Why Calls to Defund the Police are Actually an Intersectional Call for Investment and Action

By Katherine Katcher & Rebecca Berry

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As we are all aware, the 2020 presidential race was called last Friday by the Associated Press for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Many of us are breathing a sigh of relief about this much-needed change in federal leadership, but we all know this is just the beginning. There is so much work to be done.

It was heartening to hear both the President-Elect and Vice President-Elect call for reforms to systemic racism, particularly within the criminal justice system, and we hope that call to action represents a true commitment to these issues. If we’re dedicated to achieving equitable, just systems in this country, we need to talk about an intersectional approach to reform. If we only focus on the criminal justice and policing systems, we miss the larger call to action, which recognizes that systemic racism does not only lie within the criminal justice system but is part and parcel of how public policy and investment (or a lack thereof) functions in the United States.

“Defund the police.” The call to action would have seemed outlandish to most people six months ago, but with the Black Lives Matter movement experiencing renewed momentum in June after the unjust murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the concept is hitting the mainstream. However, it is crucial to understand, particularly for critics who see this as a call to neglect or withdraw from communities, that the other side of this statement is “invest in communities” — in all of the social services and supports systems that need to exist for families and communities to thrive.

This is not to say that policing as an institution should not be a central focus. Policing in this country is long overdue for a complete transformation. Our own work at Root & Rebound is dedicated to supporting the individuals who are impacted by unjust, racist policing, people who are incarcerated and people with criminal records. We see firsthand how the system is harming individuals, causing a ripple effect across families, neighborhoods, and cities. The prison system is also a major area we need to overhaul in the goal of addressing racism and economic inequality in America.

But people tend to misunderstand the phrase “defund the police.” Rather than getting caught up on “defund” vs. “reform,” we need to set our sights on investment, attention, and time to the interconnected issues our most vulnerable and marginalized communities are facing. Some may read it as a call to neglect, divest, and ignore needs. Others might see it as too dramatic. What it really means is something we can all agree on: a call to invest and support the people, children, and families most impacted — to see our country and our communities flourish. If we invest in the people most impacted, all people and communities benefit. It is not a call to neglect, but a call to transform systems and invest in new and better versions of them with the right support. But we need to do so with an understanding of where these systems intersect.

The call to “defund the police” needs an intersectional refrain. What it really means is reforming all of the systems in this country that perpetuate, create, and maintain the status quo. The housing, education, child welfare system, women’s health support, LGBTQ and environmental issues… these are all areas that need funding but they also need reform to ensure they’re addressing the intersection of each of these challenges.

Where we are as a country, as a state, and as a community means we don’t need to just defund: we need to fund, refund, and reform our institutions that currently have intersectional gaps affecting and oppressing millions of Americans.

Whether we reform or defund or both, if our politicians (and on a local or individualized scale, each individual) of this country truly want to address systemic racism, injustice and economic inequality, there are many more institutions that need overhauling, ranging everywhere from workers rights, housing, healthcare & social services, education, immigration, LGBTQ+ , environmental change, and more. All of these things are often seen and thought of in silos, but the reality is that individuals and families who face one of the above forms of oppression or marginalization often experience several, and they’re all interconnected.

Our clients face challenges on multiple sides, often caught in intergenerational cycles of poverty and racial injustices. For example, many of our clients are Black women. According to the Center for American Progress, while Black women represent 12.8% of the US population, they represent 22.3% of women in poverty. Therefore, Black women are more likely to find themselves stuck in a cycle of poverty, living in a lower-income community, working in jobs that put them on the frontlines during a pandemic.

On top of that, Black women also often face disparities in the healthcare community, which could be a challenge if they’re diagnosed with COVID or need women’s health resources or care for a family member. Because of where school district lines are drawn, her kids may not be receiving the most optimal education resources or it may be tough for her to find affordable childcare support when she needs to work. Lawmakers have been focused on one piece of this puzzle at a time. It’s common for these leaders to say, “let’s focus on affordable housing,” or “honing in on childcare will help trickle down support through other areas.” The focus on small wins draws attention away from the bigger picture that these are all intersectional problems that need to be solved together.

What could divesting funds from policing and prisons look like in California? Across 58 counties and 482 cities, California spent more than $20 billion for city police and county sheriff’s departments in 2017–2018. California Budget & Policy Center reports that cities spend three times more on police than housing and community development. When factoring in the state of California’s criminal legal justice system, incarceration in state prisons and county jails, the cost is even higher: cities and counties are spending roughly $50 billion annually. This is three times what California spends from its General Fund on higher education and is roughly equivalent to the General Fund support for K-12 education.

But today, it’s become rarer for elected officials to think about approaching these issues with the “big picture” perspective. Some current politicians have this approach: whether you agree with the policies of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or not, there’s no doubting that her work has centered on the overlapping areas of inequality and oppression across various socioeconomic groups.

Incremental change is important and gets us key wins, but we need to think bigger. Our system has tricked us into believing there are limits to the world we live in and so we accept pieces of change but not major overhauls. We have to ask, what would our world look like without armed agents of the state murdering people?

We can no longer stand by and need to start demanding that our politicians and policymakers see these solutions as interconnected, not simply trying to sign legislation that helps just one small piece. As we call to divest, let’s call to invest both locally and nationally. What matters in your community? What do you need to see changed? Where can resources be shifted away from policing and prisons and into community?

We need and want leadership that understands how wealth and race-based injustices are interconnected. As citizens, we have incredible power to affect this change. Voting in last week’s Presidential election is one piece of the puzzle, but there are even more significant things you can do.

Voting every 4 years in presidential elections isn’t enough — pay attention to your state, county, and city elections. Follow your elected officials to track their progress, see how they approach challenges in your community. We have incredible resources at our disposal today to track your local leaders’ records, keep in touch with them, and share your feedback in a way to make your voice heard.

Outside of election years, steadily supporting your local grassroots, mutual-aid organizations can help in targeting very specific and hyperlocal problems. These groups all understand these landscapes and provide more support to communities outside of federal and state programs.

At Root & Rebound, our team focuses on providing holistic support to the people we serve. We recognize the major challenges that come with approaching things this way, but we know it’s possible and doesn’t treat long-term problems with short-term solutions. As citizens, we can demand similar treatment from our own public servants to create more lasting change.

About the authors: Katherine Katcher is the Founder & Executive Director of Root & Rebound, a passionate ally to those impacted by the system, and an advocate for reform in her own right — using her legal education as a tool that could serve others and catalyze change.

Rebecca Berry is the Hotline and Direct Services Attorney at Root & Rebound. She runs R&R’s hotline that supports hundreds of system-impacted people each week with issues related to reentry, directly serving the people that this society hopes we will ignore.

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Restoring power & resources to the communities most harmed by mass incarceration through legal advocacy, public education, policy reform & litigation.

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