Guest columnist Alex Kent: Defund and demilitarize the police in Amherst

Published: 7/23/2020 6:33:14 PM

A neighbor of mine in Amherst has called for a “comprehensive review of policing practices” in our town. Not very long ago — perhaps a couple of weeks ago — I might have agreed with him. His recommendations would have seemed sensible and feasible, while calls to “defund the police” would have sounded like sheer madness.

I have changed my mind and can no longer endorse a “review of policing practices,” no matter how comprehensive that review may be. I believe that the entire system is rotten, rooted as it is in the oppression of Black, Indigenous and people of color, as well as in efforts to use violence to deny working peoples’ right to organize into labor unions.

Individual police officers may be blameless; I am sure that most officers are decent, civic-minded people who do their jobs with the best of intentions. It is the system that is corrupt, violent and destructive of the social fabric.

What I have come to understand is that a just and peaceful society cannot be built and sustained at gunpoint, when authority is delegated to people who are charged with enforcing society’s rules with firearms and who carry with them at all times the threat of lethal violence. It may have been a police officer’s knee that choked the life out of George Floyd, but it was the sidearm strapped to the officer’s hip and the deep racism in his heart that made the knee an instrument of murder.

Defund and demilitarize the police: Regular police officers should not carry sidearms. And if officers feel unsafe and unable to protect themselves and the public without the ready option of deadly force, they should find another line of work. While we’re at it, the Second Amendment should be tossed into the scrap-heap of history and the American people should be disarmed.

I added my voice to the calls to cut the Amherst Police Department’s budget in half. The money saved should be used to hire social and community workers who are trained to respond to the bulk of calls that are currently answered by police: Psychological emergencies, noisy parties, vandalism, and the like. Give these non-police community workers the authority to issue fines for violations.

We will still need some police for moving traffic violations, domestic abuse, robberies, public safety emergencies. Police should be armed only to respond to potentially violent, life-threatening situations, and they should to the greatest extent possible use only nonlethal weapons.

Reallocate money away from the APD and provide it to assist BIPOC people who want to start a business in town, or use the money to finance transitional housing for the unhoused. Use public money to help the public, not to threaten them with violence.

As Simone de Beauvoir famously said of supposedly liberal France’s response to the brutal colonization of Algeria, “To protest in the name of morality against ‘excesses’ or ‘abuses’ is an error which hints at active complicity. There are no ‘abuses’ or ‘excesses’ here, simply an all-pervasive system.”

Violence — and the very threat of violence — only begets more violence. Defund the police.

Alex Kent lives in Amherst.

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