Defund Tha Police? (draft)

I’m no expert on criminal justice, but that never stops anybody else from holding forth, so here goes. I did have a career in public policy, so I do think I have a few words of wisdom to impart. I’m also thinking aloud, since these issues are not cut and dried, as far as I’m concerned. As Marx (Groucho) said, “These are my views, if you don’t like them I have others.” Feedback is welcome.

First we have to back up a bit. Do we think we are going to smash the capitalist state? If we do, I’m afraid we are drunk. As long as there is a State, it will have a police force, or under current circumstances, several police forces. Not surprisingly, these police forces will be obliged to preserve the power of the State.

Next question, do we think the State is an irremediable institution impervious to reform? If we do, we can simply stop reading now. We are doomed. But like the joke about the man who responds to a dire medical diagnosis by resolving to find a different doctor, we could choose to begin with different presumptions.

A more optimistic view is that the State is a contested field. It can do both good and bad things. The idea that it cannot possibly do anything good is usually cast in illogical terms, and usually by people with a weak grasp of the details of policy. If for instance you are moved to denounce some new act of commission or omission by the State, I’m afraid you are stuck with the idea that constructive reform is indeed possible. After all, if you are outraged by some new, terrible development, it means that ex ante, things were somewhat better, or less bad.

What Lenin referred to as special bodies of armed men are surely one of the tougher nuts to crack, among other State institutions and policies. Unlike Lenin, we are not confronting a czar, at least not yet. In the interest of honoring #BlackLivesMatter, we should be interested in measures that are both effective and practical. In that spirit, I want to try to sort out the proposals that are floating around right now.

In one corner is the slick #8cantwait campaign promoted by Campaign Zero, under the leadership of Deray McKesson. This is often identified as a Black Lives Matter project, and McKesson has claimed to be a leader of BLM. The truth is that Black Lives Matter is a wholly separate organization that does not overlap with Campaign Zero.

McKesson came out of the anti-union ‘Teach for America’ operation and is networked into the Democratic Party and the NGO/foundation world (as was I, on a limited, obscure level). From where I sit, #8cantwait’s reform proposals are a mixed bag, and certainly wonky food for thought. Whatever you think of it, however, it is not the product of any sort of consensus among BLM activists. To the contrary, the project looks like a one-man operation by someone who rejects working directly with the plethora of BLM groups around the country. Campaign Zero is really striving to take ownership of the BLM brand.

Unfortunately, to some extent the protests have gravitated to a polar opposite of Campaign Zero, an abolitionist “defund” stance. Now I understand that can be an abbreviation for some kind of radical restructuring of policing, or a kind of opening bid to generate political pressure. We could reduce police budgets and allocate the funds for other purposes. It’s all good.

“Defund” does not necessarily mean a fantasy world without any police, but it does beg the question of alternatives. What it would look like is often left to the imagination, and there are voices literally calling for zero police. After all, abolition is an entirely negative position. Absent some more substantive proposal, the audience for this slogan is likely to default to a literal translation, namely that we will not have a police force.

That’s just ridiculous. It’s a dead end. It will never happen. People can keep yelling it, but eventually the protests will thin out. People have lives to get back to. There is burn-out. Police enforcement magnifies the attrition, in the form of physical injury and legal entanglement.

One angle to keep in mind, reminiscent of my younger years, is that the intensity of the moment drives one to seek deep, radical explanations. Back in the day, the twin evils of the Vietnam War and racism drove students like myself to hackneyed vintages of Marxism-Leninism. A tough problem required a tough solution. Today we see a tendency to reject reforms with tortured arguments that they are not sufficiently radical.

So in the other corner, a prime example of the desire for ruthless criticism, which I share, is this well-circulated graphic. Its authors are obscure, if not anonymous. The basic frame for criticism is the above-cited principle of abolition. Reforms must reduce the power of the police, regarding which “defund” is the signifier. The desired alternatives are reforms that challenge the legitimacy of policing itself. This is a horse of a different color.

My preferred remedies lie somewhere in the space between #8cantwait and abolitionism. I share some of the abolitionist critiques of #8cantwait proposals, though for different reasons. For instance, the plea for better police training. The wave of assaults on demonstrators and innocent bystanders that we observe are not the result of inadequate training. To the contrary, they are the fruit of malice unencumbered by fear of consequences.

