In the week after the murder of George Floyd on May 25 last year, cop cars burned, storefronts shattered, and the streets thrummed and swelled with the U.S.’ largest-ever mass action. The action quickly formalized into the Defund the Police movement, a budget justice demand with abolitionist roots. Organizations across the country called on elected officials to divest funds from cops and reinvest them into education, youth services, housing, healthcare, mental health response teams, alternative systems of justice—the things the movement believes every community needs to be healthy and safe.
Some of the Senate’s top Democrats answered calls for the defense of Black life by kneeling in Kente stoles for the introduction of a relatively anemic police reform package called the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020. But on a local level, politicians appeared more receptive to the policy demand that quickly gripped protesters and whipped pro-cop entities into a frenzy. (The much-decried property damage might have had something to do with it.)
Winter and a spike in COVID-19 cases winnowed down street actions, but the demand to defund the police has reverberated through this year’s national conversation—often as a scapegoat for people across the political spectrum. Critics—including former president Barack Obama—have knocked the slogan (and, by proxy, the movement) as incendiary, confusing, and unpopular. Arguments down the center claim defund is overly radical, blowing a chance at “measured reform.” Arguments from the right rest on the (statistically false) belief that cops spend their time “fighting crime.” Arguments from the left take shots at defunding as a step toward police abolition as impractical and unattainable.
From summer 2020 onward, politicians in both major parties (from Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey to former President Donald Trump), law enforcement officers, and police unions have wrongfully pointed to Defund as the sole explanation for “spikes in crime” during an unprecedented public health crisis and a period of severe economic downturn that’s left millions unemployed and desperate. In November 2020, Democrats blamed Defund for a lackluster performance in the polls. And, just shy of a year after their roundly mocked photo op, Senate Democrats are gearing up to defang the Justice in Policing Act of its only meaningful reform by dropping the repeal of qualified immunity for law enforcement officials, which notoriously shields officers who commit constitutional violations and other acts of violence from accountability.
But according to Interrupting Criminalization researcher Andrea J. Ritchie, these attempts to discredit the movement have obscured its very real victories, particularly when it comes to challenging the deeply embedded cultural narrative that police power is the key to public safety. “When I talk to people on the ground, they are very invested in increasing community safety and very invested in not being killed anymore, or raped or beaten,” Ritchie told VICE. “They're like, ‘I don't care what the slogan is, as long as we're clear about what we're doing, which is divesting from institutions that criminalize, police, punish, surveil, and kill people and investing in the things people need to recover from this unprecedented pandemic and economic crisis, and the climate crisis that's ongoing, and the ongoing crisis of anti-Black police violence.”
As Ritchie outlined in a January 2021 report titled “The Demand Is Still #DefundthePolice,” police budgets were cut; superfluous units were cut; enforcement areas, like parking and homeless “outreach,” were delegated to other city agencies; and campaigns a literal decade in the making—like the Black Organizing Project’s push to abolish the Oakland School Police Department and reinvest its $6 million budget—clinched their wins.
The political backlash to Defund doesn’t engage very much with the fact that the police violence the movement aims to address is still happening. According to data from Mapping Police Violence, 223 Black people have been killed by cops since George Floyd’s murder. In April, Minneapolis Police Department officers killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright just 10 miles away from the then-ongoing trial of MPD officer Derek Chauvin, the cop found guilty of murdering Floyd. The inability of the police to meet the Defund movement’s fundamental demand—stop killing Black people— without more intervention is evident.
And while Defund has made huge strides, the actual dent made in fiscal-year 2021 police budgets in most major cities is significant, but it’s still relatively small in most places. Cuts that look big on paper also haven’t translated to capacity changes—New York City officials claim that defunding the police is to blame for a rise in violent crime, but the so-called “shift” of $1 billion out of the NYPD budget didn’t remove a single cop from the streets.
Still, after a year of grueling work, a handful of organizers and activists helped VICE recap what the Defund movement has already accomplished, and explained how they will continue fighting for Defund, both in defense of this past budget cycle’s victories and to further dismantle the system.
“We started to redefine public safety.”
Last summer’s street protests produced an undeniable national spectacle of police violence. The well-documented use of violence on people protesting against police violence, coupled with an increased awareness of the highly racialized history of policing, helped germinate something special: a new consensus that maybe cops don’t keep us safe after all.
In a June 2020 New York Times op-ed arguing in favor of police abolition and cutting police budgets and headcounts by 50 percent nationwide, movement leader Mariame Kaba asked, “What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food, and education for all? This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.”
Ritchie said the uncorking of our collective civic imagination is a bigger victory than any single FY21 budget cut or even the sum of all the budget cuts. “It's not about dollars at this point,” Ritchie said. “There are more people engaged in, and really wrestling with, a conversation about what communities need to actually really be safe, rather than just continuing to default to policing. We're up against a pretty big behemoth—a 200-year-old institution that has deeply entrenched itself, not just in our city's budgets but in people's hearts and minds as what safety ‘is,’ even when faced with concrete, repeated, ongoing, qualitative and quantitative evidence that it is not producing safety, and it's producing more violence.”
