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Defund the Police
What are the police for? Why are we paying for this?The death of George Floyd and the egregious, unprovoked acts of police violence at the peaceful protests following his death have raised these urgent questions. Police forces across America need root-to-stem changes—to their internal cultures, training and hiring practices, insurance, and governing regulations. Now a longtime demand from social-justice campaigners has become a rallying cry: Defund the police. This is in one sense a last-resort policy: If cops cannot stop killing people, and black people in particular, society needs fewer of them. But it is also and more urgently a statement of first principles: The country needs to shift financing away from surveillance and punishment, and toward fostering equitable, healthy, and safe communities.As a general point, the United States has an extreme budget commitment to prisons, guns, warplanes, armored vehicles, detention facilities, courts, jails, drones, and patrols—to law and order, meted out discriminately. It has an equally extreme budget commitment to food support, aid for teenage parents, help for the homeless, child care for working families, safe housing, and so on. It feeds the former and starves the latter.[Read: Who will hold the police accountable?]The distinctions are stark when comparing America with its peer nations. The U.S. spends 18.7 percent of its annual output on social programs, compared with 31.2 percent by France and 25.1 percent by Germany. It spends just 0.6 percent of its GDP on benefits for families with children, one-sixth of what Sweden spends and one-third the rich-country average. It spends far more on health care than these other countries, notably, but for a broken, patchy, and inequitable system, one that leaves people dying without care and bankrupts many of those who do get it.Meanwhile, the U.S. spends twice what Europe does on the military, though the two regions face many of the same threats. It spends more on domestic public-safety programs than virtually all of its peer nations, double what Singapore spends in GDP terms. It locks up millions, with an incarceration rate many times that of other NATO countries. If the state with the lowest incarceration rate, Massachusetts, were its own country, it would imprison more people than all but nine other nations, among them Turkmenistan.Does this spending make the country safer than its peers? No. Violent crime has reduced markedly in the past few decades. But America’s murder rate is still higher than the average among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and about four times the rate in Canada. The number of rapes, adjusted to the size of the population, is four times higher than it is in Denmark. Robberies are more than twice as common as they are in Poland. Gun violence is rampant; deaths and injuries from firearms among children are considered “a major clinical and public health crisis.” And Americans absorb far, far more violence from police officers. As a Guardian investigation demonstrated, the police shot dead 55 people in 24 years in England and Wales. There were more fatal police shootings in the first 24 days of 2015 in the U.S.A thin safety net, an expansive security state: This is the American way. At all levels of government, the country spends roughly double on police, prisons, and courts what it spends on food stamps, welfare, and income supplements. At the federal level, it spends twice as much on the Pentagon as on assistance programs, and eight times as much on defense as on education. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately cost something like $6 trillion and policing costs $100 billion a year. But proposals to end homelessness ($20 billion a year), create a universal prekindergarten program ($26 billion a year), reduce the racial wealth gap through baby bonds ($60 billion a year), and eliminate poverty among families with children ($70 billion a year) somehow never get financed. All told, taxpayers spend $31,286 a year on each incarcerated person, and $12,201 a year on every primary- and secondary-school student.[Read: Teachers vs. prisons]Looking at cities, the numbers are at least sometimes similarly skewed: Oakland spends 41 percent of its general-fund budget on policing, Minneapolis 36 percent, and Houston 35 percent. Cops and courts are not just a cost for local governments, though. Fines, fees, and forfeitures are a major source of revenue, encouraging violent overpolicing and harassment, especially of black neighborhoods and black individuals. In 80 cities and towns across the country, fines and forfeitures account for half of general-fund revenue, a practice particularly prevalent in Louisiana, Georgia, and Texas. A Department of Justice investigation found that in Ferguson, Missouri, the town used the police and the courts as a kind of fundraising office, plugging budget holes with ginned-up traffic tickets and housing-code violations and charges for missed court dates.America badly needs to rethink its priorities for the whole criminal-justice system, with Floyd’s death drawing urgent, national attention to the necessity for police reform. Activists, civil-rights organizations, academics, policy analysts, and politicians have drawn up a sprawling slate of policies that might help end police brutality, eliminate racist policing, improve trust between cops and the communities they work in, and lower crime levels.A more radical option, one scrawled on cardboard signs and tagged on buildings and flooding social media, is to defund the cops. What might that mean in practice? Not just smaller budgets and fewer officers, though many activists advocate for that. It would mean ending mass incarceration, cash bail, fines-and-fees policing, the war on drugs, and police militarization, as well as getting cops out of schools. It would also mean funding housing-first programs, creating subsidized jobs for the formerly incarcerated, and expanding initiatives to have mental-health professionals and social workers respond to emergency calls.[Read: How to actually fix America’s police]More broadly, the demand to divest from policing doubles as a call to invest in safety, security, and racial justice. This week, cops in riot gear teargassed teenagers, Humvees patrolled near the White House, and military helicopters buzzed protesters. At the same time, health workers fought COVID-19 wearing reused masks. This is not serving. This is not protecting.
