Chicago DSA member, writer, and abolition activist Jasson Perez talks with NYC-DSA’s Calliope Vasiliki, Partisan Mag’s Co-Editor-in-Chief, about the origins and demands of #DEFUNDCPD and shares movement-building tactics as we unpack ‘Defund discourse.’
CV: How are you doing? We are probably sharing a sense of sadness today as these murders by the police keep happening and we keep marching for justice over and over again like our comrades did before us, and the ones before them.
JP: Yeah I feel sad and down in regards to the murder of Adam Toledo, and Anthony Alvarez. Alvarez’s murder was closer to home for me because it happened on the Northside of Chicago at Portage Park which is right by where I grew up. Portage Park, Edgebrook—they’re neighborhoods where middle-class public workers, like teachers, cops, and firemen, live to keep a city zip code. Those enclaves exist on the northwest side or southwest side of Chicago. That’s where Alvarez got shot, which is important context. There’s this narrative that police violence happens in just the inner city.
Then there were two other police shootings in Chicago. Like, it’s been about four or five within the two-week period, which I think folks don’t know, and Adam’s is the one that’s the most known, that’s been something to focus on on top of what happened in Minnesota [with George Floyd].
CV: How have the marches been this weekend in Chicago? We’ve had some rolling out from Barclays Center here in Brooklyn and our ‘DSA for the City’ City Council Slate just had a rally to pledge to defund the NYPD as part of their candidate platforms.
JP: I’ve been to three of the protests and they’re good, you know, I’m always game for protests, so I’m glad to see folks are out there. It’s definitely a different kind of energy from the first protests that happened after [the pandemic] lockdown. We had the mass protests last year after George Floyd’s murder by police but I think people also feel, at an organizational level, committed to more targetted protests like when we went after different Aldermen who voted to allow the mayor to put a bunch of money into policing. Then there’s confrontational or civil disobedience, types of protests where you get mass arrests.
So I’m glad folks are out there, and we probably need to reconsider our targets. The last big protest that we had we went to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s house but there are other targets we can go after, like the people who fund Lori.
CV: It sounds like you have cultivated a strong sensibility for the different tactical possibilities. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on how we can do things differently this year to win?
I think just as we learn, as a movement, we’ll get to that [strategic] level and be able to see ourselves through it. For me, some of my disappointment has been with how labor has shown up for this moment. Big progressive (not radical progressive) groups will always do a tweet about the person who got killed, or Black Lives Matter, but they won’t double down on Defund. In Chicago, that’s a little less the case. And actually, I don’t even need them to double down on Defund, right? I need them to at least double down on divest/invest and alternatives to policing models.
In those encounters and those conversations people would be like, “well our members aren’t there,” I’m like, “I don’t give a fuck if y’all as a labor union call it Defund. It has polled that 68% of people believe in divest/invest.” So, they can get [members] on board for that and say that’s the best they can do…but there’s not even an attempt at that.
Then of course people at the federal level like Pramila Jayapal are tweeting the George Floyd Act, and that’s not progressive, that’s not even the compromise. That is like giving money to Wall Street so Wall Street could regulate itself. So, I think it’s a lot of disappointment from progressives at that level, also when folks are going after Rashida Tlaib for speaking out against the police.
Those things are frustrating, and in DSA we get those Meagan Day critiques that [Defund] should have the same metrics and measurements of an electoral campaign rather than thinking about what the metrics are for a movement campaign.
CV: We’re definitely gonna get into the Defund semantic stuff later, but you make an interesting point about trying to apply these same metrics we use for electoral work to this social movement.
JP: Some of my comrades will say, “Movements are abstractions, you can’t measure them, the minute you measure them it makes them less radical,” and I don’t believe that. I feel like we need different ways to measure it and understand it. It’s something I think we can improve on. That’s why I appreciate DSA in NYC and Chicago really doubling down on Defund; it could bring out that structure to help us reach black churches or people of color and working-class institutions that are important to organize with and build with.
CV: I’m really happy to hear you talk about the social movement unionism aspect of things and what it means to build a popular front against the police and to fight for racial justice, and that’s something I think Partisan has actually published quite a bit on. We had comrade Marvin Gonzalez’s piece on the Rank and File Strategy and Social Movement Unionism that covers this and Robert Cavooris’s article talking about how to build a popular front to fight fascism from our network of working-class institutions.
That disappointment you’re expressing about labor not showing up this summer really hits for me. We have a lot of proponents of the Rank and File strategy in the DSA, as am I, but I feel like we’ve been pushing that strategy for a while. I’d like to see that result more consistently in labor turn out for BLM and when we need to defund the police. Of course, there were some labor groups out there this year, like the ILWU solidarity strike, but we want to solidify that as a best practice. The same police who are murdering people are the same police breaking strike lines. I’d like to see us really develop evenly there and thread that needle.
Similarly, you’re talking about all these different angles and then also discussing the different types of community partnerships. I would love to hear more about how Defund CPD came into existence, when you all got started and how you got involved?
