‘Defund the Police’ Isn’t the Problem

Image: Taymaz Valley/flickr CC BY 2.0

I really don’t want to, but apparently we need to talk about “defund the police.” It’s a slogan that might have faded on its own in the aftermath of a national election. Thanks to Jim Clyburn, it didn’t. The House Whip blamed it, as well as quote-unquote socialism, for the Democrats losing seats in the House (but keeping their majority). Coupled with the party not doing as well in the Senate as they were expected to, the conventional wisdom in Washington is now that the Democrats lost despite winning.

If that weren’t maddening enough, then came Barack Obama. The former president has written a book that’s naturally getting a lot of attention. Understandably, given that the conventional wisdom in Washington is that the Democrats lost despite winning, interviewers want to know what he thinks. Here’s his advice to activists.

If you believe that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan like ‘Defund the police,’ but you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.

But if you instead say, “Let’s reform the police department so that everybody’s being treated fairly, you know, divert young people from getting into crime … [then] suddenly, a whole bunch of folks who might not otherwise listen to you are listening to you. And if you want to get something done in a democracy, in a country as big and diverse as ours, then you’ve got to be able to meet people where they are.

The idea here is that meeting people where they are is where you begin political change. Perhaps that explains the sudden media interest in “Blue MAGA.” Instead of red hats demanding that we “Make America Great Again,” there are now blue hats declaring that we “Made America Great Already” when voters ousted Donald Trump and elected Joe Biden. That, too, is a game of addition and not subtraction. It’s also really stupid.

“Blue MAGA,” if you’ll pardon the apparent tangent, might be the best way possible to illustrate the core difference between the parties, a difference that still confounds members of the press corps, because it belies their insistence that the parties are two sides of the same partisan coin. While one is all-in for wearing hats, the other isn’t. The Republicans are a party of authoritarian collectivism. The Democrats are a party of liberal individualism. One is better than the other. Both hats are dumb, though.

The above paragraph isn’t a tangent when you place it in the context of Obama’s advice to activists demanding reforms to local police departments. Where people are can be a really, really bad place. We should not accept where they are uncritically. If where they are is fascism, or blind institutional faith in police authority, or wearing new hats piggybacking on old hats, maybe starting where they are is a bad idea. It might be better to move them to a better place, and then begin. It seems to be telling, with reference to “Blue MAGA,” that Biden supporters say “we don’t need another cult.”

“Defund the police” has moved people to a better place. The movement is slow and incremental and insufficient, and it’s never going to completely drain cop shops of all their resources, but it is nevertheless progressing. Specifically, the slogan has moved Democrats. Obama is talking about national politics; “Defund the police” is about local politics. It was never intended to move Republicans, because Republicans will never listen no matter how faithfully reformers try to meet them where they are. Reformers, instead, have targeted Democrats, because it’s the Democrats who govern most of the country’s cities. Democrats don’t want to take action against local police departments. Inertia is where they are. They must be forced. “Defund the police” is doing just that.

What bugs me most about Clyburn’s and Obama’s criticism is that it gets us all talking about language (which is relative) instead of talking about action (which is concrete). It focuses attention on marketing instead of policy. It actually encourages self-doubt and paralysis. If progress depends on meeting people where they already are, instead of moving them to where you want them to be, there’s little point to raising hell. And if there’s little point, then why bother? Better to believe that everything will work itself out in the end—or that everyone is corrupt and nothing really matters. True, local activists might make life less comfortable for national Democrats. But tough shit.