"No Justice, No Peace”: Are Police Abolitionists Losing the Public Debate?


On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was asphyxiated by Derek Chauvin, then a Minneapolis police officer. As a result, protests erupted across the country, calling for an end to police brutality and causing a surge of popularity for the Black Lives Matter movement. Soon, people were shouting “ACAB [All Cops Are Bastards]” and “Defund the police!” as they called for an end to the current police system, which has been steeped in systematic racism since its origin.

On June 8, members of the Minneapolis City Council announced that they would defund and dismantle the police department. As Council President Lisa Bender explained, they were committed to making a “new model of public safety that actually keeps [the] community safe.”

On August 5, the plan to defund the police was removed from the November ballot by the Charter Commission to allow 90 more days for the Commission to review the plan, which included replacing the police department with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention.

In late September, hopes for change were dashed as Counselors began to retract their statements.

Council President Lisa Bender believed their words had “created confusion in the community.”

Counselor Andrew Johnson said he meant the pledge “in spirit.” The plan was dismissed.

Support for Black Lives Matter has dropped 12% since June as the conversation around police abolition wanes in the public sphere. While some large cities, like New York City and Los Angeles, have committed to decreasing their police budgets, no city besides Minneapolis has recently pledged to abolish their police department. Many cities, such as San Diego and Omaha, have actually increased their police budgets.

The discussion around police abolition has also dwindled as people begin to question the actual ability of state and federal governments to defund and replace the police. Some find the idea itself so broad and far from the standard that it is impossible to imagine. Some consider defunding and abolishing the police as two separate things, while others consider them to be the same. The confusion around what the term “police abolition” means has led to a lack of support and media coverage.

According to journalist Josie Duffy Rice in a Vanity Fair article, police abolition is “eradicat[ing] this Jim Crow system of public safety.” Because the police originated as slave catchers, the system itself is steeped in systematic racism: “Without the history of policies and practices that make up white supremacy, without enslavement and slave patrols, without black codes and miscegenation laws, without poll taxes and courthouse lynchings, without redlining and housing segregation, without mass incarceration, policing as we know it would not exist,” Duffy states. Martin Sheeks, a member of a Minneapolis community organization that was working to dismantle the Minneapolis police department, adds that abolition includes replacing officers with “the right [people who] will respond with the right skills and tools to provide the care needed,” as he states in a Vox interview. Doing this will ensure that the United States acknowledges “that throughout [...] history, Black people have been disproportionately subjected to state-sponsored punishment – by design,”as Gwen Prowse, a doctoral candidate in political science and African American studies at Yale, states in the same interview. This is the definition that appears most often – accepting that the current system was created for injustice, completely dismantling it, and replacing it with professionals who are well-trained for specific duties that the police currently undertake.

On September 29, Joe Biden reaffirmed his support for the police. When asked if there is a separate but unequal system of justice for Black people in the U.S., he claimed that “the vast majority of police officers are good, decent, honorable men and women [...] but there are some bad apples, and when they occur- when they find them, they have to be sorted out.” Later in the segment surrounding racial injustice, Biden clearly stated, “I’m totally opposed to defunding the police officers. As a matter of fact [...] they need more assistance,” in the form of mental health professionals. He also mentioned that what the country needed was more community police officers “where [they] get to know the people in the communities.” This is not the future that police abolitionists are fighting for.

This may mark the end of the police abolition movement. Or it may gain traction again once the country gets past this tumultuous election. While federal and systemic change may take time, people are still fighting and still marching to make their voices and ideas heard.