brian bean: In the first round of the Chicago mayoral election the question of “defund” turned out to be a big one—in the debates it felt like everyone was hurling the term around. And Lightfoot’s main attack against Brandon Johnson had to do with the politics of defunding the police.
Johnson, for his part, kind of avoided the term itself. The commonsense “wisdom” that the liberal establishment put forward was that defund is a political liability. Can you talk about that, what you think this election says about defund, and whether or not it’s really a political liability?
Jasson Perez: I think as far as Brandon Johnson’s campaign goes, the first round results show that you can win despite being associated with defund and having all sorts of attacks hurled at you if you have a policy platform that is committed to addressing the root causes of what people call crime.
Of course, there’s nothing in Johnson’s platform that says he’s going to take money out of the police budget and put money into other things. But there is a commitment that he’s not going to increase funding for police. And I think that matters. I mean, the last time Chicago had a “progressive” candidate running for mayor, that person, Chuy Garcia, was running on a promise to hire a thousand more cops. And if you look at mayoral races in LA and New York City, all the candidates—including the ones who pretended to be progressive—ran on a platform of increasing funding for the police. And nationally, the liberal Democratic establishment like Biden are going in as law-and-order people.
Obviously, I want Brandon to do more. Brandon is just a “progressive.” I mean, he didn’t even endorse Bernie Sanders, you know? But I’m glad the DSA, Working Families United, and other like-minded groups didn’t endorse an anti-defund candidate—because that was a possibility. After all, there is this idea on the social democratic left, especially in New York, that more funding for cops is what working class people want, that “police are public workers too,” etc.
But all of that is a losing strategy. You simply cannot have a pro-law-and-order politics and expect to be able to push a progressive message. I don’t even think you can push a liberal message in that context. Once you start saying you back the cops, everything gets trapped in a right-wing or even authoritarian mindset.
bb: Although Brandon dodged the term “defund” itself, we’re definitely seeing ways that the movement has shifted things in a positive direction. His platform, for example, has a lot of good movement demands: Treatment Not Trauma, ending Shot Spotter, and closing CPD’s Homan Square black site.
That’s a shift. Like you said, Chuy ran on hiring a thousand more cops the first time, and this time he demanded 1,600 more cops. And even Karen Lewis—may she rest in power—was talking about the need to hire more cops in the fall of 2014, while the uprising in Ferguson was going on. Brandon has had these good demands but has also dodged the question of filling police vacancies.
So overall there has been a shift that has brought the question of policing to center stage. And even though Lightfoot relentlessly attacked Brandon’s position on policing, she ended up losing. How did this shift happen? What brought this about in your opinion?
JP: The abolitionist movement that arose in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 is the reason for the shift. Black Visions and other groups within Minnesota, for example, connected the dots after Floyd’s murder and said, “The demand has to be defund.” That sentiment was widespread during the uprisings, and it was based on ideas that abolitionist activists argued for relentlessly.
In Chicago, in particular, abolitionist activists worked hard to convince people in labor and the surrounding milieu to support defund. And they did so in the context of the larger shift enacted by the national movement. They fought hard to build a coalition—which included even relatively mainstream elements from labor and left nonprofits—based on the idea that we spend way too much on the police. So this is a case where grassroots organizing made the difference. But when you look at, say, New York or Atlanta, formations like this aren’t there. And the results reflect this difference.
The support for the Treatment Not Trauma referendum is a great example. Treatment Not Trauma is based on the idea that we spend way too much on the police. The fundamental idea is that we gotta take money out of there, and we gotta put it into all these other public services that will actually reduce crime. And it is popular. But you have to argue it and understand that it’s not just an ethical claim about one’s own radicalism, but there are technical, strategic reasons to hold to a defund the police politics.
brian bean: This brings me to my next question. You mentioned earlier the tension between saying “I’m progressive” and “I’m for law-and-order.” One way this can play out is that you have people who are open to providing more funding for alternatives to police—like spending more money hiring mental health counselors, and so on—but are reluctant to say we should take resources away from the police.
Doesn’t this miss that when the George Floyd rebellion was at its height, masses of people weren’t flooding the streets because they wanted more money invested in mental health? The immediate reason they were there was that the police are unreformable killers. The demand to defund the cops and fund all those things that are related to actual community safety arose organically in response to police violence.
So I worry that the core reason for backing defund in the first place, racist police violence, is falling out of the conversation. Of course it’s crucial to support measures that create alternatives to policing. But if we compare, say, Brandon Johnson’s campaign with the campaign of Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, there’s a big difference in terms of how the question of police violence figures into their arguments. Rossana is very vocal, for example, in denouncing police violence and uses this to argue for defunding the cops. So is there a danger that the question of police violence is not as front-and-center as it should be in some of these debates about the merits of defund?
Jasson Perez: You’re picking up on something here that’s important, and it reminds me of some of the push-back Sanders faced around his advocacy of Medicare for All. Sanders had to face this question of, “Wait, so you don’t think anyone should get to have private health insurance—you want to abolish it?” And usually Sanders would retort with something like, “There shouldn’t be health care CEOs.” I think this was powerful. Despite all of his liabilities, this was a moment when Sanders’s approach was compelling.
