wake of high-profile racist murders of civilians by police, liberal reformists promise, and will continue to promise, solutions that are no solution at all: more training, more equipment, more diverse police forces, more use of public funds for body cameras, more “community” policing programs. As Alex Vitale firmly establishes in The End of Policing, none of these so-called solutions change the nature or scale of police violence. Police in the U.S. kill a thousand people a year, every year, a figure that has held steady since the riots of Ferguson and Baltimore forced the hand of reformists to implement their paltry rearrangement of municipal police departments. When Chauvin murdered Floyd, the Minneapolis Police Department had implemented 4 of the police reform measures that DeRay McKesson floated in his comically ill-fated #8CantWait campaign. The Chicago, LA and New York police departments—all of which routinely murder civilians, all of which beat, bludgeoned, kettled and used chemical weapons on protestors last year—had implemented seven. The MPD, which had swiftly implemented its reforms following the 2015 murder of Jamar Clark, was a darling of liberal reformers, and its footsoldier did what police do: brutalize, constrain and kill, according to the racialized logics of poverty and abandonment.

Defund poses a real solution to the problem of police violence by addressing the actual cause of that violence: policing itself, which has relentlessly expanded in direct proportion to the contraction of the actual institutions that sustain people’s ability to live and guarantee public safety by meeting people’s needs. In their essay “Restating the Obvious,” Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore demonstrate that the advance of prisons and policing have both grown alongside, and derive from the same social and economic transformations as, neoliberal rollbacks to the welfare state and attacks on organized labor. Austerity and the expansion of the carceral state are not coincidences: they are joint parts of a common program that defines the distribution of resources, circulation of goods, accumulation of profit and corresponding instruments of statecraft in the overdeveloped centers of global capital.

The Gilmores call this structure the “antistate state: a state that grows on the promise of shrinking.” The antistate state reorganizes state institutions and social relations on a new, more punitive basis. Mass incarceration is the “bedrock” of the antistate state, as collective resources that could be and have been channelled elsewhere are put instead towards the forceful containment of surplus labor. The massive expansion of the state's capacity to freeze people in place, together with the forms of divestment that have variously endangered people's ability to receive shelter, care, medication and schooling, has in turn pushed and required a mass expansion of policing as a response to the social disorder that results from the intensification of dispossession that this divestment brings about. It is, in short, a form of social reproduction on the cheap, consigning some people but not others to the “production or exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death”—Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism itself.

This process is further cemented in place through the advance of the practice of policing known as Broken Windows: the lie that, by criminalizing poverty, the state can successfully address violence. “By diverting resources away from education, health care, mental health services and so on, the state is increasing the numbers of ‘the more desperate and reckless among the excluded,’” the Gilmores write, arguing that this “protection racket” both creates and stigmatizes the population designated as an appropriate target for criminalization and detention. “Broken Windows advocates argue that the only way to achieve neighborhoods in which neighbors reduce crime by hanging out and knowing each other is, like any other antistate state project, by hiring more police and arresting, convicting and incarcerating more people. In this scheme, we get to depend on each other more only if we first depend on the state, and on an even more punitive version of the state, first.”

Here in New York City, round after round of divestment have set the MTA on fire, left NYCHA buildings to buckle, indebted CUNY students, condemned their teachers to poverty wages, pushed houselessness to its highest ever level, and forced the closure of 28 hospitals statewide since the turn of the millennium, all while the city's police force, an army of 36,000 uniformed officers, has seen its budget double over the course of the same period. The city’s total yearly expenditure on the NYPD amounts to $11 billion, more than its combined spending on libraries, parks, sanitation, health and hospitals and public housing. In 2019 the city appropriated another $11 billion, over 10% of its yearly budget, to build four new jails. Students in New York City schools are policed by over 5,000 school safety officers, with severely limited access to counsellors, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and even, in many cases, hand soap in their bathrooms. This month, the de Blasio administration announced the hiring of 400 new COs for the notoriously punitive Rikers Island, where New York’s proletariat have regularly found themselves confined in horrific, and sometimes murderous, conditions. The supposedly cash-strapped city indulges an orgy of public spending—on police, corrections, and jails, not hospitals, housing, parks, libraries or mental health. And while the saturation of policing sometimes effectively pacifies populations, it does so only by undermining the actual structures of communities and neighborhoods that actually preserve life.

Budgets are documents with creative and destructive capacities. They direct surpluses towards some ends and frustrate others. The cumulative effect of this large-scale and longstanding abuse of collective resources is a slow-moving war on the working class, by no means local to any one city and no less deadly for its sluggish pace. Its victims are targeted according to the dimensions of race, poverty, migration, drug use, gender identity, addiction, serostatus and mental health that make them disposable, the appropriate targets of police violence, displacement, incarceration or deportation. If we are going to use our immense capacities, material and otherwise, to make another world, we will have to confront this problem of the use of our collective resources for fatal rather than life-sustaining institutions, sooner rather than later.

