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Much of what the police do right now are things that social workers can do, things that case managers can do, things that other governmental workers can do, and that's why our movement is calling to defend them.
Welcome to Deconstructed, I'm Maggie Hassan. When you see week after week police officers beating unarmed protesters, reporters, passers by, an elderly man with cancer in broad daylight on camera, you have to ask, what is the solution? Surely reforming the police isn't enough.
Defending the police means that we're actually resourcing communities with access to health care, access to adequate public education and access to jobs.
That's my guest today, Patrice Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and Reform L.A. Jails. So is it time to defund the police and how would that even work?
Last Saturday, I watched a video of one of the most remarkable scenes involving an elected politician and their constituents that I've witnessed in my adult lifetime. Jacob Frei, mayor of Minneapolis, the city where it all kicked off, where George Floyd was so brutally killed by the police. Jacob Frye, a young liberal Democrat, former civil rights lawyer, turned up to join a protest against police brutality and show solidarity with his black constituents. But it didn't go so well for him when he was asked in front of the entire crowd by the organizers whether he was willing to go beyond the usual platitudes about police reform.
We have a yes or no question for you, yes or no. Will you commit to defunding Minneapolis police department saying we don't want no more police, no more clear, we don't want guns turning around in our community? No, no, no. Well, the Minneapolis Police Department, all right. Be quiet. Be quiet, because it it's important that we actually hear this. It's important that we hear this because if you don't know, you're up for re-election next year, he says no, guess what he's going to do next.
Part of learning how to think about. Yeah. Oh, my God. Yeah. Go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go.
Talk about a walk of shame. Now you might say, well, what does that achieve? Yeah, they booed and humiliated the mayor, a white Democrat, but they can't actually get politicians to do what they want. These protesters are all talk. They're all protest.
I'm not quite at least not this time. The very next day on Sunday, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council, a veto proof majority, by the way, pledged to dismantle the police department, saying it was beyond reform. Some breaking news coming in tonight.
The Minneapolis City Council has announced their intent to disband the police department. That's right, Tom.
Our commitment is to end our city's toxic relationship with the Minneapolis police department, to end the policing as we know it.
Minneapolis city council members admit they don't have the answers about what a police free future looks like. They have said they want to defund police and invest in things like juvenile crime prevention programs and rely more on social workers and calling three one one versus nine one one.
It's a big move. It's massive. The Minneapolis City Council has offered no details on how they're going to defund, dismantle, disband and presumably replace the police in that city. And so one of the things I want to explore with my guest today is what it means to dismantle a police department, practically what it means to call for the defunding of the police, a call we're now hearing more and more and not just from Black Lives Matter protesters in the streets, but even on the op ed pages of The New York Times less than two weeks ago.
This was the headline in the Times opinion section, No More Money for the Police, with the subhead redirected to emergency response programs that don't kill black people. Hear, hear.
The amount of money that is spent on policing in this country is stunning, just astonishing. 115 billion dollars nationwide. It's tripled over the past 40 years, even as crime has fallen. The New York Police Department, the NYPD, whose finest we've seen beating innocent, unarmed New Yorkers on the streets in recent weeks on camera, on tape, has the biggest police budget in the country, six billion dollars, which is more than the city's Department of Health, Homeless Services, Youth Services and Employment Services combined, combined.
It's bigger than the World Health Organization's budget, bigger than the GDP of 50 countries around the world. Defending that budget shouldn't be a priority for those of us who give a damn about social justice, racial equality, human rights, really.
And defunding doesn't mean you just shut everything down and cut them all off. Abolish the police doesn't mean you just get rid of it and leave behind no replacement. Camden, New Jersey, used to be one of the most violent cities in the U.S. In 2012, the city dissolved its corrupt police department and replaced it with a new community oriented model and lots of new personnel. Listen to the former Camden County police chief Scott Thomson, speaking on MSNBC in 2012.