JP: There had already been a few attempts, with everything going on post-[George] Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, for folks to all come together to talk, the remnants of all the different groups that had done a lot of work on post-Ferguson: BYP100, Let Us Breathe, BLM Chicago, and a lot of folks who had done work around accountability for Laquan McDonald.
Some of us were trained in Momentum Organizing which is a different theory of organizing, a different approach to organizing, but I think can provide good structures around “movement organizing” vs more traditional base building organizing or the Jane McAlevey type, the one that everyone in DSA supposedly wants to do. We also took a lot of lessons from the internal and conversational organizing success of No Cop Academy, which was more of an open source campaign. Open source campaigns kind of came out of MiJente and Not One More [Deportation] campaign, a lot of the work going on in response to [anti-immigration] Arizona bills at the time.
So then we made this thing called Black Abolitionist Network. We did this whole process where you have to make a DNA: a story, structure, strategy, principles we abide by. We made that over a two-week period. The biggest thing we knew that we had to get to, a big lesson of momentum organizing, is the minute that uprising is happening, to have mass trainings because you can’t go pen by pen and sign people up and do whatever. So we held three mass trainings over one weekend; I think we trained about 1000 people on story, strategy, structure of the [campaign]. And then we started having meetings and setting up the campaign to fight.
We settled on [fighting to cut] 75% of the budget because at the time other folks are doing 50%. And then, at the time you had Minnesota disbanding [their police force]. We were like, we didn’t burn down a police station, we don’t know how viable a strategy [demanding to disband the police is]. At least 75% would get us closer to the 30-50% area, but if we start at 50 then when all the kind of political sausage is made all of a sudden we’re at 20% or 25% or 15%. We wanted it to be a strong radical flank demand but one that still allows space for negotiation with the powers that be that wanted to do it. So we basically ran a fairly conventional issue-based campaign: you get people to sign a petition, you go to various city council people saying, “We want you to support defund,” all that.
I think it was good, I mean I think we got a lot of people involved in a city budget process that normally, [most people] don’t care about. Something we could have done better, was something similar to what y’all [New York City] did, a symbolic direct action like y’all were having by city hall, in terms of the encampment, or just in general doing more consistent focused direct action around Defund. So we did [direct action] around the Columbus statue, getting the Columbus statue down, which was kinda Defund-adjacent. But we just didn’t do that in regards to Defund itself. We should have maybe had a system of boycotts, pickets, different kinds direct actions that people could have been a part of, to keep up the momentum.
CV: So how did you get from where you were that day when things started popping off to using this more intuitive Momentum framework to form the campaign initially? Is Chicago’s Defund Campaign housed in DSA?
JP: No, DSA Defund is separate. Chicago DSA has a Defund campaign steering committee, which is good. Defund CPD, which was started by the Black Abolitionist Network, is its own campaign with its own steering committee that is black-led. The leadership rotates; I was on the Defund CPD steering committee for a little bit and then I stepped down, now I’m back on it. A lot of the people who are part of Defund CPD, are also part of DSA Defund, so there’s cross-pollination.
A part of the Momentum model is just not to have coalition spaces that are just coalitions of organizations, but rather where people are coming as themselves and can come and go.
While Momentum [organizing] is intuitive, it also does have structures. Some people like to call it decentralized, but I think it’s a mix of centralization and decentralization—you do have a steering committee after all. I understand [Momentum organizing] as just a good technique: a good form of organizing where you can get into it right away. When those kinds of [historical] moments happen, you can capture the moment, and you’re not falling into the trap that at times DSA falls into [with] too much process and procedure. There sometimes lacks elements of robust democracy that DSA does have. I would argue [Momentum] is good mainly if you have just a campaign, and a campaign with a mostly singular focus. It becomes a little bit more difficult when you’re trying to be a bit bigger of an organization like Sunrise [Movement] since there’s no real strong democratic approach or theory internal to [Momentum].
CV: And that is something that is so rampant in our abolition communities, I find, always a lot of hyper-focus on power and decentralization, sometimes more than the singular cause at hand. So I’m really excited to hear of a model that worked for you that is more agile in working towards a single demand like Defund that doesn’t carry that tendency towards horizontalism to the point of not being able to fully seize different ruptures that come up historically. I’ll definitely be hitting you up for more reading on that after this.
JP: Yeah. It has its limits. I’m not saying it’s the cure-all but I think it helps meet the moment.
CV: I’m interested in that cross-pollination between the DSA defund group and Defund CPD. I know a big thing we did would come up against a lot this summer was people being like, “Oh this is a DSA action”, there’s a lot of baggage that comes with that for the general public, versus what you’re saying of “Come as you are, we’re doing this here,” and then people can go back and forth between different community groups and DSA.
