This blog originally appeared in the November 2020 edition of What’s Left; the GRDSA newsletter
A concept has been inserting itself into national conversation. This concept aims to combat the ever growing, violent police state that some of us are only beginning to find ourselves in. It is presented as one of the vital answers to dealing with the overt militarization, and thoughtless—unneeded—spending of U.S. workers’ tax dollars. The concept is simply this: defund the police.
The idea of police defunding has been around for a while. And its underlying message is simple. Take money away from the police departments and use it to create or improve specialized services that specifically help the local community. Constituents of cities such as Los Angeles, CA and New York City, NY have been trying to put a rein on yearly increases in police spending (the latter of which is now up to ~$6 billion in police budget).
Grand Rapids has also had a large community coalition formed on the stance of defunding the GRPD and using those funds for community development. Groups such as Defund the GRPD, Justice For Black Lives, Family Over Everything (FOE), Bimose Ode, Together We Are Safe, I Am Deeply Rooted Inc. and more have been on the front lines of making change. The People’s Budget GR is another organization that seeks to change the way public money is being spent in our city.
Currently, the Grand Rapids city commission created a budget for the 2020 fiscal year that allowed for a ~39% share of the city’s General Fund to go to law enforcement. Community personnel such as The People’s Budget GR have been fighting to take the police’s share of the fund down to 32% by FY 2021, which is codified in the Grand Rapids City Charter as the minimum share of the General Fund that can be spent on law enforcement.
On the night of July 7th, 2020, a city commission meeting went underway to bring up a vote on whether to defund the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) from 39% to 32% for fiscal year 2020. The vote to defund $9 million from police to our communities almost advanced until the Grand Rapids legal department, in extensive language, had two main points of contention. The first is that a change to the budget on that level would need to be approved by the city manager; involving specifics of where the money would be coming from as well as where it would be going. The second is that it was also suggested to not be “a legally sound decision” to put the issue of defunding the police to a vote when the Grand Rapids city manager does not agree with the item to be cut from the budget. Since our city manager, Mark Washington, does not have solidarity with the movement, our police have yet-again been given the people’s taxes to oppress and harass the public instead of helping to build the local communities.
Some people balk at the concept of defunding the police. They fear that if the police were defunded, their safety would be compromised! Thousands of gunshots would ring through the air and beloved local businesses would be broken into and looted all day and night! All this because the police would not have the resources needed to actually prevent a crime. This is false for many reasons. One of which is the fact that the police are not a method of crime prevention. They are a resource that can only mitigate crime and its effects. Their argument is a bad faith reduction of the concept of defunding the police. Not only would the aforementioned level of chaos not occur; actual crime prevention measures that stem from economic and social investment in local communities would flourish. Incidents involving mental health distress would be moved from the responsibility of the police to groups that are trained to deal with people in these highly specialized situations!
The city of Austin, Texas has one of the most recent success stories of defunding their local law enforcement and, in turn, creating new opportunities for their community through public services. Citizens set out to organize and educate effectively enough to cut their local police force’s budget by one third, roughly $150 million dollars. This isn’t happening without a fight from opposing forces. Texas Governor Greg Abbot has since threatened to freeze increases to property taxes in Texas cities that defund the police. A reactionary group local to the Austin area even put up a billboard warning incoming traffic of the fact that police were defunded. The dramatic measures taken by the opposition show that their ideologies are being effectively challenged. Their actions are a direct retaliation to the national attention that the campaign continues to achieve.
Individuals who feel that the national problems concerning police can go away through reformative measures are mistaken, and usually hold these views in order to directly oppose any form of defunding the police. Reformism is the political philosophy of change that tries to improve or amend an existing political structure. Defunding the police, on the other hand, is a form of abolition that seeks to replace major portions of the policing system with a new system that is more passionate, and more economically viable. Reformists will always find new ways of spending money on the police that never reach the intended results of progress. These individuals find the act of training or even hiring more officers to be an acceptable response to the unaccountable violence that affects minorities and poor people every day. “An officer on every street corner, no matter the cost!”, they say. Ignoring the devastating toll such police budget increases would take on our already struggling community.
These funds almost always come out of the budgets of community development projects in poorer neighborhoods, or our public schools. Systemic racism has guaranteed that Grand Rapids’ third ward, which has the highest percentage of African American population within the city, is consistently given an order of magnitude less funding than other city wards. Corruption and hard-headedness in our governing body has allowed Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) to revise their FY 2020-2021 budget and cut an extra $10.6 million dollars from their operating costs. These cuts include a $300 per pupil reduction in the budget in addition to the $350 per pupil budget reduction of the year before. Did GRPS even think to cut the police officers they use in public schools? No. They would rather use their busses to shuttle loads of police to protests. Reformative measures applied to the policing system will not work, and have created the violent state-sanctioned gangs that the working class deals with to this day. We must take the route of abolition.
Of course there are reasons to apply the same amount of pressure to the GRPD as much as other cities have done to theirs. The GRPD are like every other police department, in that they retaliate with judicial force anything that is different from what they consider as “illegal”. That sentiment was undoubtedly shown during the most recent string of protests in Grand Rapids, as officers have riled up crowds by showing up in militarized riot gear, and performed overt methods of force on the public such as shooting a peaceful protestor in the face with a smoke canister.
Policing in the United States of America is simply a system designed to uphold the inequalities that are considered as hot-button issues in public sentiment. Household inequality, wealth inequality, and civil inequality will never see improvement when we, as a country, try and fix it with violent forces that are trained to treat each one of us as enemies. We will never see progress in trying to reform a policing system that, from the start, was built on racial and economic oppression. Defunding the police is the abolitionists path towards liberation from the oppressive state regime and the abhorrent violence and suffering it causes on our communities.
Editors Note (11/27/2020): Updated to add Black and Indigenous led organizations that are working towards defunding the GRPD