Every member of the Kansas City Police Department, including myself, was fired. I was a police officer 20 years, been a police chief beside myself, and everyone else had a 50 page application interview. The whole nine yards were all new employees. We started over. We created a new police force. We created a police force with the philosophy was going to be the empowerment of the community or for enforcement of the law. We would bring on every member of the organization and we wanted them to identify more with a member of the Peace Corps than being a Special Forces operator, and that we would reclaim the city streets in a manner in which we were empowering the people so that they would be able to reclaim it, as opposed to us militarizing the neighborhoods and thereby polarizing the community even further.
And guess what happened? Murders fell by more than 70 percent. Violent crimes in Camden fell by more than 40 percent. It's not just former police chiefs like Scott Thompson making the case, by the way, on Monday, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said he was, quote, open to the idea of defunding the police, the police chief himself. Still, let's be honest, it's going to be an uphill battle to get people behind the idea of defunding, let alone abolishing the police.
If such a thing is even possible. Nationwide, polls suggest that big majorities of Americans support protests against police brutality and believe police forces need to change. But only a minority of Americans want to cut police budgets. Then you've got the white nationalist in the White House who is, of course, on record encouraging police to be violent.
When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in rough.
I said, please don't be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the. And you're protecting their head, you know, the way you put the hand of, like, don't hit their head and they've just killed somebody, don't hit their head, I said you can take the hand away. OK.
This week, Trump was quick to jump to the defense of the police and against a crazy left wing radical idea of defunding, there won't be defunding, there won't be dismantling of our police, and they're not going to be any disbanding of our police.
Our police have been letting us live in peace. We want to make sure we don't have any bad actors in there. And sometimes you'll see some horrible things like we witnessed recently. But 99, I say ninety nine point nine. But let's go with 99 percent of them are great, great people.
Then there's the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, speaking to Norah O'Donnell on CBS News this week.
Do you support defunding the police? No, I don't support defunding the police.
To be fair to Biden, though, he was also very explicit in that interview on the issue of systemic police racism.
Do you believe there is systemic racism in law enforcement? Absolutely.
But it's not just a law enforcement. It's across the board. It's in housing and it's an education and it's in everything we do. It's real, it's genuine, it's serious.
And look, despite Biden's awful record on criminal justice issues, he now has a criminal justice reform agenda that is far, far superior to anything on offer from Trump and the Republicans that contains many good ideas and decent policy proposals for restraining the police and holding them accountable. So it's a start, but it doesn't go far enough. Like so many liberals, Biden still seems unwilling, unable even to take the kind of radical steps that this radical historic moment demands.
He needs to be pushed even more. And, you know, some of this stuff shouldn't even be considered that radical. What Americans often call radical is just normal to the rest of the world. For example, universal health care. It's not a radical idea outside of the United States. I'd say the same thing about policing. I'm from the UK, a country with a very similar political culture to the U.S. many similarities between the two countries, the UK that's been governed by conservatives for the majority of the past 100 years.
And yet the police in the UK tend to be unarmed. Almost all the UK police don't carry weapons. In twenty eighteen, U.S. police shot dead more than a thousand people. UK police shot dead three people. It's not just the UK, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, New Zealand, all have unarmed police forces. Now, I'm not saying that US police officers should all give up their weapons overnight, especially in a country as heavily armed, as full of guns as this one.
But my point is that we need to understand that it is possible to do policing in a different way. There are international examples of better practice. How, as I mentioned earlier, there are local examples of better practice, for example, Camden, New Jersey. But there is this ongoing failure of imagination among liberals and on parts of the left, too encouraged by cynical conservatives who say big change, radical change, so-called is unrealistic, is impossible. The irony is that events are proving them wrong.
Events are moving fast. Just 12 weeks ago, the architect of New York's racist stop and frisk policing policy was polling second nationwide in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Can you imagine that today Michael Bloomberg as a potential Democratic front runner, huh? Things change. So don't let people tell you that justice can't be done, that change can't come, that the status quo must persist. Things can change, will change, have to change. They are changing.
The question is, how far can change go and what can you and I do to make sure we keep pushing? We keep fighting for a new vision, a new way of policing, a new system of justice.
