What ‘Defund the Police’ Really MeansRoundup
tags: racism, Chicago, Police, FBI, Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton
Simon Balto is the author of the award-winning Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power, and teaches in the history and African American studies departments at the University of Iowa.
In late 1969, Fred Hampton issued a call to defund the police, if in different terms than those currently in use. Speaking at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, 60 miles west of Chicago, Hampton, the leader of the Illinois branch of the Black Panther Party, called for the police to be “decentralized” — shorthand for what was elsewhere known as “community control of the police.”
His political perspective in the broad sense was molded by a capacious vision and dogged pursuit of a just world. It was based on a desire to dismantle the evils of fascism, capitalism, imperialism and racism. And it was rooted in a vision of freedom in which the war in Vietnam would end in a way that gave justice to the Vietnamese people; where jailed Panther co-founder Bobby Seale would be freed; and where multiracial class struggle against the pillage and plunder of wealthy capitalists, corrupt politicians and abusive law enforcement would prevail. And it extended to the issue of police control and community safety — of who keeps people safe and what they are allowed to do to meet that supposed charge.
Over the past year, calls to defund the police have been embraced by some Americans and met with bewilderment or hostility by many others. The argument for defunding, however, is fairly straightforward. It is an argument predicated upon resource reallocation, in which portions of the vast sums of money that get spent on policing — an institution that inflicts demonstrable harm upon many communities of color and poor people — is redirected toward funding for things that would enrich people’s lives: housing, health care, job training, food and so on. In a world where people have what they need to live healthy, nourished lives and opportunities to pursue a wide range of dreams and ambitions, whatever “need” people imagine there to be for police would be radically diminished.
So while Republicans (and, sadly, most Democrats) have mangled the central vision of defunding beyond recognition, equating it with anarchy and an invitation to lawlessness, that’s not at all what it is. It is a road map and a clarion call for a healthier, more beautiful, more caring, less-punishing society. And it is one that is rooted in the ideas Hampton set out more than a half-century ago.
Hampton’s comments were part of a larger call within the Black Panther Party across the United States to seize “community control of the police.” An argument couched in Black Power logic of self-determination and people’s rights to have control over the institutions that shaped their lives, community control of police meant reconfiguring the very logics and structure of the institution.
Although Hampton was assassinated before he was able to fully elaborate his own vision of community control, the basic contours as articulated by his comrades looked like this: Rather than citywide forces largely detached from the particular needs and wishes of particular neighborhoods, policing would instead be decentralized, converted to a hyperlocal institution governed entirely by local democratic processes. Citizens who lived in a particular community would, through officials elected at the community level, set police policy in their neighborhood. The elected board would directly hear citizen complaints and be able to hire and fire officers. Board members would determine what the police presence should look like in their neighborhood, if it should look like anything at all. And at least in the case of Chicago, the police department’s budget would be radically reduced, with funds formerly earmarked for police redirected toward more meaningful and less harmful social goods.
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