The phrase “defund the police” entered mainstream consciousness during the historic 2020 racial justice protests in the United States. That call, to shift funding away from police and toward social services, quickly prompted a defensive, pro-police backlash among many politicians and media pundits. But it also spurred grassroots efforts in cities across the country to change the balance sheets of city budgets away from police.
In their new book, No More Police: A Case for Abolition, longtime police and prison abolitionists Andrea J. Ritchie and Mariame Kaba explore the meaning behind “defund the police,” and how activists are working to realize it. Both Ritchie and Kaba are nationally recognized experts on policing and criminalization, and co-founders of Interrupting Criminalization, an initiative that challenges the carceral state.
Ritchie recently spoke with YES! Racial Justice Editor Sonali Kolhatkar about how racial capitalism requires policing in an unequal society, how police foster violence rather than public safety, and how communities across the U.S. are successfully pushing to defund law enforcement.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Sonali Kolhatkar: The idea of “defund the police” was not new in 2020, it was only new to the mainstream press and to politicians. We know that the idea of defunding the police goes back a few years, but the idea of abolishing the carceral state as a whole goes back decades, right?
Andrea Ritchie: Absolutely. I think that certainly the notion of defunding police gained a great deal more traction over the last couple of years, but it is something that can be traced back. Angela Davis, for instance—who’s a leading Black feminist abolitionist who’s inspired both Mariame [Kaba] and I in this work—traces, in some ways, the conversation back to W.E.B. Du Bois’ call to finish the unfinished work of the abolition of slavery, and establishing an abolition democracy, which would be one that would undo the vestiges of slavery and redistribute wealth resources and power in such a way as to rectify that, and to correct it and heal from it, transform it in our society.
And in many ways, the call to defund police grows from that. It’s a call to take resources, power, and legitimacy away from institutions rooted in anti-Blackness, in racial capitalism, and essentially in death-making—policing, punishment, surveillance, and exile—and reinvest them in the rebuilding of the commons, of a society built around the notion of the common good, of everyone’s needs being met as needs and not through distribution that amounts to policing.
So, I think that the focus on police and prisons as part of that movement came about in the ’90s, as more and more and more funding was being taken—stolen—from education, from social programs, from common goods, from social services, from public parks, from libraries, etc., and poured increasingly into policing, prisons, and immigration enforcement. And as that trend has skyrocketed, so has resistance to it, and so has it spread across the country.
Kolhatkar: So, when the rallying cry of “defund the police” in 2020 was met with opposition, that was the year of the presidential election. We had then-candidate Joe Biden saying he was absolutely not in favor of defunding police. And this was where the mainstream establishment drew the line, saying, “Yes, we’re all for racial justice, yes, Black Lives Matter, but certainly we don’t want to defund the police.” And then this year we saw the most horrifying example that we could imagine of how police don’t equal safety when we saw the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Was that a turning point for this notion that police are central to public safety, when police did nothing for over an hour as babies were being shot?
Ritchie: The question we opened the book with is, “What is the moment when you began to question the violence of policing?” And there have been so many moments. [Uvalde] was a horrifying one that certainly drew a lot of people into the conversation who maybe had been hesitant to enter it before. And there have been many more, and there are many more every single day. Some gain more national traction and prominence, and others don’t.
But it’s a daily practice that less than half of survivors of gender-based violence don’t turn to the police because of the violence and criminalization that [police] perpetrate, and also because [police] fail to prevent, interrupt, or heal from violence. And so that’s kind of a daily horror: that more than half of survivors of violence aren’t able or willing to avail themselves of the thing that is increasingly getting the resources to address the harms they’re experiencing. That’s sort of a quiet Uvalde, right?
Then, there’s the daily spectacular forms of violence, some of which gain national attention and some don’t, that keep making the case for folks.
So, that is actually how we open the book, by inviting folks to think about the moment in which, for them, the violence of policing and its equation with public safety was ruptured. And then [we] invite them into a conversation about what that rupture makes possible in terms of the imagination of what could be, in terms of creating safer, more just, thriving, and sustainable communities.
