“It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation . . . It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens . . . white and black.”
One could be forgiven for thinking this was Joe Biden on the presidential campaign trail after months of anti-racism protests in the US this year. But the quote is from the 1968 Kerner Commission report into that decade’s race riots, which put the blame on poverty, systemic racism and bad policing.
Half a century later, the diagnosis is the same: the US needs to spend more money preventing violence and less on catching or punishing people afterwards. In today’s lingo, that’s known as “defunding the police”. The Kerner Commission would never have put it that way. But that’s what they meant. We still haven’t figured out how to do it.
Democrats were terrified that calls to “defund” or even “abolish” the police would play into President Donald Trump’s hands in the election (and they probably did). Former president Barack Obama has been scathing on the subject ahead of Tuesday’s Georgia Senate run-off elections, which could determine the balance of power in the US Senate. He called “defund” a “snappy slogan” that could cost Democrats a “big audience” and make change harder.
Political moderates say “defund” should mean shifting money to mental health services, housing, education, healthcare and all the other things that influence urban violence. Radicals say they literally mean police forces should be disbanded.
Increasingly, US municipal budget decisions are being driven by defund pressures. Recently, the Milwaukee common council, which sets policy for this Midwestern city of half a million, turned down federal funding that would have added 30 police officers to combat a pandemic-related crime wave that has hit many US cities. (Murders in Chicago are up 50 per cent year on year during the pandemic).
Turning down free money for extra cops is a hard sell. Even in places where residents suffer the worst police violence, they fear things would be even worse with fewer officers. A poll this year found 61 per cent of black Americans want police presence in their area to be unchanged.
“Most residents have an insatiable appetite for officers,” Alderman Ashanti Hamilton of Milwaukee, who voted against the 30 new officers, told me. “We try to have officers on every corner of every city in America and it’s not a sustainable financial model.” He says Milwaukee is “on a pathway to redefining policing as opposed to defunding”, but the goal is broadly the same: to reduce the amount spent on law enforcement and “broaden the amount we’re doing in violence prevention”.
But Rashawn Ray, a Brookings Institution fellow who studies police-civilian relations, says most US defund efforts so far have been “smoke and mirrors”. “There is a lot of gaslighting going on, blaming ‘defund the police’ for rising crime but, in most cities, reallocating funding has not really taken place.”
Still, he lauds the efforts of Los Angeles as a model for the future: the city cut its police budget by $150m. Officers will no longer be dispatched to minor traffic accidents not involving a crime, the LAPD sexual assault unit will be disbanded and a unit that deals with animal cruelty will be dissolved, a spokesperson said.
But Houston police chief Art Acevedo, who adamantly opposes “defund”, said that residents of his city “don’t want less policing, they want better policing” and what the US really needs is massive investment in social services — exactly what the Kerner Commission recommended. “If we can do it for Covid”, he said, referring to massive spending on aid, “why can’t we make smart investments in public health and addiction and mental health? If we don’t, we are going to keep having this conversation about policing and never achieve a just and equitable nation.”
So, hate it or love it, as a slogan or an idea, “defund” is driving change because poverty is the key to urban violence. Perhaps this is just the “snappy slogan” we need to wake us up to doing what we should have done half a century ago. US municipal budgets will never be the same again.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in the Midwest