One of the slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement that has gained prominence in recent weeks is “Defund the Police.” This slogan is a concise statement of the desire of many Americans not only to end police brutality and killings, but to restructure policing by giving police departments less money, buying them less military equipment and asking them to do fewer things. “Defund the Police” has the advantage of being short enough to fit on a sign or to chant at a demonstration while being vague enough to allow the specific policy details to be filled in later.
The defenders of the white supremacist status quo have, naturally, attacked this slogan as proof that Black Lives Matter and their supporters want to abolish the police and turn the country over to criminals. It is true that some of us who have been out there on the streets would like to explore radically changing police departments to the point where they might be considered abolished, but nobody wants to turn the country over to criminals. Many on the right have gone back to standard conservative tactic of presenting America in false and halcyon tones and suggesting that police are fighting crime, doing good and protecting all of us and that without well-funded police crimes would go unpunished and we would have no recourse if we became victims of crimes. This is probably true in some suburbs and towns and in some works of fiction, but anybody who thinks that is what how policing works in urban America or African American, Latino or Native American communities is living in a fantasy, and willfully racist one at that.
Several states, counties and cities have now banned police from using chokeholds. This has all happened in less than a month-and the momentum for more reform is growing
The Republicans have tried to tag the entire Democratic Party as calling for abolishing the police based on the slogan “Defund the Police” appearing at rallies. This has, predictably, led some Democrats to decry the slogan as well, fearing that candidates will seem too radical because of the slogans used by demonstrators. Democratic Presidential nominee has called for reforming the police, but has said he does not support defunding the police. It is likely this Republican attack will not stick on Biden because the former vice-president has a decades long record as a centrist who is by no means radical, but also because of his basically conservative and cautious temperament. Nonetheless, it is clear that most Democratic candidates will not be running on the slogan “Defund the Police” this November.
Smart activists know that slogans matter less than policies, so they probably won’t care too much if Democrats fail to embrace this slogan as the election approaches. It is far more important that in the last few weeks advocates for police reform have enjoyed significant gains. New York State repealed 50a, which will make it more difficult to conceal police misconduct. In Minneapolis, the City Council voted to substantially restructure the police. The Democrats in the House of Representatives proposed very significant changes to policing that will become law in 2021 if Joe Biden elected and the Democrats win back the Senate. Several states, counties and cities have now banned police from using chokeholds. This has all happened in less than a month-and the momentum for more reform is growing.
“Defund the Police” is best understood as the beginning of a negotiation between the demonstrators and the government. You don’t begin a negotiation where you think it will end, but where you would like to see it go. That is what we are doing on the streets of hundreds of American cities and town
It is possible, I suppose, that these reforms occurred despite the demonstrations and slogans like “Defund the Police,” but that seems pretty unlikely. It is much more likely that the demonstrations and the embrace of slogans that highlighted the need for major police reform contributed to the pace of change that is occurring now. This suggests that the real reason those who believe we do not need any change in public safety policy in the US or, absurdly, that there is no systemic racism here, dislike the “Defund the Police” slogan is that they are afraid of it. They know it works and that it threatens both their worldview and the racist police policies with which they have become comfortable.
“Defund the Police” is best understood as the beginning of a negotiation between the demonstrators and the government. You don’t begin a negotiation where you think it will end, but where you would like to see it go. That is what we are doing on the streets of hundreds of American cities and town. It may not end with police budgets zeroed out as some might like, but it is pretty clear that is also not going to end with a return to business, and policing, as usual. This three word slogan has drawn almost universal criticism while contributing to fast and real policy change. We need more terrible slogans like that.
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