A protestor holds a sign at a George Floyd protest, 5th June 2020.Wikimedia Commons / Taymaz Valley
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Content Note: This article contains discussion of police brutality and racism.

As the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction in the UK, calls to “defund the police” could be heard at protests across the country, alongside chants of “No justice / No peace / No racist police”. But why was the idea of defunding the police so important at these protests? Whilst individual police officers may not consider themselves racist, they are automatically complicit in a structure which upholds the racist structures of capitalism, through protecting property owners and criminalising the disadvantaged. This system of oppression is enforced through simultaneous defunding of the social sector whilst funding policing and prison expansion.

‘Defund the police’ does not mean instantly firing all police officers and shutting down prisons, but rather gradually redistributing resources from the police force to the social sector, in order to actually help our communities. In 2018-19, the bill for the UK criminal justice system was £28.8bn, which is more than we spend on social housing, primary education or the environment. The police thrive under austerity, draining public funding away from social programs which actually help our communities. In times such as these, the government finds ways to criminalise, rather than help, the vulnerable: instead of putting funding into providing affordable housing, the homeless are vilified and the police are sent onto the street to fine or arrest them; instead of putting more money into schools, exclusions and zero tolerance policies become increasingly frequent and more young people end up in prison. These policies also disproportionately affect people of colour. The data for school exclusions in 2018 show that “Mixed White and Black Caribbean, and Black Caribbean pupils were both nearly 3 times as likely to be permanently excluded as White British pupils.” This points to obvious racism within the school system, which fails young Black students, effectively handing them over to the police to deal with, which creates a direct pipeline from the classroom to juvenile prison.

“The police thrive under austerity, draining public funding away from social programs which actually help our communities.”

However, any time the Defund the Police movement gains any traction, a rally of voices try to counter the movement by arguing that ‘the police protect us’. Well, who exactly do they protect? Very rarely the most vulnerable members of society. Studies show that while four out of five victims of domestic violence never call the police, many will visit their GP as a result of the abuse they have suffered. And those who do call the police frequently feel that their experiences are invalidated and they do not feel safe. In an interview with gal-dem magazine, Ngozi Fulani describes the difficulties Black women face when calling the police on domestic violence: “In the Rastafarian community, for example, you can’t report abuse to the police because your whole community shames you. You’re in the wrong whilst the perpetrator won’t get a mention.” This is of course informed by an awareness of the potential life-endangering nature of handing a Black man into police custody. The police don’t protect ‘society’ until they are protecting every person within that society. However, since the nature of the institution will never allow for this, the only option for improvement is defunding the police and reducing the power that they hold over society.

For these reasons, the cries of liberals wanting to ‘reform’ the police are extremely tone-deaf to the current political situation. When Keir Starmer declared that the call from Black Lives Matter to “defund the police” was “nonsense”, the extent of his sheltered and privileged life had never felt more clear. Reforming an institution which necessarily upholds racist and patriarchal structures is tokenistic and ineffective. In Audre Lorde’s essay, The Master’s Tools, she argues the importance of intersectional feminism, using an analogy that can be well applied to highlight the issues with the idea of reforming the police. She asks: “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.”

Ever since the Black Lives Matter movement gained more traction and national recognition, cases of the UK police racially profiling and abusing people of colour have finally started to appear in the news. Only now is an inquest being held into the death of Kevin Clarke, a man who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, in 2018 in the hands of the Metropolitan Police. The inquest jury found that the police officers’ ”inappropriate use of restraints” contributed to his death. The tragic words “I can’t breathe” can be heard on the police body-cam footage of the incident.

“...it is easier to change the way a person interacts within their community, than it is to change an inherent ‘badness’ within a person.”

Defunding the police will not be effective unless we also fight to abolish prisons. The two institutions fuel one another, and neither improve the people who get caught up in them. In 2018, in the UK, juvenile offenders had a proven reoffending rate of 39.2% and adult offenders had a proven reoffending rate of 28.0%. In Angela Davis’ essay, Are Prisons Obsolete?, she argues, “The prison is considered so ‘natural’ that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it.” This is one of the biggest obstacles to abolition – we cannot comprehend a system that focuses on rehabilitation rather than retribution; it does not fit so easily into the binaries of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ that we have been taught. Changing our ideas of criminality relies on subtle shifts in language. Rather than calling people in prisons ‘criminals’, we must define them as ‘people who have committed crimes’. This shifts the focus away from the nature of the individual and towards the role of the individual within their society. This complements rehabilitative theory, as it is easier to change the way a person interacts within their community, than it is to change an inherent ‘badness’ within a person.


Mountain View

Thousands gather in Parker’s Piece to protest in support of Black lives

However, we are currently moving further and further from prison abolition. There is a page on the government website, announcing plans for four new prisons, in efforts to ”cut crime and kickstart the economy.” This benefit to local economies is dwarfed by the truly evil nature of prisons. As Davis asks, “are we willing to relegate ever larger numbers of people from racially oppressed communities to an isolated existence marked by authoritarian regimes, violence, disease, and technologies of seclusion that produce severe mental instability?”

There are practical ways in which we can start working towards defunding the police. Firstly, we can identify the different jobs that one police officer may be called upon to do, and redistribute this labour to trained specialists who will be able to more efficiently and effectively carry out the same task. For example, if a member of the community is feeling threatened, there should be a worker trained in de-escalation who they can call, who isn’t linked to the justice system, and won’t issue any punishments, but rather is trained in helping communities resolve problems amongst themselves. Many of the jobs that the police currently do should be redistributed to mental health workers who can help distressed individuals who are often seen as ‘dangerous’ through the eyes of the police force. This swapping out of police in favour of people trained in mental health would help avert tragic situations such as the death of Kevin Clarke.

Whilst police abolition plays into a powerful utopia, the process of removing the police must be gradual and balanced, and occur through systematic defunding of different police departments. For this to happen there must be a cultural shift in how we perceive the police, and their role in society, starting with the fact that there can never be a non-racist police force.