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Understanding Defund the Police as an Overton Window

What many Democrats fail to understand is: Defund the Police is an Overton Window. That is the frustration of the moment we find ourselves in. Too many people see it as a bad slogan instead of activists, lawyers, law professors, academics, and some politicians trying to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. The average person, who has never seriously come in contact with police, does not understand the role police play in neighborhoods that are majority non-white. The police, many of whom do not live in the areas they patrol, are an occupying force. Many police officers are white, and thus have zero black friends. Approximately 30% of law enforcement officers have college degrees. These two factors are contributing factors on why America has a policing problem and Defund the Police is the solution.

The brilliant black personal injury attorney Bryan Stevenson has described the problem that we face in this century as an issue of proximity. If you do not know any black people and all the knowledge that you have is based on the negative images that you are constantly subjected to from movies, TV, music, and the news, then you might be fearful of black people. Without having any black friends, you are left to allow these portrayals to flourish unchecked and unexamined. If you do not have someone who calls you, seeking to be consoled after their shopping excursion was ruined because a sales clerk followed them around the store because they feared your friend would steal something, you are not proximate. Even more powerful is if you were with your black friend and witnessed them being surveilled by the store’s employees, not because they did anything, but because they are black, you might start to understand. Perhaps your black friend told you he was stopped, frisked, and detained because he fit the description of a person who allegedly committed a crime. Yet, your friend is 5’4″ and the perpetrator is 6’2″.

defund bounty

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I remember when I was 17-years-old and my best-friend — more like a brother to me — sold a couple hundred dollars worth of baseball cards at a baseball card show. He is white and I am black. We drove to Nordstroms, because I wanted to buy some Girbaud jeans (it was the early 90s, give me a break). I purchased the jeans and the saleswoman walked around the counter to peer into my bag after the purchase. I was foolishly immune to this type of investigation by white people, but my friend was angry and mortified. He was livid. My friend told me what had happened and I shrugged it off, because this was the world we lived in. However, this was not his world. 30-years later this race-based maltreatment of his friend still offends him, because he was proximate to me. Anything anyone says about black people, to him, is easily countered by the example set by my family.

When police do not live in the communities they are assigned to police how can they not be viewed as an occupying enemy force? When you have zero black friends and yet your city spends one million dollars to police one city block, because they say it is high crime area I am left to think of the quote from Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn “Wherever the law is, crime can be found.” If you invested one million dollars into an affluent block, you would most likely uncover financial crimes, drug use, drunk driving, spousal abuse, child abuse, prostitution, tax crimes, etc. The difference is those wealthy people have greater agency. They have the financial means to higher attorneys to defend them. The people who live in those blocks are donors or are friends of donors who are the lifeblood of political campaigns. That is why rich white people hardly get the same level of police scrutiny as communities of color.

I am reminded of the best life advice I ever received: You are a combination of the books you read and the people you meet.

I am writing this post on the last day of banned book week. This ties into point number two: Less than 30% of police officers have college degrees. I wrote that the right and the left support cops because it is the highest-paying job an unskilled and non-college-.

It was not until I went to college that I read: Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Dr. Cornel West, Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Elie Wiesel, Albert Camus, Virginia Woolf, and so many others. I continue to be haunted by their stories and their characters. A law professor once wrote, that we don’t have to imagine what it is like for someone of a different race, gender, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, or national origin, etc. when we can just read their own words.

I read about the shame that Mr. Wiesel harbored for his father as they were both trapped inside a concentration camp. I saw how the un-investigated murder of Malcolm Little’s father, destroyed his mother and help turn him into Malcolm X. I witnessed the brilliant and fragile mind of Sylvia Plath show signs of deterioration in the pages of The Bell Jar.

Today we see the majority of the the books that are banned are written by our LGBTQIA+ family, and black folk. Reading allows you to become proximate to people that you might never meet or know. It allows you to learn and understand a different prospective than your own. You might never be able to afford a trip Pakistan, but you can read Midnight’s Children and get a flavor of Pakistan. You might not know what mass incarceration is, but you can read The New Jim Crow. You might be new to America and not understand why black folk and America need reparations, but you can study The Case For Reparations. Reading allows you to become proximate. You might not think there is anything wrong with the death penalty, but you can devour A Just Mercy and perhaps change your mind.

“Yeah, officer from overseer
You need a little clarity?
Check the similarity!
The overseer rode around the plantation
The officer is off patrolling all the nation
The overseer could stop you what you’re doing
The officer will pull you over just when he’s pursuing
The overseer had the right to get ill
And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill
The officer has the right to arrest
And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest!” — Sound Of The Police by KRS-One

Dr./Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. made the case that Christians have a moral duty to be intelligent. During his lifetime — which was cut short by a white man’s bullet — he believed the church praised ignorance and shunned intelligence, but if the church is supposed to be the light of the world then we have a duty to be enlightened. That is our obligation as anyone who professes to be a Christ-follower.

I became a better human being, because of college. I was the only black person in my small college for two of my four years. To this day, I am the only black person many of my white peers have ever known. I made friends with foreign students from all over the globe. I have even been fortunate to visit some of them in Tokyo. I met gay and lesbian students who were on the verge of coming-out. I met people from all different types of socio-economic backgrounds. I learned to appreciate art from all parts of the globe and learn of the causes of conflicts that have spanned generations.

defund the police Book

These are just some of the books I have read in the past three-years to support my position to defund the police. It is never too early to be on the right side of history.

