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Community Is a Verb

Defund gives us a platform and pathway to reimagine a society with less police, more care, and services that meet the needs of all.


Through pointed interviews with scholars, activists, and justice-impacted individuals, my new book Defund: Conversations Toward Abolition situates the summer 2020 uprisings in the context of ongoing struggles against white supremacist capitalist hegemony, state-sanctioned police violence, and mass incarceration. The interviews it features—including the one excerpted here with student activist Zellie Imani—interrogate the rise of the defund mo(ve)ment as both slogan and praxis, and the role of defund in bridging the divide between reform and abolition by working through these ideological tensions.

Defund is a moment within a broader movement. For some, defund is about the reallocation of public funds away from police and other punitive carceral systems such as jails, prisons, and surveillance technology and into social welfare programs that provide care, stability, and community. Here, defund is simply a pragmatic and programmatic public policy shift of resources, which is within the power of elected officials and lawmakers. For others, defund is part of a larger legacy of struggles for racial justice, gender equality, and working-class power.

Defund is uniquely positioned to bring reformists and abolitionists together. While the former strategize to perfect the system that is in place and the latter organize to dismantle that system, each can find relevancy in defund. For reformers, defund is a budget issue. In sum, reformers can pressure public officials to shift money into other areas of the public sector to broaden the social safety net. Conversely, defund appeals to abolitionists because it is the impetus for the eradication of systems of exploitation and violence. Abolitionists can envision defund as a pathway for removing funds from punitive and carceral systems to the point that they are no longer relevant or needed—and eventually eliminated. Abolitionists understand that voting is only one of a myriad of strategies to create social change. Therefore, abolitionists can utilize these reallocated funds to build infrastructure that does not rely on carceral logics to respond to community harm but rather supports alternative pathways to accountability by affirming care, safety, and justice through restorative and transformative paradigms.

Ultimately, defund gives us a platform and pathway to reimagine a society with less police, more care, and services that meet the needs of all. The interviews in Defund are offered as tools for thinking through and discussing how defund goes from a hashtag to a movement to a reality. In the excerpt that follows, I talk with Zellie Imani, a teacher, journalist, community organizer, cofounder of Black Lives Matter–Paterson (New Jersey), and cofounder of the Black Liberation Collective. During our discussion, we talk about the vital role activism plays in community organizing and how defund and abolition are necessary in these practices.

—Calvin John Smiley

Calvin John Smiley: I first learned of your work in fall 2014 when my students, particularly those in the Black Student Union, began mobilizing in response to the non-indictments in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. Since then, I have followed you on social media and the work you have done, including harm reduction programs, community refrigerators, the BLM summer youth camp, immediate responder campaigns, stop-blood-loss initiatives, and so much more. Why is this work important, and how does it foster community cohesion and collective movement building?

Zellie Imani: My comrades and I discuss how the Black Lives Matter movement is seen as only responding to police violence, but that’s not all we are doing. Yes, we are fighting for people whose lives are lost, but also fighting for the people who are still alive.

Black Lives Matter’s guiding principle is about recognizing all Black people’s humanity, not just folks killed. We fight against systems that are destroying our neighborhoods as well as work to build alternative communities that provide resources to residents. Ultimately, when government and business can’t figure it out, we step in to ensure that people are going to be fed during a global pandemic, reduce the amount of overdose deaths due to the opioid crisis, and seek a world without police.

That does not mean a world without safety, but a world without harm. We want to get rid of this system and show people that there are viable alternatives. We can protect our own communities and keep each other safe without having to rely on police. Our work is to accomplish much of these endeavors through mutual aid efforts.

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CJS: Could you elaborate on the term “mutual aid” and what it means? Also, you often sign a lot of your social media posts with the phrase “community is a verb.” Could you talk about what this means in the context of being an organizer?

ZI: Mutual aid is a philosophy and practice. It stems from the idea that if I have a resource that you need, I’ll share that resource with you. Under capitalism, there is an individualistic mindset that we are in competition because of this illusion that there is a scarcity of resources. This creates a world in which some get further ahead by hoarding resources or knowledge. Mutual aid dismantles that idea by saying we do not get ahead by being in competition with one another but rather by supporting each other through shared resources.

Moreover, when we say, “Community is a verb,” it is about building relationships, especially in moments of crisis. Often, folks suffer in silence and isolation. In community, we can come together and help each other. We saw this isolated suffering in the early days of the pandemic. People who were immunocompromised or had other health-related problems were being cut off—in some cases forgotten. If I’m going to the grocery store and can pick up items for a neighbor, that highlights “community is a verb.” It is about the actions we can do for each other. The pandemic forced us to think and make shifts to the work we are doing.

As organizers, we know that protest momentum slows over time. Instead of hanging it up, we build connections and support each other through our “community is a verb” model. This way, when the unfortunate, but inevitable, next police killing occurs, that galvanizes marches and protests; we are stronger. Often, during moments of protest, folks go to a rally and then disperse without ever knowing the person next to them. If we are not building with those immediately next to us, then we are not recognizing the humanity around us. We need to be able to connect and utilize our collective skills. Ultimately, mutual aid gives us these tools to embrace “community is a verb.”

CJS: Since 2020 the terms “defund” and “abolition” have grown in our popular lexicon. Do you see defund as a moment or movement, and are these terms synonymous, complimentary, dichotomous, or something else?