I'm reminded of that old quote, often misattributed to Gandhi, but which seems very appropriate for the political moment we're in right now.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you. Then they fight you, then you win.
My guest today is a fighter, a long standing campaigner for social justice and human rights and the co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Patrice Cullors is also the founder of Reform L.A. Jails and author of the acclaimed book When They Call You a Terrorist, a Black Lives Matter memoir. She joins me now from L.A.. Patrice, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed. Let's get straight to it. What does defund the police mean in practice?
In the real world, defunding the police means that we're actually resourcing communities like black, poor communities with access to health care, access to adequate public education and access to jobs. And much of what the police do right now are things that social workers can do, things that case managers can do, things that other governmental workers can do. And the. That's why our movement is calling to defund them. Is there a difference, Patrice, between defunding the police and abolishing the police?
Because we've heard both slogans in recent weeks and sometimes they sound interchangeable, but sometimes they don't.
Sure, some people believe in the defund demand because it means that will keep police at some capacity. And some people believe that the defund demand is our pathway towards abolition. So they are two different demands, depending on your philosophies. I'm an abolitionist, so I believe that the first step to abolition is defunding both the police system, but also the carceral system, which is the system that has created mass incarceration.
So a lot of liberals listening to this will say we're totally on board with the idea that the police are out of control, that institutional racism is a problem. But defunding the police, abolishing the police, those are steps too far. We want reform. What do you say to them? What's wrong with police reform?
Well, what I say to people is when we say defunding the police, we're not saying stop having people be accountable to issues of harm and violence. This is not a conversation about lack of accountability. This is a conversation about building a new system of accountability, one that is based on an economy of care over an economy of punishment. Right now, we have a system that is punitive, that is based on punishing human beings, and that is cruel and evil.
The system that we're asking for is a compassionate, loving system and that is able to still hold people accountable for harm that they cause. That is totally in alignment with people who believe in defunding and also with people who believe in abolition. But reform.
You believe the police. We have to go beyond reform reforms. Not enough reform doesn't work. What's your position on, quote unquote reform?
I think it depends on the kind of reform. When I talk about reform, I'm thinking about non reformist reform, which is my work is about decreasing the police's ability to be in contact with black people. And so whatever demands that I'm making or the organizations that I work with are making is always about how do we lessen the burden of police on black communities so our form can be a reform like body cameras.
Does that change the structural violence and racism inside of police departments? No, actually, it has not changed it at all. Instead, body cameras are just showing us more and more the dysfunctionality of policing. And so the other reform that we're calling for, because defunding the police isn't a reform, but it's a reform that isn't giving the police state more money.
The immediate response from a lot of people in recent days, including people of color to this idea of defunding or even abolishing the police, is what happens if I'm in trouble.
What happens if I'm facing a violent or dangerous person? Who do I call?
And hopefully we can build new institutions that people can have a new place to call. If it's nine one one, then hopefully someone's in a mental health crisis. You can call nine one one. And instead of them sending a police officer who may kill the person who's in that mental health crisis, you call someone like a caseworker or a psychiatrist who's been trained to de-escalate an issue. The problem is oftentimes when police do show up, more violence happens. It doesn't make it less violent when the police are involved.
And that's very important for people to understand.
I totally get that. And your example of the mental health situation is a very good one. But then, of course, there are always the extreme examples that are used to make the other side of the argument. So if you're in an armed robbery, you're an owner of a gas station and people are with men with guns are trying to rob you. You want armed police to turn up and protect you, don't you?
Well, it depends. Once again, we've seen many of examples where people have been armed and there's been on video where other people have deescalated them. An eye for an eye is not actually a true response if we're trying to get harm reduction.
What we've seen across neighborhoods in places where there's a significant amount of harm and violence is when you have policing as the only answer, it creates more harm and violence. And so the answer is really in institutions that are based in community care institutions that are working with the community to try to deal with the violence instead of use the police to cause more violence. I think the other thing is we have a myth about what the police do. So I think it's important for listeners to understand.
