The Politics of “Defund Police” Advocacy in Baltimore

Nov 01

There is an emergence of a popular strand of thought and political activity that is characterized as racial justice that is a danger to Black people.

In a previous piece, we have described this as the progressive mainstream. One of the best ways to illustrate the political aspects of the progressive mainstream and the danger of their politics is their collective articulation of the demand around “defund police.” The defund police advocacy of the progressive mainstream provides one of the clearest ways to mark the ideological terrain and produce clarity about the ongoing clashes in worldview. Before laying out LBS’s perspective on defunding the police, let’s lay out the perspectives that seem to be representative of the progressive mainstream in Baltimore. The first is Organizing Black’s demands that they have posted on their social media platforms. Their demands are as follows:

  • Defund the Baltimore City Police Department. We demand that 100 million dollars be cut from BPD’s budget. The constant growth of BPD’s budget has not correlated with a decrease in crime or harm and has only fed surveillance and police violence in Black and brown communities. 
  • Create a Community Wellness trust fund. We demand a 30 million-dollar investment into reimagining the public safety trust fund to be governed through a participatory budgeting process. Baltimoreans are more than capable of identifying what public safety without increased police presence or surveillance tools looks like for them. 
  • Invest in Black communities. We demand that 70 million dollars be allocated to support quality, affordable housing, high-quality public education, universal healthcare, jobs, a universal basic income, and community programs. 
  • Remove police entirely from responses to mental health distress, substance use, sex work, homelessness, and other quality-of-life issues. We demand Baltimore create an alternative to 911 that does not dispatch police to connect people in crisis with the mental health, housing, treatment, and/or harm reduction resources they need to live with dignity.

Additionally, Lisa Snowden-McCray and Brandon Soderberg wrote a piece on April 24th, 2021, for The Real News Network about the defund police advocacy in Baltimore.  This piece gives a general description of the defund police advocacy, but it does not lay out any of the specific ways that these reallocations would actually combat the issues of violence in Baltimore. They merely support the demands that have been rolled out by Organizing Black. It makes the mistake that many progressives make on this issue, which is to talk generally about dealing with socio-economic issues and providing services, but not outlining the specific alternatives to police to deal with community violence.

There are two major conceptual blind spots that make their vision of defunding police not only ineffective but harmful.

The first is that there are not enough descriptions of the actual alternatives to deal with gun violence and homicide. The emphasis that the progressive mainstream focuses on in conversations about defunding police is on “root causes” of violence. It is true that the phenomena of gun violence and homicide are heavily influenced by socio-economic forces. This recognition does not provide an answer to the question of how we address violence in the meantime while the socio-economic conditions are being shifted. What working-class Black people are interested in is how the alternatives to policing keeps us safe in the near term. Anyone who answers that question by saying we should deploy social workers or behavioral health specialists to counter emergent incidents of violence is either being disingenuous, unfamiliar with the communities that experience violence, or just naive. Some of the progressive mainstream will mention violence interrupters, but it’s often not central to their advocacy.  One of the major reasons that the “defund police” movement is not popular among Black people (many of the most recent polls say that only 28% of Black people support the defund police movement) is because many Black people live in communities where violence is a real problem. It is clear from the advocacy of the progressive mainstream that they are not serious about articulating a vision of alternatives to public safety that actually addresses gun violence and homicide in the near term. This puts Black people’s lives at risk. If all Black lives matter, then the lives of Black people victimized by gun violence matter too.

This is why LBS has always made sure that we have paired our conversations about alternatives to police and our police accountability legislative work with advocacy to increase investments in community-based anti-violence programs. Many organizations, including LBS, have identified the bloated police budget as a problem and have advocated that those dollars be shifted to alternatives. 

Without a real alternative plan to keep Black people in our neighborhoods safe from gun violence, the progressive mainstream’s version of defunding police is harmful to Black people. LBS’s alternative vision for public safety includes doing design work with people who are actively sought out to diffuse conflicts in the community and to figure out how to expand their capacity to being engaged in settling beefs. Organizations like Baltimore Brothers, the We Our Us Movement, and others that are comprised of people closest to the violence need to be equipped with all the tools they need to deal with violence. It’s plausible to believe that if the community was presented with an option to have a big enough team of people who are immersed in the community and can go into the community and deal with violence, they would prefer this over the police. Additionally, violence interrupters have been proven to have success in the communities that they have been active in. Expanding the couple of hundred violence interrupters into a couple thousand would provide even more community-based support for anti-violence efforts. Also, building on programs like the Kuji Center in northwest Baltimore that provides services to victims of violence and encourages them not to become perpetrators of violence by providing support and opportunities. This is only the beginning of a comprehensive vision of alternatives for police that can actually keep people safe, which meets the concrete needs of the community while advancing the work of eventually putting police out of business.

This leads to the second major flaw in the progressive mainstream’s advocacy regarding defunding police, and that is the issue of institutional formation. Institutional formation is one of the most critical activities needed to chart a viable course toward Black liberation. Institutional formation is about building institutions and designing the ecosystems that they are engaged in, so that we do not have to be dependent on the benevolence of white people and other institutions outside of our community. The crucial structural problem Black people face is that after the fall of formal, legal segregation, existing Black institutions eroded, and their power was absorbed by white mainstream institutions.

