George Floyd’s name became a hashtag as soon as his brutal killing by police was caught on tape for the world to see. In the past two weeks, a new hashtag demanding justice for Floyd and all the other Black men and women killed by police has emerged. As a result, the #DefundThePolice movement has gone from a whisper to a thunderous roar, with influencers who usually post about matcha lattes and workout routines stumping for dismantling an institution that disproportionately kills Black people. And celebrities are signing petitions. Of course, Black activists have been yelling about defunding the police for decades (Angela Davis has been pushing for abolishing the police altogether since the ’60s) but now, the world is finally listening.
Activist Sandy Hudson founded Black Lives Matter Toronto and is the vice-chair of the Black Legal Action Centre and a UCLA law student. Last week, Hudson tweeted about being cut from a segment for CBC's The Current, after she brought up defunding the police in a pre-interview with a producer. This week, she's Canada's go-to expert on the subject. Hudson’s recent op-ed in The Huffington Post, titled “Defunding The Police Will Save Black and Indigenous Lives In Canada,” went viral. In it, she wrote, “defunding the police can free up funding that we can reinvest in services that provide real safety.”
Cities are already addressing public pressures to reexamine police funding. In Toronto, where Black people are 20 times more likely to be shot by police, city councillors announced a proposal to reduce the police budget by 10%. Right now, the biggest portion of Torontonians’ property tax bills go to police services. In most North American cities, the police get more money than education and childcare, and across Canada, mental health checks result in the deaths of Black people like D’Andre Campbell and Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and Indigenous women like Chantel Moore. “We need to say that Black lives are worth it. I don't think this goes far enough at all,” says Hudson of the 10% proposed cut. Small reductions like this one, she notes, are not defunding the police.
There’s been confusion about what defunding looks like, and why it’s so important. Here, Hudson shares what defunding the police actually means, why it’s been met with such resistance, and why the proposed cuts to the Toronto Police don't go far enough.
Let’s start with the basics. What does “defund the police” mean?
It means that we think the services that police provide can be better provided elsewhere. For example, there's no reason why the police should be the only emergency option to call when someone is having a mental health crisis. The police often show up with lethal force, and use that lethal force. If someone really needs medical assistance, social assistance, and de-escalation, the police have consistently shown that they are both unwilling and unable to provide that service appropriately. I don't know why we wouldn't create something new.
So it's defunding police departments, which typically get the majority of city funding, and reinvesting that money in new social programs and emergency response teams that do not consist of armed police officers.
Yeah, exactly. That's just one of the examples I can give about how one could approach defunding the police. There's been a pilot program in Oregon that has gone quite well, where one in five calls to 911 are redirected to a new mental health emergency unit. And it's been so successful that they're going to scale it up to Oregon's largest city, Portland. These models do exist elsewhere.
The police’s emergency support is inadequate, and it kills Black people. Surely, we can create an emergency support system that doesn't kill Black people and Indigenous people.
To me, they're the same concept. If we're taking a look at what services the police provide well, and seeing where we can siphon off money to create new services that are better, honestly I can't really think of any service that the police provide well. I’m interested in being proven wrong on this. I've been saying it for over a week now publicly, and no one has been able to tell me, "Oh, actually Sandy, they really do this well." So, if that's the case, we really have to look at defunding to zero.
1/ The CBC needs more Black producers. And to cut the crap. #BlackLivesMatter#JusticeForRegis— Sandy Hudson (@sandela) May 29, 2020
I was tapped yesterday to appear on The Current this morning to discuss "George Floyd and Amy Cooper."
When I asked if we would also talk about Regis Korchinski-Paquet, I was told:
Why do you think people balk so hard at the words “defund the police”? You tweeted about your experience with a CBC producer. Why is there such discomfort with even having this conversation?
Yes, the CBC shut that down, and there's a certain portion of the population who seems to be really resistant to considering this. But surprisingly, people have been remarkably interested in talking about [defunding], which I guess is CBC's loss. For those groups who don't want to talk about it, I think what's happening is when they hear the words “Defund the Police,” they hear the words “end safety” or “end emergency support,” which I need to be very clear is not at all what we're saying. What we're saying is that the police’s emergency support is inadequate, and it kills Black people. Surely, we can create an emergency support system that doesn't kill Black people and Indigenous people.
