July 17, 2020
Michael Ralph, New York University
I got lynched by some crooked cops.
And to this day, them same motherfuckers getting’ major pay.
But when I get my check, they takin’ tax out.
So we payin’ for these pigs to knock the blacks out.
Tupac, “Point tha Finga” (1993)
In the past few months, longstanding critiques about mass incarceration and police abuse have pushed a plea familiar to abolitionists into commercial journalism and casual conversation.
“Defund the Police.”
It is a fascinating and captivating demand because it distills the two essential features of policing: finance and violence (or, it would be “violence” except that concept refers to the excessive or illegitimate use of force). Prosecutors and judges indifferent to police killings of unarmed African Americans frame the use of force by police as always, inherently, legitimate. Oppressed people call it “state violence”; the privileged, “law and order.” This is America.
While corporations churn out press releases declaring their support for #BlackLivesMatter and affluent allies and academics debate the texts they prefer to include on anti-racism reading lists, low income and working class African Americans (women, in particular) have spent even more time during the past few months doing what they have been doing for the past decade—and increasingly for the past few years, that is, throughout the Trump era—sharing strategies for building wealth and acquiring expertise in firearms. In other words, “defund the police” hooks into the priorities of rank and file African Americans about how to defend the value of their lives in terms of what life means as a precious resource. This is what makes life “matter” and what matters in how we discuss policing.
In other words, low-income and working class black people realize the conversation about why black lives matter is a debate about the value of black lives in practical terms. They also realize that the value of life is tied to the forms of policing and militarism used to defend lives—or to take lives. This means the value of life is central to the history of policing in the same way that it is central to the history of insurance: together, the history of finance and violence.
It is perhaps no surprise that police departments and law enforcement officials sometimes contract insurance policies worth millions of dollars they can use to pay settlements when they are sued for having used extralegal force to injure or kill someone. Chicago may be battling a deficit of more than $838 million but it has spent over half a billion dollars on settlements for police abuse this decade (including more than $113 million in 2018). Minneapolis—where police officer Derek Chauvin killed the unarmed African American man, George Floyd, on May 25th sparking global cries for police reform—spent $20 million on a single settlement in 2017.
Police precincts sometimes use bonds—what some call “police brutality bonds”—to make settlement payments: claiming that million-dollar settlements drain their budgets, law enforcement officials take capital from investors in exchange for a projected profit. But since we are taxed to pay for law enforcement, we are ultimately the ones who pay for police misconduct. These financial partnerships let police evade accountability and help insurance companies generate record profits.
This relationship between finance and violence has been with us since the dawn of the republic. From the eighteenth century forward, US economic growth was fueled by marine insurance (through which merchants secured cargo—including enslaved people—shipped to these shores); fire insurance (to secure homes); and life insurance (to secure lives, as well as those of the enslaved people merchants grew their wealth by renting out after the slave trade was outawed in 1808). The same era that witnessed the birth of insurance to secure cherished assets also witnessed the birth of policing to safeguard commerce and to protect property—including slave patrols made up initially of white slaveholders who banded together as armed militias to recover stolen property in the form of African people who escaped slavery to secure their freedom.
Just as law enforcement originated in antebellum slave patrols, the US armed forces derived from efforts to contain adversaries conceived as threats to national security.
The US Army was born from explicit efforts to dispossess and exterminate indigenous people. After the Revolutionary War, public concern about the limits of state power forced the Continental Army to disband. Yet, the state pursued a persistent interest in displacing the prior inhabitants of what is now the United States by passing the Militia Act of 1792 (and then 1795). The Continental Army was succeeded by the Regular Army, succeeded by the Legion of the United States until in 1796 it became known thereafter as the US Army.
With the Naval Act of 1794, the US Navy consolidated a state project to subdue African pirates who interrupted US commerce. Alongside these events, insurance was used to secure the value of property and other assets and to grow capital, while police, militia, military—as security forces—subdued perceived threats to law and order, protecting assets while eliminating obstacles to capital growth.
Capital is not a thing—it is a relationship. It entails an agreement by financial institutions that a person or corporate entity has exclusive access to an asset and that the state—i.e., the police or military—will punish unauthorized access to it. The state does the most to protect the people with the largest capital investments, leaving people with the least capital invested to fend for themselves. Thus, the counterpart to insurance is mutual aid: the community funds and projects people used before the birth of the formal insurance industry (and still use when they are denied access to it).
“Defund the police” is an explicit effort to mobilize medical experts, therapists, teachers, activists, scholars, and social workers rather than outsourcing the complicated task of running society to law enforcement officials who believe they can solve social problems without bothering to study them.
“Defund the police” is a call to revisit the capital relations that have created what economists call “moral hazard”: police paid to brutalize—for Tupac, “beat”—African Americans, gender non-conforming people, and members of other despised groups. The fact that we are forced to subsidize our own subjugation adds insult to injury and financial liability.
“Defund the police” is part of a broader recognition that “reforms” make it too easy for police departments and insurance companies to make a killing.