“Defund the Police”

(Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

‘Defund the Police’ is a slogan. It works well if you are chanting at a demonstration but, unless you understand the complex argument behind the slogan, it can be used against those who shout it. The Republicans are especially good at acting aghast at almost anything that sounds like change, that sounds even slightly progressive or empathetic to we the people. They lump all these ‘ideas for a better society’ together and dismiss them as ‘socialism’. Gasp.

‘Law and Order’ is the slogan conservatives prefer to chant, reminding us that chaos is afoot, and our lives are not safe without police in riot gear and armored vehicles. Conservatives advocate law and order while they arm everyone with as many weapons as their hearts desire. Many of those hearts are innocent of evil intent, but many hearts are twisted by the events of their lives and mental messages that have left them damaged. Law and order becomes war when everyone could possibly be armed, and even a squirt gun can look like a real weapon.

‘Law and order’ has been the cry used by conservatives because it resonates with citizens who just want to live peacefully and feel that the best thing to do with criminals and malcontents is to jail them, or more recently kill them, accidentally, on purpose. A law-and-order approach becomes problematic when it polices one ethnic group more than another (because Black folks actually are not a separate race). It may be that some crimes are more obvious and more blatantly flaunt laws in our central cities, but broken taillights are not the kind of crime most of us find fearful, or audaciously unlawful. And too many black citizens are in jails because they committed a minor crime and cannot make bail.

When people chant “defund the police” they are not saying that we should cut all funds for police departments from our budgets, (except perhaps in Oregon). They are saying that our police wear too many hats. And they are saying that the policies that are conveyed by that “law and order” trope have not worked. The numbers of crimes wax and wane in our cities, and in our states. These rises and falls may correlate with rises and falls in our economy, or they may, indeed, correlate with times when there are crack downs on illegal activities, with policies like the borderline unconstitutional ‘stop and frisk’ policies. They may be crimes of opportunity during moments of uncertainty as this moment when two opposing sides are torn about how much “law and order” we want to have, and how racist our current approaches appear.

Should our policemen and women have to deal with people with mental illness, or mental illness combined with drug use? Could not some funds be better spent on programs to tackle these antisocial problems head-on. Giving people psychotropic meds and sending them back to their lives works for some folks, but not for everyone. There are side effects that make people feel that they are not themselves. Their problems may be severe enough that they need professional help in addition to meds. Mental illness can be exacerbated by poverty. It can lead to homelessness and then to the use of street drugs, addiction, and crimes to afford the illegal substances. By the time these problems have compounded no one may be able to successfully intervene.

Often, we send such people to jail where they get no help with their mental illness. We found that mental institutions simply warehoused people with even minor mental conditions that deviated from the norm. We need to spend money on citizens who are disruptive to society, or who have difficulty keeping a job or with training or schooling because a mental state derails them. The police should not be saddled with this responsibility.

We need programs and mentors, and to keep paying for research to find better psychotropic medicines. We need to help single mothers who cannot handle a child who is having adjustment problems related to socialization, and when these problems are worsened by mental illness. Police have killed some of these young people who present as possible domestic terrorists because these are social groups that accept loners, and because these young people appear to have a weapon. So “defund the police” means that we need to spend money to take another look at how we deal with mentally ill people in this culture and seek out ways to do better, for their sake and ours.

We need to deal with the racism that has torn America apart for two centuries at least. There are more poor people who are white than there are poor people who are black, but black people who are poor have less social mobility than people who are white and poor. Isabel Wilkerson, in her book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents, contends that we have actually turned our black and brown citizens into a caste, a caste that is deliberately kept on the bottom of the American caste hierarchy because of nonsense science (as in, eugenics), because they are so easily separated by their skin color, because someone has to be on the bottom, and because many believe, even to this day, that white people are superior. Belonging to the bottom caste means that your place in society is even more concretized than if the matter were just about racism.

“Law and order” cannot fix this. Will we profit as a society if we put all black people in jail? Or kill them for the slightest attempt to explain their situation, instead interpreting their every move or sentence as defiance? We can do better. Since we are all responsible for the poverty of black and brown people in America, and for their limited choices to attain affluence we can enrich the lives of black and brown children if conditions surrounding them are endangering their chances of success, or even their lives. We need to offer opportunities that appeal to black and brown children across the entire age spectrum. It will not be easy, and it will be expensive. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) suggests that government open an education account or a coming-of-age account for each black and brown child who faces the obstacles our society erects, and we need to allow that account to accumulate wealth that a child can depend on after they graduate from high school or a training program. It’s a start.

There are already elders in black and brown communities who have taken on the task of providing for some of the needs of their young neighbors. Children love to be helpful, and it builds pride and character. Children could be paid to assist the elders with these programs. These could be summer jobs for children old enough to work. We already have sports programs to benefit inner city children, but these programs do not often extend to smaller towns and villages. We could use part of the budgets now dedicated to police departments to provide programs everywhere they are needed.

Residential academies where children stay during the week and return home on the weekend may sound extreme, but they produced many leaders when used for white children. These academies and prep schools have excluded people of color, but they present us with a model that might prove to black and brown children that they are valuable members of our society. They would also make it more difficult to tempt children to join neighborhood gangs and might even bring about the demise of gangs.

Children from cities could spend the summer in nature parks around the city that they rarely, if ever, get to see. These parks often have a room for meetings or classes. Giving children a task in the park, such as helping survey a type of plant or animal or bird, and then showing them how to input their data into a computer in the classroom would engage the mind of almost any child. Older children could do similar studies of their own neighborhoods or cities and combine their observations in a report at the end of the summer.

I am sure that creative minds, or better yet, groups of creative minds could come up with endless ways to engage children and then implement those plans given the correct kind of community organizing and an influx of funding. If we do not engage these children, the horrific incidents that we now term “law and order” will continue to play out, and that will eventually tear America apart. This is just a cursory analysis of what it means to “defund the police”. Conservatives will keep sneering at the slogan and ignoring the excellent ideas to be found behind the meme. Ignore them. Don’t elect them.   

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