Our criminal justice systems use police as foot-soldiers to interpret laws, investigate, and interrogate fellow citizens. In Arizona, a police officer spends less-time in the police academy than a barber or hairdresser does in their technical college. I had to attend four-years of college, three-years of law school and then pass one of the hardest tests in America: the California Bar exam, in order to practice law. A police officer spends six-weeks in the academy and is able to interpret laws that I had to go to school three-years to practice. Make it make sense?

When we say Defund the police we want Americans to start to fundamentally challenge the role of police in our society. We have created a nefarious myth that we are doing a societal good by isolating individuals away from their friends, family, and society in order to rehabilitate them. We make it cost prohibitive for families and friends to maintain constant communication with their loved ones who are incarcerated. Do you know what the greatest predictor is, if someone is going to reoffend? It is how they get home from prison after they released. If friends or family pick the person up, they have a better chance of remaining free. However, if they are forced to take the bus back to where they were arrested from, the data suggest they will reoffend in the first six-months of being free. The reason is one group has a safety-net that might be willing to help them get a job, provide them with shelter and transportation and the other has to depend on the state to meet their needs, but none of their wants.

Defunding the police recognizes that we ask our police officers to do more than they can do. In most states, to be a social worker, you must complete your master’s degree in social work, but we ask a police officer with a diploma or a GED to serve this function in our community. Do you know what the most dangerous situation for a police officer is? A domestic dispute. We are sending men and women into a tinder box without the appropriate tools to de-escalate the situation when we should be sending in a licensed professional. We have our officers tend to the needs of our unsheltered neighbors, when this task should be administered by social workers. When a person is raped, the first people that they are greeted by are officers who might look and act like their rapist, when we can send in trained crisis counselors. Don’t get me started about traffic accidents, instead of using officers we can send people who can record the facts and reconstruct the crash to determine who is at fault.

search on man

Photo by lucidwaters purchased from

Despite all of the copaganda that we have all watchedless than 30% of all crimes are actually solved. A smaller, better-trained, highly-educated, and more focused police force could close more cases, but that would mean the requirements for being an officer would increase, and this great job for unskilled and non-college-educated white males would disappear.

Democrats and Republicans have done everything to swell their ranks of law enforcement, so that they can beat their chest and tell their constituents that they are tough on crime.

A study showed the white people who live in rural parts of this nation are the group of people who resonate the most with this type of saber-rattling. This group tends to be overwhelmingly Republican and white. These voters tend not be the victims of crimes they demand retribution for. Yet, because they are a solid voting block, elected officials and candidates pander to them.

Politicians all know that convicted felons are stripped of their right to vote in all but two states while they are incarcerated in prison. These people cannot vote. Their felonies are like a scarlet letter “R” that follows them everywhere they go. If they want housing, they must disclose their felony. If they want a job, they must divulge their felony. If they want to apply for services, they must confess their felony. This group has diminished agency, and thus, they are a perfect avatar for self-interested and cowardly politicians to use to score cheap political points.

Screenshot of the Willie Horton ad from the 1988 George Bush Presidential Campaign, obtained from Wikipedia Commons.

The problem in our zero-sum world of American politics is there is no room to be rational on crime. We do not hold space to allow for grace for the perpetrators of crimes unless they are white or police officers.

If a governor commutes the sentences of 1,000 people, and 999 of them turn out to be solid, contributing members of society, everyone will focus on the one who reoffends. If that person happens to be black and the victim is white, that politician’s career is over. They will be Willie Hortoned into oblivion. The lives and families that were restored are meaningless compared to the life of that victim.

The sad part is we all know Republicans only like police when they terrorize and harass black and brown bodies. As soon as they attempt to hold white people to account for their crimes, those accused and convicted criminals are portrayed as martyrs. See the January 6th insurrectionist. Now the right wants to defund the FBI because it seeks to hold Donald Trump accountable for all the crimes we have all witnessed him commit. To become a FBI agent you must have graduated from college. Remember, what King said about our moral imperative to become intelligent?

Defund the Police, is a process. First, it means that we have actually to care. It involves us realizing that our police forces are not serving the public good to their fullest potential. It requires us to contemplate what safe and resilient communities look like. It means that we need to think of alternatives. Is it in the public good to send two beat cops to interact with a person in crisis, neither holding a degree? Or we could send a licensed mental-health expert to be the first person that our distressed neighbor makes contact with. Second, it takes the will of the populace to accept that there might be some undesirable results while we properly fund the other institutions that will provide the stability and structures we need to build a more durable citizenry. Bad actors will attempt to achieve some fear-based political points with each failure and disregard every positive result. Yet, if we are committed to forming a more perfect union, then we know the path we must wander.

I don’t care what you think about the merits of Defunding the Police as a message; its effectiveness as an Overton Window cannot be disputed. This is the first time that we have had real conversations about policing in a generation. Just like many people were against same-sex marriage, until they weren’t or integration, until they weren’t or women’s suffrage, until they weren’t or slavery, until they weren’t: defunding the police is just ahead of its time now. It is never too early to be on the right side of history, please join me.

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