The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Nina Pop, at the hands of police, sparked mass protests nationwide as well as here in St. Louis. Intermingled with calls for justice was a resounding demand to defund the police. Almost a year later, police violence continues to claim Black lives and police departments continue to be the largest line item in most city budgets.
The recent murders of Daunte Wright and Ma’khia Bryant are heartbreaking reminders of the ways in which police violence continues to stunt the lives of Black people. We cannot wait for a police officer to devastate another family before we recognize that policing does not keep us safe. Too many lives are at stake. Mike Brown, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, and countless others would still be here if not for the police. The only way to prevent the police from taking another Black life is to defund the police and move towards the path of abolition.
I am part of a growing movement of people in St. Louis, who sees defunding the police as the only viable path forward. Our campaign “Defund. Re-envision. Transform.” calls for St. Louis to divest from policing and re-invest resources into communities most impacted by police violence in order to aid in their healing and well-being. At the heart of our campaign is a vision to defund the police, re-envision public safety, and transform the lives of communities in St. Louis. But in order to get there, we must interrogate how we got here.
The Origins of Police Violence
Policing as we know it can be traced back to chattel slavery in the 1700s and the first president of the United States. Back then, police functioned as slave patrols, who maintained the social and economic order by assisting wealthy white landowners (like George Washington) in recovering and punishing slaves who were considered property. In other words, policing has always been about the protection of white property, as well as the surveillance and control of Black and Brown bodies.
This legacy helps explain why policing in our country is so deeply violent and racist. A violent and racist legacy reflected in the current data on police violence in St. Louis. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD) kills more people per capita than any other police department in the country. According to ArchCity Defenders’ recent report Death by the State: Police Killings and Jail Deaths in St. Louis, at least 179 people have been killed by police or died in police custody within four counties in the St. Louis region from 2009 to 2019.
Of the 132 people killed by police: 92 percent were men and 72 percent were Black. Every day our communities are experiencing police violence, forcing St. Louis to reckon with its own fatal state sanctioned violence. And time and time again, the victims are disproportionately Black. It is time we come to terms with the fact that the institution of policing gives police the power to harm, surveil, and ultimately take Black lives, and that this has been the purpose of policing since its inception.
Policing cannot be reformed or excused. It must be abolished.
For decades, cities have attempted to reform policing through increased accountability, diversity, and training. However, these reforms have not fundamentally challenged police power or abuse. For example, New York’s Police Department had a ban on chokeholds before Eric Garner was murdered by a police officer’s choke hold. Cities have pushed for police to wear body cameras as a measure of accountability, yet these laws have not stopped police officers from murdering people on camera.
Police reformists believe the system of policing is broken and can be fixed. However, abolitionists know the system of policing is working as it was always intended to work – to harm, cage, surveil, and eradicate Black communities. On the other side of the argument are police apologists, who believe police officers are heroes who fight crime and bring the bad guys to justice. It is convenient for people to perceive the police as heroes because many of us want to believe such a hero exists. This innocence, typically held by individuals in neighborhoods that are not patrolled by the police, ultimately leads to inflated budgets and increased police violence against Black and Brown communities.
In reality, most police officers only make one felony arrest per year and spend the majority of their time responding to nonviolent issues such as traffic enforcement or loitering complaints. And when we do need a hero, police officers have shown that they misidentify the “bad guy” and become the very murderers they are paid by our tax dollars to prevent.
The Path Forward: Defund. Re-envision. Transform.
Police violence is an epidemic that has stunted the lives of Black people in St. Louis for far too long. The only way to stop the violence is to defund, re-envision, and transform policing as we know it. A group of local organizations, including Action St. Louis, Arch City Defenders, CAPCR, and Forward Through Ferguson are already doing the work to put this demand to defund the police into action. Our campaign, “Defund. Re-envision. Transform.” calls on the city to defund the SLMPD and re-envision public safety by reinvesting into community resources that actually keep our communities safe.
When we say “defund the police,” we mean the process of reallocating funds and responsibilities from the St. Louis police departments to community-based systems of safety, prevention, and de-escalation. It is a demand to reduce the size, budgets, and power of all institutions that surveil, police, punish, incarcerate, and kill Black people to zero, and invest in building entirely new community infrastructures that will produce genuine safety and sustainability for our communities.
St. Louis’ proposed 2021 budget allocates $172 million to the police and $0 to homelessness. This shows us what our city values. Instead of throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into a failed “arrest and incarcerate” model each year, it is imperative that we actually address the root causes of crime – lack of resources. Bloated police budgets divert investment from affordable housing, public education, medical and mental health care, and violence prevention programs.
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The “Defund. Re-envision. Transform.” campaign saw a major victory recently when St. Louis divested $4 million away from the police budget to go towards housing, victim support services, and other resources that actually promote public health and safety. While we believe this is a great start, we must continue pushing for long-term transformation. Police continue to harm our communities and their budgets are depriving us from the resources we need.
The defund police movement must continue to build power to demand an end to police violence. Our campaign envisions a community where every person is able to thrive and is safe from all forms of violence.
Jae ShepherdJae Shepherd (they/them) is a 28-year-old Black, queer, non-binary, messy- work-in-progress passionate about the liberation and healing of all Black people, twerkin, and staying hydrated. Jae is the Abolition Organizer at Action St. Louis, a grassroots organization that seeks to build power for Black people in the St. Louis region. In this role, Jae leads the campaign to Close the Workhouse, a hellish jail in St. Louis City. The campaign focuses on closing the jail and reinvesting that money into communities impacted by over-policing and other forms of violence. Jae is also the lead organizer on the new campaign to defund SLMPD.