This moment of protest against the police’s anti-Black violence is undeniably a historic one. In response, Montreal’s mayor and police chief have been scrambling for new answers to an old question: how do we make the police less racist? This flawed question can only lead to more failed reforms, like body cams, bias training, and diversity hiring. Meanwhile, public support for a necessary demand that offers real change has been increasing: defund the police and redirect public funding to resources that actually promote safety for everyone.
Why not reform? The reason reforms do not work is police violence is not an aberration or the work of “bad apples.” Protecting and serving white people and white property under capitalism requires violence. What do we think is accomplished when a system devalues, harasses, cages, assaults, and prematurely ends the lives of Black and Indigenous people?
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Decades of research have shown that the criminal punishment system does not prevent crime — it merely compounds harm. The myth that the police exist to protect those among us who are vulnerable is refuted by the hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women whose families still await answers and justice. Moreover, women are one of the fastest-growing populations in the federal prison system in Canada. And Indigenous women now account for over 40 per cent of federal prisoners in women’s prisons. In youth detention centres in the prairie provinces, Indigenous girls represent over 90 per cent of detainees. It is clear the system is inherently racist.
In addition to being overrepresented in Canadian prisons, Indigenous and Black women frequently face violence from the police. On June 4, in Edmunston, New Brunswick, just as protests denouncing police killings stirred the world, police killed Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old Indigenous woman from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation during a “wellness check.” Grieving families, like that of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Indigenous-Black Canadian woman who died at the hands of the police in Toronto in May, as well as countless others, demand justice.
But police interventions don’t have to be deadly to be violent. When laws disproportionately target Black and Indigenous communities, they reveal the underlying function of policing. For instance, the decades spent arresting and locking up Black people for possession and distribution of marijuana showcase how laws are used to target rather than protect. Today, with legalization, access to government-run cannabis distribution centres is considered an “essential service.” Yet, we continue to see the law used to police people who are doing everyday activities, such as cashing a cheque, experiencing a mental health crisis, or being at home.
Defunding the police would reduce violence by interrupting a cycle of terror and precarity that is harmful and deadly. This shift would allow us to craft effective responses to harm that genuinely centre safety and justice for all.
We can only diminish violence in our communities by transforming the conditions that lead to violence. Imagine reallocating the $665-million annual budget that the City of Montreal spends on policing to fund measures that ensure people have access to safe housing, living wages, mental health care, education and food security. Many life-affirming programs and services for Black and Indigenous people already exist, but they are kept chronically underfunded and underresourced. By redirecting police funds to those programs we could meet the basic needs of our communities and create more spaces and resources for people to process and heal trauma in ways that could dramatically change the fabric of our society.
When we call for the defunding of the police, our goal is to invest in the potential for our communities to be whole, to be vibrant, to be alive. Who is ready for that? By calling the police, by supporting government initiatives to increase policing and police powers, and by reverting to arguments about upholding the law, white people sustain the status quo. This contract white people sign every day benefits them and upholds anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. It also reveals a failure of the imagination. For centuries, Indigenous and Black people have been ready to lead our communities to a place where we might see what lies on the other side of white supremacy. Real change will not be easy, but one of the first steps can be initiated today: divesting our tax dollars from the police and infusing them into life-affirming efforts in Indigenous and Black communities.
Dr. Nathalie Batraville is a scholar and educator who works as an assistant professor at Concordia University’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute. Her research and teaching aim to highlight and generate frameworks for Black liberation, especially for Black trans and cisgender women, and Black queer and nonbinary people.