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In the wake of global protests over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, a movement to redirect public resources away from traditional policing and toward community-oriented systems of public safety has taken hold around the country. What are advocates of “defunding the police” really arguing for, and could it work? Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss the future of policing in the United States.
Patrisse Cullors: Much of what the police do now are things that social workers can do, things that case managers can do, things that other governmental workers can do. And that’s why our movement is calling to defund them.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan.
When you see, week after week, police officers beating unarmed protesters, reporters, passers-by — an elderly man with cancer, in broad daylight, on camera — you have to ask: What is the solution? Surely reforming the police isn’t enough?
PC: Defunding the police means we’re actually resourcing communities with access to healthcare, access to adequate public education, and access to jobs.
MH: That’s my guest today Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and Reform LA Jails.
So, is it time to defund the police? And how would that even work?
Last Saturday I watched a video of one of the most remarkable scenes involving an elected politician and their constituents that I’ve witnessed in my adult lifetime.
Jacob Frey, mayor of Minneapolis — the city where it all kicked off, where George Floyd was so brutally killed by the police — Jacob Frey, a young, liberal Democrat, a former civil rights lawyer, turned up to to join a protest against police brutality and show solidarity with his black constituents. But it didn’t go so well for him when he was asked in front of the entire crowd, by the organizers, whether he was willing to go beyond the usual platitudes about police ‘reform.’
Kandace Montgomery: Jacob Frey, we have a yes-or-no question for you. Yes or no: Will you commit to defunding the Minneapolis Police Department?
Mayor Jacob Frey: Abolition of it?
KM: What did I say?
[Crowd starts reacting to Jacob.]
Kandace Montgomery: We don’t want no more police. Is that clear? We don’t want people with guns toting around in our community, shooting us down. You have the answer? It is the yes or a no. It is a yes or a no. Will you defund the Minneapolis Police Department?
KM: Alright, be quiet y’all. Be quiet, because it’s — it’s important that we actually hear this. It’s important that we hear this because if y’all don’t know, he’s up for re-election next year.
[Crowd cheers and boos.]
KM: And if he says no, guess what the fuck we gonna do next year?
[Crowd cheers, and folks say, “Louder!” to Jacob Frey.]
JF: I do not support the full abolition of the police.
[Crowd boos and shouts.]
KM: Alright, you’re wasting our time. Get the fuck out of here. Get the fuck out of here. [chanting] Go home Jacob go home! Go home Jacob go home! Go home Jacob go home!
MH: Talk about a walk of shame.
Now you might say, “Well, what does that achieve? Yeah, they booed and humiliated the mayor, a white Democrat, but they can’t actually get politicians to do what they want. These protestors are all talk — they’re all protest.”
Erm, not quite. At least, not this time! The very next day, on Sunday, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council — a veto-proof majority, by the way — pledged to dismantle the police department, saying it was beyond reform.
Newscaster: Some breaking news coming in tonight, the Minneapolis City Council has announced their intent to disband the police department.
Reporter: That’s right Tom.
Speaker: Our commitment is to end our city’s toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department. To end policing as we know it.
Reporter: Minneapolis City Council members admit they don’t have the answers about what a police-free future looks like. They have said they want to defund police, and invest in things like juvenile crime prevention programs, and rely more on social workers, and calling 311 versus 911.
MH: It’s a big move. It’s massive. The Minneapolis City Councillors, though, offered no details on how they’re going to defund, dismantle, disband and, presumably, replace the police in their city. And so one of the things I want to explore with my guest today is what it means to dismantle a police department practically, what it means to call for the defunding of the police — a call we’re now hearing more and more, and not just from Black Lives Matter protesters in the streets but even on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Less than two weeks ago, this was the headline in the Times opinion section: “No More Money for the Police,” with the subhead: “Redirect it to emergency response programs that don’t kill black people.”
The amount of money that is spent on policing in this country is stunning. Just astonishing. $115 billion nationwide; it’s tripled over the past 40 years, even as crime has fallen. The New York Police Department, the NYPD, whose finest we’ve seen beating innocent unarmed New Yorkers on the streets in recent weeks — on camera, on tape — has the biggest police budget in the country, $6 billion, which is more than the city’s Departments of Health, Homeless Services, Youth Services, and Employment Services combined — combined! It’s bigger than the World Health Organization’s budget. Bigger than the GDP of 50 countries around the world. Defunding that budget shouldn’t be a priority for those of us who give a damn about social justice, racial equality, human rights? Really?