Another example would be how Rashida Tlaib has handled questions around BDS and the politics of Palestinian liberation. She took a position and she hasn’t backed down, even in the face of significant pressure from those to her right. We need more of that.
And to me that’s not even a very maximalist thing. It’s not like I’m saying every candidate has to be a self-avowed Marxist revolutionary.
But, we have to get to that moment when we say something similar about cops: “There shouldn’t be police at all. These folks are not workers like you; they are purveyors of violence.”
What made Sanders’s argument regarding private insurance compelling was that he made it tangible. He was like, “Hey, there’s some asshole who’s making loads of money off of insulin. Why is that happening?” Right? This is what we need more of from Johnson.
Take Shot Spotter. Brandon sometimes argues against it on the grounds that it’s “bad technology.” This isn’t the right approach. What we need here is to make it more concrete. We need to ask, “Why is some prick in the private sector making millions of dollars off surveilling ordinary people? It’s doing nothing for our safety, but it’s funneling millions into the pockets of corporations.”
There’s this idea—advanced by the whole political consultancy class, which includes a lot of folks associated with Sanders and groups like Justice Democrats, that you make your candidate “more electable” if you water down movement demands or get rid of them altogether. You are protected and you can keep getting little wins. But I just don’t see the evidence for that. Lori Lightfoot lost horribly, and she did all the things the centrist political consultants say you’re supposed to do. She lost the argument around defund.
I think you can’t cheat the process of standing by your principles if you are running in elections in hopes of building your own party or protoparty or whatever.
brian bean: I want to switch gears for a minute. There’s a really consistent line in the liberal media that says, “Lightfoot was weak on crime, and Vallas provided the alternative.” In the New York Times or on CNN there’s this single-minded obsession with “crime” as the most important political issue. Why has this framing become so hegemonic? How should leftists navigate a conversation that is premised on the idea that crime should be at the center of all political debate?
Jasson Perez: I’m of the belief that capitalism needs a democratically unaccountable, militarized force to hold itself together, to maintain the status quo. That’s why the police are there. So that’s the basis of it—there’s a deep liberal belief in capitalism and in policing as an institution. That’s what drives the liberal idea that defund is a dangerous idea. And in a way there’s a truth to what they’re saying—it is dangerous if your goal is to maintain capitalism.
A good example of how this is playing out is the way the liberal establishment has responded to the DC crime bill, where you have Biden collaborating with Republicans to shut down reforms being proposed by the government of District of Columbia. And it wasn’t even a reduction of policing that was being proposed—it had to do with reducing sentencing. So we’ve got to fight that.
But what’s worse, in a way, than what Biden is doing is that there’s a whole layer of left formations—I’m thinking about progressive labor, the progressive nonprofit world, publications like Jacobin—that accept this framework or refuse to challenge it. You have people in Jacobin and in DSA saying, “Defund is the wrong messaging.”
This shocks and worries me. It reminds me of when people in the UK said stuff like, “Corbyn shouldn’t have criticized the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. . . . If he would’ve kept quiet then maybe the media wouldn’t be piling on and attacking him so relentlessly.” I heard stuff like this, and I was like, “What?” It’s ridiculous.
brian bean: Do you think the only reason mainstream Democrats cling to pro-cop positions is because of the role the cops play in maintaining capitalism? Or does some of it have to do with this idea that people are genuinely worried about crime, and cops are the way to address their concerns?
Jasson Perez: Both play a role—it’s a mix of political economy and ideology. The donor class is certainly very pro-cop because they see police as the defenders of their wealth and power.
Another important aspect of this has to do with the organized pressure that the police exert politically. In many big cities, police are a huge part (if not the biggest part) of the public-sector workforce. And their organizations like the FOP in Chicago spend a lot of time, money, and energy trying to influence government.
brian bean: The right wing is obsessed with the idea of defund—and they approach it like is some kind of treason that warrants extreme outrage. Like Fox News, for example, is totally obsessed with it. You’ve got their talking heads bringing it up over and over. Can you talk a little bit about this: Why are they so obsessed? Why now?
Jasson Perez: It’s interesting. I’ve got friends who accuse me of giving the right wing too much credit because I perceive right-wing politics as truly understanding what’s at stake, what they’re fighting for, and how to win it. And they fight for it with such force. They understand that politics isn’t simply responding to reality but making reality.
And I think they fundamentally understand that if you make it okay at a mainstream level to believe, “We need less law and order,” that opens the door for more democratic and civilian control of all sorts of things in our lives, whether it’s the workplace or in public spaces. They understand that once you question the power of the police, you start questioning power structures all over society. And they don’t want that.
It’s also important to point out that a lot of what the right wing is doing right now flows from the fact that they can’t win on the bread and butter economic issues. They aren’t for raising wages or reducing poverty or guaranteeing free health care and education. So they’re focusing exclusively on cultural issues.
But what the left often misses here is that cultural and economic issues are always linked. In a way, they’re one and the same. So it’s a mistake to try to divorce culture from economics. You have to challenge the right’s racist and transphobic cultural approach while, at the same time, hammering away at their vulnerability when it comes to bread and butter economic issues.