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Lessons for American Police From Hong Kong
The AtlanticHONG KONG—For most of last year, life here was intertwined with protests. Those not attending demonstrations might have found themselves caught in the middle of a police clearance operation, with officers chasing black-clad protesters into subway stations or around shopping malls. Large video boards hanging off skyscrapers occasionally carried live footage of marches just a few blocks away. People distantly removed from the nucleus of unrest could count on live-streams on their phone. Even when I was not reporting, the protests were never far off: Dinners with friends sometimes came with a whiff of tear gas.This week, I found myself once again staring at and scrolling through protest footage, not from the Hong Kong neighborhoods of Sha Tin, Yuen Long, and Causeway Bay, but from Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Watching from many time zones away, my mornings slipped by as I sat enraptured with news reports, checking my messages for updates from friends and family in the United States.The protests that have rolled across the U.S. and the mass demonstrations in Hong Kong are undoubtedly different, both at their root and in how they have played out. Hong Kongers, for instance, point out that while buildings and businesses here were damaged, they were selective about targeting only pro-Beijing sites and tried to restrict looting. Some in Hong Kong have also posted photos to social media of American officers joining protesters in solidarity, remarking that such scenes would never take place here. (The reaction of those such as Senator Tom Cotton, a vocal backer of Hong Kong’s demonstrations who has supported cracking down on his own protesting citizenry, is one that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the government here or in Beijing.)Still, it is difficult not to see a few similarities between the U.S. protests and, in particular, the early days of Hong Kong’s latest prodemocracy movement. If those parallels bear out over time, the U.S. could be looking at a long arc of protests, one in which the actions of the authorities do not quell unrest but instead galvanize demonstrators and draw in new ones, broadening protests into a movement far larger and with much wider support than when it began.[Anne Applebaum: History will judge the complicit]I remarked to friends this week that numerous American police departments appeared to be having their June 12 moment, a reference to a mass protest in Hong Kong last year that was violently broken up by officers, the first of many such crackdowns to come. The actions of police that day—attacking peaceful protesters, firing rubber bullets at journalists, and harassing bystanders— captured on video and widely broadcast, coupled with the authorities’ subsequent unflinching support of the force led to a surge in support for demonstrators, helping propel Hong Kong’s protests from ones focused on a single issue to a much larger movement.Just days prior to the June 12 protest, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers had taken to the streets against proposed legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, worried and angry about the threat posed to the territory’s semiautonomous status. On June 12 itself, tens of thousands of protesters occupied a major road near the city’s Legislative Council, hoping to disrupt the reading of the bill. The effort started just after sunrise and within a few hours the street had turned into a well-organized protest camp. Supplies flowed from distribution points up and down the road, groups of friends sat on the pavement chatting, a few people placed enormous orders at a nearby McDonald’s and weaved through the crowd handing out hamburgers.Then, in the late afternoon, police began firing canisters of tear gas as protesters pushed against metal barricades. It was early in Hong Kong’s period of unrest, and demonstrators were not yet wearing the body armor and helmets that would become commonplace in the weeks and months to come. With little protection, many of them fled in panic. Police then fired rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds, while some officers beat unarmed protesters with batons. Others fired on clearly identified journalists. Some officers removed their identification badge from their uniform, making it impossible to know who they were. After the dispersal, one protester teared up as he told me about the solidarity he had felt while demonstrating alongside strangers for a common goal, before officers intervened.Police in Hong Kong would quickly find out what officers in the U.S. could soon be discovering themselves: that while tear gas momentarily sends people scattering, when the smoke clears, it has a way of bringing people together, turning bystanders into protesters and hardening the resolve of those already committed to a cause.Nearly every person I spoke with in the following year—frontline protesters, activists, prodemocracy lawmakers, and casual participants in the demonstrations—cited June 12 as a turning point. “It changed everything,” Bonnie Leung, who at the time served as the vice convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, a group that organized some of the largest protests against the extradition bill, told me.