Some protest movements become defined by three- or four-word slogans. The battle cry of Occupy Wall Street was, “We are the 99 percent.” The current wave of protests has, “Defund the Police.”
Some progressives have suggested that “transform the police” would be a better slogan, but that seems exactly wrong. “Transform” can mean anything or nothing. “Defund” means “reallocate money from their budgets to other services.” The only ambiguity is how much money to reallocate.
As for right-wing critics, we’re talking about people who’ve spent the last decade reinterpreting the phrase, “black lives matter” — an obvious expression of outrage at the devaluing of black life in a society that tolerates brutal racial inequality and lets police officers get away with murder — as a statement that nonblack lives don’t matter.
The underlying reasoning behind “Defund the Police” is simple: many of the conflict resolution functions currently performed by police officers can be transferred to counselors, social workers, and other public employees whose job descriptions don’t involve the use of violence. There’s no reason that the cops need to be called because a homeless woman passed out in a hotel lobby or a mentally ill man is having an episode. Slashing the budgets of police departments and boosting the budgets of other services could result in far fewer situations ending in violence.
Still, we should be wary of making the case for “Defund the Police” in a way that implicitly accepts the limits imposed on our collective imaginations by decades of neoliberalism. I recently saw one of my favorite members of Congress making exactly that mistake.
“Defund” means that Black & Brown communities are asking for the same budget priorities that White communities have already created for themselves: schooling > police,etc.
People asked in other ways, but were always told “No, how do you pay for it?”
So they found the line item.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 9, 2020
Unfortunately, we could reduce the line item for police departments to zero without achieving these goals. A little back-of-the-napkin math is sobering.
In Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s hometown, the police budget is $5.9 billion dollars. As of last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio had already called for an $800 million reduction to the schools’ funding, and lawmakers were warning that cuts of about another $2 billion were on their way. It would take reallocating well over half of the New York Police Department budget just to head off those cuts.
Let’s say that funding was instead hiked by $2 billion — a lot of money in most contexts but a pretty modest boost to the $34 billion pre-cut budget for New York City public schools. (One point of comparison: the spending gulf between the poorest and wealthiest school districts in New York “now approaches $10,000” per pupil.)
So far we’ve reallocated $4.8 billion from the $5.9 billion budget, and we haven’t even dramatically improved the schools. We also haven’t hired a single counselor or social worker outside the education system. We certainly haven’t created any job programs or done anything for the sixty thousand homeless men, women, and children sleeping in the city’s shelters every night.
The picture doesn’t get any better if we zoom out to the rest of the country. As Eric Levitz notes, the United States as a whole spends $115 billion on policing, while the estimated price tag of providing “high-quality social housing for all who want it” is $250 billion. The Bernie Sanders campaign put the annual cost of Bernie’s Medicare for All plan at $3.2 trillion.
Indeed, as scholars like John Clegg and Adaner Usmani argue, part of the reason why elites opted for a more violent and aggressive regime of policing and incarceration several decades ago was that it was a cheaper way of managing the social ills caused by poverty than expanding the welfare state.
Reallocating funds from the police departments that soak up so much of city budgets is absolutely necessary. But we’re making a mistake if we think we’ve “found the line item.” Rearranging the money already in municipal budgets is going to leave most poor and working-class neighborhoods of color still woefully underfunded.
Solving that requires taking on the entrenched power of the 1 percent. We’re going to have to soak the rich.