Over the past month, there has been increasingly less media coverage of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and associated protests against police brutality and systemic racism. And yet, another horrifying video of violence against a Black person has gone viral: this time, the shooting of Jacob Blake by a Wisconsin police officer on Aug. 23 in broad daylight in front of Blake’s three young children.
A police officer is not a judge, jury and executioner. A civilian’s previous history with the law is not justification for getting shot in the back seven times. There is clearly a deadly double standard in play when wanted white people with weapons are safely subdued — or even thanked and given water in Kyle Rittenhouse’s case — whereas Black people are immediately perceived as threats, whether they are armed or not. At the time of publication, the officers involved in the shooting of Jacob Blake have been placed on administrative leave, not arrested. And while the officer who murdered George Floyd was arrested only after weeks of public pressure, Breonna Taylor’s murderers still walk free.
These are not isolated incidents. This violence will not end if we are complacent. Educating ourselves on how law enforcement works — and knowing which of our leaders truly care about community safety and the lives of Black, Indigeneous, and people of color (BIPOC) — is more important than ever as we approach the 2020 elections.
What is “Defund the Police” and Why Should We Care?
As protests erupt in nearly every major American city, so do the controversial calls to “Defund the Police.” Recent instances of police violence and the lack of justice and accountability that follows has shown that we need to dismantle the idea of police as here to “protect and serve.” It is clear Black lives are at stake — and many BIPOC do not feel safe — as instances of officers trampling on constitutional and human rights of citizens gain nationwide attention. It is clear we need to come up with and invest in new systems of community safety.
The call to defund the police is not a cry for anarchy and lawlessness, as some may be led to believe, but rather a demand for local governments to reallocate portions of exorbitant police budgets to invest in social services, in order to get at the root of systemic issues. A recent Forbes article tallied (as of Aug. 12) 13 cities across the United States that have already begun to cut police budgets and decrease the number of active-duty officers as a response to the protests. However, many activists point out that these budget cuts are not actually making substantial changes, and that our work is not done.
Why Should We Allocate Less Money to the Police?
Police departments and certain Americans have been quick to defend the heroics and sacrifices of “Blue Lives.” They claim the “Defund the Police” movement is an attack on cops as individuals. However, this falsely equates the color of a uniform — that can be taken off — with the color of one’s skin and the associated lived experiences that being unchangeably Black comes with. The notion that “not all cops are bad” and the presence of those “good” cops — eerily reminiscent of the #MeToo counterargument phrase “not all men” — does not decrease the threat the police force poses against Black people. At the end of the day, these individuals in blue willingly participate in a system that promotes lethal and excessive force, racial profiling, police impunity, and the fraternity-esque “Blue Wall of Silence.”
We cannot ignore the origins of the American police force as slave hunters, enforcers of Jim Crow laws, and the most egregious repressors of the Civil Rights Movement, and making policing, at its heart, a historically and structurally racist and violent institution. We cannot ignore that the FBI has been warning its agents for decades that domestic terrorism investigations have linked law enforcement officers to white supremacist groups. Or that thousands of police officers have been caught endorsing violence and racism on Facebook. We cannot ignore that Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police in the U.S. than white people, although Black people only make up 14% of the population.
The truth is, when you have a historically racist institution, reform is not effective. Bias training, body cams, bans on chokeholds, bans on no-knock warrants, etc. are simply not working. Broken windows policing (i.e., the theory that “maintaining order by policing low-level offenses can prevent more serious crimes”) does not work, but rather places the responsibility of social ills onto our country’s most vulnerable populations, at the expense of their human and civil rights. Not to mention, America has a for-profit prison system (i.e., the prison-industrial complex fueled by the school-to-prison pipeline) with the highest rates of incarceration in the world, per capita. As police budgets increase, prison populations are rising, disproportionately incarcerating Black, Indigenous and Latinx men and women for nonviolent crimes. This has significant long-term effects on entire communities, stigmatizing and placing the socioeconomic burden on minorities even further. Policing in America, after all, serves to protect those in power, and not the marginalized.
Dr. Lorenzo Boyd, Director of the Center for Advanced Policing, and former police officer, says policing as it exists now is an unsustainable and broken system. Just like everything else, if repairing the broken system over and over again does not work, you eventually need to replace it.
So where do Asian Americans fall in this debate? It’s complicated. A 2016 poll by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund found that only 50% of almost 14,000 Asian American voters did not believe police treated people of different races equally, although it does differ drastically by ethnicity and age. While 68% of young Asian Americans cited unequal police treatment, only 39% of older Asian Americans agreed. (This is more of a reason that we should be speaking with our parents and aunties, but that’s another article.)
What Will Happen if We Defund the Police?
Both sides of the debate agree that police officers are often overworked and called into situations that they are not trained for. Cops are increasingly expected to be mental health providers, social workers, homelessness outreach, and even enforcers of school discipline. And as the public is made painfully aware by countless videos and testimonies, these situations have deadly consequences. Calling 911 on a Black person with a mental illness or disability can be a death sentence.
Rather than giving police officers more money and power for tasks that they are unqualified to handle, our local governments can and should reallocate budgets to social services. Ideally, 911 calls would be filtered so that there are more specialized responses according to individual needs: a trained rapid response worker would come to assess and assist, instead of an overworked cop trained to wield deadly weapons.