JP: Defund CPD leadership is mostly folks who are not in DSA or not in other organizations or in black organizations. I just want to make that clear also. But it’s the idea that not one singular organization or even a coalition organization can meet the moment, so you need a different formation that just doesn’t carry all that baggage. Whether it’s the labor folks, BLM folks, or the DSA folk. It’s kind of to cut through all that. I am not saying it’s perfect, it just allows you to do it a little bit, probably better than normal.
CV: Totally, there is no one group that can be the skeleton key to Defund the Police. So, we touched on this earlier a bit, about how this past year we’ve heard every kind of drive-by commentary on Defund from the left, right, and center—we’ve truly heard it all. When it comes to people talking about the name and the use of that particular language, do you think the criticism is actually about the language?
JP: I think there are some good faith criticisms out there of the name itself. I think it’s just misguided. I think it just misunderstands what the role of a demand is and is trying to compare Medicare for All to Defund which are two very, very different things.
I think some of it is in good faith. But with some folks like [Meagan] Day, [Vivek] Chibber, Ben Burgis… I think the part that’s in good faith is [their argument for] what a demand should do. And it usually seems focused on galvanizing political majorities, bringing political majorities in. Sometimes it’s related to polling but other times it’s not. I think, though, they’re measuring and misunderstanding what a social movement’s demand should do versus what an electoral demand should do, and with a demand that has been worked on for years upon years.
Right, so let’s take single-payer. That’s had National Nurses pour money into it, hundreds of hired organizers, labor, and progressive political campaigns communication firms. So it made sense when Bernie ran, people actually understood what it meant . So a bunch of organizing work went into that and messaging work. Same for Fight for 15. I think a credible argument could be made that if we compare how Fight for 15 was polling a year after the campaign started right and kicked off after its first few strikes, you might see cracks. And those also came from non-spontaneous moments. These were intentional programs and demands.
I don’t think it’s bad faith, I think it’s just bad politics or bad political analysis of the moment.
You’re commenting on this thing, but then you’re not involved in any of the literature of it or any of the history of it or understanding the tension between similar police oversight stuff versus abolition stuff.
So the same energy you have for social democracy vs socialism 101 is or the [Ralph] Milliband – Nicos [Poulantzas] debates, I need you to have that same energy for knowing the leftist and radical movement, history and literature and fights that happen from all different types of factions [within the abolition tradition]. I need you to know, what Joy James is arguing versus what Angela Davis is arguing and understand that there are tensions.
So while I don’t think it’s bad faith, also just be real about it, you don’t like abolition, you don’t believe in abolition. But I need you to judge abolition in the same way you judge socialism.
So for Meagan [Day] it’s always—the problem with Defund is that it’s associated with abolition. Well, you could say that for Medicare for All [and its association with socialism] or once upon a time that was true for Medicare for All but we changed that. So let’s have that conversation. Or do you think that abolition could never be popular in the way socialism is?
And it seems to be the case that they don’t believe in abolition as a radical political project, nor that it can, or is, achieving the popularity of socialism…and so then, yeah, they feel it’s just not good, which I don’t feel is a good approach to radical politics. Do you want to be comrades with other tendencies or not?
CV: For people who are not “of the Left” what do you hope they’re getting from the Defund campaigns? When you say “Defund” do you mean abolish the police? Or are you only trying to win them to defunding the police which is in a way abolitionist demand or a “non-reformist reform”? What does that gradient look like for you?
JP: I organize for Defund as an abolitionist but I don’t think any political program really should necessitate that people have to say yes on [abolition] in order to support it.
Just like Medicare for All, you don’t have to be a socialist to support Medicare for All but people do and socialists feel moved by it. And I looked at Defund like that… Which again, is why I feel like the Day critique is so weird right cause is it like someone came to us as DSA and said: “DSA when y’all talk about Medicare for All y’all really need to stop mentioning the DSA part or that you’re all socialist or organizing as socialists. And just tamp that down because I have a chance to win, or South Carolina will do better or whatever…; ‘you saw a version of that when Warren people had these arguments the problem with Bernie is that he’s a socialist. And you said that’s ridiculous.
So I say to folks who are like “Defund is too associated with abolition,” we want folks to be able to see that it’s associated with abolition but then we also want folks that aren’t abolitionist and maybe only want to buy into the divest/invest part and the alternatives to policing part. I think we need to be open to that and I think most folks are open to that.
If one believes in non-reformist reforms (I don’t know if I necessarily believe in non-reformist reform as an ideal type) they always just speak to the potential of what we want something to be or do in terms of structural change rather than incremental change and that also enables the conditions for more working-class organizing. It’s about how you fight for a reform that makes it a non-reformist reform per se. If it’s through a focus of struggle or a focus of disruptive power how [Frances Fox] Piven talks about it or how we saw it in the 1960s Black Freedom Movement or what ACT UP did. Then, I think, within that mode, that Defund has the potential to activate folks to seeing themselves as abolitionists, understanding what abolitionism is, and wanting to get closer to it.
CV: The last thing I want to leave our readers with, could you tell them what they could do if they wanted to get involved in defunding the police in Chicago?