None of us understand what a big cut does, because what we watch on TV is that they solve murders and rapes. Violent crime is only one to five percent. So what it does is mostly about dealing with poverty. That's what a beat cop does. And I think it's really, really important that we start to investigate how we understand policing and the propaganda that we've been, you know, shoved down our throats around policing.
So you're making the case for doing this very eloquently in terms of describing the status quo being broken in Minneapolis. They've said that they want to disband the police department, come up with something better, reimagine it, but they haven't really said what it is that they're going to do. They've admitted it can't be done overnight. It's going to take a year. Now, many people would say the devil is in the details saying defund the police or abolish the police.
That's easy. Doing it, executing that vision is much harder. Would you concede that? Yes, it is.
It's much harder because every single institution we are in part of uses law enforcement, our schools, our public schools, our public hospitals, our public parks. Every single institution relies on law enforcement. And so it means that we have to reimagine entirely new systems. The good news is, is there are many people across this country and the world who have been thinking about this for a very long time. They have ideas about what those new systems can be.
They've tried it and small they've beta tested it in small areas and small neighborhoods. So it's not like people have to learn from scratch. It's just not popular. This is the first time in modern history where abolitionism and this concept of defending the police as a popular moment, I often think about what it must have felt like when black folks were abolishing slavery and they finally got the word that they were moving towards abolition. I mean, that's the moment that we're in and it's very powerful.
Are you comparing the police to slave owners, though? Many people would say that's that's a comparison. That's not fair.
No, I'm comparing the police to patrols, slave patrols, which is what they were originally. They were created so they could go catch enslaved Africans who were fleeing for freedom. That's the role of the police. That's the role that they've always played. So they weren't the slave owners, but they worked on behalf of them.
That's a very good point. You're in L.A. where Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti has agreed to cut the LAPD budget by 100 million dollars, I think, and and divert some of that money towards communities of color.
Do steps like that, incremental steps, modest steps, do they count, in your view, towards defunding the police?
Or is it all or nothing in your view has to look like Minneapolis or like Camden, New Jersey?
No, it's an important step, but it is a far cry from what we've asked for. LAPD budget is three billion dollars. One hundred and fifty million dollars is nothing. So we need to continue to cut out that budget. And I think it's incredibly important that we remember that. One hundred fifty million dollars doesn't mean that the budget isn't still more than half of the city budget.
So you talked about your asks and the progress. You're a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. There's been a remarkable change in public attitudes driven by Black Lives Matter protesters and others over the years. I was just looking at the polling after Ferguson in 2014, the number, the proportion of Republicans who said the killing of unarmed African-American men by the police was a reflection of broader problems with the police. That has doubled from 19 percent in 2014 to 47 percent, almost half of Republicans today.
Across all Americans, it's a massive 69 percent who say there are broader problems with the police mistreatment of black men. Do those numbers surprise you? Shock you? I mean, I'm sure they make you happy, but how surprised are you at the change we're seeing?
Is it quick enough for you? I'm pretty surprised, actually. Grateful, but, yes, surprised. I feel like we remember being called terrorist and remember people believing it across the country and across the globe. And so to see that shift is profound, that it means that whatever we have been doing, it's working.
I mean, we even saw in recent days Republican senator and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney joining the protests in D.C. saying, quote, Black Lives Matter, saying those three dirty words for the right. Is that indication of a political shift on the right or is, as usual, Mitt Romney, an outlier?
I think it's both. I think there is a deep desire to challenge our current president. I think we're in a political moment where people want to align around getting Trump out of office and and a. A strange twist of events, Black Lives Matter happens to be the ultimate equalizer, and I never would have thought we'd be here.
So you have Mitt Romney marching for Black Lives Matter. You have polling showing Americans are changing attitudes. There's not a majority on board for defund the police yet, but there is a majority on board saying the police something has to be done about the police, which itself is remarkable. Then you have Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, saying this week very clearly that on the one hand, he does not support defunding the police. He wants to increase funding.
On the other hand, he does accept there is systemic racism in the police and that has to be tackled, which I would argue is a big thing for him to say, given he's the architect of the 1994 crime bill.
