“Defund the police” — What does it mean and where does the fight stand?

August 18, 2020. Anti-police protest at San Francisco City Hall. PHOTO: Kristina Lee / FS
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Not long after a cop publicly executed George Floyd, the Minneapolis City Council declared its intention to defund its racist police department. They were reacting to the outrage of tens of thousands of Black Lives Matters protesters in massive and sustained opposition throughout the country.

But no sooner did the Minneapolis City Council proclaim defunding than it started to beat a retreat. Members now explained that their support was only “in spirit.”

This backtracking was entirely predictable. The demand to defund is vague and misleading. It can mean anything from eliminating police budgets to cosmetic changes. In the end, no city council run by Democrats or Republicans will ever disband its police force. They depend upon it.

The movement against racist police violence needs to face this reality. Abolishing police violence is possible only when capitalist violence is no more. And that revolutionary change is a longer-range task. Today’s campaign requires demands that will actually rein in police violence through community control of the police — here and now. And that will not come from city councils, state legislatures and Congress that serve today’s ruling-class billionaires.

Dead on arrival. Minneapolis politicians were not alone in raising the defund demand. City councils in more than a dozen major U.S. cities took up the call, from San Francisco to Seattle, and from Austin, Texas, to Baltimore, Maryland.

And in city after city, it’s the same sorry story.

By late July, the Minneapolis City Council settled on cutting police funding by a mere $1.5 million, less than one percent of the total budget of $193 million. Democratic Mayor Jacob Frey, who had previously been booed down by crowds for opposing defunding, then eagerly endorsed this essentially meaningless move.

In Washington, D.C., the proposed police budget for 2021 is $578 million. To appease protesters, its city council proposed cutting only $15 million, or 2.5%. That would hardly hamper the boys and girls in blue.

Fake budget cuts. It is widely acknowledged that all these reductions were coming anyway, though not as a means to reduce police violence against communities of color and protesters. They were really meant to cope with shortfalls created by Covid-19.

Such budget snipping rings hollow. In New York City, for example, funding for education is being slashed by a whopping $707 million. That’s a whole lot closer to choking off schools than the police!

Reallocating paltry police funds to some mental health, social work, and community essentials allows Republican and Democratic politicians to proclaim victory on behalf of working people. Their maneuvers, however, can’t change reality. Trimming off “dispensable” roles police play, like intervening in domestic disputes, while leaving intact their weapons, exposes the real role of police in capitalist society. That role is sitting in their holsters. They are the armed body of the state.

Fighting police power. As reported in The Atlantic magazine, “At all levels of government, the U.S. spends roughly double on police, prisons, and courts what it spends on food stamps, welfare and income supplements.” Nationwide, police budgets totaled a whopping $114.5 billion in 2017. The enormous commitment of American capitalism to its police forces is shared by both major parties.

In the face of this massive armed power, we must fight for genuine reforms as we work towards ultimately abolishing police. Here and now, they must be disarmed of lethal weapons and their budgets slashed. That can save lives and increase necessary social services. But only the targets of capitalist injustice — those racially, economically, socially and politically subordinated — the massive majority, can successfully wage this war.

Battlefield for radical change. In mid-June, the main labor council in Seattle voted to expel the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG). A body of more than 150 labor unions, representing more than 100,000 unionists, Martin Luther King Labor Council became the first AFL-CIO group to stand against systemic racism by expelling a police union from its ranks. The Seattle branch of the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), along with the Seattle-based Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity, participated in the organizing to expel SPOG.

In New York City, FSP has been a major force in the grassroots struggle to establish an Elected Civilian Review Board (ECRB). The battle for an ECRB is an effort to establish working-class and community control over the police in order to hold back police violence. The track record of appointed boards is there for all to see — killer cops are routinely set free. ECRBs would be community-based and entirely independent of the city government. It would have subpoena power and the power to discipline, and work with an elected independent special prosecutor.

The San Francisco FSP branch works in the Slash SFPD Stash – Guns and Cash coalition. Slashing the police budget means serious cuts in funding, to the tune of 50% or more, not the toothless cuts acceptable to the Democratic and Republican parties. Combined with the call to take away their guns and munitions means weakening cops’ ability to oppress and injure people of color.

These are the kinds of demands the movement needs to advance. Labor unions must commit to fight the anti-worker and racist behavior of the police. Winning elected community review boards, especially in communities of color, can challenge the systemic, racist power of current “injustice” institutions and force some accountability on police departments. Steep budget cuts can hamper cops’ ability to commit racist murders and attacks on Black men and women, immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ+, homeless and mentally disabled people, and political protesters.

Abolishing police is the ultimate goal. And that involves replacing the capitalist system with a just, socialist society, managed in the interests of the vast majority of people and planet Earth.

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