June 24, 2020
Black Lives Matter and other abolitionist groups are leading communities across the country to recognize that the criminal justice system is a powerhouse of violence and white supremacy. Policing was racist at birth, with its origins in scalping Indigenous people and kidnapping Black people escaping slavery. It has a long history of keeping non-white property owning people “under foot” and disempowered. From Reconstruction to Jim Crow and up to the present, the police budget has continued to grow, and so too have the oppressive laws that target poor people, Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color. Selective enforcement of the law is a pretext that justifies siphoning money from the public good and instead criminalizing peoples’ very existence. Abolition is the only solution. With that comes an opportunity to redirect funding away from the bloated police budget and into the hands of community members, who will support and empower rather than terrorize. As we work to defund the police, its racist, classist systems and laws must go as well. We need to eliminate the police force’s myriad Specialized Units, which, among other things, are tasked with responding to homelessness and enforcing the hundreds of laws that prohibit basic survival activities. We need to overturn Privatized Policing Programs, which use public money to bolster the power of property owners. We need to abolish policing once and for all, and in its place foster healthy, vibrant, and liberated communities.
Overturn Historically Discriminatory Laws and Policing
In conjunction with defunding police departments more generally, eliminating the laws that police use to target poor and homeless people is a critical step towards a more just society. This country has a long and brutal history of enacting laws that specifically aim to remove the presence of poor people, especially Black people and Indigenous people, from our communities. Ugly Laws of the 1860s, the Sundown Towns, Anti-Okie Laws, and Jim Crow laws are a few examples of targeted laws that have wielded the power of police departments to enforce blatantly discriminatory, racist, and oppressive social control. Some, such as Vagrancy Laws criminalizing homelessness, were not overturned until 2018. This brutal history is in many ways a recent history, and a blatant injustice we live with now.
The books remain filled with laws that continue to criminalize basic survival activities, such as standing still (“loitering”), sitting, sleeping, laying down, eating, hanging out on the street corner, and sharing food. These laws are often deployed in the process of “sweeps”—evictions—of people with nowhere else to go. Today, they are used as a “tool” that addresses homelessness by criminalizing people with no housing and justifies inflated police budgets. These laws are selectively enforced to appease people in power and to try to make homelessness disappear, just as they have been used to appease and make others disappear in the past. In 2018, WRAP member groups conducted a survey of 1,657 homeless people regarding their interaction with policing and the main “illegal offenses” that people are being targeted with. Eighty-two percent reported being harassed, cited, or arrested for sleeping, 77% for laying down, and 75% for loitering. Among those surveyed, 1,275 people reported that they had been targeted by the police based on their economic status, and 597 people said they were targeted because of their race. If these laws were ever enforced without discrimination, everyone would be guilty of breaking them; instead poor and homeless people — especially those who are Black, Indigenous, and Latinx — are targeted.