America’s left can’t afford to be silent on crime. Here’s how to talk about it and win

Ekn the wake of last summer’s mass uprisings against the police state that killed Geoge Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among so many others, many on the progressive left believed that real change was imminent. Unprecedented numbers of people poured into the streets, day after day, week after week, in the midst of a global pandemic. Polls showed a massive upsurge in support for the Black Lives Matter movement. So-called establishment politicians appeared to be on the back foot, with lawmakers in Minneapolis going so far as to pledge to abolish their police department and replace it with a community-based public safety model. Large municipalities across the country saw a wave of action, from calls to remove police officers from schools to more demands to defund police departments. Politicians and public figures who had previously been loath to wade into issues of police brutality unequivocally acknowledged the need for drastic reform. Floyd’s gruesome death at the hands of police, and the months of protest that followed, felt like an inflection point – at long last, elected officials and the general public alike seemed jolted out of the usual refrains. Enough was enough.

Yet just over a year later, the state of policing appears largely unchanged. Almost no US cities have reduced their police budget – some, in werklikheid, have expanded them – and efforts toward the goals of the defund movement have mostly stalled. In addition, a small but notable rise in crime since last summer has changed the picture. While some of this comes from cynical and nakedly misleading crime statistics produced by police departments, and much of it is media narrative, the truth is that many people do not feel safe. Support for BLM has fallen in the past year while support for the police has dramatically risen. This is something people care about, and defensive explanations that this is a bogus narrative are not going to cut it. The left needs a compelling counternarrative around crime in addition to our critique of policing. It is clear that street action and grassroots legislative pressure is not enough: The left needs to win power at the local level, where most police budgets are controlled, with a clear mandate for radical action around crime and policing.

Since the protests, egter, many Democratic cities have elected candidates who are vocally pro-police. Most notable is the mayoral election in New York City – the epicenter of the resurgent American left – where all the major candidates vocally rejected defund efforts, some after supporting these efforts last summer. The apparent victory of former cop Eric Adams, who heavily focused his campaign on opposing any efforts to defund the police, has been portrayed as a referendum on calls to defund the police. His campaign was powered by widespread support among working-class Black voters in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx – the same voters who gave progressives a surprising win in 2013. Even if Adams loses the election due to the new ranked-choice system, polling shows him taking an astonishing 83% of Black voters in the final round. He framed his support for a more muscular police department through a racial justice lens, claiming that cutting policing would hurt communities of color as “Black and brown babies are shot in our streets”. This is a narrative that has been difficult to counter for a left that is comfortable talking about policing but can sometimes be uncomfortable talking about crime.

The left and the defund movement’s goals seemed so close just a year ago, but as the momentum of street protest alone has once again turned into the grinding work of long-term organizing in the electoral arena, we need a reassessment and change in strategy. This means building an overarching shared program on crime that connects with working-class voters at the ballot box in the same way left candidates across the country have on jobs, housing, and police brutality. While the nascent left now has an electoral constituency and has increased its elected representation many times over, it has still been unable to build a base in large swaths of Black working-class communities in particular. To fix this, and to actually implement the demands of the defund movement, the left needs a message on crime rather than just policing. Crime overwhelmingly affects the working class rather than the wealthy and is a symptom of neoliberalism as much as job precarity, student debt, lack of access to medical care, and all the other issues the left talks about. Police themselves are in effect an austerity program: replacing needed social services with a punitive force that addresses these problems after they occur. Na alles, prison cells are cheaper than houses.

The solution is a redistributive agenda that ameliorates these causes and prevents crime. As long as we live under the conditions of neoliberal austerity, without providing for the basic needs of citizens, crime will continue to exist. The left cannot run from this; we must acknowledge it and respond forcefully. Talking about crime can be a winning issue for the left if it is explicitly part of an overall program of redistribution of wealth, investment in communities, and guaranteeing a society that provides safety and security for all of its members, not just those at the top. We must emphasize that people have a right to safety, and this is the only program that truly provides that.