[Adam Serwer: Trump gave police permission to be brutal]The main grievance, the proposed legislation, remained, but the actions of the police shocked and appalled many, leading to more people joining the protests. Two days later, thousands of mothers took part in a rally urging police to not shoot their kids. On June 16, some 2 million people took to the streets, the largest protest of the movement and one of the largest in Hong Kong’s history. The following month, on July 21, police failed to quickly respond to organized-crime members beating protesters with sticks, further eroding trust. Images this week of white residents of a Philadelphia neighborhood carrying bats and assaulting people while police stood by were strikingly similar. (Just as in Hong Kong, a journalist in Philadelphia was also targeted.) Poor attempts by law enforcement in the U.S. to make people second guess what they have seen, are reminiscent of the Hong Kong police’s defense when they were caught on camera roughing up a man on the ground. It was just a “yellow object,” officers claimed. Even now, graffiti marking the dates of these incidents in Hong Kong can still be seen around the city.Police did not simply fail to keep order and curtail the protests—the task they were sent to the streets to do. The reputation of the Hong Kong Police Force, which dubbed itself “Asia’s Finest” and was generally respected as recently as a year ago, collapsed in the eyes of those it purported to serve. At the same time, radical tactics used by protesters became more accepted by the public. Officers now walking the streets are routinely on the receiving end of vulgarities and slurs, and have moved from being seen as arbiters of law and order to being viewed as an occupying force working at the behest of Beijing. Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong described police as being “perceived as a coercive apparatus of the People’s Republic of China” in a paper detailing how violent confrontations led to an uptick in support for prodemocracy candidates in last year’s local elections.An interview with a young woman by the online news outlet Asian Boss captured not only the anger but the deep sadness that many people felt watching the police brutalize city residents with seemingly little remorse and no repercussions. “When I was young, my teacher told me that the police arrest criminals, and you can seek help from them and you can trust them,” the woman said as she began to cry. “I couldn’t imagine being afraid of being hit and arrested by the police. But now, even though I might not be breaking any laws, I might get arrested or hit by them for just wearing a black T-shirt.” Recently, my soft-spoken Cantonese teacher, when going through a section on useful phrases, told me that “Help, I’m in trouble!” used to be something I could have said to get a police officer’s attention. Now it would more likely be deployed when an officer was beating me indiscriminately, she said.The lessons for the United States appear clear, even if the parallels are not perfectly aligned. It took decades for Hong Kong’s police to build up a store of trust, and mere days for that trust to be lost. The authorities’ unquestioning support of the police, absolving officers caught misusing their power and refusing demands for a substantive inquiry into the force, has only served to worsen the relationship between the city’s people and those charged with keeping them safe.[Mike Mullen: I cannot remain silent]A significant difference, however, between American police departments and the force here, which prodemocracy advocates have been quick to point out and which Hong Kong’s government likes to overlook, is that out-of-control officers in the United States face at least some repercussions. A number have been fired, and investigations have been launched. It’s not the complete overhaul and rethinking of policing that some have advocated for, but it is start.In Hong Kong, the government’s largely powerless police watchdog this year produced a 999-page report looking at the force’s conduct during the protests. Though it unsurprisingly absolved the police of wrongdoing, it nevertheless noted that “the image of the police has lost its lustre and the city of Hong Kong has lost its hard-earned reputation as a peaceful city.”“Most disheartening, too,” it continued, “is the psychological trauma the violence has wrought, particularly on the minds of young people.”
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