Allyship or allying is an ongoing process of supporting and developing solidarity with groups and communities of which you’re not a part. We white people have been told for decades, if not centuries, that we must be better allies to Black and Indigenous communities and communities of color. Since the murder of George Floyd, this call has become even greater and, for what feels like the first time, many white people are listening.
Resources being shared across social media are encouraging white people to begin a process of deep learning to understand what white supremacy and systemic racism mean and how they manifest. Crucially, we must extend this learning to our own circles, discuss oppression at the dinner table, challenge our racist uncles and our ‘I have a Black friend’ cousins. If able, we’re asked to protest and, whether from the streets or at home, to join the Black community in demanding change.
But what change? It’s our responsibility to learn, but it’s equally important to make sure we’re learning the right things. For far too long, the approach to tackling racism within the criminal legal system, the police and the political and corporate establishment that surrounds it (usually referred to in whole as the prison industrial complex) has focused on making small reforms, taking something off here, adding something there – essentially changing its shape without addressing the root causes. Reform is the widely accepted and acceptable approach to change, so it makes us feel like we’re doing the right thing without fear of jeopardizing our social and political standing. As white people, it is our responsibility to address the wider systemic issues properly.
After the 2014 murder of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., his family called for cops across the country to start wearing body cams. The idea behind them is that in the aftermath of an abuse of power, we may be able to better identify what happened and who was involved (if the camera was turned on and even then, this is rarely successful). But, as we know, this hasn’t stopped police officers murdering Black people. Despite decades of reform attempts, police brutality has not ended.
It’s important for us to remember that the police force as an institution is not broken, but rather it is doing exactly what it set out to do. It may be helpful to remind ourselves that the history of the police goes back to slavery – an early iteration of the police were slave patrols, designed to enforce order and discipline over Black slaves. The very function of the patrol was to perpetuate white dominance and curtail Black liberation.
If a system is not broken, it cannot be fixed. Instead, it must be dismantled. Defunding the police is not a trendy new idea, it’s the articulation of a longstanding call for the abolition of the police force, even if at this stage the emphasis is on radically reducing it rather than eliminating it altogether. Whilst white communities might base our idea of needing the police for keeping us safe from harm or ‘crime’, Black communities have never been in doubt that the police are part of the problem rather than the solution. In this revolutionary moment, they’re calling on us to start realizing this truth, too.
The first step is to recognize that ‘crime’ is a term constructed by racism itself. What should be the focus of our attention is the idea that harm in the community is the result of unmet basic needs and harmful socio-economic conditions. Centuries of legal inequality under slavery, Jim Crow laws and their modern-day iterations have denied Black people equal access to education, jobs, healthcare, housing, and support for mental health and addiction issues. Instead of redressing these inequalities and supporting Black communities, they are instead seen as a threat, disproportionately and illegitimately criminalized, and overpoliced. Involvement with the police is, at best, the first step in a lifelong entanglement with the criminal legal system (and at worst results in death). The consequences of this – of having a criminal record – exacerbate these fundamental disparities by making it even more difficult to access education, jobs, housing and welfare. It’s a vicious cycle that the police help create and maintain and where their physical violence and brutality adds layers of trauma on top of long-established oppression.
The concept of defunding the police is pretty simple: pull taxpayer money from funding the force and instead invest it in social services and community support. By improving the conditions that lead to harm we can radically reduce it, leaving no need for a police force at all. In crisis situations, instead of calling the cops we would rely on specialists and experts in fields such as mental health, addiction, housing and other support. The process of defunding the police can happen gradually to provide space and time to put these vital services in place.
It is a privilege to see the police as a protective force. For many people across America, they represent the opposite. Allyship means rejecting and resisting systems that we may benefit from. And in truth, we will all benefit from a world without police, because reinvesting funds in support and social services will create safer communities across the country. We will be as protected, and more importantly, those currently targeted by the police and criminal legal system will be too.
Written by Forgive Everyone Contributor, Molly Lipson
Molly is a writer and an activist for justice and prison abolition from the UK with a background in American studies. She also works on the climate crisis from a perspective of systemic racism and oppression.
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