It looks like a suburb.
I’m not sure five words have ever given me such a radical mindset shift. Like so many of us, the ongoing murders of Black people at the hands of the police, and the police response to peaceful protesting in the wake of yet another unjust death, has cemented the idea that we cannot just put our faith in law enforcement to do the right thing and uphold justice and fairness in our country. This is something that I’ve already known, but do to my privilege, I’ve never had to sit down and think about how that would look.
I grew up in a fairly affluent, mostly white (86.6%) suburb. My county narrowly, narrowly voted blue in the last presidential election. Violent crimes are rare. The worst things that happened at my school (if you discount our racist mascot, the “Indians”) were a series of fake bomb threats. The police just weren’t part of my life. I don’t live in a neighbourhood that is heavily, unfairly patrolled by officers looking for minor infractions. I don’t have a skin colour that makes me more likely to be stopped, or arrested, or killed. I always assumed, naively, that police are necessary, even as I saw them in the news doing things that would be considered absolutely untenable in any other job and overtly criminal by any civilian. I assumed that police are necessary, and yet I never saw that necessity in my own life.
I’m not new to the idea of doing antiracist work—I work to identify racist actions and mindsets in my own life and change them, to educate myself with books by Black authors and activists, to contribute to organisations with antiracist messages, to speak up and challenge racist views. I don’t say any of this to pat myself on the back or ask for pats on the back, but just to say that I’m not coming at this from a baseline of zero knowledge or understanding of the basics. And yet a month ago the concept of “defunding the police” still seemed so radical to me.
Let me be clear: I am not trying to dismiss the decades of work that Black activists such as Mariame Kaba and Angela Davis have done toward police and prison abolition. I’m not trying to pretend that because I didn’t know about these ideas that the ideas weren’t there. Know that my stance was one of ignorance and uninformedness rather than disagreement. And I am not trying to convince you of their position, although I encourage you to read at least this piece by Kaba in the New York Times: “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police” even if you delve no deeper. But I want to talk about the sentence with which I started my piece, written on instagram by Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and perhaps you’ll find that, like me, imagining a world without police is easier than you thought.
Suburb-livers: have you ever needed to call the police? If not, why do you think you might need to? If you have called them, was their response what you expected? Did they solve your case? Folks I know who have called the police to respond to robberies have done so only because they needed a report for their insurance, not because they expected to have their belongings returned. Folks I know who have called the police to respond to sexual assault have found that their cases weren’t taken seriously, their victimhood belittled. And in no circumstances was the presence of a gun necessary for whatever reason the cop had been called.
Folks talk about higher crime rates requiring more police presence, but maybe there’s a different correlation to be had. Suburb-livers: have you ever been pulled over for speeding and let off with a warning? Have you ever loitered in parking lot as a kid and not had the business owner say anything? Have you ever shoplifted as a teen from Claires or Forever 21 and gotten away with it, even if the minimum-wage-earning cashier saw you put the earrings in your purse? Should there be a stronger police presence in your community due to these high crime rates?
Even if you believe wholeheartedly in the necessity of cops, that the cops who murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and knocked a 75-year-old Christian pacifist to the ground and hit a student in the head with a baton and teargassed peaceful marchers were all bad apples that are doing bad but aren’t spoiling the bunch, does it not seem odd that officers are doing so much more than responding to criminal cases? Officers who have received fewer hours of training than hairdressers are working so far out of their purview, rather than budgets going toward hiring people who specialize in areas that would help prevent crimes from occurring in the first place?
If a mental health counsellor needs a master’s degree in their field, why are we sending police officers to do wellness checks those who may be in unsafe situations due to mental illness? Defunding the police does not mean that their budgets (disproportionately massive in most major cities) disappear into thin air; that money can be used for mental health services and substance abuse recovery and more: affordable housing and education and after-school childcare that keeps kids off the street and out of trouble. Dance lessons. Art schools. Libraries. Parks.
It’s not so radical after all.
By the way, here’s AOC’s response in full to the question of “What does an America with defunded police look like to you?”:
The good news is that it actually doesn’t take a ton of imagination. It looks like a suburb. Affluent white communities already live in a world where they choose to fund youth, health, housing etc more than they fund police. These communities have lower crime rates not because they have more police, but [because] they have more resources to support healthy society in a way that reduces crime.
When a teenager or preteen does something harmful in a suburb (I say teen [because] this is often where lifeline carceral cycles begin for Black and Brown communities), White communities bend over backwards to find alternatives to incarceration for their loved ones to “protect their future,” like community service or rehab or restorative measures. Why don’t we treat Black and Brown people the same way? Why doesn’t the criminal system care or Black teens’ futures the way they care for White teens’ futures? Why doesn’t the news use Black people’s graduation or family photos in stories the way they do when they cover White people (eg Brock Turner) who commit harmful crimes?
Affluent White suburbs also design their own lives so that they walk through the world without having much interruption or interaction with police at all aside from community events and speeding tickets (and many of these communities try to reduce those, too!). Just starting there would be a dramatically and radically different world than what we are experiencing now.