This week Bernie Sanders, now out of the running for the Democratic Party presidential nominee, expressed some skepticism about the demand to defund the police in an interview in the New Yorker. That demand has become a rallying cry for the protests against racist police brutality that have arisen in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. But while Sanders echoed some of the core concepts animating the demand — like reassigning mental health and addiction services to non-police agencies — he didn’t explicitly lend it his approval.
Sanders didn’t outright say we shouldn’t defund the police, though he did say police officers should be well-paid. Instead, he expressed disagreement with the idea that police departments should be abolished, which he seemed to conflate with defunding. The interviewer also conflated them in his question, asking, “A lot of people in the progressive movement now are calling for defunding or abolishing the police. Do you —” to which Sanders responded, “Do I think we should not have police departments in America? No, I don’t. There’s no city in the world that does not have police departments.”
One of Sanders’s political strengths is his ability to pinpoint demands that are ambitious enough to raise ordinary people’s expectations and transform the way they think about the relationship between politics and their daily lives, but not so much that they seem impossible and fail to resonate. Sanders has always carefully walked a tightrope of trying to expand people’s imaginations without losing credibility or popular confidence.
That orientation toward reforms is precisely why he should publicly embrace the demand to defund the police.
Two Steps Ahead
The mass protests currently underway are the most widespread in US history. A majority of Americans support them, and their popularity continues to grow. Clearly, racist police brutality is an enormously animating issue for the American public.
And people aren’t just angry: it appears they’re also ready for new solutions to the problems caused by policing. The tectonic plates are rapidly shifting. City council members are embracing the idea of police budget cuts and even, in the case of Minneapolis, “dismantling” the police. The Chicago and Los Angeles teachers’ unions, the two most militant teachers’ unions in the country, are talking about defunding the police and calling for a disbanding the school police department, respectively.
As Bernie Sanders knows well, it’s politically strategic to be two steps ahead of people, not twenty. But while even police and prison abolitionists will generally concede that most people aren’t yet on board with abolishing the police outright, cutting local police budgets does not appear beyond the pale.
There’s nothing particularly difficult to explain about the concept of spending less on police and more on vital but underfunded social programs. The United States’ massive and violent police state has leaked into the gaps left by the absence of a big and vibrant welfare state. It was developed in an attempt to paper over and poorly manage the consequences of inequality while doing nothing to alleviate it, and has in fact actively made it worse.
Sanders is this country’s chief proponent of reversing the tide of austerity and building social-democratic programs for all. It would not be a stretch for him to take up the demand to cut police funding and fund the collective provision of basic necessities instead.
In major cities across the country, especially in cities with large black populations, police departments suck up more resources than anything else. Many police departments receive vastly more resources than other public services combined. Compared to police expenditures, major cities spend next to nothing on both non-police public safety alternatives like mental health crisis response infrastructure and general public programs like public schools, housing, health, parks, libraries, and art and culture.
Simply put, defunding the police means reversing those priorities. And reversing them is no more radical than leaving them as is. It’s just more rational and humane, as Sanders himself might say.
Furthermore, scaling down the carceral state would free the working class to stand up for itself in other spheres of society. See for example new research showing that incarceration rates are significantly and negatively associated with workplace organization rates. Emboldening the working class to organize and fight for itself is Sanders’s whole political project. Creating public safety alternatives that don’t have a disciplining effect on working-class organization and don’t intimidate working-class people into submission fits right into Sanders’s agenda.
If Sanders stepped out and called for defunding the police, it would not represent a deviation in his politics — it would show he’s keeping his finger on the pulse.
A Common Sense Proposal
Republicans and conservative Democrats alike are choosing to frame the demand to defund the police as a referendum on the existence of police, because they feel that debate is tilted in their favor. But while police abolitionists may find it strategically useful to meet them on that ideological terrain, there’s no reason for Sanders, who serves a different function politically, to treat the demand in the same way.
Sanders could pitch it as a common sense proposal to build new programs that promote social well-being while adequately funding the ones that already exist, transferring responsibilities and funds from bloated police departments. It’s squarely in his wheelhouse: he makes similar arguments about the military budget all the time.
The demand to defund the police can open the door to a broader conversation about the necessity and justice of policing of any kind, and that’s why abolitionists have elevated it for decades and are doing so now. But in an immediate sense, the demand doesn’t require solving the dilemmas of a hypothetical future society. Practically it means transferring budgets away from police departments and towards other public programs that will improve lives, stabilize communities, reduce violence, and create a general sense of safety and well-being that policing can’t.
Millions of people trust and listen to Bernie Sanders. He would be an excellent spokesperson — not a lone voice, but a uniquely popular and well-positioned one — for the demand to cut police spending and increase social spending.
Public money is being funneled to the wrong places, in ways that endanger rather than benefit average people. We should be using those resources to build big, well-funded, ideally universal social programs in education, health care, and housing instead, and taxing the rich to raise more money for these programs too while we’re at it.
Sounds like something Bernie Sanders would say.