Why #DefundthePolice is Genius Strategy


Why #DefundThePolice is the right demand and also the right slogan

I expected pushback to #DefundThePolice.

The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) released the demand on Monday, June 8, kicking off a second week of dramatic action. The country watched police meet peaceful protestors with batons and tear gas. White support for Black Lives Matter had been rising, even among Republicans. In just a few days, though, anxiety set in. Countless critics from across the political spectrum labeled the message divisive, utopian, radical and delusional. Most have urged the movement to adopt the language of reform rather than defund, but there were some nuances.

I’ve summarized the different kinds of resistance.

Election worries

People will think defund means abolish, and that is REALLY crazy.

Defund the police is gold for the GOP!

Stop saying defund the police or Biden is going to lose the election.

Be positive, not punitive

We should say demilitarize the police, not defund the police.

We should say invest in our communities, not defund the police.

We should say reform the police, not defund the police.

This is dumb strategy

Dumb, dumb, dumb slogan – if you have to explain it, it didn’t work.

It’s too vague!

It will block meaningful efforts at reform, which must be negotiated, by drawing a hard line.

There is another kind of response that includes “If you defund the police, what will you do when you get raped?” and “Not all cops.” But I’ll save those for another post.

Part of the critique is based on reading public opinion. A Huffpo/YouGov poll released on Friday shows that most Americans support multiple reforms, but do not support defunding the police. This same study also showed, however, that people understand perfectly well that defund the police does not mean abolishing police, but rather to reduce police budgets and reallocate that money into community health and other services.

I can say with utmost certainty that no one at M4BL thought that defund the police would be popular. So why did they choose it? To understand, it’s helpful to remember the purpose of communications in a campaign context. A good slogan and message helps organizers accomplish five things:

  1. Pin accountability on specific people who can make the required changes. The demand to defund the police put names and faces on the people who can change the current situation fastest, most thoroughly, with the best chance of successful implementation. The movement changed up the targets from the criminal justice system (police, DAs, judges) to public officials who are subject to electoral and civic action. The police don’t have to respond to public pressure, but governors, mayors, state assemblies and city councilmembers absolutely do.
  2. Advance a clear demand. Remember years ago during Black Lives Matter protests, people said they couldn’t understand what the movement wanted? Too much protest, not enough construction? Well, this is pretty clear, and it’s certainly no vaguer than reform the police or invest in Black communities. In fact, a little vagueness makes room for creative forms of defunding, like cancelling school policing contracts and redirecting that money to hiring counselors, nurses and mediators.
  3. Grow your base, push allies to sharper action. Although the HuffPo/YouGov poll numbers seem disappointing, keep in mind that before the demand, no one said they supported defunding the police because it wasn't part of the broad public debate. Now, 27% of Americans support it, comprising new constituents and allies for Black Lives Matter. Sure, it’s far less than the 73% that support banning chokeholds, but it's hardly a small number for an idea that emerged only two weeks ago. The demand also gives allies something to do beyond educating themselves.
  4. Put your opposition on the defensive. Right now, the LAPD is saying that a five percent cut in their $1.8 billion budget will cause them to no longer be able to answer 911 calls, implying that they're wiling to endanger the public over a minuscule amount of money. This video by the NYPD has a whole bunch of white men (and, okay, yes, one lone Black officer who appears to be constantly trying to cover his face) in masks that I have never seen them wearing during actual work, standing behind an apoplectic union rep and president. All this anger, days after millions of people watched a cop rip someone's mask off before spraying pepper into the protestor's face.
  5. Takes advantage of timing, that is whatever else is going on that can help your case. In the middle of a mishandled pandemic, massive corruption out of the White House, and a tanking economy, everyone is asking where the money will come from to fund the education, health and housing efforts that Americans agree overwhelmingly need to be expanded in Black communities? Defunding the police will get particular traction now.

Reform and retraining have not worked. Implicit bias training, a popular form of retraining, has been shown to improve scores on a bias test, but to have little effect on police behavior. Civilian Police Review Boards haven’t worked because they are full of family members and sympathizers and most often have no teeth, not even the power to subpoena officers in brutality cases. Retraining hasn’t worked because it has been accompanied by an expansion of police power with military equipment and increased surveillance power. Body cams haven’t worked because cops turn them off without consequence. Hiring non-white officers where they live doesn’t work because they still operate in a system that encourages violence.

