Defund the Police, Then Defund the Military

Democrats used to have a clearer agenda for cracking down on an out-of-control military. It’s time to bring that back.

By Noah Berlatsky, a freelance writer in Chicago.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with an F-35 fighter plane pilot
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with F-35 fighter plane pilot Lt. Col. Jason Curtis as he tours Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix on Oct. 19, 2018. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Following the brutal police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month, activists and protesters are calling on the government to “defund the police.” The Minneapolis City Council has declared its intention to do exactly that. But national Democratic pundits and elected officials have been wary of adopting the idea. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has opposed defunding police; so has his erstwhile primary opponent, socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders.

But throttling cash flows to harmful institutions isn’t a new idea on the left, or for Democrats. For decades, Democrats and the left called for the defunding of the military in much the same terms as protesters and activists are calling for the defunding of the police. “Defund the military” has, it’s true, largely been abandoned as a high-profile strategy by both mainstream Democrats and the anti-war left. But it’s a useful precedent for thinking about what defunding the police means and the benefits it can bring. In turn, slashing the budgets of militarized police forces could reinvigorate calls to cut the bloated budget of a military that had ambitions to be a global police officer.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a venerable anti-war organization, printed a famously popular bumper sticker declaring “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” As with “defund the police,” this is not just a slogan—it’s a political philosophy and a political argument.

The organization was pointing out that prioritizing the military and war means deprioritizing the resources that make peace possible, like education. In the same vein, Black Lives Matter and the American Civil Liberties Union have called to defund the police in order to redirect money to mental health services and investments in black communities—like, for example, schools. Police officers themselves have pointed out how they’ve become a service of last resort, struggling to deal with the fallout of austerity elsewhere. In 2017, for example, Chicago spent more than 38 percent of its budget on police, and Minneapolis spent more than 35 percent. The New York City post-coronavirus budget for fiscal year 2021 includes $2 billion in cuts across education, housing, health, and other services, while the police’s $6 billion budget is being slashed by only 0.3 percent.

Meanwhile, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago shuttered six city-run mental health clinics in 2012, contributing to long wait times for services that continue today. As with other closures, that has left police as de facto mental health crisis providers, a job they’re poorly trained for. People with severe mental illness are involved in 25 to 50 percent of fatal encounters with law enforcement, even though they make up only about 3 percent of the population.

For Democrats, constraining military budgets in order to invest in social services was once a mainstream position, not a fringe one. While the Democrats were on the whole the party that supported large military budgets in the 1950s, that changed in the ’60s. President Lyndon B. Johnson clearly articulated the danger of military funding and military priorities: “If I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs. All my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless.”

Johnson ultimately chose the war anyway, blighting his hopes for social transformation and his political prospects. But, in part in reaction to that disaster, at least some Democrats in the ’70s and ’80s called for major cuts in defense spending and tried to restrain military budgets. California Sen. Alan Cranston warned that “we have to make sure we’re only investing in military matters what is really needed.” In 1990, Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn proposed $255 billion in defense cuts over a five-year period. Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder repeatedly worked for military cuts, trying to defund President Ronald Reagan’s priorities such as the MX mobile weapons system and the B-1 bomber.

These Democrats were hardly radicals. Nunn was careful to warn that he didn’t want to cut too much too quickly. In one of her attacks on the Pentagon, Schroeder compared defense contractors to “welfare queens,” implicitly accepting the racist Reagan-era demonization of the poor. But the fact that Nunn and Schroeder were not leftists is the point. Taking money away from violent institutions in order to invest in nonviolent solutions has plenty of precedent, because it’s rooted in common sense. Democratic leaders like Biden could embrace that precedent, rather than proposing another $300 million for police departments that have already seen their budgets bloat by 445 percent between 1982 and 2007.

In turn, “defund the police” could serve to reinvigorate an anti-war program that has had trouble gaining traction in the United States in the last few years. Democrats have largely abandoned even token efforts to rein in defense budgets. The anti-war left pushed hard for Sanders and his anti-war platform. But after his defeat, it will need an approach other than presidential politics, at least for the near term.

At least one of those approaches should be “defund the military.” Activists have long criticized the Section 1033 provision of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act, which allows the transfer of tactical military equipment to police departments, so that police can confront protesters and civilians with terrifying Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles and heavily armed SWAT teams. Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz has proposed ending Section 1033.

But this could also be a moment to ask why the military is so glutted with surplus equipment in the first place. One way to prevent the military from belching tanks and ammunition onto U.S. streets would be to stop pouring money into the military in the first place. A leaner military would force U.S. leaders to think more clearly and carefully about the use of force and its economic as well as its moral and reputational costs.

The military also directly benefits from, and relies on, domestic disinvestment and poverty. The armed services focus recruitment efforts on lower-middle-class and poor households; as of 2004, almost two-thirds of recruits in the U.S. Army came from counties in which median household income was below the countrywide median. The army remains one of the few ways in the United States for the working class to get universal health care and a free college education. Governments skimp on social services and education spending in poor and minority communities. They spend lavishly on police who stop and harass black people in those neighborhoods with terrifying frequency. And then the well-funded military sets up recruiting stations in poor neighborhoods to fill its ranks, as kids with few other options sign up to go shoot others and be shot at in turn in the United States’ endless foreign wars.

The United States spends about $115 billion on policing a year, more than any other country’s military budget save China’s. It spends $732 billion on the military, which is more than the next 10 highest-spending countries combined. Economic choices are moral choices. Activists and protesters calling to defund the police are trying to remind the United States that funneling money to people with guns and tanks is a choice, not an inevitability. Mainstream critics of U.S. defense spending once understood that. They should take up the call again. Defund the police. Defund the military. Fund peace, equality, and hope.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.