"We can't allow our imaginations to stay stuck."

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American policing — and whether to defund it — is on the ballot from Chicago to Los Angeles this November, and I wonder: what kind of future do we want? Who gets to belong in this future? Do Black people? Because policing is the most potent manifestation of anti-Black state violence that’s animated this country since its inception. Policing is inextricable from the policies that have ravaged us: chattel slavery, Black Codes, convict leasing, Jim/Jane Crow, the war on drugs, the criminalization of poverty, and mass incarceration. For each of these institutions and norms, policing is oxygen. They literally can’t exist without it. And then, of course, there is the killing: Black people are more than three times as likely as white people to be killed by police officers, according to a 2020 study from Harvard University.

Breonna Taylor Protest Signs
Credit: AGUSTIN PAULLIER/Contributor/Getty

This is why Black Lives Matter, Movement for Black Lives, and individuals and local governments are urging us, or choosing to, defund the police. They’re not the first to say we need change — beloved elders such as Marsha P. Johnson and Ruth Wilson Gilmore come to mind — but the idea has received fresh traction following the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Daniel Prude, and many others. To some, “defund the police” means end policing, period. To others, it means keeping some form of police, but pulling from their astronomical budgets — over $100 billion dollars nationally — to support job training, social workers, public schools, counseling, violence-prevention, health care, and other programs that nourish and protect marginalized people. (To this list I would add reparations for slavery.) 

From where I sit as a Black woman, this is a no-brainer: Spend money on helping people, not hurting them. I arrive at this conclusion because of life experience, a family history that includes harmful interactions with law enforcement, and because of my training as a lawyer.

But not everyone is with me. Even some of my progressive friends ask whether it’s wise, or possible, to defund the police. They struggle to picture a world without policing. (AOC brilliantly quipped that this world would simply look like a white suburb.) They ask, “what about the crimes that inevitably occur, especially domestic violence?” And they worry, often unconsciously, how we’d deal with the poor, the undocumented, the homeless, the mentally ill, and so on.

Because that’s what this is really about: how we want to deal with each other, including the people we’re taught to fear or devalue, the people we’re taught not to see. Dealing with the shunned and marginalized is often what police do. And because the police force is built on the idea of violent control and removal, that’s why this dealing with so often looks cruel when brought to light or publicized.

It starts with trafficked captives. The most feared, devalued, and erased people — alongside the indigenous — have always been Black, and the police have always been dealing with them. In fact, the first police forces were created to control, surveil, randomly search, harass, and physically assault Black people. These so-called "slave patrols" — and the armed "slave catchers" who staffed them — roamed with impunity, monitoring, detaining, injuring, and killing Black people. This is the root of today’s policing. This is its origin story. This is its architecture, first drafted during chattel slavery and never properly revised.

The conversation on police violence often centers around Black men. And they deserve our attention. But can we talk about Black women? Because I am one. Because the first mother, from whom we all come, was Black. Because we are often politically and legally erased (especially those of us who are queer, trans, or gender non-conforming, and those of us who society sidelines through ablism). And because we have been dealt with for so long. Indeed, the relationship between Black women and police is deep. This country relied on slavery to thrive; slavery created the police prototype — slave patrols and slave catchers — to enforce its cultural and literal laws, including the ones that brutalized Black women in order to create more people to enslave. Gender, race, and policing have always been mixed together, and we’re still drinking that toxic cocktail.

So when we talk about defunding the police, we’re talking about Black women’s autonomy and right to exist. Literally: Police kill Black women at higher rates than women of any other race. And while, there is “no readily available database compiling a complete list of Black women’s lives lost at the hands of police,” according to the African American Policy Forum, the Washington Post reports that, since 2015, the police have killed at least 48 Black women (out of the nearly 250 women total). Studies suggest that many more have been victims of police sexual misconduct.

