Defund the police. These three words have dominated the national conversation in recent weeks as the country reckons with anti-black racism. Like other rallying cries that activists have used over the years to demand systemic change—“Abolish ICE” or “Medicare For All,” for example—this one elicits befuddled, if not skeptical, reactions from the layman.
So what does it mean? City Paper has written about the movement in D.C., as well as local lawmakers’ reactions to it. While not everyone who exclaims “defund the police” advocates for the outright abolition of the police, those leading the chants typically do. And in the immediate future, they want smaller police budgets and fewer officers.
City Paper asked individuals from two groups helping to lead this movement, Black Youth Project 100 and Black Swan Academy, to explain what would replace the current systems and imagine what public safety would look like if we could start again. “In short, police-free schools exist all over America. Just look at the majority white affluent schools in your jurisdictions,” says the founder and executive director of Black Swan Academy, Samantha Paige Davis. To ensure there is no confusion about what they mean, we published their own words. —Amanda Michelle Gomez
BYP100 DC Organizer
What were you taught that the police are supposed to do? Do you believe the police have ever served that role? Do you believe they ever will?
Although police claim to provide safety and security to our communities, history and lived experience reveal the opposite to be true. The police present an ongoing and imminent threat to Black life, in D.C. and around the U.S. Their core function is to preserve the anti-Black racial hierarchies upon which capitalism rests, and to protect property rather than people. The safety of our communities cannot continue to be left in the hands of an organization that does not serve public interest.
In D.C., on stolen Piscataway and Anacostia indigenous land, Black people are in the midst of a public safety crisis. This crisis is caused by systemic dispossession, violence, and exploitation. It is a crisis maintained and exacerbated by the policing of Black communities. The call to defund the Metropolitan Police Department is a call for the urgent transformation of the daily conditions of Black life toward new conditions of safety and liberation. Rather than being a call to redesign law enforcement, it is a call to reimagine public safety.
Real safety lies outside the harassment and surveillance of policing. It lies outside of caging and imprisonment. The time is now for D.C. to defund MPD, as a step toward abolition. The time is now to decriminalize sex work and commit to rejecting proposals for the construction of a new jail. The D.C. Council must redirect its budgetary priorities toward the resources our communities urgently need: stable housing, access to food, free mental and physical health care, free public transportation, anti-racist education, and good jobs.
What would it feel like to have access to the care you need? What new possibilities would emerge?
We are seeking to build an apparatus for safety that has not yet existed at scale. This vision draws inspiration from the mutual aid and community care practices of the most marginalized members of our communities, including sex workers and unhoused people, who ensure each other’s safety and survival despite lack of resources. In order to enact real public safety for all Black people, we must reject the punitive posture of law enforcement and instead adopt an approach rooted in redistributing resources and cultivating relationships with friends and neighbors.
Defunding the police is one tool among many that will bring D.C. closer to real safety for all Black people. Safety is hard to come by for us. In particular, Black women (all Black women—transgender and cisgender), girls, femmes, gender nonconforming people, and queer people are facing a crisis of structural and interpersonal violence at the convergence of White supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism all at once. We have already been doing the work of building safety for ourselves, outside of the state, without protection or resources. We are often exposed to additional state violence as we attempt to care for each other. I write today in grief and mourning for Oluwatoyin Salau, a 19-year-old Black girl who was murdered after fleeing an abusive living situation and experiencing sexual violence. All Black people urgently need access to the basic resources of survival. Now is the moment for D.C. to get out of our way, to eliminate one (of many) state-sanctioned sources of violence against us, and instead fund the resources we need to create safety for ourselves. Now is the moment to defund the police and begin to make real our shared value that Black Lives Matter.
Samantha Paige Davis
Black Swan Academy Founder and Executive Director
Black youth in D.C. and across the country are calling to remove police from schools. Yup! We are calling for police-free schools. We deeply believe that Black youth deserve to be protected from harm, that Black youth deserve dignity and love. We believe that Black youth deserve to learn in an environment that doesn’t assume they are criminals, that doesn’t rely on invoking fear or trauma through the presence of police. We believe that Black youth deserve for us to challenge the status quo and systemic racism that keeps us from investing fully in their humanity, development, health, and well-being.
The demand to defund the police, including police-free schools, is not solely about abolishing the institution of policing, but it is an invitation to reimagine safety and shift funding from carceral systems to those resources and services that are rooted in a liberatory framework. A framework that ensures our communities have what they need to thrive—housing, health care, jobs, quality education, harm reduction initiatives, and crisis intervention, among others. Removing police from schools is just one way to reduce the role and power of police in our society, giving us the ability to dream up a new world that is safer, healthier, and more equitable.
We know that police do not keep us safe and, in fact, cause more harm. Black girls in D.C. are 30 times more likely to be arrested than white youth of any gender identity. 60 percent of girls arrested in D.C are under the age of 15, and many of them are disciplined and referred to police for their responses to experiencing sexual violence. The youth demand is simple and clear: Love us, don’t harm us.
Whether you understand this new world we are dreaming up or not, please lean into curiosity. Read. Learn. Share. And of course, take action!