And defunding doesn’t mean you just shut everything down and cut them all off. Abolish the police doesn’t mean you just get rid of it and leave behind no replacement.
Camden, New Jersey, used to be one of the most violent cities in the U.S.. In 2012, the city dissolved its corrupt police department and replaced it with a new community-oriented model and lots of new personnel. Listen to the former Camden County Police Chief Scott Thompson, speaking on MSNBC:
Scott Thompson: In 2012, every member of the Camden City Police Department, including myself, was fired. I was a police officer 20 years, been a police chief for five. Myself and everyone else had to — had to fill out a 50-page application, interview, the whole nine yards.
We were all new employees. We started over. We created a new police force. We created a police force where the philosophy was going to be the empowerment of the community before enforcement of the law. We would bring on every member of the organization, and we wanted them to identify more as a member of the Peace Corps than being a special forces operator, and that we would reclaim these city streets, in a manner in which we were empowering the people, so that they would be able to reclaim it, as opposed to us militarizing the neighborhoods and thereby polarizing the community even further.
MH: And guess what happened? Murders fell by more than 70 percent, violent crimes by more than 40 percent.
It’s not just former police chiefs like Scott Thompson making the case, by the way. On Monday, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said he was “open” to the idea of defunding the police. The police chief himself!
Still, let’s be honest, it’s going to be an uphill battle to get people behind the idea of defunding, let alone, abolishing the police — if such a thing is even possible, nationwide. Polls suggest that big majorities of Americans support protests against police brutality and believe police forces need to change. But only a minority of Americans want to cut police budgets.
Then you’ve got the white nationalist in the White House, who is of course on record encouraging police to be violent:
President Donald J. Trump: When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. I said, “Please don’t be too nice.” [Audience laughter.] “Like when you guys put somebody in the car, and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over — like, don’t hit their head, and they’ve just killed somebody, don’t hit their head.” I said, “You can take the hand away, OK?” [Audience laughs, cheers, and applauds.]
MH: This week, Trump was quick to jump to the defense of the police, and against the crazy, left-wing, radical idea of defunding.
DJT: There won’t be defunding, there won’t be dismantling of our police. And, uh, there won’t be any disbanding of our police. Our police have been letting us live in peace, and we want to make sure we don’t have any bad actors in there, and sometimes you’ll see some horrible things, like we witnessed recently, but 99 — I say 99.9, but let’s go with 99 percent of them — are great, great people.
MH: Then there’s the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, speaking to Norah O’Donnell on CBS News this week:
Norah O’Donnell: Do you support defunding the police?
Joe Biden: No, I don’t support defunding the police.
MH: To be fair to Biden, though he was also very explicit in that interview on the issue of systemic police racism:
NO: Do you believe there is systemic racism in law enforcement?
JB: Absolutely. But it’s not just law enforcement — it’s across the board. It’s in housing, and it’s in education, and it’s in everything we do. It’s real, it’s genuine, it’s serious.
MH: And, look, despite his awful record on criminal justice issues, he now has a criminal justice reform agenda that is far, far superior to anything on offer from Trump and the Republicans, that contains many good ideas and decent policy proposals for restraining the police and holding them accountable.
So, it’s a start. But it doesn’t go far enough. Like so many liberals, Biden still seems unwilling — unable even — to take the kind of radical steps that this radical, historic moment demands. He needs to be pushed even more.
And you know, some of this stuff shouldn’t even be considered that radical. What Americans often call radical is just normal to the rest of the world. For example, universal healthcare: it’s not a radical idea outside of the United States.
I’d say the same thing about policing. I’m from the UK, a country with a very similar political culture to the U.S., many similarities between the two countries; the UK that’s been governed by conservatives for the majority of the past 100 years, and yet the police in the UK tend to be unarmed. Almost all the UK police don’t carry weapons.
In 2018, U.S. police shot dead more than a 1000 people; UK police shot dead 3 people. It’s not just the UK; Ireland, Iceland, Norway, New Zealand, all have unarmed police forces.
Now, I’m not saying that U.S. police officers should all give up their weapons overnight — especially in a country as heavily-armed, as full of guns, as this one. But my point is that we need to understand that it is possible to do policing a different way. There are international examples of better practice. Hell, as I mentioned earlier, there are local examples of better practice — for example, Camden, New Jersey.
