‘Defund the Police’ Is a Great Slogan, If You Want to Defund the Police

How the handwringing over the terminology misses the point

Photo by Taymaz Valley (Creative Commons)

There is a reason the slogan is “Defund the Police” and not “Reform the Police.” The people chanting “Defund the Police” are well aware that attempts to reform the police have been going on for years, and that the violence has only become more entrenched.

The shortsightedness of the resistance to this slogan also betrays a need for a modest lesson in the history of policing in the US, like the one given in Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing. The relationship between early policing and slave patrols is well established, as is the relationship between slavery and mass incarceration. As Michael Harriot points out, there was also resistance to the concept of “abolition” in the 19th century. Rather than legally abolishing the practice of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation declares the freedom of “persons held as slaves” in the rebellious states. This linguistic sleight of hand enables a white savior narrative (“Lincoln freed the slaves!”); meanwhile the practice of involuntary servitude has technically never been abolished, it has simply moved from plantations to prisons. In his 1935 masterwork Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B DuBois set forth his vision of “abolition-democracy”—a future world in which not only chattel slavery but the structures that continue to reproduce its power dynamics have been not merely reformed, but decisively abolished.

Artist and historian. PhD student researching religion, material culture, media, and politics. Bylines at The Wire Magazine, Art in America + more.

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