The elements of the progressive mainstream have been articulating demands that talk vaguely about investing in social programs, social services, housing, etc. The major institutional containers for these bodies of work are controlled by the white-dominated non-profit and human social service sector. The vague calls for the participatory process are mitigated by the fact that the institutions that would likely be responsible for facilitating this would structure the process and provide choices to the community that would feed the non-profit industrial complex. They would be able to structure the process that makes the non-profit industrial complex and its leadership the center of gravity.  

One of the policy outcomes of the Civil Rights/Black Power era in the 1960s was the emergence of community action agencies that, in the best cases, were resident lead. These agencies provided direct investment in neighborhood-level civic activities that were supported by federal block grants. Baltimore actually had one of the most resident-led Community Action Agencies in the country. There were two political dynamics that happened in Baltimore that dealt a heavy blow to grassroots power. The first was the focus on the part of William Donald Schaefer and folks like Bob Embry on developing downtown at the expense of the neighborhoods. Then, the professionalization of neighborhood-level work that took power away from residents and into the hands of non-profit liberal elites who have managed to be larger contributors to Black oppression than anything else. The non-profit sector has been on a continual drive to gentrify Black civic life so that the institutions that serve Black people may have Black faces, but are controlled by white people’s institutions whose livelihoods are sustained by our dependence on their benevolence.

What the progressive mainstream is doing is using Black radical rhetoric to call for divestment in policing to advocate for more money to the non-profit industrial complex and institutions adjacent to it. Calls for more programs and services to be invested in entities like  Johns Hopkins Schools of Public Health, Urban Health Institute and School of Education, University of Maryland School of Social Work, and other mainstream institutions with white supremacist approaches to human services to receive money in the name of Black Liberation. The calls for reinvestment without giving priority to the notion of institutional formation allow white institutions to continue to expand their ability to render Black people dependent on white benevolence. While these demands don’t preclude investment in Black-led community-based organizations, the absence of robust advocacy around building independent Black institutional containers makes these demands easily coopted by the progressive mainstream to expand the non-profit industrial complex. This feeds the dynamic where white institutions and their Black accomplices continue to profiteer off of the suffering of Black people.

We need to pull together the resources to build institutions in every arena of civic life so that the masses of Black people control the institutions that address our oppression. We need to do the hard and tedious work of designing institutions with democratic governance that can operationalize the needs of the Black masses. Defunding police in a white political paradigm is a campaign for expanding the budgets of non-profits and the human/social service sector to continue to manage Black suffering. Defunding police from the perspective of Black Liberation is a call for providing the resources needed to build sustainable alternatives to police that the community controls, owns, and operates. This fundamental distinction is crucial to understanding the politics of the ideological clashes underlying differing perspectives on Black activists’ political activity in Baltimore. Black political organizations that are not advocating for independent Black formations and supporting the work it takes to build them are ultimately operating as boosters for the expansion of the non-profit industrial complex.

LBS is an organization that engages in political activity toward Black self-determination. People of African descent can only be free if we have control over the institutions that govern our lives. Our worldview is rooted in Pan-African Nationalism that takes a revolutionary stance against all forms of oppression. The basis of the conflict in the worldview in Baltimore is rooted in an underlying ideological clash that is rooted in the age-old dispute between integrationist and Black nationalists. The new strain of integrationism that is cloaked in the rhetoric of radical, multiracial democracy is the brand of “Black Liberation” that is heavily supported and promoted by philanthropy, the academy, the non-profit industrial complex, and left elements of the Democratic Party. These are the kinds of Black people that are most supported by white leftist who desire a form of Black activism that at best obscures and, at worst, is hostile to the importance of building independent Black formations that allow Black folks to exercise true independence. Without an emphasis on the hard, mundane at times frustrating work of Black institutional formation calls for Black power to perpetuate a business model rooted in white control of Black freedom.

Lisa Snowden McCray, who is an extension of the progressive mainstream, praised Organizing Black’s demands. LBS posted a video and brief post that lays out our criticisms of the mainstream defund the police advocacy. This was followed by Snowden-McCray tweeting an article called, “Black Politics After George Floyd,” written by Blair McClendon, published on May 24th, 2021, in The New Republic. Her claim was that our perspective lacked nuance and that this piece helped to tease out what we missed. Here are a few excerpts from the piece that is relevant to her criticism:

During the debates about cutting the NYPD’s budget last summer, Brooklyn Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo claimed that “defund the police” was a “colonization” of the movement by white progressives. Cumbo has taken to tying Black opponents on her left to purportedly white interests. She dismissed Jabari Brisport, a Democratic Socialists of America–backed state senator, as a product of a gentrification movement. Brisport responded that the true gentrifiers were the real estate interests, while pointing out that Cumbo was backed by the Real Estate Board of New York in her first run for City Council. The language of Black politics in the post–civil rights era does not allow this fight to be expressed as it really is—a confrontation between the right and left wings of the party. Instead, it is rerouted through the terrain of an authentic Blackness, where one is the heir to the struggle and the other an interloper. Perhaps it is a bitter symbol of how far we have come that the positions have been inverted since Julian Bond and John Lewis’s battle in the 1980s. Now the right flank of Black politics tars its enemies with claims of working for white interests.