Mm hmm. Yeah. I mean, I think that so much of what we're trying to do in this moment is get Trump out of office and hold them accountable to the needs of our movement. We knew that it was going to be hard for the Democratic Party to get on board for defund the police, but it still feels incredibly important to push and challenge them, given that they have, you know, for a long time the black vote and have been complicit in our death and, you know, our brutalization.
So the hope is that we can push this candidate and also the entire party.
And the Biden campaign says they want to increase funding for community policing initiatives. They say they want to have money to pay for body cameras for more cops on the beat. Do they have a point? Is that fair?
I think that's an old demand. The idea of body cameras and community policing. I think those suggestions are unhelpful. And you know that like I said, the hope is that we could push him and his campaign to really look at the concept of defending and what we're actually talking about.
But you would accept, I assume, based on what you're saying about the need to get Trump out, you agree that despite Biden's horrific criminal justice record, what he's offering in this election is far superior in terms of police reform and criminal justice reform than a second term Trump presidency, where basically they want to use law enforcement to go after antifa and black protesters and give white nationalist apass.
Absolutely. It's not just Biden, though, is it, Petraeus, it's not just white politicians. On Wednesday on MSNBC, Congressman Jim Clyburn, highest ranking black member of Congress, was saying people who talk about defunding the police are sloganeering. They're hijacking the protests. He said, we want the police, we need the police. It's not just an ideological divide on the left or in the Democratic Party. There seems to be a pretty big generational divide among black Americans, doesn't it?
And we saw that in the presidential primaries, too.
Yeah, I think that so much of what millennials engineers have experienced is heinous and terrible violence at the hands of law enforcement. And we have called on black elected in particular to, you know, challenge policing and to show up for a younger generation of black lives who want to see a new system. At the end of the day, what we're asking for, more jobs, more access to health care, adequate public education, mental health care, adequate access to healthy food.
And we have to realize that budgets are finite. We can't have hundreds of thousands and millions and billions of dollars towards policing and also millions and billions of dollars towards health care. Something has to give. And what we've seen as we've we've we've stripped away the entire social welfare state, both at the local level, the state level, at the national level. And it's time for, you know, both parties to come to grips and to provide the kind of healthy living that people in this country deserve.
For you, Patrice, I know this is very personal. One of the reasons you say you co-founded Black Lives Matter is because of the abuse your brother received at the hands of the police and then in prison.
Did you did your brother ever think you'd see a moment like this when a national uprising? Are you is he optimistic about the future?
I wonder. We both are, you know, every every moment of victory that we have had, whether it was the guess on our victory where we are able to pass the law. You know, that changed here in Los Angeles County to stopping the jails, to getting civilian oversight of the sheriff's department to this moment where we're finally talking about the funding and abolition. Both of him and I always like, wow, this is powerful. This is amazing.
And it makes us really hopeful.
And to someone who's listening, who says, what can I do to take part in this struggle to help push back against institutional racism, which seems so vast, it seems so unstoppable. It seems so much part of America's DNA in so many ways. What advice would you give to a listener who wants to know what they can do?
No. One, start looking at this conversation and read about the funding and abolition. Miriam covers someone who talks about it a lot. Angela Davis has talked about it a lot. Alex Vitale, Kelly Lytle, Hernandez. Those are four amazing thought leaders around this concept of defunding and abolition, a number to support your local organizations who are doing work, especially black led organizations. It's been powerful to see so many people lifting up black leadership and blogs. And number three, check your privilege no matter what it is, check your ideas and your privilege and try to have imagined just for a moment what communities actually need versus the propaganda that we've been fed about what the police do for us.
Patrice Cullors, thank you so much for joining us on Deconstructed. Keep fighting the good fight. Thank you.
That's our show, deconstructed as a production of First Look Media and The Intercept, our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Brian Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshel. Betsy Reed is The Intercept editor in chief. And I'm Maggie Hassan. You can follow me on Twitter at Mediaa Hassan. If you haven't already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to the intercept dot com forward slash deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast Platform of Choice, iPhone, Android, whatever.
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