And the point you make about the politicians around defund is really important, because defund [the police] is a very concrete demand. It asks them to put their money where their mouth is and to go beyond platitudes in Kente cloth, to actually making material change that will end the violence—the anti-Black violence, the anti-Indigenous, the anti-migrant, the settler colonial racial capitalist violence—that is policing, and shift resources in a way that undermines the accumulation of wealth and promotes the redistribution of wealth. So, of course, they don’t want to do that, and that’s why there’s been such a powerful and intense backlash against the demand, which, actually, as we argue in the book, is a demonstration of its power.
Kolhatkar: Those who defend police funding might admit that police are often violating their own ideals, that they are often the perpetrators of violence. But their “solution” is to reform the police. We’ve seen years of reform policies, like outfitting cops with body cameras and creating citizen commissions that oversee police. How do you take on the reformists in your book, No More Police?
Ritchie: The first thing we do is take apart the word “reform.” Mariame [Kaba] always invites us to write the word reform in a hyphenated way, re-form, because that’s what you’re doing. You’re re-forming the same thing into a new shape with the same purpose.
One of the things we did at Interrupting Criminalization—which was also another brilliant idea of thousands that come out of Mariame [Kaba]’s head—was to create a series of posters in which we, and other scholars and organizers, many of whom are cited or uplifted in the book, define policing in a sentence. Because at its core, what reform misapprehends is what police are. They’re not broken, they’re not rogue. They’re not in need of a policy reform or a new rule or more intense discipline or more intense regulation through civil litigation. They’re doing exactly what they were set up to do, and they’re doing it very well.
And [police] are clear that the rules aren’t for them. What they are charged with doing is maintaining the existing social order—and politicians will give them free rein, with the occasional exception, to sort of make it look like the system’s working to do exactly that. To use untold violence, criminalization, suffering, and pain and punishment in order to do that.
And so, the reform chapter [of our book] really lays that out, lays out what policing is, which is what Alyxandra Goodwin of the Action Center on Race and the Economy calls police—the muscle of racial capitalism.
I talk about [how] police are violence, not safety. Mariame Kaba talks about how police are set up to … manage the conditions that racial capitalism creates. There’s so many ways to talk about what policing is, and that’s what we get at in the reform chapter, [which] is really saying you can’t reform something that’s doing exactly what it was meant to do.
And [we] also point out that if you need further proof of that, you can look to the last century of attempts to minimize the harms of policing, reduce the harms, make it do what we hope it could do, while taking away its more harmful aspects.
And each of them [has] failed. And sometimes, they take technological forms. We think, oh, tech will save us—like the body cameras or the tasers—and we find they just keep reproducing the same patterns. And that, to us, is clear evidence that that’s what policing is. We can’t keep throwing good money after bad, and trying to recuperate an institution that has been death-making since its inception.
Kolhatkar: Let’s focus on the notion of racial capitalism, which I think is so central to this topic, and you take it on so beautifully in your book No More Police. The word “defund” itself gets to the heart of that—taking money away from police and putting it back into the things that foster public safety so that we don’t need police. Because currently, as it stands, you have a society where wealth keeps flowing upwards, and to quell the unrest among the masses, police are deemed “necessary.” That is an analysis that we almost never get in the mainstream media, where you might get critiques of capitalism, and you might get critiques of police, but you rarely get critiques that connect the two.
Ritchie: We are students of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, of Angela Davis, of Robin D.G. Kelley, of so many people who have made those clear connections. And they are definitely our touchstones among many. And many scholars and organizers in Critical Resistance and INCITE, Women of Color against Violence have historically made those connections. The Black Panthers made those connections. They’re also part of the origin story of “defund” demands. So are incarcerated people who in the ’70s were calling for the abolition of the judicial-prison-parole-industrial complex.
And so, we learn from people who are directly targeted by racial capitalism. We learn from Angela Davis, who says that criminalization and prisons are designed to hide the effects of racial capitalism. We learn from Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who says capitalism is consistently trying to resolve crises of its own creation, and criminalization is one of the primary ways that it does so.
We also talk a lot in the book about the current manifestation of racial capitalism—neoliberalism—which is essentially the opposite of defund [the police] right? [Neoliberalism] is defunding education, social services, public housing, libraries, hospitals, health care, common good, public good of any kind, resources for people in need of any kind—and [it] funnels those [funds] to capital and then criminalizes people who are trying to survive under those increasingly desperate conditions.
