“Defund the Police” and “Divest from Fossil Fuels” Go Hand-In-Hand

This blog post was written by two Stop the Money Pipeline steering committee members, Moira Birss, Climate & Finance Director at Amazon Watch, and Jamie Henn, coordinator of the STMP communications working group. 

Should climate activists get behind defunding the police? 

It’s a question that’s being asked across the climate justice movement as the Movement for Black Lives and racial justice advocates have so effectively thrust the demand into the center of the public discourse. 

For many organizations and activists, the answer is obvious: absolutely yes. For us, it’s a simple matter of justice. Regardless of whether there was any connection to our work fighting the climate crisis, we see it as a moral imperative to stop funding the violent oppression of Black communities and redirect those resources to mental health care, schools, housing, economic development, and other programs that can lift those communities up. 

But it’s clear from the debate out there that for others the answer isn’t quite so clear. Some people worry that the demand is too radical. That the police are necessary to protect public safety and alternatives are hard to come by. That even though tragedies like the death of George Floyd do occur, those are isolated incidents and you can’t blame the whole system for a few “bad apples.” Maybe instead of rushing to conclusions another study would be a good idea? Perhaps we need another commission?  

It’s particularly striking to hear these concerns coming from the climate community because they are the exact type of arguments that have been used against fossil fuel divestment, a cause célèbre for the movement for nearly a decade. 

Let’s start with “the demand is too radical.” That’s the accusation that’s tossed in the face of climate activists all the time when we talk about the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, ban fracking, or pass a Green New Deal. We don’t ask for these things because they are easy, however, but because they are what science and justice demand. The reality of the climate crisis demands bold, immediate action. What may seem radical to the status quo is actually just common sense when you understand what’s at stake. 

It’s the same for the Black activists demanding that we defund the police, abolish prisons, and enact reparations. Activists aren’t asking for these things because they are easy, but because they’re what justice demands. The reality of white supremacy and racial discrimination in this country demands bold, immediate action. Dr. King explained “why we can’t wait” all the way back in 1964. The case couldn’t be any clearer a half century later. 

As Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, the North America Director for 350.org, wrote recently in Grist, “We didn’t just call for leaders to regulate the fossil fuel industry, we called for it to be dismantled for the sake of a livable future. Similarly, calls to defund the police are about reducing the scope, size, and role of ineffective and racist law enforcement in favor of investments in education, healthcare, trauma, healing work, and community solutions. The idea is the same — make way for a world of visionary care by repairing harms caused to the communities made vulnerable by business as usual.” 

What about the idea that police are necessary to protect public safety? That’s the same sort of thing that people say about fossil fuels: they’re necessary to keep the lights on, drive our cars, and power our economy. But we know that’s not the case. What people want isn’t coal, oil and gas, they want the conveniences that they provide. Study after study now shows that we can deliver those services without relying on fossil fuels but on 100% renewable energy, conservation and energy efficiency. Alternatives exist. 

The same is true with policing. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said recently, if you want to see a world where we’ve defunded the police, look at the suburbs. In these predominantly white, affluent communities money goes to schooling, public services, housing, healthcare and other services that increase public safety and decrease violence far more effectively than policing. 

Is the murder of George Floyd just an isolated incident caused by a few bad apples? Of course not. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner. We could fill the page with the names of a Black people murdered at the hands of law enforcement and white supremacists. Maria, Irma, Harvey, Sandy, Katrina, Andrew. We could just as easily fill the page with the names of “natural” disasters that were worsened by the climate crisis and our addiction to fossil fuels. Both Black Lives Matter and climate activists ask people to connect the dots and think about the larger system that fuels these individual tragedies. 

As climate activists begin to see these connections, it should be obvious why the request to Black Lives Matter activists to go slow, wait for studies, or settle for commissions is so infuriating and downright disrespectful. We don’t need another study to know that there’s a climate crisis. We already got the IPCC report. There isn’t the need for another commission to tell us there is racial injustice in America. There have been dozens of those, each report they produce destined to become an “alibi for inaction.” 

What’s needed is action. It’s time for our movements to find common cause and fight side-by-side for the world we want to live in together, because our struggles are connected in so many ways. When we defund the police it frees up resources to make our communities safer, healthier, and, yes, more sustainable. When we start to value Black, Brown and Indigenous lives, we stop allowing fossil fuel corporations to build pipelines, refineries, and power plants in those communities. When we demand that Chase Bank pay reparations for refusing to lend to Black people, as activists are doing in Chicago, it increases the pressure on Chase to stop funding fossil fuels and start investing in communities instead. 

The forces that uphold white supremacy and the fossil fuel industry are one in the same. These are powerful forces to be taking on and the road to justice will be long and steep. It’s past time for climate justice and racial justice advocates to start walking it together. And for that to happen, the climate movement needs to fully support the demand to defund the police and invest in Black communities. 

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