Defunding the Police and Investing in Communities: Mutual Aid and Abolitionist Communities in Austin

Ewan McInerney, Staff Writer

In the U.S., there have been 16 days this year where police have not killed someone, and 98.3% of killings by police in the past seven years have not resulted in officers being charged, according to Mapping Police Violence. 

Madeline Detelich is the co-chair of the Austin chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Detelich supports defunding the police because she thinks that response to crime has become too extreme.

“So many cities increase their police department budget every year so that cops can get more force and new fancy toys,” Detelich said. “In the past, it was something that wasn’t even questioned usually, which is why it’s very satisfying this year that we have more people supporting us in trying to stop trends of racial bias and militarized police.”

Aaron Booe, former Liberator editor, has worked with multiple abolitionist organizations, including the Austin Youth Liberation Movement. Booe said that while the concept of policing is not inherently bad, the contemporary manifestations of policing have come to be associated with the incidents of police brutality that have been publicized in the last few years.

“In the contemporary sense, a lot of people would associate police with carcerality and would define it as being very punitive in nature,” Booe said. “There isn’t much emphasis on this idea of public safety with policing currently. I do think policing could be a form of public safety, but currently they aren’t very compatible with each other.”

According to Booe, many people think of law enforcement as the only factor in public safety. However, he said that it is important to fund agencies that work to solve social and political issues as well.

“Something that we need to start realizing is that public safety extends to so many sectors of our lives,” Booe said. “One of these sectors is addressing immediate material needs, material needs that can often push people to certain activities that we might define as criminal. So if we were to defund the police department, some of that money could start going towards things like mental health respondents and social welfare programs that work to provide public health, housing and education.”

UNI Abolition is an Austin-based abolitionist group that lobbies for liberation through mutual aid and relationship-building. According to Safa Michigan, a group member, mutual aid is crucial to keeping communities alive and functional.

“Mutual aid, at its essence, is helping one another through resource exchange and support,” Michigan said. “If abolition is the work of abolishing the systems that keep us oppressed, then it is important that we practice mutual aid now so we can be prepared to take care of each other and survive in a post-revolutionary, post-abolition world.”

Booe said non-reformist reforms differ from a more generally known definition of reform looking to fix a broken system. Instead, they are steps working towards abolition. The Austin Youth Liberation Movement has worked with a number of progressive and abolitionist organizations on a local and statewide level, including the Democratic Socialists of America.

“We worked with Our Revolution Texas, which is the action committee that was responsible for Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016 and 2020,” Booe said. “We’ve also worked with Austin Justice Coalition, which is a police reformist and criminal justice reform organization in the Austin area.”

UNI is also participating in several humanitarian projects involving distribution of material goods to people in need. Michigan said the group has ambitious plans for the future and plans to become more organized.

“Every Sunday, we go and hand out supply bags to unhoused encampments after talking with folks and assessing their true needs,” Michigan said. “In our work over the past few months, we’ve been figuring out the logistics of our distribution project as well as navigating the collective format of our group. As we move forward, we’re going to be regrouping and taking a different approach which includes taking on more creative endeavors.” 

Detelich said she believes that more money is needed for housing and healthcare. However, she said she thinks that more needs to be done than diverting police funding to social programs.

“As a democratic socialist, I think that the government should make investments in guaranteeing basic rights for all human beings,” Detelich said. “Providing things like housing and healthcare obviously does take a lot of money, and, to be honest, there’s not always going to be a lot we can do on the local level to help things this way. It has to be coupled with a movement on a federal level to remake the way our money is spent in this country and get a lot more of it through policies like graduated income taxes.”

According to Detelich, many left-leaning people think that the slogan “Defund the Police” is too extreme. She said that without context, it can be misunderstood to mean the complete abolition of law enforcement. 

“Since the election, something that’s happened is this internal warfare in the Democratic party, and a lot of people have been pointing fingers at ‘Defund the Police,’ saying that the slogan is too extreme and it’s costing them votes,” Detelich said. “That slogan is not something that was cooked up in the think tank it’s an emotional cry from millions of people that have taken to the streets because they realize that police reform is needed.”

Protests and rallies for reform in police funding have been greatly affected by COVID-19 as well as the 2020 presidential election. Detelich said that, ultimately, the events of 2020 have reinforced abolitionists’ message.

“There’s definitely been an added drama to the protests with COVID,” Detelich said. “I didn’t expect to see massive protests during a pandemic because, after all, the left are more likely to be taking COVID seriously. The virus just heightens it all because people are willing to make this calculated risk, and they’re deciding that it’s worth it for them to be on the streets. The election contributes to this feeling as well because the atmosphere is just that much more politically charged.”

According to Michigan, a system that does not rely on punishment and oppression is important to people’s ability to treat each other with respect. She said that relationship-building is an important step on the way to abolition.

“A world without police and one with enough resources for everyone to live would be a beautiful one full of love, care and community,” Michigan said. “It would be one where people honor the humanity in one another and address harm in transformative, healing ways.”