Vijay Prashad and Zalia Maya: Defund the police

NPP Pressroom

Daily Hampshire Gazette
Vijay Prashad

Greg Speeter, the founder of the Northampton-based National Priorities Project, used to say that the values of a society should not be judged based on its Constitution; the values are clarified by the way it spends its tax dollars.

For the United States, the federal budget is shocking, with an immense amount of it going toward military spending; local budgets, mirroring that, are tilted toward police departments. It is worthwhile to consider that we spend less on eradicating the roots of crime in our society than we do on institutions that have to manage crime. Wouldn’t it be better to abolish hunger than to arrest someone for shoplifting food?


It is stunning that local governments have bloated police departments but do not have a department to tackle hunger. We rely upon valiant nonprofit agencies that are funded by donations to deal with the greatest obscenity of our civilization: hunger.

During the global pandemic, food banks across the United States distributed more than 947 million meals to hungry people; in March, the first month of the pandemic, food banks distributed 20% more food than in an average month. But the response from government at every level has been anemic.

The federal government hastened to pass the CARES Act of 2020 in response to the coronavirus recession. It appropriated $2 trillion, most of it going toward corporations. In the act, the government decided to give police departments $850 million additional funds. To tackle the upsurge of hunger, the act promised $850 million to food banks; to date, only $300 million has been released to feed the hungry.

The fiscal 2021 budget plan submitted by Northampton’s mayor suggests that “crimes continue to trend downward”; and yet, the budget would like to send an additional $200,000 to the police department for salary increases and hybrid cars. This is during the hunger pandemic. If the crime rates have been steadily decreasing for the past few years, as the police chief writes in her budget message, then why does the police department need to increase its budget?

Roots of crime

The “Great Lockdown” has created distress around the world, with billions of people out of work. In the United States, millions have applied for unemployment, with little expectation that the social conditions will improve. Northampton’s chief of police said in a Zoom City Council budget planning meeting that this situation of joblessness will lead to a future increase in crime. For that reason, she implied, the police are essential.

This is an attitude of surrender. Why should we give in to conditions of inequality that lead to hopelessness and crime? Shouldn’t a society turn its attention toward changing these conditions?

A civilization that decides not to eradicate the roots of crime is a decadent civilization. If people have a place to live, food to eat, schools to learn in, public health services to use, and meaningful work and leisure, the many reasons for crime begin to fade. Sociologists have told us for generations that people turn to nonviolent crime largely because of the entrenched inequalities in society; if eradicating these inequalities are the focus of government, then the need to fund the police would be lessened.

It is one thing to praise “essential workers,” and it is another produce the kind of institutions that are essential to build a society. To “defund the police” and to “abolish prisons” are not utopian ideas. They ask us to change the way we think about the way we organize society.

Rather than have a police force that ensures that people without homes are kept out of vacant properties, what if we turned the vacant properties into places to live? What if rather than a police force to protect grocery stores from the petty theft of the hungry, if we produced institutions that made sure that everyone had enough food to eat? Imagine if every ward in Northampton had a public health office, with public health workers and social workers to tend to our various needs?

We are born people; with great difficulty we become human. The movements on the streets are motivated by a simple idea: to shift our priorities from protecting property to producing a civilization.

Read the full article at the Daily Hampshire Gazette.