As Black Lives Matter protests continue to flare across the country and the presidential election looms, and with a Supreme Court seat suddenly in contention, law and order is front and center in American politics. The slogan “defund the police” in particular has become a lightning rod since gaining prominence following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor earlier this year.
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In North Carolina, the Republican speaker of the House recently tried to tie state Democrats to proposals to defund the police. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott proposed legislation to freeze tax revenues for cities that vote to defund. And both Joe Biden and Donald Trump have accused each other of supporting defunding. Police reform has already come up in the first presidential and vice-presidential debates, and it will surely remain in the public eye between now and the election.
Politicians using the idea of defunding the police against their opponents is hardly surprising, especially given the emotional charge surrounding the slogan and the events that brought it to mainstream attention. But it’s also a gross misrepresentation of the slogan and the movement, which is inexcusable for anyone claiming to support police reform. Anyone who wants to be involved with an issue should at least make a good-faith effort to understand it. In the case of defunding the police, anyone motivated to learn more can turn to dozens of explainers in respected journalistic and academic outlets about the meaning of the phrase, its history and its implications.
Arguments for defunding the police are complicated and, in some cases, contradictory. But despite gaining recent notoriety, they are neither novel nor unusual. “Defund the police” did not magically appear this year. Discussions of abolishing law enforcement are more than a century old and build on the work of respected scholars, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Bertrand Russell. Police abolition gained steam alongside prison abolition movements in the 1960s under the guidance of activists and scholars such as Angela Davis. The defund the police movement built on those earlier campaigns.
There is also data. Some cities defunded their police years ago and have information about the results. Unsurprisingly, the results are complicated. They depend on local circumstances as much as scholarly research. They represent varied implementations and are hard to compare. In short, they don’t easily conform to a given political perspective. The point, however, is that anyone who wants to understand what defunding the police entails has plenty of accessible resources.
Not everyone needs to know a social movement’s complexities, of course, but even this brief history illustrates that “defund the police” has complex influences and evolving objectives despite the oversimplification of the slogan. Dismissing a movement because of its slogan may be good politics, but it’s bad policy. Slogans are powerful because they are simple, and they attract attention and motivate supporters. But simplification complicates meaning and leaves slogans open to critique.
This has been a significant problem for “defund the police,” even among people who support the movement’s broader goals. The biggest misunderstandings of the slogan include the suggestions that it means that “there should be no police to protect the innocent,” that calls for defunding distract from meaningful reform or that defunding “invites anarchy.” It doesn’t mean any of these things.
Oversimplification is a problem with all slogans. No matter how simple, however, they don’t erase an issue’s complexity. Simple slogans like “defund the police” still represent complicated contexts, histories and goals. And the complexity behind the “defund the police” slogan is a mere shadow of the complexity of the larger issues under discussion. Real efforts at police reform — reducing militarization, reducing shootings, funding social services, providing training and introducing accountability measures — are wrapped up with complicated municipal funding models, deeply-ingrained attitudes and beliefs, and entrenched incentive structures.
In short, law enforcement reform is intensely complicated. It demands research, careful study and tough decisions. And the people who want to be involved in meaningful reform — politicians, law enforcement groups and citizens — need to be willing to evaluate the complications and make tough decisions. And here, people’s reactions to the slogan give us some insight.
If a person can’t be trusted to learn about the “defund” slogan, how can they be trusted with the exceedingly complicated task of reforming law enforcement? Or if a person understands the slogan and still refuses to represent its complexities because it is politically or personally expedient, how can citizens, activists and voters trust their motives? Refusing to learn about the slogan or weigh its complications carefully is a warning sign that a person cannot be counted on to invest the time and energy necessary to address the actual problems at hand.
To be sure, “defund the police” is a controversial slogan, and for good reason. It blatantly contradicts what many Americans believe about law and order. And it is certainly possible that defunding law enforcement is a flawed idea. Nevertheless, police reform has gained momentum around the country. Many cities and states are already pursuing it in different ways. No doubt it will be complicated. But since law enforcement reform affects every American, we should all be deeply invested in ensuring that the people involved in it are well-equipped to do the hard work and willing to do it in good faith.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.