John Oliver Breaks Down Exactly What It Means to 'Defund The Police' on 'Last Week Tonight'

Protesters took to the streets all week long rallying for justice for the death of George Floyd and calling for the end of racism and police brutality in the United States. But while many of the protests—which occurred in all 50 states—kicked off rather peacefully, some demonstrators were met with the same excessive police force they were marching against.

Despite the widespread coverage of looting and destruction some major news outlets focused on, John Oliver spent the entirety of his show Last Week Tonight unpacking America's problematic relationship with law enforcement and the many reasons why many believe that police reform is needed. One of the solutions to the aggressive and systemic racism that Oliver advocated for was the defunding of police—an idea that many activists and peaceful protesters have also called for.

 John Oliver Breaks Down Exactly What It
A protester in Times Square holds up a handmade sign that reads, "Defund The NYPD" in the Manhattan Borough of New York on June 07, 2020, USA. John Oliver explained exactly what defunding police would look like in America on "Last Week Tonight." Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

"Defunding the police absolutely does not mean that we eliminate all cops and just succumb to the purge. Instead, it's about moving away from a narrow conception of public safety that relies on policing and punishment and investing in a community's actual safety net—things like stable housing, mental health services and community organizations," Oliver explained. "The concept is that the role of the police can then significantly shrink because they are not responding to the homeless or to mental health calls or arresting children in schools or really any other situation where the best solution is not someone showing up with a gun. That is the idea behind defund the police if you actually listen to it."

John Oliver on defunding the police: pic.twitter.com/sx9vTpsrUh

— D 𖧵⁷ (@aIpacapacaparka) June 8, 2020

In Oliver's opinion, it was completely obvious why police departments all across the country needed an overhaul, and that started with the reason behind the police organizations' origin.

"For much of U.S. history, law enforcement meant enforcing laws that were explicitly designed to subjugate Black people," Oliver said, noting the history of police organizations, which began in the U.S. with the establishment of patrol units used to hunt down slaves.

Following the abolishment of slavery, policing continued as a means to keep whites in positions of power, which Oliver elaborated upon by sharing a quote from an Alabama planter included in Michelle Alexander's best-selling 2010 book The New Jim Crow: "We have the power to pass stringent laws to govern Negroes — this is a blessing — for they must be controlled in some way or white people cannot live among them."

As Oliver tells it, that idea only seemed to evolve over the years from former President Richard Nixon's war on drugs to President Bill Clinton's call for 100,000 more police officers on patrol in urban communities and, more recently, President Donald Trump's suggestion for cops to not be "too nice."

If you were confused about how defunding the police in Minneapolis will work, so was I. If you're not sure why it is necessary, you need to listen to John Oliver explain some stuff. pic.twitter.com/wcJokpDXA5

Watch @iamjohnoliver's entire show here: https://t.co/081CgzGvko

— Amee Vanderpool (@girlsreallyrule) June 8, 2020

Oliver recognized there are opponents of the growing defund police movement—many are officers. But the late-night host felt there was already proof that such an effort could have a positive impact like, for example, the aftermath of New York Police Union head Patrick Lynch's threats to reduce policing after a judge suggested the officer responsible for Eric Garner's death be fired. Oliver shared that while officers did in fact scale back policing—felony arrests dropped 11 percent and misdemeanor arrests reduced by 18 percent while moving violations declined 32 percent—there was no actual surge of reported crime.

"The thing is, if you lived in New York then, you probably don't remember it as the time that the city devolved into chaos because it didn't. People still went about their lives. Subways were still as delayed as they usually were. And rats still dragged slices of pizza upstairs to feed their rat families after a hard day of rat work—making you wonder whether all those arrests were really in the interest of public safety at all," Oliver said.

White people, watch this. Just do it. Then, when your white friends and family freak out about calls to Defund the Police, contextualize it for them. We need to defang the right's ability to co-opt that term NOW. Because they WILL and they already are.https://t.co/LtRv6DCz6P

— Out of Spoons, Only Have Knives #BlackLivesMatter (@EDFPhotos) June 8, 2020