2. Defund is a concrete and radical demand

In his poem “ACAB: a nursery rhyme,” the late Sean Bonney offered: “Say no justice, no peace, and then say fuck the police.” Bonney riffs on the protest chant that the world came to know after the Rodney King riots shook Los Angeles. He translates the call for justice into a concrete understanding of the actual institution—policing—that obstructs it. If we want justice for wave upon wave of extrajudicial murder, then we will have to change the relations that structure policing: by redirecting collective resources from violence and containment, disarming police departments, diminishing and eliminating the force of police unions, and moving towards structures of community self-determination that make policing obsolete.

But this movement isn’t guaranteed—not even by the stark and massive recognition of the injustice of racist, extrajudicial police murder. As an abolitionist demand, Defund consolidates a range of political feelings—rage at police violence, grief for the dead, exhaustion over the scale and seeming endlessness of racist, state-backed murder—into a real understanding of the nature of racist police violence, and a radical demand to intervene in its actual causes. Prosecuting and convicting individual officers will neither stop nor moderate police violence; nor will any of the other commonly cited reformist reforms.  Defund, distinctly although not uniquely, gives the demand for justice real political content, refocusing public attention on policing itself as the cause of this form of racist violence and death.

Maybe because it is actually a radical demand—that is to say, targets some of the real causes of racial dispossession in the present—the center- and far-right have propagandized against Defund in increasingly shrill tones. These relentless attacks have caused some queasiness on the left. In April, Jacobin staff writer Meagan Day appeared as a guest on Doug Henwood’s podcast to suggest that Defund’s weak favorability in poll numbers suggests a strategic miscalculation. “I worry about the present standing of [Defund] a little bit,” she said, “because it seems that 'defund the police' has come to be conflated with 'abolish the police' in the minds of the majority ... its popularity seems to have tanked ... the number one demand coming out of the largest protest movement in American history should be more popular than that.”

Maybe so, but this generates a problem for organizing, not sloganeering. To take an example by comparison, the socialist left would not abandon the project of organized labor if, as it has done in living memory, approval of labor unions polled badly; we treat individual defeats of unionization efforts as failures of strategy and execution, not as popular referenda on unions themselves. We need to extend the same patience to abolition as we do to the more canonical projects of the left. Building a different understanding of collective safety, one that prioritizes meeting people’s needs rather than pacifying the effects of poverty and abandonment, will take dedicated organizing: considerable material and affective support from within socialist organizations like DSA; solid coalition building between explicitly abolitionist thinkers and people who may not currently agree with us in theory but align with us in practice; the support of unions won through significant internal and external organizing; the remaking of legislative blocs at the state and municipal level; effective use of mass media to re-legitimate Defund as a radical demand; and thousands upon thousands of conversations with our neighbors, friends, family and coworkers. Support for, identification with and implementation of Defund, a demand that points towards a radically new ordering of social and political life, will not just take shape on its own. It will have to be built.

The challenge for Defund organizers is how to understand and respond to these multiple and often contradictory structures of feelings and forms of consciousness as they actually stand. In the #DefundNYPD campaign, we regularly set up tables in parks, busy intersections and NYCHA complexes, where we hand out palm cards, collect signatures for our city council petition, and have short conversations with our neighbors about policing, resources and public safety. I ask people I talk to what they'd change about their neighborhood if they could take half the NYPD's budget and spend it however they want. Sometimes people identify safety as a problem in their lives; notably, they frequently do not assert that the solution to this lack of safety is more or better police. In one memorable conversation, a woman noted that police were always present at night, sometimes in full view of situations she believed to be dangerous: “they just sit in their cars.” She expressed both a feeling of continual surveillance by law enforcement without actually experiencing the protection they were supposed to extend. Other people talk about their broken stoves or elevators, of the threat of privatization of their buildings, or how they wanted the young people in their lives to be able to get jobs with decent pay, hours, and COVID safety protection. One woman wanted a rec center with a pool nearby. A lot of people, noting the piling up of trash since the start of the pandemic, wanted cleaner public areas, which could drive down pest populations and the high asthma rates among public housing tenants associated with pest infestations. Some unhoused residents of the area, turning bottles in at the supermarket, wanted to stop getting harrassed, taunted and detained by beat cops. An older resident with a walker wanted real housing, not just a room in a hotel paid for by FEMA funds during the pandemic. One man wearing a hoodie for the Parks department looked askance when he thought I had said “defend the police,” but warmed up when he read our palm card: “Defund NYPD, Invest In Communities,” under a drawing of a broken piggy bank and discarded baton. These conversations represent a significantly more complicated snapshot of political consciousness than the dead empiricism of polling data, and indicate at minimum that Defund will be as much a project of organizing with people as one of elections, legislative campaigns, and strategic, principled and compelling protest.