The argument that she is going for is that LBS’s critique of the mainstream defund movement in Baltimore is a right-wing, neoliberal attack on a movement that is ultimately aimed at challenging the oppression of the police. Equating our critique to that of a Black politician backed by real estate interest is a relatively clever way of sidestepping the substance of the argument that LBS is making. First of all, LBS is an independent organization that is powered by our deep, large and diverse base of support predominantly of Black people in Baltimore. We have taken no position that can be attributed to some kind of personal material interests. With that out of the way, the question then becomes about the substantive argument being made. Many Black politicians, advocates, business leaders, etc, have used race as cover for opportunism and incompetence. 

We are in a moment now where identity is often politicked in a way that circumvents objective political analysis. In other words, some people who are Black, queer, women, immigrant, disabled, etc, use their identities as a primary basis for their political arguments over and above the substance of their actual argument.  McClendon and Snowden-McCray’s mistake is that this is done by the right AND the left. The politician mentioned by McClendon may be using identity as a right-wing attack on the issue of challenging the power of the police. No one in the progressive mainstream will dispute the arguments LBS and others make about the disaster management function of the non-profit sector and the human social service sector as described in, “When Baltimore Awakes.” The non-profit industrial complex has produced forms of human service that at best merely manages Black suffering, at worst produce more harm to the people being served and ultimately discourages approaches that facilitate Black self-sustainability. This is a prominent business model for white liberals and the Black people adjacent to those networks. The demands of Organizing Black and the position taken by Snowden-McCray are left-wing attempts to politic identity in order to obscure the liberal financial interest that philanthropy and the non-profit sector have in the defund police movement. Even though the politician mentioned in McClendon’s piece is backed by real estate interests, this does not make the observation inherently flawed. It does provide an easy cover to deflect the substance of the critique. As mentioned above, LBS believes in defunding the police and has been on the record on this issue before it was a major national campaign. But it must be done in a way that does not serve to perpetuate Black dependence on the benevolence of white liberals.

Organizing Black has handed out a pamphlet entitled “Police Abolition: Messages When Facing Doubts 101” that was compiled by MPD 150, Interrupting Criminalization and Project NIA.  While there is useful information in this pamphlet, there is a glaring omission that is consistent with my critique of the progressive mainstream’s approach to the defund police advocacy.  That omission is around the work necessary to build liberatory independent Black formations that are not beholden to the non-profit industrial complex. The lack of focus on this, even though much of the pamphlet is focused on reinvesting money, is an indirect call to invest in the non-profit industrial complex. The section that gets closest to addressing this criticism are as follows:

We can’t allow the argument for defunding the police to mean that the armed, uniformed police are bad, but the soft social police are good. The paternalistic power embedded in the “helping professions” must be dismantled, and the work that people in this sector do must instead support autonomous and community-embedded services that provide for individual needs. Educators, medical workers, domestic violence advocates, and those working in related fields will need retraining in harm reduction and support in rethinking how to be in service to people without the restrictions that current liability laws and state appropriations place on their imaginations.

While this passage mentions broad criticisms of the “helping professions” there are 3 major problems.

First, there is nothing in this pamphlet that discusses the importance of Black institutions needing to function independently of the nonprofit industrial complex. This is important because many of the organizations that gain the greatest access to mainstream progressive platforms are dependent on their proximity to the nonprofit industrial complex. This tends to select out for Black people who will force the issue on Black autonomy  Second, the emphasis in this excerpt is dismantling the helping the profession, with only passing mention of the importance of building Black formations that replace the current systems. Lastly, the excerpt mentions the need for professionals in the helping professions to be retained in harm reduction. This is incomplete. What is needed are community based, culturally informed containers that can counter professionals who reproduce white supremacists approaches to human service. In a document that is 33 pages about police abolition, for it to be rooted in Black Liberation would require that more attention is put to discussion about building new formations that challenge the nonprofit industrial complex.

The Pan-African Nationalist/Black Nationalist perspective that undergirds LBS’s worldview prioritizes institutional formation as an essential area of work if Black people are going to truly practice freedom. In the area of anti-violence work, and this is true in other areas of work as well, we need to invest in building and scaling up existing institutions that are owned, controlled, and operated by Black people who are accountable to the masses of Black people. The solution to addressing all forms of violence in Baltimore is to invest in community-based organizations and institutions that are working to address violence in our community that is not mediated by the non-profit sector and philanthropy. Integrationists won’t stress the importance of being independent of the non-profit industrial complex and independent of white liberals more generally. This is a crucial demarcation of a political worldview that animates different perspectives on Black political activity in Baltimore (and nationally in some cases).

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