This piece is part of a series that explores the various perspectives around defunding the police.
The killings this spring of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor by Louisville police sparked a wave of protests against police brutality across the country. Black and brown activists and their allies are demanding that police be held accountable, and that municipal funding be redirected from police budgets to mental health services, education, and other social programs. Increasingly, there are calls for more investment in these resources for Black and brown communities, as well as for a larger reconsideration of what “safety” means—who the police criminalize and who they protect.
To many in the movement, defunding police means opposing the militarization of the police and rethinking how police are currently used, particularly when addressing the types of crime that advocates argue are results of poverty and racial inequality. Cities including New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, Austin, Seattle, Portland, and Philadelphia have committed to or adopted forms of defunding. Minneapolis is the sole city that has voted to dismantle its police department entirely, with plans to replace it with a new system of public safety. Often, the word “defund” has been used interchangeably with “abolish,” but they are two distinct ideas. While both are critical of the role of police in society, especially in Black and brown communities, the movement to defund the police calls for reduced police power and police budgets and reinvestment in social services, while still accepting the police as a necessary, if currently oppressive, civic institution. In contrast, the abolition movement ultimately endeavours to create a society in which both the police and systems of mass incarceration cease to exist. Abolition operates on the idea that policing is inherently racist and corrupt, and that police as such can never be trusted to serve Black and brown communities. Abolitionists therefore see defunding police as only a step towards their ultimate goal of making obsolete police and the prison-industrial complex, but not the end in itself.
To get a sense of what the defund and abolition movements mean to South Side community organizers in Chicago, South Side Weekly spoke to four: Vaughn Bryant, Cecilia Butler, Berto Aguayo, and Andrea Ortiz. All of these interviewees believe that police have long targeted Black and brown communities due to racism, which has resulted in the abuse and deaths of people from these communities at the hands of police. They differ in their perspectives on how feasible reform is. Some believe that the police cannot be reformed, and want to abolish both police and prisons. Others think that a traditional police force is still necessary for addressing violent crime, even though they agree that police need to be held accountable for acts of brutality and that more funding should go to social services.
Vaughn Bryant is the executive director of Metropolitan Peace Initiatives, overseeing Communities Partnering 4 Peace, which seeks to reduce violence and gang activity by coordinating with community organizations, Chicago Public Schools, and the Chicago Police Department, providing trauma-informed care and using restorative justice practices.
Cecilia Butler is president of the Washington Park Advisory Council, which plans events in the park, while also seeking to create a space for residents to meet and talk with local police, who hold meetings at the local church.
Berto Aguayo is a 2019 candidate for 15th Ward alderman and the founder of Back of the Yards-based Increase The Peace, which endeavours to address root causes of violence by hosting block parties and advocating for greater resources to be invested in the community.
Andrea Ortiz is a community organizer from the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council campaigning to remove police officers from schools and for the elimination of the city’s gang database.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
What is the problem with policing as we know it, and how can it be changed?
Andrea Ortiz: I think policing is just inherently racist and anti-Black from its very beginning, whether it was the police that were down South and were slave catchers or the police up North that were union busters. I think no amount of training would change that kind of mentality. We do know what works, and that is investing in communities: making sure that folks have a livable wage, not just a minimum wage, [and] that they have accessible housing, access to food, a good quality education. And also taking resources to help address harm and prevent harm from happening, instead of police, who are reacting to harm and furthering trauma; harming the community without really addressing the harm that’s happening due to root causes.
Vaughn Bryant: There’s a lack of trust between the police and the community. I think it’s going to be changed by police knowing the communities they’re policing, the communities knowing the police officers as individuals, as human beings versus police officers. I think that when police make mistakes, that they [should be] able to be held accountable by our legal system. That’ll help, but I think that ensuring the scope of police work is correct and that we don’t send police into situations that are not police matters. Being homeless is not necessarily a crime, and needing mental health services is not a crime. And so we need to make sure police are fighting crime and not issues of poverty.
