REfund the Police – The American Way to Deal with Poverty, Racism and Disruption

by Ellen Isaacs

November 16, 2021

What happened during 2020-21 in the USA? Lots of cataclysmic stuff:

  • Over 750,000 people died from Covid, blacks at twice the rate as whites
    • Schools were shut for a year
    • Unemployment, poverty, evictions increased
    • Access to social services, mental health care decreased
    • Community programs for recreation, tutoring, and social support closed

At the same time,

  • A police officer was finally convicted of murder in the death of a black  man
    • Protests against racist policing and calls for defunding or abolishing the police grew nationally
    • Detainees in immigration and criminal jails protested dangerous conditions
    • Calls for bail reform and decarceration grew

There is no question that gun violence also increased during this period. Shooting deaths in 2020 were up from previous years, and in the first five months of 2021 alone 8100 people were killed in the US, an average of 54 deaths a day. There was also a big increase in gun sales, 23 million in 2020, which is a 64% increase from 2019.1 Many articles and newscasts attribute the increase in shootings to this increase in gun sales, which is an easy explanation, but research shows this is not actually the case.

A detailed study in the Injury Epidemiology Journal of July, 2021 finds that gun purchase increases correlated only with the increase in domestic violence.2 The authors point out that other conditions known to cause gun violence got markedly worse from 2020-21: financial stress, trauma, unemployment, sickness, and loss of community support services. These misfortunes all had a much greater impact on communities of color.

Black men between the ages of 15 and 34 accounted for 37% of gun homicides, at a rate 20 times higher than white males of the same age. Ronnie Dunn, a professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University, said that as violence rises in a neighborhood, “it increases anxiety and stress and creates toxic stress.” He compared the effect to post-traumatic stress disorder akin to what war veterans experience.1

No Safety Net, Just a Social Abyss

Even as the pandemic wanes in many areas, the conditions in communities of color and poor communities in general remain very stressful. Eviction moratoriums have ceased or are about to and rent relief is running out, leaving thousands behind. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (, as of October, 2021, 16% of households were behind on rent, 9% did not have enough to eat, and 28% could not meet their usual expenses. These deficits were about twice as common in black and Latin households, especially those with children.

Compared to most other advanced countries and all European countries, the US has a huge deficit in social spending, which adds up to about a $1.6 trillion annually.3 Compare this to the proposed Build Back Better plan which might add about this much spread out over ten years. It is clear that hardships will not be erased, let alone significantly reduced.

Police Funding is on the Rise

A year ago, a Democrat was elected to replace the overtly racist Trump. But we see that Biden’s social policies are grossly inadequate to reduce inequality, poverty, and poor education, health and health care – the factors that lead to crime.  Instead, in cities across the country, the police are being given more dollars, more personnel and more powers. To quote The Brennan Center, “Federal past… attempts to address daily gun violence erred by depending on a racist and otherwise biased criminal legal system to address a problem that is perpetuated by inequality. Gun violence and mass incarceration are both propagated and reinforced by policies that punish lower income communities of color.”11 And too big a portion of the shooting is done by the police. According to a report by the National Institutes of Health, “In 2019, over 13% of global deaths due to police violence occurred in the US, yet the US accounted for just 4% of the global population,” and the rate was 3.5 higher for blacks than whites.12

The newly elected black mayor of New York City is Eric Adams, himself an ex-cop. His plan, “Lower Crime Through Precision Public Safety,” calls for increasing the number of police by hiring more civilians for bureaucratic functions, focusing police on hotspots, ie minority neighborhoods, spot checking for guns on trains and buses, and restoring the anti-crime unit, disabled by the current mayor after it committed numerous abuses. Adams does promise to help troubled youth and stop jailing the mentally ill for non-violent crimes, saying that the$500 million a year he will save by reducing overtime “could” go into programs proven to reduce crime.4

In Minneapolis, 56% of voters rejected a proposal to replace the police department with a Department of Public Safety in a vote seen as a national test of the defund the police movement. As crime increased nationally in 2020, local businessmen launched a campaign to oppose the movement, and liberal groups like the ACLU and distanced themselves from the cause.5 Among voters, some white conservative voters not unexpectedly opposed any limits on police powers. However, many poor black voters also voted no because of a fear of violence which is high in their neighborhoods, not expecting any real investments to improve local conditions. Some reforms envisioned by the amendment are going forward anyway, such as mental health responders to mental health emergencies, and the campaign for police reform continues.6

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said, “[Our residents] want more police — not less police. We are not a city and will never be a city that bows to those arguing for de-funding. That’s not who we are. And that’s not what our residents want.” 7 She is planning to increase the police budget my $189 million, including a 20% pay increase for officers over eight years.

The Police budget is also going up in Los Angeles by 3%, while Burlington, Vt is giving officers $10,000 bonuses. Dallas is returning to hot spot policing.8 Even Portland, Oregon, which cut police funds after protests last year, is seeking to add $5 million to the police budget.9

When You Can’t Redress, Repress

The pandemic has brought into sharper focus the massive inequality, racism and deprivation suffered by millions of Americans, which are acute for about a third of the population. Many more live on the brink of crisis, with 59% of the population one paycheck away from homelessness.10 As stated above, there is no prospect that social programs, even those which may be passed by the federal government, will make any significant dent in these problems.

One encouraging sign is that workers are beginning to organize for higher wages and benefits. Miners in Alabama have been on strike for six months; nurses in Worcester, Massachusetts have been out for seven months; Kellogg and John Deere workers in the Midwest, school bus drivers in Annapolis, Maryland, janitors at the Denver airport, and graduate student workers at Columbia University are also on strike. Amazon workers are continuing their drive to unionize. However, rather than bosses giving into union demands for fair pay and benefits, police are being called on to break strikes. In Alabama, strikers have been forbidden to come closer than 300 yards to the mine entrance while scabs hit them with their cars with impunity.

Movements against racism and police violence are also continuing. There have been large actions to demand affordable housing, against immigrant deportations, to urge international Covid vaccine distribution, and responses to police violence continue. However, what is lacking to date is a movement that goes beyond calling for abolition of particular evils to demanding abolition of a system of racism and exploitation.

As long as we live in a society that depends on profit, which mainly comes from depressing the salaries and benefits paid to workers, and in a period of relative decline of US productivity and profitability, there is no prospect of providing adequate wages and services to US workers. As the levels of deprivation and desperation increase, there will be more strikes and protests. There will also be more crime and social disorder as the young become more impoverished and hopeless. Unable to respond by filling workers’ needs, the government, the capitalist class, will respond by repressing struggles and cracking down on lawbreakers. Of course, violence and unrest will be blamed on the character deficits of the poor, the nonwhite, the immigrants. The solution will be repression and violence against them at the hands of the police.

Many activists will continue to call for abolition or defunding of the police. However, it is essential to recognize why the police are necessary to the capitalist class and will become ever more so as inevitable unrest and struggle continues. To oppose police without this context being made clear creates the illusion that police are evil because of character defects like racism or sadism or are carrying out the will of right wing leaders. Then the solution can be seen as better police training or electing more liberal, humane politicians. However, as the current trend to refund the police moves forward, we see that it is often at the behest of these liberals. It is a class phenomenon, necessary to protect capital from any attack by workers, and all politicians and police in the US today are supporters of capitalism, from democratic socialists to Republicans. Thus, when we protest police brutality and racism, we must make sure we are also protesting the system – capitalism – they are there to protect.




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