When killings by US police make national headlines, a familiar call for reform often follows: Police need more training, more body cameras, more rules restricting lethal force.
But evidence has shown the widespread adoption of such reforms, after years of protest, has made no dent in the national death toll. US police continue to kill three people a day, with 2021 the deadliest year on record, making America a leader in law enforcement violence.
The persistent killings as well as stories of police abuse of Black people in spite of reforms has led to growing mainstream interest in a different response – the fight to defund, dismantle and abolish police. In their new book, No More Police: A Case for Abolition, the Black feminist scholars Mariame Kaba and Andrea J Ritchie lay out their vision of a world free of the “death-making institutions” of police and prisons.
The longtime organizers argue that police don’t promote safety, pointing to the fact that the vast majority of policing has nothing to do with preventing violence. Less than 5% of the 10 million arrests each year are for incidents classified as “violent crime”. Police typically arrive after harm has occurred and solve 20-25% of “serious crimes”. Research suggests there is no relationship between the number of police and crime rates, and that higher incarceration levels don’t correspond to reduced violence, yet 2 million people remain behind bars. Police have also systematically failed domestic violence and sexual assault survivors while perpetrating those offenses themselves or enabling the violence in prisons.
Still, the US spends more than $100bn a year and rising on policing and $80bn on prisons and jails, which dominate local budgets and capture resources that could go to healthcare, housing, food and other community needs that prevent violence, the authors say.
They oppose reforms intended to “improve” policing, arguing such tactics have failed and can instead serve to legitimize and expand police. There are plenty of examples, they say. In Minneapolis, police killed Amir Locke in a “no-knock raid” after the mayor announced a ban on the practice. Officers trained to de-escalate have repeatedly killed people in seconds. Police given “less lethal” weapons for crowd control have caused grave injuries to protesters.
Kaba and Ritchie don’t want to make police and prisons “kinder and gentler”; they want to do away with the system rooted in punishment. Defunding the police is “the floor, not the ceiling” and communities can start by removing police from specific tasks and settings, like schools and mental health calls. The authors promote community-based safety strategies.
The Guardian spoke to Kaba and Ritchie about the defund movement, “copaganda” and their vision of abolition.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You talk about the importance of telling a different story of policing than we’ve been taught. What do you hope readers take away?
Ritchie: We want folks to come away with the understanding that police are not producing safety. They are not preventing or interrupting violence. They’re not healing and transforming people from violence. More than half of survivors of violence don’t even turn to the system for help, because of the harms of policing and it doesn’t meet their needs. And police are perpetrating and perpetuating violence, including by stealing all the resources that we need to actually create increased wellbeing in our communities through meeting material needs and having skills ourselves to intervene in and de-escalate and address conflict, and to hold each other accountable. We want people to understand why policing can’t be reformed and why we want to build something else entirely. We also want to make the point that police are so central in our imagination, so how do we extract them?
Kaba: I think we’re not doing a good job of understanding truly how well organized the cops are. Cops are political actors. They are always working, saying, “Oh, such and such happened in your community after they cut $10 out of the police budget last year. You should contact your politicians and tell them to add $70 next year.” They put money behind particular politicians. And they’re on television. The only group that is constantly in the media talking about violence are the cops. They are the first people you all run to as reporters. How did that happen? How did it get to the point where these folks who don’t respond to violence until it actually happens, if they respond at all, how did they become the experts on violence? Why? Why don’t you run to the local pastor and ask them about violence? They hear about violence daily.
So after 2020, all they had to do was redouble their efforts. The cops are yelling in every local community about the fact that “defund happened and they are now suffering as a result”. We’ve had to endure constant articles about how cops’ morale is so low, and that’s why “crime is spiking”, because the cops feel bad and they don’t know what to do with themselves and now they can’t kneel on some man’s neck for nine minutes. If we say anything about the impunity with which they harm people, this is going to hurt their feelings. And hurt feelings equals massive crime! . It sounds ridiculous if you actually think about it, but it is convincing to vast swaths of the country. What other profession do we say that because they have low morale, we have to suffer violence as a result?
We’ve seen this huge backlash to calls to defund police, but on the flip side, I know, Mariame, you’ve talked about the gains of this movement and slogan – can you say more about that?
Kaba: To me, the reason “defund the police” resonates with people is because we’re saying what we actually want to see happen. Some people on the left say: “‘Defund’ is totally ridiculous, it’s a budget gimmick.” Then some on the right say, “All hell is going to break loose, you all want the end of society.” For me, defund is such a clear, easy demand to understand. People understand it, they just don’t want to do it. People are like, “Oh, it’s so complicated!” No, it’s not. We’ve seen for years people defund public education and take that money and put it into more military, more policing, more prisons. The demand is to reverse that trend.