Berto Aguayo: I’ll give you an example of something that happened. … On Friday [at the Hit the Hood peace march] this sergeant tells me before the march starts that you can’t march on the street and you have to march on the sidewalk. And I said, I don’t know where you are, but that’s not going to happen. We’re marching in the street, whether you like it or not. And she said, no, you cannot put people on the street…. So there was only resistance to a damn peace march. It boggles the mind when you activate community residents [and] then there’s only resistance to it. On Saturday we’re handing out food at a peace food pantry on 47th and Western—hot dogs, produce, ketchup and mustard and Pepsi for people to have a safe, fun night at their house. Out of nowhere, the same police officers that were working against us the day before, they swarmed the place and I thought they were going to kick us out. But no, they come over with camera crews, tripods taking pictures [and] tried to start handing out food. I’m like, yo we not cool with that. Y’all didn’t even contribute to any of this and you were actively working against us yesterday, and now you want to use [us] as promotional material?… It’s got me really upset, and I think that example highlights the problem with policing in the ‘hood as we know it. These folks don’t have relationships with trusted community members. They think that they run everything, that somebody can’t do a peace march or can’t take over a hotspot without their permission and approval. You have to remind them that they work for us and they serve us, instead of the other way around.
Can the police be reformed? Why or why not?
CB: I should hope so. We need [reform]. I’m sure the police can say, “now we watched what happened to George and we didn’t see George doing anything.” You see what happened to George and how the community, the city, the state, the country, the world has reacted to what happened to George. ‘Cause for eight and a half minutes we saw somebody killing somebody! So it’s the truth and we are dealing with it and we’ll never forget it.
BA: You can’t reform culture. You can’t reform what people say when the cameras aren’t there. You can’t reform the groupthink that exists when someone goes into a police department; they’ve been conditioned to think that they are the good guys and our communities are the villains. You just can’t. That’s why I think we need to be creating those healthy communities that don’t need these cops that think they are saving us, because the only people that can save us is ourselves.
VB: I believe police will be reformed. Why? Because I think there’s been elements of great policing that are out there. We have some police here in Chicago that I know personally. My father was a police officer in Detroit. I often tell people every coach I had until I got to high school was a police officer. They’re human beings. And there’s systems—societal, legislative and policy things—that we need to do to help them improve. There’s one thing to train the police, but there’s on-the-job training in this culture and [then there are] ethics that have to be carried out on the job. And all of those things have to be dealt with. I think the other issue is police unions. Oftentimes, they’re going to understandably protect police and their jobs but not to the extent where we lose trust in the police officer of the community. That has gone too far, and has to be addressed.
What does abolishing the police mean to you?
AO: I think when we’re talking about abolishing the police, we’re also talking about the prison industrial system and abolishing prisons as well. [We’re talking about]how inherently racist and anti-Black [these systems are]. Policing, prisons and jails don’t work. [But] I think it’s really hard when you’re talking to people in communities about abolishing police or prisons, because there is a lot of harm or trauma and you need to be making sure that you’re [not] invalidating people’s experiences. Growing up in Brighton Park, there is a lot of gang and gun violence and I lost a lot of friends to gun violence. When we’re [talking about] abolishing police and prisons, people are like, “What about all this harm that’s being caused?” How do we have conversations with folks about what should be in place to make sure that this harm was never caused to begin with? I think that’s always the hardest thing to do when talking about abolishing the police: thinking more holistically about a community that goes beyond police.
BA: For me, it’s not [just] about defunding CPD or abolishing CPD, it’s about funding the ‘hood and creating an environment [with] more of the things that we want [and less of] the things that we don’t want, like violence… then that creates benefits. I believe when everyone’s needs in those communities are met, then we don’t need people patrolling our neighborhoods. But what does that mean? That means reallocating the forty percent of the city’s budget that [currently] goes towards policing, to things that tackle the root of the tree that is violence. If we continue spending money on an ax to cut the branches, the branches are going to keep growing, but if we take that money and reinvest it in the soil and the water that replenishes our communities in the form of housing, the mental health, education, youth employment opportunities, then we don’t need anything else because those needs are being met.