Breaking that consensus has mattered on a city-by-city basis, too, especially for organizers specifically pushing to defund the police as a non-reformist reform—one that pushes for change outside the existing power structure—on the path to police abolition. Angélica Cházaro, an organizer with Decriminalize Seattle, told VICE: “We were just all riding this train every year where more cars got added on in the shape of like more SPD budget numbers: more officers, more money, more training, more tools. It felt like we derailed that train—the direction of infinite growth for policing that has been the consensus, even in a so-called liberal city, for so many years.”
Still, Cházaro said she knows from her decade of organizing experience that the work is far from over. “If we're trying to fundamentally shift the paradigm of public safety in Seattle, that's gonna require constant vigilance,” she said. “Thankfully, people seem to have signed up for the long haul.”
“We cut police budgets and diverted resources and manpower.”
Ever read a city budget for fun? Of course not. The city budget process involves a series of dense, boring, and convoluted documents, doled out over the course of months. In order to sharpen their demands on city officials, Defund activists rolled up their sleeves and dug into those documents, delivering potential cuts and other targeted demands—a meticulously researched “FTP!”
Chas Moore, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Austin Justice Coalition, told VICE that unpacking what the Austin Police Department spends its funds on created obvious openings for his coalition, and others fighting for budget justice in the city, to carve out $100 million in Defund demands—a number he said he came up with on the fly while speaking to a reporter. “We got our hands on the police budget and we started chipping away at things we thought could be moved out of the police department, like forensics,” Moore said. “We were poking at certain units that we thought didn’t really need to exist, like the mounted patrol unit—they fucking ride down 6th Street on Clydesdales, like… do we really need this?”
Moore said he thinks this hands-on approach was instrumental in the Austin city council’s decision to move $150 million in city funds from the Austin Police Department’s $434 million budget, with $22 million in outright cuts, tens of millions more in reallocations, elimination of mounted patrol units, and the removal of a city forensics lab from police control.
Seattle’s budget wins specifically included moving 911 dispatchers, victim advocacy work, and parking enforcement out of SPD control and cutting millions of dollars in training, overtime, and civilian vacancy SPD funds, for a total of approximately $76 million in eliminations and transfers from the police department’s $409 million budget. Cházaro said past organizing work—including budget justice campaigns—put Seattle’s Defund movement at an advantage.
Cházaro and others had spent years working in the racial justice space on campaigns like an eight-year battle to end youth incarceration in King County, Washington, where Seattle is located, and May and June’s street protests presented an opportunity to supercharge that work.
“The experience of being forced to reckon with radical demands in the past in Seattle meant the demand to defund SPD by 50 percent was something people were ready to take up pretty quickly,” Cházaro told VICE. “Once we put out the call to defund, instead of it taking eight years to get signatories, it took eight hours to get dozens and dozens of groups—ultimately over 40,000 individuals signed up to support the demand, and over 400 organizations.”
KennedyEzra Kastle, senior communications director for Minneapolis-based, Black-led, queer feminist nonprofit Black Visions, said that Minneapolis was very ready to mobilize (and demand $200 million in cuts to the Minneapolis Police Department budget) in the wake of Floyd’s murder for one reason: They’d done it so many times before.
“Unfortunately, organizing was something that folks are used to. Folks are used to the police departments murdering innocent Black folks and folks of color. Folks come together like clockwork,” Kastle told VICE. “They understand who will be doing the mutual aid work to uplift the family, who is providing the medical services to those who are being tear-gassed, who will be providing the gas masks, the first aid kits. There are groups online organized around who's gonna bring the water close to this site in case we get kettled and who has a nice little yard where we could set up some tents. It has always really been us taking care of us.”
Because of this, Kastle said he doesn’t see any of the most recent budget changes in Minneapolis—including an $8 million budget cut from the MPD, rerouting of property damage calls to 311, and a decrease in MPD headcount—as meaningful beyond the symbolic. “I don't believe we see victory,” he told VICE. “I think that these cuts and these changes operate in a way of pacification. No real, meaningful change can come until the police department has fully been abolished.” This rings especially true after the headline-making city council vote to disband the MPD was effectively blocked from the November 2020 ballot by an unelected, judge-appointed charter commission.
“We made the budget process something anyone could plug into.”
Taking money from the police and reinvesting it in participatory budgeting has helped keep enthusiasm alive, according to Moore. He said the Austin Justice Coalition used a tool called #WeFund to get a sense of what Austin community members would like to see from their dream budget. “That was very interesting, because that showed us that although I had said out of the blue we wanted $100 million in cuts, on average, people were taking away like $230 million from the police department and putting it in parks and rec, or the health department,” he said.
Reimagining the city budget as a document for everyone also requires some serious translation. Ashley Sawyer, senior director of campaigns for Girls for Gender Equity, a member of New York City’s Communities United for Police Reform nonprofit coalition, said while New York’s mayor and city council failed to meet their demand for a $1 billion cut from the NYPD budget, she and other coalition members were still heartened by last summer’s surge of interest. “A lot of the things that we demanded, we didn't get,” Sawyer told VICE. “But the wins were this renewed commitment to defunding police and recognizing the ways that the money spent on policing is money that's not going toward creating healthy communities.”