But there is this ongoing failure of imagination among liberals, and on parts of the Left, too, encouraged by cynical conservatives who say big change — radical change, so-called — is unrealistic, is impossible.
The irony is that events are proving them wrong — events are moving so fast. Just 12 weeks ago, the architect of New York’s racist stop-and-frisk policing policy was polling second nationwide in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Can you imagine that today? Michael Bloomberg as a potential Democratic front runner? Ha!
Things change, so don’t let people tell you that justice can’t be done, that change can’t come, that the status quo must persist.
Things can change, will change, have to change. They are changing. The question is: How far can change go, and what can you and I do to make sure we keep pushing, we keep fighting, for a new vision, a new way of policing, a new system of justice?
I’m reminded of that old quote, often misattributed to Gandhi, but which seems very appropriate for the political moment we’re in right now: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
MH: My guest today is a fighter; a long-standing campaigner for social justice and human rights, and the co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Patrisse Cullors is also the Founder of Reform LA Jails and author of the acclaimed book, “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.”
She joins me now from LA.
MH: Patrisse, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed. Let’s get straight to it: What does “defund the police” mean, in practice, in the real world?
PC: Defunding the police means that we’re actually resourcing communities, like black, poor communities with access to health care, access to adequate public education, and access to jobs. Much of what the police do right now are things that social workers can do, things that case managers can do, things that other governmental workers can do. And that’s why our movement is calling to defund them.
MH: Is there a difference, Patrisse, between defunding the police and abolishing the police — because we’ve heard both slogans in recent weeks, and sometimes they sound interchangeable, but sometimes they don’t?
PC: Sure. Some people believe in the defund demand because it means that we’ll keep police at some capacity. And some people believe that the defund demand is our pathway towards abolition.
So they are two different demands, depending on your philosophies. I’m an abolitionist, so I believe that the first step to abolition is defunding both the police system, but also the carceral system, which is the system that has created mass incarceration.
MH: So, a lot of liberals listening to this will say: “We’re totally onboard with the idea that the police are out of control, that institutional racism is a problem, but defunding the police, abolishing the police, those are steps too far, we want reform.” What do you say to them? What’s wrong with police reform?
PC: Well, what I say to people is, and when we say defunding the police, we’re not saying stop having people be accountable to issues of harm and violence. This is not a conversation about lack of accountability. This is a conversation about building in a new system of accountability, one that is based on an economy of care over an economy of punishment.
Right now, we have a system that is punitive, that is based on punishing human beings. And that is cruel and evil. The system that we’re asking for is a compassionate and loving system, and that is able to still hold people accountable for harm that they cause. That is totally in alignment with people who believe in defunding, and also with people who believe in abolition.
MH: But reform, you believe the police — we have to go beyond reform, reform’s not enough reform, doesn’t work? What’s your position on ‘reform’?
PC: I think it depends on the kind of reform.
When I talk about reform, I’m thinking about non-reformist reform, which is — my work is about decreasing the police’s ability to be in contact with black people. And so whatever demands that I’m making, or the organizations that I work with are making, is always about how do we lessen the burden of police on black communities?
So a reform can be reform like body cameras. Does that change the structural violence and racism inside of police departments? No, actually, it has not changed it at all. Instead, body cameras are just showing us more and more the dysfunctionality of policing.
And so, the other reform that we’re calling for — because defunding the police is a reform, but it’s the reform that isn’t giving the police state more money.
MH: The immediate response from a lot of people in recent days, including people of color, to this idea of defunding or abolishing the police is: What happens if I’m in trouble? What happens if I am facing a violent or dangerous person? Who do I call?
PC: Hopefully, we can build new institutions that people can have a new place to call. If it’s 911, then hopefully, someone’s in a mental health crisis, you can call 911. And instead of them sending a police officer who may kill the person who’s in that mental health crisis, you call someone like a caseworker or a psychiatrist who’s been trained to de-escalate an issue.
The problem is, oftentimes when police do show up, more violence happens. It doesn’t make it less violent when the police are involved. And that’s very important for people to understand.
MH: I totally get that and your example of the mental health situation is a very good one. But then of course, there are always the extreme examples that are used to make the other side of the argument. So if you’re in an armed robbery, you’re an owner of a gas station and people are — men with guns or trying to rob you. You want armed police to turn up and protect you, don’t you?
PC: Depends. Once again, we’ve seen many of examples where people have been armed, and there’s been — on video — where other people have de-escalated them. An eye for an eye is not actually a true response if we’re trying to get harm reduction.
