By Nikki Jones, author of The Chosen Ones: Black Men and the Politics of Redemption

Calls to defund the police often elicit fear. How will I stay safe, wonder people who associate the police with safety. This response ignores the fact for many people, the police are what they fear.  When I hear calls to defund the police I think first about the routine abuses and interactions that injure the body, mind, and spirit of Black youth identified as targets by law enforcement.

Defunding the police isn’t a new idea, but it has new momentum since George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis. Two weeks later city council voted to disassemble its police department and “create a new system of public safety in a city where law enforcement has long been accused of racism.”  

Officers routinely relied on aggression, violence, and exploitation in their dealings with residents of the Third District, where George Floyd died with the knee of a police officer on his neck. The Minneapolis Star Tribune documented multiple abuses from court records and police reports: “One officer kicked a handcuffed suspect in the face, leaving his jaw in pieces. Officers beat and pistol-whipped a suspect in a parking lot on suspicion of low-level drug charges. Others harassed residents of a south Minneapolis housing project as they headed to work, and allowed prostitution suspects to touch their genitals for several minutes before arresting them in vice stings.”

Among the most striking disclosures in the article is shared by Abigail Cerra, a commissioner for Minneapolis’ Police Conduct Oversight Commission and former public defender, who states that her “clients were constantly getting anal searches. Not at the hospital. At the Third Precinct.” 

Officers use force against Black residents at 7 times the rate of white residents in Minneapolis. Disparate force is commonplace in other cities across the country, like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing have as much to do with these routine abuses as the appalling slow-motion spectacle of Floyd’s video-recorded lynching. 

The experience of San Francisco’s Black residents, which I write about in The Chosen Ones: Black Men and the Politics of Redemption, mirror the experiences of Black residents in Minneapolis. The commissioner’s disclosure of the routine anal searches echoes complaints of strip-searches that I document in my book. These searches are just one example of how police officers routinely violate the bodily integrity of Black residents. 

When I hear about calls to defund the police, I think about the way that Black youth are socialized into submission through their repeated encounters with the officers in their neighborhood. They can carry off a search of their body without any direction. I think about the powerlessness that teenage boys hide underneath the tough countenances, which they have learned to put on as a form of protection as part of their response to witnessing violent arrests on their block. 

I think about Larry, a young man I write about at the end of the chapter excerpted below, who once shared during a public meeting of residents that he had been strip-searched at the local police station before being released. Nearly a month later, I witnessed the lingering impact of this violation, as Larry launched accusations and insults at officers who were, once again, on the block: “Not tonight. Not tonight, “Larry repeated in a monotone chant as a crowd of officers and residents gathered. “Ya’ll not taking me in tonight,” he repeated, bouncing on his toes like a boxer getting ready for a match. “You’re not going to strip search me. That’s illegal.” 

When people write off defunding as too radical, choosing instead to tighten their grasp on reform, I think about how I tried to calm Larry down in that moment, to quiet his protest for fear that his attention would attract the aggression of the officers. 

“It’s frustrating,” he says. “They can come up here, take me to the station, strip search me, and I can’t do anything back to them.” 

In retrospect, my response to him was a weak and tired one, and one that he had probably heard time and time again. “You’re trying to go somewhere,” I said. Don’t let this moment knock you off that path, I told him. Really, I was thinking, I don’t want the police to hurt you more than they already had. I don’t want you to die tonight.  

I succeeded in calming Larry down that night and maybe I did save him from injury, maybe even death, but something was lost too. As I write in the chapter, “by encouraging him to retreat, I forestalled any revolutionary potential that may have existed in his efforts to directly confront the police.” The sort of revolutionary potential that reminds a Black youth that his life matters. The kind of revolutionary potential that we see in the streets at this moment. 

By the time I finished The Chosen Ones the limits of reform were clear to me. All of the incidents I detail in the book took place in a progressive city that embraced progressive approaches to fighting crime and violence in the neighborhood. What we need are alternatives to law enforcement, which I lay out in the conclusion of The Chosen Ones.  

Calls to defund the police ask us to imagine safety from the perspective of those who are the frequent targets of policing and understand that it is the world that is built from that perspective that will be a better world for us all. 

