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OPINION | SIMON BALTO: Call from the community

The real meaning of ‘defund the police’ by SIMON BALTO THE WASHINGTON POST | February 21, 2021 at 8:39 a.m.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette illustration.

In late 1969, Fred Hampton issued a call to defund the police, if in different terms than those currently in use. Speaking at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, 60 miles west of Chicago, Hampton, the leader of the Illinois branch of the Black Panther Party, called for the police to be “decentralized”—shorthand for what was elsewhere known as “community control of the police.” His political perspective in the broad sense was molded by a capacious vision and dogged pursuit of a just world. It was based on a desire to dismantle the evils of fascism, capitalism, imperialism and racism.

And it was rooted in a vision of freedom in which the war in Vietnam would end in a way that gave justice to the Vietnamese people, where jailed Panther co-founder Bobby Seale would be freed, and where multiracial class struggle against the pillage and plunder of wealthy capitalists, corrupt politicians and abusive law enforcement would prevail.

And it extended to the issue of police control and community safety, of who keeps people safe and what they are allowed to do to meet that supposed charge.

Over the past year, calls to defund the police have been embraced by some Americans and met with bewilderment or hostility by many others. The argument for defunding, however, is fairly straightforward.

It is an argument predicated upon resource reallocation, in which portions of the vast sums of money that get spent on policing—an institution that inflicts demonstrable harm upon many communities of color and poor people—is redirected toward funding for things that would enrich people’s lives: housing, health care, job training, food and so on. In a world where people have what they need to live healthy, nourished lives and opportunities to pursue a wide range of dreams and ambitions, whatever “need” people imagine there to be for police would be radically diminished.

So while Republicans and most Democrats have mangled the central vision of defunding beyond recognition, equating it with anarchy and an invitation to lawlessness, that’s not at all what it is. It is a road map and a clarion call for a healthier, more beautiful, more caring, less-punishing society. And it is one that is rooted in the ideas Hampton set out more than a half-century ago.

Hampton’s comments were part of a larger call within the Black Panther Party across the United States to seize “community control of the police.” An argument couched in Black Power logic of self-determination and people’s rights to have control over the institutions that shaped their lives, community control of police meant reconfiguring the very logics and structure of the institution.

Although Hampton was assassinated before he was able to fully elaborate his vision of community control, the basic contours as articulated by his comrades looked like this: Rather than citywide forces largely detached from the particular needs and wishes of particular neighborhoods, policing would instead be decentralized, converted to a hyper-local institution governed entirely by local democratic processes.

Citizens who lived in a particular community would, through officials elected at the community level, set police policy in their neighborhood. The elected board would directly hear citizen complaints and be able to hire and fire officers. Board members would determine what the police presence should look like in their neighborhood, if it should look like anything at all. And at least in the case of Chicago, the police department’s budget would be radically reduced, with funds formerly earmarked for police redirected toward more meaningful and less harmful social goods.

The same police that Hampton excoriated in his speech in November 1969 killed him in Chicago several weeks later. In the early morning hours of Dec. 4, members of the Chicago Police Department, working in collaboration with the FBI and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, executed a raid on Hampton’s apartment in which police fired nearly 100 bullets into his home.

Mark Clark, a young member of the Panthers from Peoria, was also killed. Others in the apartment were seriously injured. The raiding officers shot Hampton dead in his bed execution-style as he lay beside his nine months’ pregnant partner, Deborah Johnson (now Akua Njeri).

Hampton had been largely unresponsive amid the gunfire, drugged with a sedative that had been slipped (almost assuredly by Panther member and FBI informant William O’Neal) into something he ate or drank the night before. Three and a half weeks after police killed a defenseless Hampton with point-blank bullets to the head, Njeri gave birth to a son he would never meet.

Nevertheless, the idea of radically decreasing both police power and the amount of resources spent on policing wasn’t going anywhere. Indeed, the Panthers’ National Chief of Staff David Hilliard called for community control of the police in large part because of the violently antagonistic postures that Chicago police took toward the Hampton-led Illinois Panthers in the year before his assassination.

In the San Francisco Bay area, the Panthers launched a series of initiatives to get community control of the police on the ballot. They succeeded in getting it to a popular vote in Berkeley, but it was ultimately defeated.

In Chicago, the Panthers and allied organizations kept the vision for community control alive, with Hampton at the front of people’s minds. On the three-year anniversary of his assassination, Dec. 4, 1972, a coalition of community organizations formally launched the Chicago Campaign for Community Control of the Police.

At the news conference announcing the campaign, Bobby L. Rush, who had served as Hampton’s second-in-command, declared that “Community control of the police is necessary because the police department has developed into a segment of government that has isolated itself from the community. It has shown callousness toward solving some of the real problems of the community and has become a major threat to the very existence of people in the community.” The campaign called for giving say over how the police operated at the community level to the people who lived in the community. And it called for a reduction and redistribution of the Chicago Police Department budget, with funds instead to be channeled toward jobs programs and other initiatives to rebuild the economic health and vitality of neglected communities.

It called for a new vision of community safety that included “defunding” the police.

The task of getting the initiative to a public vote failed, collapsing under the work it took to gather the enormous number of signatures needed to get it on the ballot. That should not make the effort an afterthought, however.

This month, Warner Bros. is releasing the first-ever feature film biopic of Fred Hampton, “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Such films can draw attention to important historical figures. They can encourage audiences to learn more about them and the contexts in which they lived. But we also need to know that people like Hampton, his colleagues and the ideas they crafted and advanced are more than just history, more than characters on a silver screen.

They are our precedent.

Half a century ago, the Panthers articulated a way forward on many fronts, from the urgency of creating multiracial solidarities to challenge the oppressions and obstacles so many poor and working-class people faced, to their demands that racist and repressive instruments of the state no longer be allowed to exact their terror. The party found few better articulators of these visions than Fred Hampton.

Re-imagining community safety, defunding police, confronting the worst of what “law enforcement” does: These are not new moral imperatives. No one should be shocked that such calls are here with us today, because the crises they spoke to never abated and still demand a reckoning. The work of organizers over the past eight months continues a long tradition of confronting unnecessary and harmful investments in institutions like the police.

Their victories—which, per researchers at Interrupting Criminalization, include at least $840 million in total divestments from police departments nationwide and $160 million reinvested into communities—are hard-won, and organizers deserve credit for those accomplishments. But they also draw from a much deeper well of political imagination and organization surrounding these issues.

Today’s calls to defund the police are not a new or radical departure, but rather directly in keeping with the long history of struggle by Black and allied communities for a better and more just world.

Simon Balto is the author of the award-winning “Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power,” and teaches in the history and African American studies departments at the University of Iowa.

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