In the early 2000’s I was at the New School University listening to Reverend Floyd Flake, senior pastor at the 23,000 member Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral. Reverend Flake served as a member of Congress (1987-97) and is a strong supporter of charter schools.
Flake was critical of public schools, the level of education was sub par, staffs don’t live in the communities and were not engaged with the community. I asked Floyd if he agreed that the police were not engaged with the community, didn’t live in the community and oftentimes unfairly targeted members of the community: he nodded in agreement. I asked whether Floyd agreed that in addition to charter schools we should have “charter” police departments.
Flake demurred, and his handlers hustled him out of the meeting.
Maybe I was prescient?
In middle class and white communities the police were looked upon as crime fighters protecting the community from the evil doers, in communities of color: feared. In the 1920’s and 30’s crime was rampant; the 18th Amendment, “… the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors … is … prohibited” was widely ignored, Murder Incorporated . operated with impunity, the police both ignored or were complicit.
In communities of color the police have been the foot soldiers of local and state governments since the Civil War. Jim Crow laws abrogated the 13th/14th and 15th amendments, slavery was replaced by peonage and the Supreme Court legitimatized the abrogation of constitutional guarantees.
Today African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of whites, and at least ten times the rate in five states.
“For white Americans of every ideological stripe—from radical southern racists to northern progressives—African American criminality became one of the most widely accepted bases for justifying prejudicial thinking, discriminatory treatment, and/or acceptance of racial violence as an instrument of public safety.”
”White southerners were hysterical over the threat of ‘social equality’ or what they took to mean the apocalyptic possibility of black men ‘ravishing’ white women and passing on their ‘degenerate’ traits to a “pure” white race”
― Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America
For many “Defund the Police” is demanding a type of policing that no longer demeans, abuses and kills people of color.
David Kirkland, the Director of the NYU Metro Center, in an eloquent essay rejects our current “toxic system” and urges the replacement by “community protectors.”
To transform toxic systems—systems that devour Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies, systems that cannibalize communities, systems such as policing that gorge on not only public dollars but also the spines of the very people they are supposed to protect and serve—to transform these systems, you have to starve them. Similarly, if you want to understand what “defund the police” means, you have to understand what funding the police has meant, particularly for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous (BLI) peoples.
Currently, our progress is shackled by a system too reliant upon police to do things for us that police cannot, should not, and were not designed to do. We need to defund the police so that we can hire and train our own community protectors—a cadre of care workers more apt to service our human needs, to help eliminate the kinds of conditions responsible for acts of desperation that are, indeed, threats against our public safety. We need investments in systems not bent on jailing us, but designed to liberate us through jobs, education, and other social programs that directly empower people. Investing in human freedom as opposed to human bondage is the best use of public funds. As Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier (and cheaper) to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
On the other end of the spectrum, far, far on the other side of the spectrum Heather McDonald, in the City Journal sees the Defund the Police movement as the erosion of our society, the “breakdown of civilized life,”
[George Floyd’s murder] has now spurred an outpouring of contempt against the pillars of law and order that has no precedent in American history. Every day, another mainstream institution—from McDonald’s to Harvard—denounces the police, claiming without evidence that law enforcement is a threat to black lives.
These are no longer the warning signs of a possible breakdown of civilized life. That breakdown is upon us. If local and national leaders are unable to summon the will to defend our most basic institutions from false and inflammatory charges of racism, they have forfeited their right to govern. Unless new leaders come forth who understand their duty to maintain the rule of law, the country will not pull back from disaster.
What McDonald fails to understand is our nation is moving towards a “majority/minority nation; the white, male power structure is inexcerably being replaced by the population tides and Afro-American voters are using the power of the ballot box to express themselves.
Defund the police must be accompanied by, as Kirkland writes,
… investments in systems not bent on jailing us, but designed to liberate us through jobs, education, and other social programs that directly empower people. Investing in human freedom as opposed to human bondage is the best use of public funds
A recent NY Times editorial makes the case, unless people have jobs, unless we attack economic inequality the “power elites” will continue enrich themselves, call it what you will, “historic and continuing racism” is the primary reason for high crime rates in communities of poverty. The police are the foot soldiers; “fighting crime” equates to incarcerating the victims of policies that takes from the many and gives to the few.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood that a sustainable improvement in the quality of most American lives required an overhaul of the institutions of government.
“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America,” Roosevelt said in 1936. “What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”
Americans especially need to confront the fact that minorities are disproportionately the victims of economic inequality — the people most often denied the dignity of a decent wage. That inequity is the result of historic and continuing racism, and it should be addressed with the same sense of fierce urgency that has motivated the wave of protests against overt displays of racism
We need an “overhaul of the institutions of government,” a living wage for all Americans will drive our economy; if we continue to “rob from the poor and give to the rich” our economy will crumble. There is no “invisible hand” protecting our economy, recessions and depressions are man-made disasters. Maybe Andrew Yang is correct and we need a Universal Basic Income ($1,00 a month for all Americans), I know there is a ticking clock, a time when demonstrations and protests will grow and grow and a time when we will tip into the yawning abyss of an economic Depression, or worse.
Rhiannon Giddens, in a haunting song, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” reminds us of the cruelty of human bondage