By funding these social programs and community-based organizations, we would be uplifting our most vulnerable citizens, rather than disenfranchising them further. Our nation faces a homelessness crisis, affordable housing crisis, mental health crisis, drug crisis and decaying infrastructure, all of which disproportionately affect BIPOC communities. Meanwhile, according to a 2017 report by the Center for Popular Democracy, cities have been defunding these social programs for the last 30 years and perpetuating cyclical poverty, but research shows investing in “more humane ‘crime fighting’ strategies” is more effective than punitive methods like over-policing and incarceration.
If police spending across our nation is decreased in an effective manner (and not just moved around), our tax money would no longer go to the militarized riot gear, high artillery weapons, tanks and high-tech surveillance that are used to brutalize Black people. Our tax money would be reinvested in mental health support, preschool programs, youth programs that place teens in summer jobs, domestic violence programs, stable and affordable housing, LGBTQ+ community centers, substance use treatment facilities, and elder services. Our tax money would not only help empower and raise the living conditions of our fellow citizens; our tax money would help keep them alive.
These alternatives would better serve Asian American communities as well. Police officers placed in ethnic enclaves often meet cultural and/or language barriers and distrust if they are not from that background. Whitney Hu, head of community organization South Brooklyn Mutual Aid and candidate for City Council District 38, says, “Our communities hold undocumented immigrants and vulnerable sex workers who have been victims of overpolicing and police brutality. […] There’s little to no trust.” She adds, “Refocusing on bringing [social services] to Chinatowns […], instead of more police officers, might actually start to correct the inequities seen.”
“Won’t Crime Increase?”
Police departments have criticized the movement as an effort to hinder their efforts against crime. Statistically, homicide rates have increased in some major cities this year, which some have blamed on the lack of police presence. However, criminologists and experts agree it’s too early to say that this is why we need more cops, but rather, that 2020 has been an extreme year for several reasons: a global pandemic that collapsed our already fragile economy and left many without food assistance; a pandemic that also kept both children and adults cooped up and fearful without psychological outlets for months; and the viral lynchings of innocent people by the police that shattered any remaining trust in law enforcement and led to more instances of street justice.
A recent study actually found that pulling back on “proactive policing” can reduce crime. In late 2014, the New York Police Department (NYPD) intentionally halted proactive policing as a response to protests when one of their own murdered Eric Garner (in a chokehold, despite the ban on chokeholds). This attempt to show the city how badly police were needed backfired when “civilian complaints of major crimes decreased during and shortly after.”
“Won’t Change Take Too Long?”
Change has been made before.
Before 1967, ambulance services were often run by local police and fire departments without any medical training beyond first aid. Freedom House Ambulance Service was the first civilian medical service in the U.S. to be staffed by paramedics, most of whom were Black volunteers. This turned into the national EMS service as we know it.
In 1989, the town of Eugene, Oregon, implemented a program called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets) to respond to some 911 calls with medics and mental health counselors. People experiencing homelessness or mental health crises were met with trained de-escalation and compassion, treatment and housing, rather than citations, arrests or death. At least nine other cities are considering a similar program.
In fact, the things activists are demanding have already been accomplished on a larger scale in other countries. Sweden has a specific mental health ambulance; Scotland’s violence reduction unit has dramatically reduced homicide rates in the last 20 years; 90% of cops in England carry canisters of mace and batons instead of guns; Japanese cops carry antique guns that are rarely drawn, and are instead trained in taiho-jutsu, hand-to-hand combat for taking down suspects in nonlethal ways.
In the United States, policies and training exist to protect the safety of the officer, rather than the civilian. Not only should we adopt these other models, but we also need to rethink gun restrictions, police training requirements, and the qualified immunity doctrine that currently shields cops from legal accountability.
Why is this relevant now?
As we approach elections, President Trump is running a law-and-order campaign, instilling fear in order to appeal to white “law-abiding” voters. Last month, the NYPD union announced they would be endorsing Trump — a candidate who just so happens to side with white supremacist groups and police brutality.
We must not fall for this fear mongering. Hu says, “It’s within the interests of white supremacy and forces like Trump to keep Asians extracted from other BIPOC organizing […], but we need to remember the same racism that keeps Black communities marginalized are also working on Asian American communities. Asian American history shows that we know how to fight back: Vincent Chin and Yang Song are our names, Japanese internment camps, Chinese Exclusion Act; we must own the pain of our history, and organize.”
We all have the power to enact change, especially at the local level, where many city budgets, state legislations and propositions are in discussion at this very moment. Let’s do our homework on our candidates’ policies and put pressure on them to hold police departments accountable. Let’s raise the Asian American voter turnout, and convince our family, friends and colleagues to vote. Community safety depends on it.
For more information, visit defundthepolice.org and Community Resource Hub, which offers resources like “Steps to Ask Yourself Before Calling the Police.” You can also find your elected officials at Civil Services and get their contact information and political history.
Mochi magazine’s Black Allyship @ Mochi column is an ongoing project that urges an awareness of racial injustice in the United States, particularly the oppression of Black people in America. The articles, resources and opinions we share are a call to action, an open discussion, and a place to take a stance against anti-Black racism. Read more about the column here.
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