By Jess Wisneski, Co-Executive Director, Citizen Action of New York
It’s been a whirlwind of a time. I remember as a high school student learning about the movements and uprisings of the 1960s thinking, wow, I missed such an important time. How naive I was. There hasn’t been a moment in my life where the call to take leadership for social change hasn’t existed. And if comfortable white folks couldn’t recognize it before, we certainly should now.
The multi-racial, grassroots social justice organization I co-lead committed 15 years ago to embrace and consciously do racial justice work. And even with the work we’ve done, we are being called to lean-in even harder. For white folks in the movement and in organizations dedicated to social change, we are called to lean into the discomfort of anti-racism work. It’s a recognition and affirmation of not only racism against all non-white people, but in particular the anti-Blackness that plagues our society, and the impacts it has on every aspect of the lives of Black people in our country. Part of anti-racism work at the individual and macro level is about discomfort. If all the words used were to make white people feel more comfortable, then we aren’t doing it right.
The crystallization of white discomfort is more apparent than ever as the hashtag and rallying cry of #DefundThePolice rises in the public sphere. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Many white people, even those who consider themselves “allies” in the fight against racism are having a hard time grappling with the cry. For so many of us, we have such a different lived experience with police. It feels particularly different for those of us who live outside of cities. I grew up in a place where there were only a handful of police officers. They’re people who I know, who come when we need them for a lot of reasons. They arrived to make sure I was okay when my kids and I got into a car accident. They were the ones who arrived when my mother in law passed to gently carry her body out of the house.
But we know this experience is not shared. Through listening to Black and Brown sisters and brothers. From witnessing the experiences of Black friends and colleagues with cops. From watching the news. From understanding and studying the effects of structural racism and understanding the history of the outgrowth of police departments from slave catchers. For far too many people of color, the institution of policing is one based on violence. Cops present a direct threat to their life and safety. There is no better example of this difference than from a mother’s perspective. My young boys adore the police officer who is sometimes at their school, they look up to him. When I try to explain to them that not everyone sees police officers that way and why, they are horrified. Black parents across this country are forced to live with the pervasive fear that their children could very well be killed by police. Just remember Tamir Rice. Twelve. Years. Old. Playing in a park. “Defund the police” may seem like an extreme demand at first glance, but in reality what is extreme and unacceptable is the violence and murder committed by police against Black people by police, again and again and again. It’s systemic.
Many white liberals agree that we must transform policing in America, yet they disagree with the demands and rallying cry of Black and Brown people — the very people most impacted by state violence — to dismantle oppressive institutions, and build up community infrastructure, alternative interventions and public goods. I was wondering about it a lot these past few weeks myself as I watched the debates on my facebook page. Some think that the call to #DefundThe Police is too divisive and won’t bring enough moderates (both Black and white) along. Or that it’ll be used as a weapon by Trump and the right-wing to call us all too radical. What does it even mean? If we “defund” the police, how will we create safe communities?
I know my own crew finds me at times slow on the uptake, and indeed I am. I’m a white person on a racial justice journey. Here is where my journey has left me, and I hope my other white friends, family and comrades in the fight for justice can quickly move past those initial, biased instincts. Indeed, we must if we want true freedom for Black people and therefore, liberation for all.
First and foremost, we are taught as white allies to follow the lead of Black and Brown people. And although I’ve found even Black and Brown leaders are divided on this, the ones I follow are down and using it. These are the organizers and social justice warriors in Citizen Action, a part of the Movement for Black Lives and Black-led community organizations across the country that I fight with side by side in the pursuit of a truly inclusive democracy, health care for all, climate justice, ending mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Second, if we think the phrase #DefundThePolice is divisive or going to put the election in peril then we should reflect on why the chosen candidate to combat Trump is arguably the most uninspiring candidate the left has ever had. Meanwhile, #DefundThePolice has ignited and politicized young people across race and class, and Black and Brown people, a few months shy of the November Election, than anything has in decades. Does this energy translate to votes? It will if we can collectively embrace the call for change behind it and make it a mandatory platform for every Democratic candidate running in November. If we lose in November it will not be because of this slogan — it will be because white people didn’t do the work to change the hearts and minds of other white voters.
Finally, the rallying cry is working. Police budgets are getting examined and beginning to be cut. Ties to cops in schools are being broken. Military equipment in police hands are being removed. We need to put our energy into educating the masses on what it means to #DefundThePolice — and what to move those resources to instead. The depth of knowledge of replacing police with different and more appropriate community supports and true public safety is everywhere. Here are three resources:
Read them, share them, and help others envision that indeed, another world is possible. Our Black and Brown siblings are tired and justifiably impatient. Let’s move quickly to get to where we need to be and help others to get there in short order.