In this new reality without police, safety is still a priority.
Yes. There are other ways to provide safety and security. The apprehension might be coming from this idea of the police as just that, an idea. How many television shows and movies tell us that this is just a group of heroes? Just good dudes waiting to save all of our lives? And that's just not what it is. It's not. The Brooklyn Nine-Nine cops, they're not real. All of that propaganda helps to make us think something that's so super possible is impossible. For people in Black communities, they’re interacting with the police a lot more because they patrol our communities. The police interact with us on a regular basis. We know what they're like. People who tend to be apprehensive about defunding the police are likely not interacting with the police regularly. Their idea of police is very theoretical. They actually don't know how the police interact with the public at all. I would caution those people to really listen to the folks who are interacting with the police on a regular basis, because we know what we're talking about.
I spoke to CBC News yesterday to discuss why #defundthepolice is the clear way forward to end police killings and brutalization of Black people. Full clip here: https://t.co/DxFw9Q23dM#blacklivesmatter #justiceforregis #DAndreCampbell #GeorgeFloyd #BreonnaTaylor #TonyMcDade pic.twitter.com/21eyJOq7Ur— Sandy Hudson (@sandela) June 3, 2020
I watched you in an interview where the anchor asked, "But what happens to women if there are no police?" There’s this idea that the police are helping survivors of sexual assault and women, when we know that that's not true. Why do you think women are used so much as a pushback to defunding the police?
It's interesting as someone who is an ultra nerd and has pursued too many degrees in my life, I've always run up against this phenomenon that when people are talking about race and doing right by Black people, there will often be arguments that come up that are like, "Well, we can't do that because of women."
Ignoring that Black women exist.
Yes. Ignoring that Black women exist. I also find it really interesting that this argument still comes up: "We can't do that because what about women? We have to protect these women." As though society — and its powerful people — has ever had this strong prioritization and inclination to protect women. There's been more than a few high-profile cases of police departments engaging in misogyny at the best of it, and sexual assaults, plural, at worst. I just don't know how bringing up, "Well, this is the institution that protects women," can be seen as anything other than disingenuous.
Quite frankly, if we were really concerned about sexual assault and gender-based violence, we would, again, be prioritizing this conversation about defunding the police. One, they do a very terrible job preventing gender-based violence. Two, they do an even more terrible job at dealing with the issues that are reported to them. Only 10% of sexual assaults in Canada are reported to the police. They are not providing a good service. We should not pretend that they are. We should understand that there is a huge gap in our ability to provide security services in our society, and agree that we need to do something about it. Wouldn't it be great if we had extra funding to do that?
We’ve seen #DefundThePolice go from a radical idea advocated for by activists only to a mainstream movement. What do you think of the drastic shift in thinking? And why now?
I think it's great. It would have been great for this to come years ago, but I think it's great now, too. As an activist, you have to be knowledgeable on several issues, you prepare yourself, and then you try to get the knowledge out there and make something popular.
I was talking about this on my podcast and myself and [my co-host] Nora came up with the idea that people have more time right now because of COVID. Maybe they're working from home, or they're doing reduced work, or they're not working. And I do think there's something to be said that generally, if you have more time, your civic engagement increases. New Zealand is coming back from COVID with a four day work week, and it's like maybe that's something to think about. We should have solved this problem long ago. The cost has been far too high. There's too many Black people that have lost their lives. And if the problem there is that people didn't have time for their civic engagement or couldn't engage in this topic publicly, then we have a larger issue in our society.
We should understand that there is a huge gap in our ability to provide security services in our society, and agree that we need to do something about it. Wouldn't it be great if we had extra funding to do that?
The #DefundthePolice movement is so popular, celebrities like Lizzo, Natalie Portman and Yara Shahidi have signed a letter in support of defunding. We’re seeing handy graphics pop up on social media providing Defunding The Police 101. But are these simplified Instagram explainers posted by people who are not experts in the field helpful or harmful?
