Defunding may be okay as a transitional position, but as an endgame—it is still a declaration of faith in the police as an institution.


by Inigo Laguda

August 26th 2016: Colin Kaepernick tells NFL Media why he’s been sitting through the national anthem.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people,” he exclaims in an exclusive interview. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

August 30th 2016: An open letter to Kaepernick by “Green Beret-turned-long snapper” Nate Boyer is published online and, later in the day, Kaepernick and Boyer convene. By the end of their meeting, Kaepernick agrees to change his protest from sitting to kneeling. 

As one of the most publicised protests in the last decade, Kaepernick’s resistance rattled America and rippled across the world. But the devolution from sitting to kneeling was perhaps the dissent’s most crucial juncture.

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Kaepernick dissent began as what all good protests are—picking a fight against power on the battlefield of symbols. Protests aren’t just about “generating a conversation.” They are about mobilising a movement towards a common goal. They are supposed to be ideological sparks that beget flames of tangible change.

But when you decide to fight in the realm of symbolism, however, you must be prepared for how much of a labyrinth that realm is. A flag is not just a multi-coloured cloth and a country is not just a stretch of land and a gesture is not just a movement of the body.

On this battlefield, a thing can be grander or measlier than it actually is. A former soldier of the vastest, most deadly military machine in human history can write a think-piece about how a football player sitting by the side of a sports field as a song plays hurts his feelings—and he can be taken seriously.

With scrutiny gushing from every angle, Kaepernick knelt. When he had chosen to sit, it was in support of victims of police brutality. It was for Black people. But when he knelt, it was out of respect for the violent military culture that fuels American exceptionalism. Oversimplified—it was to appease white people.

The kneel revealed that Kaepernick was willing to play a role in the ideologically convoluted pantomime of American political theatre. Like entertaining your baby cousin’s game of make-believe, it showed that he was willing to play along to keep the peace. To many, I’m sure it seemed like a fair compromise. But when we look closer, the kneel is a symbol of concession. 

It showed that he was willing to consider the feelings and sensibilities of people who care more about upholding America’s image than the unnecessary death of America’s Black citizens. It shifted the protest’s moral ground, making it about police brutality AND veterans. It became about Black Americans AND patriotism (or their lack thereof). 

The outcry of police’s unjust violence wasn’t allowed to breathe by itself. It is a concession that makes even less sense when we think about how America’s police brutality and America’s military brutality are patches from the same, red, white and blue country-quilt.

When I first came across the phrase “defund the police,” I felt a similar atmosphere of concession around it. At the apex of this year’s Black uprisings, the idea of prison and police abolition became more and more popular. But where the finish line should be the obsoletion of police and incarceration, popularity has stagnated on the idea of defunding.

The abolition of the police is built on the fundamental idea that policing, as an institution, is inherently harmful. As the structural offspring of slave-catching and a generally inhumane practise of punitivity—the abolition of policing is about imagining a new way of creating and upholding communal safety. 

Abolition, in its historical form against slavery and in the current form against policing and prisons, has always been about redirecting community faith beyond the systems that currently exist.

There is no strict consensus on what defunding the police would look like. But generally speaking, it has been conceptualised as allocating financial resources and funding provided to the police and redirecting it to communal practises, such as social workers. 

Defunding may be okay as a transitional position, but as an endgame—it is still a declaration of faith in the police as an institution.

I am under no illusions about how vast the idea of police abolition is. I know that it’ll require re-evaluating entire political and economic systems and that it is something that is a societal overhaul that is ambitious in its scope. And the internal work that abolition demands is an everyday practise, one that challenges how we essentialise punishment as a deterrent, response and protection. 

But one of the things that makes me so averse to simply defunding the police, is what possibilities lie in its reformism and what they may look like for Black Americans.

As a young Black Brit, I’ve grown under governmental austerity measures for the majority of my adult life—measures which have hurt the NHS the most. Some might say that the lack of public funding the NHS has been out of the government’s control, but seeing as the former health secretary literally wrote a book that advocated for the privatisation of Britain’s public medical system, it’s not far-fetched to believe that the government has been deliberately underfunding the national health service so its resulting dilapidation will paint privatisation a desirable remedy to general public. 

When we look at how the privatisation of prisons has resulted in an economic subsystem that profits on the over-criminalisation of Black people with lock-up quotas, simply defunding the police could very easily result in a similar privatisation process as in the NHS and the only thing I can think of that is worse than a covert, for-profit prison system, is a looming for-profit police system.

But it is on the battlefield of symbols, the one where Kaepernick knelt, that defund the police feels most inadequate. 

Barack Obama is right when he says that defunding the police is a “snappy slogan” that loses a “big audience.” But Martin Luther King’s stumbling blocks to progress will most likely be turned off by any suggestion, act, or slogan that challenges the idea that the system they live comfortable under isn’t just a little broken and in need of some bandaging reforms, but fundamentally antagonistic towards a large population of people. And so, the “big audience” reacts just as strongly to a kneel as they do a seat. 

So you might as well stay sitting.

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If you only demand half of what you want from someone who doesn’t want to give you anything, you will most likely leave the negotiation with a quarter of the whole thing. And defunding is only half of what needs to happen.

In the question of the police—we must demand absolutely. We say, “The police are killing us and we want them dissolved,” because we have to be brazen when it comes to fighting for the world we want to build. When we concede on the more radical position, as Kaepernick did, it means warping the image of the thing we’re trying to fight for. 

We have to be brazen because Obama’s approach of calmly and rationally suggesting reforms did not work. He experienced unprecedented levels of obstruction by trying to change the system from the inside, so it is up to us to be imaginatively brazen so that the outside pressure becomes unavoidable and overwhelming. 

We will likely get scrutinised and ridiculed for our abolitionist positions. There are so many personal discussions about police abolition that have ended with me unscathed. But if I’ve learnt anything about this year, it’s that if you remain steadfast in your radical, moral position, the world is gonna catch up to you. Even if it only lingers there for a couple of weeks.

Inigo Laguda is an artist, storyteller, and musician currently residing in London, England. He is particularly interested in deconstructing the common conceptions of “normal”. His focus is centred on Blackness and mental wellness. His intimate thoughts can be found at @SaveInigo.