Reformists Overtook US Political Discourse On Ending Police Violence And Changed Nothing

by | Oct 30, 2021

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About Olivia Murray

Olivia Murray is a second-year JD at Harvard Law School. Olivia is a student attorney with the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and Harvard Defenders, where she also serves as Community Director. She is also the Public Interest Committee Chair for the Harvard Black Law Students Association, and a member of the teaching staff for several courses, including a Prison Abolition seminar at Harvard College. Olivia has done legal work in the areas of public defence, death penalty litigation, and family law. Prior to law school, Olivia attended Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, where she graduated with a B.A. in Political Science in 2020. While there, she interned with the Southern Centre for Human Rights, and served as a student justice on the Student Judicial Board. She was also the Academic Development Chair of Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity, where she helped fellow Black students navigate the law school admissions process.  

Over a year ago, in the midst of the uprisings that followed the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, myself and other activists, organisers and prison industrial complex abolitionists warned that yet another unimaginative attempt at police reform would impede the movement to defund and eventually abolish the police. Yet, in a moment with unprecedented worldwide attention and frustration directed towards U.S. police violence, police reformists managed to overtake the discourse about policy change in Congress.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was introduced in the House of Representatives on February 24th 2021. It proposes a federal ban on certain police techniques, such as chokeholds and carotid holds, and proposes withholding federal funding from state and local police agencies who do not ban these techniques. It also proposes investing funds into better police training and community programs meant to improve policing. So, instead of defunding the police, this bill would actually invest more money into policing. However, after months of negotiations, legislators have failed to come to an agreement and have no plans to move the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act forward.

George Floyd died on May 25th 2020. As of September 27th 2021, we have witnessed the killings of Ma’Khia Bryant (16), Adam Toledo (13), Daunte Wright (20) and 1,445 others at the hands of police. Yet here we are. Over a year since Floyd’s death and there has been no national change. Nevertheless, it is important to note that—at the state and local level—activists and organisers have continued to push for defunding and abolishing the police, despite the failure of the federal government to enact substantive change. As a result of continued pressure, at least 13 cities, including New York City, Los Angeles and Baltimore, have approved significant budget cuts to local police departments. But, unfortunately, some cities have reversed course and are now restoring funds to police departments, citing that increases in crime necessitated more funding.

Some may be convinced that rising crime rates are a satisfactory reason to restore funding to police departments, but I challenge that rationale. We must ask ourselves if politicians in cities that defunded the police were truly committed or whether they simply wanted to pacify tensions, amid unprecedented public outcry, and used increases in crime to justify changing course. Further, we must take note of the fact that political leaders in these cities failed to make a good-faith effort to accomplish one of the most important aspects of defunding the police: redistribution. While often omitted, a large part of the defund the police platform is redistributing funding from the police into social services, including those that provide healthcare, housing, and education.

This is because there is nowhere in the U.S. that currently has the necessary infrastructure to ensure everyone has access to the services they need. It takes time to build effective social services, and far more money than marginal budget cuts will allow.

We will not see a significant reduction in crime rates and interpersonal harm until every person is provided with the support they need, and until the institutional harm and violence perpetrated by our government has ceased. Additionally, we must reflect on how we understand and define crime, no longer including the property and drug crimes that are a by-product of the inequities imposed by racial capitalism, and we must recognise how interpersonal violence is perpetuated by racism, capitalism, and patriarchy.

Calls for reform are not solving the issue of police violence and police are not solving the issue of “crime” or interpersonal harm – nor have they ever. The road to prison industrial complex abolition will require a commitment, from both policymakers and local communities, to dismantling systems of oppression and building up systems of care and support. This is the only way to facilitate real and sustainable change.

This post forms part of our series Black Lives Matter: What Next After 2020, the remaining post in the series can be found here.

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