That is at the core of the analysis of No More Police. And then where that takes us is [to ask the question], what kind of society, what forms of governance are the antithesis to the defunding of the commons, and the funding—and increasingly more and more voracious pouring of even pandemic relief funds—into the coffers and pockets of police and prisons and surveillance and borders?
And we [think the answer to that question is] a refunding of the commons. And that’s what the demand to defund police is: We want to take money away from death-giving institutions and pour them into life-giving institutions, and we want to do that in a way that doesn’t reenact and reaffirm policing in new ways, in the ways that social welfare programs, social work, or public health and medical treatment can so often do so.
It’s really about reimagining: What is the form of society, what is the form of sociology, what is the economic system, what is the form of governance that we are looking to create that will enact our liberation dreams, that will make our hopes for a society in which everyone has everything that they need to reach their highest human potential?
What’s going to make that possible? Defund the police is definitely the first step. It’s certainly not the last, but it’s a clear step in that direction. And that, I think, is the power of the demand.
Kolhatkar: When the mass racial justice protests happened in 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, the Minneapolis City Council started to consider the demand to defund the police. And if you just read the mainstream press or the right-wing press, Minneapolis defunded its police. What actually happened?
Ritchie: I do think what’s important about that is that the stories that are told about our work and what’s happening … are manipulated to serve the re-legitimization of policing. I think 2020 saw one of the greatest crises of legitimacy for policing in the United States in decades, and there was a swift and powerful and ongoing backlash that is fueled by the mainstream media in the same way that Ida B. Wells talks about the mainstream media being accomplices to lynching.
There’s a way in which the mainstream media continues to fuel this backlash, to attempt to recuperate police, to blame violence in our communities not on lack of things that we need to survive, but instead on individuals and on low police morale, and the absence of police in some way. So, I think we need to really deconstruct those narratives, and there’s a lot in No More Police to help us do that. There’s a lot in the study and discussion guide that came out with it.
I think the story of Minneapolis is central to this, and it didn’t start on May 25, 2020. And we’re so grateful that Black Visions, one of the key organizations that was at the epicenter of that uprising, [was] willing to write a foreword, really laying out what they had been doing for years beforehand—they had succeeded in defunding the police department [by] over a million dollars in 2018—and then the mayor came back and re-funded it.
So, this was an ongoing struggle that was going on in the city. It wasn’t just that this demand came out of a moment. It came out of a struggle, and it came out of organizing, and it came out of political education, and it came out of political analysis and growth around what the impact of reform had been in Minneapolis.
You know Minneapolis [police] had adopted the vast majority of the gold standard reforms, best practices promoted by the Department of Justice, by everyone else. Derek Chauvin had been trained to not do exactly what he did when he kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. So, [the Minneapolis Police Department] had all the policies, all the training, and that still happened.
And so [the movement to defund the police in Minneapolis] was really an opportunity … that was seeded by many years of organizing and political education and analysis, and [Miski Noor and Kandace Montgomery of Black Visions] lay that out really beautifully.
We also talk about that evolution in the main text. So, what’s happened in Minneapolis has been really beautiful, that people have moved from that moment to engaging community members through surveys, through people’s movement assemblies, through ongoing conversations, to really ask people what they need to feel safe.
There have been many experiments and practices. There are groups like Relationships Evolving Possibilities and the Powderhorn Safety Collective and Little Earth Protectors who are really thinking and practicing what it looks like to create safety without police. A lot of their work is documented at MillionExperiments.com if folks want to check it out.
And then [there’s] the People’s Movement Assembly. Black Visions put out a report on a series of conversations that happened in 2020, and they went back for a budget fight in 2021. In addition, [they fought for] a ballot initiative that would have unshackled the city from a mandatory level of a police budget that a police union fought for in 1961 to keep their jobs when there was also a crisis of legitimacy of policing at the time.
And so there’s been so much work happening on the ground in ways that are less visible than the burning of the Third Precinct, but certainly equally revolutionary in the sense that they’re really engaging people in conversation in Minneapolis about what safety looks like. And the city council has come and gone with the headlines in some respects, some folks have stayed in the struggle, others have sort of blown with the political winds. But we know that’s how organizing works, and the key to organizing is building power to make it impossible for people to ignore your demands. We did that in 2020, and people are continuing to do that across the country.
