‘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)

One of the most common clichés invoked in conversations about policing in the US is the one about apples: “Not all police are violent. The ones doing the killing are bad apples.” Those who use this cliché intend to simultaneously defend the institution of policing while admitting that the violence committed by officers is, in fact, indefensible. What they seem to forget is the rest of the adage they are invoking—based in the science of how rotting apples work—which is that a few bad apples spoil the whole barrel.

This adage, in its original sense, is actually an apt metaphor for institutional corruption. A popular saying from the opposite side of this struggle is “All Cops Are Bastards,” but for the sake of rhetoric, I want to be generous here. Let’s assume that there are cops who are not bastards, at least not irredeemably so. Which is to say, let’s assume that there are human beings who got into policing for reasons other than the power to use chemical weapons on residential neighborhoods or to kill people with no consequences. Maybe they grew up seeing portrayals of good cops on TV, or maybe they legitimately want to see rapists and murderers held accountable. Because of the violent influence of the organizational culture of policing, especially that of police unions, the system is not set up to help good cops do their work without also requiring them to be complicit in covering for their corrupt comrades. This past week, it was revealed the Louisville Metro Police Department had concealed 748,000 records concerning sexual abuse committed by officers in its ranks. As Musa al-Gharbi outlined in The Atlantic, police departments have methods of severely punishing “good apples” who “prioritize their sworn duties over loyalty to their peers.” This is how, unfortunately, even the best of cops wind up serving a thoroughly rotten system.

2020 has been, in many ways, a watershed year for popular awareness of the problems within policing. Following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a widespread public consensus that something must be done to rein in the violence developed. However, many of the newcomers to the issue of justice around policing have decided that they do not like the terms of the conversation. In recent weeks, this dynamic has surfaced in a backlash by many Democrats against the activist slogan “Defund the Police.”

“Defund the police?” tweeted Senator Joe Manchin last Wednesday. “Defund, my butt. I’m a proud West Virginia Democrat. … and we do not believe in defunding the police.” On Friday, Virginia Senator Mark Warner echoed Manchin’s sentiments, minus the butt. “Do I think we need major policing reform? Absolutely,” said Warner; however he also argued that “using terms like ‘defund the police’ have led to Democratic losses in this last year.” What this perspective ignores is that there have been attempts to reform policing for years, and that those reforms have failed to solve the problem.

This has certainly been the case with the Seattle Police Department, which has been under a federal consent decree for excessively violent and biased policing since 2012. Seattle’s current mayor, Jenny Durkan, is the former US attorney who helped negotiate the terms of that consent decree, and has done everything in her power as mayor to make it appear as though the department has been successfully reformed. This past May, the city asked a federal judge to terminate the consent decree. This motion was withdrawn after a week of shocking and indiscriminate police violence directed toward protesters in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Nevertheless, Durkan has held to the line that her police reforms have been successful — at a press conference on June 7, she responded to a question about the possibility of rebuilding the SPD by claiming that a restructuring had already taken place under the consent decree. Meanwhile, a large group of protesters are now suing the city for injuries sustained at the hands of police during this summer’s protests against police violence. Durkan’s “reformed” police department is more brazen about its brutality than ever.

There is a reason the slogan is “Defund the Police” and not “Reform the Police.” Because the people chanting “Defund the Police” have been paying attention to this issue much longer than the newcomers, they are well aware that attempts to reform the police have been going on for years, and that the violence has only become more entrenched.

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.

“If the words ‘prison reform’ so easily slip from our lips, it is because ‘prison’ and ‘reform’ have been inextricably linked since the beginning of the use of imprisonment as the main means of punishing those who violate social norms,” wrote Angela Davis in Are Prisons Obsolete? It was the idea of reform that gave us prisons in the first place—as an alternative to the medieval spectacle of public torture. Davis is one of many thinkers who have not just critiqued the American criminal justice system but imagined “a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions” to it: “demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.”

It is this tradition that activists like Seattle’s Nikkita Oliver, Boston’s Andrea James, and Raleigh’s Dawn Blagrove, among many others, draw on when they call on their respective city governments to redirect resources from policing into healthy communities. These activists use the slogan “Defund the Police” because defunding the police is precisely what they want to do. No one imagines that policing will be abolished overnight—the specific demand of protesters in Seattle has been a 50% budget reduction. However, a shift in thinking away from systems of retribution and toward systems reconciliation is crucial if we are to ever begin to heal wounds that run the length of US history.

It is not the job of activists to help Democrats get elected. To imagine that it is is to miss the point of activism entirely. Democrats from Jenny Durkan to Joe Biden have long demonstrated significant resistance to the movement to defund police; just because their party is the lesser of two evils at the national level does not mean they are automatically on the side of justice. In order to earn that distinction, newcomers to the movement against police violence would do well to listen to those who have already been doing this work for decades.

The terms of this conversation have been chosen very deliberately. “Defund the Police” is a great slogan, if what you want to do is defund the police.

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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