The year 2020 has caused many white people to realize we live in a racist system — something known for centuries by those who have been brutalized by it. The Green New Deal is about systemic change for all, and deconstructing racism must be front and central in this agenda.
“Why are people so quick to assume that locking away an increasingly large proportion of the U.S. population would help those who live in the free world feel safe and more secure?” Angela Davis asked at Harvard University in 2003.
A key voice for abolishing prisons, Davis has also said: “Prison is considered natural and so normal it is extremely hard to imagine life without them.”
Similarly, the police have monopolized space within the public imagination. Police departments are supposedly the sole agents of public protection. Yet in reality, this force has license to kill and frequently terrorizes by harassing people violently due to their race or class.
This is not solely a United States-based issue. “Racism knows no geographic bounds,” explained London-based political organizer and writer Joshua Virasami in an article describing why dismantling systemic racism requires every means necessary.
“The system is failing and killing poor black and brown people not just in the US but everywhere. Many of us know police and state violence intimately; we live in or come from communities with a constant knee on its neck; one that bears no promise of letting up.”
The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police was a turning point in the public’s understanding of police violence. But the fact is, a lot of white people still do not “get it.”
Here are five key reasons why we need to defund the police:
1. The prison industrial complex enslaves people
The U.S. has the highest prison rates of anywhere in the world. In 2017, a report submitted to the UN found that African-Americans are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated than white Americans.
These disparities are reflected in prison populations in the UK and many other countries. Many prisons are private and for-profit, with inmates working for no or very low pay.
Virasami shows just one way that modern prisons are linked to slavery: The U.S.’s largest prison, dubbed “Angola Prison,” was built on the grounds of Angola plantation, populated by many enslaved people who were kidnapped from Angola.
2. Police forces are an occupying force enforcing systemic violence
Numerous statistics show people of color are more likely to be arrested, treated violently, killed by the police and end up in prison. Their sentences are worse, too.
Looking at Ferguson, Missouri, the city where police officers killed Michael Brown in the summer of 2014, the late David Graeber explained how police services were effectively operating a “shake-down operation” on the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, where people were criminalized for minor civil infringements.
What Graeber described in this one city speaks volumes of the critiques of U.S. police services since they were formed more than 200 years ago. The first police services in the U.S. can be connected to slave patrols. This lineage also comes from Ireland, where the Norman Castle (used to control the then-British colony) was used as barracks for what effectively became a military force in a different uniform.
Police are a force of “internal colonisation,” as they marginalize and target internalized oppressed groups in the same way as colonization marginalizes and oppresses people in other countries for imperial interests. The way military equipment — particularly in the US — is reused by the police after the military has finished with it is one example of this.
Similarly, techniques of suppressing colonized peoples — including intelligence apparatus and techniques — are often brought into national policing, a process that is defined as the “imperial boomerang effect.”
3. The police protect the 1%, not the broader public
Despite the broadly held notion that police are there to protect us all, they aren’t. Rich white people get away with crimes that would put others in jail, for example, drug use or “white collar fraud.” Corporations get away with ecocide, while the police shield themselves from the law.
Additionally, although the police do deal with violence and crime, they are often simply ineffective. As Brie McLemore writes about the U.S. for Truthout: “Less than 60 percent of all murders are solved. The vast majority of sexual assault are not reported to police and of the few that are, only 0.5 percent result in convictions. Survivors of violence and families of victims often report feeling like the criminal “justice” system has failed and traumatized them. We already live in a society that does not value the victims of violence, especially when those victims are Black and Indigenous.”
Other ways we can connect the police to the 1% are in the violent reactions we see to protests that threaten the status quo. In addition, in the U.S., we are seeing constant cuts to public programs while police budgets soar.
4. There are alternatives to police and prison
But it does not have to be this way. One example of a completely different justice system is in Rojava, the democratic enclave in northern Syria. Here, instead of answering to the state and the political establishment, the equivalent of police answer to local democratic councils. Problems are resolved by restorative justice rather than locking people away.
Of course, prison abolition and defunding the police requires systemic change. It will not happen overnight.
Black Lives Matter has announced in its invest-divest platform demands that include: “investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people. We want investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities, and divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations.”
These include “a divestment from industrial multinational use of fossil fuels and investment in community- based sustainable energy solutions.”
Simply put, defund the police to fund a green revolution that deconstructs racism and other systemic prejudices.
Dovetailing defunding with GND
It is one thing to make the economic argument to “stop funding this, fund this instead.” But in this case we are looking not only at economic value, but also at political values. That is, ethics.
The GND is often framed as an economic plan. It is about money, or value. But it also offers the chance to divert society from neoliberal thinking where everything has a monetary price. By looking at values and thinking about why, historically, these values came to pass we can construct something different.
At its heart, the GND could be defined as seeking universal justice, universal well-being. For this, it needs to reject some values.
For instance, “Law and Order” is a phrase used so often it has become benign to many across the public debate. It was first used in mainstream U.S. politics in the 1960s by President Lyndon Johnson. It later became a central tranche of the Nixon government, followed by Reagan and adopted by both Democrats and Republicans ever since. Notably, Trump is pushing the law and order agenda as one of his main — if not principle — proposals for a second presidential term.
It might be desirable to have a well ordered book collection or kitchen: the Machiavellian thing about law and order is that for many it sounds like common sense. Yet what it really means is protecting the social order and the establishment. It means more police, harassment of people of color, stop and search, arrests, incarceration and immunity for the police.
We also need to unpick words such as national security and national interests. These often refer to the interests of multinational companies — especially oil — as the interests of rich white men. The GND not only needs to make the economic argument against this fact, but a moral one, too.
As Mattias Lehman, Sunrise Movement’s digital director writes: “We cannot achieve climate justice without moving away from police and prisons. Prison labor is only the newest form of racially inflected slave labor in America, with the police as the most recent arm of enforcement. Without racial healing and reparations, there cannot be climate justice.”