I’ve also a jaundiced view of ideas that rely on what could be called self-regulation of police behavior, like an honor system, such as the demand for body cams. This requires that officers actually turn their body cams on, or leave them on during times when they have a substantial interest in turning them off. Another is the plea to show badges not covered by tape to prevent their identification.

In principle the government can discipline police who failed to self-regulate. In practice this is difficult. Police are a political power unto themselves. They can make life difficult for citizens and business owners. When they unionize, their power is enhanced. When one or a few screw up, the rest rally in support.

We ought not neglect low-hanging fruit – changes that are simple and easy to verify. For instance, deprive the police of military equipment that has no place in the community. Problem is, this has little practical import. Police brutality is not committed by fancy equipment, but by means of the most primitive of instruments – the billy club. The exception is weapons of chemical warfare. Removing that from the police arsenal would be welcome and is simple enough to implement.

The most relevant policy neglected in the protests is a demand for institutions capable of policing the police, what used to be called civilian review boards (CRB). In my ideal set-up, these boards would command the internal affairs division of the police department and have the power to investigate, discipline, fire, arrest, and prosecute police officers guilty of misconduct.

In an era of ubiquitous camera phones where police are under constant threat of being recorded committing crimes, the workings of a CRB could have a significant impact on behavior. The abolitionists reject CRBs on the ground that they have never been effectively stood up before. But on these grounds, we could reject the entire abolitionist platform.

Finally, there is the matter of policy, which goes to whom we elect to public office. Over the past few weeks, a wide assortment of liberal mayors, both black and white, have been exposed as either incapable or unwilling to direct their police forces to focus on public safety, rather than counterinsurgency. In other words, if less police manpower was wasted on the pointless task of moving around large crowds of law-abiding demonstrators, they could be deployed to prevent property damage.

The failure of local governments in this regard is mystifying. You might say they need to demonstrate the power of Capital to brutalize the population, to assert control, or ‘domination,’ as the president demands. I’m skeptical. Or perhaps police forces in conditions of mass upsurge are simply impossible for their elected bosses to control. I don’t have a better explanation. Maybe you do.

In any case there is a lot of good that could be done, by ongoing mobilization. Pressure works, and the State will react. Its legitimacy, which underlies the consent of the governed, is in worse shape than ever before. Even the Amish have come out.

The failure of a medley of liberal mayors opens up a new political space, but to fill it, a new movement needs organization and an appealing program that goes beyond three-word slogans. Thus far the local BLM agitation has a way to go in this regard. A demand to defund the police might fill a town square, but it will not win an election. In the vacuum, the danger is that an #8cantwait posture of noodling with reforms and herding people back to supporting lackluster Democratic politicians will coopt protest energy and stave off more compelling solutions.

The new political opening places a new burden on the opposition. It will have to get more specific about positive reforms and self-avowed reformers. After all, some of the failing mayors themselves came up as critics of police misconduct. Now more than ever, there is potential for progressive electoral campaigns, founded on candidates who make hard commitments to reforms. In this context, the Democratic Socialists of America, to which I belong (but do not speak for), could play a crucial role.

An account of the right way for DSA to engage the agitation, from my standpoint, is here. I am not referring to the demands themselves, which smack a bit too much of the abolitionist error discussed above. The two key takeaways for me are: 1) cooperate with local leadership of the protests, and do not pretend to be leading them, unless there really is no other leadership; 2) be clearly identified as DSA, with banners if possible, and do not be shy about inviting others to learn more about DSA (literal recruiting on the spot would be ham-handed).

We should not require candidates to declare themselves socialists; such affirmations are as easily abandoned as anything else. But we can take steps to cement them into progressive positions. The key disciplining mechanism is the establishment of independent progressive organization, which can make credible threats to withdraw political support when necessary. An added source of flexibility is that third party candidacies are more feasible at the local level. There is not as much of a penalty if a left campaign causes a centrist to lose to a right-wing candidate. We can survive conservative mayors. Surviving another four years of Trump is altogether a different thing.

In general, the objective should be to create something durable out of the current, unprecedented upsurge. Very few such opportunities present themselves. It would be a tragedy to let one pass by, not least considering the burgeoning, multiple crises with which we are now confronted.

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