Pretty funny for Obama, the “Hope and Change” guy, to be talking about snappy slogans, especially considering his record in regards to his own slogans. The most egregious part is that he seems to be missing the point on purpose. As Lauren Martinchek points out, he’s “intelligent enough to understand that it’s not a slogan.” When most people make these kinds of arguments, it is usually reasonable to assume that they’re at least coming at it in good faith, and perhaps truly don’t understand that it isn’t just about reform. It seems much more likely that Obama actually knows better, and is just using this as an attempt to defang the movement, as he seems so fond of doing.
There is an effort, of which Obama seems to be part, to once again deflect the conversation. However, we have been down the road of reform before, and in many cases, these attempts only made the problem worse. As Stuart Schrader describes in The Nation, these “reforms” often only serve to polish the image of police, while simultaneously giving them more power, and often leading to giving them greater shares of budgets.
In the book The End Of Policing, author Alex S. Vitale covers more of the problems with the idea of reform in detail. There is an excerpt on Yes! Magazine’s website, in which one common misconception is addressed, that being the idea that “diversity and multicultural training” could help. Vitale explains that this “is not a new idea, nor is it terribly effective,” noting,
“Researchers have found no impact on problems like racial disparities in traffic stops or marijuana arrests; both implicit and explicit bias remain, even after targeted and intensive training. This is not necessarily because officers remain committed to their racial biases, though this can be true, but because institutional pressures remain intact.”
The End Of Policing also cites studies which show that the race of individual officers has “no effect,” noting that this again seems to be due to “systematic problems” within the departments themselves, as well as the fact that “departmental priorities are set by local political leaders.” The “War on Drugs” is given as an example, which the author points out is “waged almost exclusively in nonwhite neighborhoods.”
Another thing Vitale addresses in the book is body cameras. One problem here is that police have “failed to turn on their cameras” in multiple shooting cases. Another is that “body cameras are only as effective as the accountability mechanisms in place,” and these are often weak, and undermined by other factors, from politics (the office of DA tends to be an elected position) to state laws authorizing police use of force. He brings up another issue related to the use of these cameras, which is that they “raise important privacy and civil liberties concerns.” Vitale points to the fact that these videos have been used to form databases used by law enforcement to create “‘red files’ of political activists” and others, often even “individuals who are not accused of criminal behavior.”
“We are not abandoning our communities to violence. We don’t want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete.”
Talk of ineffective accountability measures and people who haven’t been accused of crimes brings to mind the tragic case of Elijah McClain. There are thousands of other people who have been wrongfully killed in circumstances that fit that description as well, but Elijah comes to mind because I just recently saw that the city of Aurora is moving to dismiss the wrongful death lawsuit brought against the city, as well as cops and paramedics involved, by his family. This case not only shows examples of weak accountability and the failure of training and body cameras to change anything, it also highlights another example of failed reform. Although McClain appears to have been posing no threat, police put him in a chokehold, and then called the paramedics, who injected him with ketamine. As The Cut reports, “He had a heart attack on the way to the hospital, and died days later, after he was declared brain dead.” This shows how even efforts to involve medical professionals or others as appropriate to the situation are not a solution to the problem of police violence, at least, not as long as the police are still involved.
The conception of reform that most members of the public hold seems to be rooted in the idea that the police are a force for good at the core, and necessary for public safety. As Assistant Professor of Justice Studies and Sociology at Norwich University Connie Hassett-Walker explains in a piece on The Conversation, modern police forces actually trace their origins to slave patrols and centralized municipal departments that “were overwhelmingly white, male and more focused on responding to disorder than crime.” The article cites criminologist Gary Potter, whose work The History of Policing in the United States shows that the purpose of these early police departments was “to control a ‘dangerous underclass’ that included African Americans, immigrants and the poor.”
On the subject of public safety, as Mariame Kaba wrote in the New York Times,
“We are not abandoning our communities to violence. We don’t want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete.
We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place.”
The 8toabolition website contains a list of “community models,” noting that “There are many we have not included and many that have not even been tried yet.”
Critics of the “Defund the Police” movement often claim that the saying itself is confusing, and say that if we really mean “reform the police,” we should say that. However, if one takes the time to listen to what’s truly being said, it’s clear that the “reform” talk actually does more to confuse the issue, and leads to things like Biden proposing that we give police even more funding. While these types of proposals may often seem well-intentioned, evidence shows yet again that such efforts “are often designed in ways that incentivize harmful policing and undermine local and state political accountability.”
To quote another thing I’ve seen going around Twitter: “Yes we can defund the police.” How’s that for snappy?
What Is Abolition? by Critical Resistance
Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Supervision by Brendan McQuade