Ezra Claytan Daniels was standing in a shoe store with his girlfriend when the gunshots rang out. They hit the floor, anticipating a mass shooter unleashing havoc in the Crenshaw Hills Baldwin mall. Twenty minutes later, an officer with the LAPD appeared at the doorway, signaling the all-clear. Daniels emerged from the store to see EMTs crouched next to the body of a Black man, unmoving on the ground. Bullet holes and broken glass littered the scene.
“What had happened was some guy was having a mental-health episode, the cops came in and just shot the fucking place up,” Daniels tells me. “So it’s long been in the back of mind: What if people didn’t call the police when someone needs help?”
Daniels has a vision, he says, “a fantasy in my mind,” of “hearing a distinct siren approaching and knowing, ‘Oh, this the mental health department.’ How exciting would it be if they came out in these unique uniforms, with their hands up, saying, ‘Everything’s okay, brother’?”
In his past work as a writer and illustrator, Daniels has explored ideas of class, race and the dystopian ways that we succumb to violence and greed. His sci-fi storytelling is driven by injustice and tragedy he’s observed in real life, grounded by the perspective of growing up half-black, half-white. Given what he saw in that tragic mall shooting, it didn’t take much imagination to formulate his vision for a nonviolent “Mental Health Department.” But the generational protest that burst alive at the beginning of the month provided the right backdrop for his sketches, which speak to a world with fewer police.
Artists are speaking up and using their craft to support a movement that’s deconstructing police violence, insidious racism and the ways society enables both. Black Lives Matter activism, fueled by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, has created powerful momentum for defunding police altogether. It’s still a contentious idea; people can’t wrap their minds around who or what would pick up the slack of addressing society’s ills if police shrink and disappear. But for Daniels, “defund the police” looks like an unarmed nurse in neat orange and tan coveralls with a Ph.D. in psychology. It looks like the creation of the Los Angeles Department of Food Security, delivering food to struggling families in mint-green pickup trucks. It looks like Climate Mitigation agents in blue and gold, investigating pollution that could get residents sick.
“I’m supremely unqualified to come up with these departments or to design their uniforms. It’s just riffing on an idea. But I feel like policy makers could potentially look at art like this, stuff that’s more utopian and prescriptive and aspirational, and actually be inspired to implement the changes that create that future. We know by now that lawmakers struggle with imagination,” Daniels says with a chuckle.
In a sense, the work by Daniels is a form of visionary fiction, which is defined by its focus on futuristic human beliefs, infrastructure and behavior. It’s commonly expressed in the sci-fi genre, given its fascination with utopian worlds, but artists of all stripes are being inspired by the simple act of drawing a different path for how the government can spend money. Caroline Hu, a biologist and cartoonist in Massachusetts, was inspired by a facet of failed policing she encountered in her research: the prevalence of rape kits sitting in storage, going defunct without timely testing.
Hu presumed the problems lay in police departments being underfunded. Instead, the protests taught her about the sheer amount of resources that major PDs have, and the systemic reasons why some crimes take precedence over others. “It doesn’t compute. I’m no expert, but I have isolated DNA and sequenced it hundreds of times. The machines you need to process rape kits cost a lot of money, but not more than an armored vehicle. So where are the priorities?” she says. “Something isn’t right.”
So she drew a solution for the two factors she thinks lead to problems with rape kits and forensic testing, generally: a lack of personnel and technical inefficiency. Hu’s “Mobile Booster Lab” is just a converted bus and a pair of lab technicians in blue smocks, but it’s a beautifully common-sense expression of what could be done with the money saved by divesting from police — and one that addresses a very real problem in policing today. The last three weeks have been a crash course in understanding how police and racism are intertwined, Hu tells me, but contributing her own expertise is another way to reflect on her privilege.
It’s been a similar path for painter and comic book artist Kurt Ankeny, who is motivated by what he’s learned about defunding the police since the death of Floyd and the furious protests that followed. His riff on Daniels’ “Mental Health Department” refines the idea by making them appear even less threatening, and he imagines what a response vehicle would look like if it’s supposed to be the opposite of a police cruiser. It’s not the first time he’s heard the call to defund police. But the protests of 2020 have pushed him to learn why and how it’s a legitimate plan of action, rather than an activist slogan.
“Black Lives Matter and ‘defund the police’ is hopefully, finally, our reckoning with race in America. As a white person, I know how easy it is to be dismissive of Black and Brown voices, because our racist system has groomed us that way. It’s the air we breathe. And so, my goals going forward are to do more work to neutralize that damage in myself, and to contribute to the justice movement in any way I can,” he tells me. “My family set up recurring donations and participated in protests, and I’m looking for ways that I can lend my skills to the movement. This envisioning project was one small piece of that.”
There’s a lot of untapped potential in the subject. Another artist inspired by Daniels, Maria Photinakis, imagines a department that assists people with cybersecurity and personal data problems, bridging the gap on what can be a costly private-market solution otherwise. Others have drawn up infographic-style images to depict how defunding police is related to urban planning and inequitable housing. All of these images help answer the question of how to not just defund police, but fix the racism and economic injustice that creates poverty and crime.
It’s also just the perfect outlet for artists who are frustrated and searching for a way to speak out. Hu notes that a lot of people are choosing to hold tough conversations about race and violence with friends and family; she’s now, for example, reflecting hard on the racism that exists in academia and STEM industries. “There’s a lot of gatekeeping, and a lot of it asking you to follow this narrow, artificially chosen path where if you only worry about yourself and ‘the science,’ then you succeed,” she says. “But being silent is a luxury that also maintains the status quo. And the status quo is that there’s a huge diversity issue — huge problems with Black scholars going unsupported, without the same opportunities and advocacy as non-Black people.”
Ankeny acknowledges that a handful of sketches is just a small step toward progress; he tells me that while he’d love to post more, he’s more interested in collaborating with professionals and experts who have studied the issue more than he has. Artists can become the perfect intermediary to spark action in the public, Ankeny says. “I think of [how] sci-fi novels inspired people with skills to make those ideas reality,” he notes.
As for Daniels, he’s grown progressively more angry about racist violence in the last decade, but social media has provided an outlet for him to publish works that are much more of-the-moment than his long-form graphic novels. “If you’re an artist, or a writer, or anybody who has a platform, and you’re not using that platform to try to make the world a better place, then that platform is wasted on you,” he declares.
Drawing up a vision of a post-policing world won’t actually affect it, of course. But it does help prove the point that “defund the police” isn’t so much radical ideology as it is a pragmatic way forward — and the images make it hard to ignore how much it all makes sense.