Kolhatkar: Are there other cities in the country where you see activists successfully chipping away at the funding that police, the carceral state, and the prison system get, and putting that into the things that foster public safety and funding for the things that we actually need? Are there success stories at the micro level that we can look to as we imagine a world without police?
Ritchie: There are so many that we chronicle in No More Police and so many that didn’t make it into those pages but exist. And you can find out more about all of them at DefundPolice.org, which is a site that gathers together information from cities and towns and locations across the country doing this work.
And I will say that the biggest success is that cities and communities across the country engaged in similar conversations to the ones that Black Visions and Reclaim the Block and many other groups in Minneapolis engaged in, around what safety looks like in communities. Black Nashville Assembly, Jackson People’s Assembly, and many [other] groups across the country engaged in community conversations about what safety requires that didn’t necessarily make headlines.
Some cities and organizers were successful in kind of commandeering, taking over, and mobilizing city-announced public safety task forces to really build out recommendations that would pour resources into communities and meeting community needs. [This happened] in Austin, [Texas,] in Oakland, [California,] and Durham, [North Carolina,] for instance. And in all of those cities, organizers are still very much contending for power around implementation of those recommendations—funding of those initiatives, etc.—with varying degrees of success.
And I think the success across the board is that, whereas pre-2020, it’s not like we weren’t fighting police budgets, but essentially, city policymakers would feel empowered to just write a blank check to the cops whenever they came and demanded money. Now, they feel like they have to justify what they’re doing, because they know that the organizers are going to come for them. There’s billboards up in L.A., there’s billboards up in Milwaukee today, talking about how much money is going to police and how much money is going to other things. That wasn’t something they had to contend with before, and that’s the power that we’ve built. So that’s really important.
I do want to lift up Seattle, which is sort of a sleeper in terms of people across the country not paying attention. They’re the only city that’s defunded their police department two years in a row, that secured millions of dollars for community safety projects and millions more for participatory budgeting process. The city is dragging its feet on implementing that now.
Kolhatkar: And when you say “defund” you mean taking some money out of the police budget, not closing down the police department, right?
Ritchie: They have taken significant amounts of money out of the police budget. They’ve also taken 911 operators out of the police purview. They have taken some other functions out of the police department. Also, Minneapolis did the same, taking 911 out of the police department, which makes more [things] possible.
If the people answering the phone aren’t the police, they might offer you some options that aren’t the police, and might be safer and actually meet your needs. I think Atlanta has been very successful in doing that. The Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative has now created an option with 311, that you can call non-police responders who are community responders, who are people who are going to offer folks a range of options rather than a cage. There are places everywhere where these things are happening.
Kolhatkar: Denver, Colorado, has a really interesting alternative to calling the police, right?
Ritchie: What’s interesting about Denver is that—and this is true across the country too—is that when the cops see something that looks like it’s successful or is going to be successful in taking away some of their power or resources, they will set up a competing program. In Denver, because 911 was taken out of the police department, they conscripted the 911 operators to make sure they got the calls for their co-response program, as opposed to the non-police community response program.
Interrupting Criminalization documented that in a report based on talking to local organizers that you can find on our site, “Defund the Police – Invest in Community Care.” That is also the thing that we need to pay attention to: The more successful we are, the more the police are going to fight back viciously, with fear-mongering narratives, literally stealing calls from people, literally undermining violence interruption programs by fomenting violence.
And by not answering calls for help and then blaming “defund” instead of blaming the fact that they are just not answering calls because they’re trying to make a point.
And continuing to police and criminalize poverty instead. Seattle police have been doing almost daily sweeps of unhoused people in communities and then claiming that they don’t have the resources to answer domestic violence calls. Well, first of all, the legislation told you which ones to prioritize, and second of all, what you’re doing makes it clear … that you’re acting based on what your function is as opposed to what you claim it is.
Kolhatkar: Thank you so much for joining me. Best of luck to you and your co-author Mariame Kaba with the book.
Ritchie: Thank you so much for having me, it’s always lovely to speak with you.
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com