Defend, Defund or Disarm?
But Then Again ...
All lives matter? Yes, but not all lives matter equally. At least not to the police. There can be no justice until black lives, brown lives, rainbow lives, all lives matter as much as white lives.
If there is one silver lining to the tragedy of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, it is that Americans have finally had enough. We are awakening to the reality that people of color face every day.
This is a moment when the truth of systemic racism is breaking through our distraction. We have a chance right now to make substantive changes. But this moment will not last forever. And we must start with the police because they are the most overt symbols of oppression in America today.
Many activists are calling for the defunding of police departments, but I think re-funding might be more accurate. Whatever you call it, this is a movement to reduce the size of police departments and reinvest that money in the communities most in need, including for housing and mental health. Mediators and medics can do a more peaceful job of responding to most police calls without the likelihood of escalation.
The blame for the uprising lies with the police as a whole. When the good cops join ranks to cover up the racist and often deadly behavior of the worst of them they have broken our trust. If departments refuse to police themselves why should we allow them to police the rest of us?
Reducing police forces is not as shocking a proposal as it might seem. In New York City, a pilot program that reduced “proactive policing” found that crime went down. Eugene, Oregon, has had a program called CAHOOTS in place for more than 30 years. Medics and social workers respond to about 20% of police calls. The Chief of Police in Eugene said, “When [CAHOOTS] shows up, they have better success than police officers do.”
Los Angeles has reduced funding for their police department and Camden, N.J., disbanded and re-formed theirs. Lawmakers in at least 17 U.S. cities have pledged to divest funding from police departments to use for community interventions. Connecticut is proposing to join these forward-thinking communities. Now we need to push for follow-through.
Equally important though less often discussed is disarming the police. There are very few 911 calls that require a gun in response. If you have a gun, a taser, pepper spray you are always tempted to use them. The first claim of officers accused of killing unarmed people is that they feared for their lives, even when the victim was shot in the back. If they fear for their lives when people are running away from them they should not be carrying a badge much less a gun. Unarmed police would be forced to deal with the problem at hand instead of threatening individuals. People in crisis need help, not threats.
Another change might have as much of an effect as disarming the police. Simply put, police should live in the communities where they work. This is the only way for officers to see that the people they are policing are in fact people. You do not kneel on the neck of your neighbor.
As a woman, I have experienced aggressions large and small, but I have never expected to be stopped by the police for simply existing. I grew up believing police were on my side. It is time they stopped taking sides. It is long past time the police actually did “protect and defend” all lives. Equally.
Lisa Wright lives in Lakeville and works at Oblong Books and Music in Millerton. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.