Cutting police budgets without establishing public control over their behavior doesn’t solve the problem, and invites politicians to shuffle budget numbers around like a three-card monte swindle.
Unfortunately, a key demand of the new movement has led to confusion and to political defeats at a crucial moment. At first glance, the idea of defunding the police seems to have merit. Everyone who wants to end police brutality welcomes the idea that they might lose some of the resources they use in their terrorism spree. The police are the modern day slave patrol and any effort to diminish their capabilities seems like a good idea. But the state doesn’t work that way.
It has no intention of just giving up the power it has bestowed on the police. One can see how the ruse works as false friends display window dressing and treachery. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio is the head phony in charge. He claimed he would cut the NYPD budget by $1 billion, but after the budget was finalized the trickery became clear. He moved budget lines for school safety officers from the NYPD to the Department of Education. He also postponed two police academy classes. But the NYPD is exempt from the hiring freezes that apply to every other New York City agency. Philadelphia approved a similar trick. Philly’s mayor eliminated a proposed increase to the police budget while also moving school safety lines to other agencies.
Proposals to defund the police will inevitably play out across the country as they have in New York. Politicians know the public mood has changed, and even a majority of white people see the movement in a positive light. While the police are exempted from the austerity created by the COVID-19 economic crisis, de Blasio creates public relations spectacle. He has decreed that all five of the boroughs that make up the city have street murals painted with the words Black Lives Matter. Instead of seeing changes in policing, New Yorkers will have an opportunity to drive or walk over the words that have become a rallying cry. Politicians know what people want to hear and they also know how to look like they’re doing something when they aren’t.
It was a serious strategic error to promote defunding. It is also a mistake to believe that cities will abolish the police, as the Minneapolis city council has given the impression of doing. The city where George Floyd was killed takes the lead in the lip service olympics with a proposal to recreate the police department via an amendment to the city charter. Minneapolis would create a Department of Community Safety and Crime Prevention, so there would be a name change. However, that is all that is known at this time. Even charter amendment proponents haven’t said how many police there will be or what they will do. They haven’t said how policing will change. The murky ballot proposal would have to be approved by the mayor, who said he opposes it, before being voted on in a referendum. Any talk of Minneapolis reducing or eliminating its police department is very premature.
Defunding cannot be discussed as a stand alone issue. The police must be under direct public control. There are activists in Minneapolis who have been working towards that goal for some time. They are demanding an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) just as communities in Chicago and elsewhere have done for many years.
This is where public pressure must be maintained. Mayors and city councils can shuffle budget numbers around like the old three-card monte swindle. The people want to see the police reined in, without the power to arrest for minor offenses which inevitably lead to assault and sometimes death. They want the right to hire, fire and subpoena police, end their legal protections and the cozy relationship between police and prosecutors which allows killers to go free.
When defunding is the only demand the public will inevitably be treated like chumps. The new movement has grown precisely because millions of people want to see changes that until recently were thought to be too radical for the majority to accept. No one is marching in order to be placated with bean counter sleight of hand.
The crises afflicting this country are quite real and that is why the movement has such wide support. Demands for community control of the police and rest of the public sector are just what the people want. If the people fight for the changes they want, it will be harder for corrupt and cynical politicians to betray them with insincere gestures. All demands must be worth the fight and street murals certainly don’t fit that description.