None of this should be surprising. This is what the police were formed to do, and there has never been a profound, sustained, complete scouring away of these old practices or the norms that sustain them. No, not all police encounters are bad, and not all officers want to perpetuate racist, gendered violence. Individual officers may abhor the gendered, racist violence that suffuses their workplaces — indeed, some officers are Black women — but police as a whole have continually and aggressively resisted reform. Instead of a transformative revisioning of law enforcement, we’re left with half-measures, none of which reach deep enough into the underbelly of policing to alter its fundamental characteristics.

“Defund the police” means saving Black women’s lives. But it also means improving Black women’s lives even if we never have a lethal police encounter. I’m talking, for instance, about Black women’s right to mother their children, which mass incarceration and police violence curtail. This, too, is an old story: centuries of stripping Black children from their enslaved mothers slowly acclimated this nation’s culture to a world in which Black mothers without children could be seen as normal. Pause on that. Is this why we’ve struggled to summon prolonged outrage and grief on behalf of Black mothers whose children are killed by police? Slavery required us to (wrongly) see Black mothers as uninvested in their children’s joy and survival. Simultaneously, it required us to (wrongly) see Black children as adrift, unmothered, unfamilied. Consider Margaret Garner, a formerly-enslaved Black mother so desperate to save her kids from slave catchers at her door that she attempted to kill her own children. She was tried for destruction of property because to try her for homicide would’ve acknowledged the humanity of her children and her human bond to them. This old, American norm — denying Black mothers’ their right to parent — is still with us. These toxic beliefs have never been corrected across the culture. Today, it manifests as the reflex that lets an officer see a Black woman (or her child) as a thing the state can take or control. It also manifests in the foster care and child-welfare systems — both connected to policing — which many argue unfairly target and punish Black mothers. It manifests as our acceptance of this status quo.

Police power also means that, during our lifetimes, Black women carry the emotional stress and allostatic load of knowing that Black people we love are targets for harsh policing at vastly disproportionate rates. This means fearing for family as they drive to work or walk the dog, as I have. It means watching loved ones shuttled disproportionately into prisons, where COVID-19 rages. It means watching your family become fractured, maybe permanently, because Black people often receive harsher treatment than their white counterparts throughout the criminal justice system — from police surveillance to pre-trial confinement to the length of sentences. It means hesitating to call 911 when you’re surviving intimate partner violence because of what may befall your Black partner, perpetrator though they are. It means potentially being ignored or dehumanized by the biased system that handles intimate partner violence after a 911 call. And in 48 states, a police encounter might mean losing your right to vote — this, too, has roots in slavery.

Fear. That’s what I sense in questions about whether we can have America without police, or even with just fewer police encounters. Among my Black friends, it’s the fear of attaching our hopes to an unheard-of world — we have never seen a version of this country in which police were not empowered to harass, scrutinize, and kill us. Among my white friends, I sense the fear of the unknown too — they haven’t seen that world, either — and fear of losing status they value, even if subconsciously.

More disheartening than these fears, though, is the lack of imagination. The “stuckness” and lethargy embedded in our struggle to imagine an un-policed future. I don’t judge anyone for feeling lethargic or stuck — sometimes I do, too. But we can’t allow our imaginations to stay stuck now, not during this election. Because that’s what voting is: an act of imagination. When we vote, we conjure our hopes, fears, and desires and tie them to the future we want. We take our need to belong, our need for others to belong, and pour it into the levers we push and the ballot circles we shade. Voting isn’t a sacred right just because it’s a means of political participation. It’s sacred because it is conjuring, it is creation, it is imagination put to work.

You know who never lost their imagination? Who continued to dream of new worlds despite the onslaught of headwinds, the insistent grip of the past, and the danger? Who never let lethargy win? The Black people America enslaved. Those people’s very existence required a level of vigor, hope, activism, and creativity that exceeds anything this moment is asking of me or you. Those Black people who self-liberated, and the ones who lived their entire lives in captivity  — they were heroic enough, every day, to believe in a never-before-seen future. Some of them were my ancestors, and this practice of imagining and demanding a new world may have kept their souls from collapsing.

Conceptualizing a world without police is one way I honor their lives. Voting for this new future  — which they could not do  — is yet another way I honor them.  They don’t have to be your ancestors for you to honor them, too.