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For seven minutes and 46 seconds,[1] a Minneapolis police officer put his knee on George Floyd’s neck, stealing his last breaths.  Floyd’s callous murder on May 15, 2020, sparked a conflagration across American cities that consumed national attention.  “Defund the police,” announced former Bernie Sanders presidential campaign speechwriter David Sirota, “has become a nationwide mantra.”[2]  While pundits wrestled with what that slogan should mean, Mariame Kaba, a prison abolitionist, set the record straight in the New York Times: “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.”  George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer was the rule for her, not the exception: “When a police officer brutalizes a black person he is doing what he sees as his job.”  Put simply, “We can’t reform the police.”[3]  Similarly, Michelle Alexander, author of TheNew Jim Crow, was not surprised that “growing numbers of people are working to defund the police and reimagine justice,” declaring, “The system is not broken; it is functioning according to its design.”[4]

Many traditional Black leaders have pushed back against the calls from activists to “defund the police.”  James Clyburn, U.S. representative from South Carolina and chair of the Democratic Caucus, was as unequivocal as Kaba: “Nobody is going to defund the police.” He explained, “re-imagine policing…, [t]hat is what we are going to do.”[5]  Al Sharpton noted: “I don’t think anyone other than the far extremes is saying we don’t want any kind of policing at all.”[6] He later described abolition as an idea “a latte liberal may go for as they sit around the Hamptons discussing this as some academic problem.”[7] According to Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, a Black progressive with deep Black nationalist roots, defunding the police is a “bourgeois liberal” solution.  Although he seeks “significant reforms,” he questions the wisdom of abolition: “Who would respond to calls for service for violence and domestic abuse?”[8]  By early July, the African American Mayors Association had drafted a policy blueprint that focused on greater transparency; revising policing-related contracts; changing federal policy; engaging the community; and making budgets “reflect community values.”[9]  Though it was vague on specifics, McKinley Price, the association’s president and mayor of Newport News, Va., made one thing very clear: “We do not call for abolishing or defunding police departments.’”[10]  

How do we break this impasse? Where do we go from here?  We can begin to look for a path forward by reflecting on how the politics of punishment have evolved from the 1980s to today, reviewing polling data and key policy moments.  While many accounts of attitudes about policing highlight “racial divides,”[11] my analysis seeks to understand African American opinion on its own terms as well as in relation to other racial groups and seeks to capture its political significance historically and in the current moment.  Instead of assuming a coherent “Black perspective” on policing and punishment, it centers the complex, and sometimes contradictory, internal politics of public safety within African American communities.[12]  While most Blacks have been less punitive than most whites, most Blacks have also been extremely punitive in their own right.   

First, African American attitudes grew increasingly punitive towards crime, policing, and punishment in response to rising violence in Black communities from the 1960s to the early 1990s.  The passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (aka “the crime bill”) provides a key example. Anti-crime sentiments made African Americans a crucial member of the “get tough” coalition that defined American politics and policy in that era.  Second, crime’s stunning denouement lead Black opinion to moderate, as revealed by attitudes and events in New York City as reported violent crimes dropped sharply from their peak in the early 1990s, in part reflecting new policing strategies.  Despite living in safer communities and continuing to see police brutality, most African Americans remained committed to effective policing as a public safety strategy.  The Black Lives Matter movement emerged, in part, however, as a response to these same policing strategies and signals a major generational division in African American politics. 

Third, manifestations of these generational splits were visible in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary campaign and the subsequent protests seeking to “defund the police.”  Recent surveys show that most African Americans side with Clyburn more than Alexander.  Most Americans, including Blacks, endorse meaningful police reforms, but they also oppose abolition, although that is favored by a plurality of Black and white millennials.  The fate of defund measures in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and New York City document the ways in which the fight over “defund the police” is as much a conflict between young and old and left and center as it is between Black and white. 

My analysis then returns to the central question: Where do we go from here?  Some have cheered the ethical and practical benefits of abolition.[13] Others have championed the merits of certain reforms.[14]  Without rehashing or adjudicating between these perspectives, one can still see a policy space that heeds the constraints of contemporary attitudes and attends both to the deep and legitimate fear of crime that continues to weigh heavily on many African Americans and to the terror that police violence foments among all Blacks.[15]  Living with overpolicing and underprotection,[16] most African Americans seek the reconstruction of public safety strategies, urban communities, and the relationship between those strategies and those communities.  We need to end police brutality without ending policing.

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About the Author

Michael Javen Fortner is assistant professor of political science at the Graduate Center, the City University of New York.  He is the author of Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment.  

[1]“Prosecutors say officer had knee on George Floyd’s neck for 7:46 rather than 8:46,” Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2020. 

[2]David Sirota, “There’s No Way Around It: Spending on Police in the U.S. Is out of Control,” Jacobin, June 8, 2020. 

[3]Mariame Kaba, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” New York Times, June 12, 2020.

[4]Michelle Alexander, “America, This is Your Chance,” New York Times, June 8, 2020.  

[5]Chandelis Duster, “Clyburn says he does not support defunding the police,” CNN, June 14, 2020. 

[6]“Rev. Al Discusses Possible Changes to Minneapolis Police Department,” Morning Joe, MSNBC, June 8, 2020. 

[7]Morning Joe, MSNBC, September 12, 2020.

[8]Sam Sutton, “Newark Mayor: Dismantling Police a ‘Bourgeois Liberal’ Solution for a Much Deeper Problem,” Politico, June 11, 2020. 

[9]African American Mayors Association, Inc., Black Mayors Release Pact on Police Reform (Press Release), June 30, 2020. 

[10]Tom Jackman, “African American mayors lay out plan for police reform without ‘defunding,’” Washington Post, July 27, 2020.

[11]Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies (Washington, D.C.:Sentencing Project, 2014). Mark Peffley and Jon Hurwitz. Justice in America: The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[12]This analytical perspective draws inspiration from the following: Jennifer L. Hochschild, Facing up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995);

Adolph L. Reed, Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Cathy J. Cohen, The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Lester K. Spence, Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics(Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2015).

[13]Alex S. Vitale, The End of Policing(Verso Books, 2017).

[14]Robert Muggah and Thomas Abt, “Calls for Police Reform Are Getting Louder—Here Is How to Do It,” Foreign Policy, June 22, 2020. 

[15]Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness(New York: New Press, 2012).

[16]Jill Leovy, Ghettoside: A true story of murder in America(New York City: Spiegel & Grau, 2015).