The below excerpt is from Chapter 3: Targets, of The Chosen Ones

Much like the search on the street, the strip search is degrading, dehumanizing, and humiliating. This is true whether or not an institutional actor—an officer or a prison guard—intends it to be so; any difference in the injury to one’s dignity is merely a matter of degree. In situations that are not followed by a long period of detention, the humiliation experienced by a young man during the course of a search is likely to be magnified upon his release, when he must confront officers, including, perhaps, officers who have seen the most intimate parts of his body, patrolling the neighborhood the next day. Even if not the same officer, the omnipresence of officers in the neighborhood can remind young men of the possibility of violation. The degree to which young men may come to interpret this type of handling by law enforcement as a violation, along with the lingering effects of the perceived violation, was revealed one night during a tenants meeting at one of the public housing complexes in the neighborhood.

The meeting was called to address a recent wave of evictions from the housing complex. The notices informed the tenants that they were being evicted because they had committed, permitted, or failed to prevent criminal activity either in or near their unit. Over the course of the night, the mainly low-income residents in attendance also discussed the gang injunction and the relationship between the community and the police in general. Near the end of the meeting, Larry, one of Lincoln’s sons, shared his account of what he believed to be an overly harsh and intrusive encounter with the police during his recent detention at the local police station. He told the group that he was taken to the local station and, as he described it, “stripsearched.” He looked saddened and frustrated as he shared his experience and searched for possible remedies from the group. Several weeks after Larry’s public disclosure of this intrusive encounter with the police, he and I attended a boys’ group meeting. There, I witnessed how Larry’s feelings of frustration and anger lingered nearly a month after the initial incident:

It is about 7:30 at night. It’s dark outside. The meeting has ended. The boys finish the plates of food that are provided at each meeting and, one-by-one or in pairs, begin to trickle out of the meeting area. As they exit, the attention of the group is drawn to two police cars that have pulled into the parking lot adjacent to the meeting room’s entrance. The group then begins to move outside en masse.

“What’s going on?” I ask into the crowd of bystanders that has quickly gathered to observe the impending scene.

I notice Lincoln has taken a stand near the officers. . . .

Four officers are on the scene. Lincoln says that the officers are claiming that three of the boys attending the meeting broke into a resident’s home, but he says the boys were in the room the whole time. . . . A small group of kids, between the ages of eight and eleven, gather around the officers.

“Who’s snitching, who’s a snitch,” they yell at the officer. “You a snitch,” the officer responds as he points to one of the kids.

Lincoln orders the kids to run on. As Lincoln engages the officers, the older boys in the group walk away, spreading out like water on pavement as they make their way across the street and away from the officers.

As I observe the scene, I hear Larry’s voice rise from the crowd of observers. Larry is a senior in high school. He’s been studying for the state-mandated exit exam. I’ve provided some support for him along the way.

“Not tonight, not tonight,” he repeats in a monotone chant. “Ya’ll ain’t taking me in tonight,” bouncing on his toes like a boxer getting ready for a match. “You’re not going to strip search me,” he says, “that’s illegal.”

Larry makes his way over to me. He continues to bounce and chant as we observe the scene from the railing that separates the entrance from the parking lot. He raises his voice and begins to yell in the direction of the officers. I turn to him to get his attention and adopt a low, soft tone as I encourage him to calm down. He pauses for a moment to share the source of his frustration with me directly.

“It’s frustrating,” he says. “They can come up in here, take me to the station, strip search me and I can’t do anything back to them.” I tell him that I understand, but that the way to get back at them is by taking and passing his exit exam. “You’re trying to go somewhere,” I say. I encourage him not to court the police into disrupting his path. He takes my suggestion in before retreating back into the crowd of bystanders.

Larry’s behavior that night was among the most memorable observations from my time in the neighborhood. It stood out not simply because Larry was challenging the legitimacy of the police—it is not entirely uncommon for bystanders to launch accusations in the direction of officers from the outskirts of an encounter. Rather, I was struck by the specificity of Larry’s accusation: “You’re not going to strip search me, that’s illegal.” His accusation made public an intimate violation experienced by Larry at the hands of the police. Larry’s display of frustration and anger also stood out because of the public way in which he broadcast his vulnerability, a departure from the silence that typically surrounds the experience of sexual violence experienced by women and some forms of violent victimization experienced by Black men. In a study of the victims of gun violence, for example, Jooyoung Lee found that a heavy silence hung around injuries that threatened one’s manhood in actual or symbolic ways, since “an injury in (or near) a man’s genitalia might jeopardize his elite status [as a ‘badass’] and transform him into a ‘freak’ in the eyes of his peers.”