Though the left has failed to accomplish its goals around policing at the municipal level, it is also true that the defund message is not necessarily anathema to voters. Left-wing candidates who have campaigned on defunding the police and abolishing prisons have won a number of decisive victories, including in many areas with large Black populations. After much media chatter about a backlash to his criminal justice reform efforts, Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner won a resounding victory, capturing more than 80% of the vote in many majority-Black precincts. Laas jaar, after a relentless opposition campaign attacking her support for defunding the police, Janeese Lewis George won a council seat to represent a majority-Black ward in Washington DC. Notably, former Queens district attorney candidate and abolitionist Tiffany Cabán, won majority support in working-class Black-majority areas that Adams handily swept on the same ballot.

Adams’s election has a number of confounding factors: he made his political bones in large part as a Black police officer who was willing to publicly advocate for police reform. What his success reveals is that voters can hold muddled, often contradictory, political views: Polls show, byvoorbeeld, that a majority of Black voters support the Black Lives Matter movement, believe police treat black people unfairly, distrust the police, and simultaneously want more police in their neighborhoods. Fundamentally, people want to feel safe in their communities. Though many people of color do not trust the police, we have yet to successfully articulate an alternative. While activists on the left cannot tail public opinion, shifting our views to follow only what is popular, we also cannot afford to be out of touch with the working class. In plaas daarvan, we must be the next link in the chain, connecting the organic demands of the working class with more radical demands, pulling the movement forward without losing the chain as a whole.

While there is scant evidence that defunding the police is a surefire losing issue among working-class communities of color, it has also not resonated well enough to provide a decisive electoral mandate. Defunding the police – which calls for reallocating public funds from a bloated, militarized police force to necessary, life-saving services – is both a moral necessity and commonsense policy. To actually accomplish this, egter, the left needs a comprehensive program on crime and policing that resonates with working-class voters. This requires connecting our vision on crime and policing to proven, election-winning issues such as good jobs, Medicare for All, and housing – in other words, people’s immediate, material needs and desire for safety and security. The key is to make the connection between defunding the police and other foundational elements of any left program: investment in communities and an overall vision of a society that ensures everyone’s needs are met.

On the same day that Adams appeared to win the mayoral race in New York City, a socialist candidate on the opposite side of the state pulled off an unexpected upset in Buffalo. India Walton, an open prison abolitionist, unseated longtime incumbent Byron Brown to win the Democratic nomination for mayor in the state’s second-largest city. Walton is a prison abolitionist, and her platform in effect called for defunding the police on a large scale, although notably, the words “defund” and “abolish” do not appear on her campaign site.

Walton het die New York Times gesê that rather than emphasizing defund, '[W]e say we’re going to reallocate funds. We’re going to fully fund community centers. We’re going to make the investments that naturally reduce crime, such as investments in education, infrastructure, living-wage jobs. Nothing stops crime better than a person who’s gainfully employed.” Her message is hyper-focused on the types of social programs that provide material benefits to her constituents. She links defunding the police to a broad redistributive agenda in a way that emphasizes the role of class struggle and the problems inherent to policing without using alienating or activist-oriented language. Her victory in a heavily working-class city provides a clear path forward for left candidates.

This is not to say that the left should abandon the phrase “defund the police”. It is a clear, self-evident demand that has mobilized millions, engendered progressive coalitions, and opened the door for people to imagine what a future without prisons and police – or at least one that is far less reliant on them – might look like. But in order to take the next step from protest to implementing policy, the left needs to both sustain energy in the streets and elect legislators who are able to exercise power and achieve movement demands. The left must emphasize a positive program and make the case for redirecting funds from unaccountable, violent police departments back into the community. This is the only serious approach to preventing crime. Our task is to win; to do this, we need a message on crime that not only refuses to shy away from the problem but also provides a clear, mobilizing vision for the future.

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