We caught up with Professor Chris Cunneen to talk about the history behind Defunding the Police, in light of the last few years of Black Lives Matter movement and the rise in Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in Australia. Professor Cunneen is currently working on publishing a book in 2023 by Policy Press.
Defund the Police Part One – Jumbunna Talks
Defund the Police Episode One
The talks about defund the police and possibilities for police divestment and abolition and what I wanted to do really was to address some of the international dimension to Black Lives Matter and defund the police and how that sort of took off as an international protest movement in the middle of 2020, and then move from there to talk about some of the history of policing, of modern policing to kind of fill in the background, I guess, as to why policing is so embedded in colonialism, in settler colonialism and in racial and class oppression today.
If we think back to the middle of last year, there was significant work around by the Black Lives Matter movement in terms of the protests around the killing of George Floyd and discussions around the need to defund the police. And the important thing I think about defund the police is that it’s not about police reform. It’s actually about diminishing the role of police and moving towards the abolition of police. It’s really been driven by a profound sense of frustration at the inability of police to reform themselves, not just over the last few years, but really over decades and decades of attempts to change the way the police operate.
We’ve also seen though in recent years significant increases in the budgets that have gone to the police in places like the UK and the US, Australia, Canada, and a focus of defund the police has been, how do we think about taking money away from the police and investing it within areas of social health, education, housing, and other types of programs. Some of the work that’s been done in terms of defund the police movement has been to look at the amount money we spent on police compared to other areas. And so in cities like New York and Los Angeles, there’s been a breakdown of the budgets of those cities in terms of policing. And so we know that for every dollar that’s spent on police, there’s about 20 cents spent on services for the homeless, 19 cents spent on mental health and other health issues.
So that’s about one fifth of what’s being spent on police. Although we know for instance that homelessness and mental health issues are key drivers for people to come into contact with the police. The thing about defunding the police is it’s not just about cutting the budgets of the police, it’s about reinvesting that money into community based services that actually meet the needs of people without having to resort to methods of policing and punishment and coercion. I think one of the other major issues if we think back to the middle of 2020 was the size, the sheer size of the international protest movement.
The whole kind of catchphrase of “I can’t breathe” became an expression of suffocation and rebellion if you like by protestors around the world who were expressing their own outrage, their own opposition at police brutality within their own countries. And so while the sort of “I can’t breathe” and the George Floyd killing was a kind of emblematic, if you like, of what was going on in countries, and people got picked up on that, “I can’t breathe,” but it was about what was happening in their own places in terms of police brutality that centered the protests globally.
If we think about Africa, there were protests in Kenya, in Nairobi, South Africa, Ghana, just to name a few places. And what the protestors were drawing attention to was police violence and extrajudicial killings within their own countries, many of which have been exacerbated during 2020 by the COVID pandemic.
For example, in Nigeria, the Nigerian Human Rights Commission noted that there were more people killed by police in the first few months of the lockdown there than there were killed by COVID itself. Similarly in Asia, if we look across Asia, in terms of India, Malaysia, Japan, Philippines, Korea, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, there were all protests there over June and July, 2020 just after the time of the killing of George Floyd. And like the African nations, each of these countries had their own history and contemporary experience of police brutality and racism.
In the Philippines, there’s been an estimated 27,000 deaths by police and vigilantes since the Duterte’s war on drugs began in 2016. In India, the National Human Rights Commission and other organizations have consistently noted that torture is rampant, torture by police is rampant and that a key cause or primary cause of deaths in police custody in India is as a result of police torturing suspects.
If we move across to Central and South America, we also saw widespread protests there. And again, the sheer extent of police violence is incredible. Police kill nearly six times the number of people in Brazil compared to the United States and 75% of those people that are killed in Brazil are Black. I think that, yeah, that gives some idea of the parameters of the size of the problem of police violence across all continents. And we can also add to what we’ve talked about the extent of protests against polices in the global north, in places like Canada, Britain, Germany, Italy, France, New Zealand and Australia.
So what were some of the commonalities that come out in relation to this struggle? Well, the protests were sparked by the events in the United States, but they were part of ongoing protest movements within each of these respective countries. Some of the things that were noted as a commonality if you like across these countries was the hypocrisy by governments. The governments came out criticizing the death of George Floyd in the United States, while at the same time ignoring the hundreds of deaths that were caused by police within their own countries.
A second commonality was the fact that the violence by police and abuse by police is largely unpunished. The sheer scale of the violence is almost incomprehensible, but also alongside of that is the fact that much violence is unpunished. Another set of commonalities for many countries, both in the global north and in the global south are the histories of colonialism, of slavery, of racism, of dispossession that are fundamental to understanding the targets of policing and police violence. As I mentioned before, the majority of people that are killed by police in Brazil are Black, while if we look at Central America or Mexico, indigenous people featured prominently amongst the victims of police violence.
Another commonality again, which links both the global north and the global south is the need to decolonize police institutions. If we think of countries like Africa, countries within Africa, nations within Africa, the police were established there as part of the repressive arms of the colonial powers and have never been there to protect their citizens or respect to human rights, even in the post independence period. Similarly in India, the structure of the criminal law and policing dates to the time of British colonialism. And if we think about settler colonies like Australia, Canada, or Israel, the police and their criminal law have really been instrumental in colonial dispossession and repression of indigenous peoples. And so that’s the kind of global landscape, if you like in which the contemporary calls to defund the police resonate.