I can think of ways that it could become harmful, but if they're copying what people like me are saying, making it short and digestible with little images, I say go for it. The stakes are too high. Something like this that needs to gain steam in order to be popular. But if what they're doing is just coming up with their own stuff, like this campaign that came out called 8 Can't Wait, that’s terrible. [The campaign, touted by Oprah and Ariana Grande, proposed police reforms like banning chokeholds and reducing police violence by 72%.] I think they changed it now because of all of the critique, but it was focused on reform. I saw someone share it and tag #DefundthePolice, and it's like that's actually not what that means!
I’ll be honest, I’m new to advocating for defunding the police. I hadn’t educated myself on the movement. I think a lot of people probably feel the same way. In 2014, the mainstream conversation was around reform — adding body cameras, etc. Can you speak to why reform is not the right move?
One reason is because it's been tried forever and continues to fail. Any reform measures that have been tried elsewhere, you just see another example of failure. Part of it is because policing is this institution that is born out of enslavement, and has shown itself over the years to not be able to wrest itself from that origin story. It has always been a service that is meant to constrain the movement and freedom of Black people. And it continues to be that to this day. I don't know why we would try to redeem this irredeemable institution. Why would we want this for our society, unless we believe something specific about Black people, which is a whole other problem in our culture.
Mark Saunders is stepping down as Toronto’s police chief. Some people are excited that he’s going. Some people were excited when he got the job because he’s Black. Explain why neither of these things will fix the problems of this institution?
I think his tenure is one of the many proofs that it doesn't matter what kind of attempts at diversity you try, we're still going to have this problem with the institution of policing because it is an inherently anti-Black institution. What we need is to focus on defunding the police. Not half measures like, Let's do diversity. Or the idea that Surely, if there's more Black cops, they won't be anti-Black. Well, they will because the entire institution is designed to control the movements and interrupt the lives of Black people.
Now, that's not to say that I'm not pleased to see him go. I don't think he'll be remembered for a very good tenure. No one is really, but this is a man who helped make sure that the police in Toronto had assault-style military weapons. This is a guy who also announced that there was no serial killer persecuting racialized queer men in Toronto, when there was. I don't think he'll be missed, but his leaving doesn't create any sort of fundamental change.
I imagine they're trying to make it comparable to what happened in Los Angeles, which was a $150 million reduction. Which is like, okay, you're finally listening. But with 10%, how are we going to create an emergency mental health program? If we're not going to do it now, when are we going to do it? Right now during COVID when a lot of people are inside, policing work is down, now is the time to create new measures. And think of the amount of mental health issues we're going to have coming out of such a drastic change to our society. Why are we playing around with this? Let's do it right now. We’re not going to be able to create real services with a reduction that small.
What other steps need to be taken to defund the police across Canada?
Some of it has to do with decriminalization. When we decriminalize drugs, we defund the police because we don't have to spend money on the police investigating and trying to criminalize people who may have drug use issues. Let's treat drug use, like the opioid crisis, as an issue for public health rather than for police and criminalization.
When you see the Minneapolis City Council backing disbanding their police force, or even just the fact that we're having these conversations in mainstream forums, on random celebrities’ social media accounts, does that make you hopeful?
Yeah, I am hopeful. It feels like there's been some sort of shift, and a shift in culture is always really important for meeting a particular goal. As an example, in 2014 when we started at BLM, we would talk about anti-Black racism, and sometimes people in the media would say, "I don't know what you're talking about," or, "Sorry, we're here to talk about racism. Don't know what these extra words are." We worked really hard to shift culture so that we could talk about anti-Black racism in society specifically, and we did. I don't know that we would be able to have the conversations we're having today if we didn't do that work before. Culture is so important to making political shifts possible.
So, regardless of the particular policies that I imagine will absolutely come out of this, we have definitely shifted culture. The amount of people who are messaging me daily being like, "I saw these interviews, and you blew my mind. I never thought about this before." And that is really, really important for people to be able to imagine that something else is possible. So in a way, we've already done a lot of winning in just this short period of time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.