Why do you think people may be resistant to the idea of abolishing or defunding the police? What can be done to address their concerns?
BA: A lot of our community members [have] lived in our violence-ridden neighborhood for so long, they’ve been conditioned to think that safety equals policing. We have to really flip the script and say, look, let’s go to the Gold Coast. Let’s go to all these communities that have abundant resources, that are not as overpoliced as we are. But we got to start talking to the streets and educate our communities about how what we’re asking for is not so far-fetched. But how do we [translate] that language that me, you, and other activists and other folks on Twitter, on Instagram know already? We gotta be able to meet people where they’re at, and educate folks on what [abolishing or defunding] means to a block on 4800 Winchester, or in a neighborhood in Roseland.
Some envision a society where police and prisons would cease to exist, especially if people had the resources they needed, preventing a need to turn to crime. Do you believe this is possible?
VB: I believe in living and operating in the world as it is while trying to create the world that you want to see. And I don’t believe, understanding human nature the way I understand it, that we’ll ever have a time when there is not police. Would it be ideal to be in a society that didn’t require police? Of course. I don’t think that’s far fetched as an ideal. I think the question is, is it realistic and is it wise, given what we know about humans, especially in a capitalistic society? If you’ve done any studying around all of the different economic systems, then you know capitalism creates haves and havenots. This is why you have to have some level of regulation to create a middle class. And both tensions are always going to exist in any structure. There’s no perfect system because humans are imperfect.
CB: No, I’m not for getting rid of them, because if we don’t have them, then what? Right now, people [are] acting buck wild in the street! … Even if it might be minute in certain communities where you wouldn’t expect it, there is one form of crime or another. Now, do we necessarily need a policeman to handle some of that? We probably don’t. Some of that could be a mental problem, but to not be able call 911, let some crime happen on you and see how you feel about it! Not that you want to wish that on anyone, but unless you live with your mother and father and they watch over you, there was always a form of policeman in most homes. They were mother and dad, and someone or both of them kept order. If not the children would be running it, right? So we need them, but who and how, that’s hard to say.
How would crimes such as stalking, robbery, murder, sexual assault, and similar be handled without turning to police?
AO: As someone who’s been sexually assaulted, the police didn’t help me. I think that even if the police were to get involved, I wouldn’t feel peace, just because that harm was already caused to me. When thinking about rape and sexual assault, there has to be a culture shift of [the] male supremacy and patriarchy that we live in, and people feeling entitled to a woman’s body. I’m definitely challenging myself on how these specific harms are addressed.
VB: I don’t think that we will ever live in a society where police aren’t necessary. I think police may be the first people you call, especially when somebody’s safety is being jeopardized. But incarceration may not be the answer. There are plenty of organizations out there that work on both domestic violence and mental health. There are professionals out there trained to deal with those situations. So I think the police have a role, but then also our community, they have a role as well. I think them working hand-in-hand is the answer, not one or the other. It’s more … being able to assess the situation and then make sure that the appropriate resources are being used given the circumstances.
How do you envision the world in the future, assuming the current social movement to end police brutality and police racism is successful?
BA: I envision a world where people have direct pathways into careers and into opportunities for long-term growth, but also where we are tackling the root causes of the issue, so that people in our community have resources that are accessible just the same way they are in healthy communities all around the country, whether that’s Barrington or Lincoln Park. And I think that requires a redistribution of resources. We shouldn’t be scared to say that that’s what should happen. We should be able to say, hey, historically, these communities have been deprived, marginalized, oppressed, and they’ve been exploited. And now the just thing to do is to redistribute resources and reallocate resources equitably so that those communities have a chance.
VB: I think for Black people in particular, it would be great to get to a point where we’re just seen as full Americans and race is not an impediment to our progress as citizens.
Nefertari Bilal is a graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in journalism. She is passionate about issues of race, gender, social justice, and politics as they affect communities of color. This is her first piece for the Weekly.