Here is a quick rundown of what you should know:
1. This is not a new call. Black and Brown young people have been calling for police-free schools and standing up against police violence for years. Too often city leaders and adults dismiss the brilliance, expertise, and revolutionary work of youth. Don’t be one of them. Listen, believe, and support young people.
2. School policing is not a response to mass shootings. School policing, like all policing, is rooted in the further oppression and criminalization of Black youth who fight for their rights and dignity every day. Police presence in Black schools started in the 1930s, and began increasing after the civil rights movement, when Black youth protested for equitable education. Black teachers, Black history courses, and more resources were met with police in militarized gear. Sound familiar?
3. “Police in schools create the bridge from the school to the prison pipeline. That’s an experience that no child should have.” —Raven, 18 years old. Students of color across the country are assaulted by school police at a rate of about one assault per week. (The Advancement Project, a nonprofit focused on racial justice issues, defines “assault” as any time police hurts or harms a student for any reason.) When police are in our schools, students of color are more likely to be arrested and more likely to experience violence. In 2019, 100 percent of school-based arrests in D.C. were of students of color. (The 2019 School Report Card indicates that there were 338 total arrests of students across the District: 312 of the arrests were of Black students and 26 of the arrests were of Latinx students. 104 of the arrests were for students with disabilities.) These higher discipline rates are not due to higher rates of misbehavior, but instead to systemic racism. We cannot end the school-to-prison pipeline without burning the bridge between schools and prisons.
4. Say it with me: Black youth are NOT criminal. Black youth are NOT violent. The most disheartening reason I hear about why police are needed in our schools is rooted in the racist, harmful narrative that Black youth are violent and that police need to protect us from them and them from each other. This is the “super predator” narrative that was used to justify stop-and-frisk, and harsher, longer sentences for Black people throughout the county. It is simply not true. The actions of Black youth that we often rely on police to address tend to be acts of survival, normal expressions of adolescent behavior, or responses to trauma. The difference is in white affluent schools, those actions are met with resources instead of cops. Schools with a majority Black student population are three times more likely than majority white schools to have more security staff than mental health personnel. We must stop normalizing the policing, surveillance, and criminalization of our youth. It is not normal! “Police in schools are scary. You’re carrying around a gun in an educational environment with children. Why?!”—Sameya, 16 years old.
5. Policing our youth and our communities is ineffective and expensive, and it is taking away from essential resources our youth need to live and thrive. The dollars city leaders choose to direct to more policing could be used instead to invest in our communities, in the people of this city. In Mayor [Muriel Bowser]’s proposed budget, she chose to prioritize adding 17 more armed police in our schools with 2.5 million dollars, instead of twice the amount of mental health support to address the trauma that our youth are holding. D.C is the most policed jurisdiction in America. The Metropolitan Police Department’s budget is more than half a billion dollars and it continues to go up. This reliance on increased police presence and disregard for and divestment in community needs has resulted only in a continued increase in both interpersonal and state-sanctioned violence. “Instead of investing so much money for police in schools, it should be used to obtain more resources involving social workers, mental health specialists, nurses and therapists.” —Carla, 17 years old.
6. Police violence does not just occur in Minneapolis, or Florida, or Oakland, or New York. Police violence is happening every day in D.C., from jump-outs to the harassment and handcuffing of Black youth as young as 9 years old. D.C. police are also responsible for the killing of Ralphael Briscoe, 18, D’Quan Young, 24, Marqueese Alston, 22, and Jeffrey Price, 22. The same police responsible for the trauma and deaths inflicted on our communities are the same police that are in our schools policing and criminalizing our youth. We cannot continue to put our youth in harm’s way. “Instead of maintaining a good environment for kids, they make us scared and escalate situations. Students spend so much of their time in school, they deserve to be comfortable and not afraid.” —Tamika, 14
BYP100 DC Organizer
“And tomorrow I’ll wake”
And we open the scene with love warriors
singing battle cries to the oceans and
beating their feet to the cadence of laughter.
the spell they cast ruptures mountaintops that level
worries down to a smooth whisper. springs bursting from
the bellies of old and young spirits alike.
the block bounces from ear to ear with the riots
of this year’s harvest. the only unfortunate thing we witnessed
were dinner tables splitting open
making more room for love to breathe in the aroma of fears
being swallowed into the quiet void. we make symphonies
with the way we hold the corners of each other’s smiles.
letting the darkness we used to carry so freely
retreat into distant memory
And the scene shifts to the moment of truth
a pulsing hum begins to shake the floor
as terror rips the thin veil between paradise and peril
exchanging growing freedom for rituals of mourning
spoiled tongues turn to the sky to curse the gods
that would cause despair to choke the evening
air and dispel chills that reach the back of our throats
inspiring awe at the very thought of perfection
of a future absent
of the fractures that make us human
And tomorrow i’ll wake
To the possibility of all the ways
That a community can become a garden
And mourn and hurt and love and heal
Just to come out on the other side of
What was meant to bury us
Radical and in bloom
Resources for folks to engage in on the topic of abolition:
Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis