Bob Garfield: On Wednesday morning, former President Barack Obama appeared onSnap original, Good Luck America, which is an interview program on Snapchat and that's a proper setting to chasing the young.
Barack Obama: If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it's not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan like 'defund the police', but you know you've lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you're actually going to get the changes you want done.
Bob: When the defund the police and abolish the police idea first emerged this summer, some politicians immediately sought to water it down. Re-interpreting abolition is just another go at reform. Here's New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo.
Andrew Cuomo: When they say defund the police, what are they saying? They're saying we want fundamental, basic change when it comes to policing, and they're right. Our state legislative packages will do that, but I also believe you'll see that in every police department that is now operating. They understand they're operating in a different reality with different perceptions and different mandates. I think you will see a shift all across police departments.
Bob: Now its proponents mean business and the business did not just open in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd last spring. To understand how we got to this particular demand we have to go back to September 1998, where 3,500 anti-prison academics and activists met at a conference called Critical Resistance Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, convened to strategize and re-ignite a long-simmering movement to abolish prison and the police.
Angela Davis: We want to talk this weekend about radical strategies that help to alleviate the misery and the pain.
Bob: Angela Davis, one of the leading figures in the movement at that conference.
Angela: At the same time, move towards the abolition of prisons as the only attempt to solve the major social problems of our time.
Amna Akbar: Critical Resistance articulates a critique of what they call the prison industrial complex.
Bob: Amna Akbar is a law professor at the Ohio State University who writes on today's leftist social movements and their demands. When we spoke to her earlier this year, she explained that in 2014, following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, some of those abolitionists began to engage with the Black Lives Matter Movement, which was composed of a mix of veteran organizers and new activists who were taking to the streets for the first time. Working together they reached a point just before Donald Trump was elected when abolitionist demands were codified.
Amna: Right, August, 2016, the movement for Black Lives, which is a constellation of 50 plus Black-led organizations releases a massive policy platform called the Vision for Black Lives. The Vision for Black Lives has six large demands, which include, end the war on Black people, invest, divest, economic justice, reparations, and a few others.
The Vision for Black Lives marks the drift between 2014 and 2016 and the influence of abolitionist politics on racial justice organizing because while the vision doesn't call for outright abolition of prisons and police, the vast majority of the demands reflect an abolitionist ethos.
For example, the Metta demand and the war on Black people includes a list of campaigns or demands like ending solitary confinement, ending immigrant detention, ending cash bail, ending the school-to-prison pipeline.
If you're ensconced in the world of criminal law reform, you would have immediately noticed that these demands were in a very different register than a lot of the demands that come out of mainstream D.C. centric, liberal policy reform, which are often focused on questions of how to make these systems work better.
The vision is released in 2016 in August. Trump is elected in November, his election marks a federal government hostile to racial justice. The push that the Vision for Black Lives is laying out goes local.
Bob: All of this activity is taking place long before the world ever hears of George Floyd?
Amna: That's right.
Bob: Now we think of Minneapolis as the turning point, but there was actually another inflection point a few months previous triggered not by police brutality, but by the coronavirus.
Amna: Right. COVID-19 we start to feel the pain of the lack of social services and the lack of the social welfare and that, and so you have the explosion of these demands all over the country around canceling rent, around Medicare For All, around Freedom All. Campaigns around the country focused on putting pressure on local and state government and on the federal government to release people held in jails, prisons, and detention centers because of the way that incarcerated people are not able to socially distance. There's no adequate health provision within these facilities.
If you read between the lines, a lot of those campaigns were actually articulating a critique of prisons and jails that was much deeper, an abolitionist critique about how prisons and jails are fundamentally unhealthy. Then when George Floyd is killed and the police respond in the way that they do to the organic uprisings all around the country, countless numbers of police outfitted in all sorts of expensive vehicles and vests and wood pellets and sound devices, I think it creates another visible moment of the contradictions of life in the United States.
We are repeatedly telling the public that we don't have enough money for books in the schools, our healthcare workers don't have access to masks, PPE, and at the same time, you have the police forces mobilized like that to crush an organic uprising, responding to the scale and depth of police violence around the country.
Bob: Here we are at 'defund the police'. I will confess that when I first heard those words, which by the way, was only a week ago, I was like, "Wait, what, how abolishy are we talking about?"
Amna: I think for some people defund is simply about taking money away from the police and maybe investing it in other places, but for racial justice movements and racial justice organizations, defund marks a moment where large swaths of the American public are, one, grappling with the problem being the institution of the police, right? It's not simply about an individual bad police officer or an individual incident gone wrong, but the problem is the scale of the police, the power of the police, the tools of the police to use violence against everyday people.
For abolitionists, defund is a strategy to delegitimize the police, force the question about what work police are doing in our communities and how else we might be dealing with social problems like homelessness or domestic violence or theft. Now, a lot of times I think abolitionists are charged as being unsophisticated and impractical.
I think the defund demand and the campaigns against jail expansion or the bailouts and the bail funds, all demonstrate direct and concrete ways of thinking about building towards a world where we have no police or prisons, or at least a lot less of it.
There's no delusion that we're going to live in a world where people don't harm each other or that no one steals from your house anymore. Part of what it is to live in a society is to have conflict. Right now, our go-to response to all of those things is prisons and police and the abolitionist invitation is to say, "What if we start to think about different ways to respond to those same problems?"
Bob: I am obliged to ask you about politics. The choice of the words abolition and defund the police, while being very powerful for rallying support, are also a gift to reactionary criticism and the allegations which have, for decades, been made that the left is out to destroy the society. Does the language of defund create an opportunity for a political opposition that could crush the movement aborning?
Amna: We have a moment right now where there's a growing left, who are trying to disrupt consensus over a number of different issues and trying to disrupt politics as usual, and so whether you're talking about the Sunrise Movement and the Green New Deal or the Democratic Socialists of America calling for us to cancel rent around the country, all of these different campaigns are coming out of a moment where the failures of neoliberalism, the exploitation and stratification of capitalism, the violence of white supremacy have been made clear and all of these different organizations, these movements, the aligned elected officials are all calling for a radical rupture with the way that we think about how we should relate to each other, what we expect of the state. What are our basic entitlements as human beings?
While there might be a right-wing backlash, we're living through an era of a right-wing backlash, we can't be so fearful of a backlash that we can't imagine together and fight together and build together the world that we want to live in. I think this idea that we shouldn't fight big, dream big, organize together, is in part to blame for where we are.
Bob: Understood. Do you worry that the political right is now going to be able to terrify swing voters into not risking throwing in with the left, less pandemonium rain?
Amna: Part of what I'm seeing and what I'm so excited and hopeful about even though I also feel cautious, and I feel a lot of the trepidation that you're articulating, is that it feels as if we're in a moment that could unleash a much more hopeful politics in the United States and a much more hopeful, inclusive vision that will shift people's expectations or sense of what's possible.
As much as who is at the top of the food chain, the president of the United States, matters for who the United States is, how we respond to crises like COVID-19, what kind of player we are in the world, politics is local. There are all sorts of other decisions at every level of interpersonal relations, city and state government that also make a profound difference for the daily condition of everyday people's lives.
Part of what's really important about what's going on right now is that it is exploding the concept that politics is only about voting for the president of the United States. Politics is about a lot more than that, including protests and uprising, including casting a ballot, including leading into local political struggles over whether to defund the police.
Bob: Amna, thank you so much.
Amna: Thanks, Bob.
Bob: Amna Akbar is a law professor at The Ohio State University. We spoke to her in June. Hey, join us this week for the Big Show in which we will examine anti-vax rhetoric and chart the unraveling of the political rights failing disinformation campaign. Do not forget to sign up for our weekly newsletter at onthemedia.org. You will be vastly rewarded for doing so. See you Friday. I'm Bob Garfield.