ZI: Defund is a movement as well as a powerful moment. I’m excited that defund has become part of the broader conversation because many of us have been talking about abolition for a long time, but it has been on the fringe. However, folks have embraced defund as a strategy to get us on the path toward abolition.

Unfortunately, what happens, specifically in communities experiencing the most crime and violence, is that we are told that policing is the only solution. And since policing is the only solution presented, there is this reactive mindset to further increase police funding, which only increases salaries of police officers but does not decrease our experiences with violence or create safer communities. The safest communities never have more police officers, but rather access to more resources, including better jobs, schools, housing, and recreation, which make communities stronger.

Therefore, when politicians claim they want to ensure safer communities, why do they always default to increasing the number of police rather than invest in better housing and schools? Defund makes it clear that we should examine and scrutinize spending budgets. For example, in Paterson, an estimated $43 million goes to the police budget and recreation gets only $2 million. Therefore, we argue that problems our kids are facing have to do with access to safe places to play and community space. At a minimum, Paterson can move a few million dollars from the police budget and put that toward recreation. This is just one example of solving problems that don’t need police to ensure public safety and accountability.

CJS: We know that crime and violence are real. What does an accountability framework look like within an abolitionist paradigm? In other words, how do we replace archaic modes of policing and punishment with restorative practices?

ZI: This is part of the conversation we have with the eighth graders in the healing circle, and it’s fascinating that children grasp these carceral logics more than some adults. For example, why would someone get suspended for violating the school’s dress code? The idea of taking away someone’s opportunity to learn because they are wearing Crocs [shoes] is going to do more violence than not adhering to an artificial dress code.

As a society, we often associate accountability with punishment. If my bike was stolen, that violates me, but if the bike is returned, I’m whole again; no further action needs to be taken. To that end, if I don’t get my bike back, I don’t understand why this violation means this person needs to spend the next several years incarcerated. That doesn’t make me whole; I’m still without my bike. The more critical interrogation is: What has happened in society to make this person feel the need to steal my bike? I know these are hypotheticals, but defund highlights that when violations happen in the community, they are connected back to the lack of resources.

Prior to defund, policing and mass incarceration were perceived as these disconnected issues. Now, folks are making connections surrounding the disproportionate rates of Black boys and girls expelled from school or why there are thousands of missing Black women and girls who are not being reported on news programs.

Finally, defund forces us to have deeper conversations about the failures of this system. It begs the question of why we continue to pay people, and increase their pay, in the form of police, courts, and prisons when we could use that money alternatively. Our goal is to keep learning and producing alternatives to eradicate carceral logics and achieve defund logics.

CJS: I appreciate that you brought up Black women and girls who have gone missing. Typically, marches, protests, and other sort of “boots on the ground” work happens when it is Black men who are shot or killed by police. Yet, we continue to see a lack of media coverage of Black women and trans folks who are brutalized or killed by law enforcement and others. Why do you think Black women, women of color, and trans folks receive less attention?

ZI: Despite the number of viral videos or hashtags, it is a drop in the bucket in comparison to how many people are killed by police each year. Whether it is Black men or women, it is increasingly difficult to try to get any type of coverage. Sadly, we rely on videos going viral to be taken seriously and recognized. Yet, a person deserves justice with or without video evidence, and specifically Black women and trans folks who are ignored. #SayHerName was created to intentionally center Black women and trans folks because that conversation was not happening. I believe, or want to believe, that a slow shift is happening.

CJS: What are some tips you can share on how you find balance between health and work? And, moving forward, what does sustainable activism look like in this new era?

ZI: In 2020 I started going to therapy. I remember how scary the beginning of the pandemic was, and how we went from normal to isolation. I was afraid for myself and the folks doing mutual aid as we were outside everyday hearing about folks passing away from the virus.

Early on, there was a lot of varying information about transmission and ways to protect oneself. I knew our work was putting us at a higher risk. At night, I would lay in bed and had to reconcile the fact I could get the virus, which could make me sick or kill me. This was before George Floyd’s murder [by Minneapolis police]. After his death, I began getting phone calls to come down [to Minneapolis] to support the movement that was growing, which added more stress because I began to travel amidst a deadly pandemic. It was then that I realized I needed to start seeing a therapist to talk through my feelings. I wish everyone had access to this sort of care. I recognized I needed to do things for myself like go on walks, bicycle rides, and talk to friends as part of my self-care. Also, I had to learn and understand that “No” is a complete sentence. Individuals, especially organizers, do not need to solve all problems nor have the capacity to support everybody. My role as an organizer is to empower those around me to also solve issues. Learning to say no has been refreshing.

Finally, community organizers must be ready to shift mobilization efforts and have an action plan of how to educate and empower. No movement should ever rely on one person. If something happened to me, movement-building does not stop. That is why we share tasks. If I’m the person who oversees making fliers, it should never just be me doing this work, but I’m training and working with others, sharing my skills, experiences, and resources. This is what makes organizations bigger, better, and stronger. Movements are never about the individual; it’s about us. There is no single winner, but all of us winning, and that’s how we sustain “community is a verb.”

Excerpted from Defund: Conversations Toward Abolition. Copyright © 2024 Calvin John Smiley. Reprinted with permission from Haymarket Books.

Image: Nguyen Phan Nam Anh/Unsplash