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On Jan. 6, white supremacists interrupted Congress. They entered by force. They ransacked offices. They built nooses. They threw a parade inside, complete with Confederate flags. And they walked in and walked out with little to no police resistance. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said, “I’m sure glad that at least for one day, I didn’t hear my Democrat colleagues calling to defund the police!”
But the police did not prevent the mob from forming a critical mass capable of overrunning the Capitol. The police did not use an expensive arsenal of helicopters and tanks to overwhelm the rioters and take back the Capitol. And the police did not mobilize to counteract white supremacy like they mobilize to oppress communities of color.
The police’s willful failure to prevent a mob from overrunning the Capitol is not surprising. It is entirely consistent with the institution’s role throughout American history to insulate, legitimize, and implement white supremacist violence. Consider, for example, how lynchings operated during the Jim Crow era. A Black man would be dubiously accused of a crime, arrested, and placed in jail. Then, white supremacist mobs would raid the jail and collect the prisoner for an extra-judicial lynching. There was little to no resistance from the authorities who were holding the prisoner because the police tacitly supported the vigilantism.
The same blind eye was turned by the police for the siege on the Capitol by the pro-Trump rioters. The lack of police response does not indicate a lack of preparedness, lack of training, or lack of funding for the police. It indicates complicity. The police used their discretion to bolster white supremacy.
Ideally the intrusion into the Capitol building would have been prevented with simple crowd control, like you see at festivals, concerts, and sporting events. But even when reclaiming the Capitol, the police, fortunately, did not resort to their typical overwhelming brutality. If they had brandished the full force of the weapons we fund — like helicopters, firearms, and grenades — the day would have ended with far more bloodshed and things would have spiraled further out of control. Instead, their successful non-violent de-escalation of the volatile situation calls police militarization into question. And this is why we say the police are already defunded for white people. Ultimately, when the police decide to use force, they are not actually interrupting violence, they are only escalating it.
The police determine when to escalate a situation through violence based on their own discretion of what counts as a crime and who is culpable. The past year has shown how that discretion is racist to this day: rubber-bullet rifles for Black Lives Matters protestors and red carpets for white supremacists. The police inject violence into protests under the pretense of proportional response when they want to discredit a movement as out of control or punish the protesters.
For example, the Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer were met with “less-lethal” bullets that can permanently blind victims. These tactics mirror other violent crackdowns against Black and brown protestors, like the use of canines to attack protesters in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014. These intentional escalations demonstrate the brutality of policing and how such methods can instigate chaos. The police’s discretion allows them to control how quickly they intervene, the number of troops they deploy, the weapons they use, the searches and seizures they make on their “reasonable suspicion,” and the number of protestors they arrest. This discretion has consistently reflected American racism to the detriment of Black and brown communities throughout the history of domestic policing.
In recognizing this reality, we should not draw the conclusion that we need to adjust police discretion by expanding the list of targets of aggressive policing to include able-bodied, cisgendered, and straight white people — escalating violence does not interrupt or address harm. We also should not conclude that moderately limiting the funds of police departments is a viable solution — any amount of funds will still be subject to the racist discretion. Instead, we should conclude that the police must be defunded, because they overwhelmingly use their budget to harm people of color and to stoke white supremacist movements.
With that conclusion in mind, and in the service of humanity, we as Princeton students, staff, professors, administrators, and trustees can contribute to the ongoing effort to defund the police. You may be wondering what exactly people mean when they say “defund the police.” Yes, we mean literally abolish the police. That may seem like a monumental task, but luckily, we have a foundation to build on, and we need not start from scratch.
Black feminist scholars, like Angela Davis, have been organizing against the carceral state for decades. To get introduced to this abolitionist framework, start with this FAQ zine that outlines a police-free future. From there, you can learn to identify which types of police reforms “continue or expand the reach of policing” versus which ones invest directly in communities. If those short resources pique your curiosity, these ten points can provide more depth. And since the focus of this work is on building genuine community, you can even collaborate on campus with the Students for Prison Education, Abolition, and Reform (SPEAR).
Together, we can redirect the money that flows back into the municipal budget from defunding the police toward valuable services for the community. That money can go a long way to building a community free of criminogenic circumstances for all of us, with initiatives targeting housing insecurity, food insecurity, poor mental health, substance abuse, and wealth distribution, to name a few.
But we are not just defunding the police to balance the budget. We are defunding the police to weaken the way they weaponize their racist discretion. The conversation about policing structures cannot center around just one cop doing one racist thing. It must acknowledge a pattern of which crimes police notice, and which populations the police protect and serve.
The tepid police response to the attempted coup, juxtaposed with their vicious response to other anti-racist protests, shows that the harms police cause to communities of color persist. But, they are harms we are ready to live without.
Rushi Shah GS is a Computer Science Ph.D. student in Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy. He can be reached at email@example.com.