What we’ve seen across neighborhoods in places where there’s a significant amount of harm and violence is when you have policing as the only answer, it creates more harm and violence.
And so the answer is really in institutions that are based in community care, institutions that are working with the community to try to deal with the violence instead of use the police to cause more violence.
I think the other thing is, we have a myth about what the police do. So I think it’s important for listeners to understand none of us understand what a beat cop does, because what we watch on TV is that they solve murders and rapes; violent crime is only one to five percent. So what a beat cop does is mostly about dealing with poverty. That’s what a beat cop does, and I think it’s really, really important that we start to investigate how we understand policing, and the propaganda that we’ve been, you know, shoved down our throats around policing.
MH: So you’re making the case for doing this very eloquently in terms of describing the status quo being broken.
In Minneapolis, they’ve said that they want to disband the police department, come up with something better, reimagine it, but they haven’t really said what it is that they’re going to do — they’ve admitted it can’t be done overnight. It’s going to take a year.
Now, many people would say the devil is in the details. Saying “defund the police” or “abolish the police,” that’s easy. Doing it, executing that vision is much harder. Would you concede that?
PC: Yes, it is. It’s much harder because every single institution we are a part of us as law enforcement: our schools — our public schools, our public hospitals, our public parks, every single institution relies on law enforcement. And so it means that we have to reimagine entirely new systems.
The good news is, is there are many people across this country and the world who have been thinking about this for a very long time; they have ideas about what those new systems can be? They’ve tried it in small — they’ve beta tested it in small areas, in small neighborhoods. So it’s not like people have to learn from scratch. It’s just not popular. This is the first time in modern history where abolitionism and this concept of defunding the police is a popular moment.
I often think about what it must have felt like when black folks were abolishing slavery and they finally got the word that they were moving towards abolition. I mean, that’s the moment that we’re in. And it’s very powerful.
MH: But are you comparing the police to slave owners, though — anyway, many people would say that, that’s a comparison that’s not fair.
PC: No, I’m comparing the police to patrols, slave patrols, which is what they were originally, they were created so they could go catch enslaved Africans who were fleeing for freedom. That’s the role of the police; that’s the role that they’ve always played. So they weren’t the slave owners, but they worked on behalf of them.
MH: That’s a very good point. You’re in LA, where Democratic mayor Eric Garcetti has agreed to cut the LAPD budget by $100 million, I think, and divert some of that money towards communities of color. Do steps like that, incremental steps, modest steps, do they count, in your view, towards “defunding the police”? Or is it all or nothing in your view? It has to look like Minneapolis, or like Camden, New Jersey?
PC: No, it’s an important step, but it is a far, far cry from what we’ve asked for. LAPD’s budget is $3 billion; $150 million is nothing. So we need to continue to cut at that budget. And I think it’s incredibly important that we remember that $150 million doesn’t mean that the budget isn’t still more than half of the city budget.
MH: So you talked about your asks and the progress. You’re a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. There’s been a remarkable change in public attitudes driven by Black Lives Matter protesters and others over the years.
I was just looking at the polling after Ferguson in 2014. The proportion of Republicans who said the killing of unarmed African-American men by the police was a reflection of broader problems with the police — that’s doubled from 19 percent in 2014 to 47 percent, almost half of Republicans today. Across all Americans, it’s a massive 69 percent who say there are broader problems with the police’s treatment of black men.
Do those numbers surprise you? Shock you? I mean, I’m sure they make you happy, but how surprised are you at the change we’re seeing? Is it quick enough for you?
PC: I’m pretty surprised, actually. Grateful. But yes, surprised. I feel like we remember being called terrorist, and remember people believing it across the country and across the globe. And so to see that shift is profound, and it means that whatever we have been doing, it’s working.
MH: I mean, we even saw in recent days Republican Senator and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, joining the protests in DC saying, “Black Lives Matter,” saying those three dirty words (for the Right). Is that an indication of a political shift on the Right or is, as usual, Mitt Romney an outlier?
PC: I think it’s both. I think there is a deep desire to challenge our current president. I think we’re in a political moment where people want to align around getting Trump out of office. And in a strange twist of events, Black Lives Matter happens to be the ultimate equalizer. [Laughs.]
And I’d never would have thought we’d be here.
MH: So you have Mitt Romney marching for Black Lives Matter, you have polling showing Americans are changing attitudes. There’s not a majority on board for defund the police yet, but there is a majority on board saying the police, something has to be done about the police, which itself is remarkable.