3. Defund builds the anti-carceral bloc

Sometime in the middle of last June a friend and I were walking through central Brooklyn. Atlanta police had murdered Rayshard Brooks, and the Wendy's that called the cops on him while he slept in the parking lot had been torched to the ground. In mourning and solidarity, activists backed up traffic on the Georgia interstate for a dozen miles. Police in Seattle had been driven from their precinct in Capitol Hill, where protestors barricaded streets and declared political autonomy over a six-block radius. The ILWU had undertaken a solidarity strike on the entire west coast that, for its 24-hour duration, cost billions of dollars to the US economy. Though we didn't know it yet, plans for the protest camp that would transform the park outside New York City Hall into an open-air commune were already under way.

We can leave Defund to the liberals, my friend suggested, and at the time I sympathized. The world newly on fire had put reformists in a box, from which they promised sizable reductions in police spending.

But the city's budget vote two weeks later lightly pruned public expenditure on the largest non-military army in the world, deploying clever accounting gimmicks to make it seem otherwise. For all the cowardice of this insulting display, Mayor Bill de Blasio and other mannequins of New York's Democratic party establishment only acted as exemplary members of their class, according to the consensus that has governed the distribution of power, resources, violence and death in the capital of capital for a generation and more. The progressive wing of capital will sometimes address the worst and most horrific scandals of policing, but insofar as they live in and profit from the world that prisons and police make possible, the rest is up to us.

“The Fires of the Watts Rebellion did far more than destroy,” writes Mumia Abu-Jamal in We Want Freedom, his memoir of the Black Panther Party. “Like flame in the kiln of a potter, the reddish-orange, hungry tongues of combustion are capable of creation.” Fifty-five years later, the George Floyd rebellion made it possible to glimpse a world in crisis and transformation, birthed, like Watts, in fire and broken glass. The question at hand is how to translate this clarifying political moment into an actual change in social relations: an actual reduction of the scope and scale of state violence, a real emancipation for capital’s dispossessed. The burning of the third precinct in Minneapolis might well have been the spark for the riots and protests that ripped through cities inside and outside the US—but under unique conditions of pandemic and mass unemployment, circumstances under which desperate people with little to lose rebelled against the conditions of their lives. In a post-vaccine conjuncture, with a restabilizing economy and a liberal federal administration whose architects of mass incarceration and former top state prosecutors announce token commitments to racial justice, conditions have shifted dramatically, dampening 2020’s powder keg.

Defund is a strategy to translate the energy, feeling, radicalism and rapidly catalyzed political consciousness that the uprising unleashed into a real movement that can build the anti-carceral bloc: identifying the sources of mass incarceration and state suppression, forcing a restructuring of society, enabling solidarity across race and class lines to build a world that actually meets everyone’s needs. Instead of an impending eviction crisis, mass houselessness, hospital closures, the managed decline of public universities, crushing student debt and the school-to-prison pipeline, Defund sets an agenda for universal housing, healthcare and access to education as elements of a society in which policing is obsolete.

Organizing from the past year testifies to the depth and ambition of this goal, and the real wins that Defund is capable of. Teachers and students across the US and Canada have led the fight for police-free schools, demanding that the funding that currently goes towards school resource officers instead be used to fund nurses, counsellors, art and after-school programs. Last year the New York State Nurses Association, which has vigorously opposed new hospital closures, called for defunding NYPD, jails and prosecutors offices by at least $2 billion. Organizers from the Local 100 Fightback Coalition, a caucus within the MTA’s union, have rejected calls for more police in subways, arguing that we can respond to real concerns of public safety by funding adequate healthcare and housing instead of policing. (“Sending more police” into a violent confrontation, said train conductor John Ferretti, “is like sending an arsonist to put out a fire.”) The Justice for All Coalition, a community organization of public housing tenants in Western Queens, have recently demanded the city defund the NYPD and fully fund NYCHA, stop the privatization of public housing and move towards “alternative, community-based models of safety, security and well-being.” These represent some of the coordinates where the work to defund the police and refund working-class people is already ongoing, and where Defund as a demand is helping to consolidate people in a shared understanding of the actual conditions of our collective dispossession and what we can do to change it.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore often says that abolition must be “green, red and international.” Within this schema, Defund is red—massively redistributing resources, making possible different forms of social and economic equality, and widening the space for working-class people to set agendas for their own lives. If we are going to achieve a world in which people are not forced en masse to wither in cages, where police and racist vigilantes do not murder with impunity, where racial capitalism no longer consigns some people to slow or rapid deaths for the benefit of another class's ever-expanding wealth, then we will have to begin, but not end, with the mass transfer of resources away from state violence and towards institutions that sustain people and communities. We do not have to live this way, and Defund plots a course to collectively do otherwise.

Thanks to Brian Kepple for thorough comments on an earlier version of this essay. 

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This article is part of Against the Carceral State: Verso Roundtable. Follow the link to see more articles in the series.