EIGHTEEN: What is the Relationship between COVID-19 and the Movement to ‘Defund the Police’?

COVID- 19 triggered an extraordinary disruption to social, economic, and political life that is unprecedented in recent decades. As we have argued (in Dilworth and Weaver 2020), periods of major disruption give rise to unusually fluid circumstances in which settled political arrangements become vulnerable to assault by political entrepreneurs who promote radical ideas, hitherto marginal to the political debate. In such circumstances, those ideas can gain rapid traction and have the potential to drive political development. We suggest that the COVID- 19 pandemic was one such disruption.

We argue in this chapter that pandemic- generated crises of political authority established the conditions for the ‘defund the police’ idea to shift from the fringes of political debate into the mainstream in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police in May 2020. This is not to diminish the more fundamental causes for protest such as structural racism or police tyranny, but it seems possible that contingent factors, such as COVID- 19, allowed Floyd’s murder to become a unique catalyst that facilitated diffusion of the ‘defund’ idea across cities in the United States, and indeed across the world. Put simply, we suggest that amid the disarray into which the pandemic threw urban society, new social forces seized the opportunity to make demands that would have fallen on deaf ears in the absence of the disruptive effects of COVID- 19. As such, it stands as a case study of the relationship between the pandemic and social movement politics.

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