Then you have Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, saying this week, very clearly, that on the one hand, he does not support defunding the police, he wants to increase funding; on the other hand, he does accept there is systemic racism in the police and that has to be tackled, which I would argue is a big thing for him to say, given he’s the architect of the 1994 crime bill.
PC: Mhmm. Yeah, I mean, I think that so much of what we’re trying to do in this moment is get Trump out of office and hold Biden accountable to the needs of our movement.
We knew that it was going to be hard for the Democratic Party to get on board for defund the police, but it still feels incredibly important to push and challenge them, given that they have, you know, for a long time, milked the black vote and have been complicit in our death and, you know, our brutalization. So the hope is that we can push this candidate and also the entire party.
MH: And the Biden campaign say they want to increase funding to community policing initiatives, they say they want to pay for body cameras for more cops on the beat. Do they have a point? Is that fair?
PC: I think that’s an old demand, the idea of body cameras and community policing. I think those suggestions are unhelpful. And you know, the — the — like I said, the hope is that we could push him and his campaign to really look at the concept of defending and what we’re actually talking about.
MH: But you would accept, I assume, based on what you’re saying about the need to get Trump out. You agree that despite Biden’s horrific criminal justice record, what he’s offering in this election is far superior in terms of police reform and criminal justice reform than a second-term Trump presidency where basically they want to use law enforcement to go after Antifa and black protesters, and give white nationalists a pass.
MH: It’s not just Biden, though, is it, Patrisse? It’s not just white politicians. On Wednesday, on MSNBC, Congressman Jim Clyburn, highest-ranking black member of Congress, was saying people who talk about defunding the police are sloganeering, they’re hijacking the protest. He said, “We want the police, we need the police.”
It’s not just an ideological divide on the left or in the Democratic Party. There seems to be a pretty big generational divide among black Americans, doesn’t there? And we saw that in the presidential primaries, too.
PC: Yeah, I think that so much of what millennials and Gen Z-ers have experienced is heinous and terrible violence at the hands of law enforcement. And we have caught called on black electeds in particular to, you know, challenge policing, and to show up for a younger generation of black lives who want to see a new system.
At the end of the day, what we’re asking for are more jobs, more access to health care, adequate public education, mental health care, adequate access to healthy food. And we have to realize that budgets are finite. We can’t have hundreds of thousands — I mean — millions and billions of dollars towards policing, and also millions and billions of dollars towards health care. Something has to give. And what we’ve seen as we’ve — we’ve — we’ve stripped away the entire social welfare state, both at the local level, the state level, and the national level. And it’s time for, you know, both parties to come to grips and to provide the kind of healthy living that people in this country deserve.
MH: For you, Patrisse, I know this is very personal. One of the reasons you say you co-founded Black Lives Matter is because of the abuse your brother received at the hands of the police, and then in prison. Did you — did your brother — ever think you’d see a moment like this one a national uprising? Are you — is he — optimistic about the future, I wonder?
PC: We both are, you know, every, every moment of victory that we have had, whether it was the Yes on R victory — where we were able to pass the law, you know, that changed here in Los Angeles County, to stopping the jails, to getting civilian oversight of the sheriff’s department — to this moment where we’re finally talking about defunding and abolition, both him and I are always like: Wow, this is powerful. This is amazing. And — and — and it makes us really hopeful.
MH: And to someone who’s listening, who says: What can I do to take part in this struggle to help push back against institutional racism which seems so vast, it seems so unstoppable, it seems so much part of America’s DNA in so many ways? What advice would you give to a listener who wants to know what they can do?
PC: Number one: Start looking up this conversation. Read about defunding and abolition. Mariame Kaba is someone who talks about it a lot; Angela Davis has talked about it a lot. Alex Vitale, Kelly Lytle Hernández — those are four amazing thought leaders around this concept of defunding and abolition.
And number two: Support your local organizations who are doing work, especially black-led organizations. It’s been powerful to see so many people lifting up black leadership and black orgs.
And number three: Check your privilege. No matter what it is, check your ideas and your privilege and try to have — imagine just for a moment, what communities actually need versus the propaganda that we’ve been fed about what the police do for us.
MH: Patrisse Cullors, thank you so much for joining us on Deconstructed. Keep fighting the good fight.
PC: Thank you.
MH: That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice: iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much!
See you next week.