Another win? The fact that so many people turned their attention toward making the city’s budget process something a layperson could actually follow, through Instagram graphics, political education sessions, readable analysis with actionable takeaways. and policy demands.
“I cannot emphasize enough that the movement to defund isn't about people who necessarily work at a nonprofit organization or people who have the time to be at every hearing. It's about everybody getting access to the information so that they can meaningfully participate,” Sawyer said, not just full-time activists. “So many of the decisions that affect people's day-to-day lives are happening without their participation, and I believe that's intentional. In theory that could be plastered on the subway: ‘Tomorrow, there's a budget hearing. Everybody who wants to say something, you can say something!’ But that's not how the city council works.”
Access to information leads much more directly to calls to action: email targeted demands to reps, call city council members’ offices, testify at public safety hearings, bother the people who spend all our money on the things that hurt us until they give up. Throughout the year, people answered. “Tens of thousands of people called into budget hearings across the country. 60,000 people sent emails to their council members in Philadelphia, in Dallas—these are people who are deeply engaged now in a question of how do we spend our collective resources? That, to me, is also the biggest victory,” Ritchie said.
Kastle said he views both the upsurge of interest in reimagining public safety and the $30 million in funding that Black Visions and connected community-led safety organization Reclaim the Block received in donations last summer as the real tools to make meaningful change in his community. So far, Black Visions and Reclaim the Block have redistributed almost $9 million of that money to individuals and Minneapolis-based organizations through need-based funds and grants.
“When there are young Black folks out here without housing, without legal aid, without food, you know, we don't go hold a press conference at City Hall and say, ‘We're doing the best we can,’” he said. “We truly reach out into the community and start to help folks. We do it without excuses and we do it with partners. And the fact that we are able to operate better than our city officials and our local police department should upset the public. People should be outraged that a nonprofit is able to govern this community better than its elected officials.”
“We need help making progress—and defending what we won.”
Defund has received a lot of pushback from “law and order” defenders: Organizers and street protesters have been targeted with trumped-up charges from last summer that many are still battling in court. Republican lawmakers in Florida passed a bill preemptively overturning local defund efforts; Texas, Missouri, Alabama, and North Carolina all have bills with similar aims passing through their state legislatures.
“Cops are seeing the threat to their hegemonic hold on public safety and are becoming more outlandish in their claims to defend it,” Ritchie said of the backlash. “And the ways that kind of [anti-Defund] legislation is spreading across the country shows the power of our movement, but it also means that people are now fighting at local and state levels, and on multiple fronts—fighting copaganda backlash and backlash from neoliberal elites who are like, ‘Wait a minute, you're really trying to upset the status quo and you're really trying to reorganize society around community needs?’”
On a local level, organizers have had to debunk insidious counter-narratives from police themselves. One example: a claim from the Seattle Police Department that budget cuts were forcing them to ignore certain 911 calls. “We've been able to dive very deeply into that data and see that actually, the numbers haven't actually changed much, if at all,” Cházaro said. “It's actually a success that we're seeing SPD spend more time on the quote-unquote top-priority cases, instead of ‘Somebody called 911 because a kid threw a snowball.’”
Budget justice, racial justice, defense of Black life, and police abolition aren’t fights that Defund organizers in any of these cities can close the book on. In spite of the backlash and the exhaustion, organizers are still pushing forward with new campaigns and new experiments aimed at diverting city funds—and rearranging city priorities—toward a cop-free vision of community health and safety.
In Minneapolis, Black Voices is mobilizing around the Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign, a ballot initiative backed by a Black-led coalition that would allow voters to replace the MPD with a department of public safety staffed by peace officers. In New York City, NYC-DSA’s DefundNYPD campaign (which, full disclosure, I have volunteered with) is pushing city council candidates to pledge to block any budget that falls short of its demand for $3 billion in cuts.
Meanwhile, Communities United for Police Reform is working on a state level to defend the repeal of 50a, a law shielding police misconduct records from the public, which police departments across the state have fought bitterly. In Austin, organizers are fighting to hold their city council accountable after the politicians reneged on a pledge to eliminate all police cadet classes in 2021, while the threat of state intervention looms. Organizers in Seattle are working to get its participatory budget process up and running, with Black leaders at the helm.
And, wherever you’re reading this from, there’s a great chance Defund-adjacent work is in motion too. Interrupting Criminalization, in collaboration with national organizations like Critical Resistance and the Movement for Black Lives, created DefundPolice.org, a hub for users to track pro-Defund legislation and plug in to local organizations across the U.S.—something Ritchie said is critical in the fight against police power. “The world that you were chanting for and dreaming of and demanding last summer is a long haul struggle to get to. Get involved in your local budget fight, join an organization—organizations are containers in which we can have conversations, find community, and collectivise our energies,” Ritchie said. “We're not going to win a new world in one or two budget cycles.”
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