Over the past few weeks, mass protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd have erupted across the country in a multiracial movement against police violence and systemic racism. In response to this nationwide uprising, police have answered by rioting in the streets, wantonly attacking and brutalizing protestors with batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray in Kansas City, Minneapolis, New York City, Seattle, Atlanta, Washington DC, and elsewhere. In the struggle for Black liberation, demonstrators have now rallied around the demand to defund the police.
Policing in America has its origins in slave patrols, strike breaking, and enforcement of segregation in the Jim Crow South. Not only have the police violently enforced white supremacy throughout American history, they also took part in or implicitly sided with white riots and race massacres. Across the state border to the east, police sat idly by as whites killed dozens of Black men, women, and children in the East St. Louis Massacre of 1917. To the south, the Tulsa race massacre in 1921 left 8,000 Black residents without homes and as many as 300 dead. History is full of such horrific episodes.
Rooted in the protection of private property and the racial order, policing serves to protect the interests of the ruling class. It is an inherently violent institution that exists not to provide public safety but to serve as a mechanism of social control. Safety and peace keeping for the haves, punishment and discipline for the have nots. That history of policing is inextricably tied up with the history of Lawrence, through the time of Bleeding Kansas up to the killing of George Floyd.
Despite Lawrence’s proud affiliation with its Free State past, Kansas too was born from the crucible of white supremacy and settler colonialism. Free Soil Republicans, in contrast to the popular history that is often presented of egalitarian abolitionists committed to the struggle for revolutionary emancipation, were primarily anti-slaveholder in orientation, concerned with the upholding of white supremacy through the distribution of stolen Indigenous land to all white settlers on the frontier as opposed to just wealthy slaveholders.
In the first half of the 20th century, Black students at the University of Kansas sat in a segregated section of the Union cafeteria, were prevented from swimming in the school’s pool, and were unable to participate in athletics, band, and ROTC. Along with segregation on campus, housing discrimination was also common in Lawrence. Racialized inequality still pervades our communities, from the legacy of segregation, restrictive covenants, and redlining up through the ongoing practices of residential zoning, predatory lending, and mass incarceration.
Throughout American history, African Americans and communities of color have gone through repeated cycles of removal and dispossession, exploitation and extraction. It is in this context one can see that Lawrence, and policing in Lawrence, does not stand apart from the history of white supremacy that beats at the heart of the nation. And it is in this context through which to understand that abolishing the police, both here and in cities across the country, is the only possible solution following repeated rounds of procedural reform that have utterly failed to stem police violence and address the reality that it is the institution of policing itself that is rotten.
Since 2014, the year of the police killing of Michael Brown and the Ferguson uprising, annual spending on the Lawrence Police Department has increased by 57%. Over that same time period, general expenditures by the City of Lawrence rose by only 12%. As a result, the LPD now accounts for 33% of the city’s general fund budget, up from 23% in 2014.
Along with the $27.4 million to be spent on police this year, the city has also bonded $18.5 million for new police headquarters and the department has requested an additional $5 million for a new police training facility in the city’s 2021 Capital Improvement Plan. Not to be outdone in its contribution to the expansion of the carceral state, Douglas County has approved $29.6 million to expand the county jail and has pushed forward with the expansion despite strong opposition from residents.
What has the community received in return? Intimidation and harassment directed at the unhoused, manifested in sweeping demolitions of houseless encampments and punitive fines imposed on people for daring to fall asleep on public benches. Instead of funding social services and public programs that would alleviate the city’s housing crisis and provide shelter to the vulnerable, the city has decided to punish the most marginalized people in the community. A situation made all the more acute by the use of restrictive zoning to manufacture artificial scarcity and drive up property values and rental rates for white property owners, further contributing to the deprivation facing not just the houseless but Black and working class people as well.
Just this year, the city allocated more funding to new police vehicles, nearly $900,000, than toward affordable housing initiatives, the Lawrence Community Shelter, and local food banks combined. It wasn’t until the city received a federal grant under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that the community shelter was provided any substantial funding, and only after the shelter was forced to cut capacity by half, from 125 to 65, late last year.
