A Reflection on Systemic Change and Police Brutality from the Staff of IJPC
This piece can also be found in IJPC’s Summer 2020 Newsletter.
One of the beautiful and unique things about human beings is our ability to think critically, create, and invent. Not just once, but over and over. We are constantly designing new tools to make our lives better, and then reinventing and replacing those tools when they stop working, or we find better material, or have new needs. This ingenuity allowed us to create the first horse-drawn carriage and later allowed us to replace it with cars and trains and planes, always moving forward.
In the midst of repeated police brutality and in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless others, many leaders, especially those from the Black community, have been using their human ingenuity, their lived experiences, and personal insights to invent new ways of doing justice. They have radically transformed grief and righteous anger into forging new pathways for meeting basic human needs, protecting community safety, and ensuring peace and justice for all. Along with calls to create new systems of community safety have come calls to examine systems that aren’t working, most notably and most publicized has been the call to defund the police.
For many, this call has been challenging and even confusing. It should be made clear that the call to defund the police is not a call for chaos or to abandon community safety, as it is often sensationalized to be, but the opposite. It is a call for new systems of safety that work for everyone, not just some. It is a call to think bigger and bolder, and to allow ourselves to confront new possibilities we hadn’t considered before and examine tensions within ourselves. For many, this call has been scary, but for others this call has felt long overdue.
At this point you may be thinking to yourself, why something new? Why can’t we just fix the police or reform the police? That is an excellent question. Surely some things created with good and honest intentions can be repaired. Sometimes all you need is a new part or to tighten a screw. But other times the item in question has inherent corruptions beyond repair. In this situation, we ask you to consider the origins of the police in the United States and their original intent. Many of the original police in the American South were slave catchers, funded by slave owners to return Black Americans seeking freedom and to quell their quest for liberation. Simultaneously in the North, there is a long history of business owners funding police forces to protect their wealth and property by subduing worker revolts and broader labor movements. In both instances, police were framed as a body to keep order and safety, but in practice, only protected an elite group of people who funded them. This founding mission, to protect the interests of the white and wealthy, often with the threat of violence, is still embedded in the police system today. It is something that cannot be addressed by reforms because it is ingrained in the core of American policing.
It should be noted that many have tried in good faith to reform policing to be more equitable and less violent. Cities have implemented oversight boards, enforced body cameras, banned chokeholds, and added other policies in an attempt to create solutions. However, after decades of these efforts, the overarching problem of police brutality and racism still exist and are even legally upheld. Communities of color are still over policed and over criminalized. Officers that commit acts of violence, even murder, still walk free. In Cincinnati, African Americans make up approximately 70% of adult arrests, 85% of juvenile arrests, and 74% of use of force incidents since 2000 despite making up only 42% of the total population. Now is the time to invent something new.
By divesting from police we can do just that – invest in new solutions. It is often forgotten or unreported that calls to defund the police also include calls to increase funding for systems that proactively reduce crime and poverty by eliminating structural violence and inequality. Calls from members of Cincinnati’s Black community were made clear during June’s city budget hearings, in which IJPC, along with hundreds of individuals and community organizations, asked Cincinnati City Council to divest from the Cincinnati Police Department and invest in communities. Activists and justice seekers demanded we eliminate barriers to equity by ensuring access to resources like healthcare, housing, jobs, education, arts and cultural programs and more. By ensuring that everyone’s basic needs are met, we reduce the need for policing and criminalization. Further, by reducing policing, especially in communities of color, we reduce police brutality and mass incarceration.
Of course, even in a more equitable society, not all criminal or violent behavior immediately vanishes. This is why calls to defund the police are also accompanied by creating systems that ensure there is still someone to call when you do need help and ensure that person is trained to respond to the situation you are in with care and expertise. This may be a social worker, a firefighter, a doctor, a psychiatrist, or even a new profession entirely. Though it may be challenging, we must allow ourselves to imagine those new possibilities without clinging to what we are used to.
Thinking in these new ways has been challenging for us at IJPC. When first hearing calls to defund the police, we didn’t know immediately what it meant or what it could mean in the future. In many ways we still don’t have all the answers. But when we consider our mission, our commitment to nonviolence and to challenging unjust systems, we believe we must challenge police violence the same way we have challenged military violence and the death penalty. As an organization we have also challenged the system of racism since our founding 35 years ago and recently analyzed the local systems of Race and Racism in Cincinnati.
This new conversation of defunding the police may feel hard or different because the police have been a part of America for centuries and are a part of our daily lives. Many people, especially white people, have never felt scared to call the police because their interactions have been positive. But for many others, especially people of color, that is not the case. We must understand that policing looks different for different people and communities. An institution that only works some of the time for some people is not good enough. Especially when that institution and the people in it are given guns, weapons, and the power to do harm with little repercussion.
The mission and values of IJPC call us to think critically and with compassion about the systems of which we are part, and advocate for change and transformation when those systems are deemed to be unjust. Defunding the police is a proposition to open new doors and be creative. We invite you to think deeply about this issue, embrace the discomfort which inherently comes with re-examining the status quo, challenge yourself and your assumptions, and consider how fear bars us from imagining new possibilities. Imagine the many creative and compassionate systems that could exist if we allow ourselves to think bigger, think bolder, and take action to make possible a new reality that protects and cares for all people.