Here, Larry risked any threat to his manhood that might accompany his public disclosure and instead shared his experience of being strip-searched with all within earshot. In doing so, he made clear that his effort to confront the police was motivated by this past violation—a violation that is often hidden from the public. Now, on his home turf, Larry provoked the police in an effort not only to repair the injury done to him during the strip search but also to right the power imbalance that had lingered since the incident.

Larry’s effort to break this silence came with a risk. In fighting against this otherwise invisible cage of constraint, Larry opened himself up to the potential for harsher forms of bodily control, including the possibility of lethal violence at the hands of the police—a threat from which I hoped to insulate him in my efforts to redirect his frustration. In hindsight, my attempts to protect him also acted as a form of constraint. By encouraging him to retreat, I forestalled any revolutionary potential that may have existed in his efforts to directly confront the police. Historically, such responses have triggered urban uprisings and, eventually, reforms in policing. The more recent #BlackLivesMatter movement may not have erupted had the tragic encounter between Ferguson, Missouri, resident Michael Brown and then-officer Darren Wilson gone differently on that summer day in August 2014. A Department of Justice report published seven months after Brown’s killing found frequent and compelling evidence of an overly aggressive and racially discriminatory pattern of policing that targeted men like Brown and others in the community.

Half a country away, residents of the Fillmore share the experience of being targeted and, at times, aggressively surveilled by local law enforcement. This is especially true for young Black men like Larry. His conciliatory retreat may have protected him in the moment, but my encouragement for him to give up his protest did little to weaken the invisible constraints, stitched together with the strands of dominance that surround him and his peers each day.

The ethnographic findings presented in this chapter provide a framework for understanding how the shift to targeted policing practices in the 1980s changed the nature of daily life for Black youth in poor, Black neighborhoods in San Francisco. The relationship of law enforcement to the city’s Black community has shifted from the abdication of the “quarantine approach” to entrenchment, characterized by the seemingly constant presence of law enforcement, the normalization of stops and body searches, the infiltration and manipulation of personal relationships, and bureaucratic expansion, which serves to strengthen the bars of the invisible cage surrounding Black youth in the city. These shifts were facilitated and legitimized by the crime-fighting community. Three decades after the arrival of crack in the neighborhood, adolescent boys, especially those in their late teens and early twenties, remain targets for local law enforcement across its various iterations, from “black and whites” (a term used to describe uniformed patrol officers) to undercover or plain-clothes gang task-force members, private and sometimes armed security guards, and housing authority police, who are also armed. Together, these layers of public and private security form a seemingly all-encompassing web of surveillance for youth to negotiate as they engage in legitimate or illegitimate activities in the Fillmore.

This shift has had a range of often-overlooked consequences for the socialization of young men who live in neighborhoods like the Fillmore. These routine interactions with law enforcement, whether experienced directly or observed, not only injure a youth’s developing sense of self but also reinforce an adolescent’s understanding of the central roles that strength, dominance, and respect play in the construction of manhood. It is through these interactions that many young Black men come to learn their value as men and their place in the “pecking order” of their neighborhood’s gender hierarchy. These patterns of interaction between institutional authorities and residents, especially adolescents, reflect and reinforce the crudest notions of masculinity and dominance. As such, these routine encounters with the police encourage a young person’s socialization into a particular sort of masculinity over the course of adolescence, a form of masculinity that is consistent with hegemonic forms of masculinity but that overemphasizes the expression of manhood through physical dominance. Just as importantly, this physical dominance has clear consequences for women and girls in these neighborhoods: as state violence is absorbed by the bodies and minds of Black men, it gets shifted onto the bodies of Black women, girls, and others who occupy the lower rungs of the gender hierarchy.

*please note that footnotes have been omitted