The relatively meager amount allocated to the community shelter under the city’s 2020 annual budget doesn’t even come from city funds, but rather from the federal Community Development Block Grant program administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Beyond outright removal of poor people from public space, the police further deepen racialized inequality through the extraction of wealth from the city’s poorest residents with fees and fines, and failing that, by simply locking them up as part of just another cycle of extraction and removal.
Calls from the community, Lawrence Journal-World, and City Commission for greater transparency into the LPD’s use of force have gone mostly unanswered. As the Journal-World has reported, multiple use of force reports are missing from the LPD’s website and a quick browse of the department’s website by any interested Lawrence resident will unearth scant evidence of transparency, such as accountability reports detailing complaints with a single sentence.
What use of force reports that do exist provide the richest source of the department’s practices of “public safety.” Incidents in the 2019 report, just recently released after repeated requests by the Journal-World, include police tasering a man who was reported to be suicidal, unleashing a police dog on a person that resulted in the suspect being bit, and an officer injuring himself after attempting, and failing, to hit a driver suspected of driving under the influence with a baton.
In 2018, a Black driver was inadvertently shot by an officer who was attempting to draw and fire her taser, not her pistol, during a routine traffic stop for an alleged seat belt violation. It should come as no surprise that a routine traffic stop quickly escalated into police violence, an incident which could easily have been avoided were it not for the presence of lethally armed officers patrolling the streets for minor offenses whose authority is primarily derived from their state-sponsored use of force, an unequal and arbitrary power relation that all drivers, especially Black drivers, understand all too well.
As for Douglas County, a recent report found that Black, Native American, and Hispanic residents are incarcerated at “disproportionately high rates.” Black residents are incarcerated at a rate 4.7 times higher than white residents and are incarcerated for 22% longer, while Native American inmates are incarcerated for 35% longer. While clarifying, these disparities don’t speak to the injustice of incarceration itself. The vast majority of those behind bars are locked up for petty crimes, many of which shouldn’t be crimes in the first place, and in the case of pretrial detention in jails, inmates are often behind bars for alleged crimes that they are ultimately found innocent of.
As many activists have noted, a budget is a moral document that expresses the values of a community and whose interests are being served. What does it say about our community that nearly 20 times more money is spent on police than on social services for the most vulnerable? What does it say that 100 times more money is spent on vehicles for the police than on food for the hungry? What does it say that tens of millions of dollars are being funneled into policing and incarceration every year by both the city and county?
To state the point one more time, unequivocally, in light of just a cursory recapitulation of the history of policing and racial capitalism in America and the form it has taken here in Lawrence, reform has failed. It is time to abolish the police and dismantle the carceral state. What Lawrence is in need of is not more violence and punishment, but rather community care and harm reduction. By defunding the police department, millions of dollars can be reinvested in affordable housing, schools, mental health services, and free public transit.
Defunding the police is just one part of reimagining public safety and community care in the struggle for racial and economic justice. The City Commission, and County Commission, must also end plans to expand the jail, remove SROs from Lawrence schools, decriminalize homelessness by repealing local camping ordinances, empty the county jail of all non-violent offenders, and refuse all cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). A community with housing for all, thriving public schools, rapid green transit, and first responders who provide care not punishment is possible.
As the city faces falling revenue in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, instead of slashing spending on necessary public services the demand for police defunding provides the commission with an easy solution. By defunding the police department, the city can both meet budget shortfalls, which will primarily come from falling sales tax revenue, and fight injustice, all while avoiding imposing harsh austerity on residents that are already reeling from unemployment and a public health crisis that disproportionately impacts Black communities.
County commissioners, for their part, have asked the City Commission to provide guidance on how it plans to keep the jail population below capacity following the Covid-19 pandemic. Again, defunding and decriminalization provide the answer, and yet these types of statements from both county and city commissioners elide their responsibility as elected representatives in crafting public policy and determining social outcomes. Ordinances and budgets are made by someone after all. What is considered crime, how it is enforced, and the number of people behind bars are not natural facts of life but the direct result of political decisions.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from Birmingham jail in 1963, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” And so it still is here in Lawrence at this historical juncture.