“Defund the police! Re-fund the community!” This was a slogan chanted by thousands in the streets of Winnipeg during the summer of 2020, in the largest mass mobilization this city has seen since the anti-war protests of the 1970s.
What is the deeper meaning of this slogan, and what has happened since the summer?
Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg built-out the details in their petition, “Demands to Make Winnipeg Safe for All BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour].” They demand that funds divested from the Winnipeg Police Service be reinvested in “food, housing, transportation, healthcare, mental health support, harm reduction services, spiritual supports, addictions supports, [and] free extensive community activities.”
Ensuring safety for society’s most marginalized and underserved, they argue, ensures a safer society for all.
Support for this defund and re-fund model continues to grow, with the petition now including over 118,000 signatories (for context, Mayor Brian Bowman received 114,222 votes in the 2018 election).
On February 16, a coalition of over 250 organizations and 3,000 individuals from across the country released a historic declaration with similar demands. Signatories include the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, UNIFOR—the largest private sector union in Canada with over 300,000 members—as well as a range of human rights and social justice groups. The declaration puts forward a three-pronged approach, calling for the defunding of the penal system (which includes both police and prisons), the abolition of prisons, and the building—or re-funding—of a broad range of alternatives to carceral safety.
Winnipeg spends just under $295 million, or over 25 percent of the city’s budget, on funding police. That’s more than public transport and libraries combined. Imagine what could be done to re-fund the community with that amount of money.
Currently, a coalition of Indigenous-led volunteer organizations (led by Anishinative) have erected tipis at Thunderbird House to help provide warmth, shelter, and necessities to the unhoused during the city’s harsh winter weather. With an army of volunteers and online fundraising, they have provided safety in a way that policing fails to do.
Workers at harm-reduction centres like Sunshine House, an inclusive, community drop-in and resource centre, also meet people where they are at, without judgement or screening for “deserving” people in need.
Shouldn’t these be the types of solutions and initiatives that the city should be investing more in?
Defunding the police is only one half of the solution to building a safer society; the other half is to re-invest that money into community programming and services.
A step in the right direction is the recent announcement that the security checkpoint at the Millennium Library—installed in February 2019 on the recommendation of the Winnipeg Police Service—will be replaced with community supports. With its 65-page report on the issue, the grassroots organization Millennium For All has gifted city administrators with a detailed plan. The reports outlines ways to pursue real safety at the library through a combination of de-escalation, harm-reduction, mental health care, and access to basic needs—not enhanced securitization measures that target the most vulnerable.
Both parts of the defund/re-fund demand are crucial to creating real safety. Policing, securitization and imprisonment wreak havoc in people’s lives and exacerbate cycles of violence. Yet, simply minimizing these forces will not do enough to reduce violence in our communities. In their place, we must build a modern, robust community infrastructure that works proactively to de-escalate violent situations and, most importantly, prevent them by guaranteeing universal access to the necessities of life.
Major organizations like the American Public Health Association concur, calling for “divesting from carceral systems and investing in the social determinants of health (e.g., housing, employment).”
Other local institutions that are seriously considering the merits of defunding policing, however, seem to be missing half the point. The Winnipeg School Division’s draft 2021-2022 budget proposes to defund its police-in-schools program. This was a direct result of demands made by teachers, parents, students and community members organized under the banner of Police-Free Schools Winnipeg. The group is demanding that school divisions reinvest police funding into student supports: guidance counsellors, breakfast programs, more teachers and educational assistants.
The division’s proposed cuts to policing, however, come as part of a package of rollbacks that threatens some of the viable alternatives. The move seems less motivated by school safety than by a provincially mandated $5 million reduction in spending.
The same could be said for the Progressive Conservative government’s January 2020 closure of the Dauphin jail. These are welcome measures, but they are partial victories at best.
Austerity is not real safety. Real safety means re-funding the community.
Owen Toews is affiliated with Bar None Winnipeg, Abby Stadnyk with Free Lands Free Peoples, and Serenity Joo with Prison Libraries Committee. They are members of SMAAC (Saskatchewan-Manitoba-Alberta Abolition Coalition), an alliance of groups from across the prairie provinces who collaborate and organize together on issues of prison and police abolition. For more information visit smaac.org or on Instagram @smaacprisons.