I want to move from there and talk a little bit more about the history of the establishment of policing. Again, with a view to what that might tell us about the contemporary move to defund the police. Policing in the metropolitan centers, such as London and the British police really grew as part of the developing power of the capitalist state during the latter power of the 19th century. And it was very much about policing political protests, labor disputes, and strikes. It was also about policing public space in the developing and growing urban centers. And much of policing was focused on monitoring social and moral life of the working classes in the interests of the broader interests of the state. And so police worked across a range of areas. They were truant officers, they were moral guardians, they were welfare agents. They also played a role in public health and hygiene, and then in policing mental illness and disability.
For example, we think about Australia, most people who were put in what were then called lunatic asylums in the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century were there as a result of policing, not as a result of any medical evaluation of their condition. Policing in the colonies and in the settler colonies followed a much more militaristic system. There was what was called the Irish model and it was a militarized form of policing that was used to govern in the interest of colonial power. That model from the Irish, the British [inaudible 00:11:45] was exported and influenced and adapted across the British empire in a range of countries as diverse as Egypt to Fiji, Kenya, Canada, Ghana, Nigeria, India, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Barbados, Australia, just to name a few of those countries.
And the racist ideologies that underpin colonialism and the driving motive of economic exploitation meant that the idea of political legitimacy or popular consent was largely irrelevant. The aims of policing were to ensure colonial efficiency, to ensure stability and profitability in the interests of British and European capitalists. And as the African policing scholar, Justice Tankebe is noted to speak of colonial policing and policing by consent, or for that matter legitimacy, is a contradiction in terms. It’s oxymoronic. The police were there to maintain colonial control and the interests of colonial powers. There were no legal and disciplinary procedures that controlled the police in terms of the exercise of their power or administered its sanctions for police abuses.
Why is the historical context so important in terms of understanding contemporary calls to defund the police and to change the way police operates? I think in the first instance, what we see in the colonial setting is the nature of police power and violence in its most naked form and we see it through the gaze of the colonizer. So we see that police power stripped bare of all its niceties. And what can we say about the defining features of colonial policing? Well, colonized people were subject to paramilitary policing such as mounted police, native police forces, which were pretty much outside the experience of white citizens in metropolitan centers.
Secondly, police was contextualized within a legal ambiguity that surrounded the position of colonized peoples. On the one hand colonized peoples were seen as subject to the colonial state, but they weren’t offered protection by the law and the suspension of the rule of law was common. What we had was really wide range of discretionary powers by police without systems of accountability. And we also had systems of punishment that were racialized and differentiated in their brutality between the colonized and the colonizer. And just one example of that, in Australia we know that punishment moved, in terms of capital punishment, from public executions to private execution so individuals were no longer hanged in public squares. They were still executed, but they were executed behind the prison walls.
However, that was held as being an exception for First Nations people for Aboriginal peoples in Australia who were still publicly executed. And the reason for that was that it was said to send a message to other indigenous peoples. Third point in terms of what the features are of colonial policing, we know that police took on a whole range of tasks, administrative tasks that were aimed at controlling and suppressing or at times assimilating colonized peoples. And these administrative tasks were not about crime controls as we might understand it. They were about managing a functioning colonial government or functioning colonial regime in the interest of efficiency for the capitalist society. And some of those things were quite benign if you like.
The police reported on the condition of roads or the condition of crops or they engaged in other administrative tasks that were not benign, such as the removal of children from families. The whole range of administrative tasks that the police fulfilled and quite simply the colony would not have been able to function administratively without the role of police. But second to that, the police were also the embodiment of colonial violence, which was self evident if you like when in the suppression of colonial revolts or colonial uprisings or other forms of resistance. And we see that in the Australian context for the use of mounted police, use of native police to suppress resistance by First Nations peoples.
And the fourth point I think which is important to think about in relation to policing and the colonial process was the way it was gendered and imposed patriarchal relations of colonizing society. For example, the British might be vigilant about any activity that they thought showed the backwardness of native cultures in terms of their treatment of women. However, they were uninterested in controlling the forms of violence against women with which they were familiar, such as rape and murder and domestic violence. And particularly when committed by European men against colonized women. And Andrea Ritchie has suggested that colonialism, including slavery, laid the foundations for the violent treatment of Black indigenous and women of color, which follows on from a continuum of this earlier colonial period.
Some of the considerations that we might draw out of that for the defund the police movement. Some people know in the contemporary discussions about police and the work that they do have argued that police have taken on an increasing role over recent years and have becomes sort of a stop gap measure for all types of problems that they were actually never meant to resolve. And yet if you look at the history of policing that shows that modern policing since it’s very inception has been expansive far beyond anything resembling crime control. So that we know in the 19th century, police had a role in public health and hygiene and the policing of that. We know that they had a role in policing mental illness. We know that they were a fundamental part of the administration of colonies.
They’ve had always had a far more expansive role than simply controlling crime. And we also know that it’s also led to the widespread intervention if you like into the social and political and cultural lives of working class, colonized and racialized communities. I think what the historical analysis or the historical picture shows in terms of current debates about defund the police is that we’ve had a policing problem that’s been there for a long time and it’s grounded in a range of structural constraints that aren’t about crime control. And so the targets of policing have always been poor and marginalized and those who, for whatever reason, threatened systems of political control, economic exploitation and the prosperity of the few.
I think the historical analysis also highlights the problem of reform. The absence of police accountability has always been a problem, so something that’s new. And if the police act in the interests of the powerful, why would we expect it to be any different? The core problem with the reforms, with the proposals for reform, is that not simply that they don’t work, it’s that they actually have a capacity to strengthen the systems of police control.