Calls to defund the police often elicit fear. “How will I stay safe,” wonder people who associate the police with safety. This response ignores the fact for many people, the police are what they fear. When I hear calls to defund the police I think first about the routine abuses and interactions that injure the body, mind, and spirit of Black youth identified as targets by law enforcement.
Defunding the police isn’t a new idea, but it has new momentum since George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis. Two weeks later the city’s council voted to disassemble its police department and “create a new system of public safety in a city where law enforcement has long been accused of racism.”
Officers routinely relied on aggression, violence, and exploitation in their dealings with residents of the Third District, where Floyd died with the knee of a police officer on his neck.
Officers routinely relied on aggression, violence, and exploitation in their dealings with residents of the Third District, where Floyd died with the knee of a police officer on his neck. The Minneapolis Star Tribune documented multiple abuses from court records and police reports: “One officer kicked a handcuffed suspect in the face, leaving his jaw in pieces. Officers beat and pistol-whipped a suspect in a parking lot on suspicion of low-level drug charges. Others harassed residents of a south Minneapolis housing project as they headed to work, and allowed prostitution suspects to touch their genitals for several minutes before arresting them in vice stings.”
Among the most striking disclosures in the article is shared by Abigail Cerra, a commissioner for Minneapolis’ Police Conduct Oversight Commission and former public defender, who states that her “clients were constantly getting anal searches. Not at the hospital. At the Third Precinct.”
Officers use force against Black residents at 7 times the rate of white residents in Minneapolis. Disparate force is commonplace in other cities across the country, like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The protests in the wake of Floyd’s killing have as much to do with these routine abuses as the appalling slow-motion spectacle of Floyd’s video-recorded lynching.
The experience of San Francisco’s Black residents, which I write about in The Chosen Ones: Black Men and the Politics of Redemption, mirror the experiences of Black residents in Minneapolis. The commissioner’s disclosure of the routine anal searches echoes complaints of strip-searches that I document in my book. These searches are just one example of how police officers routinely violate the bodily integrity of Black residents.
When I hear about calls to defund the police, I think about the way that Black youth are socialized into submission through their repeated encounters with the officers in their neighborhood. They can carry off a search of their body without any direction. I think about the powerlessness that teenage boys hide underneath the tough countenances, which they have learned to put on as a form of protection as part of their response to witnessing violent arrests on their block.
I think about Larry, a young man I write about, who once shared during a public meeting of residents that he had been strip-searched at the local police station before being released. Nearly a month later, I witnessed the lingering impact of this violation, as Larry launched accusations and insults at officers who were, once again, on the block: “Not tonight. Not tonight,” Larry repeated in a monotone chant as a crowd of officers and residents gathered. “Ya’ll not taking me in tonight,” he repeated, bouncing on his toes like a boxer getting ready for a match. “You’re not going to strip search me. That’s illegal.”
When people write off defunding as too radical, choosing instead to tighten their grasp on reform, I think about how I tried to calm Larry down in that moment, to quiet his protest for fear that his attention would attract the aggression of the officers.
“It’s frustrating,” he says. “They can come up here, take me to the station, strip search me, and I can’t do anything back to them.”
In retrospect, my response to him was a weak and tired one, and one that he had probably heard time and time again. “You’re trying to go somewhere,” I said. “Don’t let this moment knock you off that path,” I told him. Really, I was thinking, “I don’t want the police to hurt you more than they already had. I don’t want you to die tonight.”
I succeeded in calming Larry down that night and maybe I did save him from injury, maybe even death, but something was lost too. As I write in the book, “by encouraging him to retreat, I forestalled any revolutionary potential that may have existed in his efforts to directly confront the police.” The sort of revolutionary potential that reminds a Black youth that his life matters. The kind of revolutionary potential that we see in the streets at this moment.
By the time I finished The Chosen Ones the limits of reform were clear to me. All of the incidents I detail in the book took place in a progressive city that embraced progressive approaches to fighting crime and violence in the neighborhood. What we need are alternatives to law enforcement, which I lay out in the conclusion of The Chosen Ones.
Calls to defund the police ask us to imagine safety from the perspective of those who are the frequent targets of policing and understand that it is the world that is built from that perspective that will be a better world for us all.
Nikki Jones is a professor in the Department of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also a faculty affiliate with the Center for the Study of Law and Society. Her areas of expertise include urban ethnography, race and ethnic relations and criminology and criminal justice, with a special emphasis on the intersection of race, gender, and justice. Professor Jones has published three books, including the sole-authored Between Good and Ghetto: African American Girls and Inner City Violence (2010), published in the Rutgers University Press Series in Childhood Studies (betweengoodandghetto.com).