Ritchie: The common response is “that was the wrong slogan”, but it clearly had an impact because it generated the powerful backlash that we’ve seen, which is police doing exactly what Mariame was talking about – exercising their power politically and with ferocity over the last two years, precisely because their power was threatened by this idea, because they faced one of the greatest crises of legitimacy in at least a generation. Yes, we want to take money away from death and put it toward life, especially in a pandemic and climate catastrophe and economic crisis. People also say: “Defund movements have come and gone and are dead.” But people are still pushing defund demands on the ground across the US and are seeing now that mayors and city councils are having to justify and put a lot of energy into re-legitimizing police and refilling their budgets.
Kaba: If the president gets up at the State of the Union and his message is “fund the police”, that means “defund” did a huge amount of work to shift and shake and change power … So when reformers or the people who want to preserve the police say that something else would be better than abolition, my response is: what is your proof of concept? You’ve had many generations since the beginning of what we understand to be modern policing to implement your supposed reforms, which you think are better than defunding. What do we have to show for that? You’ve had all the resources, time and narrative power … I think liberals will be asking for “defund” in five years – it will be in the platform of the Democratic party. They might call it something different, but this can’t continue in the way it has. While people pretend 2020 uprisings happened and we moved on, the cops are still killing three people a day. We just saw the video of the cop in Arkansas beating the hell out of a person.
The current system is not sustainable. Human beings will put up with a lot, but what the violence of policing does is get at people’s sense of the right to be free. It’s why almost every “uprising” in US history has had at its roots in an incident of policing and violence. People are going to rise up again. And it’ll become less and less tenable to give people the same tired response.
I was interested to learn about the fight to get reparations for victims of police torture in Chicago, which included an apology, financial compensation, waived tuition, a mandatory public school curriculum about the case, a memorial. I talk to families of people killed by police who go through grueling civil trials and never get an apology. What can we learn from the reparations model?
Ritchie: Reparations is about transforming the conditions that produce violence in the first place. We wrote a piece about how we want more justice for Breonna Taylor’s family than the system that produced the violence is set up to deliver and will ever deliver. It’s not just about apology, it’s about making people as whole as they could be, to get them back to where they were as much as possible, and knowing that’s not possible, offering healing. A key tenet of reparations is cessation and non-repetition. You can’t just pay out the money, put one person in a cell and keep going with the violence. You have to stop the violence. In Breonna Taylor’s case, that means not just stopping no-knock warrants, but ending the drug war and the gentrification that drove the cops to her door, and all the conditions that led to her life as a Black woman being devalued and criminalized and dehumanized. It’s about wanting more safety, thriving communities, and a greater livelihood than is possible under this death-making system.
So how do we move past notions of punishment so embedded in our society?
Ritchie: Mariame talks about how deeply ingrained the instinct to punishment is, and how that’s something we have to unlearn and uproot in ourselves and also recognize it’s never going to go away. In the book, we frame it as this “state protection racket”, which is the state is offering you this idea that you’ll get protection if you just buy into their system of policing and punishment to the tune of $100bn a year and mounting, and if you give pandemic relief funds to the cops, you’ll get more safety. And it never delivers, but that just means you need to give more and more. We should be asking: what is the outcome we want? That’s what Black feminism offers us, too. If we’re focused on making a world where Black women, queer and trans people experience all the conditions that enable us to not just survive, but thrive, that requires us to break with the notion that we can just keep pouring more and more emotional, ideological, financial and other investments in policing and punishment, to get there. Because it’s the exact opposite.
Kaba: Andrea’s point about the ratcheting up is critical. What we see currently is that you can never satisfy the racket. There is no end to the amount of resources that it’s going to extract from all of us in order to “make everybody feel safe”. Safety is a relation and not an actual thing. You’re never going to achieve “full safety” and satisfy everyone’s concepts of safety. And therefore the protection racket continues to ratchet up. It takes up more and more space and crowds out every other possibility of what could actually keep people safe, and then offers it back to you and is like, are you happy with this? And then everybody says, No, we’re not happy with it. So it just takes more. It’s like Cookie Monster on steroids.
Ritchie: Why you gotta impugn Cookie Monster like that?
Kaba: It’s true though, it’s never satiated! So we’re stuck in a position where because everyone’s concepts of safety are subjective, they actually have so much power to keep demanding more, and then we end up in a position where education, parks and libraries are always defunded. And it leaves us with no way to be able to say: if all those other things were funded at the levels of this behemoth and more, what could our society actually be? Let’s ask what else is possible, and let’s make those things possible.