The system of policing in the United States needs to radically change, thousands of protesters have demanded in the past two weeks of unprecedented mass civil rebellion over the spring 2020 police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade.
While such voices have been sounding off since at least the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, the 2020 uprising seems to have forced politicians and mainstream media to actually consider reformism’s radical counterpart, abolition.
Democratic congressmembers, mayors, other politicians and advocates are calling for reforms to procedural justice—basically, trying to adjust how cops do their job. The Democratic Party asserted their support for “establish[ing] a comprehensive review of police hiring, training, and de-escalation practices” and Congressional Democrats unveiled bills that aspire to making police more accountable for their violence.
One of the bills introduced on June 8, for example, proposes a ban on chokeholds, the tactic used to kill Eric Garner in 2014. Coincidentally, a New York State Assembly bill passed that same day also seeks to eliminate the practice that is already prohibited by some law enforcement agencies, like the New York Police Department (NYPD).
Activists’ calls to defund or abolish police departments have mostly been outright rejected by national political leaders, like some Congressional Democrats and presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
The ever-mainstreaming struggle over police reform and abolition is exemplified by the local politics unfolding in Minneapolis, the city of Floyd’s murder and ground zero for the national uprising. While Mayor Jacob Frey is opposed to abolitionist-type proposals, other city leaders are making moves to potentially actualize them.
Days after the city’s school board ended its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), a veto-proof majority of City Council members announced at a June 7 rally that they intend to begin the process of disbanding the city’s police department, The Appeal reported.
“We are going to dramatically rethink how we approach public safety and emergency response,” tweeted council member Jeremiah Ellison three days prior.
The announcement was surely driven by Black activist leadership. The groups Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective called on the council to constrain the MPD budget through $45 million of cuts, and to refuse to expand it in the future. Additionally, they are being pushed to reinvest in services that will actually keep communities safe and healthy.
Despite the council members’ endorsement of what seems to be an abolitionist policy, activists are wary of the system that could emerge out of the city’s elimination of MPD. Council member Phillipe Cunningham, a Black transgender man, expressed interest in “work[ing] alongside our amazing Police Chief Rondo” to build the new safety system—a strategy that one Twitter follower called “reformist” and cautioned against as something “we need to be looking out for.” In response to another critic, Cunningham responded, “It’s not realistic to completely remove him from the process.”
New York City is seeing a similar tug-of-war between abolitionists and reformists over how best to end police terror. In the city home to Garner, one of the Black men whose death sparked Black Lives Matter, the group Communities United for Police Reform is demanding that Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on ending the racist “stop and frisk” policy, cut $1 billion from the New York Police Department’s nearly-$6 billion 2021 budget by June 30.
This specific proposal has received the endorsement of more than 500 current and former civil servants in his own administration. Its support is shakier in the city council, the elected body with the power to approve or veto the mayor’s budget, which he said will include unquantified reductions to NYPD’s sum.
Only three council members—Queens’ Costa Constantinides and Brooklyn’s Antonio Reynoso and Carlos Menchaca—support the specific goal of a $1 billion cut, according to the #DefundtheNYPD Public Commitment Tracker at publication time.
Before the protests erupted, the council’s speaker, Corey Johnson, vaguely asked the mayor to require every agency, including the NYPD, to “identify meaningful agency savings.” Instead of diving into details for NYPD defunding, which he hasn’t publicly commented on, Johnson is suggesting procedural justice reforms, like banning chokeholds and implementing more accountability measures.
Less ambitiously, the city’s Comptroller, Scott Stringer, is backing a $1 billion cut over four fiscal years, instead of one.
From New York to Minnesota, as well as every other state, the debate over refining police accountability policies or upending the system that descended from slave patrols is now being reckoned with by the public in a way seemingly yet unseen.