The people who argue that police should be reformed but not defunded (Joe Biden, for example, who proposes spending $300 million so that departments can adopt community policing) assume that communities have some kind of real leverage to control the systemic racism that undergirds policing in this country.

Money is the only true leverage. This is, after all, capitalism we live in.

In most cities, policing amounts to 25-50% of the budget. Chicago and Oakland, 40 percent. Violent cops are rarely prosecuted but they do lose in civil court. Enormous payouts for brutality are paid not from the police budget, but the General Fund. Chicago spent $55 million on brutality claims in 2017 and $113 million in 2018. New York spent $230 million in 2018. Labor Notes reports that, “In Baltimore, for every dollar spent on police, 55 cents is spent on schools, five cents is spent on the city’s jobs programs, and a penny is spent on mental health services and violence prevention.”

There are so many ways to defund the police. It’s clear that most people have no idea how much policing sucks out of a municipal budget. In a brilliant Twitter thread, public defender Emily Galvin-Almanza reported on a conversation with her mother, who asked why the police can keep killing people who are no threat, even during this mass uprising. How are they so unafraid of any consequences? The answer of course, is that the consequences in play are not actually consequential.

In her follow-the-money thread, Galvin-Almanza explains that killings continue because, individually and institutionally, police have nothing at stake. They get to keep their money, no matter how much wrong they do. Officers retain their pensions, can’t be sued individually (qualified immunity), and routinely engage in overtime fraud. The overtime part of the thread made my jaw drop. As a public defender, Galvin-Almanza checks the time when she sees a stupid arrest (“think someone arrested for dealing drugs who was at home with no drugs, money, scales, paraphernalia, or baggies on them”). Inevitably, it is 30 minutes or so before the officer’s shift ends.

She tweeted - "Why? Well, because processing an arrest takes time, but it's also really easy. So you can make time-and-a-half for sitting in the precinct typing up some papers and waiting to talk to a DA. This REALLY adds up."

The argument that defunding the police will hamstring all reform efforts, which someone threw at me over the weekend, is demonstrably false. Already, #DefundThePolice has led to the reallocation of resources and reduction of police power. Some of the biggest wins show up in education. School boards of Minneapolis (MN), Denver (CO), Portland (OR), Columbus (OH) and Rochester (NY) have all voted to get rid of cops in schools, which coalitions, local groups and movement lawyers have fought on for decades. The University of Minnesota did the same.

This form of defunding reduces the amount of contact kids of color have with police, interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. In Los Angeles, Mayor Garcetti was forced to move 150 million from the police budget into social services. In Texas, where I am riding out the pandemic, the City Councils of Austin and Dallas, which respectively spent 39.9 and 36 percent of their General Funds on police last fiscal year, have asked City Managers to identify parts of the police budgets that can be reallocated to things like housing assistance.

Non-financial reforms are also in play faster, with the threat of actual defunding hanging over police departments. New York just repealed the provision that prevented the public from knowing about an officer's previous misconduct. Rules like this one make it possible for rogue cops to move easily from one police department to another.

As a racial justice strategist who has worked with police departments, I recognize the many complexities of this discussion. I’ve met Police Chiefs who were really trying, city officials who were also really trying and plenty of community leaders who argued for more, better police rather than reduced forces. But when I consider the whole, and study carefully outcomes in places like Camden (where the police chief disbanded the existing force and started over in 2013) I’ve concluded myself that the police cannot be reformed under current conditions that include excessively powerful police unions.

Even if departments can be reformed, it will happen too slowly to save lives – not just those that end in police violence, but also those that are forever damaged by the nation's commitment to mass incarceration.

The critique itself epitomizes the powerful strategic space that #DefundThePolice has opened up. The entire society is now debating what it means to defund the police, a clear indicator of rhetorical power. It doesn't get much better than having your opponents repeat your message again and again. At the height of public support, this demand lives between reform and abolition, providing a place to land for those who know that "reform" is problematic but who aren't yet ready for abolition. History, being made right now, will prove that M4BL changed the context forever with their visionary, yet pragmatic demand, enabling the ultimate goal - that we all #DefendBlackLife.